off duty

This is my brain on casual. I never quite feel like myself this way, but in some ways dressing ostentatiously is like plotting a horror movie: you can’t keep building and building tension. Eventually it has to dip. Switching things up, getting a few laughs – that’ll make it all the sweeter when climactic screams start pealing.

Some outfits are a palate cleanser. Sometimes I need a break from the drama of rayons and feathered hats. Sometimes it takes a little less nonsense and a little more no. This outfit is younger and simpler than my norm, but it makes a nice change.

And, funnily enough, it’s the relatively basic ones that seems to turn the most heads. College girls stop me in the street: “oh, I love your look!” Maybe it’s more approachable? More relatable? Or maybe people just assume I’m wearing a costume when I’m dressed in the usual. The other day an older gentleman came up and asked, rather aggressively, “what are you??”

Hat: ’40s, Fancy Lucky Vintage

Skirt: ’40s or ’50s, Barge Canal Market

Everything else: thrifted

the medieval museologist

I got this rayon skirt set for my birthday back in May, and I gotta say – it’s practically magic.

True to its knight-and-princess print, this outfit makes me feel otherworldly in the best way. It’s part of my growing stable of “eccentric Deco dame” duds. I’ve said this many times before, but dressing three times mt age gives me a comfort and a confidence moving through the world. I have a high voice and a baby face, which ’50s pinup styles accentuate uncomfortably. Signaling “nutty rich grandma” may be overcompensating, but it lets me know I’m taken seriously. I did a double take the first time I got “ma’am”ed, but it’s way better than “when are you graduating from high school?”

(Yes, I got asked that. Last year. At the age of 22.)

Plus – I know it’s silly, that it’s flirting with the historical revisionism I castigate others for, but part of me loves imagining myself as a working woman in the ’30s. A lady in a smart suit was going places, literally and not. I feel just a little like Edith Crawley or Jenny Lee. I know it was harder than we acknowledge, and I know it’s often still an uphill battle – but, my god, how exciting.

And this suit in particular puts me in the working gal state of mind. As of last month, I’m officially enrolled in Northwestern University’s museum studies program. It’s three semesters of online classes plus a conference in Chicago next year, and I’m pretty over the moon about it. Working with material history, mining the stories of objects and letting them tell new ones – it’s what I live for, honestly. I can’t wait for the rest of my life to start.

My concentration is in living history and reproduction (quelle surprise), so I’ll be broadening my historical sewing repertoire over the next few months!

Suit: ’30s or ’40s, gifted

Hat: ’30s, The Vintage Hat Shop

Everything else: thrifted

me-made: the epic belle epoque

This post is, oh, six months in the making. Longer, if you count how long it’s been a pipe dream. But six months is when I started working in earnest. My partner is crazy for everything Victorian, and his enthusiasm is catching; I’ve long wanted to join him in his preferred era. This past April, I remembered that I own Kristina Harris’s splendid 59 Authentic Turn-of-the-Century Fashion Patterns, and I set immediately to work.

Commentary mine.

I’ve drafted patterns before – hell, I’ve taught pattern drafting – so I was reasonably confident going into the project. This book, though, raised the bar quite a bit. I came away feeling like I’d leveled up as a seamstress. A single project has never enriched my skills quite this much, and I can’t wait to try another pattern. I expect I’ll be practically superhuman once I get to the end of the book.

You see, these patterns, like most pre-mass-production ones, don’t come with instructions. Once you’ve traced and cut the pieces, you’re on your own. This was the first challenge: I went into the drafting without any notches or other indications of what went where, so I was forced to be that much more precise in my cutting. I confess I often skimp on seams I know aren’t going to be crucial or visible. (Doesn’t everyone?) This pattern didn’t make that immediately obvious, so I treated every seam like a potentially crucial one. That’s part of why this project took as long as it did.

The other part is that I actually made a muslin – yes, another thing I usually skimp on. I’m pretty good at visualizing patterns in 3D and as such don’t usually need one, but I was taking zero chances with this. And I’m glad I did, even if posting about it now just reveals what a lazy seamstress I am!

You can see from the final product that I went considerably off book. I’ve never met a pattern I didn’t want to modify, and I made no exception here. I can’t help it; I was terrible at rules growing up, and I’m no better now. Leopard, spots, etc. I lowered and squared the neckline – can’t stand high necks – and swapped the ruffles for a slight bustle. Between the stomacher (reinforced with cardboard) and the rear panniers, the dress ended up vaguely 1780s in shape. Not as explicitly Victorian as it could have been, but it’ll make a great peasant-rate robe a’langlaise should I ever get into Revolution reenactments.

Plus, I think altering garments is truer to the spirit of authenticity anyway. It’s not like actual historical seamstresses never got creative. Maybe I’m cosplaying a Victorienne who happened to love the 1780s.

I finished the dress in time for the Springfield Steampunk Festival, where I wore it with an authentic Victorian petticoat and felt like a million bloody bucks. Looking at the photos now, I’m already seeing a million little flaws, but I still couldn’t be happier with my first-ever Victorian garment. Many more to come! The 1890s have an undeniable charm.