Monday, December 10, 2012


Before I talk about materials for this dress, I'm going to take a quick detour into my Philosophy of Costuming.

I got into costuming through reenacting. American Civil War (1861-1865), specifically.  When I discovered the internet and authentic construction, I took to it like a duck to water.  Ever since then, I can't lose my love for authenticity.  For me, there's just as much beauty in a complete, authentic look as in an outfit that's shinier, fancier, and more elaborate, whether or not it's just as authentic.

So I can't honestly say I'm in the Pretty, Pretty Princess camp.  BUT!!!  This applies to ME and to ME ONLY!  The vast majority (dare I say ALL?) of my dear costuming friends are Pretty, Pretty Princesses, and I love it!

At the same time, complete authenticity is impossible, so it's not my goal.  I want to be as authentic as possible within my own limits, including budget and time.  Those are, for historical costuming:

1. Natural fibers for fabric and other material. I keep to silk, wool, cotton, and linen, also keeping in mind that certain fibers are more appropriate than others.  I usually use cotton thread for 1860s, but I haven't spent the money for a stock of silk or linen thread for earlier periods.  Also woven tapes.  I've got lots of cotton, but I haven't yet gotten linen tape.  I also use fine cottons for frilly 18th century stuff, because fine linen is either impossible to find or crazy expensive!

2. Hand finishing, though not typically hand seaming; no visible machine sewing for anything pre-1860.  I have sewn a complete Regency outfit by hand, from the skin out, so I know I can do it; I don't have anything to prove.

I love research. Because the more I know, the better equipped I am to decide where to be authentic, and where to make compromises.  That is fun!

So! All that to say that before I commit to a certain project, I try to ensure that I can get the appropriate materials.  The Maid Marian dress pushed that envelope a bit, but I had more flexibility because I wasn't making a period-accurate costume, for either the 1100s or the 1930s. ;)

This dress first grabbed me because of the perfect match for silk I already have.  But the other parts of concerned me.  I saw:

* White fur (ermine)
* Gold and silver or white silk brocade in a particular pattern
* Fine, hand-made silk lace on the skirt.

The fur is not a problem, as such.  I would have no problem with substituting a similar short-hair fur like rabbit for ermine, and I know I can get it (Tandy Leather is based in my city, and I have connections in Minnesota).  The big problem is that I hate sewing on it!  Well, it's really the leather. The needles are big and hurt me fingers, and it always feels awkward as I'm sewing it. And this is a lot of fur!

However, I realized that I could go with white velvet instead.  Cotton velvet is more similar to historical velvets (at least 19th century velvets) than is silk or rayon velvet, it's super soft, and it's relatively easy to work with.  It's also readily available.  So that solved that problem!

Brocade I've never shopped for. However, I found some decent leads on ebay, particularly from the seller Pure Silks.  The prices are no more than par for taffeta, either; from $15-19/yd.  Ouch, but it's only for a petticoat, so it's more affordable.

Lace, however, had me really worried.  Modern laces are infamous for being stiff and scratchy. And even antique lace is usually fairly pricey - and I'd need a lot of it!  The sleeve flounces I know I can find a length or two that won't break the bank.  The skirt is a whole 'nother problem.  But I suddenly thought about finding a sheer silk with a woven or embroidered design, and making my own "lace" substitute.  The lace in the portrait is gathered so tightly that the lace design isn't the highlight of the design, too.  Thai Silks has some interesting things, like embroidered chiffon, that might work fairly well.  I really want the effect to be the same, and for that the "lace" must be very soft and drapey. Even antique cotton lace probably wouldn't be soft enough.

That takes care of the big ones!  Now it's only the details to be settled, like the tasseled girdle, the skirt fringe/trim, and the brooches/ornaments.

The skirt fringe I'm not too concerned about yet. I'm reasonably confident I can find a white trim that's similar enough for the effect.

The tassels were another thing again.  I can't tell clearly what they are, except that they're definitely not just straight pieces of silk.  At first I thought they were like crocheted shells.  I spent several days, off and on, googling for crochet patterns and for all kinds of home dec tassels, and I pulled up a big fat zero.  I was getting seriously worried!

This other portrait, while dating from 50 years later, is amazingly similar in style.  It sure shows the consistency of formal court dress!

The tassel is much clearer here, though, and also shows how it's got a strange clumpy or short feathery texture.  So very strange.

And suddenly I discovered what it was, when I stumbled over the blog Italian Needlework. Something I never knew existed before - Italian-style tassels.  Look at these pictures!

These tassels are essentially short knotted pieces of thread or floss, which are strung on another fiber with a needle and knotted apart.

 So I will be learning a new skill for these!  I am so excited. :D  I was not looking forward to trying to make up my own crocheted tassels (did they even have crochet in the 17th century?), but this looks fun!

The last difficulty, still unsolved, is the brooches.  They look to my untutored eye like something that ought to be available for SCA.  Do any of you have recommendations for vendors? And hopefully ones that won't cost the earth?  I'm willing to skip the ones on the skirt, for the sake of affordability, but it just won't the same without the graduated jewels on the front!

Ideas VERY welcome!!!

Friday, December 7, 2012

What actually is it?

In my previous post on "The Majestic Mantua," I mentioned that it was actually mis-named.  I'm still calling it that because it's catchy and I love alliteration!  But what is a mantua? And if this gown isn't one, what is it instead?

To quote Wikipedia:

 A mantua (from the French manteuil ) is an article of women's clothing worn in the late 17th century and 18th century. Originally a loose gown, the later mantua was an overgown or robe typically worn over stays, stomacher and a co-ordinating petticoat.
The earliest mantuas emerged in the late 17th century as a comfortable alternative to the boned bodices and separate skirts then widely worn.
The mantua featured elbow-length, cuffed sleeves, and the overskirt was typically drawn back over the hips to expose the petticoat beneath. In the earliest mantuas, the long trained skirt was allowed to trail.
Here's the picture actually used in the article.

The mantua was originally a loose gown, rather rectangular in construction. There's a darling example on a 1690s doll that clearly shows its blockiness, the folds on the edges, and how it doesn't even meet in front.

Wikipedia claims that the mantua evolved into formal court dress of the 1700s.  Cassidy's research on court dress, however, indicates that only English court dress developed from the front-closing mantua, while French court dress was a fossilized form of earlier 1600s dress, with separate back-fastening boned bodice and skirt.  If I recall correctly, in Kendra's class on 18th century dress variations, she traced the sacque (robe à la francaise) back to the early 1700s robe volante. I think the robe volante, with its loose shape and geometrical pattern, came from the mantua when its skirts were not draped back.  (I'd welcome corrections on any of this!)

The mantua was originally worn open, showing the separate boned bodice and petticoat beneath. Gradually the boned bodice evolved into stays.  From being a complete dress bodice, the fine fabric and decoration was limited to the front, and then vanished from sight as it was covered by a separate stomacher.

Back to the original question. If the time period is right, and the silhouette is similar, why is this portrait of the Duchess of Somerset so clearly not a mantua?

The time period is right, and there are similarities in the silhouette, but there it ends. Compare to this portrait of 1693, which shows a non-informal mantua.

The bodice is not open in front over stays or stomacher; it is likely back-fastening. The sleeves are very short, not longer than the elbow. The neckline is nearly off the shoulders, not up close to the neck. (That point of construction is integral to the mantua.)  And the skirt is only draped back slightly, not folded back on itself so the reverse is visible.

So what does that make it? Similar contemporary pictures are of royalty, and/or the most formal of all forms of dress.

Queen Anne, ca. 1700.

Marie Anne de Vaviere, Dauphine, "end grand costume":

"en grand costume"

Get it? The Duchess is in court dress!  The robe/train she wears, the flash of ermine on her right shoulder, and the coronet by her left elbow all support that view.

Corsets and Crinolines claims that c. 1690s-1720s court dress retains the earlier fully boned bodice, without stays, that was ordinary in the mid-1600s. That means that the "Majestic Mantua" has far more in common with the opulent gowns of the Charles II court than with the mantua and the sacque.  Thankfully, the ladies of the Charles II group on LiveJournal have already done a great deal of the research on this type of garment!

More to come! First, materials, and then how I'm planning to construct this.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Maid Marian 1: The Plan

The 2012 Costume College theme was the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Before I knew it, it was May, and I had no idea of what I wanted to do for the Gala.

From what I can tell, most costumers love designing costumes. They're constantly besieged by inspiration and CADD, just overflowing with ideas!  Finishing them, whether it's tedious construction or losing interest, is the harder part.

That is so not me.

I happen to enjoy construction. Sure, I get discouraged, especially with fiddly stuff or something that just doesn't work; but in general, I love putting things together.  As my mother puts it: Sewing starts with one big piece of fabric. You cut it all up into little pieces, and the goal is to get it back together into one piece.  I like that process. I hate testing muslins, but I'm good at layout and cutting.

Inspiration is the hard part. I can't make it happen!  The best way to prime the pump is to look at as many pictures as possible. I'm very visual, so the more pictures, the more likely I'll see something I can go with.  Pinterest has been invaluable for this alone.

Pictures only work when I have some kind of idea, though.  In mid-May I finally realized that this theme was the best opportunity to make an Old Hollywood "historical" costume.  Like Gone with the Wind.  Very 1860s inspired, but also definitely a product of the late 1930s.

I wanted the finished costume to be:

1. Pretty!
2. Have a big impact! (This is the Gala, after all - As Big As Possible is an unofficial theme.)
3. Recognizably inspired by Old Hollywood, whether a direct copy of a famous gown, or a semi-historical design clearly worn over vintage foundations with vintage hair.

I set up a Pinterest board, searched my memories for favorite old historical films, and finally went to some LiveJournal friends for advice.  I thought about The Inspector General or The Pirate for crazy 1830s styles, which I've always been tempted toward. There's also The Court Jester with its brightly-colored princess-seamed 1950s interpretation of "medieval" dress.

And while I was actually typing, I got the best idea. Maid Marian, played by Olivia de Haviland, from the 1938 Robin Hood with Errol Flynn.

There are many other beautiful gowns in this film. Olivia has quite the wardrobe! The first one, called the "Forest Gown" in some places, is possibly the most recognizable and/or iconic. It's the audience's first view of Maid Marian, as well as what she's wearing when she meets Robin in Sherwood for the first time.

There are also plenty of reference pictures for it! That's pretty important when copying a costume. ;)

This closeup was one of the best references for color, fabric, and design.

This is unfortunately black and white, but it's the only clear full-length view I could find. I printed it out and referred to it constantly.

Another close shot, especially good for jewelry detail.

Next time: Shopping!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Majestic Mantua

I'm about to start doing regular posts on the Maid Marian costume, which I made for the 2012 Costume College Gala. However, I've gotten a head start on next year's Gala costume! This will not be a secret project. It's hard to keep records of secret projects. And I love sharing progress and getting feedback along the way.

 Onto the Majestic Mantua!

It started early last week. I was clicking through the entries on my Google Reader, being rather behind. Reading this post on the National Trust Treasure Hunt blog, my eye was caught!

I'm not sure why this caught my eye. It is a striking portrait, and I suppose it appeals to my love of bright but rich color, mix of textures, and overall impact.  The biggest reason is the nearly 6 yards of taffeta I got in the garment district this year, with no project in mind.

It's absolutely perfect. Bright tomato/cherry red shot with white, and a bit of gold or tan.

Before the Automobile said this would be "majestic," so I promptly christened this project "The Majestic Mantua."  Although it's not actually a mantua at all... more on that later! Research on this project has been absolutely fascinating. 

But what makes this a Gala gown?

The Maid Marian this year was such a hit, for me and for others.  It was Golden Age Hollywood, it was from an iconic film with gorgeous costumes, it was really really close to the inspiration (I can admit it now!), and it made an impact.  I'm an introvert, but honestly, I really appreciate that, at least at the Gala.

For me to really be happy with it, the 2013 Gala gown should really do two things:

1.  Make an impact. I'm too tall to easily blend in, and the Gala is justification for carrying off ambitious or unusual things.
2.  Have at least some connection to the year's theme. Maid Marian was Old Hollywood, with a bonus tribute to the previous year's Medieval theme.

Does the Majestic Mantua qualify? (I think the answer is obvious, or I wouldn't be posting this!)

1. For me, and judging by some friends' opinions, I think this will have an impact! It's definitely an unusual period. It's also an unusual gown for the period. (I'll get into that later.)  The vertical emphasis is also one I can carry off well.

2.  For 2013, the theme is Pirates and Cavaliers.  Cavaliers are mid-1600s, so this gown is a little late. However, the 1690s were still rife with piracy. And here's a crazy coincidence!  One of Rafael Sabatini's adventure novels, Captain Blood, is a pirate book set in the 1680s.  Furthermore, in 1935 it was made into a movie starring - you'll never guess - Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland!
So the Majestic Mantua is close to the Cavaliers and has several Pirate connections, with bonus reference to the previous year's Golden Age of Hollywood. It's perfect!