The Evolution of the 1850’s Tiered Ruffle Gown

Crinolines on an Omnibus by Charles Vernier, 1850s.

Crinolines on an Omnibus by Charles Vernier, 1850s.

“I’ve been inspired by some recent froofy 1850s tiered dresses … probably not [for] Costume College as hoops can be bothersome in a crowded room or classroom.” – Val L.

When I started this adventure in learning about historical fashion a few years ago I had three distinct fashion allergies: hoops, ruffles and bows. Heavens, how that has changed. Now I see dresses and fashion plates featuring one, two or sometimes all three and think “I’d like to make that one.” This is a dangerous passion.

But Val’s comment above, made in reference to a recent post on Victorian summer dresses, is valid…not every venue is suitable for a hooped skirt. Luckily, hoops didn’t become The Fashion until the mid-1850s. (The generally agreed upon date seems to be 1856, although in Paris, where all things fashion come early and with no small amount of impact, they seem to have appeared a few years sooner.)

So, can Val have her froofy 1850s tiered dress and not wipe out an entire room of Costume College attendees? Yes!

Stiffened petticoats appeared in the 1830s in response to the need to support increasing skirt circumferences. They were made of horsehair and linen. The name “crinoline” was invented by one of the fabric’s manufacturers who combined the word crinis (hair) and linum (flax).

David Hough invented the cage crinoline and he earned a U.S. patent in 1846. By 1850 “crinoline” evolved to mean the rigid supporting structure itself. The next leap forward in design came in 1858, when W.S. Thompson developed an eye fastener so that the steel hoops could be hung with vertical tape…the familiar cage crinoline shape we recognize today. At that point, manufacturers were able to incorporate petticoat layers over the crinoline under-structure and the results were wildly successful. These “adjustable bustle and skirt” models were patented by Douglas & Sherwood in 1858:

Of course, tiered ruffles weren’t new in the 1850s. The 1840s saw plenty of tiered ruffles, albeit confined to the shape created by layers of petticoats (usually three) over a corded petticoat.

The 1850s saw changes to bodice shape and style, as well as underpinnings for the skirts. Mimi Matthews, who writes primarily on topics regarding the 19th century, gives an excellent guide to the evolution of general fashion during the 1850s in her blog article here.

So, when it comes to a froofy tiered 1850’s dress, cage crinolines aren’t necessarily required as long as you stick with a bodice appropriate for the earlier years. I don’t know about Val, but that is great news for me given my previous attempt at making a cage crinoline (which, as you may recall, ended in utter frustration).

Here are a few examples of tiered styles from the early 1850s – no hoops required!


And here are styles from 1855, just as the cage crinoline was poised to become the definitive fashion necessity:


And here are three more examples of tiered ruffle gowns of the period, dated only “1850s” (although I’d wager the center plate is from later in the decade, given the bodice on that fabulous plaid gown and the hair styles):


Lastly, a gorgeous example – one of my favorites: a gown dated from 1855 (photos courtesy of Kent State University) which I was going to save for a Weekend Wow but, since I missed this weekend and we’re on the subject…

Dress ca. 1855 From the Kent State University Museum (fripperiesandfobs) - front

Dress ca. 1855 From the Kent State University Museum (fripperiesandfobs) - side

Dress ca. 1855 From the Kent State University Museum (fripperiesandfobs) - side back

Dress ca. 1855 From the Kent State University Museum (fripperiesandfobs) - back


In Honor of Earth Day

(Image by

(Image by

So, you may ask, what is a post about Earth Day doing in a historical sewing blog? Well, I was thinking about the Earth and it occurred to me that we who are enthused about history and historical fabrics owe a great deal of thanks to the Earth for saving those intriguing bits and bobs of ancient life that pop up every so often. Without the preservation Earth has provided, we would be even more clueless about ancient fabrics than we already are.

So here is my modest tribute to the Earth – with thanks for all it does for us, in spite of what we do to it.


A fine wool textile dyed red and blue, found at the ancient copper mines of Timna Valley, Israel. Approximately 3000 yrs old. Image credit – Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority.

A fine wool textile dyed red and blue, found at the ancient copper mines of Timna Valley, Israel. Approximately 3000 yrs old. Image credit - Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority.


A small 3rd century AD fragment of fabric known as the Falkirk Tartan Textile Fragment (although there is some discussion as to whether it is correct to call it “tartan”).

a small 3rd century AD fragment of fabric known as the Falkirk Tartan Textile Fragment


Coptic Egypt, c. 5th-7th century AD textile fragment decorated with blue flowers, outlined in black.

Coptic Egypt, c. 5th-7th century AD. Nice textile fragment decorated with blue flowers, outlined in black. 36 mm (1 3_8 inch) dia.


Dyed fabric found at Masada – breached by the Romans in 73 CE (Common Era)

Dyed fabric found at Masada - breached by the Romans in 73 CE (Common Era)


Four twisted hanks of flax fiber, probably late Middle Kingdom (Egypt) – about 1850-1750 BC.

four twisted hanks of flax fibre, 13-15 cm long, probably late Middle Kingdom (Egypt), about 1850-1750 BC


Iron Age woven cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines. (Hallstatt Culture 850-350 BC).

Iron Age woven cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines. (Hallstatt Culture 850-350 BC)


Fabric woven from nettles. This piece of fabric is 2,800 years old, found in the Lusehøj barrow, Denmark. (Photo – The National museum of Denmark)

nettle fabric found in a 2,800-year-old grave in Denmark


Ptolemaic Egypt, c. 332 – 30 BC. One nice piece of linen mummy-wrapping.

Ptolemaic Egypt, c. 332 - 30 BC. One nice piece of linen mummy-wrapping. Measures 25 mm (1 inch).


Remnants of wool garments from the Lønne Hede (Denmark) find. Early Roman Iron Age (1-150 CE).

Remnants of wool garments from the Lønne Hede (Denmark) find. Early Roman Iron Age (1-150 CE)


Hami burial plaid – from the Tarim Basin of the Taklamakan Desert in North-West China.

Hami burial plaid - from the Tarim Basin of the Taklamakan Desert in North-West China


Woman’s clothing from Iron Age (1200 BC) Huldre Fen, at Ramten in Djursland, Jutland (in Denmark).

Woman's clothing from Iron Age (1200 BC) Huldre Fen, at Ramten in Djursland, Jutland (in Denmark)


Detail of skirt worn by the body known as “the woman from Huldremose” (Denmark, Early Iron Age Bog burial).

Detail of skirt from the woman from Huldremose (Denmark, Early Iron Age Bog burial)

Archaeologist Ulla Mannering studying the skirt in the laboratory. (Photo - Colourbox)

Archaeologist Ulla Mannering studying the skirt in the laboratory. (Photo – Colourbox)


The Huldre bog woman's scarf.

The Huldre bog woman’s scarf.

Terminology, a post by Atelier Nostalgia

The world of historical costuming is replete with confusing, redundant and often misleading terminology. I myself am guilty of calling anything from 1800 to 1820 as “Regency” although it’s not technically correct, as I’ve discovered.

This post by Atelier Nostalgia is re-blogged with her written permission and I hope it helps you as much as it’s helped me figure out which era happened when. Click on the link to go directly to the original post, or you can read it (quoted in its entirety) below.

In a lot of writing (blogs, books), specific terminology is used to refer to certain eras. These terms most often originate in politics or art, but are also used to define certain ‘periods’ of dress history. I’ve also noticed that sometimes, different terms are used for similar periods. And then, of course, there’s the language thing, where terms in different languages are different. They might even denote slightly different periods, because the terms refer to political periods of that particular country. A good example is the ‘Regency’, which is used to refer the period of the regent’s reign in the United Kingdom. In Dutch, we’d call this period ‘Empire’, which refers to the reign of Napoleon. But the political Regency and the reign of Napoleon only overlap for 4 years. And the term ‘regency’ is also used to refer to the period with a certain style of dress, which doesn’t have the same boundaries as the political regency.

So I’ve decided to try to make a glossary of terms. I’ll try to start with the English terms, and then add a list of the Dutch ones (which I’m slightly less familiar with, as most of my resources are in English). I’d love to extend this list further, so if there’s anyone who has additional terms, or terms specific to another language please let me know! (also, let me know if I’m mistaken! I’m basing this mostly on personal experience, art history classes I took almost 10 years ago and Wikipedia, so correct me if I’m wrong)

I’ll make an attempt at a chronological timeline. This means that the history, art, political and fashion terminology is all slightly mixed-up in the same list. I hope it doesn’t get confusing! I’ll also only describe terms used to describe certain era’s. Many people also just refer to the decade (’50’s) or century (18th century), which is a lot more self-explanatory, so I’ll leave those out here.

  • Viking/Norse
    • 793–1066
    • Political term
    • In 793 the abbey in Lindisfarne (England) was destroyed by Normen, signalling a period of over 200 years of exploration (and attacks and raids) from Vikings. The end is set to 1066, when the Norse king Harald III was in England. It should be noted that several other areas stayed under Norse rule longer (such as Scotland and the isles). I’m not very familiar with Viking costuming, so I’m not sure if this term will refer to any dress falling within the period, or if it’s used specifically for the dress worn by the Vikings themselves, or of their conquered peoples.
  • Medieval
    • 500-1500
    • History term
    • The medieval period covers a long period of a 100 years. Of course, within this era, there were many changes for clothing. Most often though, these are simply referred to by their century and location, making things easier.
  • Gothic
    • ca. 1100-1500
    • Art term
    • The term ‘Gothic’ refers to a certain style in art, specifically the latter half of the Middle-Ages. Of course, it is now also used to the modern clothing style involving loads of black, but that’s another story.
  • Renaissance
    • ca. 1450-1650
    • History / Art term
    • This term is used to describe the period between the Middle-Ages and ‘Modern time’. Generally, it is defined by an age of progress in art and science. Many countries have their ‘own’ renaissance, of which the start and end dates vary. They generally lie between 1450 and 1650 though. There’s also a lot of variation in European dress styles, so location matters!
  • Tudor
    • 1485 – 1603
    • Political term
    • This term refers to the rule of the Tudor family as kings & queens of England. Within fashion history, this term is often used to refer to the period between 1485 and 1558, because in 1558 queen Elizabeth ascended the throne. Most people would use the term ‘Elizabethan’ period for her reign within the Tudor era.
  • Elizabethan
    • 1558 – 1603
    • Political term
    • Referring to the rule of queen Elizabeth. She was the last of the Tudor monarchs, so with her reign the Tudor reign was also at an end.
  • Jacobean
    • 1567–1625
    • Political term
    • Referring to the period of reign of king James IV (for Schotland) and James I (same person, as king of England from 1603). This latter date coincides with the start of the Stuart era, as we’re talking about king James Stuart here.
  •  Stuart
    • 1603 – 1714
    • Political term
    • Referring to the rule of the house Stuart in England. Generally speaking, this term refers to the 17th century, as it almost wholly coincides with it.
  • Baroque
    • 1590 – 1725
    • Art term
    • Another art term, the Baroque spans the 17th century and a little more.
  • Rococo
    • ca. 1700 – 1785
    • Art term
    • Overlapping slightly with the Baroque, from which it sprung, the rococo is named after the ‘rocaille’, the shell shape used so often in its decorations. It ended quite abruptly near the end of the 18th century as politics changed and a new-found interest in the classics gave way to Neo-classical art.
  • Georgian
    • 1714 – 1830
    • Political term
    • Referring to the reign of four successive ‘Georges’ as kings of England. In fashion history, this term is mostly used for the earlier part up to 1811, as that’s when the (overlapping) Regency started, and that term is used. I’ve never seen it used for the period 1820-1830 (after the regency ended) in a fashion context.
  • French Revolution
    • 1789-1799
    • Political term
    • The period of the French revolution, in which the people turned against the establishment and which meant the end of the monarchy in France. Dress was quite an important thing in France in those days, and during this period there’s a sharp shift away from the opulence of before into clean and simple lines, which was no-doubt helped along by the hatred of the aristocracy at the time. There’s also a lot of red, white and blue in French fashion at the time, which were the colors of the revolution.
  • Neo-Classical
    • 1765–1830
    • Art term
    • An ‘opposition’ to the drama of the Baroque and Rococo, Neoclassicism was inspired by the re-discovery of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This started to show in dress around 1785, and strongly influenced the rise of the waistlines and slim, white dresses worn in the early years of the 19th century.
  • Regency
    • 1811-1820
    • Political term
    • The term ‘Regency’ refers to the period in which George IV held the regency for his ill father, George III. In historical fashion, this term is used a lot, and generally refers to a slightly broader time span to comply with the styles in clothing. Generally, I’ve seen it used for the period 1795-1825, when the high waistline and slim silhouette was popular.
  • Biedermeier
    • ca 1815 – 1848
    • Art term
    • Although the start & end date refer to political events (congress of Vienna – Revolutions of 1848), the term Biedermeier refers to a German/Austrian art style. It is used to refer to fashion mostly from ca. 1820 to 1840, or the period between the Regency & the Victorian era. I suspect the term came into use mostly because there’s no English political term covering this period except ‘the end of the Georgian era’, which is confusing.
  • Romantic era
    • ca 1800 – 1850
    • Art term
    • Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement in which the glorification of nature and history was important. There was a renewed historical interest, and an emphasis on emotion and the individual. In dress history, I see this term used mostly to refer to the 1820’s, 1830’s and 1840’s. This is probably because the period 1800-1820 is generally defined as Georgian/Regency and from 1850 on as Victorian, so ‘Romantic’ in turn means the bit in the middle for which we didn’t have a proper name yet.
  • Civil-War
    • 1861 – 1865
    • Political term
    • There’s been many civil wars through-out history, but in historical costuming this term is mostly used by Americans and refers to the American Civil War. There’s a lot of re-enactment groups in the US for this era, so also a lot of people interested in this period, and therefore a lot of resources available!
  • Victorian
    • 1837 – 1901
    • Political term
    • Referring to the reign of queen Victoria in England, this era covers most of the 19th century. This also makes it confusing, as dress changed greatly between 1840 and 1900, so the term ‘Victorian clothing’ can be used to refer to a large range of different clothing styles.
  • Crinoline/Hoop era
    • ca. 1855-1865
    • Fashion term
    • Finally a term actually referring to fashion! The expanding skirts of the 1840’s and early 1850’s were supported by loads of petticoats. In 1856, the wire/metal hoop skirt was invented to support the ever-growing bell shape. In the 1860’s, it changed into an elliptic shape and eventually transformed into what we now call the bustle.
  • Bustle period
    • ca. 1865-1890
    • Fashion term
    • This term is used for the period within the Victorian era when so-called ‘bustles’ were worn. Taking many shapes and sizes over the years, the general goal of the bustle was to increase the fullness of the skirt in the back. (or: to make your but look bigger). Generally, 3 different periods can be distinguished. Ca. 1865-1876 is the Early bustle era. Skirts are still slightly round at the hemline, and bustle expands out from the natural waist backwards. From ca. 1876-1882 bustles shrank to almost nothing (say, a small pillow), giving from to the ‘Natural Form’ era. But from ca. 1882-1890 the bustle returned and grew bigger than ever. This is the Late bustle era, the main difference with the Early one being even more emphasis on the back, and the bustle expanding out from a little lower, say the start of the hip bones. Around 1890, the bustles had shrunk again to nearly nothing, this time for good. (Well, for now at least!)
  • Edwardian
    • 1901 – 1910/1914
    • Political term
    • Referring to the reign of king Edward of England, who reigned from 1901 to 1910. Broadly speaking, it is often used for the first 14 years of the century, from 1900 to 1914. This is when the first World War started, and brought many changes to society.
  • WWI
    • 1914-1918
    • Historical term
    • World War I. Also referred to as ‘the Great War'(in English, at least for the Netherlands, if we refer to ‘the war’ its WWII)
  • (Art-)Deco
    • ca. 1920-1945
    • Art style
    • A style of art following on art-nouveau, which marries traditional crafts motives with the new technological possibilities. I’ve mostly seen this as referring to the 1920’s and 1930’s, which might have something to do with the lack of a proper other style term for the inter-war period.
  • WWII
    • 1939-1945
    • Historical term
    • World War II. This war started when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. For me, WWII has always has 1940 as start year, because the Netherlands were invaded in that year. The US got involved in 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Vintage
    • ca. 1920-1990’s
    • The term vintage is generally meant to be ‘anything old’, but usually any clothing from pre 1920’s will be labeled ‘antique’, and not vintage. Most often, ‘vintage’ is used to refer to clothing between 1940’s and 1970’s, but as time goes along this might change. (In 20 years, what we wear now can be considered vintage). This term is the odd one out, because it is generally used to specifically refer to actual items which were made in the past. Reproductions are generally named vintage-style, or retro. I find that in costuming circles, most people make a distinction between historical, being anything up to ca. 1920’s, and vintage being anything between then and 20 years ago.



  • Gouden Eeuw 
    • In English: Dutch Golden Age
    • ca. 1600 – 1700
    • A period of growth in trade, science and the arts in Dutch history. It is generally thought of to have started around the same time as the founding of the East-Indian Trading company (1602-\). 1672 was the ‘disaster year’ (war, with political and economical consequences), after which the decline started.
  • Empire
    • In English: Empire (we’d pronounce it the French way though)
    • ca. 1800 – 1815
    • Art term
    • Technically this is a term used to refer to the French neo-classical interior style made popular by Napoleon. In practise, it is also used to refer generally to the reign of Napoleon, of which the exact days are shown in the next term.
  • Napoleonistische tijd
    • In English: Napoleon’s time
    • 1804-1814/5
    • Political term
    • The period of Napoleon’s reign as emperor of France (and multiple other regions, including the Netherlands). Napoleon abdicated in 1814, to briefly return in 1815.
  • Belle époque
    • In English: Beautiful Era (another term borrowed from the French)
    • ca. 1870-1914
    • Historical term
    • Generally, this term is used to refer to the era of progress in France (and surrounding countries) around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. It ended with the start of WWI.
  • Interbellum
    • In English: Inter-war period
    • 1918-1939
    • Political term
    • The inter-war period, between WWI and WWII. I haven’t really seen this used often in costume history, although it might be used in a context for which it’s relevant that it’s a period between wars.

Your Weekend Wow!

When I think of late 18th century caraco and petticoat ensembles, what comes to mind is silk brocade with embroidery or colorful prints that make for a substantial, eye-catching presence.

This one, however, is so unusual I wanted to share it the moment I saw it. It’s more like a wisp of a cotton cloud that a bold statement.

And no wonder, since it belonged to Madame Élisabeth (1764-1794), also known as Princess Élisabeth, the youngest sister of King Louis XVI of France. She did not survive the Revolution, but her ensemble did and was exhibited at Versailles in 2013 as part of a larger exhibition about the princess.

This is a photograph from the exhibition, which shows the pierrot-style caraco and petticoat along with its matching fichu. The ensemble is dated to 1789.



Then there is this set of photographs, from the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Although the dates are slightly different, and the fichu is gone, there seems little doubt it is the same garment. The fineness of the cotton is amazing…it must have worn like a whisper.

Caraco and petticoat, 1790-1800. Very fine white cotton, embroidered with garlands of vine and grape clusters.

Caraco and petticoat, 1790-1800. Very fine white cotton, embroidered with garlands of vine and grape clusters.

Detail front, caraco and petticoat, 1790-1800.

Side view, caraco and petticoat, 1790-1800.

Detail rear view, caraco and petticoat, 1790-1800.

Upright and Still Almost Sane: an update on moving and HSM 2016

(From the Everett Collection)

(From the Everett Collection)

Few things will mess with one’s life like moving does and this move has been a doozie. Once everything was out of the old place it needed to undergo the checkout cleaning for the property manager’s approval to refund my security deposit. The security deposit was whopping big and I want it back.

But the old place hasn’t been well maintained and was in such poor condition that cleaning it wasn’t easy. The deteriorating wood needed careful handling. It’s difficult to scrub cracked and chipping paint. Two rooms needed repainting. I found a black widow spider in the coat closet and evidence of rodents in the former garage (I think they moved in after the botched construction job). In any case, I spend the last week driving back to the old place daily to work on cleaning it up. Even with fours hours of help on Friday, it still took forever. And I threw my back out in the process.

I finished with the house at 9pm on Sunday night and I’ve been barely mobile since then. Today is the first day I can stand up without pain and I am thrilled. Needless to say, I haven’t been able to start unpacking and arranging the sewing room.

And all that means that I’m dreadfully behind on HSM 2016.

January: Procrastination – finish a garment you have been putting off finishing (a UFO or PHD) or make something you have been avoiding starting. I was working on a hand-sewn cap of white organdy, which was due Jan 31st. Unfortunately, neither December nor January was conducive to sewing – I’m procrastinating on the Procrastination challenge.

February: Tucks and Pleating – make a garment that features tucks and pleating for the shape or decoration. I want to make an 1840’s or 1850’s dress, but I know that one short month is not enough time. So I’m working my way through my patterns to see what I have that’s doable in just a few weeks and I might be on to something. I just need to decide, get the sewing machine set up and start cutting. So as soon as I know what I’m doing I’ll pass it on.

Two Regency Surprises: The “Other” Lazy Lacing Corset and Stockings Tied to Pantalettes

One thing that seriously impacts/inspires/limits/challenges my sewing is the fact that I have to dress myself. No spouse, significant other, understanding neighbor or eternally patient lady’s maid…I must get in and out of these undergarments and clothing on my own, or risk getting my 15 minutes of fame by appearing on the front page in the midst of arrest for indecent exposure. (Frankly, not my first choice.)

This is especially problematic with my Regency long stays. I have to put them on over my head and wriggle in like an armless tube worm donning a spandex sheath dress. By the time it’s on I’ve worked up a sweat. It’s particularly annoying when I’m sewing and fitting as I go. Each stop to fit takes up an hour or so when you count getting into and out of the stays. Sure, I could just leave the silly things on…but have you ever tried spending the day sewing while wearing Regency long stays that keep you firmly lashed to a ginormous wooden busk? I tried it once and didn’t last long.

This has made it to the front of things in my mind because there are a mere six weeks left in the year (no, I don’t know how that happened either) and I have promised myself I will finally finish a somewhere-around-1800 dress for myself before New Year’s Eve. I’m not demanding a certain color or style…I just want one that fits my uneven sloping shoulders and doesn’t leave the girls served up like an all-you-can-eat buffet. However, the thought of wrestling those stays on and off a dozen or so times does not exactly bring to mind hours of joyful sewing.

But there’s more than one way to support the girls, Regency style. I ran across this on Pinterest. It’s not new, but it’s new to me and perhaps it’s new to you, too. In any case, it’s worth sharing. The French term for this method is “lazy” lacing which would indicate it’s perfect for the single costumer who must manage on her own. It looks positively simple and lightning fast. (You may have to adjust the sound, as the recorded volume is rather low and her son is “helping” with background mommy chatter.)

According to the videographer, this method and style was patented in 1796 and used throughout the early 19th century. She made hers based on one in an 1810 fashion plate and I can see a center busk sewn in place.

This looks like the perfect short stays for me. It’s long enough that it comes to the wearer’s high hip, instead of mid-ribcage. The shoulder straps attach in the front and cross in the back so they won’t fall off the first time I reach for something, which is currently a problem. They are wide and flat, so they won’t dig. Best of all, because they cross independently of each other, my uneven shoulders would be easily accommodated. I don’t know if a pattern already exists, but I’m on the hunt. If anyone knows of a pattern for short stays just like these, please let me know. It may take a number of trial muslins to get the right fit, but I think it would be worth it to have a set of stays that I can whip on in about five minutes without assistance.


The other surprise discovery is this Walpole cartoon, published in London in 1799.

"The Virgin Shape Warehouse", satirical drawing, London 1799. Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection - London. Publish'd Sepr. 1st, 1799, by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly, [1799]

“The Virgin Shape Warehouse”, satirical drawing, London 1799. Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection – London. Publish’d Sepr. 1st, 1799, by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly, [1799]

Look at those stockings – they caught my eye immediately because they are supported by the pantalettes – I think it’s too early to call them “drawers” – seemingly attached (buttoned or tied) at the outside edge. No less than three of the caricatures are wearing stockings in this manner. Only the seated figure appears to have her stockings supported with garters secured above the knee. The skinny woman’s stockings are simply falling down. In addition, the four pairs of pantalettes hanging up on pegs all have ties dangling from the outside edge of the hems.

This is new to me and it’s a much bigger surprise than the alternative corset. Social satirists keep their metaphoric fingers on the pulse of society’s practices and trends so I have no reason to disregard the stocking treatments as a figment of Mr. Walpole’s imagination. Although holding my stocking up in this manner would probably feel less secure and even a bit less comfortable, varicose veins run in my family and being able to wear stockings without a tight band around my knee, whether above or below, is a fantastic option.

This also belies the notion that women didn’t really start really wearing pantalettes until the 1820’s or 30’s.

So there you have it: two new ways to look at Regency dress. Speaking as one who is more than happy to color outside the lines, I love it.

HSM #11 – A Regency Reticule, Part One

Antique Scissors

I am happy to report that production “chez moi” is up and running once again. We’ve had a series of severe windstorms blow through in the past three days, severe as in half a hurricane or so, so I’ve pretty much stayed away from the computer. But the skies are calm today so I want to catch you up on the action.

I decided to go with a Regency Reticule for HSM #11. As you may recall, the Challenge is Silver Screen: “Be inspired by period fashions as shown onscreen (film or TV), and recreate your favourite historical costume as a historically accurate period piece.” I based the decision to make a reticule on somewhat perverse logic: they were a foundation piece, historically speaking, of everyday dress. Yet they are rarely seen in films. Women gambol across fields and prance at balls with great regularity. But they spend a good part of their time empty-handed in terms of reticules, with rare exceptions. Here are a few “caught on screen” examples from the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.

A phantom reticule dangling from Lydia's arm. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

A phantom reticule dangles from Lydia’s arm (far left).


Charlotte, Lizzy, Maria Lucas, and Sir William Lucas. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

Maria Lucas carries a green reticule (center back).


Kitty's reticule. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

Kitty carries a patterned maroon reticule (center).


Lady Catherine sports a reticule. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

Lady Catherine sports a dark brown reticule. (You know which one she is.)

It’s understandable. If our heroine is trouble-free it would be visually distracting to have a hand bag swinging about. If she is burdened by great sorrows it would seem cruel to burden her further with something to lug around. I do get it, from the artistic standpoint. But I still notice it. So my tribute to the Silver Screen is to put a reticule in hand, where it belongs.

In order to decide what type of reticule to make I did some visual research at my favorite “what it really looked like” site – Pinterest. On the plus side, reticules came in a plethora of shapes and sizes. On the down side, that meant the field was pretty much wide open for interpretation. I already knew I tended to like the more angular shapes and all of those with tassels, so I focused primarily on those.

In the end I decided to merge shapes and decorations into a manageable size that would hold the essentials and be just slightly better-than-average with embellishments. I want to emulate the shape of the reticule on the left and incorporate the swirling spangles of the one on the right.


I fooled around with the shape and the swirl pattern. I knew I wanted the pattern to be symmetrical. I also know I wanted a little area for some embroidery – an initial or a little flower. The pointed reticule above is nearly 24 inches long. That may be OK for someone six feet tall, but a bit much for me. I ended up with this:

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I used a fine point Sharpie (indelible ink) on cheap printer paper. The cheap part is important because of what happened later.


The vast majority of surviving reticules are made of silk. That’s all well and good, but I am allergic to silk so I rarely use the stuff and certainly don’t keep it in my stash. I found a fairly local fabric store that carries a large selection of reproduction fabrics and they had a line of shot cotton solids. I’d heard of shot silk, but shot cotton was new to me and I immediately loved the look of it.

What does “shot” mean? When looking at extant garments, one sees a lot of shot silk. Wikipedia gives a nice definition:

Shot silk (also called changeant, changeable silk and changeable taffeta) is a fabric which is made up of silk woven from warp and weft yarns of two or more colours producing an iridescent appearance.

This shot cotton is the same. The warp and weft threads are two different colors: one is orangey, the other is beige. They read as a solid, but the color changes depending on the light and the fabric’s position in relation to it. In the fabric store it looked a medium apricot-rose. In outdoor light it looked more salmon. At one extreme it looks almost pumpkin orange, at the other it appears a medium-light apricot pink or looks like an electric carrot. The camera picks it up through its full range. (You’ll notice it looks as if I’m changing fabric, but it’s all the same single piece.)

This is an unlikely color choice for me. I look deathly ill in orange and any of the yellow-based colors. But this one is a bit of a chameleon – I spent a very long time walking around the store holding the bolt up next to a wide variety of other colors and prints and, much to my surprise, it looked good with almost all of them…a very unlikely neutral indeed. So not only would it work with all of the fabrics in my stash destined to become Regency wear, it would perk the wardrobe up a bit without getting the dreaded orange too close to my face.

A winner all around and still in keeping with a historically accurate color palette. I promise – it’s not nearly as harsh a color as it appears in the photos. It is more tempered; richer and softer by far. And one can find all manner of oranges in Regency fashion plates.

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Embellishment: Paillettes versus Spangles versus Sequins

I spent some time studying what we call sequins and how they were used on reticules.

My first query was terminology – what were they called? Paillette is defined a number of ways:

  • a small shiny object (as a spangle) applied in clusters as a decorative trimming (as on women’s clothing) [Merriam-Webster]

  • a spangle for ornamenting a costume [Free Dictionary]

  • sequin, spangle [Oxford Dictionaries]

Paillette is French for spangle or sequin. Spangle appears to be a British term: a small thin piece of glittering material, typically used in quantity to ornament a dress; a sequin. (It was also a type of British sweet, first made in the 1940’s; eaten, not applied to clothing.)

So sequins, spangles and paillettes are all the same thing. I thought that was the case, but now I know for sure.

Today one can buy sequins that are curved, faceted, laser etched, iridescent, glow in the dark…you name it, it’s out there. Historically, spangles (my favorite term) were shiny, flat discs of a single color – originally metal, later made of processed vegetable matter, colored resins or synthetic material.

In the Late Georgian and Regency periods, I found examples of spangles sewn on with two different methods: either sewn with thread through the central opening on opposing sides or with a bead sewn over the center opening. It looks like they were generally placed edge-to-edge to form patterns, not densely overlapping to create a sparkling mass.

I feared that metal spangles on cotton would look out of place, so I hunted for other options. To my delight, I found a local bead supplier who frequents the Paris flea markets and buys antique spangles in different colors. She told me they are becoming harder and harder to find, so she buys whatever she can find. She happened to have two containers of chocolate-brown spangles from the early 1880’s – flat, shiny discs. Not exactly Regency, but as close as I was going to get without having to sell off a kidney so I snapped them up at a bargain price of $2 each for hundreds, if not thousands, of the little buggers. They feel like some kind of vegetable material, but they may well be synthetic. There’s not much bend to them, but they don’t snap easily. And, having been poured into their containers, they harbor a fierce static cling so it’s a real challenge to separate them.

Design Transfer

First step was to transfer the design onto the fabric. I used to have a nice light box which I used a lot during my quilting days for my appliqué work. (I was into appliqué Big Time.) But it’s long gone, so I tried using Mother Nature’s light box. As it turned out, there was a big storm blowing in and I was losing light almost as fast as I could get everything taped on the window.

The fabric is made of mercerized cotton, so the warp and weft threads are strong. But they are not tightly woven. This made transferring the design by tracing over it with pencil not only difficult, but tiny separations in the threads started to appear. You can just barely see it in the photo. Not good.

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Time to consider the options.

Thinking back to my quilting days, I recalled a technique for appliqué where the design area is outlined with thread using a simple running stitch. This way, there is no direct marking on the face of the fabric. The thread can either be covered with the appliqué or removed as you go. Looking at my swirls, it looked reasonable. So I pinned the paper design to the fabric, being careful to keep it flat and straight, and started stitching. It worked a charm.

If you ever use this method, an important thing to remember is once you’re done you only have your thread to guide you. Big stitches are fine for straight lines like parallel runs or boxed grids. But curves require smaller stitches: the tighter the curve, the smaller the stitches or you lose definition. Here’s what I mean.

This is one of the larger curves, marked with long stitches:

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Here is the same curve, marked with short stitches:

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See the difference? The long stitches don’t give you enough guidance to keep the curve smooth. If everything was marked with long stitches it would end up an indecipherable hodge-podge. (Ask me how I know.)

It took a while to get the entire design transferred. I kept my pace deliberate to make sure the paper stayed flat against the fabric and that nothing slipped or twisted. But soon enough it was done.

Back side view, all stitched up.

Back side view, all stitched up.

From there, I traced the final cutting lines and trimmed away some of the excess fabric to make it easier to work with.

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The next step is to remove the paper. There are products which allow you to transfer your design as I did, then all you do is wet the product and it dissolves completely. I couldn’t get my hands on one, so I’d gone old school with the printer paper. I dampened a sponge with warm water and pressed it to the paper. I’d used indelible ink, so I wasn’t worried about transfer or bleeding. This is where using the cheap stuff became a bonus, because it turned mushy in no time at all.

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I lifted it away carefully, getting as many of the little stray bits as I could. Once they dry, they are like teeny, rock-hard spit balls and a needle won’t go through them easily. It takes a little time, but not much and the extra effort is well worth it. And because I didn’t have to soak the paper, the fabric air-dried fairly quickly.

At this point, given the loose-ish weave of the main fabric, I decided to back it with muslin to provide extra support for all those spangles and basted the two layers together. I went around the inner and outer edges of the design and used a different color thread (because I know myself all too well). I also basted a center line through the bottom of the design for extra stability. Then I mounted it on an embroidery frame I bought from the Royal School of Needlework in England when I took a course there a few years ago. Of all the frames I’ve ever used, it is my favorite. (If the house ever catches fire, Sophie will be in one arm and this frame and my handbag will be in the other.) Here are two photo color variations of the fully marked design: electric carrot and mellow pumpkin.

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Finally – time to start playing with spangles. Whew!

I decided to start at the center bottom and work my way out and up. This way, if there are areas of overlap, the outer spangles will cover the inner spangles and the spangles toward the top will cover the spangles toward the bottom. I think this will make them less likely to snag on things, so I’m curious to see if I thought it through correctly.

I went with a straight up and down stab stitch: up through the center of the spangle and down at one edge, then up at an opposite edge in a line that follows the design and back down through the center again, then repeat for each one.

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Once in a while I snag a knot from the back side and pull it through to the front. No problem. I just carefully snip it in half and keep stitching. The design stays in place.

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Here’s a shot of the first spiral, front and back.

My original plan was to snip out the marking thread from underneath as I went, but I outsmarted myself. (If you’re surprised, I refer you to previous blog entries…you’ll notice the trend.) The spangles completely cover the marking thread on top – no surprise there. But by deciding to add a support layer underneath, I cut off all access to the marking thread. So I’ve ended up stitching just to the side of the marking thread so it doesn’t show through. For the most part, that is.

I knew this wouldn’t be a slap-dash project, but I’ve discovered just how tedious the going is. This is going to take some time. I could use a tiny dot of fabric glue to pre-place each spangle and then just stitch them on. It would be a whole lot faster. But for now I’m doing them one at a time. That feels like a more historically authentic procedure, although I don’t know it for a fact and I’m not sure how important a detail it is. We’ll see how I feel about it a thousand or so spangles from now and whether or not I can still feel my fingers.

In the mean time, if anyone out there knows for sure that Regency reticule makers used glue to secure their spangles/sequins/paillettes before sewing them in place (after all, glue was well-known and used in other applications) don’t be shy – please share! My fingers will thank you.

When Mourning Literally Got Under Your Skin

Full mourning attire, photographed circa 1860.

Full mourning attire, photographed circa 1860.

I love stumbling across things that take me by surprise, no matter how reasonable they seem in retrospect. This is one of those things. It requires a bit of back story, so please be patient.

While looking into the etiquette of Victorian fancy dress, I stumbled upon “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.” by Florence Hartley, published in 1860. Done in that style of taking the reader gently by the hand and guiding her through all manner and means of acceptable behaviors and presentations, it is at once delightful, quaint, exhausting and (truth be told) a bit terrifying in its complexity.

The full title gives it away: The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society. Containing full directions for correct manners, dress. deportment, and conversation; ruled for the duties of both hostess and guest in morning receptions, dinner companies, visiting, evening parties and balls; a complete guide for letter writing and cards of compliment; hints on managing servants, on the preservation of health, and on accomplishments. And also useful receipts for the complexion, hair, and with hints and directions for the care of the wardrobe.

Think you’d enjoy life in 1860? Perhaps you’d best peruse this first. It’s available for viewing online as Project Gutenberg EBook #35123. I suggest a strong cup of tea with smelling salts nearby to set the mood.

Before the “aha” moment, though, a quick review of mourning practices. The manner of dress and length of its wear was prescribed by custom and changed little over decades. Here’s a nice summary:

Victorian Mourning Customs From the Victorian Mourning Exhibit at the Petaluma History Museum, Petaluma CA. Photo by Marianne Riddle.

Victorian Mourning Customs From the Victorian Mourning Exhibit at the Petaluma History Museum, Petaluma CA. Photo by Marianne Riddle.

First item of note is the initial period of mourning for widowed women: deep mourning. One year and one day continually dressed in black, head to toe, pretty much 24/7 since one did not run about the house in petal pink dressing gowns or sky blue wrappers. In fact, during that first year and a day, a widow didn’t generally leave the house unless it was to attend church services. She spent most of her waking hours swathed in black.

The second point to consider is that there was a lot of death – it was not considered the “novelty” it is today, it was accepted as a part of everyday life. A wife could be called into mourning for a husband, a sibling, a child, a dear friend, a significant public figure (king, queen, president). I’ve read that as the American Civil War dragged on, the pattern of wearing black changed else women would be dressed in black continuously due to the sheer number of husbands, brothers and sons lost in battle or to disease (which killed more people than actual war wounds). And life expectancies were astoundingly brief.

Average age at death for different classes in 1842 England:

  Gentry Tradesmen Labourers
















Bethnal Green








And then there is the matter of economics. The general masses did not have the financial resources to have new clothes made, or even purchase ready-made mourning clothing. These women dyed an existing dress black and wore it until they could afford a new dress or, more likely, until the period of mourning was over.

So a woman could find herself confined in black for a very long time through all types of weather, and the dye used could be of questionable quality.

All of which leads us to my “aha” moment when I found this at the back of “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.”

To remove Black Stains from the Skin.—Ladies that wear mourning in warm weather are much incommoded by the blackness it leaves on the arms and neck, and which cannot easily be removed, even by soap and warm water. To have a remedy always at hand, keep, in the drawer of your wash-stand, a box, containing a mixture in equal portions of cream of tartar, and oxalic acid (POISON). Get, at a druggist’s, half an ounce of each of these articles, and have them mixed and pounded together in a mortar. Put some of this mixture into a cup that has a cover, and if, afterwards, it becomes hard, you may keep it slightly moistened with water. See that it is always closely covered. To use it, wet the black stains on your skin with the corner of a towel, dipped in water (warm water is best, but is not always at hand). Then, with your finger, rub on a little of the mixture. Then immediately wash it off with water, and afterwards with soap and water, and the black stains will be visible no longer. This mixture will also remove ink, and all other stains from the fingers, and from white clothes. It is more speedy in its effects if applied with warm water. No family should be without it, but care must be taken to keep it out of the way of young children, as, if swallowed, it is poisonous.

It is a wonder that the mourners themselves didn’t die of these remedies.

(For those of you interested in historic “receipts” for everything from lip slave to cold cream to the freckle removers to treatment of corns and callouses to cleaning colored kid gloves to cleaning white or flowered silks, this is an excellent resource. Take care, however – many of the ingredients are toxic, if not outright lethal, in relatively small doses. I strongly recommend consulting with a pharmacist or other knowledgeable person before trying any of them at home.)

A Halloween Historical Look at Masquerades, Costume Balls and Fancy Dress

Masquerade ball 14th-century. Source - National Endowment For The Humanities

Masquerade ball 14th-century. Source – National Endowment For The Humanities

Today is Halloween in the US – consistently voted as our most popular and widely celebrated holiday. It seems a shame that in this country “dressing up” is pretty much limited to one day a year. We haven’t kept the English tradition of fancy dress in general (parties where attendance is in costume only), let alone themed fancy dress soirées. And I think that’s a bit of a shame. You can learn a lot about someone by who (or what) they choose to become – often with slightly disturbing results.

The concept of fancy dress and social costuming goes back quite a ways in Western cultures. (Sadly, I’m not at all informed on the traditions of other cultures so I apologize for overlooking them.)

Italy comes to mind immediately, with Carnevale leading the way.

The Carnival of Venice is an annual festival, held in Venice. The Carnival starts around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Marte dì Grasso), the day before Ash Wednesday. Carnevale is now world famous – it always takes place during the ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Carnevale, being a pre-Lent festival, means ‘farewell to meat’ and is celebrated throughout Italy.

It was first held in Venice in the 11th century and consisted of over two months of revelry, until it fell into decline during the 18th century. It was revived in 1979 with great success and nowadays it is a great excuse to don a mask and costume, parade around the city, enjoy the live music in the main squares of the city,  and is a wonderful open-air festival where everyone can join in. Whatever the social status all the people wore costumes and masks, many connected to the Commedie del’Arte, Harlequin, Columbine, the Plague Doctor and of course the courtesans.

The wearing of masks was introduced in the 13th century and they have become a popular element with a rich history and tradition of their own.

In France, the popularity of masquerade balls spread quickly and they became not only a popular feature of the Carnival season, but also held at other times. Some of the most outrageous affairs were held in celebration of Royal Entries, which was the great ceremony of welcoming kings and queens into a city.

Masquerade ball at Château de Hattonchâtel, France_2008 by Aniwa Watts

Masquerade ball at Château de Hattonchâtel, France, 2008. Photo by Aniwa Watts.

But they didn’t always run smoothly.

The “Bal des Ardents” (“Burning Men’s Ball”) was held by Charles VI of France, and intended as a Bal des sauvages (“Wild Men’s Ball”), a form of costumed ball. It took place in celebration of the marriage of a lady-in-waiting of French Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (wife of Charles VI) in Paris on January 28, 1393. The King and five courtiers dressed as wild men of the woods, with costumes of flax and pitch. When they came too close to a torch, however, the dancers caught fire. (The King was spared.)

Masquerade ball burning men. Source - National Endowment For The Humanities

Masquerade ball burning men. Source – National Endowment For The Humanities

In the United States, our tradition of fancy dress comes primarily from the English and other British settlers who became colonists. Masquerade affairs became very popular throughout mainland Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries

Throughout the 17th century, masquerade dances became popular in Colonial America. However, a significant anti-masquerade movement developed. Was this due to the strong Puritan contingent among our forefathers? I willing to hazard a guess they had something to do with it. The anti-masquerade writers declared the events encouraged immorality and “foreign influence”.

In 1743 Governor Marquis de Vaudreuil threw an elegant masked ball for the elite of New Orleans modeled on the Parisian Carnival. (

In 1743 Governor Marquis de Vaudreuil threw an elegant masked ball for the elite of New Orleans modeled on the Parisian Carnival. (

Despite pressure from the opposing side, costumed events remained on social calendars on both sides of The Pond. From our friends and self-appointed keepers of all knowledge at Wikipedia:

John James Heidegger, a Swiss count who arrived in Italy in 1708, is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion of a semi-public masquerade ball, to which one might subscribe, to London in the early eighteenth century, with the first being held at Haymarket Opera House. London’s public gardens, like Vauxhall Gardens, refurbished in 1732, and Ranelagh Gardens, provided optimal outdoor settings, where characters masked and in fancy dress mingled with the crowds.

In the 1770s fashionable Londoners went to the masquerades organized by Teresa Cornelys at Carlisle House in Soho Square, and later to the Pantheon.

Masquerade balls were sometimes set as a game among the guests. The masked guests were supposedly dressed so as to be unidentifiable. This would create a type of game to see if a guest could determine each other’s identities. This added a humorous effect to many masques and enabled a more enjoyable version of typical balls.

The Gallery of Fashion August 1795. Ranelagh Evening Dresses.

The Gallery of Fashion August 1795. Ranelagh Evening Dresses.

Masked ball, April 1795, London.

Masked ball, April 1795, London.

And so our culture has inherited a rich tradition of dressing up and masquerading as some one (or some thing) else.

And now for the fun part. Enter the Victorians and Edwardians: British, Irish and American. These were not, shall we say, very flexible societies. There were rules for everything, including fancy dress. Balls were entertainment with a foundation in social purpose: maintaining or, if you were lucky, advancing your place in society.



Fancy dress balls grew so popular in the late 19th century that a number of publications presented new and creative costume ideas. The most popular of these was probably “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Adrian Holt. It went through numerous editions throughout the 1880s and 1890s. These costume suggestions are from various editions.

Even so, there appears to have been quite a bit of “coloring outside the lines” with some costumes. I would never have expected this from the Victorian era but, then again, they were interested in the occult and such. Still…

This design was created by Leon Sault. The deep crimson crinoline skirt is decorated with cavorting demons climbing up pitchforks and swinging from ropes, and bats in flight, with an overskirt shaped and patterned to suggest a black lizard skin with gilded scales. An owl in flight forms the wearer's bodice, and her headdress is a devil with horns and a pitchfork sitting in flames. The costume probably represents Hell, although it could also be "Nightmare".

This design was created by Leon Sault. The deep crimson crinoline skirt is decorated with cavorting demons climbing up pitchforks and swinging from ropes, and bats in flight, with an overskirt shaped and patterned to suggest a black lizard skin with gilded scales. An owl in flight forms the wearer’s bodice, and her headdress is a devil with horns and a pitchfork sitting in flames. The costume probably represents Hell, although it could also be “Nightmare”. (

Of course, everyone loves a witch.

The Witch - fancy dress

The Witch – fancy dress costume

As one would imagine, fancy dress was nearly a competitive sport at the upper echelons of society. Here are a few examples of how to dress up when money is no object.

And then there are the more or less regular folk, up for a good time and ready for some fun.

But my All Time 100% Favorite Costume remains:

A side of bacon.

Happy Halloween to all!

The Victorian Craze for Headless Photographs

Oh, those wacky Victorians. Underneath all the social rules, mores, expectations and layers of starch lay some truly odd penchants for bending the rules. The craze for headless photography is one that seems so uncharacteristic of how we understand Victorian life that it stands out as downright bizarre. Yet it’s easier to find a headless photograph than one of a Victorian smiling, so what does that say? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s Halloween time, so smiling Victorians need not apply.

Bring on the headless.

Swedish-born photographer Oscar Rejlander developed “trick photography” in 1856. He compiled a series of negatives to create his famous image, The Two Ways of Life.


After Rejlander’s development, photographic manipulation was studied and developed further. George Eastman was especially interested in its possibilities. As he experimented his technique became more refined and others learned from him.

Photographers started advertising their services for “spirit photographs” and other photographic tricks.

Samuel Kay Balbirnie's 1878 advertisement

Samuel Kay Balbirnie’s 1878 advertisement

Samuel Kay Balbirnie's 1878 advertisement

And if one can turn or twist a head, why not remove it altogether? Creating headless portraits became a trend that appealed to the popular sense of the macabre (Gothic novels and Edgar Allen Poe, anyone?) – it became a craze which swept through the Victorian era and beyond with often startling results. How startling? Ask a silly question…

headless soldiers


Of course, once all of those heads have been removed it only seems rational to find a home for them elsewhere, no?