The Ladies' Tea Guild

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dickens Fair costuming for women, part 3: altering the sleeves.

Monitor de la Mode, 1855. Costumer's Manifesto.
Sometimes, the sleeves of your thrift store blouse or shirt will need alteration, too, in order to work for a Dickens Fair outfit. This is another area where a too-big shirt or blouse will make a better mid-Victorian bodice: if the shoulder seam hangs below your own shoulders -- between 2 and 5 inches --it will match the lines of the real Victorian bodices! Also, make sure to use a thrift store blouse with long sleeves: gathered sleeves that have a cuff, or looser sleeves without a cuff. Make sure that the sleeves are long enough to reach to your wrist bone, or no more than 2 inches shorter; longer sleeves can be hemmed or cut to the proper length.

If the sleeves have an elastic drawstring at the wrists, you'll need to open the seam, cut the elastic string, and draw it out of the sleeve; if the sleeve is long enough you can even cut off the whole elastic cuff, then fold the cut edge of the fabric to the inside of the sleeve and sew or glue it in place. If the sleeve is at least 3 inches larger than your wrist, this will make an open sleeve style, or a "modified Pagoda" style in the Victorian era. If the sleeves are already loose and open at the wrists, you may not have to alter them at all, other than make them shorter, if they're long enough to hang over your hand. You can also make the sleeves narrower (with safety pins or needle and thread, taking in the sleeve seam from inside the sleeve), following the curve of your elbow and tapering gently to the wrist. Decorate your sleeves around the wrist, at the shoulder seam, and/or along the elbow seam.

Under your open sleeves, you'll need to wear under-sleeves. You can make under-sleeves, easily, by purchasing a white Oxford style long-sleeved business shirt at the thrift store, cutting off the sleeves, and wearing them underneath your blouse bodice sleeves, tying them around your bicep or making a casing for elastic, or even safety-pinning them to the inside of the shoulder seam of your bodice, to keep them in place. The white cuff of the under-sleeve, and part of the lower area of the under-sleeve, should be all that shows when it is worn under your blouse bodice sleeves. If you feel like it, you can sew or glue white lace or ribbon to the cuffs of the under-sleeves, to decorate the part that will show when it is worn.

If the blouse bodice sleeves are gathered and have a buttoned cuff (not elastic or drawstring), you may be able to leave them as they are, just decorating them, if you want. You can also get a white button-down shirt that has French cuffs (double, or folded-over cuffs), cut off the French cuffs and safety-pin, sew or glue them over the cuffs on your blouse bodice sleeves for a different look. Tuck the French cuff's raw edges under and fasten them down so they don't show. Your sleeves will add another wonderful element of style to your costume!

The official Dickens Fair costume guide
Dickens Christmas Fair website
Kay Gnagey’s 19th Century Costume Research Center
Elizabeth Stewart Clark’s Sewing Academy

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dickens Fair costuming for women, part 2: fitting thrift store garments

Cathy Decker. Image from April 1864.
Here are some costume alterations tips; your goal for the finished outfit is to achieve the same "look" as if you were making a set of historic reproduction clothing! To alter a blouse for your Dickens fair costume, you should try it on, turned inside out, over your torso support undergarment (corset or Merry Widow) and any undershirt you plan to wear underneath, in order to fit the blouse so that it looks like a Victorian bodice. To make the blouse into a fitted bodice, carefully make the blouse smaller only between the waist and bust in front, between the armpit and waist on the sides, and between the shoulders and waist in back, by pinching the fabric into vertical, symmetrical, pleats or darts, and pinning the darts in place with safety pins. Make the blouse lie as smoothly as possible, and as closely as possible to your figure, without the fabric pulling or straining. It is easier if a friend is there to help you do this (especially the back), but it can be done in front of the bathroom mirror, too.

When the pinning and fitting is done, carefully take off the blouse and, keeping the darts in place, sew the darts down on the inside of the blouse. To fasten them with fabric glue or iron-on adhesive, follow the instructions on the package, positioning the drops of glue or piece of adhesive inside the darts so that it can't be seen from the right side of the bodice (the side that will be seen when the blouse is worn). If you want to avoid sewing or gluing, you can just leave the safety pins holding the darts in place by themselves, making sure they don’t show from the outside. When you wear the blouse, tuck it in to your skirt waistband.

To alter the matching skirt, put it on over the support undergarment, your underskirt and hoop skirt (if you have one) and the fitted blouse bodice. If it is too large, use safety pins to make the waistband close as firmly as you can, or sew on a dress hook and bar. If the waistband is too small, see if you can pin or sew some matching fabric at the waistband opening to cover the gap and allow the skirt to close securely. If the skirt has a pocket or two made of the same fabric, take the pocket apart and use the fabric to fill the gap. If not, safety-pin the skirt opening closed as far up as you can, turn the gap to the back, and make sure to wear a wide belt or sash to cover your waistline when in costume. If the skirt waistline is so much smaller than your own waist, that the gap in the skirt opening can't be covered just by a belt, then you'll need to make or improvise a decorative belt with a bow, hanging ends, or a flounce at the back, big enough to cover any gaps. (Tips for making a decorative belt with flounce will be in a later post!)

Try on the skirt again, over your hoop and petticoats, and make sure that the skirt hem covers them completely, and reaches at least to your ankles. If it drags on the floor, turn the hem to the inside so that it is 2 inches above the floor, and sew or glue it in place. You can even use duct tape to fasten it in place if it will stick to the fabric of your skirt. If the skirt is too short, look for an old sheet or tablecloth in a solid color that matches or coordinates with the rest of your costume (or plain black), and cut a strip from it that is long enough to match the hem of your skirt (plus 2 inches), and 1 or 2 inches wider than you need to reach from the skirt hem (as it came from the thrift store) to a point 2 inches from the floor. You'll need to have someone help you measure when you are wearing your skirt over the petticoat and hoop (if you're wearing one). Put a 1 inch hem in one long side of the tablecloth strip using needle and thread, fabric glue or duct tape, and then sew or glue the other long edge to the bottom edge of your skirt. Also, sew or glue the short edges of the strip together, tucking the raw edges to the inside and making sure that the tablecloth strip lays smoothly and no stitches or raw edges show when you wear the skirt. You can glue or safety-pin a line of braid or other trim on your skirt to cover up the seam between the skirt and the contrasting extension, if you like. You can then use the rest of the fabric in the tablecloth to make trim for your blouse bodice, to tie it in to the design!

Sleeves, collars and accessories will appear in later posts!

The official Dickens Fair costume guide
Dickens Christmas Fair website
Kay Gnagey’s 19th Century Costume Research Center
Elizabeth Stewart Clark’s Sewing Academy

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dickens Fair costume tips: getting "the look" of the period, for women, part 1

1857 fashion plate from Peterson's Magazine. Costumer's Manifesto.
Although you can purchase Victorian-inspired costumes from various sources, they tend to stand out as "modern" in a venue such as the Dickens Fair (or other living history reenactment), even to the uneducated eye that most of us have. The ultimate goal of wearing period clothing is to foster the illusion that you have just stepped out of a photograph from the period! There are many historic dressmakers who can be hired to make your outfit. Better garments are copied or styled from period fashion illustrations or actual period garments, made in historically appropriate fabrics, and sewn with historically accurate methods and fitting techniques. This kind of dressmaking is highly skilled work -- and it is absolutely worth the price if you have the money for it -- but a less expensive, fairly accurate compromise can be found if you can make your own outfit, and have the time to make it properly.

There are several sewing patterns on the market that will produce appropriate women’s and girls’ dresses from this time period; the majority are specialty patterns available from living history and reenacting community vendors, and on the Internet, and tend to be rather expensive. However, some of the better patterns, and vastly cheaper, are in The Fashion Historian group of patterns (Martha McCain and others) for Simplicity. Look for 99-cent pattern sales at Wal-mart, Jo-Ann's, or other fabric store.

In any case, avoid patterns for garments that look like they belong on Scarlett O’Hara or a dance-hall girl! No off-the-shoulders or cleavage-showing bodices, or bodices that look like they are corsets, "gypsy" skirts, short sleeves, dropped, or high "empire" waistlines. They belong to another time period, or on a Hollywood sound stage, not on the streets of London between 1840 and 1870, which is the setting for the Dickens Fair. Also, avoid the “colored skirt with white lace-trimmed blouse” look, as it was not worn in England during the mid-1800s; your costume should have the look of a one-piece dress, because that is, overwhelmingly, the “look” that the women and girls have in period photos and images.

If you can't sew an entire garment from scratch, you can alter garments that you find in stores like Savers and Goodwill. In thrift stores, look for dark colored, long-sleeved, front-buttoning blouses, and ankle-length, very full skirts, that match or coordinate with each other in color and pattern, that fit loosely or are at least one size too large for you. You will need to alter these garments to make them small enough to fit your torso more closely, but your measurements will be different when you are wearing your costume, so it is best to get something too big than something that "just fits". You can always make it smaller, but you can't always make it bigger ... Fitting tips will be in the next post!

Originals By Kay -- seller of fabric and some ready-to wear historic costume
Kay Gnagey's 19th Century Clothing Research Corner

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dickens Fair costume tips: Essential Undergarments!

Costumer's Manifesto. 1860 Crinoline, by Karl Kohler.
For men:
Male clothing of the period aimed to make the wearer look respectable, sober, well-groomed, and genteel. The clothes were supposed to fit the figure well, with none of the sloppiness or bagginess that is currently fashionable. Shirts had extra-long tails in front and back, which were always tucked into the trouser waistband and could be wrapped under the body between the legs to provide cleanliness and protection from chafing if no other undergarment was worn. Shirts were made of white linen and were considered part of the undergarments, which is why almost all of the shirt was kept covered by the coat, trousers, waistcoat, and cravat when in public!

Year-round, stockings were wool, cotton or silk (for the wealthy), what we would call "dress socks" these days, long enough to almost reach to the knee, held up with garters. In colder weather (and for the wealthier men), linen drawers could be worn under the shirt; they were about knee-length, and slightly fitted to the leg to minimize bunching under the trousers. For cold weather, knitted wool or flannel "Union Suits" were available, but none of these undergarments really changed the way the man's body looked in his clothes. That was left for the women!

It is fairly easy to approximate Victorian male underclothes for costume purposes. Modern "long johns" or boxers, and a short-sleeved white T-shirt are all you need. I recommend not wearing a tank top or sleeveless undershirt, though, because the neckline and armhole edges tend to show through your shirt if you take your waistcoat and coat off.

For women:
Female clothing of the mid-1800s created a distinctive silhouette, which depended on certain essential undergarments: the corset and petticoats. Women wore ankle to floor-length dresses with full skirts; for everyday wear, the dress bodices had high "jewel" necklines and long sleeves, and were fitted to make the torso appear smooth. A corset was necessary, and respectable middle and lower class women wore them to support and smooth the bust, torso and back. Tight-lacing, like Scarlett O’Hara did to get her 18 inch waist, was impractical for all but the wealthy, and is not necessary when you’re wearing a corset. The full skirt was held out from the hips and feet by multiple underskirts, or a hoop.

When you put together a Victorian costume, avoid just wearing your regular bra instead of a support garment like a corset, as this smooth-torso look is essential to the 19th century female appearance. Corset patterns and ready-made corsets are available, but a Merry Widow undergarment will give the modern woman a similar smooth effect. If you can't find a Merry Widow or bustier undergarment, then a bra with firm support, paired with a torso minimizer garment (one with flexible stays) can provide some of the same smoothness. As for the petticoats, you can sometimes find old wedding dresses in thrift stores, and these gowns often have an attached underskirt of tulle or netting, which can be cut from the wedding dress and worn under your costume skirt to give it some fullness. Sometimes bridal hoop skirts can be found at thrift stores, and these can be worn under your dress and underskirt; try to adjust the hoop size so that your dress skirt lies loosely over it, and avoid the “tightly-stretched” look as much as you can!

"Nineteenth-Century Fashions: a Compendium"
Cathy's Wee Victorian Fashion Page
The Costumer's Manifesto: Corsets (General Information)
The Costumer's Manifesto: Victorian Fashion Links
Elizabeth Stewart Clark's Sewing Academy

Thursday, November 12, 2009

San Francisco's Great Dickens Christmas Fair is getting ready to open!

Cathy Decker. From Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine, ca. 1865.
Despite rumors of the Cow Palace being sold to a developer, and the Dickens Fair having to move, it appears that Dickens will come back to the Cow Palace this year, the same as ever! Traditionally opening the weekend after Thanksgiving, the Dickens Fair runs 6 weekends, to the weekend before Christmas. My friends in the GBACG and I are getting our costumes in gear to attend the Dickens Fair appropriately dressed! What about you? It's not too hard to pull together a reasonably historically accurate mid-Victorian costume, although you do have to do some research so you know what to look for. Too many women just choose a long skirt and white blouse, cover it with bows and lace, and think that they have the right look!

Clothing worn during Dickens’ career openly displayed the wearer’s wealth and social standing, and often their occupation, in a way that is unfamiliar to us today. Because of the difficulty and expense of creating such high-fashion clothing today, it is recommended that women and girls assembling a mid-Victorian costume dress in a manner more appropriate to the middle and lower classes of the day. It is possible to rent suitable costumes, and also to buy complete costumes from specialty dressmakers through mail order or the Internet. The least expensive option is to put together a costume from thrift store finds, if you know what to look for, but be prepared to look through the offerings of more than one store and, especially, you should be willing to make a few alterations with needle and thread, fabric glue, hot glue, or iron-on fabric tape.

General tips: Middle and lower class women and girls imitated elements of upper class fashions, as much as their budget, occupation, and leisure time would allow. Their dresses were made of simpler fabrics like wool and cotton, in solid colors, stripes, checks, or plaids. The colors they wore were mainly muted, rather than bright or true colors, as the brighter tones were created with expensive chemical dyes. Dark colors were stylish and practical, and women coordinated, rather than perfectly matched, their accessories to their dresses. Look for neutral or muted colors in natural fabrics.

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
The Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild (GBACG)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day in San Jose.

Elizabeth Urbach. Veterans' Day Tea table.
So many people enjoyed the simple comfort of a cup of tea during the years devoted to World Wars 1 and 2, whether they were fighting at the front or working at home. When we celebrate Veterans’ Day, we tell the brave men and women in our armed forces that their sacrifice is valuable and appreciated, even if it goes unnoticed, or even is mocked, by the media. Pull out some things from your tea party pantry (if you have one), or take a look at my tea shopping list before you go to the store, and put together a tea party, a great way to recognize their sacrifice!

You could even take the day, see the parade (at 11 a.m.) and ceremony at Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown San Jose, and visit the Home Front exhibit at History Park, to see some Santa Clara Valley artifacts from the 1920s through 1940s. Then return home for a Veteran’s Day High Tea.

The decorations for a Veterans’ Day Tea should be patriotic and nostalgic, with lots of red, white and blue. If you have family heirlooms from the early 1900s, like crocheted doilies, embroidered tablecloths and napkins, and vintage dishes and flatware, this is the perfect time to pull it out and use it. Play a CD of World War I and II-era songs and musical pieces for ambiance, and for dancing if you like, and try serving some foods made from period recipes. Here are some World War 1 and World War 2-era foods that you could add to your menu:

Toast Triangles
Pineapple-Apricot Jam
Raspberry Jam
Date Nut Bread
English Scones
Whole Wheat Raisin Biscuits
Buttermilk Cornmeal Muffins

Crackers and Blue Cheese
Cucumber sandwiches
Potted Ham (Spam!) and Mayonnise sandwiches
Anchovy Canapes
Potted Meat and Toast Canapes
Sardine Canapes
Jelly and Cream Cheese sandwiches
Banana sandwiches
Date-nut sandwiches

1943 Victory Cake
Baked Apples and Prunes
Cornstarch Pudding
Homemade Fudge

Armistice Day Tea Party
“Have a 1940s style tea party!”
“Have a real ‘high tea’ for Labor Day!”
“Tea-time 101: what do we mean when we talk about tea?”
“What should I keep in the pantry for tea parties?”
Home Front exhibit at History Park, 1650 Senter Rd., San Jose.
World War 2 video tribute on YouTube
“Recipe for Victory: Food and Cooking in Wartime” recipe collection
Foods That Will Win The War and How to Cook Them, 1918
“San Jose celebrates the 90th annual Veterans’ Day with a parade”
“Veterans’ Day 11/11/09”
“Ride VTA downtown San Jose to the Veterans’ Day Parade”
“San Jose Veterans Day Parade, other events”
United Veterans Council of Santa Clara County
American Legion Post 419, Santa Clara, CA

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Visit the Star Trek exhibit in San Jose and then have a Star Trek tea party!

“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” One of the most famous lines in Star Trek history. What would Captain Picard have enjoyed with his cup of Earl Grey tea, as he planned his ship’s next move? Think about that while you visit San Jose’s Tech Museum and see the new Star Trek exhibit that opened on October 23! General admission is $25, and they recommend buying tickets in advance. The exhibit features a replica of the bridge from the original U.S.S. Enterprise, props from all of the television series and movies, and even an interactive Star Trek flight simulator! Afterwards, go home and continue the Trekkie (or Trekker) fun for a while with a Star Trek tea!

Here are some Terran (Earth) tea-table foods mentioned in one or more of the Star Trek episodes:

Earl Grey tea (hot)
Mint tea
Chamomile tea


Bulgarian canapes (crackers with cheese and olives)
Watercress sandwiches

Peach cobbler
Chocolate cake

Set the tea table in shades of gray, black, white, blue, red and yellow, with touches of metallic tones, anything that reminds you of the various sets that were part of the Star Trek T.V. shows and movies. If you have Star Trek fan paraphanalia, this is the perfect time to pull it out and show it off! If you have money to spend, there are, of course, tons of items available at the Tech Museum gift shop and on the Internet. Apparently, you can even buy Captain Picard’s tea set if you’re so inclined!

The Tech Museum of Innovation is located at 201 S Market St., San Jose, CA 95113-2008. Phone: (408) 294-8324, website: Enjoy your museum visit and Star Trek Tea!

“Earl Grey tea – Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki”
“Klingon tea ceremony”
Tea – Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki”
The Official Star Trek Site
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” Video montage
“Kurtcu’s Star Trek discussion at Ku Day Ta”
Star Trek tea bag cosy
The Star Trek Cookbook preview on Google Books
Star Trek interactive exhibit

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of Stash Coconut Mango Wuyi Oolong tea.

Stash Coconut Mango Wuyi Oolong.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
I am currently trying to assist a family member or two in improving their diet, substituting iced tea for the various sweetened and artificially flavored cold beverages that they usually drink. One person is extremely picky about everything and “doesn’t like the flavor of tea” but wants the health benefits, so I have been experimenting with flavored oolong teas in order to avoid the characteristic “black tea” and “green tea” flavor, but keep all the antioxidants.

I purchased Coconut Mango Wuyi Oolong tea, from Stash, at Nob Hill Foods in Milpitas. The tea is packed in Stash Teas’ characteristic brightly colored foil teabags, and is pleasantly fragrant. The aroma is fruity, but only slightly coconutty, and the flavor is similar. It makes a nice iced tea, sweetened with Splenda, but doesn’t taste like typical “iced tea” and contains all the great antioxidants of real tea.

To make a pitcher of iced tea for my family with this blend, I used this recipe:

½ quart water
several cups of ice cubes
6 Stash Coconut Mango Wuyi Oolong teabags
3 packets Splenda sugar substitute

Bring the water to a boil, remove from the heat, and pour over the teabags in a heat-proof container. Steep for 4 minutes, then strain. Add the Splenda and stir until it is completely dissolved in the tea. Allow the hot tea to cool for several minutes; meanwhile, fill a two-quart size beverage container halfway with ice cubes. When the tea has cooled somewhat, pour it over the ice cubes in the container. Allow to cool completely (the ice will melt) and chill. Serve with a piece of dried mango or tiny bit of unsweetened shredded coconut in the bottom of the glass, or a squeeze of lime juice if you like!

The tea, on its own, has a nice flavor, both hot and cold. The coconut flavor is really mild and only detectable in the aroma when the tea is hot. The mango flavor is sutble, as well, but ads a nice element to the oolong. We went though a box of this tea fairly quickly – since it takes 6 teabags to make 2 quarts of iced tea – and I’ll probably be looking for this more in the future, although my family was not in love with the flavor, because it doesn’t taste like juice or soda!

Stash teas can be purchased at most major supermarkets in the San Jose area; I purchased Coconut Mango Wuyi Oolong tea at Nob Hill in Milpitas.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Victorian events in San Jose this season!

image from Nikolay Dimitrov,
Afternoon Tea and Ornament Making: Sunday, November 15th, 1:00-5:00pm. At a private residence in San Jose*. RSVP to Miranda at Please note: Because of materials and limited table space, you must RSVP for this event. This event is limited to approx 15 crafters, so please RSVP right away. “Please join us for a lively Autumn afternoon of taking Tea and making Victorian Ornaments. The ornaments we are making are to support and raise funds for the operating budget for the Andrew P. Hill House. We hope to participate in the Heritage Holiday event on Dec 6th, where the VPA will have a table at the crafts faire and sell the ornaments. All the supplies needed to create ornaments will be present, but you are welcome to bring your favorite pair of scissors, or scrapbooking tools to help you create works of art. If you have doilies, ribbon, lace or other bits n bobs that you would like to donate to the cause, please feel free to bring them (we would appreciate that). This event is free. We're asking that everyone bring a potluck contribution to the tea table. Tea will be in the English style, so think cucumber sandwiches, scones, lemon curd and such. If there is more interest, we may be able to accommodate more. *location will be sent to you upon receipt of your RSVP. Hope you can make this fun filled afternoon!”

Hill House Docent meeting: Sat Nov 14th, 10:00am till noon, Firehouse (upstairs) at History Park, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose. “Ever wonder what it takes to be a docent? Please come to the Docent meeting where all this (and more) will be discussed. We’ll meet in a comfortable casual atmosphere and learn more about the wonderful world of Docenting from Barbara Johnston. We’ll also chat about the upcoming Docent training session, where you can learn all you need to know to get involved in this fulfilling experience. What can possibly be more rewarding than sharing the beautiful Hill House, and its rich history with an appreciative public. Please pop an email or phone call to Miranda to let us know you are coming.”

Help man the table at Heritage Holiday: Sat Dec 5th from 12:00 noon till 5:00pm, at History Park, 1650 Senter Road, San José, CA 95112. (408) 287-2290. Spend an afternoon celebrating the holidays in old fashioned Victorian style. There will be crafts for sale and other activities. We are looking for a few volunteers to help Diana and Hullene to sit at our table and sell the ornaments and other items to raise money for the Hill House operating fund. It's just a few hours spent in the festive atmosphere of History Park. Please contact Miranda if interested in helping out. Thanks!’
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)