The Ladies' Tea Guild

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Victorian costuming for women: hair arranging.

Victoria Fashion magazine. 1869 fashion plate. Wikipedia.
Even though the Great Dickens Christmas Fair has ended for the year, there are many 19th century-themed events scheduled for 2010 in various parts of North America, and appropriate Victorian costume is a good addition to the ambiance. One detail that can really distract from an otherwise good Victorian appearance is a modern hairstyle. Hair that was loose, "piecey", wispy, or with "body" was not the stylish ideal for women! Women's hair was supposed to be glossy, smooth, controlled, off the face, and elegant, and anything else was considered sloppy, un-groomed, and unbecoming.

When you wear a Victorian costume, your hair should not be in an obviously modern style. At the very least, your hair should be parted in the middle, smoothed down (use mousse or gel for this), pulled back and pinned at the back of your head. If you have bangs, even they should be parted and slicked back, and they can be twisted together and pinned back to hold them in place. Although it is the current style for grown women to wear their hair down, for Victorian outfits, avoid wearing your hair loose if you are older than 12 years old! Even actresses and prostitutes wouldn't have worn their hair down in the streets unless they were "advertising" ...
Wikipedia image, 1840s.
Long hair can be braided or coiled into a bun and pinned up above the nape of your neck. If your hair isn't too long, or if it is shorter around your face, you can pin or slick back most of your hair, and curl your front hair (over your temples, in front of your ears) into ringlets that hang in front of your ears. These were called "sausage curls" in the period, because they appeared as round and solid as sausages! They should be very smooth, thick and glossy, they should not hang much lower than your jawline, and they should not hang over your forehead like bangs. Use lots of mousse, gel and hairspray to keep everything smooth! They should peek out from the brim of any bonnet or cap that you wear.

Portrait ca. 1865. Wikipedia.
If your hair is too short to put in a ponytail, you should part it, gel it, comb and bobby-pin it to slick it behind your ears, try to make it as smooth as possible, and keep the back part covered with your bonnet. Conversely, you can curl all of your hair into smooth ringlets, all over your head, and let your front curls peek out from your bonnet brim. You can also get a natural-looking wig or hair-piece and style it in a Victorian style if your hair won't do what you want.

If your hair is dyed an obviously non-natural color, and you don't want to use a wig or re-dye your hair, your best bet is to cover it completely. Even though it was about 50 years out of date by the 1850s, the white “mob” cap style is good for this. Curl the hair along your hairline into pin curl ringlets so that they won't be so modern-looking if they peek out from the edges of your cap. Even if your hair is a natural color, and even if you have long hair, if you are over about 40 years old, you should also consider a cap. Cap information will be posted next!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tonight at 9 -- Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, ca. 1857. Wikipedia.
Taking a break from costume articles (after having taken a break from them for Christmas), I finally confirmed the essential information about the new documentary about Louisa May Alcott! Little Women was one of my favorite books when I was younger, as it was for many other kids, and I have always wanted to know more about its author, who modeled Jo March after herself. The documentary, Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women, will be broadcast today, December 28, 2009, on PBS, beginning at 9 p.m.

Bringing in a Victorian costume bit, it looks – from the commercials – that the costumes for this film will be fairly historically accurate. Like the similar documentary from last year about Isabella Beeton, this may turn out to be a film that will be worthwhile to purchase when it comes out on DVD. I will be looking for it!

Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women (show website)
The Louisa May Alcott Society

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dickens Fair costuming for women: bonnets and other headgear.

Costumer's Manifesto. Peterson's Magazine, 1850.
A hat or bonnet was necessary outdoor wear for women and girls. Although historically accurate, beautiful, hats and bonnets can be purchased from costume vendors and professional milliners (including those at the Dickens Fair), they are expensive. You can’t make a *great* hat or bonnet without study, training and a lot of work, but you can approximate a *pretty good* one with patience and a bit of handiness!

Look for thrift store and discount store hats that are made of wool felt, in a boater (narrow brim, flat crown), picture hat (wide brim, round crown) or pillbox (flat crown, no brim) shape. Ladies' "church hats" are useful for this. Take off all the modern trim, which will probably be hot-glued on. Feel free to cut your hat to make it the right shape (cover the cut edges with ribbon sewn or hot-glued on top). If the brim of the hat is large enough, you can cut off the back of the brim (behind your head), and fasten long ribbons to each side (tie them under your chin) to make it into more of a bonnet shape. If you know how to use the steam function on your iron, you can steam the felt until it's damp, re-shape it over a bowl or something that's the shape you want, and let it dry to have a better bonnet shape. This can be tricky, though, so make sure you have time to fiddle with it and practice before you need to wear the thing!

You can also cut the entire brim off of your hat, just leaving the crown, as a pillbox style hat. Some stores (like Target) sell pillbox style hats in fake fur that will look good as-is, if you just pin, glue, or sew a feather and ribbon bow on one side or the front. If all you can find is an old straw hat, be sure to hot-glue or sew some fabric over it so that no straw shows. Solid, dark-colored velvet, corduroy, wool, or thick flannel with no printed design will work for this; shape the fabric to the straw hat with pleats, making the pleats look as nice and smooth as you can, and hot-glue, safety pin or sew it in place, fastening the edges to the inside of the hat.
Cathy Decker. 1850.

Decorate your hat with ribbon, silk flowers, feathers, etc. to coordinate with your costume (it doesn’t have to match all the colors exactly), fastening the ornaments on with straight pins, safety pins, hot glue or needle and thread. Bonnets had trim edging the brim, on the sides over each ear, in a line from ear to ear over the top of the bonnet, along the back neck edge, and inside the brim framing the face. Keep your hat or bonnet on your head with a proper hat pin (like a straight pin, but 5 to 10 inches long) stuck through the hat on one side, through your hair inside the hat, and through the other side of the hat, or with small plastic combs sewn into the inside of the hat. Pillbox hats and bonnets should have long ribbon ties securely fastened (sewn or safety-pinned) to the inside, over each ear, to tie under the chin when worn. These ribbons should coordinate with the other trimmings on your hat or bonnet.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dickens Fair costuming for women: stockings and shoes.

Moniteur de la Mode. 1855.
Sorry for the lag in posting! I lost my Internet access for a week and couldn't finish my research or post anything up! Here is the next section of Dickens Fair costume information: shoes and stockings.

While ideally, your dress will be long enough to cover your feet most of the time, you'll need your skirt to be short enough so that you don't step on it, and that means that your shoes and socks will show somewhat. Stockings should be black or white and can be modern tights or nylons, since they will be almost completely hidden. Knee-highs and regular black trouser socks will work well, too, as long as they're tall enough to cover your legs up to the knees. Do avoid fishnets or tights with colored or sparkly designs on them, because your ankles will be seen as you walk, and designs like that are obviously modern. Your stockings should also be heavy enough that you can’t see your skin through them; modern "sheer" nylons are too see-through!

As for shoes, especially avoid sandals or open shoes, running shoes, anything with chunky platform soles or stiletto heels, cowgirl and Army/work boots! Shoes should be of the lace-up or pull-on granny boot type, in black or brown, with low (1 ½ inches or lower) or flat heels. Sometimes you can find black half-boots in this style that have a discreet zipper up the inside of the ankle; while the zipper was not yet invented in the Victorian era, if the zipper is narrow and not set off by shiny or brightly colored trim, it should be unobtrusive enough. If you can find black adhesive tape (in the automotive section at Wal-Mart, or Orchard Supply or Home Depot) you can use it to cover up any really shiny trim like visible snaps, studs, or sequins. Leather, vinyl, or cloth shoes or boots in this style can often be found at thrift shops and at Wal-Mart and Target, and you can get them a little larger than you need and add an insole inside for comfort. You can also use black Chinese shoes or Mary Janes, or even black Keds, if you have nothing else! They aren’t what a woman of Dickens’ time period would have worn, at all, but they are simple, and black and, with black stockings, they will help your feet “disappear” under your skirts, rather than drawing people’s attention.

If you can’t manage black or brown boots or shoes, then you can buy black knee socks at the thrift store – make sure they’re several sizes too large – cut off the heel and most of the sole (except for about an inch right under the arch of your shoe), and pull them on over your colored shoes to cover them up! They will be like “spats”, except they should cover your whole shoe, or anything that’s not very dark in color. If you like, you can sew or glue a line of black buttons up the outside of the ankle on each one, to give the illusion of wearing buttoned boots. Tuck the top edge of the sock under at about 2 inches above your ankle bone (unless your boot tops are higher) to make them look more like boots, and sew, glue or duct-tape it down on the inside of the sock. You're almost ready to go! Next will be other accessories like bonnets, gloves, and shawls.

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, December 3, 2009

Dickens Fair costuming for women: Part 4 -- the collar and neckline.

young woman from San Francisco in the 1860s. Sense & Sensibility.
Again, when looking for a blouse to make into a bodice, choose one that has a high jewel neckline, fold-down or Peter Pan type collar or the stand-up mandarin type. These were, by far, the most common necklines on day dress bodices during Dickens' career. If your blouse bodice has a stand-up Mandarin collar, pointed, turn-down collar or rounded, Peter Pan collar, you can leave it as is, and just pin a brooch or ribbon bow at the top button when you wear it.

If you have a white button-down shirt that has a collar, however, you can cut the collar off of the business shirt, cut the collar off of the blouse bodice, and replace it with the white collar from the business shirt. That will give you the look of wearing a white linen collar, which was much more common than wearing colored collars. You have to sew it on, though, as glue and safety pins would not only be very visible so close to your face, but also be uncomfortable. Tuck all raw fabric edges (cut edge of fabric where it frays) to the inside of the neckline and make sure they're fastened down and hidden.

If you can't find a suitable thrift store blouse with a collar, to make into a bodice, then you can use certain collar-less blouse styles. If the blouse bodice has a high jewel neckline with no collar, you can use that same collar from a white thrift-store business shirt, sewing or safety-pinning it inside the neckline so that only the fold-down part of the collar, and not the band that buttons around the neck, is visible. If you like, you can also try a narrow lace collar, especially white crochet or delicate white lace, rather than ecru or other colors, or Battenburg lace; Michael's craft stores sometimes carry them, but also try to find one that is only 1 or 2 inches wide, since that was the fashionable collar size in the mid-Victorian era. The huge sailor collars, or large Battenburg lace collars should be saved for a different project, since they came around -- for adult women's clothing -- much later than the 1860s, and they're one of the things that really shout "modern" when on a Victorian costume!

If the blouse bodice has a turned back (with revers, like a camp shirt), V or squared neckline, it needs what was called a "guimpe" or "habit shirt" underneath. Visible decolletage on the street is not an appropriate look for a "decent" woman! To get this look, you should wear a modern white “dickie” with a Peter Pan style collar underneath, or cut off the upper part of a collared white shirt, including the shoulders, upper chest and collar, and wear it underneath your blouse bodice as a "dicky". Pin it inside the neckline of the blouse (make sure the pins don’t show!) so that it doesn't shift around as you wear it, and make sure all skin is covered. Accessorize with a simple, delicate brooch or grosgrain ribbon bow safety-pinned in place, and you're on your way!
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)