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.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't it interesting to think how visible one's social status was based upon one's clothing? Today it is tougher to tell how much a person makes based on their clothing, but 150 years ago no only did materials and tailoring change, but the necessity of servants in getting dressed, and in doing daily activities would have been very apparent to one's peers.


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