Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review: The Queen's Servants

Cover of "The Queen's Servants" by Caroline Johnson
The Queen's Servants by Caroline Johnson

The link above gives a good overview of the book's content, so I'll keep the summary brief. The main differences between The Queen's Servants and The Tudor Tailor is the emphasis on analyzing original garment records: we're taking pie charts of color and material frequency, period yardage/pricing info, and hypothesized cutting lay-outs. Additionally, this book only looks at ladies' clothing* (there are separate volumes for men's and children's), and focuses on the earlier Tudor period (reign of Henry VII and early reign of Henry VIII).  The illustrations include photographs of historic funerary monuments, artists' renderings of clothing from primary source texts, and photographs of reproduced garments.  It runs 56 pages, including references and glossary.

[*Specifically, women attached in the royal household: princesses, queens, the ladies and gentlewomen who attend them, and the occasional court pensioner.]

The description and analysis of primary sources deal with the fabrics and furs used for clothing, discussing the colors, yardage, prices, and customs. I like that the sources are very clearly cited, and that conjectures are explicitly described as such.

The given patterns are for one smock (with neckline variations), one kirtle (sleeve and fastener variations), two gowns (four sleeves and neckline variations), and two bonnets.  The cutting patterns are given on grid paper, and will need to be sized to the wearer; general sewing instructions are also included, as well as marginalia showing relevant hand-sewing techniques. This isn't a beginner-friendly pattern, but I think it's quite clearly written, and would be usable by ambitious intermediate sewists.  Beginners (and people who don't want to scale-up cutting diagrams) may want to consider the related pattern line.

The focus of this book is more narrow than The Tudor Tailor, but I think the discussion of primary sources really makes it worthwhile.  If you're looking for lower class, mid/late 16th century, or men's clothing, this isn't the book you want. But for late 15th/early 16th century English noblewomen, you couldn't get a better reference. 

Stars: 5
Accuracy: High.
Skill Level: Intermediate, tending Advanced
Strongest Impression: Good scholarship; the different time-frame makes it a companion to The Tudor Tailor rather than competition.

Monday, October 15, 2018

To Blacken the Eye Lashes and Eye Brows (1833-1854)

I finally found references to eye make-up, which were not forthcoming in my first foray into the field.  Other than mentioning belladonna to dilate the pupil (do not do this; also, it is apparently only need by those of us with dull grey eyes), the references are all to precursors of mascara/the eyebrow pencil.  Eye-shadow is, still, not a thing.
The Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion (Boston, 1833):
To Blacken the Eye lashes and Eye brows
The simplest preparations for this purpose are the juice of elder berries; burnt cork, or cloves burnt at the candle. Some employ the black of frankincense, resin, and mastic; this black, it is said, will not come off with perspiration.
This same receipt appears, verbatim, in The Book of Health and Beauty (London, 2nd edition 1837); it is also repeated in the The American Family Keepsake (Boston, 1849) and One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (New York, 1854). The Amateur (1851) mentions burned cork used as stage makeup.

So, does it work?

Experimenting with burned cloves as mascara, historic recipe from 1833-1854.
Burnt clove applied to my right eyebrow and lashes.
I suspect there's no such thing as a flattering eyebrow selfie.

Experimenting with burned cork as mascara, historic recipe from 1833-1854.
And burnt cork, again on the right.
The cork definitely gives a darker color than the cloves (more char coming off).  After playing around with it a little, I am favoring the cork for my eyelashes and the cloves for the eyebrows. I think the cork is simply too dark for my eyebrows, while the cloves add a subtler color. At the same time, I couldn't tell that the cloves had any effect on my eyelashes, making the cork more useful there.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Long and Short s

I'm working on my roundhand/copperplate script for inktober, and found a lovely discussion of the long and short forms of miniscule s. It's quite informative, and there are graphs of usage frequency (in printed texts)!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Book Review: Historical Costumes of England, 1066-1968

Working through some of the many books I read this year, but haven't had time to write-up. 

Title image of Historical Costumes of England by Nancy Bradfield
Historical Costumes of England, 1066-1968 (revised edition) by Nancy Bradfield

Historic Costumes of England is an ambitious book, covering 900 years of costume history. And, with that in mind, I think it fares adequately.

The costumes are organized by monarch.  Since reigns can range from 2 years (Edward V/Richard III) to 67 years (Victoria), some of the shorter ones grouped together; as a the result, most book sections cover 20-40 years of English clothing.  For each, there's a page of illustrations of men's clothing with a facing page of text, and another pair of pages on women's clothing. Some of the longer time spans get a second page of illustrations, while Victorian women's clothing is divided into three chronological parts (menswear gets one page of illustration with two of text).

Each page of illustrations generally contains eight sketched figures, although some have a dozen or more. I liked how the illustrations were of the clothing being worn, showing different styles on the body. The figures are loosely arranged in groups which hint of tableaux, so it looks contextual, a little more like real people, rather than diagrams

The downsides are that there's lots of material to cover, so most figures aren't full-length, and none have full front and back views (there are figures in profile). Only a few figures have specific dates attached, but the text gives some cues about earlier/later fashions within a reign, and briefly addresses the differences between old and young, or rich and poor. The images are detailed (and in some cases familiar), which suggests that particular historic sources were consulted, but no citation list or bibliography is included.

Due to scope, this book really functions best for survey purposes. It's really not specific enough to costume multiple characters for a particular year (especially getting into these later times when so much more information is available), but it is a quick start to acquaint your eye with the time.  I could see it being a very useful first reference for theatrical costumers, or a visual guide for people working across multiple eras, but it's not in-depth enough to be very useful for most of the costuming I do.

Stars: 3.5
Accuracy: Good, so far as I can tell, but more citations would be welcome.
Strongest Impression: A breadth book, rather than a depth one.  It's good at what it does, but if you need color images or specific information, it's probably not your best choice.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Original Barred Sheer Dress

This is the only antique dress in my collection. It's entirely hand-sewn, and I am currently dating it to the late 1850s.

EK original 1850s dress, bodice front view.
The bodice, and it's enormous sleeves. By the old stitching lines,
the bodice originally had a 22" waist and 34" bust. The waist is currently 25".

EK original 1850s dress, back sleeve detail.
That fabulously full pagoda sleeve with pointed jockey.
The bodice has an open neckline, center-front closure, and long, open sleeves.  The sleeves are lined in net, the rest of bodice in white polished cotton. The bodice closes with hooks and eyes on the lining layer, only. The neckline, sleeves, and jockeys are trimmed with puffs of self-fabric. That is, the trim is a single layer of the fabric, cut on grain, which has been lightly gathered top and bottom, and stitched down.

The lining fabric is shaped with two darts on each side front (boned), while the sheer fabric is lightly shirred at the front and back. The waistband edge was originally piped, but a self-fabric waistband was later added below this, probably at the same time that the seam side seams were let out to increase the waist measure by 3": these are the only alterations made the dress, and are a much later date based on the extra lining material (apparently a synthetic), and the quality of the stitching (very bad).  The original stitching is tiny and even, with running stitches joining most seams and securing the trim, back-stitches at stress points (shoulders, darts), and whip stitches finishing the shoulder seam allowances.

EK original 1850s dress skirt.
Fortunately, I have a decent amount of experience
wrangling mid-19th century dresses into archival boxes.
The skirt has a detached lining of white polished cotton; the fashion-fabric skirt has a sheer hem facing, and hem tape. The two skirt layers are knife-pleated together, and are whip-stitched to the waistband at 16 stitches/inch. The skirt is ~41" long ( I have not checked multiple points, yet, for insight into the balancing).

EK original 1850s dress skirt pleat detail.
I love the tiny, regular stitches,
even though my wrist just cramped up looking at them.

EK original 1850s dress skirt hem detail.
Hem tape on a sheer! And a sheer facing, which I did not expect.

EK original 1850s dress skirt lining detail.
The polished cotton skirt lining is only joined to the skirt at the waist.
It has a deep self-hem, with more exquisite running stitches.
These are my (awful) pictures, and my garment, so don't use them for commercial purposes. Educational and personal use? Please cite, link, and enjoy.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Starting Conversations

I've been musing a bit this summer about how to start conversations with visitors. I find it easy, now, to answer their questions, but when the visitor doesn't make that first overture, it's up to us interpreters to get things rolling. [If the questions you are getting seem less-than-helpful, check out Liz's post.] Although I'm arguably a professional, what follows are my own thoughts and reflections, rather than a guaranteed method of successfully initiating meaningful conversations. For fair warning, this post has also gotten ridiculously long over the two months I've been re-writing it.

General List of Things That Work

  • Greeting the visitor
  • Offering an explanation of the activity I'm undertaking
  • Asking about the visitor's experiences at the site or event
  • Calling artifacts/props to the visitor's attention (in character or in modern voice)

General List of Things That Do Not Work So Well

  • Acting scandalized by the visitors' clothing or deportment
  • Anything prefaced by "Did you know--"?
  • Pretending to be confused by cell phones and similar technology 
  • Melodrama
  • "Do you have any questions?"

Why I Think So

Greeting the visitors is an easy first step. I find a simple "Welcome", or "Good Morning/Afternoon/Day" to be very flexible--"Hi" and "Hello" also work, but for reasons of verisimilitude, I prefer not to use them in my current settings. Sometimes, that's all I need to do--the visitor will offer up a question or observation in response, and we've already begun a conversation.  More often, the greeting needs to be followed by one of my other techniques.  But, if nothing else, the greeting establishes that I am present, that I am not a mannequin (which has come up surprisingly often this summer), and that I'm available to talk. Singing to myself between groups can sometimes accomplish the first two (and amuse me while I wait for visitors), but I need to stop so that a conversation can start.

I'll often combine the greeting with another technique, to give the visitor more bearings about their situation, and provide context to prompt their questions. So, if they've walked in on me doing some work, I'll name the task, and either begin an explanation of it, or beg a moment's indulgence while I set it down.  I like to keep these short, and offer succinct facts that help the visitor contextualize what I'm doing, and what additional information they might want. Knitting socks, for instance, might lead into discussion of the people who would be wearing them, the materials they are made from, how I learned to knit, how people made or acquired clothing in the 1850s, how people kept warm in the 1850s.  Sometimes, the visitor will offer a statement in return ("My mom used to knit"), as they start to relate your historical pretension to their own lived experience--which is pretty cool and totally what we're about.

Similarly, I can point out an object that may be of interest to the audience, even if I'm not using it.  The curtains in the Tolmie house (Damask ordered from England, at a cost of over 5 pounds for 60 yards), is a favorite: it tends to start conversations about trade routes and the availability of goods, but also prompts conversations about social status, wealth, and currency.  In the store, I'll often overheard visitors reading the explanatory plaque aloud before entering the building; when this includes confusion about an item, I'll prepare to point out the lusterware dishes, Jew's harp (or jaw harp, a small musical instrument), or other object of interest. A favorite variant of mine is to greet the visitor, and suggest all of the things they may be interested in purchasing, as a softened version of an eager salesclerk (most of us react poorly to pushy sales pitches, so keep it light).
After the activity or object gambit (or instead), I'll try to ask the visitor a question; after all, this is a conversation, not a lecture. The idea with asking questions is to get the visitor comfortable talking to you, and to suss out what they want to hear more about--this isn't the place to pop quizzes (more on that later). Likewise, rhetorical questions aren't my favorites, because they don't tend to further the conversation. Answers do.

If I'm early on the itinerary (or just saw the group come in and turn towards my usually-later-in-the-experience station), I might try "Is this your first visit to [site]?" This gives me a chance to drop some necessary background information to first time visitors (such as that we're an HBC trading post, not a military fortress), which will reduce confusion during the rest of the visit. Returning visitors will often venture a remark on how often they've attend/when they were last here (a school field trip 30 years ago, the last living history event, the fundraiser concert a few years back), which gives me an opportunity to thank them, and to single out some attractions that may be new since their last visit, or special activities that are happening today, such as:
  • The current temporary exhibit
  • The renovation of a [now centerpiece] historic building, which occurred 15 yards ago (we do get visitors in who remember touring with a school group 20 or 30 years before)
  • Daily programming, like a visiting artisan's demonstration
  • The spaces currently being interpreted (blacksmith shop, kitchen, orchard, woodworking area, etc.), and that these are good places to ask any questions they think of while visiting
  • Where the restrooms are (it's a new-ish building)
  • Attractions and amenities suitable to the group's interests: a group with young children might be especially interested in the game area; making sure groups with strollers/wheels are finding the ramps, etc.
With children, I might try "Are you having fun?", and when they answer "yes", follow up with "what was your favorite thing you've seen so far?"  When they inevitably answer the chickens, or the bastion, or the games, I can validate the response and offer an interesting fact or two. ["Yes, there was one chicken taller than the others. His name is Buster, and he's the rooster.", "This house is also my favorite building.  When the Tolmies lived here, all three of their sons shared this bedroom."]

Other favorites include "What do you think of [current building]?", and "Does this [kitchen/bedroom/house] look like yours? (mostly a kid question). I've seen "Where are you folks from?" used very effectively to discuss travel times and transportation in the 1850s, leading into a discussion of the store's clientele, and shipment of goods.

With the exception of "Is this your first visit?" and "Are you having fun?", I try to avoid yes/no questions. A lot of people won't take this as an opportunity to start a conversation, as though they don't want to inconvenience the interpreter. While "Do you have any questions?" seems nice and broad, it's really too broad, and doesn't give the visitor much to work with.  When I've used it, I usually get "we're just looking", or "not really", which ends the conversation instead of starting it.  They people who have questions will manage to ask them.  In you must include it, establish the connection and conversation first, so that "Do you have any [more] questions" serves as a bridge between your proposed topics and the visitor's.

On the subject of other questions to avoid, I find "Did you know [fact]" to be inelegant, at best.  At worst, it can alienate your audience and undermine your credibility.  If you pick an obscure fact, the visitor may feel stupid or isolated; pick an easy one, and you're insinuating that they are ignorant; get it wrong, and you've absolutely destroyed any trust they had in you.  This can also happen if the 'fact' appears to reveal an agenda, or offers a overly-simplified view of a complex situation. [If you start a conversation with me by saying, "Did you know the Civil War was actually about states' rights?", you've just seriously undermined my trust in any information presented at your site.]

Other less helpful tactics includes haranguing the visitors about their modern clothing, and fussing about modern devices. Getting the vapors from women wearing pants, may successfully convey the idea that women in the 1850s wore dresses (with bonus points for miasma theory). You are also quite likely to have put your visitors on the defensive, making them less likely to ask questions or otherwise interact with you.  Really, any verbal prodding or teasing needs to prodding back--used on a case-by-case basis where the visitor has already indicated that this is how they want to communicate.  Getting back to the dress example, I have seen and played with a few variations on the theme of pants and dresses--taking the visitors for dress reformers, or trail emigrants, or simply people who must be here to buy fabric--but I try to keep it non-confrontational and focused on the information content. Less "Women in trousers! I will avert my eyes from this immodesty!", and more "Ah, you must by disciples of Mrs. Bloomer, or perhaps have adopted this costume for ease of travel. If you are looking for dress goods, we have a large selection of cotton prints and delaines..."  Even so, this method can be hit-or-miss.  Use with caution.

Time spent pretending you don't know what a cell phone is, is time in which you are not talking to the visitor about  the year you are trying to interpret. Except for the youngest children, the visitors already know cell phones didn't exist in the year 1855, and belaboring the point isn't adding anything to that knowledge. You will get people trying to 'trip' you up on occasion--I usually respond by answering a related, sincere question (Liz's post again). So, if they bring up cell phones, I might talk about telegraphs, letters, and the amount of time it takes to communicate across distances.  If I'm not in first-person, I might mention that telephones are over two decades in the future (and portable ones over a century).  If someone's really being snarky while I'm in character, I'll give them a smile and parse the Latin or Greek roots of the word ("Telephone--sound at a distance? That could be extremely useful, unless it's just a fancy term for "shouting").

Melodrama wastes everyone's time.  Even if you find a receptive audience, we mostly aren't professional actors, and we aren't working from professionally written scripts--there are plenty of media options which do it better.  The strength of living history lies in truth, and in the specific details we can present to the public. Let's focus on what we can uniquely do well, instead of mediocre dramatics.

Making stuff up? Just NO. Say that you don't know. Refer them to another person or a reference book. Validate the question and express interest in figuring it out. Answer the nearest related question you can. Offer what relevant information you do have. Retreating in shame and horror isn't very welcoming, but it's less of a disservice than lying to people who are trusting you. 

I'd also advise against co-opting other people's impressions: talking about what that interpreter over there is doing robs your colleague of the chance to do their own interpreting. Also, they can almost certainly do it better. While I could point out the basics of the carpenter's tools or the blacksmith's forge, the actual artisans can give more detailed and accurate information, as well as actually demonstrating. I shouldn't spoil their audience.  And on the other side, as a textile interpreter, I really don't need another person making up facts about my clothing and crafts.  Given the choice between lying to the public or contradicting another interpreter...well, I don't do the former, but we just lost credibility either way.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Two Victorian Shirts (Past Patterns #011)

Revisiting Past Patterns #007, after a fashion, with two shirts made from its updated view B, aka pattern #011.

Shirt the first:
Linen shirt for 1850s 1860s reenacting, from Past Patterns #011.
Linen shirt

And shirt the second:

Cotton shirt for 1850s 1860s reenacting, from Past Patterns #011.
Cotton shirt.

The first shirt is made entirely from linen, the second from pimatex cotton.  At the request of the wearer, I made a few alterations to the basic pattern:

  • Reducing the length by ~8".  Last time I made this up, the recipient also requested it be shortened.
  • Using all one fabric (calls for linen bosom and cuffs, with the rest of the shirt in cotton)
  • Adding a third button at the top of the pleated bosom. The cravat, in theory, holds the collar in place, but after trying the first shirt out, the wearer requested an extra button at the top to stabilize things.
  • For the cotton shirt, the collar was lengthened.
Thoughts on this pattern:

Generally, I like this pattern. The shirt has a good shape, and there's some customization options presented (alternatives to the center front pleats), with citations.  It's also copied from an original shirt, with all the instructions for hand-sewing it. That being said, the pattern is not without it's quirks--such as the tiny triangles pieced into the sleeve, which serve no discernible purpose* except for making the seam hard to fell.  The instructions are mostly clear about each step, but there are times when additional information would be useful. For instance, it's never specified where the front bosom pieces should lap left over right or right over left; the pleats themselves are to be basted, but no future step mentions permanently stitching the pleats or removing the basting thread.

Twice I've made it up, and struggled to get everything cut from the allowed material; the third time, I had a lot left over.  For future use, instead of following the pattern envelop guides, I would establish the wearer's preferred length in advance, and then lay out all the pattern pieces to determine the amount of material needed.

*These are not gores for increasing mobility at the shoulder: they attach flat the sleeve, to make it more of a trapezoid shape. The same result can be achieved by overlapping the pattern pieces and cutting out the sleeve as one piece (less seam allowances). My only guess is that the original garment was pieced due to fabric limitations.