Monday, May 25, 2009

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A Wild Hair : When Good Wigs Gets Better

At about 3 A.M. one morning I decided my 18th century "big wig" just wasn't big enough. It's not that I thought it ugly, it just wasn't the right shape. It was also beginning to deflate, so initially I set out to take all the pins out of it, tease the roots some more, and re-pile the hair (see this tutorial to learn how to do this).

This is precisely what I did, only to create the same thing over again - the same shape, the same weight, the same size. I took the wig down again and teased it more, this time finally figuring out the *proper* way to tease, which would be to hold onto just a couple strands of the hair chunk and let the rest run up the hair-shafts. My teasing frenzy produced excellent results: an enormous ball of wild fluff. It was still too long, though.

It was then that my crazy and delirious side espied the scissors sitting innocently on the table. I snatched them up and began lobbing off the ends of the hair that were still hanging down belong the Hair Cloud. More teasing and more clipping, plus two or three pins to hold back the front chunks o' hair, and I had something outstanding.

I put the wig on - already it was half the weight - and stared at myself in the mirror for at least two whole minutes, thinking I looked shockingly Duchessque. Feeling quite happy with myself, I put the Hair Cloud back on the block, and went off to sleep satisfied. A job well done!

So, what did we learn from Lauren's wild hair-hacking adventure?...
1) buy a shorter wig. Try to find one about shoulder-length, and already quite curly.
2) tease the proper way - this is hard to explain, but "let the hair slip through your finger as you back-comb it, instead of hanging onto it"
3) you don't need 1039109 bobbypins, just a few to hold the front pieces in place.

Go to it, girls!
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Saturday, May 23, 2009


The Amazing Crafthat Pt. Deux : Finishing!

When we last looked at our friend The Amazing Crafthat, the crown had been cut off and the brim shaped into a lovely curve, using the spray-bottle method.

Now it's time to finish it up! The basic construction of this hat - capote, mob cap, whatever you want to call the thing - is rather simple.

1 - I cut out a very large circle of my fashion fabric, in this case some of the yellow linen I had leftover from the robe, and ran a gathering stitch around the outside. I gathered up the circle to fit the opening in at the crown of the hat.

2 - For easy construction, I stitched the gathered crown to a piece of bias tape, using a zigzag stitch. I then attached the bias tape to the straw brim by first pinning it into place (just stick the pins through), then using a running stitch and strong upholstery thread to stitch it to the straw.

3 - The interior of the hat, where the straw brim met the fabric, needed finishing too, so calling on the power of the Glue of the Gods (hot glue gun!), I glued a piece of bias tape over the raw edge of the straw.

4 - Put the thing on and see how it looks! The crown was pretty floppy, and I could see that I was going to want to stuff it with some tulle to get it to stand up and puff out. With a little more forethought I would have flat-lined the linen with tulle, although I'm not sure how controllable the flop would be using that method. Try it and tell me!

5 - Trimmings! There is no right nor wrong way to trim a hat. For mine, I glue a wide green ribbon over the white bias tape, leaving the tails long in the back. I attached a rhinestone buckle at the front, and a couple large ostrich plumes, which I bent along the quill a bit to get them to curve nicely. This was all done with the Glue of the Gods.For these photos, I stuffed the top of the hat with a plastic bag full of polyester fill that had been lovingly ripped out of a stuffed toy by my puppy (who sometimes appears on this blog!). It worked really well for puffing it up, and I can get an idea of how the tulle will work. And, of course, the hat must be worn with the wig on, or else it just doesn't look as smashing as it really is.
So a very simple, fun little evening project to really "top off" your costume! Have at it, ladies!
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Monday, May 18, 2009

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Behind the Masque: Owl Mask Concept and References

What is more intriguing than and 18th c. Masquerade (and it's masks)?

American Duchess' first monster project, which all the dress diary entries so far have been working towards, is the notorious fully-feathered 1795 Owl Robe. The monster is to be made for the Halloween events this year (2009), which are two costume dance events (Gaskells and Vampyres), and any other events that pop up and need attending. And thus, to accompany the Monster, an equally monstrous, enormous, and impressive *MASK* must be fabricated.

So let's look at what's out there:

Turkey tails, wings, and dyed feathers. Pheasant plumage from the back.

These look like rock (chicken) feathers that have been dyed.Black rooster schlappen - a LOT of it. I love the height on this mask.

Pheasant tailfeathers, from what I can see. The gold feathers are likely paper or pressed, thin aluminum.

All of these mask images are from Google searches across the web, no particular vendor or source.

The inspiration for my mask, aside from the owl of course, is Carnivale in Venice. This event is the master of over-the-top, and a must see for everyone interested in costume (no, I have not been, but it is on my bucket list). The masks are hauntingly gorgeous, with fantastic attention to detail, topped off with towering headdresses of feathers, beads, sumptuous fabrics, you name it.

My own version of the towering headdress will start with my biggest Wig Of Great Enormity. Into that I shall stick at least three tall ostrich plumes. The face mask will extend upwards from the eyes - this is a half mask, so I can breath and hopefully keep the thing on all night.

Thus far the concept is only half-materialized in my head. I know I want big, I know I want tall, and I know I want feathers by the bushel. The face of the owl will be as realistic as possible, which will likely involve sculpting the mask, perhaps on top of an existing plastic form, or perhaps from scratch. Some of the robe feathers (strung rooster schlappen) will almost certainly be used, as well as long Turkey wingfeathers, possibly pheasant tails, and if I can manage it, I'd like to attach some fanned wings. Somewhere in my mind I have the knowledge that feathers can be bleached and dyed. If this is indeed true, and does not require some horrid chemical that will kill my braincells, then I will attempt to bleach whatever wings I can scrounge from my "source," and then fleck on some black dye or paint spots to mimic the coloration of barn owl wings. The wings I may have access to will be dove, quail, chukar, grouse, or pheasant - game birds only.I imagine mask-making to be much like hat-making: it sortof leads itself and becomes what it wants to be. I will keep in mind my general concept, but let the mask develop, once the time arrives to start making it.
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Butterick 18th C. Stays - In Progress "Glamour"

For all the corset and bodies I've made, the 18th c. version, called "stays," is new to me. I picked up a Butterick (B4484) pattern some years ago and have finally gotten around to putting it together.

And for all the corset and bodies I've made, I couldn't leave well enough alone, and after some research and reasoning, completely threw out the boning instructions included in the pattern, and decided to do it my own way. I did this primarily because I had read reviews of the pattern noting the trouble with the horizontal, curved boning at the bust truncating in on itself. I did not need nor want a solid front curve, as seen in the image at left, so I opted for straight, vertical boning, like this one from the Silly Sisters:

The stays are not yet finished. I have hand sewn half the bias binding onto the top neck edges and around the armyscyes. The boning is in - WAY too many zipties - and the bottom tabs are ready to be bound as well.

The corset is a dream to wear! It does wonders for the chest as well as posture (which is my WORST asset!), and the tabs keep it from pinching into the waist. I have made mine reversible, with yellow/white stripes on one side, and the pretty floral on the other. The corset is interlined with canvas, and features adjustable straps that will be tied with delicious, fat, pink satin ribbons.

While this underpinning will not be worn under the 1795 chemise gown, it is an absolute essential to the 18th c. ladies wardrobe.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Top 5 18th c. Costume Blogs On the Web

The time has come for the first official "Duchess Awards" to be given out for five of the best costume blogs around, covering 18th century costuming. These sites, updated and maintained regularly by avid historical costumers, feature dress diaries, tutorials, research, links, helpful tips and hints, and generally a wealth of information useful and vital to the costume community. So without further ado...

1. Demode
Expertly covering the 18th c. as well as other eras, Kendra keeps an enormously helpful site choc full o' research databases, dress diaries, reference images, and useful links. Her commentary is both entertaining and insightful, and she takes the time to explain to us costume novices, often step-by-step, her methods and motives.

2. Jenny La Fleur
Is there any 18th c. outfit Jenny hasn't made? Her dress diaries are thorough, with plenty of photos of the construction processes as well as finished (and worn!) garments. Her research is sound, commentary refreshing, and costumes well-built and accurate.

3. Mode Historique
Sarah's site covers Medieval through Victorian, with a hearty stop by the 18th c. She has detailed dress diaries of her beautiful gowns as well as helpful entries on accessories such as hair, pockets, and shoes.

4. Katherine's Dress Site (Koshka the Cat)
Katherine's site features in-depth dress diaries, an antique clothing gallery, and fashion plates, as well as lots of photos of her finished costumes. It is easy to navigate, and quite useful, with a section on patterns and tutorials and a past events archive.

5. FancyGirl
Vivien's beautifully designed "modern ladies' book" features not just costume, but inspiration and motivation for an 18th c. lifestyle. Her fly fringe and knotting tutorials are priceless, along with her how-to on 18th c. hair. Viv is an incredibly talented Lolita designer who incorporates historically accurate 18th c. styles into her modern wardrobe.


Understandably, there are tons more dress blogs and sites that we here at American Duchess have never even seen. If you would like to nominate a blog for a Duchess Award, please post a link in the comments section - and don't be shy if it's your own blog!
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Thursday, May 7, 2009


I'm NOT Crazy! - Examples of Incredible Feather Gowns

Holy Mackerel! Look what I found wandering the interwebs! This is an Yves Saint Laurent gown made of pheasant and vulture (vulture!?) feathers. It's GORGEOUS!! I don't have access to vultures, but perhaps a variety of feathers wouldn't be a bad idea?

Oh it gets better, or just as good. Here is a pre-Colombian parrot feather robe, currently on display at the Art & History Museum in Brussels, Belgium. The Incans wore elaborate feather capes and robes, and this is a gorgeous example of the stacked-feather method I plan to use.

Another absolutely stunning, and apparently ghastly expensive, full-skirted gown covered in peacock feathers. Apparently this dress, with a very long train, is made with 2009 peacock feathers, and took the factory workers in China 40 days to sew it. It's worth well over $2 million.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

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Hair of Great Enormity - a Practical How-To...

Get ready ladies. This is the post you've all been waiting for! A step-by-step guide to creating 18th c. monster hair from a long synthetic wig.

So by now you've got your wig and you're itching to destroy its pre-set prettiness and fluff it into a 1790s beast. Okay then...

What You Will Need (besides your wig):
- a curling iron with a very low setting. 1" diameter will work, or smaller
- a Mega Can O' Aquanet or some comparable hairspray
- hair clips, the flat hinged ones.
- a rat-tailed comb
- bobby pins
- a spray bottle (with water in it, yes)

Step 1 - Curl It. The great test was seeing if the synthetic hair would curl with a curling iron. I put the iron on the lowest setting, combed out and wet the chunk of hair I was working with, then sprayed it with my Mega Can O' Aquanet, and wrapped the hank of hair around the curling iron, starting close to the 'roots' and twisting the hair around, NOT clamping the end and curling up. I held the curl for about 10-15 seconds, then removed the iron and pinned the curl in place with a flat clip. Depending on your curling iron and your wig, the time may be more, less, or this might not work at all. TEST this on a piece near the base of the neck before going any further. Curl the entire head. The smaller the hanks of hair the better, and the tighter the curl the better.

Step 2 - Let the curls cool in their pinned position, then remove all the clips and shake the whole wig out. Don't be dainty about this, really get in ther and froof it, holding it upside and shaking it. (SHAKE IT!). Put the wig back on the wigblock.

Step 3 - Tease. This is the scary part. Start teasing the roots of the hair with your rat-tailed comb. (back-comb at the roots to get the hair to bunch up and tangle into a rat's nest). Do this at the crown (top of the head), but leave the front couple pieces out of this. Tease all across the tops and on the sides as well, until you have a huge mass of unsightly craziness on top of the head. This is the part where I started freaking out, but I forged ahead...

Step 4 - This is when I realized my wig was perhaps too long. I had the ratted-up craziness, but still quite a lot of hair hanging down. This is the step that everyone else has left out of their hair tutorials, diaries, and instructions, so pay special attention! Take up a hank of hair and loop it up to the top of the ratted crown. The curled tails of the hank should be hanging down on the sides of the head. Pin the loop to the rat's nest using a bobbypin. Do this for all of the hair, covering your 'tracks' with the curly ends hanging down. In essence you are shortening the length. This is not unlike creating a Pouf or a Gibson Girl hairstyle. The rat is the base and you are pinning into it, but leaving the ends to fly free. This step takes a lot of fiddling and styling. Whip out your Mega Can O' Aquanet and have at it. Keep ratting and pinning until all the hair is up, with the exception of the "tail" that will hang down over your shoulder.

Step 5 - You're pretty much finished! Fluff, tease, and pull the hair in to shape. Late 18th c. hair tends to go as much out the sides as it does upwards, so pull the hair in these directions.

Step 6 - That barrel curl. For this I have not had much luck. You can try to do it with the curling iron, but for some reason I burned the hair when I did it and had to cut that section off. I also tried the boiling method, which almost completely ruined the hank. With that freaky curving that happens when synthetic hair starts to melt, I decided to braid it up again and while this doesn't look nearly as nice or elegant, it may be the only option for now. A last saving grace may be to take a trip to the beauty supply store, buy a hank of REAL hair to match, curl THAT into the notorious barrel curl, and sew it into the wig. We shall see.

So at some point, you're going to put this thing on to see just how awesome it looks. Here's my reaction when I affixed the monster to my head:

I somehow thought this wig, whilst it was on the block, was not all that much bigger than my cheapy (see previous entry)...until I put it on, but WOW, BIG! Pajamas and an old t-shirt didn't help the shock of it, but tossing on the unfinished straw hat did! It looked GREAT! After more pinning, floofing, and futzing, it looked even better. I tossed on a stray Robe a l'Anglaise and was quite impressed at how the wig looked better still! Ladies and Gentlemen, we have acheived Hair of Great Enormity!Now, this doesn't look anything like the wig in "The Duchess." Perhaps some day in the future I will try try again, but for now I am quite happy with this attempt. If I had it to do over again, however, here are things I would consider:

- get a shorter, curlier wig. I spent all that time curling up the wig when I should have just bought the curliest one I could find. If all you can find is a long curly wig, consider trimming it a bit.
- try a wig like this one, and tease the bejeezes out of it to get it to stand up at the roots and frouf out. Attach a separate hank of hair at the neckline by sewing it to the wig cap.
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Monday, May 4, 2009


1795 Open Robe: The Sheety Toile

The time has come to create the pattern for the 1795 Open Robe! I printed out my scan of the Janet Arnold "Patterns of Fashion" robe and was pleased to see that it was pretty much straight panels of fabric with some pleating. Not so very hard at all!

This is the first time I have scaled up a gridded pattern from a book. My first attempt, I actually drew the grid out on a piece of newsprint, and painstakingly drew in each little line per grid box, which took forever. The pleating lines on the front of the robe pattern are not straight, but curved, which proved especially "fun." My second attempt, for the back piece of the pattern, I spent 20 minutes digging out a pad of 18x24 Vellum buried deep in the underbelly of the bed, amongst a graveyard of old art projects and dust bunnies. Vellum is a dream paper for patterning - it's far heavier than tracing paper, but just as transparent. Unfortunately it's expensive, and I'd bought this pad many years ago for art school, used one piece of the stuff, and stashed it. I'm happy to find a use for it now!

I wasn't about to draw out another grid, so I got out my rotary cutting mat, which I rediscovered had a convenient 1" grid on it, and layed a piece of vellum over it, taping the paper down. The second piece of the pattern, thus, emerged at least three times as quickly.

I pulled out what used to be pretty floral sheets and cut out my two pattern pieces, then proceeded to pleat and pleat and pleat some more, coming quickly to the realization that this pattern was deceptively hard and OH MY GOSH WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF IN TO!? I tossed the drafted pattern pieces aside in frustration and went to draping my "better" version of at least the front piece of the robe. I mean, how hard could it be, it's just two strips running down the side of the torso and a little wrap around to the side-back seam.......right?

WRONG. One of the most appealing things about this pattern, to me, is how the bodice seams are tight through the back, then flare out into the beautiful double box pleats and all the way down into the skirt, with no seam at the empire waist. No seam at the waist makes this loads more difficult, and I realized that all that pleating on the front shoulder straps, for the original pattern, was indeed necessary to allow the skirt to fall over the hips and to the floor in the way it is supposed to.

It was then that I realized, in all my internet searching and dress diary stalking, that I had seen a handful of open robes, all based on the Janet Arnold pattern, but all of them had been simplified. All had a seam at the waist, and the front pleating had been taken out or greatly reduced. However, with my stubborness and insistence on princess seams, I forged ahead....

So I picked up my discarded original Janet Arnold pattern pieces and tried again, free-form pleating with the lines as a loose guide, and fitting to my dress form as I went. The back piece, thank goodness, really is fairly simple, but I found that it was TINY. The lady who wore this robe originally must have been 4 feet high! Luckily, I had draped a back piece and was able to cut, splice, tape, adjust, and smash together my draped pattern and the original Janet Arnold pattern to create a final pattern that actually worked. GLEE!

Note: I did not create a paper pattern for the entire length of this robe, which is nearly 2.5 yards. I patterned the bodice only, and then extended 45" from the bottom of the pattern, which ends at the natural waist. The extensions are just straight panels, so it was quite easy.

Now, I know that costumers work off their draped fabric pieces and add seam allowance as they cut and all that, but I like to have paper patterns all worked out before I cut anything. This pattern presented a challenge for transferring to paper, however, because of all the irregular pleating lines. Vellum to the rescue once again! I simply put a piece of vellum over the top of the fabric piece and traced away, then removed it, added seam allowance, and that was it!

Of course, those lines must then be transferred to the fabric of choice. To do this, I traced over the pencil lines on the vellum with a black Sharpy. I could see the Sharpy through the thin cotton sheeting, which allowed me to trace out the lines again onto the fabric. For my cotton toile I traced them in Sharpy marker, but for the final fabric definitely use a light pencil or something that will not be seen or will wash out!

With all the markings transferred, it was just a matter of pleating it up and sewing it all together. I did not pleat and press the double and triple box pleats in the back before sewing the edges together, but I would recommend doing so, since it'll be easier to wrestle them into place if they are pressed in the proper shape already.

I made some adjustments on the straps, to get the back panel to fit snuggly across the shoulders, but other than that, the thing actually fits. I have yet to make the front piece that crosses under the bust to keep the robe closed. Right now it's held together with two handy shoelaces. But golly, how does it look!? I'm truly amazed at how gorgeous this thing is already, and I almost can't believe I successfully scaled a Janet Arnold pattern all by my lonesome.

One little kicker - I am pretty sure I ordered not nearly enough yellow linen for the summer version of the robe. The fabric is 54" wide, so folded in half that's 27", and that's not enough. Boo. One solution is to reduce the triple box pleat at the center back to a double box pleat. I will have to see if that works when the fabric gets here....
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