Monday, February 24, 2014

Wash Dress

Wash dresses is the term we use today for cotton dresses that were used to do chores in during the 1800's. We call them 'wash dresses' because of the material; using cotton allowed them to be washed often.
They were relatively simple dresses that didn't have really any decoration. Because dresses took so long to make (think about it!), they didn't want to spend any more time than they had to decorating a dress that was for chores.

They always had what they call a 'jewel neckline', which is just a high plain neckline, with a white collar basted on that could be removed and replaced or washed. Bishop sleeves, or very full sleeves gathered into a cuff, were popular because they were so comfortable to move around in. I'm not sure what other styles of sleeves were used, but this one I have seen in originals. Skirts were not necessarily shorter, but they might not be so full as the other dresses and worn with a smaller hoop skirt. They were either pleated or gauged.

Either buttons or hook and eye closures closed up the front, or buttons sewn over the hook and eye front so it looked like it buttoned up the front. If I had known better, I would have used that method, because sewing all those buttonholes takes quite a while.

Bodices were a bit loose, with gathers that pulled them into a waistband, or a waistband on the inside. They were gathered instead of darted because, over time, darts rip cotton. So the gathers were definitely better.

There was definitely not a lot of variety in the wash dress styles, as you can see below. They pretty much all looked the same.

Something that I have learned recently was that everyone wore a hoop. Everyone. Hoops were cheap to make (although making dresses to wear over them might not have been so cheap!), so even a poor farmer's wife would have one to at least wear for church. So wash dresses were worn with hoops; only for the absolute dirtiest work like working in the fields or getting down on your hands and knees they might not wear them.

Wash dresses were always a print of some sort; this is one of the mistakes of reenactors. They were made from prints so fading didn't show as quickly. Busy, annoying prints that are hard to find today were what was the fashion, plus plaids and stripes.
This print on this one is really annoying!
Notice the waistband has horizontal stripes, while the rest are vertical.
 My sister and I in our cotton wash dresses. Camille's is a little different because she's younger.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Comparing Sewing Techniques, Then and Now

One of the first things that I learned when making my wash dress was how many differences there were in the clothing, things that you would never think of.

When making historical clothing, it is important to remember that they didn't have all the tools that we have today. Also, something that isn't as important now as it was to them was that small waist appearance. This was a huge one for them; to help with this appearance, they made up several different nifty tricks in changing where the seams were.

Dropped shoulders were a characteristic of historical clothing. As you can see in the picture below, my seam is pretty low (please ignore that ugly crease). Plus I just learned that sloping shoulders was a thing back then....this definitely would have helped.
Another was the shoulder seam. No, not the dropped shoulders; this is the seam that connects the front to the back. Instead of being perfectly straight and sitting right on your shoulder, like your t shirt now, they were actually more in the back, sloping downwards. I think this was to also help with the narrow shoulder theory. It's kind of hard to see in this picture, but this is a good example.
One thing I did not know and is actually really helpful is the underarm sleeve seam. Maybe you are supposed to do this on any other garment, I don't know, but what they did was they did not line up the underarm seam with the side seam. Instead they made the underarm seam on the sleeve come more forward; even though those sleeves appear really full, the shortest point is the under seam. So by lining up that under seam, they gave themselves the most room. When I made my dress, I definitely discovered this to be true; when I didn't use this method, I couldn't stretch my arm out all the way! I don't think I have any pictures of this one.

This is one of my favorites: to make their waist appear smaller (and just because it is awesome!) they made the back in several different pieces. My friend says it is called a 'fiddle back'. That is the curved back seam, which I am using on my ball dress! I think they totally look cool, and because of the construction it does make the waist appear smaller. And yes, this is the back of a dress. Not all dresses had them (my wash dress doesn't), but most of the higher fashion ones seemed to.
So there you have it. I'm sure there are some that I am missing, but those were the ones off the top of my head.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

1840's Evening Dress

When I saw this dress on the Metropolitan Museum of Art page (this website) I think I just died. Someday I think I will have to make this dress. I love absolutely everything about it, from the color and the neckline to the cool trim on the sleeves.

 I know on my blog the pictures on smaller; on the museum's website the pictures are larger. In those pictures, it appears the skirt is knife pleated, with changes in direction on all four sides (front, back, and sides) so it almost appears to be box pleated.

What I love about it is it is definitely something I could do one day, although I have no idea where to find a trim like that....

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Breaking Some Rules

Every March, a local Civil War era ball is held. Last year, I took an old pioneer costume I had made years ago and attached a new bodice to it. There were some problems with that though. The skirt was, like I said, old. The cloth for the bodice was new. The skirt was very faded, the print was terribly un-accurate. And I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb in a faded, rather shabby, calico cotton dress.

So this year I knew I had to make a dress. I started looking into different patterns and knew immediately what I wanted. I started asking some questions from the historical sewing page on Facebook that I am a part of. 

The first thing they said was "Don't make a ball dress! You are way too young; go with a nice party dress." But I didn't want a party dress. I wanted a ball dress.

They were correct; if I lived in the 1860's, I would be too young. I wouldn't even be allowed to go to a ball; balls were for meeting other young people and flirting and finding husbands.
So the first rule I broke was that I did make a ball dress, even if it wasn't technically the right thing to do.

Mom pointed out that, "Well, it isn't the 1860's, and you are going to a ball. Therefore, you need a ball dress." I realized she was definitely right; I was going to a ball, so I would need a ball dress.

The second rule I broke that I did intentionally (Eekk!) was I did not make it out of pure silk. The only 100% silk that they sell at Joanns is silk dupioni. It is very pretty, but it is like $25 a yard, and lightweight dupioni is $10. I did look into some silk taffeta online, where you can get it at $10 bucks a yard, but it comes from Thailand and shipping would probably be outrageous. 

For what I wanted, this was way out of my price range. So to Joanns I went, and picked out a pretty polyester satin. And no, there was no polyester in the 1860's. I know, I know, all you reenactors are probably gasping. I wish I could afford a real silk dress, but alas, I cannot.

The thing is, you really have to decide what to do accurately and what to cheat on. For this ball in particular, it is pretty casual on following the Civil War rule. So I went with cheating. Besides, I don't plan on wearing this dress outside of this ball, which is held once a year. If I were going to a more strict Civil War ball, then I might try harder to make it more accurate, and if I had a chance to wear it more often, I might be able to justify the cost.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dressing a Lady in the Civil War: Petticoats

Now you may be wondering, "Whatever would they need petticoats for with a hoop skirt?" Absolutely everything had its purpose. 
Usually ladies wore two or three petticoats with their hoop skirts just to soften the silhouette. Here is a picture I got from another blog for this same example:
Now this lady just needs to adjust her hoop, but a petticoat or two would help make her skirt more round.
This is a look you definitely want to avoid. You don't want to be able to see the bottom rung. Reenactors have dubbed this "lampshading", in which the shape of the skirt is like a lampshade and the bottom rung shows. 
Here is a picture of what you do want it to look like:
This dress is lovely and round, and you can tell it has a petticoat under it.
Another petticoat that was a must was a small petticoat to go under the hoop. Remember how I told you about the drawers with the split-crotch seam? Can you even imagine if you were wearing a hoop skirt, sat down just a little too far back, oh the horror as your hoop skirt flies up in your face!
To save themselves some embarrassment, they wore less full, short petticoats (knee length) and saved themselves the mortification.
Here are some beautiful pictures I found of originals:

These ones would definitely be worn over a hoop skirt. They loved to make the hem very intricate, even though no one could see them. Don't ask me why! I particularly love the diagonal work in the first one.

Dressing a Lady in the Civil War: Hoop Skirts

And of course, the hoop skirts. Who doesn't remember Scarlett O' Hara's enormous hoop skirts?
Hoop skirts became really fashionable right around the late 1850's. Actually, it's strange that they weren't used earlier. It was an awesome invention really; ladies before (during 1830's and 40's) wore many many layers of petticoats to make their skirts large. Now they only needed two petticoats (I'll explain why here) with the cage crinoline.
I think most ladies thought they were great; in the summer it was probably so much cooler. As a reenactor, I concur. When it's hot out you can really get a good air flow under there.
The ironic part of the hoop skirt was that to accommodate the hugeness of it, skirt circumferences became lots bigger. Which also means they got heavier. The corset really helped take the weight off from the actual skirt.
The crinoline at the bottom is a cage, made of metal, while the others are more like a petticoat with metal strips inside (these are hoop skirts). So there are hoop skirts and cage crinolines. Although back then, they were all called crinolines.
Hoop skirts were worn by everyone. The only exception was ladies who worked lots of manual labor, or had a particularly grubby job that involved in getting down on the floor, or if you worked in the hospital.
From what I have learned, hoop skirts were not allowed in hospitals, although I have seen a few original pictures of nurses who broke this rule. It seems like a good idea not to wear one, what with cramped quarters.
Notice how in this one, one of the steel rings comes up in the back. In the 1860's, fullness was desired towards the back, so the hoops became larger in the back as well.

Dressing a Lady in the Civil War: Corset

Oh boy; here we go!
Just about everyone knows that ladies in the 1800's wears a corset. Is that a safe guess? Believe it or not, the corset had more uses that cinching the waist.
The first most important one was that it was a bra. The funny thing is this did not occur to me until I started looking into one. And then I thought "Oh! Why didn't I realize this before?"
The second reason was to cinch the waist. There is a lot of controversy as to whether or not corsets affected ladies health. From my research, it could have. It depended on how young they really started cinching it tight, or exactly how tight they kept it. And yes, you can breathe in a corset. They made your waist smaller, but didn't squeeze your chest. Part of fashion was to have a big bosom and a small waist.
The third and last reason was back support. After a reenactment, my waist hurt from having so many layers (skirts are really heavy!). I have been told that the corset actually helps relieve all the weight. It also helps with posture.
One thing I did not know about corsets is that they actually can be done up in the front. Notice in the second picture those funny button-looking things. That part is called the busk; it was basically a hook and eye closure so ladies didn't always need help. It couldn't be laced as tight, and it would need to be re-cinched by someone else every couple days, but I thought that was pretty nifty.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Dressing a Lady in the Civil War: Drawers

You know how you hear all kinds of stories about how when you sit down in a hoop skirt, it flies up in your face? It's true!
Drawers were not the most functional item in a ladies wardrobe; they were mostly for modesty's sake and prevented embarrassment.
One thing that most people in general don't know is that drawers did not have a crotch seam. I know; you're probably thinking "What? Why would anyone do that?" But again, there was a reason for everything.
Because hoop skirts and petticoats were so big and cumbersome, it made using the facilities very difficult. However, if there was a seam there, then you would have to worry about pulling them down. I know in the pictures it's hard to see because they are so full.

And just to demonstrate my point, here is a hilarious story that I love.

Dressing a Lady in the Civil War: Chemise

When a lady in the 1800's dressed, the first thing she put on was a chemise. A chemise is a loose-fitting short dress with short sleeves. It may seem very unimportant, but everything always had a purpose.
Chemise's have been around for a long time; even the concept of one was used in medieval times. Styles changed depending on the time period.
The main job of the chemise was to protect the dress from sweat. Obviously they didn't have deodorant, so something to keep those ugly stains off the dress was a must.
Usually a woman (and girls too) owned many chemises; however long between wash days (once a week, maybe) might be the amount, plus a few. So about ten would be sufficient, maybe more. They were easy to change if one got too sweaty. They were also easy and cheap to make, being made out of cotton or linen. Any reenactor will tell you that you can never have too many!
 This one is from 1870, but it looks similar to the ones from earlier.
This is one from 1790 -1810; because dresses in this era were so thin, a long chemise helped them be less see-through.
They could be decorated, or very plain. Because they weren't seen beneath, it didn't matter too much.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Changing Dresses in the Civil War

During the Civil War time, textiles were made from natural fibers. There options were pretty much cotton, wool, silk, and linen. Linen was not very common and cost more, but cotton served the same purpose.
Fashions didn't change too dramatically during the Civil War. Hoops were added, and skirts became bigger to accommodate them, but they still looked similar to before.
In the course of the day, a lady might change her dress maybe two or three times. It really depended on the day.
In the morning, right after she woke up, she would probably change into what they called wash dresses. These were cotton dresses that they could work in that could get dirty and still be washed often. Because dresses in general took a long time to make (almost the whole thing was hand-sewn) no extra embellishments were added. I'll go more into detail on those in a different post.

In the afternoon, after lunch, they would probably change into a nice wool or silk dress. Wool dress were the most popular because it was so popular; you would just have to be very careful not to get it dirty. Wool is pretty hard to wash without it felting! Trim was added to these, because this was a nicer dress that you would want to be seen in. Kind of like how you probably have nicer shirts in your closet, and then your not-so-nice ones that you might only wear when you're at home
 A wool one
A silk one
And finally, if you were the wife or daughter of a rich man, then you might change into an evening gown. They were pretty much always silk, and looked very much like a ball gown, but they might be but a little less low and might have long sleeves.  Often silk afternoon dresses were used as an evening dress, with two different bodices that could be worn with the same skirt.
 Love how this one doubles as an afternoon dress!
And finally the ball gowns. From what I have been told, the silk for the ball gowns didn't cost very much. Since it would be their nicest dress, they chose to use as much fabric on one dress as possible, going over the top with trims, ruffles, bows, ribbons, and all kinds of other poufiness. 

This all may seem like a lot of dresses in one day, but you have to think about the day. Ball's were not every day, and most people where not rich enough attend enough dinners were evening dresses would be required.