Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How to achieve a historical look for Living History

As you can imagine, when I'm at an event in historical clothing, I am often asked where I got my dress. When I answer, they are amazed that I've made it myself. Then begins the conversation about how I achieve the look and what makes my dresses different from available costumes.

First, let me begin by saying that I am in no way an expert on this subject. However, I have done a lot of research in the past 12 years and feel that I know enough to point someone in the right direction if they are wanting to portray a close resemblance of what woman wore during 1855-1900. My research includes studying books available on the subject, online research of fashion plates, art, and photos, as well as hands on inspection of antique pieces in my collection and museums I have been privileged to view.

part of my collection of books

At the Bowers Mansion, assisting the curator

My journey began about 15 years ago. I moved out West in 2000. This is when I discovered my passion for all things Victorian. I began making costumes for myself shortly there after using patterns from my local fabric shop and fabric and trims I could afford. In 2003, I had altered a hoop style dress I had made into a bustle style dress to attend the 124th birthday celebration of the Bliss Mansion. There, I met some women who admired my sewing talent. At this time, I had just begun looking at images of antique dresses, and the dress I was wearing had more of an authentic look compared to others in attendance. These women guided me to more resources and I ran with it.
dress I wore to Bliss Mansion 124th birthday party
Since then, my skills have advanced to using reproduction patterns that require fitting and altering. I also use photos and fashion plates for fabric and trim ideas,
dress I made using reproduction patterns from a
Frances Grimble book with altered neckline

example of neckline and trim

another neckline example

Now that you know my back story, here are my suggestions to help you on your journey. You don't need to know how to sew to have some nice, affordable dresses in your collection. You just need time to do the research.
As this is the year 2015, most of us can not be 100% historically accurate when portraying women of the Victorian Era, unless we have money we don't know what to do with. Fabrics that were used then are hard to come by today and are expensive, as are seamstresses and tailors who use the same sewing techniques of the time. I don't claim in any way that I make 100% historically accurate dresses, but I do try to come as close as I possibly can using appropriate patterns, fabric, and trims to get the closest resemblance.
Begin by taking time to look at images of antique dresses in books and online. Google specific years/decades of dress. My favorite year is 1885, so I either google 1885 or 1880's women's dress/gown/clothing. Maybe you are involved in a Living History program and want to portray a specific woman. Google her for images and the year she would be around the age you are now, then use that year to search clothing appropriate for her. Keep in mind how we wear clothes today. Most of us have clothing that is 10+ years old that we still wear. Also keep in mind if the woman you want to portray is wealthy or not. These things will help guide you to the style of clothing you should wear for a specific Living History portrayal.
Other than google and books, I like to use ebay. I click on the following series of links to begin my search: Shop by category- See all categories- Vintage under Clothing, Shoes, & Accessories- Women's Vintage Clothing- Pre-1901 (Victorian & older). http://www.ebay.com/sch/Pre1901-Victorian-Older-/48864/i.html  I don't suggest using this as a guide for the exact year of an item because not all sellers know what they are talking about. Compare these items to fashion plates to determine the year. Another ebay search is for carte de visite or CDV's. Simply search CDV in all categories and you will see fine examples of everyday Victorian clothing.
Another great resource for antique clothing is The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection of the Costume Institute  http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search?&ft=*&deptids=8
Now that you've done the research, you will have a better eye for determining if a dress you find is the right look for what year or who you are trying to portray. I have taken the time to do a little searching for you to help guide you to some dresses that come closer to historical reproductions compared to others.

For late 1850's to early 1860's day dress, here are three nice choices:
The white undersleeve should be a blouse type sleeve, not this bell sleeve

(this plaid fabric choice only)
The following 1870's-1880's suitable dresses are available at http://www.ushist.com/ladies_1800s_clothing/ladies_1880s_gilded_age_bustle_dresses.shtml
Under this dress, they have 6 samples. I would suggest the sleeve of "E", the bodice of "F" except using the bodice hem of  "A", "C", or "E", overskirt of all but "F", and underskirt of "D" or "F"
This is nice, except for the ruffles, use cotton or linen in solid, small floral, stripe, or plaid. This would be good for a lower to middle class woman for around the home, possible supply shopping, or school teacher.
This is an antique example to consider for the previous two dresses

The wide lace bertha collar on this ball/evening gown isn't right, but the rest of it is nice. This underskirt would also look wonderful under the polonaise dress pictured just above this one


Following are good for early 1890's 
For this dress, I would suggest the jacket and skirt be made from the same fabric in plaid or solid wool or linen, with or without a complimenting color for the collar and cuffs and trim to match.
Following are examples of what I mean
The one on the right

 This is good except for the fabrics. The blouse should be off white or match the skirt and the belt should be a solid color.
This would be good for late 1880's to early 1890's, but needs an overskirt of the same fabric of the bodice

This would be good for late 1890's early 1900's
Now, if money is no object for you, Christine Hall makes exquisite reproductions for others http://ckhall.com/latebustle.htm Her dresses sell for over $1000. If you can't afford her, still take a moment and look at her beautiful reproductions.
When considering a dress to buy, look at the neckline, sleeves, waist (is it in the correct spot, does it look right, is there a belt and does it look period correct?) overskirt (does it have one or need one and is it the correct length), ruffles, and trims. The great thing about most of these dresses and dresses like them is you can add and change small details about them to achieve a closer reproduction look. The shape and color of the sleeves, collars, cuffs; add or change an overskirt; ruffles and trims. If you can't sew, I'm sure you know or can find someone who does who could do these changes for a small fee.
At this point, I have only been talking about dresses. One must consider all of the other elements; hat, gloves, jewelry, and underpinnings. You could have a decent dress, but if you have a hat that doesn't go with the same period (or is not even close to being historically accurate) it will throw your whole look off. For Victorian headwear, it's best to go smaller and avoid a trailing veil. If you are portraying 1900 or later, you could go large, but still avoid that trailing veil. Another thing to avoid is wearing a dress during the day that would only be worn for an evening event.
Above all, I would like to recommend that unless you are wearing an antique dress or one that was made using historic patterns, fabric, and sewing techniques, please don't tell others that it is historically accurate. Doing this guides others down a path where they themselves think they are being historically accurate, and so on and so forth. Then we have a whole bunch of people who insist they are portraying historical accuracy when they in fact are not.
I hope this helps you in your historical costuming journey. Here are some words to keep in mind when researching and talking about your costume:
Historic-  famous or important in history;
                     having great and lasting importance;
                     known or established in the past;
                    dating from or preserved from a past time or culture

Historical- of, relating to, or having the character of history;
                        based on history;
                        used in the past and reproduced in historical presentations
Reminiscent- reminding you of someone or something else;
                             similar to something else;
                             thinking about the past;
                             having many thoughts of the past
Authentic- real or genuine;
                       not copied or false;
                       true and accurate;
                       made to be or look just like an original
Reproduction- the act of copying something (such as a document, book, or sound);
                                something that is made to look exactly like an original
Thank you :)







  1. I could not have said it better myself. Bravo!

    Yvonne ;)

  2. What a wonderful compliation of sources!!!! Thank you!!!

    Im in the middle of making a 1837 mourning dress, that has to be historically accurate, from the chemise and knickers, out. Im using the full high gown pattern from past patterns, and under garment patterns from Truly Victorian. Shoes... pur hased American Duchess, and Bonnet purchased from Bonnets by Glenda. Still sourcing stockings, and parasol thats not battenburg, Wish me luck!!!

    Thanks for all these references and sources!!!

    1. Thanks! How did your ensemble turn out?