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, most of the time. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can find me on Facebook, or have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

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HI, my name is Val. I'm a member of Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles, Dean Emeritus of 2018 Costume College; Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, and a representative of the San Diego History Center. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of one.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December Costume Events

December 2, 2012
Being so busy as we all are during the holiday season, I decided to combine all three of my costume events together in one entry. Beginning on the first weekend of December, I flew up to San Francisco to attend the Great Dickens Fair, held at the Cow Palace in San Bruno.  
The weather was threatening to come down with biblical amounts of rain and wind, but it stalled a bit so on my arrival it was just light to medium sprinkles. My roommates, Karen and Joy, and I arrived at the Cow Palace the next morning as it was beginning to come down heavier. Fortunately by the time we walked from our car to the building our skirts weren’t too wet. But the next day, when I was flying home, the torrential rain and winds arrived, causing a lot of damage around the city and managed to delay my flight eight times. But I made it home with no mishaps.
I decided I didn’t need to make anything new for this event since I had two 1860s gowns I’d never worn there before. I picked my olive green w/ purple trim gown to wear since it was more of a Winter color, and I wore the straw bonnet I’d trimmed for it. I brought my maroon paisley shawl which has kept me warm in the past but this storm was not a cold one and once inside the Cow Palace with the thousand people, it warmed up very quickly. In fact it was very warm and we were all fanning ourselves. So much for experiencing London at Christmas time.
If you’ve never been to this event most people describe it, and I agree, as mindboggling. It’s entirely indoors using a huge coliseum-size building with many adjoining buildings. In fact, rodeos are held there, and we saw the cattle gates out in the parking lot. I imagine this is why it’s called the Cow Palace but I haven’t confirmed that. They recreate the streets of old London in Dickens time with shops, pubs, and eateries. It moves from fancy homes, like Tavistock House, down to the run-down wharves. There are stages on the “wharf” where sailors and bawdy ladies sing old English songs. At Fezziwig’s people can dance on a huge dance floor. Characters from all of Dickens novels mingle with the crowds and interact with them. I had a long conversation with Mr. Tulkinghorn from Bleak House. I sat and listened to Edgar Allen Poe reading a poem while he sipped absinthe. Ebenezer Scrooge was seen startling shop owners as he walked along the streets yelling Happy Christmas! Mr. Dickens himself read parts of his books to visitors of the Green Man Inn, which by the way is next door to King Edward’s Pub where I purchased eggnog brandies for my friends and I.

The day I attended was also the same day the GBACG (Greater Bay Area Costume Guild) was attending so the number of people attending in period costume was higher. I was able to spend time with my friends from there and joined in their group photo shoot.

At the close of the day everyone joins in singing the Messiah at Fezziwig’s where they hold up placards with the words for us to follow along. It’s a great way to end a fun day.

With a week and a half notice our guild members were asked if we could provide any costumed walkers for a Xmas-decorated antique car parade in downtown El Cajon. It was going to be their first one. Alrighty then, this would be my third parade in two months, and it gave me a chance to wear my red and black checked 1872 gown. To change it up I decided to wear my antique hat with it instead of the black & maroon feathered one I wore last year, and added my antique sealskin muff.   
The weather was threatening some rain so we were a little nervous but it held off until late in the evening when everything was pretty much over. A large contingent of Steampunk folks showed up and caused a few startled looks from the attendees, but five of us came in historical gowns and also got some attention. Originally we were offered a seat in one of the cars but most had small windows and we really wanted to show off our gowns. So quite a few of us ended up walking behind the different cars. My friends, Cat and Paige, joined me in walking the two block distance.

We don’t have any photos of us walking in the parade but we took some of each other with some of the decorated cars. Since Cat has her own vintage car, next year we’re going to decorate and ride in it ourselves.

During the annual Holiday in the Park celebration in Old Town San Diego our costume guild held our December meeting as a holiday dinner at the Cosmopolitan Hotel there. I think there were about 28 members in a variety of costumes. Some arrived early and we walked around the town square having our photos taken by people in the park. We were often asked if we were carolers. We also had Father Christmas with us and he was the center of many many photos.

Photo by Jerry Abuan

So now I have one and a half months to finish my gown for my next event. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


November 17, 2012
**Today I was supposed to attend the Bollywood Costumed Walkabout at the antique show, but due to just getting over a cold, I found myself too run down to even dress for it. So I decided to finish writing up this article and post it in my blog in lieu of pretty photos from the event, which I’m really sorry I had to miss.**
Just so you don't miss out completely, here's a group photo from the event by Jerry Abuan. 

About 8 years ago I bought a very small Victorian bodice for probably under $20. It was in beautiful condition but it was black and too small for anyone but a child or extremely small woman to wear it. So I think that’s why I got it so cheap. I’m thinking it was for a small woman because it looked to me to be too somber for a child. I’m not saying it was a mourning bodice because it was made from silk satin and not the crape common for mourning, but it’s possible. It was exquisitely made. I hoped to learn from it how to construct one because these were still very unfamiliar to me.
 Last month I bid on another extant bodice, again a very small one but in pretty good condition. There was only one other bidder and I won it for one dollar more for $26. This one was even more exquisite and was a much fancier style. Later on one of my favorite blogs, All the Pretty Dresses, Isabella had reviewed it, and found it a little ugly. LOL!

So I’ll start with the black bodice. 
I’m dating it about early 1880s due to its short peplum which wouldn’t cover a big bustle at this time. The fabric is a silk faille lined with very fine grey linen, with some patchwork of cotton in places. When I looked at the patchwork again I realized it was equally on both sides of the collar so I’d say it was pieced there to extend the shoulder length. Both the collar, the shoulder seams and along the bottom of the bodice has piping, and the bottom is trimmed with a looped braid, which is repeated on the cuffs. Both the bottom of the bodice and the cuffs are trimmed with self fabric pleats. The large buttons are round, and feel to me like plastic. They look to be original to the bodice.

One of the first things I noticed about the bodice was the *buttonholes where they were larger at one end. This would help getting the buttonhole over the large button without having to make a huge buttonhole. They're machine stitched. That first surprised me but when I started looking at all the seams with a magnifying glass, I realized this was almost entirely machine made. The stitches are very consistent in length unless it was made by a woman with mad sewing skills. 
A couple days ago I hosted a gathering of ladies from a mourning fashion show presentation we'll be doing at the Riverside Dickens Festival next Feb, and I asked a couple of them to look at the buttons to see if they could identify the material. Both said they weren't plastic, but were molded, so its possible they're Vulcanite. One more clue that this is a mourning bodice. 

The back of the bodice has a pretty little curved peplum. It has pieces sewn in to make it wider there but instead of making a couple pleats, they were just folded at one side towards the center and basted in place. So it makes it a soft fold instead of a pleat.

Here's the second thing I learned from this bodice: * along the bottom of the bodice and on the cuffs there are 1/4 inch pleats, topped with a looped braid. The edges of the pleats were finished with a folded over bias tape before it was pleated, then pleated and sewn flat across the pleats. This keeps the pleats from opening up. So that’s how they did it! Mine are always opening up and getting folded over.

I think the inside of the gown is where you learn more about its construction. The seams themselves as I mentioned were machine sewn. But then they were closed by hand stitching to finish them, all except the center back seam which has its raw edges turned under and inside, then stitched closed. There’s only  boning in the side seams and the front darts. The boning was put inside the closed seams. Here is another thing I learned: *the boning on the side seams ended 1-1/2 inches below the finished armhole seam. On my own bodices I had mine coming right up to the seam but when I sat down the boning always poked me in the underarm. 

I was able to see the boning inside the seams at one point where it had a hole. They were very bendy like plastic and when I opened up the seam more I could see it was baleen. I’m told baleen is very similar to the material of our fingernails and that’s why it bends so well.

And now for my second bodice. This photo shows the color best; it’s a dark burgundy silk with a dark green and grey geometric floral pattern. The bolero is dark green china silk covered with a crocheted lace. Aging has turned it yellowish and stiff. The other day I had someone call it chemical lace but I've never seen any. It may have originally been ivory. Most of the bolero silk has shattered but the lace holds it together, which is good. I checked to see if the lace had been added at a later date to protect the shattering silk but from all its seams it appears to be original. It’s mostly been sewn by machine with some hand finishing. I was unsure of the date since I found something similar in the 1880s but I was told the bolero vest, the high neck, and the pouched front was a dead giveaway for the 1900s. So early 1900s it is!

Here’s the bodice under the vest. A little bit of the silk was spared by using peach colored polished cotton everywhere that the vest covered up. This was done to save fabric and money.

The front insert that makes the pouched look has tucks across the chest, then gathers at the bottom.


This shows how the front opens and closes over to the side. It uses hooks and eyes up to the shoulder seam. The edge has strips of white silk fabric that the hooks & eyes are sewn behind for stabilizing. On the inside the same peach lining closes to the other side by a row of hooks & eyes, and on top of that closure are two boning casings that start just below the bust line. The bottom edge is finished with a solid burgundy silk bias ribbon.
The sleeves come to mid-arm and are made of two pieces. On the front piece it has two rows of tucks down the length of it. It has a second sleeve that is full length to the wrist under the outer sleeve. The part not showing is the peach cotton, which is sewn to green silk and covered by the lace overlay. The cuff is bell-shaped with a pleat creating the V-shape at the bottom.

The collar, which is green silk covered by the lace overlay, is only attached at the right side & front & front of the bodice. It closes in the back with three large hooks & eyes.  

The interior of the bodice is lined with peach polished cotton. There are boning channels at the back seam & both side seams. Those seams are finished with a narrow silk tape. I’m not able to visibly see the boning in this without cutting into it but the stiffness of them, plus finding one that is bent at the end, lead me to believe its steel. The bust dart seams are cut with scallop scissors.

And here’s the cute little bolero. I could easily make a pattern off of that. The green silk and lace overlay are sewn together as one piece. It has a graceful curve to the bottom, and on the armholes there is an added sleeve cap that is finished with a single row of the lace flowers. The single row of lace trim is repeated around the entire edge of the bolero. The silk inside this is badly shattered. The side seams are finished with the same narrow white silk ribbon.
**Edited to add** Since writing this I recieved more information on this lace. It's called Schiffi chemical lace. The description is: Chemical Lace (sometimes referred to as Schiffli Lace) is a form of machine-made lace. This method of lace-making is done by embroidering a pattern on a sacrificial fabric that has been chemically treated so as to disintegrate after the pattern has been created.
So now I've learned something new again from this bodice. 

Some of the things I learned from this second bodice are similar to my first one, other than the saving of the costly silk where it wouldn’t show. When I’ve made my own bodices, they usually just cross over slightly in the front to close. With the inside bodice closing it, and the gathered fabric over that and closing to the side I’m sure gives it an additional strength and also some modesty if it ever opened. All the more reason to have a maid or sister there to help you dress. 

**Edited to add- one of my friends, Katherine Caron-Greig, just did an article on an entire dress in Your Wardrobe Unlock'd, an online costume magazine. Your Wardrobe Unlock'd by Cathy Hay. You can visit for free, and there's lots of free articles you can read, but to read the latest articles, you need to pay the monthly rate of $9.99 I believe. But check it out!****