18th century clothes, age, authenticity, Battle Road 2013, Clothing, common dress, fashion, fashion plates, Research
I don’t know exactly what “that certain age” is, but I think I’m headed there downhill on an icy street in a speeding carriage.
Here’s another good question: What about age? I didn’t address it directly in working out Kitty’s Brown Gown, but I did consider it. She’s in her 40s, and if you look at portraits by Copley and other artists, older women are often dressed in brown. These are respectable ladies, and when Kitty’s feeling more like a bad servant, she’s happy to wear her ca. 1774 red and black calico dress, and make tracks for Germantown.
I’ve been thinking a lot about personae and impressions, and first person interpretations. One of the best things I learned at a recent workshop was “first person thinking,” and in the historic costuming/re-enacting/living history/ historic re-creationist context, when you wonder what to wear, do, say, pack, eat, I think this is where it starts:
Know Your Self. It all flows from who (and when) you imagine yourself to be.
So let’s take age in account. For Battle Road, 1775, Kitty’s in her 40s. That means she was born around 1735, and came of age in the 1740s and 1750s. Knowing the styles of that time I’m even more comfortable choosing cuffs, because that’s what she grew up with. She’s not going to be very fashion forward–not just because of her class, but also because of her age. (For added fun and dimensions, start thinking about what she saw and read.)
What about choosing fashions for the older set in 1812? That’s where it gets really interesting, to me. Check out the Ege-Galt family portrait, ca. 1802. The older women are NOT in the high-waisted filmy gowns. Left to right, the sitters were born in 1724, 1779, 1801, and 1748. They are wearing more traditional-looking, darker, firmer-stays-underneath, gowns.
The same pattern plays out in this image of the artist’s colorman, John Middleton. The older servant is wearing a dark, older-style gown, while Middleton’s daughters are wearing the most fashion-forward clothes.
For anecdotal, quasi-experimental archaeological evidence, here’s my experience. I started out with solid, carapace-like ca. 1770 stays. (Mr S says touching me in them is like hugging a lobster, and then raps my ribs.) They’re not unpleasant, but they are confining, and even comforting. For an event at work, I made a pair of soft, semi-ribbed, transition stays with cups. They felt very strange after fully boned stays.
Long-line stays with cording and a busk? They felt better: more containment. It’s not just about my avoir du pois. It’s about the enveloping sense that the stays provide. The physical difference of the stays made me look at the Ege-Galt portrait again: what would I have felt comfortable and appropriate in, when styles changed radically?
Fashion plates, then as now, have bias in them. Know your self.
Here’s how I’d work it out:
Let’s say Kitty is 45 in 1812: she was born in 1767, turned 20 in 1787: she grew up in full stays. She turned 30 in 1797, just in time to adopt shorter stays, but probably tending to longer line stays with corded bust gussets. Let’s say Kitty’s cousin is 55 in 1812. Born in 1757, she turned 40 in 1797. Chances are good she favored a longer stay with more boning, and maybe corded gussets, too.
What does that mean for her silhouette? It means that she lowers the waist of her gowns (You win again, gravity!) She also wears darker colors. Filmy gowns of the Regency era fashion plates aside, what did women wear for everyday? If you check Pinterest boards of fashion plates, or the various collections at NYPL, Claremont College, LAPL, and the Met, you can find Griselle, and that’s a help. Better yet, searching extant collections can turn up lovely-in-their-own-right gowns…with color!
The “real people” wore colors, and ajusted styles to their circumstances. I find the 19th U.S. 1812 site useful, not just for their studies of extant garments, but also for their presentations. The 1809 apron front gown from MHS is an excellent example of a non-filmy gown worn by a real woman. Caveat: it’s supposed to be Quaker. MHS has also has a nice set of watercolors online bny Anna Maria vonPhul, painting the town of Saint Louis in the first part of the 19th century. Her characters range in class and age, and reflect what she really saw.
We have a gown at work worn by Mrs John Brown (also, perhaps, a Quaker) in the late 18th or first quarter of the 19th century. While it has a higher waist and does mimic fashionable trends, it reminds me of the Quaker gowns at the MFA (I think it is earlier). But it’s brown! Practical, attractive in the right shades, brown. Which does at least come in a variety of shades, and can be thought of as an excuse for darker red…
Hammond-Harwood House said:
I would love to hear more about your experiences with first-person interpretation. I’ve never done it, but know that it’s hard to do well, and would like to hear how you got started and what you learned.
I’ve not done first-person yet, it’s something I’m working up to. Sew18thCentury http://www.sew18thcentury.com/ does Polly Wanton, and I’m familiar with Plimoth. I’m Living History http://imlivinghistory.blogspot.com/ also does first person. I recommend checking out their blogs, and asking them.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is also doing first person, and the workshop I went to was run by a woman from the LESTM. That’s where I learned about first person thinking (I was doing it already). As I explore and learn, I’ll share what happens. These are the Confessions of a Known Bonnet-Wearer, after all.
Josephine Boone said:
Hi Kitty, could you provide some resources on “first person thnking”? That’s a new idea for me and it sounds useful! Thanks!
In looking over my workshop notes, I think it starts with developing a character or persona (who are you?) and then proceeds to the “world of infinite detail.” Who is you character, and what do they do, wear, eat? Each thing has an infinite number of detailed answers and when you start to answer those questions, you will start to inhabit a time and place more completely. It’s like developing a character for a story—you have a lot of questions to answer.
Published sources include Past Into Present by Stacy Roth, and I just found this, which covers the basics:
Click to access First%20Person%20Interpretation%20of%20Historical%20Persona.pdf
I can try to get into this more later, but I have a ton of sewing to do!
Nancy N said:
Hi, Kitty. Thanks! This is so fascinating to me, a former full time actress, now part time costumer and actress. Your posts are so thoughtful, and I love the investigations into the nuts and bolts of an outfit, something I enjoyed getting into when performing–imagining who made the dress, when, and whether it was new to me, or a hand me down, made over from something else, etc. I love your carriage on a slick street analogy to getting older, as I try to fit myself into outfits I wore decades ago and see with dismay how inappropriate some are for my new self!!! Never mind the shoes that are tortuous! Thanks for the pattern diagram for the brown dress. And I love the green gown on the older woman–you can really see the vestiges of earlier styles in that dress. And of course a dropped Empire waist is always more flattering to fuller figures–of any age!!!! (Oh,one consideration for portraying these middle aged ladies would be how many pregnancies had they experienced, as of course that would alter the body big time.)
Keep em coming–your posts are my window into a wider world!
I think being an actress is a fantastic way to get inside costumes! Oh, too many tempting puns…
Character and clothing are so linked. And who wore what can be so illuminating. I have Love, Loss, and What I Wore (because I liked it too much to give it away) and how we remember our lives is so embedded in clothes…it’s neat stuff.
thanks for reading and commenting– it really makes my day to hear from you!
Christina P said:
Thank you so much for this post! I am just getting started with making my own historical garments and, as “a lady of a certain age” myself, I used similar lines of thinking to select patterns and fabric for my first garments. For my 1800 to 1805 outfit, I just made a partially boned transition stay with cups, thinking that one of those crazy short stays would just be too new a style for a lady my age.
It’s truly lovely for me to see that I was thinking along similar lines as someone like you who is so much more experienced at historical clothing.
I very much enjoy all of your posts!
Hi Christina! Thank you for your lovely comment.
I tried making similar stays and really failed, but I’ll be trying again. It was so weird to wear the short ones after fully boned ones, that I started looking at paintings differently. I’ve been working in history collections way longer than I have been doing historical sewing, but it is the most fun I have ever had. I hope you’re having fun, too. Thank you so much for reading, and for commenting!
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