This is a photo diary of my costuming "travels"; where I've learned and struggled to make historical costumes for myself. They're not always pretty, but always fun. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

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My name is Val. I'm a Past President & member of the San Diego Costume Guild, and Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of it.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Friday, June 26, 2015

The Bloomer Dresses of San Diego & Peterboro, NY, Meet At Last

I just returned from my trip back to Williamsburg for the ALHFAM Conference at the William & Mary College, and I still can’t believe it happened. Mostly I can’t believe that my co-presenter, Jody Luce and I got to meet in person and hear each other’s voice after a few years of emailing back and forth and sharing information about both our passions. We even celebrated the anniversary of first becoming friends on Facebook while we were there. She and Melanie (one of her Bloomer Brigade in Peterboro, NY) drove 9 hours to attend the conference just to do this one class with me. Jody portrays Elizabeth Smith Miller (the original lady who wore the short dress with Turkish trousers) and even lives in her historic home. Prior to my contacting the historical society there, knowledge of these two dresses were unknown to each other.
Most exciting to both of us was the bringing together from opposite coasts these two historic and unique garments related to an important time in women’s history in the 1850s, the Women’s Rights Movement, and a garment that would influence women’s dress in the decades to follow to this day.

Neither Jody nor I knew each other’s style of presenting our stories, so we both enjoyed seeing and watching each other tell them. I learned a few new things from her on the bloomer dress: that it was mostly a very stylish and fashionable dress, rather than a utilitarian one that I was leaning towards.  And later versions that I *thought* were bloomers, were actually more of a coat with men’s style pants, similar to those worn during the Civil War. But the idea of wearing pants remained as the focus. The “bloomer-style” dresses were short-lived just barely into the 1860s, with the advent of the crinoline hoopskirt, with possibly one “late bloomer” in the early 1880s by Marietta Stow. The rest were mostly gymnastic costumes or bathing garments.
Our arrival for our presentation at the W&A was rather confusing. I never met anyone on the day of registration. I found the college information desk with two students, asked where I go to pick up my papers, and was told they had it. So I got those, along with an ALHFAM-logo tote bag with a metal water bottle. And I left. The conference and classrooms are scattered all over the campus and I had a hard time finding anything even with a map since the buildings mostly were not marked that we could tell. We had to scout out the place the day before just so we could find out where we were going to be at. I didn’t attend any classes or dinners because I was only in Williamsburg for a few days and had friends I wanted to visit. So I may have been able to talk to more people if I’d done that. But considering I didn’t know anyone there I would have felt out of place. Also, I found out later the majority of attendees are not students or costumers there to learn but managers and directors of living history museums who share and learn how to run their locations. At least that’s the impression and knowledge that I picked up. I did meet a couple attendees who I would actually consider students but that was it. I was kind of a fish in the wrong pond there. I did make it clear at the beginning of my presentation that I was a costume interpreter, not a reenactor, nor an expert in any field. I simply wanted to share these dresses and the wonderful bits of history related to women.

We had a nice classroom, and it was comfortable, considering it was horribly hot, almost 100d and a closely matched humid outside, and being in full costume made it harder on us. Both Jody and Melanie and I were dressed in our favorite bloomer outfits. Right there I wanted to say our gowns, but I was told by one of the attendees in class that I shouldn’t use that term and it wasn’t used back then. I had been using it to clarify that this was a dress not underwear whenever bloomers were brought up, but from now on, I’m to use dress or costume. These were also known as the American Costume. The room was already set up with a computer, projector and screen so all we had to do was plug in my thumb drive and we were off. I brought my green silk dress I recreated from the one held in the San Diego History Center's costume collection, using the Past Patterns pattern I had, and displayed it on a dress form. Jody brought the black wool one from the Cortland County Historical Society in NY, and laid that out on a table to show it to everyone. That one was definitely a show-stopper as it was an original one, compared to my re-creation, and it was beautifully embellished with velvet appliqued leaves and berries. The skirt has trimming all down the front and around the hem. The bloomers are gathered at the ankles with a repeated trim. The jacket was the prettiest part. It has a lapel collar, and closes at the waist and spreads open below. The trimming was repeated on it too. Most likely a blouse or chemisette was worn under it. The dress had been discovered stored inside a steamer trunk in the basement of a bank which had closed, and only found when it was purchased by another bank years later. But it still remained there for years until a historical society took possession of it. It had the name of the owner and was dated. But nothing else is known about it. I really enjoyed hearing that story.
The story behind our San Diego dress was that it had originally been made as a full length dress when it came to CA, between 1848-50. About 1851, the owner, who was also known, after seeing the reports on the bloomer dresses in NY, had it shortened and her bloomers were made using that cut-off portion. In a diary her niece stated that she was never seen wearing it on the streets.
Another surprise I had about the NY bloomer was that it also was a split drawer design of pants, although it differed from the SD one in that it buttoned at the waist on both sides where the back opened down, but was split to the front like drawers. When this was shared with the class, it caused a lot of excitement and questions about why this was so. We had one gentleman in the class and he asked a lot of questions because in his own presentations, he said he’s asked quite often about these things. I even “demonstrated” in a lady-like way, how the split drawers are convenient. We told him since ladies didn’t talk or write about their underpinnings, it’s mainly supposition why these particular bloomers were made as split drawers but from a female point of view, it made sense that since you’re already wearing split drawer underwear you wouldn’t necessarily want to prevent their usage by wearing a closed pant over them. Another supposition that Jody and I both have is there weren’t any patterns immediately available for making bloomers so they used what was at hand.
Our attendees to the class were very interested and asked a lot of questions, so that was very satisfying. I had brought brochures from the San Diego History Center that Gabe Selak had given me, along with postcards, and they were picked up. Also some of my business cards and info on my blog were taken too. Jody brought framed original bloomer artwork and music sheets. Jody and I are both hoping that word gets out about these gowns and maybe others will come to light. At least we hope these two will get some more attention and people will contact their prospective museums.

My main disappointment with this conference, other than the confusion, is that my former co-presenter, Pam Poulin, who had first pushed me into doing this with her and then suddenly disappeared, still has her name with mine on the ALHFAM website. I was promised that even if that wasn’t changed, it wouldn’t be in the student handouts and Jody’s would be there. I heard one lady said when she saw Pam’s name, she wasn’t going to attend. But when she walked by the room and saw Jody’s instead, she came in. And she was glad she did. Considering I was hearing Pam has quite a reputation for being half-baked, I now wonder how many others didn’t attend either. I would have preferred distancing myself from her, and getting Jody the recognition she so deserves. I found out there is a program book produced later on from this conference with information on each class and given to the students. They’re going to get an earful, and I’m going to make damn sure they get THAT right.  *Rant over*
*Edited to add* I got my package in the mail today that I had mailed to myself from Williamsburg with all my class papers, and found the student handbook, and it DID have Jody’s name in it. All is well.*
And speaking of that program booklet, we heard we’re supposed to write an essay to be included in it from our class, with documentation. EEK!   No one told me anything about this but given how the rest of it went, I’m not surprised.  I haven’t the vaguest idea of what they want so I hope someone tells me, or gives me examples of what to do.
I want to send out big hugs to Jody and Melanie, for coming to my rescue, and making this all possible. I love that I am now part of their Bloomer Brigade and hope we bring more ladies to it.
As an after-effect of doing this, I now want to make a new bloomer dress (darn, still wanted to say gown) in a prettier fabric and have straight sleeves because I’ve always hated those clumsy pagoda sleeves.
In case you wanted to see that beautiful bloomer dress from Peterboro, here are some close-up photos I took of it. It was a three piece outfit right down to the matching tiny little shoes. 

I came home to a very happy kitty, who has been letting us know all day and ALL night just how happy she is. I can’t complain. I missed her too. 


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My connection on Facebook

As a last minute thing, since I still have one hour before I leave for the airport and head to Williamsburg, I created a Facebook page for my blog. This may make it easier for people to comment that have trouble with Blogger's interface.
So if you're on FB and you want a quicker route to my blog, here you go. The banner is the same as the one here so it should be familar.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


That’s a play on words as I haven’t actually left for Williamsburg, VA, yet but it’s only 21 more days till I leave and 5 days after that I’ll be presenting my program on bloomer gowns at the ALHFAM conference at the William & Mary College.  
 A few things have changed since this first came up last November when I was asked to co-present a class with a contact I had at John Hopkins University, who had originally helped me with information on Amelia Bloomer, and introduced me around on the internet to various historical societies in search of the elusive bloomer gowns. We spent months emailing back and forth planning our class and sending the proposal to the conference committee. It wasn’t until the end of February that we heard it was accepted, and then I had to scramble to apply for a Fellowship or pay a large amount of money to attend it. That was a surprise to me, since I thought I was just coming to do the class. Although in retrospect now, I found out I could have actually done that, but the process of applying for the Fellowship, and writing a resume for myself, and then asking around for any recommendations from my contacts, was a surprising, humbling, and uplifting experience. Even better, it was accepted and I was awarded the Fellowship. So now it was really real.
Last month we began in earnest to pull together our information and bounce ideas around of what order to speak, and what to speak about or not. It seemed to be getting confusing to me, and it was hard, being as she was on the East coast, and phone calls with her had no continuity in her ideas. I was starting to wonder if I wasn’t as educated as she was, and was doubting how this was going to work. During one email we were “arguing” over the center point of our talk, where she wanted Amelia Bloomer as the focus, whereas I wanted the bloomer gowns to be. In our last email I had sent her my resume, and the two recommendations I’d received to send in for my Fellowship, since I hadn’t done that before. Shortly after that I picked up my mail and had the Fellowship check in my hand, a goodly amount. Yes!! Not more than 15 minutes later, I received an email from her saying, “I’m sorry, something has come up. I’m unable to present, nor attend the conference. You’ll be fine on your own.”  No explanation, and nothing further. What?? What just happened?? No!!
In the following hours, I was panicked. After all this work, and nothing? I was embarrassed. It was already announced on the ALHFAM conference website. I couldn’t let them down. How would that make me look? I wailed on Facebook with my friends, and got so much support and encouragement that yes, I COULD still do this on my own. I contacted the Program Director, who had also received a terse email from my co-presenter without any explanation, and told her I could still do this but needed some changes made to the class description. When I had seen the measly two sentence class description in the online program my former co-presenter had written, I was again embarrassed comparing it to the wonderful ones others had written for theirs.  And sadly we wouldn’t have the extant bloomer gown from New York that my co-presenter was going to bring down with her. The Director was very helpful and said it could be done but had to be done quickly. So I sent this in, and am proud of it, although it was too late to change the title that was originally given to them.


Valarie LaBore, San Diego Costume Guild & San Diego History Center
There are only two known extant examples of mid-19th century bloomer dresses in the U.S. This session will explore their history and function, and the story behind the interesting women who wore them and made history. Beginning as a dress reform and symbol of women’s rights in the 1850s, bloomers influenced future dress styles and gave freedom to women in the following decades. Styles included fashionable dresses to those worn working in the home and in the fields. A surprising number of real photographs showing women dressed in them will be shared.  Come and hear the story of the one recreated from the San Diego History Center’s collection, and get a hands-on look at the dress. *An extant bloomer gown may be on exhibit if available*

In the original description, she had only said “two known extant examples of mid-19th c. bloomers”. And we all know people are already saying, “Wait! There’s lots of bloomer examples out there!” I came across that problem a lot while doing my search. She didn’t clarify that we were talking about bloomer DRESSES, not underwear, as that term came in later referring to them. I’m also proud of the fact that I fit in them being worn working in the home and fields, as this group is comprised of living history museums, and many are homes and farms.
So I began to re-group and re-do the slideshow I’d been working on, trying to figure out how to extend it another 45 minutes on my own. A few days later, the Calvary arrived in the form of Jody Luce from Peterboro, NY, a well-known person who portrays Elizabeth Smith Miller, the original “bloomer lady”. Jody and I had spent a lot of time conversing back and forth a few years ago when I first began researching the bloomer gowns and had a lot of information that she shared with me. She said she would be able to bring the extant bloomer gown down from the Cortland Historical Society, and would bring one of her ladies, Melanie Martin, from her “Bloomer Brigade” to help support me. I was able to get permission from the Program Director for that.
 As we talked, we began to realize that she would be a great replacement for my missing partner, and in my opinion now, an even better one. So I sent in an all new description that would include Jody and the extant gown.     *Jody’s Bloomer Brigade in Peterboro, NY*
I was also asked to represent our San Diego History Center and can include that and their logo in my title and business cards that I’ll be handing out. I also received flyers from the Center to bring with me. Heck, this was getting better all the time!
Jody and I had to wait a few weeks to hear back from the Program Director on all these changes, as she had to bring it before the entire board. But we were successful, and things are on track again. Jody and one of her “Bloomer Brigade” ladies are driving down from NY, and will be staying with us a couple days at our timeshare in Williamsburg, but will only be there for the one class that day.
We began reworking what we would be speaking on, and as confusing as the first time was, this time it seems perfectly clear to me. She knows more about ES Miller, and Amelia, and the dress reform movement than I do. Then we move into the historical slideshow of real photos showing women wearing them; then my story behind the bloomer pattern and the extant gown in San Diego. At the end we’ll be inviting the class attendees up to view the extant gown and my re-creation of the San Diego bloomer. Sooooo much easier this time.

I decided I need to include these two photos of Jody and I. They were taken at different times when we did our bloomer presentations on opposite coasts but the chances of us both wearing a walking boot on our left leg was just hilarious! 
Next up is doing some repairs on my original bloomer gown that had some errors in construction, since at the time I didn’t have a complete pattern to work off of, or directions. I didn’t know how to do dog-leg closures with the bodice and skirt attached to each other, and since I didn’t want to sew individual hooks and eyes all the way down the front of the bodice, I did a cheat and used hook & eye tape. Except I didn’t know how to do that either. I hand-sewed it to the underside of the front flaps and not in the seams like you’re supposed to. I thought I could repair that but realized there was no way I could open up the seams now with all the trim sewn on. So I took the tape off and am now sewing those period correct hooks & eyes on. And I “solved” the problem I had of the watch pocket that was too far back on the side-seam to be functional. Now that I had a complete pattern with directions I discovered I had it on the wrong side-seam. There is another seam closer to the front, and I had sewn the regular pocket there. So I took them out and reversed their positon.
I thought I would have to make new bloomer pants for my brown cotton outfit that I’m going to be wearing since the legs were too short but after trying them on and doing a bit of finagling on the cuffs, they are now wide enough to go over my boot tops as they should. I’ll get to wear my new Robert Land black boots, and I found a straw hat I like better to wear but it needs some trim put on it. 
On top of all this, Costume College is looming ahead, and I had at least three things I wanted to make for it. I have one just barely started, and definitely need to finish that for our Polka Dot Parade theme some of us are doing. I may end up wearing my 1914 purple plaid cotton dress that’s almost done, and I have another 1905 outfit that was close to being done, so maybe that should be yelling for some conclusion and be worn too. I doubt there will be anything fancy made for Gala night. I’m losing the two weeks I’ll be in Williamsburg and am just too slow to do much else. So I’ll be digging in my closet for something.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FASHION SHOW: A Day in the Life of Queen Victoria; 1837-1900

This past weekend I put on another fashion show for the Alpine Women’s Club fundraising tea after being asked last year if we would do it again. Well of course we would! But I wanted to come up with another theme rather than just the usual timeline. I have a folder that I write ideas down for future themes, and one of them was life during Queen Victoria’s time. It would somehow have to relate to the changing dress styles but also include what was going on with the ladies during that time. And it would be during Queen V’s reign of 1837-1900, so the dress styles would be in that time period.
I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey so that came into play also. In my mind I pictured the manor house with visitors, parties, and of course the butler. The first “educational” bit I wanted to put in was about the use of calling cards, and having the butler announce each visitor/model as they arrived with their calling card. The various activities the upper class ladies would do in the home besides visiting or receiving friends, were included too, like afternoon tea, needlework, reading, and painting. And later there would be a scene in the dressing room where new styles of dress and millinery would be shown using fashion plates, and of course live models. Since my plan this time was to have “scenes” and have the ladies stay onstage and seated each time after their presentation, I could only put five of us at the most on the small stage at a time.

I looked through Pinterest for photos of Victorian parlours to give me an idea of how I wanted the stage decorated. Even though Victorian is usually busy with lots of niknaks, I needed to keep it a little more sparse so as not to distract from the models. This was my idea I went off of; a small round table that would hold teapot and teacups, and a large poster I purchased of Queen Victoria and mounted on poster board. And I pulled out some Boston ferns and containers I had stored away for some greenery. For the dressing room scene, we would replace the tea items with a bonnet and a couple fashion plates.

While setting everything up the day before the show, I walked to the back of the room to see how it looked and if everything was visible from there, and then took multiple photos, moving things around until I was satisfied. Except I didn’t like how plain the table was looking. Originally I was offered a Tiffany lamp to put there, but I was afraid we would knock it over moving around with our big skirts, or stepping on a tablecloth, so I declined it. I ended up putting a vase together with peacock feathers to place there. If I’d had more time I would have looked for a cheap Chinese vase but at a distance this would suffice. I thought this was very Victorian.

We all remembered last year at this time, it had been 105d during our set-up, and the next day “cooled” down to 95d. So we were not at all unhappy that this year it was raining, and would only be 63d the day of the show.
I spent about a month writing drafts of the narration for this show, including all the ladies dress descriptions. Since we only have a half hour I have to keep the descriptions to 1- 1 1/2 mins each, and I time myself reading each one to make sure I can get it all into the time limit. It also has to flow into each transition.
We have a wonderful gentleman we’re able to use during the show, our Narrator Nancy’s husband, Russell, who helps us off and on the stage, and this year I wanted him to be included even more. For the beginning of the first scene, Nancy, began with her husband, Russell, arriving in his butler ensemble she had made for him. Russell brought out the teapot and placed it on the table, then Nancy described a butler’s duties and his outfit. Since I was the only one available with an 1830s dress, I came out as the lady of the house.  I wore my 1834 Persimmon dress. After doing my twirl, I sat at my table and poured myself tea. Then my first “visitor” arrived, -“Mrs. Lakin, Madame”.  Robin was wearing her red and brown 1850s dress. After her twirl, she sat at my table and I poured her tea. Afternoon tea history was explained by Nancy. From there, after each lady’s dress was described, they were to sit on a chair and pick up the “activity” that Nancy would describe. The next visitor was Karen, in her red & black late 1850s dress, whose activity of reading in the home was described as she read from a small book after she sat in her chair. Next was Sarah in her 1860s cream and black gown. She brought her own needlework she was working on, and sat doing it as it was described. My final “visitor” was Birda, in her cream and pink 1870s dress, and she demonstrated painting and sketching.
At this point five of us were seated onstage at once, and I think it gave the audience much longer to see and admire all the gowns. We then exited as Nancy announced we would now enter the dressing room. Cindy arrived in the latest Paris fashion of 1870s in her blue and white Seaside dress. At the table she began looking at fashion plates, as Nancy described how the latest fashions were shown to women using magazines and ads. The next “fashion plate”, Trudy, arrived wearing her 1870s white and pink flower Tissot dress. Now looking at a millinery fashion plate, as the next model April arrived in her green and pink 1880s bustle, and wearing her new bonnet. To segue into women outside the home, our model, Terri, arrived wearing her navy blue 1890s bicycling outfit. And finally I was able to work Nancy into the fashion show theme, wearing her 1890s claret walking suit.
With it being hectic as usual, I forgot to hand my camera to someone in the audience and ask them to take photos of us onstage. I still hope that some photos show up at some point, but we did get one of all of us standing onstage afterwards. Then we stepped off the stage and wandered among the tables so the ladies could get a close look at our dresses. Everyone looked so beautiful. 

Afterwards we were served our own tea at a couple of the tables, and then waited backstage for an hour until the next show. Notice I didn’t hand my camera to anyone for photos of me? Goes with the territory of being a busy manager.  

After that show, we all walked outside to the back area and took photos of each other. And, nope, none of me here either but I know Trudy took some of me. 

And look, photos have been popping up that I'm in! These are from Trudy, who was also one of the models. Proof that I was dressed and in the show! 

And these are a couple beautiful group photos she took of us. *Thank you, Trudy!*

Now I have four weeks until I leave for Williamsburg, and do my presentation on bloomer gowns at the ALHFAM conference. I had a major snafoo when my co-presenter, who had originally proposed doing it with me, and was bringing an extant bloomer gown down from New York, suddenly and with no explanation, dropped out. Just like that. After a few days of panic, I regrouped, and contacted the Programming Director and told them I would still do this but needed to change a few things. One of course was the description of the class, which the two sentence one my former presenter had written embarrassed me after seeing the other ones being presented. I wrote a much more descriptive one and then got a new co-presenter!  Jody Luce, who portrays the original bloomer lady, Elizabeth Smith Miller, in Peterboro, NY, said she would do it with me, and she could bring the extant bloomer gown with her. *BIG SMILE!*
All of this was approved by the Programming Committee, and they're currently changing the program book. So now Jody and I are going to start working to put our presentation together. And the topper to this: I’ve been asked to represent the San Diego History Center and use their logo on my slide and my business card while there.