Saturday, April 30, 2016

Common Myths about Victorian Bathing Costumes

As summer approaches (as hard as that is to believe when it's 50F outside!), I've been thinking about summer fashions and the beach a lot. I've been invited to a "Seaside" party Victorian style this summer and really want to dress for the occasion. This means a fun, and somewhat ridiculous bathing suit for me! However, I wanted to research what they really wore and not just what I've been told. This means going back to the fashion magazines of the time. Looking over those, I found a lot of what I've been told about bathing fashions isn't quite true, or a lot of half truths, or truthful sometimes. In other words, there is a lot of misconceptions out there that I know others have fallen for as well. Here are a few of them.

1. They always wore heavy wool bathing suits until the early 20th century!

My first Edwardian swimsuit that I made years ago was out of heavy wool for this reason. Because of that, I really wanted to find out if the Victorians (and Edwardians) ever used anything else - and they did. A lot.

Isn't it cute? It's from The Milliner and the Dressmaker circa 1870.  The text reads: Very elegant bathing costume for a young lady of white molleton, trimmed with scarlet.  The drawers are fastened under the knee and ornamented with scarlet bows.  Bodice with basque cut in tabs, and trimmed with scarlet braid.  The trimming simulates a low bodice and chemisette, very short sleeves, with bows on the top.  

So what is molleton? It's a cotton. It's basically what we call flannel cotton. Here on this side of the pond and in the 21st Century, it's much easier to obtain plain flannel cotton for cheap than it is wool flannel.

From Letts's illustrated household magazine circa 1884 we have the following:

The text reads: In order that children may enjoy their bath, it is desirable they should have a proper dress to wear.  This should be made of wool, because the body is not so apt to be chilled by wet serge or flannel as by wet cotton or linen.  Bathing dresses are made sometimes of silk or striped cotton material but they cling most ungracefully and are not so useful as a serge costume. The ordinary serge for bathing dresses is not expensive it is true it loses its colour but daily immersion in the sea will spoil the best material in course of time. 

So here, we learn a lot more. Although it's discussing children, it's clear that the author is also referring to adults given the "cling most ungracefully". According to the author then, wool is the preferred but there are a lot of other fabrics mentioned. Silk, striped cotton, and linen all sound much preferable to me to wet wool flannel! Wool serge is a type of twill and most people could probably get away with wool suiting by the looks of it. So, even wool serge sounds preferable to wool flannel. (Although they do make some thin wool flannels, it's not as easy to find and it's still $$$)

This one to the left is from The Index circa 1904. The text reads: BATHING SUITS The French bathing suit has become very conventional. In spite of the fact that it is supposed to be a thing of extremes, it is quiet, conservative and moderate. The tricky, natty little silk creation which passed for a bathing suit in the French Pictures is gone apparently forever, and if seen at all, is seen only in the cartoons and funny papers. The French bathing suit of to day might be seen at Asbury Park, and it is surely copied at Newport Bar Harbor and Narragansett. 
This bathing suit which is made of poplin or of one of the mohair family, is built of some standard color. The most popular ones are in navy blue of that shade of navy of which one never tires while those that follow closely after are of seal brown wood brown invisible brown and black. Then there come the grays and one sees many suits in that brilliant shade of gray which one always associates with Irish poplin. Cranberry red suits, suits that are of a medium green hue, and other suits that branch out into the ecru and burnt biscuit tints comprise nearly the whole of the list of water suits. 
There are washable silks that make excellent bathing dresses but unfortunately they have a tendency to cling to the figure. They are neat and comfortable but they will cling. To obviate this clinging tendency these suits are lined. They are sometimes lined with mohair and sometimes with a thin lightweight flannel of the kind that is liked by swimmers who want a warm suit as well as one that will not cling. 
 Brilliantine makes a very pretty water suit and comes in many colors but is at its best in blue. Indeed the choice of blue is always a fortunate one for it is a color that does not become demoralized when wet. Brown on the other hand looks black while gray and red both darken perceptibly But blue holds its own

Later on this post will come back to this text since it mentions colors as well as materials but, for now, we'll stick with the materials. Again, the author hates clinging things but this is from a good twenty years later so, clearly, people were still wearing silks. Other materials mentioned are mohair, poplin, brilliantine, and lightweight flannel. Brilliantine is a blend of cotton and worsted weight wool or cotton and mohair.

The above is from Everybody's Magazine circa 1902. The text reads as follows: This season more than ever before silk has the popular thing for bathing costumes practical ornamental. It has always been much used in for the non water proof suits displayed on the sands, but improvement in the quality of the wash silks made them thoroughly practicable for bathing wear. The silk is even lighter than mohair sheds the quite as well does not cling badly and admits of elaboration than any other material used for the purpose.

Again, silk is mentioned.

The two sections above are from Good Housekeeping circa 1894. This magazine is one I get and really like for the recipes but they do have fashion trends still in it. The text reads as follows: Mohair is now used not only for elaborate dresses for simple walking and traveling dresses but even for bathing suits. It sheds the water so that it does not become saturated and heavy like the silk suits worn last season. 

 So for the Victorian and early Edwardian suits, we now have the following options for fabrics: wool serge, wool flannel, mohair, cotton, linen, washable silk, poplin, a cotton/worsted weight wool blend (or cotton/mohair blend) called Brilliantine, and something similar to cotton flannel. That is a lot of options and many are pretty easy for us to obtain in the 21st century.

The Victorians and Edwardians wore corsets under their bathing suits

This is a fun one because it is true but also not. Let me explain:

In this country there is no such provision for bathers. Women young and old are obliged to run the gauntlet of crowds of spectators who watch their every movement until they are surrounded by the friendly waves and a dress which shall afford a little drapery as well as covering to the limbs is essential. The fullness of the Brighton is laid in three plaits back and front and there is no more than is necessary. Navy blue flannel is the best material to use. In response to many requests we illustrate in the present number our new styles of improved chemise drawers and the Princess chemise both of which are combination garments and especially adapted to summer wear. The chemise drawers are in reality three garments in one. That is to say they are drawers, chemise, and corset cover if a corset is worn. Ladies who are accustomed to wearing gauze flannels through the summer season or at least a vest will find this the best foundation for the corset and in addition ...

The emphasis is mine.  The above is from Demorest's Family Magazine circa 1879. "If a corset is worn" is important because it easily indicates that it is an optional thing. You don't have to wear a corset if you don't want to! For further evidence, let's look at The Illustrated American circa 1896:

Mrs Grundy, Madame Fashion, and Dr Hygiene have always struggled vehemently over their rights in deciding whether women should or should not wear stays in the water, and at present all three of the powers are trying to content themselves with a compromise. The average woman is wearing a corset in the water. It is a comfortable little coutil waist which laced up only in front has no straps over the shoulder and is entirely minus bones. Its own heavily stitched lapped seams provide all the stiffness. For stout swimmers it is a boon and a blessing.

Clearly, this was a contentious issue back in the day. Do you wear a corset or don't you? It looks like it's entirely up to lady with many ladies wearing them but enough historical antidotes to show not everyone did. However, even when wearing a corset, they weren't boned based upon Demorest's. This is repeated in The Delineator circa 1899:

SALT: Choose a bathing suit of dark blue or better still of black material. In dressing for the water first don a thin under vest and over that an old pair of corsets from which the bones have been removed. Then put on a pair of long black yarn stockings for woollen stockings look much better when wet than cotton ones and beside are never too thin as cotton hose are likely to be. Elastics about the knees keep the stockings in place.

The above is also from The Delineator circa 1899 and are bathing corsets. Based on other readings, ladies relied on the heavy seams to keep everything where it needs to be. The curves of this, however, look more like a long line bra than a corset.

3. All Victorian (And Edwardian) swimsuits were navy blue or black. The Victorians (and Edwardians) hated color

Although there clearly was a preference for blue, as we've seen so far in some of the selections, it is not the only color mentioned. The very first item I posted, The Milliner and the Dressmaker circa 1870, mentions white and scarlet. The Index circa 1904 mentions blue, black, gray, brown, cranberry, and green.

However, blue was the most popular. It just wasn't the only. In fact, a lady by the name of Mary Ellen Ferguson wrote the following regarding the colors of bathing suits in the Brooklyn Magazine back in 1885:

 There is considerable variety in bathing suits this year and there is seemingly a greater regard for modesty and taste than ever before.   The suits are made as formerly in two pieces trousers and waist combined and a short skirt which should extend just a little below the knees.   The trousers arc made fuller than the used to be and are now invariably finished at the knee in Knickerbocker fashion never being allowed to hang loosely.   A broad elastic band is used in confining them at the knees.   Some women prefer their bathing suits made with the skirt and waist combined instead of the waist and trousers being in one piece but this is not nearly as healthful or comfortable a way in which to have one made as that first described.   The materials most used in making up bathing suits are flannel camel's hair and cashmere.   The latter material is only used, however, when a particularly fancy suit is desired, and then two colors are generally employed.   Flannel is by all odds much the best material to bathe in.   It should not be too heavy, but it should be of the best quality which does not hold the water like the poorer goods and is much more comfortable and durable.   Olive green, dark red, and seal brown flannel are all much used now but the dark blue still remains most in favor.   It is becoming to the majority of complexions and does not fade as quickly as some of the other colors mentioned.   Bathing suits in plain shades are enlivened by rows of either white or black braid or have dashes of bright red or yellow about them that look very attractive.   Stockings that match the suit in color and turbans that are cleverly made of the trimming are worn.   Gloves and corsets are now considered superfluous and affected and are never worn by sensible women.   A costume recently made for a dainty Newport belle is composed of cream white flannel of the finest quality trimmed with very narrow tinsel braid that glitters in the sunlight like diamonds and which does not tarnish.   There is a yoke waist adorned with innumerable rows of the braid which is also placed in a Greek design around the skirt.   The cream colored stockings have yellow flowers embroidered up their sides and the turban made of the same material as the dress has a band of tinsel braid bordering it. The effect of the costume is very pretty.   A few women have utilized the new woollen plaids for bathing.   But they are not at all attractive after they have once been in the water.  

All the emphasis is mine. Again green, red, navy, white, and brown are mentioned as the color for the bathing suits. The author dismisses plaid but I've seen several other mentions for plaid being used in bathing suits so it, at least, was a thing.  For trims, white, black, yellow, and metallic are colors mentioned. I also emphasized that corsets aren't being worn by "sensible women" at this point - this is 1885 so we are very much in the Victorian era.

I hope this helps anyone else making a Victorian or Edwardian bathing suit.  I know we have several extant ones and I'll list them below.  Let me know if there is any other common beliefs about Victorian/Edwardian bathing suits you'd like explored because I really find this a fun topic!

Extant Bathing Costumes

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Birthday Dress!

I found this fabulous fabric at my local thrift store for about $5 I think.

It's a lovely shade of blue for the background with red hearts, macaroons, red wine, pink Eiffel Towers, and -my favorite- strawberries! Of course, I had to buy it. I think there was about 4 yards. I'm not sure because I just remember buying it earlier this year (really, I grabbed it off the rack and declared it mine, hugging it as I went up to the cashier. I loved the colors and the print that much!) and wanting to make a dress out of it. What dress to make though.

I bought McCall's M5094 a while ago and loved the look of dress views D, E, and F. (The only real difference between them is trim placement)

I cut out a size 10 and measured each of the pattern pieces to make sure it would fit. The midriff was going to be a tad too snug without an extra seam allowance on the front so I added a half inch to the front midriff and the front skirt panel. I had to piece the skirt a bit because of the way the fabric print ran. It was only on the sides. I added pink velvet ribbon to the midsection and white lace on the underside of the hem.

The only real complaint is that the straps to the dress are a tad too big - I think I might take them in about a half inch. Other than that, this was a really amazing pattern. I was very determined to wear the dress for my Birthday and I'm glad I got it done. (Even if the stupid bobbin tension decided to act up!)


I'm really happy with the dress and I'm very much going to wear it when it's not my Birthday. :-)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Two New 18th Century Day Dresses

My sister in law and I went to Fort Frederick Market Faire in Big Pool Maryland today. We met up with a bunch of other lovely people to include Stephanie, Maggie, and Jess. Since all my old outfits are now too small and my sister in law didn't have any day dresses, I had to create two new ones!

My sister in law is wearing what was a quilt and is now a petticoat as well as what was a tablecloth, we think, and is now a dress. :-) I got both the quilt and the tablecloth at a thrift store I go to all the time. I made the petticoat years ago - it's mine but it was cool and wet in the morning which is a no go for white linen/cotton petticoats. The dress I made last night. It's machine sewn but the lines are correct for the later half of the 18th century. It's a linen blend - we think. I probably should burn test the scraps....Just did! It's linen and poly mix. The dress is lined in what I'm pretty sure is a linen rayon (but one of the old more rayon than linen mixes). All thrift store finds and they all look good enough to use. Of course, I'll need to make her a different outfit for when it's not 72F and lovely, which it ended up being.

My dress is out of the Williamsburg cotton I know everyone has. At least five other ladies were wearing the same print! Mine is entirely handsewn and lined in cotton and linen (the sleeves). The sleeves are pieced. The upper part of one of the sleeves is pieced on. I had forgotten to cut out sleeves for my dress and, by the time I remembered, it was almost too late! I only had enough left over for a stomacher - I thought- but I managed to get enough out for two short sleeves. I then added linen cuffs, going for a 1770's look:

See?  White cuffs!

We both has a great time as did Abigail the pup. The pup was a huge people magnet and loved the attention. :-) Of course, she always tried to get either myself or my sister in law to pick her up when the pressures of instant celebrity got to her.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Pretty As A Picture

I'm a day late, again, and I missed last fortnight because of Easter. Whoops! This time, I decided to do something I've been craving for a while now and I love to eat: Medieval Gingerbread. I've made it several times before and I love, love, LOVE this stuff. It's just yummy. It tastes like bread at first but then the spices and honey hit and it really is a medieval fireball. It's got that right amount of spice and sweet. I have yet to find anyone that doesn't love medieval gingerbread.

The Challenge:  7. Pretty As A Picture (March 25 - April 7) If you’re a fan of cooking competition shows (like I am!), you know how the saying goes: we eat first with our eyes. Make a dish that looks just as spectacular as it tastes. Extra points for historically accurate plating - and don’t forget to post pictures!
The Recipe: (where did you find it, link to it if possible)  My original write up along with the 15th century recipes and sources is here.

The Date/Year and Region:  
England, 15th Century

How Did You Make It: (a brief synopsis of the process of creation)
I changed up the recipe a bit this time.  I used an entire bottle of  Orange Blossom honey (16 oz) and an entire box of panko bread crumbs.  I did use stick cinnamon and long pepper - which I promptly crushed in the very medieval blender.  :-D   The blender makes far less of a mess than I do.  I also crushed the bread crumbs and the sandlewood in the blender.  

I boiled the honey and added a mix of saffron and ginger.  I then added a mix of half the breadcrumbs, the cinnamon, and long pepper.   Once that was throughly mixed, I slowly mixed in the rest of the crushed breadcrumbs.  

When the gingerbread was cool enough to touch, I plopped it out on a piece of tinfoil, put some plastic wrap over it, and rolled it out as flat as I could.  I then started with my pie cutters for nice leaf shapes but those weren't working very well.  The cookie cutters ended up working much better so I stuck with the castle and the crown/tiara cookie cutters.   Once they were all cut out, I added some cloves to the tops of one of the crowns and to the castle.  

Time to Complete:  20 minutes
Total Cost:  I had everything in the house already.  I doubt the bread crumbs were very much and honey is normally about $8.

How Successful Was It?: (How did it taste? How did it look? Did it turn out like you thought it would?)  I'll put it this way, it will wreck my diet.  :-)  It's delicious!

How Accurate Is It?: (fess up to your modifications and make-dos here)  Well, cooked over a modern oven and I did use the blender so...that's out.  But all the ingredients are pretty much exactly what they would have used in period.  

Each piece of gingerbread (minus the castle which I'm counting as four!) is about 100 calories each.  At least the tiaras are.  

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Modern Sewing

The pictures aren't the best but this is my latest creation. I worked with McCalls M7187 and went with view C:

There were a few directions I just completely skipped because the pattern called for you to do things like baste down the pleats. It looked off on this material, so I just pleated the skirt to the sides and called it a day. The material is a wool blend knit I picked up at the thrift store near me for $1.90. The pattern I picked up at Hancock Fabrics for $1 and the buttons are part of a very large stash I bought many years ago for $3. Even with the zipper and thread, this entire dress was under $4 to make. I bought both of those at the thrift store as well.

It fits. I'm not completely happy with the neckline still and I need to iron it again but it's a dress. It's hemmed, it's wearable, and that's good! I cut out a size 10 this time, knowing my mistake from last time I cut out a McCall pattern. The 10 fits well.

The biggest issue with this pattern I've had is with the neck and armhole facing. Normally, I'd either flip the edges over and stitch them down or use some sort of hem tape. However, I tried the facing just will not lie flat. This is a huge problem at the neckline as you don't want the facing to suddenly pop up from the inside. I've stitched it down some and that seems to help but it involved a bit of handsewing and a lot of guessing on how the fabric stretched.

Oh well, one dress down.  Two more to go!

Monday, April 4, 2016

15th Century Red Wool Dress

I made most of this last year and realized it was too small for me when I made it. Now that I've lost 30 pounds, it fits perfectly! I finished the eyelets and tried it on a few days ago over my modern clothing. It's perfectly snug, like it should be. I still need to hem it but that, for me at least, is the easy part. Once that's done, I'll take better pictures and post them here. :-)

Detail the Massacre of the Innocents Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470
I'm going for a dress similar to the above.  I wanted something that I can easily layer for colder events and also look nice as just a dress at the Spring and Fall events.  This is not a summer dress as the wool is a medium weight wool.  But for right now?  This dress is great for this time of year.
It's lined in red linen and it's a mix of machine and hand sewing.  If you can see it, it's handsewn.  If not, it's machine sewn.  I used regular triangle gores at the sides to widen the skirt.  I really used a pattern very similar to my Turkish coat one.  The front opening is curved at the bust line.  

Modern Easter Dress

I used Simplicity Pattern 1623, a pattern size 12 and it was way too big. I doubt the pattern size 10 would have been much of a better fit. The dress form is a "jeans" size 8 or my size right now. You can see it's just hanging off the dress form. I did wear it but I think I'm going to have to sell it. It would fit a person who is a "jeans" size 12 much better.

For those that are confused about "jeans" size versus pattern size - patterns still follow the old school system of sizing on their labels. A size 10, for example, should have a 32.5" bust and a 25" waist. In clothing sizes, a size 10 has 38" bust and a 30" waist. It's a huge difference in sizes. However, as many other seamstresses and sewers have discovered, what the pattern says about each size and what the size really is are two different things. According to the chart on the back of the pattern, I should cut out a size 14. However, I know from experience that you typically want to go down a size or two from what the pattern claims - which would mean a 12 or 10 for me.

The pattern is cute and it would look lovely if it fit right but, after wearing it on Easter, I just don't think it will work.