Wednesday, January 1, 2014

16th Century Peasant Dress: Research and Planning

One area of the costuming community that I have not yet ventured into is the world of Renaissance reenacting. When I was very young, I enjoyed visiting the local Ren Fair with my family, but until this past October, I hadn't been to one since I was in high school. (My 16-year-old self was rather proud of the "Renaissance-inspired" costume I put together, consisting of a generic laced bodice worn with layers of hippy-ish skirts and jingly jewelry -- you know the look.)

Earlier this year, when a girlfriend at work suggested I come with her to one of the many area Renaissance fairs, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to revisit something that I had enjoyed as a child and that had fostered my early love for costumes. But this time, I would approach my costume from a more educated, enlightened perspective.

And so, in usual fashion, I began researching. Right off the bat, I knew I would do better to start with an outfit appropriate to a lower-class impression. All the glitz and glamour of an upper class Elizabethan court gown is lovely to look upon, but expensive and difficult to do properly. Accordingly, I set my eye on a comfortable, tidy, working-class ensemble like the ones shown in all the Dutch genre paintings of the period. In particular, these paintings by Pieter Aertsen inspired me:

The lady on the left is wearing a practical and versatile ensemble: Her sleeveless dress is enhanced with an apron, a removable partlet, and pin-on sleeves.

Here are the same pin-on sleeves and partlet, but this time with a wide-brimmed straw hat (very appealing to this sunburn-prone girl).

This lady has on a simple white head-wrap of some kind to keep her hair covered and clean. 

More straw hats, aprons, and pin-on sleeves. 

As I began wading through the wealth of research and information on this period that can be found on the internet, two sites in particular stood out from the rest, both for the volume of information, and for the detail and clarity of instruction. The first is Drea Leed's excellent Elizabethan Costuming Site, which catalogs her own research on many related subjects in addition to linking to many sites. The information is very helpfully arranged by subject. I spent days following almost every link on the page.

The second is this site, which details the construction of an outfit very much like the one I wanted to make: simple, working-class clothing that is highly accurate in look and construction.

The other resource that I stumbled onto early in my research was The Tudor Tailor. This book is a definite must for anyone wanting to recreate clothing from this period. It is brimming with useful information and anecdotes, period portraits and images of extant garments, and a series of patterns that can form the basis of a wardrobe for the humblest of working-class laborers or the queen herself.

After studying these resources, I determined that the simplest and most accurate ensemble would consist of the following items:

linen smock 
wool kirtle
pin-on wool sleeves 
black wool partlet 
linen apron
linen coif and forehead cloth

Quite a lot of stuff to make! And of course, I decided early on that I would have to sew it all by hand for accuracy. Stick around to find out how I put it all together!

1920s Day Dress

In September 2013, I attended my first ever Gatsby Picnic. This event, put on by the Art Deco Society of California, tries to recreate the feel of a large 1920s summer party, with live entertainment, elaborate picnics, gorgeous vintage cars, and people dressed to the nines in clothes from the 1920s and 1930s. 

Being my first entree into 1920s dress, I was rather nervous about what the silhouette would look like on my curvy hourglass figure. All the fashion plates show slender and willowy ladies looking elegant in their dropped-waist and blousey dresses. However, I know for a fact that anything blousey or dropped-waist makes me look frumpilicous, or at the very least, much larger than I actually am. 

A look at photographs from the period was reassuring, however. Guess what? Lots of women in the 1920s had figures like mine, and it didn't stop them from wearing the latest fashions. Yes, they did look a little frumpy by modern standards, but they didn't seem to care in the least. I decided that I wouldn't care either, and just embrace the frump.

These ladies know just how fabulous they look. 

This is an old photo from my father's family archives. Look at the diversity in figures!

I elected to steer clear of the popular choices for patterns, wanting to avoid the cookie cutter look. Instead, I took on the challenge of a Past Patterns Attic Copy, that is, a reprint of an original pattern, complete with vague directions, useless yardage recommendations (nobody makes 36" wide fabric anymore!), and missing dots and notches. 

The pattern that ended up catching my eye was this one:

From their website: 
This pattern was published by The Butterick Design Pattern Company. Originally the pattern was described as "Ladies' Dress, closed at the back, with separate shirt-waist, and tucked straight skirt. Attached to a long body lining marked for camisole top." Fully illustrated directions. Pattern dates circa 1922-1923.

A simple shape, some interesting details, but none of the overdone design elements that abound in reproductions from this era (zig-zag seaming, handkerchief hemline, asymmetry, etc.). I initially wanted to use a lightweight cotton in a floral print, but I couldn't find one that really felt right for the period. Instead, I settled on a solid cotton voile in a very pretty cornflower blue that I knew would look good on me. In the end, I was quite happy with my choice -- the deep tucks in the dress bodice and skirt would not have shown very well in a print, but helped to give the solid color some texture and interest. 

I lined the dress in a rayon fabric in a lighter shade of blue, to further highlight the tucked detailing. The collar is made from some off-white cotton sateen from my stash, and the buttons are mother-of-pearl.

The finished ensemble

Back view (ignore the bicycle)

The pattern went together pretty well. It was supposedly sized for a 34" bust (mine is closer to 38"), but when I measured the pattern, the finished bust measurement came to about 44". I decided not to alter the size at all. The only change I needed to make was to make the dropped waist a little bigger so it would sit lower on my hips. This was a simple alteration: I just gathered the bottom edge of the shirtwaist less than the pattern called for.

I found a modern straw hat that had a cloche-like shape, but with a slightly larger brim for sun protection, then trimmed it with a vintage ombré ribbon. I also bought a cheap paper parasol in Chinatown to further protect my delicate skin from the full sun I expected at the picnic. I found a vintage tooled leather handbag on Ebay for the occasion, then finished off the ensemble with some vintage ivory kid gloves, reproduction seamed stockings, my American Duchess Gibsons, and modern pearl drop earrings.  

In the end, I felt pretty good about the outfit. I'm not sure it's my favorite silhouette, but it wasn't as bad as I expected. Going with an early '20s shape helped a little, as the waist was not dropped all the way to the hip.

The picnic was a great time. All my friends looked beautiful, our picnic was a success, and despite the intense heat, we really enjoyed ourselves. I'll definitely go again next year!