Friday, September 27, 2013

Queen Victoria's Gene book review

This book I chanced across while browsing through the history section at Half Price Books. While interested, I didn't buy it right away. Instead, used the old smartphone to snap a picture of the cover, went home and ordered it from the library instead.

It's been a while since I read a purely non-fiction piece of work and this one had me intrigued just from the title alone - Queen Victoria's Gene: Haemophilia and the Royal Family.
For those who are not familiar with the history of Queen Victoria's family, they were carriers and recipients of the Hemophilia gene, a blood disorder that mostly affects males in the family by preventing blood from clotting properly. Two of Victoria's daughters, Alice and Beatrice, were carriers of the disease, and her son, Leopold, was affected by it. Through her children, it came to affect a number of the royal houses in Europe. What it strangely intriguing though, is the Hemophilia gene was never prevalent in the royal family until Queen Victoria's time.

The authors, D.M. Potts and W.T.W. Potts, set forward their research and ideas in the book about where this gene could have come from. Was it a 1 in 50,000 chance mutation, or was Victoria herself possibly the illegitimate offspring between the Duchess of Kent and a Hemophiliac man? The research is impeccable, and scientific proof helps to back up any of the theories they put forward.

The let down for me in reading this was based on the synopsis on the back cover, the authors were going to explore the possibilities of how history might have been different if the Hemophilia gene had not been prevalent in the royal families, specifically the Romanovs of Russia. In each of the history chapters though, they reiterate the historical facts, then relegate the alternative outcomes to only a few short paragraphs.

Exploration and investigation into other historical mysteries like the identity of Anna Anderson, the supposed lost Grand Duchess Anastasia, help to round out a the author's research on how Hemophilia could also help in identifying those who were related and what their roles could potentially mean.

The material itself isn't too dry, despite being rooted in historical and scientific facts mostly. It's the theories and the material that is put forward that drive book (excluding one chapter that just didn't make sense to me on why it was included). Although I know a number of things about Queen Victoria's family, there were still a few surprises (Kaiser Wilhelm and his wife are both great-grandchildren of the Duchess of Kent and therefore cousins), and definitely a few more questions to ponder.

Overall rating - 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, September 26, 2013

And Only To Deceive book review

So a long time ago my mom sent me a couple of books. "Here, you'll like these. They're mysteries and they take place during the Victorian period." And they sat on my shelf, for forever.

Well I finally decided to get around to reading them recently, only to discover that it was a SERIES of books and that I had #2 and #3, but #1 had disappeared somewhere. Lucky me, the library had an electronic copy available for lending so I got it, started reading, and was finished five days later. The last time I read a book that quickly was before I got a full-time job and had endless hours to burn, so that says something. So what is this great book?

Let me introduce you to the Lady Emily mysteries, written by Tasha Alexander. And Only to Deceive is the first in the series, but based on this book alone I'm ready to jump headfirst into the rest.

The story is told from Lady Emily Ashton's point of view. A widow after only six months of marriage, she is finally emerging from her deep mourning period and has reentered society, only to find herself embroiled in a mystery involving museums, art forgeries, and the black market for stolen antiquities.

While the mystery is not a very deep one, Alexander does a wonderful job of keeping the plot twisting and turning to the point that even I wasn't quite sure where it would end up.

What particulary interested me though, was the accuracy in which Alexander portrayed Lady Emily's emotions and actions as an upper middle-class Victorian woman. Her thoughts of marriage as any easy way out of dealing with an overbearing mother and of seeing widowhood as a way to finally be independent, were very realistic views that some woman had during this era. I've read other Victorian inspired historical fiction pieces before, and it's obvious the author has taken someone with modern view sets and plopped them in a Victorian world. Alexander's Lady Emily however, is a Victorian woman who is completely at home in her late 1880's time period.

Due to similar names, the side characters were sometimes confusing, but this is made up for by each of their historically matched development and attitudes. History buffs will recognize some of the names (Renoir, with whom Lady Emily has a painting done by), and a number of the locations mentioned in the story.

In addition, the costumer in me was secretly drooling over the fact that there are several mentions of Lady Emily visiting with and receiving dresses from the House of Worth. Alexander mentions that she thoroughly researched her material and based on some of the dress descriptions, I would love to know if they are real Worth dresses (I suspect at least two are from originals) and if there are any made up from designs or other existing dresses.

After glancing through the other books on my shelf, I suspect that these are not heavy duty reading, and fall more into the category of a great afternoon read. Although this is only my first foray with Lady Emily, I greatly anticipate the next outing.

Overall rating - 4 out of 5

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Indienne Tea Dress Upgrade

It feels like it's been forever since I posted anything actually costume related, but there have been other things going on.

I've put aside my underfrillies project for right now and pulled one of my older dresses out of the closet to work on and, ultimately finish. My Indienne tea dress was originally started back in Fall 2010 simply because I was still on my high of getting into historical costuming (it was my second dress). After browsing through Heather's lovely collection of Truly Victorian patterns, I selected the 1869 Grand Parlor Skirt (TV202) and the 1873 Polonaise bodice (TV410) patterns. These were my reasons:
  • I wanted a bustle dress. The bustle dresses were the reason I first fell in love with the Victorian period to begin with, and I wanted a bustle dress dangit!
  • I loved the skirt. It had a train, was ginormous, and did I mention the train? Still rather ignorant of Victorian costume design, all I saw was the word "demi-train" and wanted it.
  • Being a poor college student, the idea of a bodice with the overskirt attached attracted me to the polonaise. It meant I only had to get one pattern rather than two. Ignoring the fact it said for "intermediate to advanced sewers only" I still bought it.

Well I made up both patterns plus the bustle with attached petticoat (TV101), again ignoring recommendations that I make up the larger bustle to support the larger skirt and ended up with this creation - an early 1870s early bustle tea dress.

Ignore the funny look, I was working with a school group when this was taken.
Totally psyched about my second dress coming out much better than my first (we'll revisit that horror story at some point), I wore it and loved it - for the time being.

I pulled the dress back out and wore it to my Dress U conference early this summer. As I pranced around in my lovely dress, I kept looking at it and all I could think was, "It needs more." Gone were my inexperiences of being a newbie sewer. I now had a better working knowledge of the costumes, trims, and the dress styles of the different periods. I wanted to upgrade!

It started right before the Canton Woman's Club Victorian Tea. My biggest gripe was the skirt for the outfit never hung right. It bugged me from day one but I wasn't sure what to do about it. I even sewed a false petticoat/lining underneath originally to help provide a bit of volume and attached a "dust ruffle" to the hem. All it resulted in was the outer layer of shantung silk kept slipping and never stayed in place.

False dust ruffle attached to lining
Note how the skirt just "hangs"
To solve the skirt problem, I decided to add some ruffles. After checking out The Art of Manipulating Fabric and skimming through for some ideas, I went to work. Three days before the Woman's Club tea I started, and it went downhill from there. Original plan, add one tier of ruffles to stiffen and weigh down the hem to make it hang correctly. End result - well let's just say it definitely wasn't what I had planned.

Ruffle work in progress. All my ruffles I usually gather by hand and pin.
While the skirt ruffling is done, now it's been a matter of flushing out small touches on the bodice. For example, after making my new corset, the bodice fits differently now. Because I am unable to adjust seams without taking the entire thing apart, I readjusted the placement of some of the buttons instead.

The top button ended up being moved almost two inches. Whoa!
And now that I'm in that whole, trim-is-an-awesome-thing-the-more-the-better, mindset, I decided to make a few bows for the dress as well. They'll be sewn to the center front of the bodice and at the top of the sleeve flare above the elbow.

Well before I even get started on the sleeve bows though, I had one other small task. As a newbie, I never gave the idea of serging a second thought. As an experienced sewer now, I mentally kick the 2010 version of myself in the posterior. Rather than hand sew all of those edges or be super lazy and fray check it, I did the unthinkable, I removed the sleeves of the bodice to overlock stitch them.

Removing the sleeves after 3 years
While it has still been awkward getting everything through the sewing machine, it's been going much faster than hand sewing (and we all know how much I hate that) and provides for a cleaner, finished product.

If you look at the photo, the fabric edges on the right are overlocked while the two on the left are not. It's not very clear, but you still see a difference in the smoother edges of the overlocked fabric. Anything I can't overlock stitch gets a bit of fray check just to keep everything from raveling. There's also a little bit of tacking to do in various areas and then hopefully it will be finished.

Now I'm sure there are a couple of people scratching their heads going, "Wasn't it finished before? You've already worn in and now you're just making changes."

This is my clarification. The Indienne tea dress has sat in an extended state of being Done. "Done" means it may not be finished, but it is wearable. I've always known that I would probably be making changes to this dress at some point once I learned a bit more in the trims department. "Finished" means the dress is not only wearable, but will most likely not have any further changes made to it either. Once I make the changes mentioned in this post, there are no other changes I see myself wanting to make and will therefore add it to the Finished costume category.

I will add though that if you talk to most costumers, there is no such thing as ever being "finished" with anything.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Corseting - Myth vs. Fact Pt. 2

A continuation of the previous post on corset myths and facts.

With these next myths, a number of the elements fell under previous headings, but the speculation behind them led me to place them in their own space. 
Image via Pinterest

Myth #5 - All women who wore corsets tight-laced them
Not true. While most women who could afford even a basic corset did wear one, not all women had the luxury or stamina to tight-lace. A working woman who had to rely on her mobility would not have chanced the restrictiveness of tight-lacing. An upper class or rich lady however, would have the means and ability to pursue tight-lacing if she chose.

Before we go into women who did tight-lace, we'll first cover what tight-lacing is exactly. The Victorian ideal for waist reduction was about 2"-4". Tight-lacing was even more extreme, reducing the waist by 4" or more. Rigorous training was involved with tight-lacing, usually beginning when the woman was a young girl. She would wear a corset that, over a gradual amount of time, would be reduced in size little by little. Take a look at Princess Mary of Teck's waistline. While it cannot be confirmed that she tight-laced, this was not something achieved overnight.

Image via Pinterest
When the desired waist size was achieved, it would be very hard to move around, breathing could only be done with small amounts of air since the lungs were compressed, and blood flow would be reduced to the internal organs.

Because of the extreme lengths at which the waist was reduced, it could result in health problems that were more extreme than some of the conditions mentioned in Myth #3. It also had a severe detrimental effect on the body...

(A small note on tight-lacing. I accidentally did it once while in a hurry to change into costume and forgot to measure my waist beforehand. I spend the entire morning feeling very light-headed, my ribs ached miserably, and even sitting caused pain. When I later checked, I had laced myself down to 31", I'm usually at about 33"-34".)

Myth #6 - Corsets deformed the natural body shape
Any time you alter the body in a way that it does not naturally occur, you are, in a way, deforming it. Even pierced ears are considered a way in which we alter our natural bodies. Corseting, especially tight-lacing, did the same exact thing.

Corsets molded and shaped the body to make the waist smaller. Worn on a daily basis as they were during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the body would eventually start to retain some of the shape created by the corset. 

This illustration was used mostly by anti tight-lacing campaigners to show the effects a corset could have on a woman's body. Regular corseting may have compressed the ribcage and internal organs slightly, but not as much as tight-lacing did. Organs could end up in different locations altogether, and in some cases, the lower lungs would be compressed so badly that they would fill with mucus since the woman couldn't breathe in completely. The rib cage would be completely reshaped into a smaller form with the ribs angling more inward.

Before anyone starts to scoff and say how untrue it is, visit the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia sometime. They have on display two skeletons next to each other; one is a regular skeleton, the other is one that suffered the effects of tight-lacing. They look almost exactly like the illustration above. I would offer pictures as proof, but photography is not allowed in the museum.

The corset that was mostly responsible for the whole "deformation" issue is the Edwardian corset of the early 1900s. As fashion evolved at the turn of the century, so too did the corset that went underneath. Instead of a straight-backed hour glass figure, the awkwardly bent, S-bend became all the rage. This new figure still retained the reduced waist, but now the corset was designed to push the woman's lower backside back, and thrust her upper chest forward. The body does not naturally shape itself this way and led to increased strain on the spine.

Illustration from Ladies Home Journal, 1900
Myth #7 - Corsets were restrictive and uncomfortable
Now that we've read up a tiny bit on tight-lacing and S-bend corsets, I can certainly understand where the ideas of corsets being torture devices could come from. I believe this myth mostly surfaces from the lack of understanding about corsets though.

Corsets are restrictive. Yes, they are, I won't deny it. Remember how your grandmother always said to bend at the knees to pick things up? Your grandmother might have worn a corset once upon a time because when wearing one, there is no bending over. There is no slouching either, or quickly turning around. Basically your body is encased from hip to bust in a thick garment that has molded the body into an entirely different shape that requires careful movement to make sure that the displaced mid-section stays momentarily displaced.

Corsets are uncomfortable. No, they are not. Let me explain this one. A corset is not uncomfortable if it is fitted correctly. This is the key element here. Corsets are not a one size and design fits all type of garment. Although they are not tightly worn, a corset is like a glove that is snug over the body and molds to the individual's curves and body shape. A proper corset is designed and fitted to the individual who will be wearing it on a regular basis. If Susie takes Lisa's corset and puts it on herself, chances are it will be very uncomfortable because they do not have to the same body shape.

Here I must speak as the experienced wearer. I bought a ready made corset long ago and wore it for a long time. It was somewhat uncomfortable and while it did shape to my body after a while, it still didn't fit in certain areas (I have been gifted with almost no cleavage). I finally coughed up, bit the bullet, and made my own corset to match my body shape and measurements. What a difference! I have never experienced discomfort while wearing it, and actually enjoy wearing the corset under my costumes now. 

Myth #8 - Whew! Thank goodness the Victorian Era is over and corsets died out
Nope, corsets are still alive and well today. They of course exist because costumers/re-enactors use them to achieve a period correct look for historical clothes worn in the modern day. A number of companies and small businesses, like Orchard Corset, make ready made corsets for use as fashion pieces, shape wear, and for other costuming purposes. Some women actually prefer corsets to wear not for waist reduction purposes, but for support of the bust. While a bra places all the weight of a woman's bust on her shoulders, a corset supports it from below and the weight is placed on the corset.

Like their earlier counterpart, the whalebone stays, corsets have evolved over the years to take on different shapes. The best modern-day counterparts are the girdle and Spanx. Although neither look remotely like a corset, both take the mid-section of the body and shape it into a more desirable appearance.

Girdle from Orchard Corset
Spanx from JCPenny
Corsets also exist for modern medical purposes too. Individuals with scoliosis or internal injuries may wear a specially designed medical corset to help limit mobility in the torso and protect it.

*          *          *

These are just the handful of myths that I hear most often when the subject of corsets is brought up. I certainly invite for additional input on other factoids heard throughout the years since some can be quite be amusing. I hope this has been informative and for those looking to discover more, I suggest these books:

The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele

Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset by Leigh Summers

A History of Underclothes by C. Willett Cunnington

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Corseting - Myth vs. Fact Pt. 1

We have all heard about them. We have all seen them in various forms. They have even been the focal point of a few Hollywood movie clips (remember that scene from Gone with the Wind of Mamie tightening Scarlett's corset?). 

During the Victorian Era, corsets were a necessary piece of the clothing from an aesthetic standpoint set forth by the fashions of that period that favored smaller waists. While they remain one of the most iconic images from this same period, they have also surfaced to become one of the more controversial pieces of clothing to be worn.

As a costumer who actually wears a corset (please note, I only wear one under costumes and not on a day-to-day basis), I am constantly faced with numerous questions that seem to plague modern people when it comes to this strangely fascinating garment (If I had a dollar for every time someone asked if I could breathe in a corset, I'd be rich). Along with these questions comes the little "Well I heard..." factoids people have heard throughout the years that have somehow cropped up.

What bothers me most about some of these factoids, is how false some of them are, but that they are still passed along as legit information. In other cases, the fact lies somewhere in the middle between the truth and the myth.

From the historical costuming standpoint, I would like to help set the record straight on some of these. Much of this information is from collected pieces I have read about corseting through history, my personal work with historical and reproduction costume pieces, and from the standpoint of a person who does wear a corset. 

Myth 1 - Women had their ribs removed to achieve a smaller waistline
This is probably the biggest myth circulating out there in regards to corseting and to many people's surprise, it is entirely false. Why? To start, there has never been a documented medical case from the Victorian or Edwardian Era of an individual having surgery to remove their lower ribs. Valerie Steele documents this finding - or rather lack of - in her book The Corset: A Cultural History.

This type of procedure would have been extremely hazardous and risky in a period when medical knowledge was still somewhat primitive in comparison to today's standards, and  anesthesia was still in the early stages of use. Not only would the surgery have been extremely painful, but there was probably a good chance the patient would die following surgery. During this period, people were susceptible to infection and other complications for even minor surgeries, such as appendix removal. So any type of open chest surgery, such as the famed rib removal, would have been mortally dangerous. While women have done some crazy things for fashion over the years, risking one's life is usually not worth any type of beauty trend.

Myth 2 - Women had crazy small waists
Well, yes and no. Has there ever been a 13" waist? No, unless you're about 2 months old. Has there ever been an 18" waist? Getting closer. While the rumors circulate about women of the time period who had the fabled 16"-18" waistline, the average I seem to find amongst my readings is about 20"-22". Before we start jumping to the, "But that's still tiny!" statements, there are a few things we must consider.

The first is that people were much smaller then. By this I don't just mean their waist size, I mean their entire body stature overall. The height of the average Victorian woman was about 5'-5'2", men were 5'4"-5'6". The next time you go to a museum with Victorian women's clothes on display, note how big the dresses are. See how small they are in comparison with yourself? Despite how they look, these were dresses worn by full-grown women in their 20s and 30s. Because these women were smaller, it is logical that their un-corseted and corseted waists will also be smaller.

The second reason the tiny-waist misconception has gained ground is because of how people look at corsets, both historical and modern. In many cases, they take the corset and tighten it so that both of the back edges are touching. Generally, corsets are made and designed to be worn with a 2"-4" gap between the panels at the back. If we were to take a historical corset, lace it so both back panels meet, then measure around the waist, it could come up to the speculated 18" that all women seemed to have. Now if were to take that same corset and - keeping in mind that gap that is supposed to be there - the corset now has anywhere from a 20"-24" waistline, more inline with the Victorian average.

For example here are my own corset measurements:
Laced panel to panel - 29"
Laced with gap - 33"
Usually the reduction goal for the ideal waist measurements was about 4". There were extreme cases of waist reduction, to be discussed later.

Myth 3 - Corsets had an effect on women's health
This myth also lies somewhere between fable and fact. During the Victorian period, it was thought that corsets caused various health issues from cancer and tuberculosis, to female hysteria, which is now recognized as an entirely fake, sexist medical condition. Although there is no proof of corsets causing cancer, they still were not the healthiest article of clothing to wear. 

The main purpose of the corset was to decrease the size of the waist. The corset itself does this by squeezing fatty tissues of the body in different directions away from the midsection, either downward toward the pelvic area or up toward the upper ribcage and bustline. Along with fatty tissues, internal organs and the rib cage got mooshed around a bit, causing indigestion and constipation. The straight boning in the back was great for back support, but lack of use of the same muscles left them very weak. The corset that was likely to cause health concerns or issues was one that was ill-fitted or tight-laced (more on that later).

One of the biggest modern day health concerns is the use of corsets during a pregnancy. There were two sides to this case. The first is that yes, corsets weren't exactly the best clothing option for a steadily increasing midsection. While still compressing the waist down, they put pressure on the developing fetus in the pelvic area. Various designers came up with corsets that had supportive belts and adjustable panels which not only alleviated some of the pressure, but also supported the increasing midsection and fetus. 

Image via Pinterest
The other side of the pregnancy corset is that it was necessary to hide the woman's midsection during her pregnancy per mores of the time period. Just like how we prescribe to young children that the stork came for a visit, Victorian babies just miraculously came out of nowhere. The topic of pregnancy was considered taboo, so pregnant bellies were usually laced into a more acceptable appearance by these same modified corsets until it could no longer be hidden. At that point, the woman succumbed to her "lying in" period (this usually happened during the last 2-3 months of the pregnancy). The lying in was essentially a modified form of house arrest, the mother-to-be went almost nowhere, made little to no public appearances and - in general - hid from the public eye until...Voila! Oh haven't you heard? Mr. and Mrs. Chesterfield had a baby!

Myth 4 - Corsets were invented by Victorian men
No, they weren't. Corsets are actually a modification of earlier versions that were previously known as stays. Historical origin of the corset lies in the mid 1500s when thicker waists were supposedly banned in Catherine de'Medici's court. Early stays were made from canvas with whalebone and evolved throughout the centuries from a vest-like undergarment, to a conical shape, then to the more widely viewed hourglass figure of the Victorian period and the S-bend of the Edwardian. Each of these modified versions usually matched the fashion silhouette and beauty ideals that were prevalent at the time.

1780s stays
1880s corset

Around 1790, when the neoclassical style of dress became popular, stays lost favor with women, and it was actually men who took up wearing corsets since a trim figure was ideal during the Regency period. Men continued to wear corsets well into the 1850s, but by this point is was for "back pain."

So while there isn't a name to link with the invention of the first set of stays/corset, it was most certainly not a Victorian man.