The Ladies' Tea Guild

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


Bestiary Parlor: The Musings of a Zoologist Turned Author said...

I'm an author getting into character. Where can I buy clothing suited for a woman explorer going to Africa? Like Mary Kingsly.

I have been to the Cow Palace Dickens Fair and loved it.

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Hi Eva, sorry it took me so long to answer your question! I just saw your comment today. There aren't very many companies selling costumes like the kind you're looking for -- at least, I've looked for late-Victorian and Edwardian traveling/safari costumes before and I had a hard time finding them! You'll have to look separately for the various garments and accessories. Luckily, the steampunk fantasy aesthetic that has been gaining popularity among costumers and role-players uses this kind of style for their clothing.

Premier Designs is one of the companies that sells fairly accurate Edwardian women's clothing; traveling women and explorers would be wearing the plainest (no trim, ruffles or lace) cotton or linen shirtwaist blouses, cotton, linen or wool walking skirts, riding skirts and long duster jackets in khaki, brown, or gray (to cover dust). Bloomer costumes or riding habits for horseback or camel riding are also appropriate. Straw or wool hats with large brims (for shade), with no trim or just a ribbon band, with a gauze or net veil (to keep the hat on in high winds and to pull over the face to keep dust out of your eyes, nose and mouth), or a pith helmet with the veil, is also a good idea. Plain, sturdy brown or black leather gloves and boots are also practical travel wear. These can all be found from different vendors.

If you want to make your own skirts, shirtwaists and duster jackets, or you want to hire someone to make them for you, Laughing Moon, Folkwear, and Truly Victorian all have great walking skirt, blouse, riding skirt, and jacket patterns.

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)