Saturday, February 14, 2015

Costume Up Close and Personal

I was lucky enough to be invited to the preview of Hereford Museum's new Exhibition: Shades of White: the changing shape of women. I brought back a vast number of pictures and I'm indulging myself a bit here.  Be warned.  This post will be long!

Nancy Hills, Head of Theatre Costume Design, Caine College, Utah State University has led the project which recreates real costumes from the Hereford and Berrington Hall collections (with the assistance of their costume curator, Althea Mackenzie) All the replicas are in shades of white so that the intricacies of cut and construction can be seen; the workmanship is fantastic.  What's more, visitors can be up close and personal with the replica costumes. It's like being in a sweet shop. Wonderful.

1750 riding habit

The costumes in the exhibition range from 1750 to World War II but there's more than enough early ones to suit fans of Georgian and Regency historicals. There's a replica of this 1750 pink riding habit, for example.

1780 polonaise front
1780 polonaise back
I loved the 1780 polonaise, partly because I used a similar gown for my heroine to wear at the masked ball in His Cavalry Lady and I based it on the very same gown that is now shown as a white replica in this exhibition.

The polonaise is so clever. The elegant ruching is achieved by simple ties underneath and the height can be adjusted to suit the occasion.

1780 caraco replica worn by model

The caraco is a fascinating gown, Lots of gathering in ways that can be altered easily, such as when the wearer is pregnant. You can see some of the detail on the close-up of the back, below. Then just look at the complexity of the pattern cutting. And all to be sewn by hand, as well.

1780 caraco replica, back

1780 caraco pattern pieces
1815 replica

The Regency gowns are much simpler, as we know. On the left is the replica, in white, of a simple gown made of border-print cotton, dating from 1815. When you see it in plain white, there really isn't much to it at all. And the pattern, by contrast with the caraco, looks pretty straightforward.

On the right is a picture of the original, border print cotton of the gown. It must have been a challenge to determine how much cloth to buy. Easy to work out how wide the bottom hem was, but how much do you allow for bodice and sleeves?

Still, the pattern was simple, as you can see below.

1815 border print dress pattern

Things got more complicated later, of course.  While not strictly Regency, I'm including a gown from 1825.  It's a day dress made from cotton gauze and with beautifully ornate sleeves.  When you're up close with the replica, it's easy to see just how much work went into fashioning something like this. And then you look at the picture of the original and see how stunning it was (and is).

1825 day dress replica, sleeve detail

1825 day dress original

Finally, and absolutely not our period at all, I couldn't resist including a few pictures to show the military influences on costume that continued throughout the century.  The last one reminds me very much of the dress uniform worn by the Russian cavalry officers in His Cavalry Lady, complete with fur-edged pelisse over left shoulder. So, even though it's almost a century too late, I have to include it.

1850 day dress replica, military detail

1860 cream silk original with purple military detail

1898 wool and fur suit replica, military detail

Do visit this exhibition if you have a chance.  It's fantastic!  Details below.

 Shades of White: the changing shape of women opens on Valentine's Day and runs until 25 April,  Opening hours 11.00 -- 16.00, Wednesday to Saturday.  Admission Free!


Jo Beverley said...

Wonderful, Joanna. I was startled by one thing, though -- the bust dart in the Regency gown. Are those patterns from the period? I've never seen a dart like that before.


Anonymous said...

Well spotted. Jo. Actually I can't tell from the pics whether that's actually a dart of whether they've folded the material to fit on the mannequin. I think I'll need to revisit the exhibition to check. There's certainly no indication of a dart on the actual cutting pattern.

Will report back, but it's not open again till next Wednesday!

Anonymous said...

Jo, I've had a look at my original jpeg (better quality than the one here) and it looks like it IS a dart. I've also checked the jpeg of the original gown but it's not good enough quality to see whether there's a dart in the bodice or not.

I'll ask Althea, the costume curator.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Loved this post, Joanna. I, too, love the polonaise - it's so elegant - though, I suppose having dresses like that is predicated on have servants to wash, starch and iron them for you. It must take forever!

Anonymous said...

I should also have said -- sorry -- that the patterns were taken from the original gowns, by measurement and placing paper patterns against the originals. Obviously the originals were not taken apart to produce patterns. Also, the patterns had to allow for the fact that the garments might have stretched or worn unevenly.

I'm not sure that there are any extant Regency gown patterns on paper. We're probably lucky that so many actual gowns have survived.

Christina Hollis said...

Amazing, Joanna. The dresses look complicated enough on paper, but the patterned dress has the design running perfectly across it. It goes without saying it will be matched perfectly at the seams, too! I'll definitely try and make this exhibition. Thanks for a lovely post.

Christina said...

What a wonderful post! I will definitely try to go and see the exhibition - fascinating! I too love the polonaise but also can't resist those 1825 sleeves or the later military bodice, just lovely!

Liz Harris said...

What a wonderful exhibition! Hopefully, at some point it will come to London.

Fenella Miller said...

Wish I could have seen this.Thanks for posting.

Althea Mackenzie said...

The dart is actually on the original and we have other examples in the Wade and Hereford Collection. Glad that the exhibition is so well liked.

Jan Jones said...

Fascinating post, Joanna. I'll definitely have to find a way to get to Hereford before the exhibition closes.

Helena said...

Thank for so much wonderful detail, Joanna. The exhibition is an excellent idea, since the precise construction can be difficult to see on patterned textiles.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for visiting the blog, Helena. Hope you can visit the exhibition, too.

Margaret Murray-Evans said...

Were these sewn on a sewing machine? The handwork done to make the original garments is mind boggling. Sewing machines changed the world. Would love to see this exhibit. Thanks for the article.

Margaret Murray-Evans said...

Were these sewn on a sewing machine? The handwork done to make the original garments is mind boggling. Sewing machines changed the world. Would love to see this exhibit. Thanks for the article.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

The sewing-machine first 'came into use by dress-makers' in 1858, according to the Cunningtons' 'Handbook of English Costume in the 19th century.' It obviously had its effect on fashion, for one Fashion Magazine wrote in 1875, 'We owe much of the over-trimming now prevalent to the facilities afforded by the sewing-machine.'

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I asked the same question at the exhibition, Margaret. Professor Nancy Hills said that the sewing machine was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and used after that. So all the gowns of our period would have been hand stitched. Possibly the 1860 cream/purple silk gown might have been machine stitched but not any of the earlier ones. The amount of hand work done by seamstresses was mind-boggling. (Previous comment deleted because of typos)

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