Friday, July 22, 2011

A Royal Display from "that" Special Day

The Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress
The Duchess of Cambridge's Sarah Burton/Alexander McQueen wedding gown,
currently on display in the regal surroundings of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace.
Photo linked from the British Monarchy flickr stream.

Today, the Duchess of Cambridge got a new perspective on some of her last memories as Kate Middleton.  Side by side with Queen Elizabeth, she toured a new display that will open tomorrow at Buckingham Palace and which will be a featured part of the Palace's Summer Opening public touring season.  "The Royal Wedding: A Story of Great British Design" features the Duchess's now-iconic Sarah Burton/Alexander McQueen wedding gown, along with her veil and shoes.  It also showcases the stunning jewels worn for the occasion: the Cartier "Halo" tiara lent by the Queen, and the earrings given to the bride as a wedding gift from her parents.  A reproduction of the bridal bouquet and the wedding cake - yes, the real thing, still mostly intact! - complete the royal display commemorating "the" wedding of a generation.

Royal Collection curator Caroline de Guitaut arranges the train of the wedding gown.
Photo linked from

By far the best thing about this exhibit - made even more thrilling because it can be fully enjoyed even by those of us who live across the pond and are too far to be able to go! - is the tremendous and unprecedented amount of detail the Royal Collection offers online about the gown and the other items from the display.  At long last, we have photos that allow us a very fine and up-close look at the incredibly intricate craftsmanship that makes this simple yet elegant gown such a landmark creation of British fashion.  Be sure to check out the zoomable photos of the gown (and that lace, oh that lace) on the gown detail page, and don't miss the podcast with Royal Collection curator Caroline de Guitaut, which not only includes a fascinating discussion of the gown's design, but also a supplemental set of photos with even more views of this special piece of royal fashion history.  The podcast is a treasure in itself, well worth the time.

Detail of the gorgeous lace-covered bodice of the wedding gown.
Photo linked from

Additional photos of the gown and other pieces can be found on the official British Monarchy photostream on flickr and on

Admission to the exhibit is included with the ticket to the Buckingham Palace State Rooms and can be purchased online.  The Summer Opening begins tomorrow and extends through the 3rd of October.  Further information can be found on the Royal Collection website, and the press release about the exhibit can be viewed here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jane Austen Still the Millions

Today, one of the few surviving manuscripts written in Jane Austen's own hand sold at Sotheby's in London for $1.6 million, tripling its estimate.  The draft is a fragment of a novel called "The Watsons," which Austen began in 1804 and never completed.  Today's sale included the 68 pages that form the latter part of the autograph manuscript; during WWI, the first 12 pages were auctioned in a Red Cross benefit and are now owned by the Morgan Library, where they are occasionally put on special display.

A number of journalists and bloggers reporting this news today express wonder at the buyer's desire to spend such a prodigious sum on pages that are now readily available online.  Thanks to Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts, a joint project to digitize and make freely available images of every known Austen autograph manuscript, anyone can fully access - up very close! - the auctioned fragment of "The Watsons," as well the portion owned by the Morgan, alongside other Austen works.  It is a three-year project that, in its finished form, hopes to bring together once again the over 1,000 pages of the Austen "archive" that were dispersed amongst the Austen family in 1845.

A page from the auctioned "Watsons" fragment.

But it isn't hard to see the appeal of the physical pages...even $1.6 million worth of it.  In an article about the launch of the Manuscripts website, Professor Kathryn Sutherland outlined an often neglected corner of Austen studies: her compositional and editorial processes.  Sutherland explains that even a cursory glance at Austen's manuscripts reveals how different the author's manuscript prose is from its published version, mostly thanks to her editor, likely William Gifford.  The article goes on to detail:
"Gifford was a classical scholar known for being quite a pedant. He took Austen's English and turned it into something different - an almost Johnsonian, formal style," Prof Sutherland said.
"Austen broke many of the rules for writing 'good' English. Her words were jumbled together and there was a level of eccentricity in her spelling - what we would call wrong.
"She has this reputation for clear and elegant English but her writing was actually more interesting than that. She was a more experimental writer than we give her credit for. Her exchanges between characters don't separate out one speaker from another, but that can heighten the drama of a scene.
"It was closer to the style of Virginia Woolf. She was very much ahead of her time."
Part of my time at Oxford involed a bibliography class taught by Professor Sutherland.  Her book on her study of Austen's manuscripts, Jane Austen's Textual Lives, had just been released, so (luckily for me!) many of her examples during the class were drawn directly from that research.  We were priviledged to hear in detail about the discoveries she had made simply by choosing to look at the manuscripts in this way for the very first time.  The book is fascinating and very readable, so if you have an interest in this subject, I highly recommend it.  For those of us who can't afford the $1.6 million to study the manusciprts ourselves, resources like these will just have to be next best thing!

Further Resources:
- Sotheby's catalogue for today's "English Literature, History, Childrens' Books and Illustrations" auction can be viewed here.  The Austen manuscript was Lot 51.
- If you're interested in learning more about the other surviving Austen's manuscripts, be sure to check out the Morgan Library's online counterpart to their recent exhibit, "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy."  The e-exhibit includes a short but very well-done video and access (complete with super-zoom capabilities) to digital images of a number of the pieces in the Morgan's Austen collection - including the first 12 pages of "The Watsons"!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reproducing L.M. Montgomery's Trousseau

Back on January 7th, we did a post about the wedding clothes and trousseau of L.M. Montgomery, a discussion prompted by the discovery of a pattern of Anne's wedding dress from the third Anne movie, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story.  In that earlier post, we marveled that photos, a verbal description, and even swatches of some of the fabric had survived to record Montgomery's trousseau in such intimate detail.  Just imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered this post on Laurie's blog yesterday about a tailor who has just finished recreating almost the entire trousseau in honor of LMM's 100th wedding anniversary.  Talk about a historical costumer's dream project!

Smith with the reproduction trousseau.
Photo linked from the Guardian article.

In a July 4th article for PEI's Guardian, tailor Arnold Smith describes how he got the idea to bring Montgomery's trousseau back to life.  For the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables back in 2008, Smith costumed Cavendish's commemorative parade and picnic, and it was during his research for that event that he stumbled across the images of the trousseau.  This past February, he began work on it and the six garments premiered a week ago to mark the milestone anniversary of LMM's wedding day.

Smith meticulously researched each of the gowns in order to reproduce them as closely as possible.  As with any true reproduction project, however, some issues had to be thoughtfully addressed.  For instance, because the photographs of the original clothing show only the front sides, he delved into turn-of-the-century issues of the Ladies Home Journal to find similar styles that could provide an idea of how the rest of each garment most likely looked.  Fabrics, too, were carefully researched and selected both for their appropriateness to the period and according to LMM's own stated preferences for color tones, as Smith describes on his blog.  And to make these pieces as close as possible to true reproductions, Smith even constructed them in Montgomery's exact size, using her own detailed description of her physical appearance and measurements (Smith's blog entry offers the full quotation from the Journals).

Smith's reproduction of LMM's favorite gown from the trousseau.
Photo by Arnold Smith, linked from his blog on the project.

What I find most interesting about this project is the fact that it enlightened Smith (and all of us seeing the physical manifestation of these gowns now) not only about the garments themselves, but also about the woman who selected and wore them, offering an innovative way into thinking about the famous author's personality, her preferences, and the social pressures under which she functioned.  "'She liked nice clothes. As an author, she was always being asked to speak, so she knew that she needed things that were classy,' he says.  But, as a minster’s wife, she could never be over the top.  'To be taken seriously she had to be both well dressed and appropriately dressed. Her trousseau reflects that,' says Smith" (Guardian article). 

From now until the end of the summer, half of the reproduction trousseau will be on view at the Green Gables Heritage Place in Cavendish, PEI, and the other half can be seen at the Leaksdale Manse in Uxbridge, Ontario, where LMM lived after her marriage and where 11 of the 22 works published during her lifetime were written.  If you can't make it to see the reproduction trousseau in person, be certain to visit Arnold Smith's blog for many more details on the project, the process, and the products, including lots of superb research and loads of pictures!  For further information, see also the Guardian article mentioned above, and this article in The Buzz.

If you're interested in reading more about LMM's original trousseau, be sure to visit our earlier post (which includes photos and a list of resources), as well as the Confederation Centre's "L.M. Montgomery's Wedding Clothes" page.  Additional photos of the trousseau can be found in The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. II and in The Lucy Maud Montgomery Album, by Kevin McCabe.

Thanks again to Laurie for discovering this story and sharing it!

Monday, July 11, 2011

No trip to Colonial Williamsburg is ever complete...

...without a trip (or two...or maybe even three...yes, we're very sad!) to the Margaret Hunter milliner's shop.  We know that a number of our readers, like us, delight in wallowing in endless pictures of period clothing, so here's a mini photo-essay of some of the more recent creations of the incredibly talented milliners/mantua makers and tailors at Colonial Williamsburg.  Enjoy the pretties!

Colonial Williamsburg milliner's shop
Apprentice Sarah organizing the fabric.  Sounds like fun to me!

On Saturday during Under the Redcoat, we stopped by the shop ever so briefly on our way back to camp, just to see what was new on display (and also to enjoy a snatch of much-needed air conditioning!).  Our visit was short lived, however, because the shop was quite busy with visitors, so we snapped a few quick pictures and headed back to "work."

Colonial Williamsburg milliner's shop
Journeywoman Mrs Warren at work
(and wearing her stunning embroidered jacket - I love that color).

Colonial Williamsburg milliner's shop
A fashion doll perched on a shelf, silently yet
very ably advertising her wares.

Knowing that Sunday is typically the day in the shop for the tailors, we were sure to make time amongst our UTR duties the next day to stop by again to consult with Mr Hutter about some questions that have arisen about our stays since we started them in the Burnley and Trowbridge workshop back in April.  He very graciously and helpfully assisted with our quandaries, and after chatting a bit more about the progress of our stays (we were incredibly lucky we caught the shop at a rare quiet time), we admired some of the gentlemen's items on display and then ventured back out into the heat to watch our regiment perform in the afternoon's firing demonstration.

Colonial Williamsburg tailor's wares
The "Spruce Sportsman" coat, waistcoat, and hat, along with some infant stays.

Colonial Williamsburg tailor's wares
A gorgeous coat of creamy silk taffeta, lined in pink.  It's absolutely stunning;
I wish we had gotten a better shot of the lining contrast!

Colonial Williamsburg tailor's wares
The tailor's worktable, strewn with two in-progress chintz banyans.

Our final visit came the following Saturday, to indulge in the pleasures of "Silk Saturday."  Heavenly silk gowns, hats, and petticoats adorned the shop, which was busy with visitors conversing eagerly with the shop's new young interns.  What a fantastic atmosphere!  After chatting for a bit with Sarah about some of her recent research (thanks so much for so generously taking the time to share all of that with us!), however, we very reluctantly dragged ourselves away.  If only we could have stayed all day!

Colonial Williamsburg milliner's shop
Interns hard at work, catching the sunlight.

Colonial Williamsburg milliner's shop
A quilted silk petticoat and a couple of hats, all of which I wanted
to carry home with me!

Colonial Williamsburg milliner's shop
An infant's gown with a red taffeta bag displayed on top.

If you'd like to see more of the impressive work done in the Margaret Hunter shop, be sure to visit their facebook page!  Some additional photos of ours can be found in our flickr set and by clicking on the "CW milliner" tag below.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Threaded Bliss

A Chintz Quarter Back Gown,

Ashley on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg,
July 2011.

Waaaaaaay back in February, we did a Threaded Bliss post that featured a purple and brown changeable silk covered hat.  Waaaaaaay back in February, we promised we'd share the gown it March.  Well, it's not March any longer...but five months later, at long last, here it is!

The Pattern: This gown is a conglomerative affair in terms of patterning.  The quartered back pieces are copied exactly from the gown on page 39 of Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1; Ashley has a remarkably 18th-century figure, so patterns taken directly off originals fit her perfectly more often than not (this makes doing exact reproductions of many things feasible and even sensible, huzzah!).  In this case, however, the front pieces of the original gown were slightly off in too many places, so I started from scratch there and simply draped them like I usually do.  I initially cut the shoulder straps as one with the bodice fronts (as in the original), but somehow, somewhere, something got off and I ended up having to snip them off and do them as separate pieces (which is also perfectly accurate and acceptable, but I'm noting it just because it's another way in which this gown diverges from the original Arnold reference).  The sleeves are also taken from the Arnold gown (one day I'll get the knack of draping them day...).

The back of the gown, laid flat.  The skirts are tied up "a la polonaise,"
but they can of course also be worn straight.

Construction Details: At long last, I've remembered to snap some in-progress photos of the construction process on this gown.  Here, too, I am copying the original using the details offered in Arnold on page 39, which specifies that "each piece of the bodice is lined with white linen and made up separately...All the pieces of the bodice are then sewn together when they are complete."  This is a pseudo-tutorial, not quite as detailed as a full-fledged step-by-step, but definitely more in-depth and photo-heavy than past construction notes have been.

Because each back piece is finished before it is assembled with the others, the first step is to turn under the seam allowances of both the linen lining and the chintz.  Both of my fabrics creased nicely, so I didn't feel the need to baste the allowances down on either before putting them together, but you certainly can to hold things in place if you like.

The "quartered" back lining pieces with their seam allowances folded under. 
The same is then done to the corresponding outer pieces.

The seam allowance on the lining pieces should be turned under ever so slightly more than it is on the chintz, so that the edge of the chintz remains visible around the edges of the lining.  The lining pieces are then placed against the chintz, wrong sides together, and the two stitched together using "le point a rabattre sous la main"
(which will look like a tiny running stitch on the outside and a hem stitch on the inside; see Costume Close-up for details on this stitch).  It is unclear from Arnold's description what kind of stitch was used in the original to attach the lining to the outer fabric; I experimented with using a plain running stitch, but I didn't like the look and opted for the old faithful Costume Close-up stitch in the end.  The armscye edges of the two side/back pieces do not need to be finished in this step because they'll be hidden once the sleeves are attached.

A finished edge of one of the back pieces, showing the lining attached to the chintz.

The other "right" side of the finished piece above, with the tiny running stitch of
"le point a rabattre sous la main" visible along the edge.

The finished piece, which is the left back/side piece.  The
unfinished armscye edge is at the upper left of the piece.

Once all of the four back pieces are finished, they are then whipstitched together, catching only the outer fabric.  When the pieces are pressed open, this allows the seam to lay perfectly flat.

Two back pieces, joined with whipstitches.  Because the whipstitches catch
only the very edge of the pieces they join, you can see the "le point a rabattre
sous la main" stitches on either side of the seam.

The finished quartered back from the inside. 
(The "wave" at the bottom accomodates the bum pad)

The front bodice pieces are then finished in the same way as the back pieces, except that the side seams are left open about 2" from the sides so that the chintz can be lapped over the side/back pieces and stitched down, and then the lining folded on the inside and whipstitched into place to conceal the seam.  On my quarter back gown, I finished the front/side edge and attached it in the same way as the back pieces with the whipstitched seam; on this example, I elected to do a lapped seam at the front/side instead, just for variety's sake.  Both options are documented.

The finished bodice from the right back/side, with the whipstitched quarter
back seams on the left of the photo and the lapped front piece on the right.

Next, the sleeves are assembled using a lapped seam.  After their bottom halves are backstitched to the gown's bodice, the sleeve caps are pleated into place directly on Ashley's shoulders.  The shoulder strap pieces are then laid over top to cover the unfinished sleeve caps and topstitched into place.

The final step is pleating the skirt.  Because the bottom of the bodice is already completely finished, this is a fairly simple process, where the upper edge of the skirts are folded to shape and left to hang free, unfinished, inside to help poof out the skirts. Period gowns employed this technique because it allowed for easier alterations in the future by leaving the maximum amount of fabric safely unspoiled by scissors.

Interior of the gown.

Double polonaise ties are sewn to the inside of the skirts so that they can be worn draped up once, twice, or not at all.  In all of the photos here, they are drawn up using two sets of loops and a tie on each side.

Brown chintz gown, 1780-1785
Colonial Williamsburg, July 2011.

The Fabric: In scale and pattern, this cotton chintz by Windham is a reproduction of a 1770s cotton print in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.  The colorway, however, is not original; as with the DAR fabric we used on this gown, this print, too, was produced as part of a quilting line and thus released with multiple altered color variations.  The end result is that because of the altered dark ground, this print is not (strictly speaking) appropriate for a 1770s gown, but rather more similar to the patterns and colors that became fashionable in the early to mid 1780s.  We were thus very careful to style the gown to reflect the date of the fabric.


Finishing the Look: Because a chintz like this, which features six different colors, would have been just as much a luxury fabric as silk, it is entirely appropriate to pair this cotton gown with a silk petticoat.  Ashley made a purple and brown changeable silk taffeta petticoat, which compliments the color tones perfectly.  The fabric was another incredibly lucky Ebay find from a seller in Hong Kong.  There was also just enough left over to cover the hat we shared earlier.

Underneath the gown and petticoat, Ashley wears a linen shift, fully-boned stays, a bum pad and linen underpetticoat to help achieve the fashionable early 1780s silhouette, and a white linen lawn neckerchief.  It's tough to see in the photos, but she also has pearl earrings by Janice Erickson Smith, a hand-knotted pearl necklace she made, secured with a pink silk ribbon, and a silver pocket watch suspended from her waistband on another silk ribbon.  The accessories were chosen to reflect the social status conveyed by the fabric choices.

Brown chintz gown, 1780-1785
Colonial Williamsburg, July 2011.

Brown chintz gown, 1780-1785
Colonial Williamsburg, July 2011.

I ran out of room for photos in this post, so if you'd like to see more, be sure to check out this project's flickr set!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Current Exhibit: Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe at CW

Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe

Although we attended the accessories conference in March (and although I was fortunate enough to take part in a guided tour of the exhibit with Linda Baumgarten during that week), we were kept so busy during the conference that it wasn't until our return visit to Colonial Williamsburg last week that I finally got the opportunity to go through "Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe" in great detail, at my own preferable (and prodigiously slow) museum-going pace.  I know a number of bloggers have posted about their visits to the exhibit, and I realize that there are many, many spectacular photos of a number of the items already online in various locations, so I won't go into much depth here.  Hardly wishing to neglect such an important display of rarely-seen items, however, I thought I'd just offer a few thoughts and photos to supplement what's already out there.

Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe
One of the fully accessorized figures in the exhibit,
which helps to contextualize not only the evolution of dress
and its accessories, but also the various functions each served.
See CW's Historic Threads listing for more.

There are three novel features of this exhibit that I really admire and would love to see emulated by future exhibitions on fashion and dress at other museums.  These include an "introductory" display case that juxtaposes 21st-century accessories with their 18th-century counterparts; a stunning "timeline" of fully dressed and accessorized figures demonstrating the evolution of fashion from the last quarter of the 18th century through the first quarter of the 19th, and a short film (much of which can be seen here) that visually enacts the process of dressing and accessorizing in the 18th century by bringing a period fashion print quite literally to life.

Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe
The 18th century meets the 21st...

By providing contextualization for the items - many of them genuine curiosities undoubtedly almost unidentifiable to most 21st-century eyes - each of these three features positions the museum visitor sufficiently within the compass of 18th-century dress to imagine and integrate the identity and the function of the antique accessories on view.  One of the problems raised during the conference focused on traditional exhibition techniques, in which museums showcase items of dress as separate entities, each distinct from another; a gown, for instance, all too frequently appears unadorned and standing alone, while an apron lies across the room in one display case, jewelry in another, and hats in another.  This isolationist approach to fashion, the conference speakers collectively argued, provides a highly inaccurate sense of the fashions of the past because the visitor remains incapable of understanding how dress and its various accessories functioned not only independently, but alongside each other.  Baumgarten's curatorial approach to this project is highly successful in bringing to life the most accurate representation of Fashion and fashion; for another superb current example, check out "Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion" (and vote to bring it to NYC!).

Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe
A French pocketbook (1800-1830), beautifully embroidered. 
The Valentines inside are original.  Be sure to look at the
CW Historic Threads listing for this item to see some close-ups and for more details.

As I mentioned earlier in one of the conference postings, there will not be an exhibit catalogue, which is most unfortunate because we're in desperate need of more serious scholarship on accessories and the minutiae of fashionable dress, and the amount of work that went into mounting this unique exhibit is obviously extraordinary.  The good thing is, though, that the exhibit is up for almost two years (until 31 December 2012) to provide a maximum opportunity to see it.  If you can manage a trip to CW before it closes, the exhibit is well worth the effort!  Photos can't do many of these intricate and clever little items justice.  If you can't make it to the exhibit, be certain not to miss the "Historic Threads" online exhibit (which features a detailed look at a number of items from the museum display) and CW's vodcast on it (which includes a conversation with Linda Baumgarten, the exhibit's curator).

Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe
I adore this little workbag (1760-1780), which features a
drawer that pulls out of the right side and a collection of other
secret and useful little compartments.  For more on this item
(including close-up options), click here to go to CW's Historic Threads listing.

Additional photos of the exhibit can be found on our flickr set (it's a limited selection, since there are countless others already on flickr), along with piccies from our March and June/July visits to CW.  Enjoy!