Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Anti-Dress Diaries

Today's topic is an idea I've been kicking around inside my head for over 10 years--the "anti-dress diary."*  To describe what I mean by that term, a little personal history is in order.

Other than my recent posts to this blog I have never kept a "dress diary"--a record of methods used, and problems encountered and solved--for any of my historical projects.  Part of the reason for this is that, despite a long personal history as a costumer, I have never enjoyed sewing.  As an adolescent, I induced my mother to introduce me to the rudiments of sewing on her elderly electric sewing machine.  But I did that purely because I had costumes in mind that, back in 1974, I  could not otherwise obtain, not because I had any passion to learn the dressmakers' craft.  (Mom was with me on that part, at least.  She worked in a dress factory, sewing buttons on garments and being paid by the piece.  To her, sewing was her job, not a labor of love.)

"How I Learned...To Love Tudor"
The historical costumes that interested me the most as a girl were the long, flowing, and fitted gowns of the late medieval period. As my knowledge of costume history grew, and my impatience and frustration with the cutting, stitching, and finishing of garments mounted, I began to gravitate toward projects involving earlier periods, where fitting, if sought, was achieved through methods that, to me at least, were simpler and more comprehensible.

The Internet was a real boost to my costuming hobby. Suddenly, I was able to find photograph after photograph of wonderful, beautiful gowns crafted by other people (usually, though not always, women) who shared my love of historical costume! Many of them showcased their work in dress diaries, treating me to the daunting example of costumers who would spend many hours doing blackwork embroidery on an Elizabethan smock, gather yards of fine muslin into minute pleats to finish the neckline of a Renaissance chemise, or would wrestle with 15 yards of brocade and 5 yards of fake fur to make a proper houppelande. I admired these costumers greatly (and still do!), but back in the 1990s I lacked both the time and ambition to hone my skills to the point where such attempts, let alone achievements, might be possible for me. If I had attempted to emulate them, I would have had to give up any efforts at sewing in despair.

So I tried to stick to what I thought I knew--simple, early period tunics, coats and hoods based on simple geometric shapes, and told myself that I wasn't going to attempt any of those fancy, more modern creations.

Unfortunately, the beginning of my acquaintance with the Internet coincided with the flowering of my interest in live action roleplaying games ("LARPs"), a hobby which encourages participants to costume appropriately for their roles.  In the 1990s, about the time when I resumed serious reading and study about historic costume, there were a number of LARPs being conducted in my area, many of which were set during historical periods in which fitted, elaborate garments were essential.  So I began to plan historical costuming projects around the particular LARPs in which I was enrolled.  Since surprisingly few LARPs are set in the Dark Ages, the result was to drive me into attempting historical garments for periods as to which I was much less well acquainted.

Three of these "historical" LARP costumes in particular turned out to be adventures to create, requiring kluge after kluge and gobs of dogged determination to complete them on time for the games in which they were designed to be worn.

The first one of these was a 1530's Tudor dress, complete with a French hood.  I still have the records I kept (such as they are) of the cost of materials, since at the time I had little money available for sewing costumes at the time and was doing my best to make everything as cheaply as possible.  I made that gown in 1999, a few years before I had acquired  decent Internet connection (a factor which limited my ability to do quick research, as well as limiting my ability to find appropriate materials for the gown and headdress itself.  So the gown is cotton corduroy (I couldn't  afford velveteen), the forepart is a pink  cotton-blend furniture store damask that cost way too much and impresses too little, and the headdress is trimmed with a store-bought, crescent-shaped hunk of fake pearls manufactured for a do-it-yourself bridal headdress. I don't have a picture of myself wearing the gown, and I've no idea whether it still fits me, so for now you'll have to be content with a picture of the outfit laid out (more or less) flat; that picture appears above on the left.

"Six Years Before"
"Fear and Loathing"
The second gown I'd like to talk about is actually is the first one of the series that I made. It's a far-from-authentic early 17th century number whipped up hastily in the fall of 1993 after spending long days at the office drafting a killer legal brief. Complicating matters was the fact that I had to come up with a period costume for my husband, who was in the same LARP, while completing my own gown.  Nowadays, I could purchase one of several different patterns for such a gown.  Back then, I was on my own, with only Katherine Strand Holkebecker's "Patterns for Theatrical Costuming" as a rough guide to adding plausible sleeves to a Folkwear bodice.  A picture of the resulting gown, which was taken a few years later when I wore it at an office Christmas party, appears to the right.   (Straight bangs, or a fringe, as the British call them, aren't period for the 17th century either, but there were a natural part of my hair at the time, and it was easier just to tie my then shoulder-length pageboy into a ponytail and clip a long curly hairpiece over it than to try to find a combination of wig or hairpieces that would reproduce a true 17th century style.)  It appears on the right.

The third gown I have in mind made in 2005 for a LARP set in Venice in the early 16th century. It has been featured in Bella's Italian Showcase and, more recently, as part of the Historical Costume Inspiration Festival. Because I made it relatively recently (and had the Internet to consult for design ideas and for obtaining components) it is better designed and much more solidly sewn, but I took so long in the planning stages that it was, in the end, still a last-minute effort. However, it was still more successful than my actual role in the LARP that inspired it.  It appears on the left, directly opposite the "Six Years Before" gown.

All of this is a round-about way of asking; would you be interested in having me write up these "anti" dress diary ideas for this blog? I've been thinking of writing these costumes up so long for the Web that I'm not sure that the final result will be as interesting as what's been going on in my head, but it would at least be different from my standard blog fare, and perhaps more interesting. If you have strong feelings either way (about my writing these up, or not doing so) please either comment on this post, or respond to my poll (see the top left margin), or both.

EDIT:  If you read this post this morning, and notice that the last few paragraphs of this post read much differently now, that's because I was making a small typographical correction and lost the original text! The text as it appears now is an attempt to recreate the rough content, of what I originally wrote, but I can't recall the contents well enough to reproduce the exact language. If you have a cached copy of my original post, please paste it in an e-mail and send it to me so I can restore the original language.  Thanks.

*By saying "anti" dress diaries I don't mean to say that I'm against dress diaries! Not at all; I love reading them.  Nor do I mean any disrespect to the costumers who are skilled enough to write dress diaries that show historical details, or function as mini-tutorials; I respect their patience and skill greatly.  I just don't have the patience, or interest, to become one of them.  So I mean my proposed essays to be kind of a parody of the diary concept, applied to my early fumbling efforts at advanced historic costumery. The point of publishing such a parody is to show that it's possible  for even an ignorant person who loves historic costume to achieve something interesting and worthwhile even  having little or no experience, and that reporting about early efforts has merit and can inspire  greater, better efforts.  


  1. I always read dress diaries and cant beleive people make things so difficult for themselves. I've done that blackwork pattern on a shift for myself, but I didn't mess around drawing it on the fabric, I just sewed and it looked fab. ditto houppenlande, I love the circular approach and used it myself, but never messed around making patterns. I think when i do dress diaries people find me frustrating cos i dont show the pattern, and its cos i rarely use one - one of the perks of having no training I suppose!

    1. Hi! Thanks for stopping by.

      I think that the secret behind dress diaries is that just about all the historic costumers have had to teach themselves--since there's no one around who knows "how they really did it" for garments over 100 years old. Some costumers like sewing better, and have better basic skills, than others, that's all! And back when I started sewing, there *were* no historic garment patterns available; all I had were existing general-purpose costuming books, a certain amount of artwork, my minimal sewing knowledge, and common sense. :-) Now, there's a lot more information available to the ordinary costumer, and the Internet makes it more available. Truly, these are (the beginning of) the good old days for historic costuming!

  2. Being the sort of costumer who also spends tons of time on research and often finds oneself fighting the good fight at the last minute, I would value your viewpoint in these matters. :) I would in fact love to read an "anti-dress diary, especially by you. I recently read your article about "Viking" dresses and was very impressed. Thank you!

    1. Hi, Rev! Welcome to my blog. I'm glad you liked my post on The Dreamstress.

      I expect to start writing up the first "anti-dress diary" this weekend and hope to publish by the end of the month.