The ‘Nancy Dawson’ Dress

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Miss Nancy Dawson, aquatint print. Victoria and Albert Museum. E.4968-1968

Hat tip to Mr B for pointing out the resemblance; I know the print and never connected it to this fabric.

It’s been almost a year in the making, this bright yellow billboard of a gown. I’m not sure why I dawdled over the making; usually I’m pretty quick with a needle, but perhaps it was in part because the goal kept changing: first December, and then, it seemed, never, would I have an occasion to wear this. Federal exploits intervened, work intensified, things changed. But late April presented itself as an opportunity, so finally I had a goal, a deadline.

It was hot. And humid. That’s only water.

And I met it, with Drunk Tailor’s help (setting hems by yourself is a pain).

This is a fairly straightforward affair. I did use the Larkin and Smith “fashionable gown” pattern because I know how it fits me, but the front is modified to a simple closing and the skirts aren’t meant to be drawn up. This gown aspires to pretensions– though you can tell I’m fairly prosperous by the number of different prints I’m wearing.

The petticoat did require piecing– at my height, 44 inch wide fabric often needs to be pieced to achieve the lengths or width I need in historical skirts.

Happily, the piecing matches and doesn’t match, in a fairly satisfactory way. When this fabric arrived on my doorstep, I determined that it needed to be used in the most obnoxious manner possible– and since I’m not a small woman, a gown and matching petticoat seemed the best possible use. (I have other obnoxious fabrics for later time periods).

I did take care as I made it up, though, stitching with white thread and trying to make the pleats small and correct to the fashion and fabric. Any failures or flaws make it, to my eye, better as an article of aspiration to a rank and style I really can’t pull off.

One thing I forgot to pack was a bum roll– though wearing that on the drive to Fort Frederick would have been extra interesting– which was unfortunate, as it is truly required. These new (they’re a year old, and I expect to call them “new” for a long time to come) stays make a different shape in the back than the old stays, and now my own padding no longer negates the need for a bum roll. Still, I’m pleased with the result, even if it still wants cuffs. Not bad for eleven months of work.

Cross my Heart

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The goal is on the left. How far have I made it? Well… I have been busy. We started on the right, remember?

In executing the final plan, I did choose to cut a lining to support the lightweight fashion fabric; I didn’t think it would look, drape, or wear well without a lining.

The adaptation is truly that, and not a copy, in this instance. The lining means that the finished piece will have more of the appearance of a drawstring fitting than an actual drawstring across the back.

The sleeves, thankfully, were pretty straightforward, and I’m one of those odd people who really enjoys cutting and setting sleeves, so there you are. It took me about six days to get to this point, and then work came to a halt. I have other centuries I’m playing in, and am determined to finish that yellow dress to wear this weekend. When and where else can I look like a person of means than the Fort Frederick Market Fair?

Rethinking Reenacting Redux

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Some of you may recall my friend from the antediluvian age, Dread Scott. He was in town briefly and while I wasn’t able to attend his talk, I got my own special artist’s talk over breakfast.

Scott’s working on a Slave Rebellion Reenactment, (additional info here) so we had a lot to talk about.

Scuffle in the Square, Princeton, 2017. Photo by Wilson Freeman at Drifting Focus Photography

He had some great questions about what we do, and why we do it, especially around Princeton, and in talking about my end goal (getting the public to understand how the past informs the present), I said something about how in Newport in 2014, the cars disappeared and we forgot we were in the present.

Scott’s great reply was about keeping the present present, occupying two time periods simultaneously, to recognize that the past made the present. I know that seems obvious, but it isn’t always when we’re out in our funny clothes. It’s another layer of interpretation that we can build onto our reenactments and recreations, particularly when we are trying to talk about slavery. Slavery built the institutions we have today– like Aetna Insurance and Georgetown University– so if we acknowledge our surroundings in a place like downtown Princeton or Newport, we can talk about more than just the moment we are recreating.

Some of us seek historical transcendence. Some of us enjoy a social experience. And some of us seek ways to connect the present to the past in ways that help us understand how we got here, and how to make a better future.

The more I contemplate what matters to me, the more I think I’m seeking that last more than I am even transcendence.

True Confessions of the Frivolously Fashion Obsessed

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Skeptical cat is skeptical

I promised you something, didn’t I, the last time I wrote?

Well, set your skepticism aside for the cat, because here’s the scoop on the messy process of getting from page to pattern to garment.

I started with the pattern from the book, which furrowed my brow a few times until I became accustomed to the style. Everyone drafts and scales patterns a little differently; it’s like getting used to local idioms. (It’s a bubbla, here, not a water fountain and not a drinking fountain. Go figure.)

But I digress. It seemed pretty simple, especially since I have some experience scaling things up, both from Sharon Burston on taking a pattern from an original garment (plot your points like an archaeologist) and from architecture school (redraw Le Corbusier’s maison from these two tiny drawings, draft an axonometric, and make a model). With Corbu behind me, you’d think this would be a piece o’ cake.

Delightfully, you would be wrong. Creative swearing, brow furrowing, and endless distractions (yes, some 28mm 17th century soldiers will be wearing Timberlands) provided the usual soundtrack and experience. Challenging, not easy, which means I hope I might actually have learned something.

Kind of a mess, right? Here’s what I did: I scaled up the pattern in the book once I’d figured out that the measurements were, incredibly, just about what I make my Federal-era dress pieces. I used the newsprint ads that come in the mail because they are abundant and free. That’s more challenging than gridded or plain paper, but free is free. With a ruler and a pencil, you can make your own grid.

After the paper patterns were drafted, I checked them against the drawings in the book, and made free hand corrections. I’ve learned that my eye is sometimes better than my math whether I am hanging paintings or making patterns.

From the tweaked newsprint pieces, I cut muslins to stitch up and try on over my stays. You MUST fit over the proper undergarments, or the exercise is pointless. These resulted in some additional tweaks and alterations accomplished at first with pins, a Sharpie, and Drunk Tailor’s patient assistance.

What then? Another round with some adjusted pieces to yield another muslin. It’s from that final fitting muslin that I transfer changes to the newsprint and then, finally, to craft paper. I was ably assisted once again by the Most Dangerous Cat in the World.

That’s what you’re left with: scraps, a muslin that’s true, and the pieces to make it. But have I made real progress on real fabric? Of course! But that’s another post.

To Breakfast In

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http://agreeabletyrant.dar.org/gallery/1810s/polka-dot-printed-dress/

Dress, cotton, United States, private collection; reproduction chemisette, private collection; coral necklace courtesy of Dames à la Mode.

I get ideas. And like a cat I once knew, once I have an idea, it’s hard to shake. Luckily for me, my judgement is better than the cat’s– he had a tendency to pounce without regard to results, and scars do show on furry white noses. But in this case, at least, there are no scars, just some pricked fingers.

Like so many of us early-Federal era obsessives, I fell in love with An Agreeable Tyrant, and demanded the book for Christmas. It’s not just the essays or images, it’s the patterns. Scaled patterns take at least some of the guess work out of recreating historic costumes, but not all of it. And never for me– if there’s something to mess up or guess wrong, I am right on top of it– which is to say, I learn to adapt my errors and adjust my methods to fit my materials.

Surplice-front gowns have teased and delighted me for years: My first foray was with the silk “Quaker” gown of three (!) years ago, a gown I based on digging into Quaker portraits and Nancy Bradford’s Costume in Detail. It worked well enough then– not brilliantly, but close enough for my purposes. But then the polka dot dream appears, and of course, I need one to fulfill my dream of living Persuasion and having a morning dress to breakfast in. Beats the heck out of what I eat breakfast in now, and perhaps the company would improve as well. (I’m looking at you,cats.)

Well, so, what to do? Attempt my own, of course, since I found some fabric that seemed plausible enough and matched the color my dried blood. It’s a sheer block print cotton from India, more sheer than the original fabric, but capturing the feel well enough– and better, I suspect, than the stiff quilting cottons one is likely to find with polka dot prints. Construction and patterning fun next time on “True Confessions of the Frivolously Fashion Obsessed.”

More Color, Brighter Color

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Not the side I ended up using.

“More colah! brightah colah!” was the refrain of one of the printmaking professors at my undergrad program (hilariously, I met him again last summer here in the Ocean State, and nothing much had changed). This is useful advice for someone stuck in the doldrums of late winter New England. It was late January when I got some disappointing news and set off to cure my blues at the fabric store. There’s a bodice in the plaid underway for another silk gown (eventually to be sold, I think; how many can one have?), but I grew dissatisfied with the fabric. Too pale. I wanted More Color. Brighter Color.

Lucky for me, it was on sale. Fabric Mart Fabrics has been good for me in the past, and a silk sale was a success this time, too. The bright and bold dress in the FIT collection was my inspiration, and I dearly hoped I would not manage to cut the cross-barred pattern to match, so of course I pretty much did.

My tried-and-true pattern based on the 1815 roller print gown at Genesee Country Village was the base pattern for the silk gown: I know how to adjust it so that I can get dressed on my own, drawstrings the saving grace for the solitary woman who wants a back-closing gown.

I didn’t alter my pattern enough to really capture that neckline, because, in truth, I wanted to get this done! I did concede to trim, of course, and while conducting Drunk Tailor on a (fruitless for him) tour of regional fabric stores, found, at last, the trim I wanted, at the Fabric Place Basement in Natick. Good thing, too, because I was convinced that we were going to die in the traffic backup on whatever that road is in Framingham that creeps in at petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time. But no, we lived, after I was fed, and trim was found, saving the day. (Seriously, I don’t think I have ever been on that stretch between Natick and Framingham and not been in a traffic jam since I first encountered it in 1988.)

But the dress, that’s the point. It’s done, at least enough to wear, though I did not buy enough trim for the hem and will have to trek back up to Natick for another few yards with which I can trim the hem. A lovely young woman named Tanya did get a photo of me in full regalia, down to the gloves (yes! leather opera gloves!) but I haven’t found it yet out on the interwebs, so my hotel room selfies must suffice.

What I find most satisfying– aside from the dancing– is how versatile a very simple dress pattern can be. Fabric choices, trims, hem length, minor sleeve alterations, and accessories make this one pattern work both for a day dress and a dancing dress.

Circles and Lines

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Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn, watercolor on paper by John Lewis Krimmel. 1811-1813. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 42.95.12

By some miracle, I did not have the Polecats in my head all weekend, despite spending most of Saturday only dancing. It has been some time since I danced (February’s adventure notwithstanding) and after two hip replacements, my Giant son is correct: I’m still re-training my muscles. My feet remember more than my hips do, but at least some of my muscles remember!

The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers Regency Weekend was this past weekend, and while I could only manage Saturday (Sundays are for chores when you’re expecting houseguests for Easter), I had a wonderful time and sincerely hope I can retain what I was taught. The company was very friendly and quite genteel, though I can report that I did experience a variety of partners, and, in one unfortunate case, became so confused I had to step out of the dance entirely. (Mixed rhythms and mixed-up steps became far too jumbled in my poor brain.)

The Five Positions, from An Analysis of Country Dancing, T. Wilson, 1811.

The entire day reminded me strongly of being in a novel, or, as Drunk Tailor said on hearing the description, a movie. Let us merely note that some gentleman are more enthusiastic appreciators of music than others, and that a partner can be left feeling a bit flung about in some of the figures that involve the mouliner. My rusty memories of French came in handy: mouliner and mill connect easily enough for me (seen here, in Prince Kutusoff) and the Boulanger made much more sense when I connected it to mixing bread dough. Hey– whatever gets you through the set without stepping on your own, or anyone else’s feet!

I’d like to think I will remember something of this business the next time I get to dance, whenever that may be. The patterns can be found on line in manuals (as in this description of Sir Roger de Coverly) with some occasional, bearable, videos— and, as always, resources close to home.

Next time: the dress. Until then, I’m posting more on Instagram.

Becoming an Exhibit Prop

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We all have those Hamlet-like moments, don’t we?
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable | Seem to me all the uses of this world!

But in this case, I can attest to being and not merely feeling flat: lo, I am cutout exhibition furniture.

Thanks to Mr B’s casting call on behalf of the New-York Historical Society, a number of friends and acquaintances and I are now part of the scenery of the new exhibition, Saving Washington, up through July 30.

The behind the scenes of being a prop is pretty entertaining.

The changeable green-red sari gown was made for this photo shoot; we were asked to wear strong colors, and since the exhibit was meant to represent one of Dolley Madison’s “squeezes,” dressing up was in order– and hard for me to do, since most of my gowns are day dresses at best.

I started this November 22, and carried it on airplanes several times.

The sleeves appeared to be a complete failure at first, until I figured out I could pleat the design to form a smaller, graphic band at the bottom. Sometimes I start without knowing how a thing will turn out…including most days when I get out of bed.

December 9 completion level: wearable.

At least it was finished enough to wear to the photoshoot, and it appeared again, with a real hem and a ribbon to keep it on, in Salem last month. I’m pleased enough with the color, and how well it doesn’t go with most things to call this a success– and finished!

In situ.