Thursday, April 30, 2009


Wig Ransom

My wigs arrived today! Unfortunately they are being held hostage in the apartment complex office. I will likely pick them up tomorrow evening, in exchange for the ridiculous amount of dollars that is my half of the rent. The anticipation is KILLING me!!!

I ordered two, this silly costume one that looks shockingly accurate but is probably quite cheap and not realistic-looking, and a long, synthetic, slightly wavey one to experiment with for my go at the Hair of Great Enormity, the massively curled style seen in "The Duchess." Hopefully both wigs will work out and I will have "Large" as well as "Gargantuan" to choose from!
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

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GREAT Hats of the Late 18th c. ... [what are they and where do I get them?]

...That's "GREAT" as in Great Dane, Great Blue Herron, and the Great Wall of China. With mountains of hair exploding from the tops of ladies' heads throughout the 18th century, it made just as much sense to crown the summits with equally awesome and large hats.

I've compiled a small collection of images, mostly from modern films, and a few period fashion plates. I encourage looking at [decent] period films because often times the costumers take the period styles and alter them slightly to make them acceptable to the modern eye. It is also easy to see how a costume or accessory will look "in action," in a setting, and on a real person, whereas fashion plates and illustrations typically give skewed and stylized vignette. These images are from "The Duchess," "Marie Antoinette," and "The Affair of the Necklace."

That being said, fashion plates are still the primary source and invaluable when it comes to period-correct fashions. Just as we find in today's runway shows, however, sometimes fashion illustrations of the past can depict what was then avante garde clothing, stuff people typically didn't wear. Nevermind all that if you're going for the Duchess of Devonshire, but it may be null en void if you're looking to dress as a servant or merchant's wife.

But how much fun would that be? This wouldn't be *American Duchess* if our wigs were reasonable and our hats mere sunshades!

Also in this post we'll cover online sources for Great Hats and other costumey head-coverings. It'd be nice to have acccess to the Hollywood costume shoppe, but we commoners must find these things for ourselves. The good news is that most of the hats are not custom made, but use a basic shape or a basic form that *is* available....if you know where to look!

And so, without further ado, GREAT HATS:

The Shallow Crowned Straw Hat

Two lovely hats from "The Duchess." Both look to be fairly shallow in crown, and curved down at the sides. The further one is turned up at the back. Both are trimmed with feathers, flowers, ribbons, and secured to the head with a hat pin. Never you fear: hat trimming how-to's in the future! If you like these styles, take a look at this hat from

Another example of this hat is shown below, from "Dangerous Liasons."
Variations on the shallow crowned hat include turning up one side , or turning up two sides (to make a bi-corn). It appears that ladies seldom wore tri-corn straw hats, but I wouldn't put it past them. Some variants are show in "The Duchess" and "Marie Antoinette."

The Picture Hat

Another Great Hat, seen later in the century, known today as "the picture hat." I'm sure it had a proper name back then (as all these do). I liken this most to Kentucky Derby or Ascot hats still worn today. The hat in the portrait inspired a huge picture hat in "The Duchess," seen at the top of this article.

If you like this style, the best priced do-it-yourselfers I've found are at Berkeley Hat. The two shown here are the "Wide Brimmed Straw Picture Hat" (black), and the "Women's Big Wide Brim Derby Spectator Hat" (black and white). Both come in different colors. These hats can be easily decorated by trimming the edges, tying on wide ribbons and bows, and attaching a multitude of feathers. Like the Shallow Crowned hats, keep them on your head with a hat-pin, or with a ribbon tied under your chin.
Both of these hats I have found to be affordable, both under $40. However, if you love hats but hat trimming isn't your thing, and you'd just rather buy a huge hat already made up, check out for some particularly righteous custom-made headgear.

The Bonnet

Getting on towards the turn of the 19th century, bonnets began to make an appearance, and wouldn't leave for the next sixty years or so. Unfortunately, Regency style bonnets are terrifically hard to find. Once source, if you don't mind paying a lot, is Mrs. Parker's Millinery & Mercantile, which custom-makes bonnets of all 19th century periods. If you're looking to make your own, you can start with a basic form, available from

Bonnets can also be made from scratch, using a pattern like this one from McCalls (M5129). Another pattern from Butterick (B4697) contains many different styles of hat, one a bonnet and one a picture hat, which could come very in handy. Patterns will build the hat inside out with buckram and other millinery materials, which gives you maximum control over the shape and size, but it also takes the most time. Most patterns, unfortunately, are for shapes of bonnets that are too late for the Regency period, but with a little crafty tweaking, adjusting the shape should be no problem at all. I do not recommend pattern-tweakage for beginning costumers!

The Deep Crowned Hat

As of yet, I have not found a source for hats of this shape. My guess is that you will have to make it using an existing deep-crowned hat, wiring the brim, and beating it into the shape you want. It is difficult to tell just what is going on with these hats from "The Duchess," but it appears that the crown is very tall and slightly connical. The brim can be straight, turned up on one side, or turned up on two sides (bi-corn). If anybody knows where to find such a monstrosity, or has made one, please leave a comment!

Did I cover all the fabulous hats of the 18th c.? No. I covered a few styles that I've found to be awesome and doable, based on hats I've sourced from across cyberspace. There *will* be hat tutorials and more resources in the future, though, never you fear!

But if you just CAN'T WAIT to jump right in to hatmaking, here are a couple splendid dress diaries I've found:

Demode - 1780s Capote
Demode - 1780s Bergere (at bottom of page)
Jenny La Fleur - hat precis
Jenny La Fleur - another hat precis
Jenny La Fleur - shallow crowned hat

If you know of any more (and there are definitely more), feel free to add them in the comments.

References and Inspirations:

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Thursday, April 23, 2009


We Have A Winner!

As this dress has been on my mind constantly for the last week, I've been mulling over construction and shape, and here, at last, the *FINAL* sketch for the design of this gown! The yellow robe you see in the drawing is what I plan for the mock-up before I jump full-on into the feather monstrosity. The mock-up will be done up in lightweight yellow linen-rayon (a blend because linen wrinkles just by breathing on it), and worn over the gown for a costume picnic in June.

So let's talk materials in general...

For the gown, I've been debating between cotton voile or cotton lawn. Both are thin, semi-transparent, and gauzy. In my last encounter with voile, however, I found it to be THE DEVIL. It sticks together and is generally difficult to work with. Lawn is much easier to work with, though less floaty, which I think may be essential to this dress. Both of these fabrics require petticoat(s), as going without will show the world a bit too much. The solution to the problem is to use both! The top layer of the gown will be voile, the interlining lawn, and the lining layer a slim sheath of muslin (the petticoat). Three layers may sound like a lot, but the weight of these fabrics is so tissue-thin that it will not poof out the way any heavier fabric would.
Here are some sources I've found for voile and other such lovelies:

Prices range on all of these fabrics, but none are all that high, which is encouraging, since there might be quite a lot of yardage in this gown.

Here are two linens I found that looked suitable. Unlike the voile and lawn fabrics, linen is widely available in just about every color, and many blends:

The robe may or may not need to be lined, depending on the weight of the linen. The idea is for it to be floaty, summery, and cool (temperature-wise).

These fabrics will need to be ordered (boo), but once they arrive, and all other costume nonesense has been completed, I will begin the gown!

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I Can See Your [Regency] Underwear...

As noted in a previous entry, undergarments are quite possibly the single most important part of your costume. They provide the foundation upon which your dress will be built, and will alter the shape of the body to fit the ideals of decades and centuries past.

Although I have not 100% settled on what exactly I want for a gown, I figured making a "bodiced petticoat" might be a good idea. This is simply a corselette-skirt combo, and was made using two Simplicity patterns - Simplicity 4055 (gowns), and Simplicity 4052 (corset - look like it's no longer in print)

I made up the corset as-is, the only change being that I kept the straps detached so I could adjust them for lift and positioning. The skirt was the tricky part. The corset closes by tying in the center front, but to have an opening for the skirt there would likely show through the typically sheer Regency gowns that would be worn on-top. I also needed a skirt with the slimest line possible without being constricting. I used the "Skirt Front" piece from the Simplicity gown pattern as both the back and front of the petticoat. To solve the question of closing, I left top edge of the skirt free on the right side of the front, and turned under a narrow hem. When the corset is on, this free piece is pulled across the front (your ribcage/belly) and secured at the left side seam with a flat button. Problem solved. And look how nice it looks in the pictures! This will now provide a perfectly smooth front.

Depending on the neckline of the gown, I will very likely need to alter the front of the corset. As it is currently, it gaps at the front, and could be laced tighter, although the edges are overlaped as much as possible. I am thinking of cutting the center front of the corset down into something like a sweetheart neckline, which will hopefully solve both of my problems.I apologize for the "revealing" shots!

References and Inspirations

I can never recommend this book enough: Fashion: The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

Regency Movies to Watch:
-Pride and Prejudice (A&E, 1996)
-Emma (2009)
-Mansfield Park (1999)
-Sense & Sensibility
-Pride & Prejudice


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Cross-Over Necklines - 1795

Here's an awesome page choc full o' information on Regency everything, from which all these pics today have come. People nowadays tend to think in terms of decade and/or sometimes entire centuries! That is, it seems to be a belief that Regency style dress burst into existance January 1, 1800, when in fact there is a decade's worth of transitioning between styles all throughout the 1790s. Also take into account that just because something was high fashion doesn't mean everyone was wearing it - look in your own closets and tell me how many things you have, love, and still wear from 5 or more years ago? I know it's at least half my own wardrobe.

Anyway, on to today's topic, which is necklines of 1795. I've found some lovely fashion plates that show what I think is known as a cross-over dress. It looks like there are separate pieces for each bosom, like a modern halter dress or kimono-esque wrap top or dress. I find this look very flattering, and different from the scooped and gathered necklines of the 1800s and onward. If the dress IS indeed wrap-front, or cross-over front, that will solve the problem of closure and ease of getting dressed. I suspect, though, that some changes may have to be made to the undergarments...but more on that later :-)
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Is Regency A Good Idea?

I've been very on-the-fence about whether I want to go Regency era or scootch back towards the 1790s with this costume. My dilemma is that I don't like Regency. Why not? Because I find the styles very unflattering to pretty much any figure, even a skinny one.

What makes a regency dress really work?:

1. Proper undergarments - and by that I mean the corselette/bra that holds the bust way way up in the proper place. This underpinning is designed for maximum lift and clevage.
2. Proper waistline - this is related to the proper bust placement, as the empire waistline should be directly under the bust, and as high as possible. There should be no sagging over this line, and the distance between the lowest point of the scoop of the neckline and the empire waistline should be as short as possible. It appears that the empire waistline was sometimes higher than the underbust, definitely the natural underbust, which has by this time been obliterated by the corset. Bust and empire waistline faults are the number one cause of Regency Costume Fail.
3. Proper fabric - I know these dresses were made out of everything, but it seems like the lighter and more transparent the fabric, the better. The inspiration for these gowns was Ancient Greece, and drapey folds, or the Parthenon-wet-dress look was the ideal. Gauzey fabrics that drape in small folds agains the body look better than a stiff quilters cotton. Same goes for trims - the lighter the better, to match your light fabric.
4. Proper Neckline - it has to be as low as is comfortable, in both front and back. The elongation of the neck is key, and to do this, the collarbones, nape of the beck, and even a bit of shoulder are necessary (unless you just naturally have a swan neck). Decolletage was and is vitally important. Cut the necklines of those Simplicity and Butterick patterns down by at least half Hair goes hand-in-hand with the neckline. Hair must be UP in order to elongate the neck.
5. Length of skirt - short skirts that allow the feet and even ankles to be seen may be period correct, but they're unflattering. Hit the floor with those hems, and if at all possible, keep a little bit of a train in the back. Trains elongate (there's that word again!), and flutter prettily behind.

I suppose I could go on, but I won't. Remember, these are my opinions, and what I've found to be true, so take them for what they are! The big trick, of course, is to accomplish all these things precisely and perfectly, which is not an easy task. Throw in there the need to be stick-thin and long-of-limb and we may have a problem.

So back to the original making this gown on the cusp of Regency a good idea? Waistline high or natural? I have a hard time backing away from a challenge. I have not been thrilled by the images of other people's Open Robes that I've found, but I'm so mesmerized by the extant garments (see prior post) and the drawing in Janet Arnold. I know drawings and fashionplates exaggerate and idealize, though Arnold's drawing is probably pretty straight-forward. The trick is looking the part, then, 100%, no shortcuts.
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The Hair Up There - Enormous Wigs of the late 18th Century...

Much planning has already gone into The Barn Owl gown, from the undergown to the robe, to the underpinnings, and hair is not to be left out! I am mainly starting down this road because I have been looking almost entirely in vain for a good, definitive "How To" for making late 18th century wigs. It seems like everyone wants to keep this a secret (or my Google skills are fail).

Truth be told, I am completely petrified by the idea of creating this wig. I have almost none of my own hair to speak of, so I can't use extensions, falls/partials, since it will look funny. I may even have trouble blending the wig with my existing hair, and then there's always the problem of the haircolors not matching, since mine is always in a state of change.

So my intention here is to relieve the fearful and educate the curious by flopping my way through the construction of what will hopefully be Hair of Great Enormity.

The 1790s Hair of Great Enormity is essential to the costume and should be regarded as having as much importance as any piece of the dress. Without the hair, the whole ensemble just doesn't come off right. WITH the hair, you've catapulted yourself into costume awesomeness, hopefully appearing as if you've just stepped out of a painting.

Here is what I've gathered and gleaned so far...

There are two good tutorials (in English) on creating fake hair pieces, located at Vivcore's Fancy Girl site, and Kendra's Demode site. I've seen a wig of Kendra's that was splendid, but unfortunately the tutorial on her site is for a "pouf", not the one I saw in person. Her "Pouf" tutorial still has good techniques, though, that we might be able to use for the Hair of Great Enormity. Sarah over at Mode Historique has used Viv's tutorial to make some pretty amazing hair, with a little information on how she did it, but a huge gap between the first steps and the finish. Informative, none-the-less.

The basic method seems to be this:

Step 1 - acquire wig. From all accounts, this can be a full wig, weave tracks, fake or synthetic, cheap or expensive. Also get hanks of hair to be attached at the base for what is essentially a tail. Viv's tutorial has you create a partial wig by gluing the hair bits onto a pouffy form, but this seems complicated and scary. I think I will go with the full wig.

Step 2 - curl the wig up tightly. Do this either with a curling iron (if it's real hair), or a method of dipping synthetic rolls in boiling water. Since my wig will almost certainly be synthetic, and a full wig, I will have to devise a method for dipping the whole thing, which means affixing curlers to it first, then dipping, then letting it dry and reset. Kendra mentioned that she was able to curl her wig with the curling iron - this might work if the iron is on a very low setting, so I'll have to test once wig has been acquired.

Step 3 - Wig is dry/cool, so unroll the curlers (if you've dipped or hot-rolled), and run your fingers through the curls to separate them. Then pull out your trusty rat-tail comb and start teasing the bejeezes out of the hair. In my experience, this turns out bad, but let's trust it this one time. I reckon it will take quite a lot of playing with, sculpting, twisting, resculpting, finger-curling, and all manner of fiddling to get the shape and height you want. All through this, of course, there will be a cloud of hairspray slowly suffocating you.

Step 4 - hanks, tails, barrel curls. These are the pieces of hair that hang down the back or around the side. People with long hair can use their real hair, but I'm not one of those people, so I'll be going with fake hair once again. This step seems like it might be the easiest - curl a piece o' hair, sew it to the base of the wig, tucked up under the rat's nest that you'll be wearing atop your head.

By all accounts, wig should be successful and you're ready to wear it. Blending the wig with your real hair involves hairspray, pins, fiddlage, and do make sure the wig is attached securely to your head. I intend to dance in mine, so I will have to take pains to avoid the monstrosity flying off my head, hitting people in the face, or causing a nasty headache.

Photos/Pics are from "The Duchess," "Marie Antoinette," and "The Affair of the Necklace." There are lots more great photos at The Costumer's Guide To Movie Costumes.

Now, you may be mad at me because I didn't post any pictures of me actually making this wig. This is because I haven't made it yet. Rest assured I will post an extensive, in-depth, edifying tutorial when the wig actually happens!
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Friday, April 17, 2009


New Sketch

A quick sketch of the new ensemble - the undergown with an empire waist, but full through the skirt, and the open robe pretty much as it is in the Janet Arnold version.

My concern: will an empire-waisted gown with a full, gathered skirt make me look preggers? Is it just too much?

I'm also considering a sleeve on the undergown, and a cap sleeve on the robe, since I liked that image with the green robe so much. We shall see. It's always easy to not add sleeves :-).
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The Waist Conundrum...

In exploring shapes, patterns, and periods for this gown, I've run into a sort of conundrum as to what exactly I want in terms of waist. The robe I love love love is the open robe from Janet Arnold, which is a 1790s style, that lovely transitioning period between Georgian and Regency. Making this robe, however, would require that the waist of the gown underneath be an empire waist, in essence a Regency gown, which I am not all that fond of. The chances of me taking off the feather robe and wearing just the under-gown for dancing and temperature control are high, and I want to look and feel nice in whatever that gown ends up to be. Originally, I wanted to make a chemise dress, with the waist at the natural waist, like Kendra's, Jenny's, and Sarah's. However, it might look a little odd to cross 18th c. decades, and have a waistline and sash sticking out from under the robe.

Enter dress research! As mentioned before, the 1790s were an interesting, confused time in terms of waistlines, cut of dress, bulk of dress, etc.. Moving from the intense gowns of the late 18th c. to the simple, sleek, and vastly different gowns of the early 1800s provided a strange amalgamation that I'm not totally sure I'm fond of. I DO get to have my robe and wear it too, though. And so I found these images:

This 1790s dress is a bit odd - it appears to be somewhere between the natural waist and the empire waist in the front, and then

curve up sharply to be above the natural waist in the back, with excessive pleating all around. I do not like this dress, but it perfectly illustrates this odd conglomoration of waistline common to this decade.

After looking a bit more, I came up with some example of the robe being wor at the waist. It's not visible behind the fan, but it looks about right in this image with the pink dress and the ginormous muff.

Another mystery image - this photo of the back of an open robe, which again appears to be high in back and lower than an empire waist in front.

Now here's a beautiful image, this short-sleeved open robe worn over, again, a higher-than-natural-lower-than-empire waisted chemise gown. This ensable is getting quite a bit closer to how the Barn Owl Gown will look.
And finally I found this next image, an open robe worn at the natural waist, over a gown also with a natural waist. This is the closest image I have found for what I think I want, with a couple changes to the sleeves, and the neckline.
However, there is still something extremely charming about the first image in this post - the empire-waisted robe with what is essentially a Regency gown beneath. It may come down to a matter of complexity and my willingness to try to drape a pattern or use an existing one. I have a fairly decent Regency gown pattern that I have worked with before and found to be rather pretty and easy. With some adjustments to the front (I want gathers all the way down the front), the back, the sleeves, and the length, it may just be better to go with the high-waisted 1790s transitional look than to attempt to craft something from scratch. I'm having a hard time thinking a between-waistlines gown would be flattering, and I'm reluctant to extend the lines of the regency bodice down a little for that reason. And so I think my mind is made up! Watch for upcoming construction details on the undergown, as it is to be worn for a picnic in mid-June, along with the mockup of the robe, which will be draped from scratch :-).
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