Suffrage Wardrobe

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The weekly newspaper of the Congressional Union and National Woman’s Party

2020 is the Centennial of the 19th Amendment granting women in the United States the right to vote. Oddly enough, I am currently on a contract with the National Woman’s Party, founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns as an offshoot of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and originally called the Congressional Union. The split was largely over tactics and splits continued over the years, again, mostly about tactics and mission. (In the post-suffrage years, splits continued, largely over how to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.)

I’m waiting to find out if the site has been awarded a grant I applied for in December so that I can produce a collections open house and living history event in late April designed to explore the material culture of the NWP’s protests. On the off chance that I’ll get the grant, and on the basis of a life-long obsession with the 1910s formed when I watched Testament of Youth on Masterpiece Theatre and promptly demanded the book, I have begun to consider the component parts of a suffragist’s wardrobe. (You gotta have something to think about on the Metro.)

Capes in violet and yellow were part of the costumes worn in suffrage parades and pageants

Here’s the preliminary list:

Chemise
Drawers
Corset
Stockings
Petticoat
Corset cover
Skirt
Blouse
Jacket or sweater (we’ll be indoors)
Boots or shoes
Votes for Women button

I am incredibly lucky to have found (separately) a silk blouse and a wool skirt that both fit me! I also have a wool skirt that is too small, but could be patterned, and a cotton blouse, that could also be patterned. But given what I have to accomplish by the end of April, I think it’s most likely I’ll need to wear the antiques.

Stylish suffragists in the capitol for a meeting

What do I have to make, if I get this grant and decide to be one of the costumed interpreters?

At a minimum:

Chemise
Drawers
Corset

Now, I could opt for a union suit of the kind Our Girl History made, but I’m not super convinced by my abilities to sew knits. Before she posted the union suit, I was planning to use the Dreamstress’s guide to 1910s underwear.

The Suffragist was funded in part by ads.

I have the Scroop pattern, and if I finish my projects and I get the grant, I’ll dive into this decade sometime in March. It’s hard to say whether I’d like to get it or not: there is always the “Oh crap, now we have to pull off this project!” factor with any grant award. It’s daunting, but at the same time, once those projects are finished, thinking about the who, how, and where of the making of suffrage banners and capes is pretty appealing for a material culture person.

In the meantime, while I’m at work, inventory projects provide lots of exposure to inspiration.

A Dress for Red Hook

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Portrait of a Couple in the Country, Josef Reinhard, 1809

We recently returned from an event months in making, as all the best ones are, with many people making new clothes and venturing into a new era: the early Federal period. Initially, I expected to portray a widow, but ended up portraying a milliner suing for damages resulting from a breach of promise of marriage. This afforded Drunk Tailor an opportunity to be caddish and impatient, and gave me the chance to be aggrieved, which I do enjoy.

Because I initially thought I was portraying a widow, I checked through my stash for appropriate fabrics, and, finding only yardage already designated for future projects (coming in March! yay!), I ordered black gauze from Renaissance Fabrics. The local fabric store failed me, and somehow I got fixated on transparency and weight: I wanted a particular drape that a heavier stuff could not provide.

I looked at fashion plates of mourning wear but came across an 1809 painting by Swiss painter Josef Reinhard and fell in love. Still, here I was on the train tracks to mourning attire when I was portraying a forsaken milliner. Fortunately, the event organizers provided documentation from local newspapers, and a plausible case could be made for being in mourning for my recently deceased father– adding another layer of poignancy to my abandonment and financial precarity.

The gown I made is my third run at an early 19th-century surplice front.  The pattern I scaled up from An Agreeable Tyrant was a reasonable place to start, though my shape has changed somewhat in the nearly three years since I first started on that. In the end, I found that the shape of the lining or base of the canezou was a better starting point. Using that back and the general shape and grainline of the front, I re-draped the front bodice pieces to my current size, adjusting the line over the bust and adding an underbust dart, based on darts seen in period Spencers.

It took about three muslins before I had a bodice that fitted well; then it was on to the sleeve. Thankfully, that only took two muslins to rework the curve of the sleeve head and the shape of the underarm, and adjust the grainline to correct the drape of the arm.

I like the contrast between the white chemisette and the black gown

The surplice or cross-front gown appears in many images; it’s a comfortable form, and uses relatively little fabric to achieve the effect. It would also be a good form for nursing mothers, and while that was not a consideration for me, I do like the way the neckline can show off a chemisette.

I wore this over a pink wool petticoat and the white bodiced petticoat/gown that I wore under the canezou; I’d prefer a black petticoat but the one I is made for 1790s gowns and required shortening. In the future, I’ll make a black or grey silk taffeta to wear under this gown. But first I’ll need new linen petticoats since two have disappeared.

The hem edge, as always for me, was little uneven despite measuring carefully multiple times, but a ruffle solved that and added weight to the hem, helping the skirts hang and move better. The trim is based on a drawing in the Nantucket Historical Association collection and uses a quantity of black silk ribbon (which I can buy wholesale thank goodness!).

I’m generally pleased with this pattern and the finish of the gown. The lessons I’ve taken from this experience are about packing lists (and not putting the box of bonnet behind the door where it is invisible) and accessories. Once you have a pattern that really works for you– a well-fitted bodice or waistcoat, coat, and trousers– what you need to round out your look are accessories. Those are the pieces that can expand your wardrobe, dress it up or down, and generate multiple looks from just a few pieces. If that sounds like capsule wardrobes or fashion magazine advice, well, just because you saw it in Mademoiselle or Glamour doesn’t mean it isn’t useful advice.

Bonnet Remodel

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I had a bonnet I made in 2014 (I think) that had been languishing in a box for years. I liked it– the soft tip was unusual, and the vintage ribbon and pink paper roses from the V&A went well with the dull grey– but I didn’t wear it. Sunday morning, I woke up resolved to remake the bonnet into something I will wear.

An upcoming weekend event in Dutchess County has me trawling through the fashion plates again, along with research helpfully sent along by the event organizers. A particular plate has stuck with me for some time, and finally I had the skill set necessary to tackle the thing. It takes making and looking and failing and remaking to figure out these things.

Step one was to take apart the bonnet-as-was. Satisfying work, really, not as unnerving as I feared it might be. And then? Paper patterns to figure out the sizes of the ridge and crest pieces.

I’d already committed myself to the silver-grey taffeta– slightly slubby, so second-chop, I’d already made muff cover, and had just enough left for a bonnet. The silver-grey seemed well-suited to a helmet-inspired style, and came close to the deep grey of the gros de Naples of the plate.

For mull, I used organic cotton quilt batting. It’s a little thick, but I pull my stitches tight and don’t want the buckram or pasteboard to show too much. The old brim piece served as a pattern for new, though I did have to use a different color for the brim lining.

The ridge was cut from homemade buckram (gum arabic on coarse linen from Burnley and Trowbridge). I used heavy cotton organdy to interline the crest. I know there is a way to get the ruffle more even, but my brain hasn’t produced it yet. Cartridge pleats and starch come to mind, along with goffering irons, as places to start. For now, this represents a Hudson River Valley milliner’s interpretation of the latest fashions.

The crown is taken from the 1770s bonnet I made, to take advantage of the way that crown slopes from a brim shaped like this one. If I were to make another one of these, I might switch up the order of assembly, and I might make the ridge piece of interfaced taffeta instead of taffeta-covered wired buckram.

The finished bonnet reused the same ties as the original bonnet, with a similar Petersham or grosgrain ribbon band. With my 2014 pelisse and a new muff, the only new accessory I’d like to make (or can remember wanting to make) is another, slightly larger, reticule to complete the ensemble.

2020 Vision

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Rebecca Young at the Museum of the American Revolution. Always a good experience.

We made it: another turn around the sun, another year, a time of resolutions and reflection. 2019 was the year I had three jobs, invented a job, and qualified for Medicaid. It was a year I spent wondering who I was, and what my experience meant, if anything. I developed a new chronic condition (can you have too many?) and continued struggling to manage the old ones. I applied to, was waitlisted by, and ultimately rejected by a prestigious graduate program. I applied and interviewed for five jobs and got two. The one I have now, though a short-term contract, uses all the skills I honed over three decades working in museums. I expanded the repertoire of 18th-century women I represent, learned about flag making, and increased the number and accuracy of remedies in my medical box. I even journeyed further back in time to represent a Lost Colonist of Roanoke.

Together in multiple centuries, despite the bumps. Photo by Aaron Walker

Still, six months of working all weekend every weekend at job number two put me so far from my friends and habits that despite the pleasure of representing Rebecca Young and Elizabeth Weed, I still feel uncomfortable with living history and costuming. Those months certainly strained my relationship with Drunk Tailor, and with my own identity. Twenty nineteen is year I would revisit only in select details.

Mrs. Wainwright, Miss White and Miss Baker going into the Supreme Court to hear the decision on the Ohio ratification of the suffrage amendment, 1920.

For this coming year, I know only a few things. My contract expires at the end of March. I still love things and order, but I don’t know if I want to work full-time in a museum again. In a bit of perfection, I’m working as the de facto collections and project manager to transfer the library, archival, and object collections of the National Woman’s Party (NWP)  to the Library of Congress and the National Park Service, effectively closing the NWP as a cultural organization (the house is now preserved as a national monument).

I took this contract before my Kickstarter succeeded and admit I am ambivalent about it. Kitty Calash as a business is a little too small to sustain me with a kid in college, but museum work, aside from the work of establishing ownership and provenance, remains difficult for me. I wonder about the accumulations of objects, their meaning, and relevance for the future. I was a curator for a long time, but now I wonder what my role will be, in the evidence locker of history.

Like “curator,” “reenactor” no longer feels like it fits, even though I love history and clothes and dressing up. Perhaps this is too many weeks where dressing up was not an option, too many events missed, the habit lost. Perhaps it’s fear of succeeding, of striking out on my own and doing well, and instead of jumping, hesitating at precisely the wrong moment. Suddenly, it all seems so silly in the face of elections, climate change, and the instability of the gig economy.

Purveying ideas and goods as a milliner is a lot like being a curator.

I wrestled with this in 2017 and 2013,  winters when things seemed hopeless for reasons large and small. Three years ago, I found my refuge in art. Even a year ago, art and aesthetics felt like solace. This year, the New York Times’ Culture Therapist addressed a reader’s question, or problem, that echoed with my own sense of perturbation.

The core of the issue was this: “What happens when we no longer fit our own context?” The answers were varied, and to me, seemed like long shots (too many uncontrollable factors) but this struck me: It will require risking compassion to create an expanded and possibly destabilizing relationship to visual culture.

In 2019, I learned the key to most successful endeavors is vulnerability. I spent a lifetime building walls to protect myself that now box me in. Razing those walls is what I think of when I read “risking compassion,” though it’s hard to say exactly what a destabilizing relationship to visual culture (or history, or costume, or fashion) might be. It may be understanding how little one knows about the past, accepting new aesthetics, or trying something completely new. Even as I contemplate a possible grant-funded costumed interpretation program, clothes from 1919 don’t feel “new” enough to me; they are not different enough. I don’t know what will be, but I do know that unless I’m emotionally uncomfortable, I’m not learning.

For all the angst and tears and anger of 2019, all the feelings I do not want to feel again, this year taught me to trust myself, to try, to fail, and to succeed. We learn as much from our failures as our successes, and while some of us more easily recall painful memories, it is worth remembering they can lead to our happiest moments. For this coming year, I will try to hold onto hope, that thing with feathers, and plan to learn new skills, improve the ones I have, and continue to find joy in the everyday.

Bonnet UnBoxing

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I’m really looking forward to recreating this (and to making a custom stand for it). It reminds me of the lovely brown bonnet sold by Augusta Auctions ten years ago. Poking around in fashion plates, I’d be comfortable putting a date range of 1825-1835 on this, with a likely date of ca. 1828. The two-part construction, the exuberance of the caned brim, and the color suggest to me that this is pre-1837 (when the effects of the economic crash can be seen almost immediately in smaller sleeves and tighter bonnets). Still, combing through fashion plates is never dull and I look forward to learning more in the year ahead.