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

My photo
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.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do You Participate in Historical Fashion Shows?

I don't claim to be an expert on fashion shows but have been in quite a few, averaging about 6-8 a year, and have produced a couple. So I have some experience and decided to share that since I get asked questions about it.
First, from the writer/producer/director's standpoint: it's time consuming, sometimes tedious, and like pulling teeth to get the information you need to carry on. My favorite term to describe this is like “herding cats”. Besides being the sheep herder, I've been one of those “cats”.
Once you've picked a theme, with the easiest being a time line of historical costume, you need to gather the ladies that want to be in your show, or can be coerced to be in it. Then comes the hard part; getting descriptions of their costumes, and hopefully you might have some that know how to write their descriptions into a narrative that can be read and be entertaining to the audience. Most of the time you will be the writer. Its your show and you have the controls but I'm sure it helps immensely to have another writer. You first need to know what their gowns and accessories are. Because I've worn some of my gowns multiple times, I keep a file with the descriptions so I can just use those again.

I'm currently organizing a fashion show for next month for a womens club, with a fashion time line, and asked for dress descriptions of the models. Blue Victorian gown with gloves and jewelry doesn't take you very far. So I wrote up a questionnaire for them to fill out. Until now I was only sharing this with my friends who run fashion shows or are in them but decided it wasn't a state secret and many of my costume readers have themselves been in them and would benefit from it. Its not copyrighted so feel free to share this and add to it to fit your needs.
  1. Year of dress (approximate if not known but with a time span like 1900-1908)
  2. Pattern used (if known)
  3. Fabrics used & color/colors (if known)
  4. Trims on dress (types and show where)
  5. Style of dress (type of bodice/ skirt/ overskirt/ bustle/ neckline & sleeve shape/ men's jacket and pants.
  6. Underpinnings worn with skirt (hoop skirt/ corded petticoat/ multi-petticoats/ bustle/ pannier)
  7. What or when would it be worn for? (day time/ dinner or evening/ ball gown/ promenade/recreation)
  8. Bonnet/ hat/ or head cover (style, shape, materials, color, trims used)
  9. Accessories worn (parasol, gloves, jewelry, watch-- describe them)
  10. Anything you'd like the audience to know about your dress- did you make it, your first attempt, favorite pattern, for a specific event)
  11. If possible, include a photo of your dress or you in it, so the narrator has a visual reminder of what you're wearing. 
At the end tell a little bit about yourself- are you in a guild or costume group? How long have you been doing this? Are you a docent? But make it short unless your narrator needs to lengthen it. The entire description shouldn't be longer than one minute.    
 For the narrative portion of the show, if you have a theme that tells a story, the description can fit into that, such as women's activities. For the one I'm in this coming weekend, in Port Townsend, WA, I decided to write my description for my Seaside gown that would include a name of a recognizable street in the area. So my narrative ran something like “you might see this lady walking down Water Street in her Seaside gown”. But it was pointed out to me that a “lady” wouldn't have been walking on Water Street unless she was looking for business. Ooops. So that portion is going to be corrected for the show. But I thought that might be fun to include street names like that, especially in an historical area. There are many ideas you can use for the narrative instead of just a dress description. Little vignettes are fun too. A group of ladies sitting around a table, gossiping, playing cards, or drinking tea, and each takes a turn on the stage as her description is read. We've been lucky sometimes to be on a stage that plays have been put on and are able to use their props. Other times we've provided a couple props but this only works if you have someone in charge of them and can set them up. That's too much to ask of your producer and models.

Our guild doesn't charge for providing fashion shows but we do usually ask that we be fed with something light. It doesn't have to be fancy, and most of us prefer to have it set in back as a buffet where we are so we can eat at will when we have a moment.

It helps the director/narrator to have a backstage manager to keep everything moving in a timely manner. Have a couple copies printed out of the lineup, in LARGE PRINT as some of us won't have our glasses on, and post it near the area where you line up to go out. The manager should also keep the director/narrator up to date if there are any last minute changes to the line up so you don't describe any ghosts onstage, or the wrong person. An idea that came up at the last show I was in was the director/narrator had the description of the model along with a photo of the dress on it so she could immediately see she had the right one.
 Along with your manager, it REALLY helps if you have someone that can volunteer to be a dresser and help the models get dressed, or with last minute emergencies. Hopefully they're familiar with wearing corsets and other historical garments so she has experience with the unusual clothes we wear. She should be prepared with a sewing kit with lots of safety pins.

If food is not something that's available then the organizer of our group will bring water and something for nibbling on. We don't want to have anyone fainting on us. Believe it or not, its hard work getting in and out of these dresses. At one show a couple of us volunteered to bring some fruit, meat slices, little finger sandwiches, and deviled eggs for our buffet.

BE READY AND DRESSED ON TIME. While you're dressing, keep your voices down. Guaranteed those in the audience will most likely be able to hear everything from backstage.
Here's my favorite tip for the models: carry a prop. Having something in your hand to do something with, rather than just walking around. This especially helps the Nervous Nellies or first timers. I feel like I have gorilla arms with them just hanging there. I've used a parasol, and even opened it up onstage, and once carried a hankie and bouquet of flowers when I was the weeping Miss Havisham of Great Expectations. But remember you may be removing your bonnet or shawl, lifting your skirt to show off petticoats, etc, or any number of things to point out parts of your gown, so don't overextend yourself.
BE READY AND DRESSED ON TIME. Nothing screws up a show more than when someone is late or not ready. Some of us are crazy enough to wear two or even three outfits in a show, so they have a bit of an excuse.
It really helps if you can have a gentleman “dressed to the nines” that can help you up stairs onto the stage or down the stairs if you have them, or even walk you out onto the stage to be different. His job is to listen to the narrator and when its time for you to step out, he takes your hand. If you don't have one, then your backstage manager is in charge of making sure you are ready to go out on time.
I don't wear my glasses when I'm wearing my costumes, so I'm almost entirely dependent on the manager or our gentleman to let me know the narrator is nodding at me to come out. If you are lined up with the other models, you can always ask the one behind you to prod you on, but make sure they're paying attention.  
When you walk out on stage be careful of your skirts if you're walking up steps, head to the center and stop. Let them get a good look at you. SMILE! Then SLOWLY walk from end to end of the front of the stage and stop at each end so they can take photos of you. Try and stay near the front. The lighting may not be good near the back, and you want some good photos of yourself too. Go back to center stage and slowly turn so they can see all of you. LISTEN TO THE NARRATOR. If she's describing a part of your dress or hat, move your hand to indicate that portion. If its a large stage you may still want to walk to each end so they can see you there. Its your job to check out what the stage and seating looks like and be prepared to work it, girl. It doesn't hurt to flirt with the audience. Turn the back of your dress to them and look over your shoulder saucily at them when its being described.
Remember if you move too quickly they can't take a photo of you.
When the narration is over, and the narrator thanks you, (which is your cue to step down) I often dip a short curtsy to the audience. If the Queen is seated in the front row, that's a requirement.


Monday, March 17, 2014

You Can Learn a Lot from Old Photos. And What are Those Bar Pins?

Right now I'm visiting my Mom up in WA and am making the rounds of the local thrift shops and antique malls. I'm in the Northwest Peninsula so not too many around here but I have my regular stops.
One of my favorite things to look for are old cabinet card photos that show a lot of detail on women's dresses and the accessories they carry. This helps me add to the “realness” of my own costumes.

I have a personal collection of photos saved in my Pinterest album, and save many more that I find online for research.  
Today I wanted to share a “eureka” moment I had this morning. I don't know if I'm right in my conclusions on this particular photo but to me it seems logical. If anyone has any more knowledge on the subject, and can tell me my conclusions are right or wrong, please tell me.
This is the cabinet card I bought today. What attracted me to it at first was the clarity of details on it. The puffy sleeves and hairstyle tell me it's 1890s.
I liked the open lapel on her bodice and the very large buttons. It fits snugly at her neck being closed by a narrow brooch. At first I thought the little pointy thing in her bun was some kind of decorative stick, but after looking at it with a large magnifying glass I realized it was a hair comb, quite fashionable in this time period, but I was seeing it from a side view. You can still see a little bit of the flat front though. The white shaded area over her top button appeared to possibly be a scratch but could also be something hanging. Again the magnifying glass showed two chains, one possibly being a watch chain, hanging from a pin just above the top button. Closer inspection with the magnifying glass also showed the bar pin at her neck is what was keeping the collar closed. Hmmmm.... this got me thinking. Putting little button holes in those things is hard. Could this possibly be what all those little bar pins I see in antique shops what they used to close their collars instead of a button and buttonhole? I know there are some that do have them but maybe for a time this is what they used? I have little to no knowledge of bar pins. And now inquiring minds want to know.
These are a couple bar pins I found online. They can be plain bars, with some filigree, with little pearls, with fancy stones, or expensive stones. I looked at a few today in the antique mall and they were sterling silver and some gold ones, and they ran from $120-$150. I know I've seen them less expensive, and for costuming, they don't have to be real. I've seen them measuring from one inch to three inches across, and from very narrow to larger and more elaborate. 

I've often come across mourning bar pins. I saw a set of four 1 inch long plain black ones that were probably for a family, and the tiny pearl often denotes the loss of a child.
Seeing as I didn't find any in my “costumer's budget” today I went shopping online on etsy and ebay, mostly for photos for this blog, but also to check prices. Oh, and I bought myself a birthday present. Yes, my birthday was on Friday so I'm entitled. Its identified as 1880s gold filled filigree with a rose cut garnet. It's two and a half inches long. It was $26, well within my costumer's budget.
I remember having a bar pin that I wore in high school that had a row of pearls on it that was made by the jewelry company, 1928 Jewelry, who are currently making the reproduction Downton Abbey jewelry. I loved my bar pin and probably only paid $5 for it. I'm hoping I still have it but I won't know until I get home and dig around in my jewelry box. *Keeping my fingers crossed*
And now that we've all been sidetracked, let's get back to those cabinet cards. This is my favorite one so far, also found in the antique mall up here a couple years ago. Its around 1910 and she has LOTS of accessories. Her hat may look strange, but its mostly that big curved feather on top. She has a rather simple dress but she's added the lacy guimpe (under blouse) to it, gloves, parasol, purse, brooch, and to top it off, the magnificent hat. The first time I saw her purse I thought, oh, it doesn't have to be a drawstring purse.
This one has 1906 written on the back and I liked it for the button decorations she has on her bodice, and contrasting color on her lapels. And she's wearing glasses. I wear glasses so this is helpful too. 
I like to find ones that gives me ideas for different trims and this one's sleeve cuffs caught my eye. They have a couple rows of ruching, and there's a lot of it on the front of her bodice, along with a ruffly neckline and under sleeves. I can't tell the exact date because I can't see most of the skirt so I'm placing it around the late 1870s into the 80s with the bustling in the back.
These were two more I picked up today, both only $4-$5. This young girl is so obviously from the 1890s with the big ole humongous watermelon-sized sleeves. They're almost as whacko as the ones in the early 1830s. I prefer the smaller poofs with the straight sleeves in the early 90s. Also distinctive was the bow at the back of her neck. I haven't done much costuming in the 90s so I'm just starting to notice these. And I've been noticing how buttons were often used as trims, and not just for closures.
This group of young ladies, probably from the early 1900s, who look so much like a group of students, are the epitome of how I first started dressing when my interest in costuming started. White lacy blouse, long skirt, and pretty jewelry. And here you can see the different kinds of lace trim. Also the Costumer's Guild West (CGW) that I'm a member of in Los Angeles just this past weekend had a Gibson Girl and Boy Golf Event and I thought of them when I saw this. The little colored bows at the necks are precious.
If you have a chance to go check out my collection on Pinterest, I've detailed those in writing of what I could see with my magnifying glass too. Also books such as Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa, and Victorian & Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey by Alison Gernsheim, are great visual helps too.
Happy Hunting!                          ~~Val~~

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Season of Fashion Shows

As you read in my last post I was in the fashion show at the Riverside Dickens Festival. Last night while talking to another costumer we tallied up how many fashion shows we do each year and had coming up this year. I was amazed when I saw I have five so far just during the first half of this year! I enjoy each and every one of them, especially when it allows me to wear dresses that don’t get much wearing. Since I have costumes from some of the little worn years, like 1830 or 1890, I can sometimes be in demand. Or as I like to think: a hot commodity.
While I’ve been putting together one fashion show and getting dress descriptions from everyone, which can be hard for some of them, and sometimes for me, I came up with a form that the models can fill out with all the pertinent and detailed information that I can work with. I think this is going to come in quite handy for me and my friends who put on fashion shows. 
So this is kind of a “What’s on the planning board?” post. 

I got to wear my recently finished turquoise and cranberry 1830s gown at Dickens. Later this month while I’m visiting in WA State, I’m attending the Victorian Festival in Port Townsend and will be in the fashion show there for my 4th year. I’ll be wearing my 1890s Seaside Gown, and 1875 Green Tartan Bustle. Since it can be mighty chilly in that seaside town, I plan to wear my Tartan gown around on the streets. Because these would totally fill up my oversized suitcase, I usually just mail them up the week before to my Mom there, and then ship them home. The guys at the UPS store know me now.   
 This year I’m joining my friends there from the Seattle-based costume guild, Somewhere in Time, Unlimited, for the fashion show and for a tea at the Commanders Beach House on Saturday and a special one for the models and volunteers on Sunday at James House. And the next day I’ll be joining my friends from Afternoon Tea Across America at a tearoom in Poulsbo. Wow, afternoon tea three days in a row! I’ll be so spoiled.
The following month in April I’ll be at the Chula Vista Women’s Club fashion show and my plans are kind of loose right now but I know I’ll be wearing my 1875 Green Tartan bustle again. I haven’t decided on a second dress or if I’ll be wearing one. *Maybe* if I get my other 1830s gown done, I might wear that.
The month after in May I’m in TWO fashion shows. At Gaslight Gathering in San Diego, I’m wearing my 1830s turquoise and cranberry dress, and my 1890s Seaside gown. At the Alpine Women’s Club show, I’m again wearing my 1890s Seaside gown. So it’s getting some good outings this year.
 Somewhere in between all this, I plan to finish my 1830s Persimmon gown, and the black one, on top of a new 1840s gown to wear as Jane Eyre at our next English Authors Picnic in Balboa Park where this year we are actually part of the House of England event. We’re going to do a costume parade for them. So I guess you can kind of call that a fashion show.
I just finished watching the 2012 version of Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska because I wanted to see some 1840s styles. This was not my favorite version but it was still worth watching for the dresses. I was surprised that some of the dresses were 1830s necklines but with the straighter 40s sleeves. But the majority of them were the 40s style I wanted and I found some nice trim ideas for it. The pattern I’m using is Truly Victorian 454, the German Day Dress. I started my muslin on this a couple weeks ago, and I’ll need it by April 13. 
I really like the idea of a white collar on mine, like Mia’s dresses had. And looking at it closer, I see teeny tiny buttons just below the center neckline and on her sleeve cuffs. And looking even closer, there’s a zigzag trim on the outside edge of the bretelles off her shoulder. It looks like it’s a saw tooth lace but it’s hard to tell.
I really like the bows on the front of the bodice on her dress she wears under her cape. I’m still looking for a better photo of it but I’m not sure if I want poor Jane’s dress to look quite that fancy.
Eeek! Just checked my calendar and I’m leaving for WA on March 13 and returning on the 27th. Not much time left to make this dress and its a new pattern which means it will be slower for me to make. I may not be making a full muslin for this to save some time. I hate rushing on things. I’ve tried very hard this year to at least be ahead of the game.
Oops, my Manager is telling me to get to work.