Monday, July 29, 2013

Artefact Focus: Up close and personal with 1750s Stays

Corset, sateen/linen/metal, England, c.1750. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney - A8211-33

I'm currently in the process of writing a blog post about the history of corsetry for the Powerhouse Museum on behalf of the Australian Dress Register. As a result I was able to go down to the basement and have a look at all the extant stays and corsets in the museum's collection.

As Australia only began to be colonised by Europeans at the beginning of the long nineteenth-century (the first fleet reached Australian shores at Botany Bay in January 1788), most of the museum's collection is from the nineteenth century to present. During the 1980s the museum bought up a great deal of eighteenth century textiles (which I may blog about later), however these stays were donated by the Australian underwear company Berlei Hestia. I wasn't able to view the acquisition records so before its donation to the museum I don't know of any other provenance. It would be interesting to know how Berlei came to own it - maybe someone brought it with them to Australia as an heirloom, or maybe they just bought it at auction, who knows?

"The corset probably began life as a high quality garment, possibly for formal dress. It is likely that it was much worn and passed on either into lesser service as a second best or onto servants or other persons. This corset is anomalous in that it has no shoulder straps. It is possible that stomacher of this corset was joined at a later date to make a simpler back fastening."

The stays are made of sateen and linen, are fully boned with longer straight bodied front, straight cut at top, without shoulder straps and lace up at the back. It would be interesting to know what colour the stays were originally, as there appears to be two different colours of material used, one for the front piece and another for the side and back pieces.

The stays are fully boned with whalebone (baleen), with the boning placed between multiple layers of buckram linen and anchored in place by rows of parallel stitching. According to the conservation notes at the museum, there is a horizontal bone around the top front, although I didn't see it. As the sewing machine wasn't invented until the latter nineteenth century the stays are completely hand sewn - look how neat that stitching is!

Boning detail, buckram, centre front seam and yarn loops.
There is also a centre front seam with binding and a series of yarn loops (which you can see in the lower left hand corner in the picture above) that run down both sides of front to base, possibly for attaching a stomacher?

Centre back fastening with bound eyelets
There are ten bound eyelets down one side of centre back to just below the waist. The other side now missing and opening stitched together.

Lower tabs bound with leather
Lower edge tabbed below waist and bound with leather as you can see in the picture above. The tabbed area and eyelet side is also lined with finer fabric.

Leather trim around the top of the stays
The top of the stays as well as the tabs are trimmed with leather that now worn white and has a vandyked edge, and this trim extends from side front around to back.


I couldn't really get a good view of the lining due to the way that the corset is mounted for display, however, according to conservation, the linen lining has been replaced several times (this is possibly its third lining), attesting to the fact that these stays saw a lot of use and were possibly re-gifted many times.

I hope this has been interesting to anyone who is interested in eighteenth century fashion, costume design or for anyone who is planning on make their own set of mid century fully boned stays. If you want more information here's the link to the stays on the Powerhouse Museum website:

And don't forget to check out the Australian Dress Register!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

1760s-1770s Underpinnings: Design and Inspiration

The Dreamstress's Historical Sew Fortnightly has prompted me to finally to get around to making some proper eighteenth century underpinnings – stays and pocket hoops.

The Challenge: 

"#19 - ‘Wood, Metal, Bone’: Cloth may be the most obvious material in historic costuming, but wood, metal, and bone are just as important to creating the right look and silhouette. They are often, literally, the foundations of a period garment."

For this challenge I was originally going to get started on my Restoration court gown from the seventeenth century. However, I want to make this dress in a silk satin and the cost of fabric is where my problem lies. Silk satin in Australia costs anywhere from $35-$50 per metre, and at the moment I really can’t justify spending that much.

I am however going to SE Asia for two months at the end of the year, and there are LOTS of fabric stores in places like Thailand that are bound to have lots of silks. So I’m going to buy up big when I’m over there. I plan on buying the silk satin for my Restoration gown and hopefully find a silk brocade or silk jacquard from my 1760-1770s robe à l’anglaise, which I intend to make to put over new underpinnnings.


I’ve opted to make a pair of half boned stays with straps, rather than fully boned ones without. Although fully boned, strapless stays were still used in the 1770s and 80s (as many people held onto their stays for many years, simply replacing the lining and mending them when it was needed), these were the more fashionable ones for the 20 year period that I'm looking at. The placement of the boning (on a deep angle on the sides) in this style also lends itself to create more of a cone shape on the body, whereas earlier fully boned styles the boning was place in a more vertical, up and down placement which did not mold the body as much.

The inspiration:

My main inspiration for the stays is an extant pair dated 1770-1790 that is the collection of the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. According to the V&A they are made from silk damask, lined with linen and reinforced with whalebone.


Stays, England, 1770-1790, Victoria & Albert Museum. T.909-1913

Although I absolutely love the deep crimson colour of these stays, I want to be able to wear them under any eighteenth century garment, including a chemise à la reine which is made from quite a sheer white cotton.
I don’t however just want a plain white pair of stays (where’s the fun in that?!), so I’ve decided to go for a soft, baby blue colour. Silk damask is very hard to find, not to mention really expensive, so after doing a bit of looking around I’ve found this baby blue silk brocade fabric from

The pattern:

I’m slowly teaching myself the art of patternmaking, however I’m not quite confident enough to draft a pair of eighteenth century stays from scratch, so I do need a pattern to work with. The unfortunate thing about being in Australia is that a lot of the really good historically accurate pattern making companies can be difficult and expensive to source from. After asking the ladies of the Historical Fortnightly Facebook group what patterns are best to use for 18th century attire, JP Ryan was the most suggested.

I went on her site and I was ready to buy her half boned stays pattern and her robe à l’anglaise pattern but then I realised that to order the appropriate sizing for the gown I’d have to measure myself with my stays on, only they obviously don’t exist yet. If I lived in the US I’d go ahead and just buy one pattern, make it and then order the other. But since UPS changed their fees, it’s a flat rate of $20 to get anything shipped to Australia, so I wasn’t about to pay $20 to ship one pattern and then another $20 to ship the other.
So I had to keep looking. That’s when I came across this pattern from Butterick,  B4254.

After doing a bit of searching around and reading blog posts from other historical sewers, the general consensus is that it will make a historically accurate pair of stays with the correct modifications. To help make these modifications I’ve decided to use this diagram from ‘Corsets and Crinolines’ by Norah Waugh.

As well as original patterns and sketches from the ‘Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire rasisonné des sciences, des arts and des métiers’ also known as the Diderot Encyclopedia, which was a series of volumes published between 1751-72 that dealt with science, arts and craft trades including stay making.


So basically I intend to use the shape and size of the pattern pieces from the butterick pattern (reshaping where necessary), but use historical guides above to work out the placement of the boning and use original construction techniques.


Unlike the stays, the pocket hoops seem relatively straightforward and what’s better the commercial patterns that include these actually seem pretty historically correct.

I’ve decided to use the pieces from a pattern that I already have Simplicity 4092 and follow the guide provided by the Dreamstress here. Unlike the stays these are just going to be made from a very plain cream linen.

It appears that pocket hoops fell out of fashion by the mid 1770s and wider, more oval panier hoops became more fashionable in court wear. The robe à l’anglaise I plan on making will date between 1760-1780 so I’m not going to bother to make the paniers – yet!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Old Hollywood Glamour: 1930s White Bias Cut Evening Gown

I always like a good excuse to make and wear a historical garment. A murder mystery party set in 1936 that my housemate decided to throw was the perfect opportunity to make another 1930s evening gown.

I have previously made an early 1930s dress in red. However, this time I wanted to make one in a light colour that was so popular on Hollywood actresses such as Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard during the period, especially as my assigned character was an American actress.

Carole Lombard, 1933

Jean Harlow, 1933

Paulette Goddard, 1935

Marion Davies, mid-1930s

At first I wanted to do something similar to the white dress that Reese Witherspoon wears in Water for Elephants.

But then I sketched this design (to which a slit in the front was later added):


I used the reproduction 1930s pattern I had made previously to help draft my own for the skirt of the dress. I still wanted the same drape that this patter provided, just different seams. So I created a mock-up from scrap material using this pattern and then drawing in where I wanted to seam lines, before cutting it and then using these as the pattern pieces. Whilst the top of the dress was drafted completely from scratch.


For this project the drafting was the hardest part. Not only did I have to do a mock-up but the original fabric (which was a non stretch silver-white satin) and the original design, with the curved hip seam lines, didn't work - after I'd spent at least a day sewing. Why? Because the fabric frayed A LOT. In fact there was so much fraying that the dress just started to split at the seams.

So, I was forced to start again. Eventually I decided to go with something different, which was hard because there were too many design ideas in my head to choose from! So I told myself that I had to just pick something and make it. Finally I settled on creating something similar to this gown from the film 'Glorious 39'.

Glorious 39 Screencaps courtesy of The Butterfly Balcony

It ticked all the boxes: it had a slit up the centre of the top like I originally planned, and it also had a halter neck type effect, without actually being one. Not that halternecks were uncommon in the 1930s. In fact the 1930s was when the halterneck became big... really big, and was popularised by famous designers such as Madeleine Vionnet. 
Evening Gown by Madeleine Vionnet,  1936-1938
I just decided against the halterneck because I wanted to have a really deep plunging back that was also popularised during the 1930s.

My 'Glorious 39' inspiration is also very period accurate and certainly reminds me of a few contemporary dresses from the mid 1930s.

Joan Crawford, 1935

The new fabric I chose was a bright white stretch satin (the same type I previously used for my other 1930s dress). The dress is cut on the bias, as most evening gowns were during the 1930s, and this makes it hug the curves, drape spectacularly and the stretch makes it easy to put on over my head  (I didn't want to put an invisible zip into the dress as it is not historically accurate to my knowledge).

I tried to research whether stretch satin was common in the 1930s - after all it was the decade when synthetic fabrics such as rayon became really popular. I think my fabric is made from a polyester blend, and this fibre wasn't used in clothing until the 1940s. So the fabric is probably the least historically accurate part of the dress, but I wasn't about to go out and spend $100+ on silk.

Rather than throwing it away I decided to cut up my fraying dress and use it to draft the final gown:
Pattern pieces made from the failed first dress before the cutting
After all the hassle I'd been through previously the new dress went together like a dream. I decided against lining the whole dress and only lined the top section with a nude coloured lining.

Side seam detail on skirt

After all the hemming was done I finished it off by adding an antique silver marcasite brooch that I inherited. I think its probably from the 1940s, but hey that can be our little secret!

The only thing I regret about the design is that where the top meets the skirt under the bust, it forms quite a straight line whereas in most of the designs during this period the skirts met the top in a 'triangle' shape like this:
McCall's pattern # 9919 from 1938

Regardless, it doesn't take away from the authenticity of the dress as many other designs from the period show that the bust of the dress was connected to the skirt without forming this triangle shape, like Wallis Simpson's wedding dress below.

Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, 1937
Overall I love this dress and besides a couple of tiny sewing errors that you would only notice if I pointed them out, this is probably one of the best things I've made to date. So without further adieu I give you my 1930s Old Hollywood Glamour white bias cut evening gown (complete with my attempt at old Hollywood posing!):

Just because we could...

And one from the murder mystery party...
The 1936 Watersdown Murder Suspects...

The Challenge: #15: White
Fabric:  4 metres of white stretch satin, 0.5 metre of nude coloured lining
Pattern: I drafted my own pattern with the help of an original pattern c. 1930 from the Vintage Pattern Lending Library [link].
Year: It could really work for nearly the whole decade. However its probably most accurate to the mid 1930s.
Notions: White thread and an antique silver marcasite brooch.
How historically accurate is it? The fabric I used isn't historically accurate as its a stretch satin made from  a polyester blend (silk olamé would have been better). The lining isn't accurate either. 85-90% accurate.
Hours to complete: If you include all the drafting and the first dress I made that failed probably about 20 hours.
First worn: To a 1930s murder mystery dinner party.
Total cost: $60 for the finished product + $26 for the fabric that went into the failed first dress.