Construction notes · Pattern Review · Theatrical Costuming

Sewing the Costumes for Blue Stockings

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Photo by Tom Klein

Better late then never right? The production based on the play by Jessica Swale was actually wrapped up in June with three performances. This was going to be my last project with Trier English Drama because I already knew that I would move to London in autumn. But you’re never really free of TED, let’s see what the future will bring.

Let me remark that all in all I’m not happy with how the costumes came out fitwise but that is mainly my own fault, I didn’t put enough time and effort into making them. Especially the shirtwaists/blouses do not look very good because they lack proper fitting and of course corsets. This is where I had to economize, I was the only one on stage who wore a corset because I already own one and you clearly see the difference. The rest had to make do without, the reason being lack of time and motivation again.

What I also had in mind was the general (and completely unjustified) fear of corsets, let me rant about this for a moment. Probably inspired by ‘historical’ films and sensationalist articles about the ‘crazy’ Victorians, people seem to have this internalized misconception that corsets only purpose is to turture women, the personified evil! Is anyone else annoyed by this? While I love to prove these myths wrong, that can only be done by making people wear a well-fitting one themselves and would have taken time I didn’t have.

To keep this short I’ll just refer to this brilliant article: http://yesterdaysthimble.com/articles/corset-myths-i/

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Photo by Tom Klein

So what is the play about? I’ll just conveniently copy the PR text here:

England in the late 19th century – a time when the majority of men believed that women only belong in the kitchen. This is the story of four bright young girls who set out to prove them wrong. Attending Cambridge University in 1896, they are fighting for the right to graduate. But though they are supported by the headmistress of their all-female college and an idealistic young lecturer, it will not be easy for these girls. Some of the male students see them as rivals and revolutionaries. Others regard them with romantic interest – and among the girls there are those who are all to eager to respond. Will romance distract them from their goal to graduate? Will they choose love or knowledge?

As always, I sewed the Ladies’ costumes and bought jackets/coats for the men. Those especially are not exactly accurate but that can’t be helped when working on a budget and most importantly alone. Oh boi, I’m not confident enough to sew tailored suits yet!

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Photo by Tom Klein

The Bloomers scene

Right at the beginning of the play there is this scene in which the teacher Mr. Banks demonstrates the laws of motion with the aid of a bicycle and dresses the female students in his wife’s ‘spare pantaloons’ aka Bloomers which the young women refer to as ‘underwear’, obviously scandalized. This surprised me quite a lot since my association with Bloomers in the 1890s were those that were worn for cycling and definitely considered as outerwear. So after a bit of research I decided to clear up this disaccord and wrote an article on the history of Bloomers for the programme. I’m lazy so I’ll just repost it here:

Bloomers are an innovation of readers of the health periodical Water-Cure Journal, that in October 1849 began urging women to develop a style of dress that was not so harmful to their health. Contary to the current fashion at that time, which consisted of a long skirt worn over layers of heavy starched petticoats, they allowed unrestricted movement.

In 1851 the American women’s rights activist Amelia Jenkins Bloomer (1818–1894) promoted this new style in her feminist journal ‘The Lily’: knee-length, loose-fitting pants worn under slightly loose A-line skirts and dresses.
Therefore
the garment was called ‘Bloomers’ but the fashion style is also known as ‘American dress’, ‘Reform dress’ or ‘Turkish dress’ as it is inspired by harem pants. Soon a minority of progressive women dared to wear the baggy trouser outfit in public, which was considered scandalous by the general public. It quickly became a symbol of the women’s rights movement in America and was worn by famous suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

After Amelia Bloomer’s death, women adopted an updated form of bloomers as cycling wear following the new cycling craze in the 1890s. This athletic style did not include a skirt anymore and was often combined with a tailored jacket.

When bloomers were introduced to mainstream women as a form of comfortable undergarment at the end of the 19th century, the reception was controversial at first. Many men and women viewed the underwear as unnatural to a woman’s form, as it had separate leg coverings but by the early 1900s bloomers had become common undergarments for the many women who appreciated the comfort and warmth of bloomers as well as their practicality.

So contrary to Tess’ shocked exclamation in the play, bloomers are actually not undergarments, at least not originally. The bloomers that are brought by Mr. Banks are likely to be the form of bloomers that was introduced as underwear at the time and therefore inappropriate for cycling. Undergarments were usually white, whereas the bloomers of the fashion style and the athletic style are made of sturdy, coloured fabrics used for outer garments.

I cannot guarantee the rightness of this little article as it’s no based on extensive and academically correct research, so if anyone points out mistakes I’ll gladly correct it!

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Photo by Tom Klein

Now, onto the actual sewing!

The Truly Victorian patterns are always my best friend when sewing lots of historical costumes for theatre purposes because of the large amount of sizes available. TV has all the baseic patterns needed to sew a basic wardrobe (and more) so I got a whole bunch (financed with theatre money muahaha). I guess I’ll just write down my thoughts on each pattern and put in some photos of the finished garments on stage.

TV 291 – 1898 Walking Skirt

A very basic pattern that is easy to sew, I used it about 8 times. It has 7 gores that get progressively longer towards the back which looks really elegant when worn with the proper petticoat and everything.

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TV291 Walking Skirt with TV 494 Shirtwaist, Photo by Anna Weinand for the PR shoot

TV 491 – 1893 Blouse Waist

Overall a good pattern, next time I’d perhaps support the sleeves with tulle/organza from the inside because it IS a whole lot of fabric and it looks kind of lame just hanging around like that (even though that’s what the manual suggests). The gathering is quite strong and goes up from the waist to the shoulder so it adds a lot of volume, fit carefully (not like I did it) and make sure that the fabric doesn’t bunch forwards. Includes a pattern for a nice jabot as well.

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TV 491 – 1893 Blouse Waist, Photo by Tom Klein

TV 494 – 1894 Shirtwaists

Beautiful design, easier to fit and makes a nice silhouette when worn with a corset. I’ve noticed that the collar is very tight, I have to use a safetly pin to close it because it doesn’t even overlap (my neck circumference is average) So be careful when fitting this, you will most likely need to use a bigger size for the collar. Don’t use a flabby fabric, it will look weird.

TV 493 – 1896 Plain Bodice

I’ve only used it for one garment without the Bretelle and puff sleeves. A very good basic pattern that can be decorated in various ways I guess, haven’t had the time to decorate it properly. It ran short in my case, but I can’t say whether that’s a general problem or just because the actress for whom I made it has quite the unusual body shape.

TV 495 – 1890’s Sleeves

I think I tried View 2, the two-piece Gigot Sleeve and it worked well. Can’t say anything about the others yet.

TV 498 – 1898 Eton Jacket

Easy to sew, nice design. Please note that I used other sleeves to make it fit the period. For practical reasons I didn’t wear it in the performances but there are some photos from the Wet Plate photoshoots with Tom Klein.

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Photo by Tom Klein

A big thanks to Tom Klein for taking photos of the performances!

And of course the Trier English Drama Group, looking forward to many more successful productions even if it’s without me 😥

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Can Can Encore! Photo by Tom Klein
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