What Being in History Teaches Us


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It took four weeks, but I finally lost it.

I’m sitting in my kitchen with a Reverse Manhattan and the New Yorker, weeping after reading the Wheaton College newsletter. Four weeks ago, I was desperate to get my son home to Virginia from college in New England, afraid travel restrictions might strand him on a closed campus in a state with a higher rate of infection. Now, I’m terrifically nostalgic for before, when my friends had jobs, I could go to the fabric store, and had an overbooked calendar.

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

That calendar included portraying Rebecca Flower Young, a military contractor in Philadelphia ca. 1780, and, eventually (still?) in the fall, Elizabeth Weed, a pharmacist in occupied Philadelphia, 1777. I think about those women when I get frustrated, tired of being home and just craving normal. More than anything, I want the absence of fear. It’s not something I think about consciously, this fear of the RNA strand, it’s something I experience after I’ve been to the grocery store or the pharmacy. Most of my life has shifted online, but t’s not a huge change. I worked from home already two to four days a week, and lots of my commerce was online.

It’s scary because I know not everyone is behaving the way I am: wearing a mask when I run errands, for example. Because my friends are getting laid off in increasingly large numbers (the last straw came today when a friend posted about joining the 17 million unemployed). I’m frustrated by my lack of control, lack of agency, inability to protect or really help the people I care about beyond my tiny circle of two at home. I can’t even do much for my mother in PA or my father in FL except keep myself safe. And while that impotence could fill me with rage and tears, I am practiced enough at sublimation to recognize an opportunity to understand.

A moment of calm for Elizabeth Weed

How did Elizabeth Weed feel in 1777? She had a son to care for, who was often unwell. She needed to sell remedies to keep paying for food, firewood, and other necessities. She would have had no choice but to stay put and trade with the enemy. Did she feel trapped? Did she walk down the street wondering about each person she saw? What could she get at the market? Where *did* the neighbor get that butter? Those onions?

I sat at my table trying to schedule a grocery delivery or pickup in the next two weeks and thought about how the miserable onions and contraband butter of 1777 are today’s last bag of flour and package of toilet paper. It’s funny, in a way, but it’s also a pointed reminder of what the people we portray felt.

Right now, that’s the best meaning I can offer you: insight into how you might have behaved under British Occupation in 1777 Philadelphia, or in rationed 1944 upstate New York. What creative solutions might you have found? How would you have flexed? How would you have comforted your children when they caught you crying in the kitchen?

An Evening In with Emma


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Journal des dames et des modes, (1812)

Just three weeks ago Drunk Tailor and I went to see the new Emma. We made an evening of it, aware that it would likely be our last excursion for some time.

Dressed in our early 19th-century attire, we had dinner out before we went to the theatre. I don’t know if this is my favorite Emma— the BBC adaptation with Romola Garai is one of my comfort movie go-tos– but it is by far the funniest, meanest, most satirical version of Emma I’ve encountered.We laughed a lot– more than most viewers, though I know the Regency Society of Virginia folks did too, behind us– and that was an interesting way to take in Austen.

There are some interesting pieces on the visual and material culture of Autumn de Wilde’s version, including one on color and class, and I’ve enjoyed seeing these pieces become part of the popular discourse around the movie and the novel. (I find I have to ignore the comments by Anya Taylor-Joy on corsets, which make zero sense to me as a wearer of 18th and early 19th century stays.)

I don’t know if we’ll stream the new Emma— the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice is a favorite of mine so that might be this weekend’s chocie– but today I started coloring in some paper doll dresses. A year or more ago, I made my own Emma doll, and, over time, drew several sheets of dresses. They’re here for you to download and fill in as you please. While for now these are a way for me to have all the clothes in La Belle Assemblee and Ackermann’s Repository, I also see these as potential croquis, a way to map out what I want to make. I do, after all, have a Strategic Fabric Reserve. I’ve uploaded my drawings in case you might enjoy them too (it’s an idiosyncratic style, I admit) as we all find ways to occupy ourselves indoors.

Emma and her dresses for download

Three Simple Tricks to Change Your (Sewing) Life…


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Practice will make you as happy as this cat.

Yesterday was #difference day in Pinsent Tailoring’s #modernlessmarch challenge, and while I’m not participating, finishing up a cap order yesterday got me thinking about what makes a difference in what I make.

I fished out the very first cap ever made, and here’s what’s made a difference:

1. Practice. Make more things. Make practice pieces. The more you sew, the better you get. That is the only way to get better.

As with writing, “butt in chair” is what will make a difference, and there is no short cut.  But the more you sew, the better you get.

2. Materials. Buy the best materials you can afford. This first cap was made of linen from JoAnn’s, while the most recent cap is made of linen cambric from Burley & Trowbridge.

Selecting the right material for the task is critical, and higher quality materials will give you a better result. Silk and linen will give you very different results (yes, silk caps are a thing. They show up in inventories and ledgers in the Carolinas). Even poor and working-class women’s caps were made of finer materials than we can typically get today, so for caps, you are looking for a fabric that combines fineness of weave and thread with crispness.

Cap the First was made nine years ago, while Cap the Recent was finished this week. The first real cap breakthrough I had was in 2016, with the Cap of Floof, made with a finer material that allowed me to make smaller seams and successful whip gathers for what felt like the first time.

Lance needles: the best I’ve used.

3. Tools. The smaller the needle, the smaller the stitch. You want to use the smallest needle you can (different sizes are appropriate for different fabrics; thicker fabrics need longer needles). It can take time to get used to using a smaller needle, but the practice (see point 1) will pay off. Appropriate thread (finer for finer fabrics), a thimble, and sharp thread snips will make your work easier. A good iron is another necessity, and while you can substitute a rolled towel for some pressing forms, tailor’s hams and sleeve boards also make life easier and sewing smoother.

All of these things take resources, whether time or money, but the rewards are worth the investment.

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:

Corset cover
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:


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.