Friday, October 17, 2014

Experiential History: Moving in Long Skirts and Dropped-Shoulder Dresses

Crinolines (1863) by Eugene-Louis Boudin
Crinolines (1863) by Eugene-Louis Boudin

This is branch off of my corset musings; typing up the list, I realized that most of my reduced/changed movements involved not my corset, but rather limited limb mobility.

Long skirts are the big thing.  Except for one formal outfit, I don't think I've ever worn an ankle- or floor-length gown for modern attire.  In my living history wardrobe, the shortest work dress is barely above the ankle (the dress reform outfit is still in the planning stage).  Take a long step and you wind up standing on your hem. Climb the stairs too quickly--same thing.  Haven't had the chance to climb a ladder yet, but...  

What to do?  Use one hand to slightly raise the front of your skirt when ascending steps (lift 'up', don't push the fabric towards you); take small steps; 'kick' the hem past your foot as you walk; slow down so you have time to notice if you tread on your hem; look up as you go (bending forward lowers the front of your skirt). Walking around puddles or into the chicken coop, I find that gathering my skirt fabric to the sides with my hands (and raising the excess above the ankle) keeps it from sweeping into the muck.  Haven't tried a skirt lifter, but that might be a good project for the winter.  Raising your dress skirt and letting the petticoats take the damage is an acceptable and document-able period option.

One thing about bouncing between 1855 and 1861-5 is the difference between billowing skirts supported by hoop-steel, and billowing skirts supported by other skirts.  With hoops, you need to allow them to collapse and compress when sitting down or moving through a narrow space--and take into account that displacement.  You can sit gracefully on a bench, stool, side chair, or sofa in hoops provided you take enough time to left your skirts settle.  Sitting in an armchair doesn't work so well--those hoops need to spread out and for want of space will stick up awkwardly.  Similarly, you can just walk through the narrow doorway or between the row of dancers--provided there's space before and behind for your hoops.

Sans hoop, petticoats can collapse inward--allowing you to sit in the armchair.  They don't stand out quite as far as a hoop (at least not with the number I'm using--having tried no more than 4 at a time), so your area of effect can be much tighter.  I've still managed to knock over chairs by turning too quickly, but I have to be closer to them for that to happen.

In either case, long skirts get much more manageable with practice.  At this point, I'm so used to the petticoats that I only really think about them when dealing with novel situations--walking is second nature, climbing stairs nearly so.  I haven't done as much dancing, though, so there's some care necessary to avoid tripping myself.  Switch back to the hoop, and suddenly I'm re-learning otherwise intuitive movement, like gauging space around strangers, or remembering not bend over to pick up an object when standing at the top of a staircase.

The dropped shoulder seams of mid-century clothing also poses some challenges, but these I find don't become easier with practice.  The seams lay below the shoulder, sometimes as far as the upper bicep, and are fit fairly snug.  On my ballgown bodice, this prevents me from raising my arms past shoulder height (tricky when dancing with tall gents).  My work dresses have slightly higher/looser armscythes, but still don't allow the full range of movement that loose modern clothing does.  Opening the windows in Ft. Nisqually's period kitchen is almost impossible for me--I'm short, and the hooks are at my maximum modern reach.  So, what to do?

In matters of reaching, I can find something to stand on, or ask a taller person to assist.  In dancing, I can adjust my frame and trust my partner to compensate.  I can style my hair before putting on my dress (it's possible to do so later, though not always so easy).  Very little is actually impossible, though I've come to appreciate that servants may be a necessary convenience--other people can do the reaching for you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Experiential History: Living in a Corset

When I started reenacting/doing living history, I was looking for a reason to dress up.  Over time that rationale has morphed into dressing up as a way to teach others about history (creating 'the look' of a time), and--as I've lately come to realize--to teach myself more about how people lived and performed various activities.

Exhibit A: Wearing a Corset.
Corset from Der Bazar, February 1865

When I started living history, I expected to be somewhat hampered by the clothing: that I'd need to learn a different way of moving, and that some activities would be difficult or even impossible.  As it turns out, very little is impossible (no back bends), and the operative d-word is actually 'different'.   

Even among living historians corsets have a reputation as uncomfortable, problematic, or even downright dangerous.  They've been out of mainstream wear for a good 3 generations, leaving a nebulous mythology of Scarlet O'Hara's tight-lacing, professional invalids, professionals of another sort, and 'fainting couches'.* I've seen visitors (who had just commented on the group's good posture) visibly flinch when it's mentioned that the ladies present are, in fact, wearing corsets.  Others have assumed that I'm not wearing one because I'm doing 'X' activity, or that women of the period didn't do 'X' because of corsets, or that corsets of the period must be different from the one I'm wearing because I can do 'X' while wearing it.  (For the record, the following list is largely based off my experience wearing 1850s/1860s corsets--either gored or shaped-seam styles--which are somewhat shorter in the torso and less heavily boned than some other time periods).

Activities I have done while wearing a corset:
  1. Dance (ballroom, contra, swing...)
  2. Cook over a fire or on a stove
  3. Split kindling with an ax
  4. Start a fire
  5. Sing
  6. Pick apples
  7. Scale a low fence
  8. Jog/run (not recommended)
  9. Wait at table
  10. Move furniture
  11. Shoot arrows (also tried throwing a tomahawk once, but I'm apparently very bad at it)
  12. Nap
  13. Eat
  14. Dig potatoes
  15. Play games (rolling hoop is a bit tricky, see #8)
  16. Strike tents
  17. Act in a theatrical
  18. Drive a car
  19. Style hair (own or others)
  20. Help others to dress
  21. Ride the bus
  22. Jump over puddles
  23. Tie my shoes**
Things that I can't do in a corset:
  1. Slouch
  2. Overeat
  3. Some Yoga poses
'No slouching' is the really noticeable bit, in my opinion.  It can be bit weird and somewhat tiring to sit up straight all the time--and it makes modern car and movie theater seats really annoying, as leaning backward isn't comfortable--but the corset also provides ample back support.  I can and have sat down to elaborate dinners in period dress, and enjoyed many of the delicacies offered, but learned that you need to take small portions if you want to try everything.  You can even do a number of yoga poses while wearing a corset--just not all of the ones involving lots of torso flexibility (though I can still touch my toes).  

In all cases, the different ways of moving become more intuitive with practice.  You can't bend much at the waist, so you bend at the knees when tying your shoes or lifting an object. You walk briskly rather than running because it's easy to get out of breath (though, even with snug laces I can sing or do moderate exercise without trouble). Stretching to pluck an apple is no problem--from the corset at least, dropped armscythes are another issue.  Straight-back period chairs are actually really comfortable when your only option to sit up straight. 

The other thing that gets easier with practice is actually wearing the thing.  When I was dressing 5+ days a week this summer, I found myself getting dressed a bit faster each time.  The 'comfortable snugness' also changed with practice: I adjust my laces based on feel rather than measurement, and by the end of July most of my dresses were getting loose at the waist because my comfortably laced corset was tighter than it had been in June.

For a while there, not wearing a corset actually started feeling really strange; I remember taking a walk one day and just feeling really weird about my posture and carriage, only to realize that it was the just second time in ten days that I'd been in modern attire. It was certainly a different perspective: not so much 'liberated' as 'awkward and somewhat exposed'. A feeling shared, I imagine, by those dress-reformers who went without stays (not all of them did) in the 1850s, by some of the women adopting the early regency/directoire fashions of the late 1790s, and by many young women after WWI.

The only time I've found a corset really uncomfortable is when I've laced it too tightly (not worth, won't repeat), or when a bone works it's way loose and started poking me in the hip or shoulder.  Bits of metal hurt.  The plastic's better in that respect--my first two corsets had plastic boning--but in all other ways, 1/4" spring steel really is more comfortable.  It gives better support than featherlight or zip ties, and is much less bulky than the latter.

One thing that's stayed true over time: however comfortable a corset is to wear, however good the support (think your favorite bra times about a million), taking it off always feels really nice.

*The true purpose of a chaise lounge is, of course, posing dramatically.  For maximum effect, clutch at your pearl necklace with one hand, while dramatically holding the other up to your forehead. Employ smelling salts as desired.

**Nonetheless, I prefer to take care of my shoes and hair first when getting dressed in period attire, particularly the shoes

Monday, October 6, 2014

HFF #10: Let Them Eat Cake

The Challenge: Make a cake.

The Recipe: Lemon Cake with Almond Icing from Mrs. Beeton's.

Date/Year & Region: 1861, British

How Did You Make It:  Separated 10 eggs; beat the whites, then added orange-flower water, 1.5 cups granulated sugar, minced lemon rind, and mixed well.  Stirred the juice of 1 lemon into the 10 egg yokes and added to the preceding mixture.  Slowly stirred in 3 cups of flour.  Baked in an oiled bundt pan for 55-60 minutes at 350F.

For the icing, whipped 4 egg whites (used pasteurized egg whites since this is to be served uncooked), added 4 cups powdered sugar, about 1 tsp almond extract and 1 tsp rosewater.  Poured over cake (letting it set made the icing runny), and garnished with fresh lemon wedges (Friday) or strips of candied peel (Saturday).

Time to Complete: About 90 minutes.

Total Cost: Uncertain.  Probably on the order of $6.

How Successful Was It: It seemed well received.  The cake came out a bit dark, having been cooked in an aluminum pan--the closest one I had to a period cake tin.  It was also a little bit dense, which I'm attributing to the lack of chemical leavening.  The lemon, almond and rosewater flavors were very interesting together, and I think I would use this recipe again.  However, I would not make the icing early as it became very viscous.

How Accurate Was It: Fairly.  I already mentioned the "make do" pan; again, I used converted volume measures instead of weights.  In the icing, pasteurized egg whites were an intentional decision, as was using almond extract instead of grinding up almonds in rosewater--which I considered, but dismissed because I had a lot of other things which needed to be done (this being part of my first big dinner).  Using an electric mixer was also a compromise, but I'm not quite mad enough to voluntarily beat than many egg whites by hand.

Separated eggs, egg whites beaten until fluffy.
So many eggs...
Batter for Victorian lemon cake in pan.
The yellow color is actually from the eggs, not the lemon...
Baked cake.
All baked!
Plated cake.
The other side is a little darker.
Lemon cake with almond (glaze) icing and lemon wedges.
Garnished with lemon wedges on Friday night.
Lemon cake with almond glaze and candied peel.
Saturday's cake has candied lemon peel on top.

HFF Challenge #9: The Frugal Housewife

The Challenge: Frugal cooking.  Unfortunately, the dinner party I cooked over the weekend didn't quite fit the bill (budgeting was a factor, but I didn't have historical documentation); instead, it's time to play with leftovers.

The Recipe: Fried Squash from Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book

Date/Year & Region: 1846, American (used the 5th edition, 1871)

How Did You Make It: Took a few pieces of boiled squash leftover from dinner, and fried in a small amount of butter.  Salt added to taste

Time to Complete: Less than 10 minutes.

Total Cost: N/A. Used leftovers only.

How Successful Was It: Tasted like squash.  It's hard to go wrong with butter and salt.

How Accurate Was It: Followed the instructions as given.

Squash in cast iron frying pan.

Dinner Party Menu: Candlelight Tour (scroll down for pictures)

Washington Territory. Early October, 1855.

At the Hudson Bay Company's Fort Nisqually, Chief Trader W. F. Tolmie is entertaining a few friends with a dinner party.  Dr. and Mrs. Tolmie have many reasons to celebrate: their beautiful new house was completed in April, their fourth child--named James--was born in early September, and now word has come from London that Dr. Tolmie is being promoted to Chief Factor.  Mrs. Tolmie's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Work, have been visiting; very soon, Mrs. Work and her younger daughters will be returning to Fort Victoria, while Mr. Work proceeds proceeds to Olympia, the territorial capital, on business.     

For menu formatting, I consulted Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1860), What Shall We Have For Dinner? by Lady Maria Cutterbuck (1852), Eliza Leslie's New Receipts For Cooking(1854), and a selection of Godey's Bills of Fare reproduced in Civil War Recipes by Lily May and John Spaulding.

General Meal Outline (for a dinner party, according to Mrs. Beeton):

  • First Course: 1-2 soups and 1-4 fish or seafood dishes (for parties from 6 to 18)
  • Entree: 2-4 Meat dishes (one may be substituted for fowl, fish, or a vegetable dish)
  • Second Course: 1-2 Meat and 1-4 Fowl dishes, plus vegetables
  • Third Course (Entrements): 1 or more Fowl Dishes, 5+ puddings, jellies and sweet dishes; for larger groups add a meat dish, a seafood dish and/or a salad
  • Desserts ("and Ices" for parties of 8+) 

For the larger groups, some of these dishes are "removes" which replace an earlier dish in the same course: ie, the Beeton first course for a party of 18 reads something like "Soup-1, removed by Fish-Q, Soup-2, removed by Shellfish-A, Fish-X, Fish-Z".

Many other sources do not delineate the course numbers, but follow a similar outline (soups, fish, meat, fowl, puddings, dessert).  For example, on page 386, Miss Leslie gives an autumn dinner menu (for company): "Mock turtle soup; stewed rock-fish; roasted ham; boiled fowls; stewed ducks; fried rabbits; stuffed egg plant; broccoli and eggs; fried artichokes; stewed mushrooms; potatoe [sic] snow; sweet potatoes--Chocolate pudding; meringued apples; cake syllabub; peach ice-cream."   One thing I'm not sure of is whether this presentation is a way of saving space ('everyone know we mean "serve the fish and soup as the first course, then the ham and fowls, then the..."') or whether the authors expected all of the dishes to be on the table from the start.

The number of dishes in a given meal varies wildly as well; though Miss Leslie didn't specify a number of people for her 16-dish dinner with guests (compare to her 'family supper' of 1 meat dish, 4-5 veggies, and a pudding), Lady Clutterbuck's menus for a party of 8-10 persons range from 8 to 33 dishes.  Mrs. Beeton stays a bit more consistent, with each non-dessert course averaging 1 dish per 2 persons (or five dishes per course for a party of 10).

When I've attended a period dinner served ala Francais, all the main courses were on the table at the outset; servants brought soup to each person and removes were used to replace certain dishes as they emptied.  This was at a ball, so a dance set between dinner and dessert allowed the table to be reset and re-supplied.  Standing buffets (as in Beeton's "cold ball supper") also mix the dishes of 'different courses' freely.  The only time I've seen the course distinction maintained in practice, was while serving at dinners ala Russe, in which each course was plated up in the kitchen, and then served to the individual guest (this is a little different from Beeton's version, in which the guests select their dishes from a menu, and servers fill each plate at a side board containing the dishes).  Which all goes to say, that while I wish I could find explicit documentation for mingling courses 1-3 and the entrees on a table, I feel comfortable enough with the ambiguity to go ahead with it, as the best option for handling a dinner party with few servants, little local staging space, and a long walk to the kitchen.

And so, a (simplified) Bill of Fare for a party of 10 in October:

Dinner (courses served more-or-less concurrently)
"First Course"
Soups: Mullagatawny Soup (sample receipt; Thornhill has his own methods)

Pork Cutlets (prepared by Mrs. Repp) with Tomato Sauce
Beef Fricandeau (prepared by Trapper Dave, Mrs. Rowan)
Potatoes (German Method)

"Second Course"
Roast Goose (prepared by Mrs. Keller-Scholtz) with Apple Sauce
Savoury Vegetable Pie
Boiled Kale 
Boiled Beetroot with Onions

"Third Course"
Chicken Salad
Damson Pudding (used yellow plums, Suet Crust); day 2: Melons
Flanc of Apple
Raspberry Cream (using raspberry jelly)

Company rises and table is re-set

Dish of Fruit (Grapes, apples, plums, pears)
Dish of Nuts  (Hazelnuts, walnuts)
Lemon Cake
Pumpkin Pudding
Chocolate Cream
Baked Apple Custard

Number of meat dishes reduced to meet budgetary restrictions and to take maximum advantage of the heirloom foods produced on site (including kale, golden beets, squash, melons, pumpkin, cucumber, yellow plums, citron, apples, potatoes, and eggs).  Note that vegetarian recipes were available during the mid-19th century.

And finally, the pre-event pictures.  Professional photos were also taken during the event proper.
Long table set for 10 with Spode Blue Italian dishes.
The Factor's House Dining Room, table setting by Mrs. Keller-Sholtz

Blue Italian place settings and soup tureen; candlesticks.
Fort Nisqually's Beautiful Blue Italian Dinner Service
Victorian pumpkin pudding and plum pudding.
Pumpkin and plum puddings for Friday night

Side board with dishes: raspberry cream, apple custard, lemon cake.
Friday Sideboard Close-up, including raspberry cream, apple custard, beets, bread, and lemon cake 
Sideboard dishes: flanc of apple, kale, cheese.
Friday Sideboard: apple custard, beets, bread, lemon cake, flanc of apple, kale, and cheese

Slice Prescott melon and faux wine.
Lemon cake, sliced melon, and decanters of faux wine

Side board with vegetable pie, chicken salad, boiled beets.
Saturday Sideboard Selections, including raspberry cream, flanc of apple, pumpkin pudding, apple custard, vegetable pie, chicken salad, beets, kale, apple sauce and tomato sauce (in pitcher); cheese behind the rightmost candle