Historical Fashion Fiction


In brief lulls between sewing (cash-generating alterations only, folks, so no new work photos at the moment. Nothing exciting being finished right now!) and studying, I’ve been carving out some relaxation time with a novelist that I’ve been meaning to get into for a while but never, for some reason, made it past the first couple of pages on previous attempts. Georgette Heyer has been credited with creating the historical romance as we know it today. She was a prolific author from the 1930s until her death in the 1970s, setting many of her novels in the world of Regency England. Romance is the key word in that description. If you you do not like your plots predictable, your heroines atypical of their time – but still beautiful and genteel – and your heroes, well, heroic, then I doubt very much you’ll enjoy any of the four works I’ve read so far (so maybe there was more reading than there should have been. But in my defence, I was in serious need of something to keep my mental attention while I hand hemmed four dresses, reconstructed a fully lined jacket, and took up 8 pairs of trousers…).


Authentic Regency fashions

Authentic Regency fashion

The stories are light enough to fly away, but enjoyable all the same, once you get past the fact that you know exactly how they are going to end. I think it was this that held me back from them for so long. As someone who has long scoffed at romance, I find it hard to admit that I now have a sneaky liking for it, arrived at by way of chick lit. But it’s true. I do enjoy something light, fluffy and easy to get through in a single sitting (provided that sitting is something like 7 hours long, that is). What I don’t like is the apparent lack of awareness of fashion int he regency period displayed in the books so far. Sure, there are passing mentions of muslin, an awareness that the fast set would damped their skirts to make them cling to the body, but the remaining descriptions sound like they are much later in the nineteenth century. And it bugs me, even when my brain is switched off by the rest of the book. It seems that they hoped to get by with references to muslin and the occasional pelisse – seemingly the only phrases really known by the author. But the lack of detail about dress sets the novels apart from the genuine regency article. And it is disappointing.


Georgette Heyer, looking all soft and romantic, just like her novels.

I haven’t read all of the novels written by Heyer – although I have a goodly number of them queued up on my kindle for perusal at a later date – but so far I find her novel entertaining enough, if formulaic. I will no doubt read many more them. But for all that, I prefer Phillipa Gregory for my history. Sure, she is also capable of playing fast and loose with historical fact and the film adaptations of her novels are guaranteed to send me into paroxysms when the female leads drop their dress to be completely naked underneath, but for all that there is at least an outward appearance of research. Gregory knows the facts before she meddles with them. Heyer, I’m convinced, just made them up to suit her. I’ll still be reading her though. It’s like car crash fiction – terrible, but at the same time, you have to look.



The Proper Etiquette


I’ve been – ahem – pimping my sewing services out recently, putting ads up on Gumtree. There’s been a moderate level of interest expressed, with a few phone calls a week and the occasional email. That side of things is, well, pleasing to my budget. Or rather to my budget planning. Because for every person who turns up at the door of the bunker wanting new pants, or their hems taken up, or general repairs, there are several more responses that are not quite what I expected.

Just a quick word of warning here before I launch in properly. This post is not going to be a quiet little saunter through my sewing experiences. I have been sewing a lot lately, but this post has nothing to do with that. This post is an angry rant about the rudeness of people.

First there are those who leave a message on my voicemail, then screen my return call and aare never heard from again. There was the woman who left me a voicemail at 6pm that she wanted something, and when I called her back by 9 the next morning she rather abruptly told me that she had found someone else. Fine, but no need to be nasty about it. My favourites, though, are the ones who talk through what they want in great detail over the phone. They seem to agree to the price and the timeframe that I offer them and agree to stop by the bunker that night. And then they don’t show up. Last night was a prime case; she had three silk dresses that needed work – two zips and a hem. One of them was a rush job. She said she would be coming by at 6. By 7:30 I gave up and started on making my dinner. I don’t mind so much that they don’t show up, though. What I mind is that they don’t tell me they aren’t coming. The 2 hours between the phone call and the supposed arrival time might be long enough for drastic accidents to happen, but this has happened more than once so the chances of it being a coincidence, or some sort of karmic sabotage of my fledgling sideline are getting slimmer by the week.

A lack of consideration is not confined to phone calls and no shows, either. It turns out you can also be lacking in the manners department via email. One of the first contacts I had was through email, someone wanting to know if I would be able to make alterations to about 200 garments, rehemming lining on skirts and relocating should pads on lined jackets. Both are potentially somewhat finicky and I hadn’t seen the articles in question. I was more than a little daunted by the prospect and told them so, but they still wanted a quote and time estimate. After 24 hours or so of calculations I got back to them. It was roughly half my usual rate per piece for that sort of alteration, so it probably wasn’t what they were expecting if they are as used to sweatshop practices as I suspect. It shouldn’t have surprised me that they got back to me with a no, but the wording of the refusal had steam coming from my ears. Something along the lines of, “We already got somebody who can do it quicker. Oh, and by the way, they are MUCH cheaper than you.” That’s probably somewhat softer than their response. At the time, it was along the lines of nose thumbing via email. And rude, when they had all but insisted that I provide them with the quote.

Today has managed to top it all off though. I got this email: “Our landromat is looking for someone to rent our kiosk and provide services in relation to alterations, ironing and folding or other services you can do at my shop.” So far, nothing out of the ordinary. I never say I do ironing and folding, but hey, I can see how they might have been confused. It’s the assumption that this will be appealing to me in the conclusion that gets to me – “The rental can be discussed later and negotiable when we meet together.” Because the rental – not to mention the location – wouldn’t be important if I was considering their offer seriously. And the fact that I’m advertising online already as offering a service would suggest that I am quite happy where I am (I’m not entirely thrilled with the bunker at times, but that’s beside the point). So what on earth makes them think we can talk about this “when we meet together”?

It’s not hard to engage in polite communication. It just takes some thought. I’d encourage everyone to make the effort. It makes the life of those providing a service so much more pleasant…

A slight delay in proceedings


There has been, in a fantastic phrase from Walk the Line, a hitch in my giddy-up this week. And it’s all Ethel’s fault. Things had been going so well – two days of scraping off 80 years of grease and gunk had certain parts of her underside looking, well, almost shiny. I know – miracle. And as for her bobbin winder, which was in several pieces, well, it was looking positively radiant. And then it happened. I decided that the last screw holding a bobbin winder bit to another bit had to come out. Except that it didn’t want to come out. And, in self-defence, it bit me. Or more to the point, it caused my screwdriver to bite me.


Feeling slightly faint, I did what any good daughter of my family does when bleeding – ran to the kitchen to run the affected limb under a theoretically cold tap (yeah, not so much on the cold front, when the pipe runs through the roof and it’s yet another in a looong run of stinking hot days) and wait for Mum to come in and minister to the pain with Savlon and Bandaids. Mum definitely comes from the more-is-better school of wound dressing. My thumb, still coated in grease and with a cut that to me looked like it would require stitches, if not outright amputation, was liberally covered with antiseptic cream that oozed everywhere when she was done and wrapped in 3 bandaids and some left over surgical tape that she had from one of her own medical emergencies.

The thumb remains attached. The dressing has been downsized somewhat to a point where I can bend the knuckle now without having to work too hard. I have even been to my usual personal trainer sessions this week. What I haven’t been able to manage, though, is anything requiring pressure on the ball of my thumb. Now I’m not sure how much you use your thumbs in home/handy ways, but apparently I use mine all the time, for anything from turning the key in the front door, to holding a bowl steady when I’m making dinner. And it’s been rather difficult when said thumb looks like this:


Updates on Ethel’s progress, and my attempts to tame her resistance to a good kerosene bath, will follow when I’m certain that I’m not going to be causing either pain or infection by going back to work on her.

Two for one

And for those interested, you can buy it! Or my reproduction of it, anyway...

And for those interested, you can buy it! Or my reproduction of it, anyway…

I know. Two posts in one day. Unheard of. But I had to blog about this.

Killing time at the end of the day checking out Etsy vintage clothes that might – might – just fit me. I’m not built on lines of economy, and my measurements rarely coincide with those of actual vintage clothes. Occasionally I’ll stumble across something that can be made to wrok, but generally it’s a drool-only activity for me. Same thing today, with no joy at the bigger end of the shopping spectrum. And it’s not that there weren’t many items listed. But this goes on with my earlier post about people not being able to identify periods of clothing; some listers just have no clue about sizing.

So here it is – a few quick tips for the size-unaware.

First – if the waist of a dress is 28″, it’s not an XXL size. In fact, it’s barely even an L, as far as I can tell. But hey, let’s just consult Bettie Page and see, shall we?

The Bettie Page size chart - I figure it's vintage accurate!

The Bettie Page size chart – I figure it’s vintage accurate!

Now I know that’s a little blurry (sorry, it’s from a print screen…) so I’ll translate. 28″ waists don’t even rate an L. That’s them there in the M column. OK, so maybe the original listing was actually “Plus Size” rather than XXL, but you get the point. Since when was an M any kind of plus size? By its very definition it’s medium sized.

Column B of the same problem? It’s from the lovely shop offering vanity sizing: 50″ bust listed as an XL.

How these people xpect to sell their items is beyond me. And it’s a shame for them, because both examples here were lovely dresses, which was why I clicked on them. But I don’t like their chances of someone stumbling across them and deciding to purchase.

Rant over. Back to looking at pretty pictures.

And now with added sewing! (sort of)

I made a skirt over the weekend. I was going to make something much more complicated, but when I sat down with my fabric and pattern, I discovered that I wasn’t in the mood for fiddling. So I pulled out a piece of navy ponti that I’d had lying around for years, left over from not just one just 2 other projects, and figured out that, with some ingenuity, I had more than enough fabric to make a short-ish yoked skirt, with some pleats front and back for interest. Something like this, but with a yoke instead of a waistband, and no tabs.

I love the look of pleats. But I’m terrible at making them. I just get so frustrated with the whole process. Plus I hate ironing, and it’s essential to good pleats. So why I thought I would be in the mood to form 4 separate locations with pleats I do not know, but I was kind of making this skirt up as I went along and it seemed like it would be fine. After half an hour of cutting, half an hour on the yoke, fifteen minutes on the zip, and 3 hours on the pleats, it was ready to try on.

And now you learn the reason(s) why there are no photos to go with this post. I was a diligent blogger, and I documented the process throughout – or the bits that didn’t involve me gritting my teeth, swearing, or throwing parts of the skirt across the room. I’d topstitched the pleats to keep them flat over my butt – the perils of hips and pleats – and had also decided that, if my legs were better, I wouldn’t have bothered with the yoke at all, and would have just gone with a pleated mini (although that did run the risk of looking a little too much like a netball skirt, triggering traumatic memories of primary school sports days). I’d worked it all by eye and measuring and chalking the fabric, rather than crafting a pattern and I thought it looked pretty darn good, let me tell you. Slightly off with the pleat alignement, but matching off-ness in all locations to therefore potentially passing as deliberate. So far so awesome, yes?

Or at least I thought so until I stopped focussing on the details and had a look at the overall product. It looked a little…big. I tried to ignore it when I was pinning the yoke to the pleated section. I told myself it was just the I usually work with skirts that are much longer. But when I finished the zip and tried it on at last, I discovered that I was right to doubt the sizing. Somewhere between me measuring and cutting the fabric, it had grown four inches. As in I could easily put another 4 pleats in the skirt. I know, I pinned them to see. And I know ponti is a knit, so the laws of cutting and fitting are different, but – FOUR WHOLE INCHES!!! That’s 10cm for the meterically minded. That’s a whole lot to be off by. So now I’m faced with a decision. Do I bother with sitting down and unpicking the whole thing, adding pleats, adjusting the yoke, and remaking it all, or do I just write it off?

The only consolation here is that at least I thought to try it on before hemming. Because then I really would have thrown my toys out of the cot, let me tell you. And as the toys in question are sewing machines and scissors, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t… And what is the lesson I’m taking away from all of this? Fit earlier in the process? Measure twice, cut once? Follow a pattern properly? Well yes, I guess, but not really, no. More along the lines of “if you can’t front up to a Burda pattern because you don’t feel like cutting out 10 pieces plus interfacing, you probably shouldn’t be sewing that day.”

The Necessary Education

In a moment of weakness last week, I ignored my current austerity drive and purchased a vintage pattern off Gumtree, of all places. I think it was the surprise of finding one there. There was no picture with the listing, but the seller described it as a late 1940s dress, with pleating across the bodice. I should have known from that wording that something would go wrong, but I figured that the price was so low, what the hell. I stretched a little further and also agreed to purchase the two other patterns that she mentioned, all for one low bargain price probably similar to what I’d pay for one decent 40s pattern on Etsy.

I sat back and watched the mail, and my patterns finally arrived in a neat little package. I opened them up and discovered that the patterns were in almost mint condition, perfectly in line with the seller’s description, apart from one thing; while the blouse was an unusual waisted 40s find, the dresses weren’t from the 40s. In fact, I’d guess they’re not even 50s. The hair styles make me think early 60s, but it might go as far as the middle of the decade. I love the dresses, and at $3 each they’re hardly over priced, but that’s beside the point. The woman clearly didn’t know what she was talking about in terms of style.

I’ve noticed this problem when looking at Etsy vintage sellers as well. There are so many on there who have a tonne of stock, but no clue about dating any of it. The result is usually wildly over estimating the age of a garment, and jacking the price accordingly. Quick tip for beginners, based on the most common mistake I’ve noticed: if it’s a pencil skirt, a wiggle dress, a mini, or looks like it should be worn with either a bouffant hair-do or a crinoline petticoat, it’s unlikely to be from the 1930s. If it’s nylon, it’s not from the 1920s. Plastic zip? Probably not from the early part of the twentieth century. Overlocked seams? See above. I’m not going to name and shame any stores though, because I’m still holding out hope that one day I’ll spot something where the mistake goes the other way – a House of Worth dress identified as 1980s and being sold for $20, a Vionnet  labelled as 1960s and going for a song. My inner optimist tells me that it has to happen sometime, but meanwhile I’m stuck fuming about psychadelic mini dresses labelled as “flapper” – itself an annoying misinterpretation of what was going on in the 1920s world of fashion.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many sellers who know their stuff and I have learned a lot from looking through their websites. But the sheer weight of numbers of people without a basic understanding of fashion history blows my mind. How do you end up selling this stuff – and enough of it to justify getting an Etsy store – without bothering to do the research into the subject so you can identify things properly? It gets me so annoyed that these people own and trade in these beautiful things, but clearly don’t appreciate them fully. Or that’s my take on it. Of course, I also think that anybody who can’t correctly date a garment plus or minus five years should not be allowed to own it, and it should be passed along to someone who can. Someone like me. Sadly, I don’t think they’d agree to such a plan. Or worse, they may not realise that they need the education required.


Irritation and Inspiration

I’ve been held up by technical glitches lately. First, I was planning to upload some photos of actual items completed by me – shocking, I know, since I haven’t managed to put any up yet and I’ve finished a few things off lately – only to find the batteries on my camera were dead and I couldn’t find the lead for the charger (yes, it was a few months ago that I moved, but I’m still familiarising myself with where I’ve stashed everything). Next, camera fully charged and all ready for photography, and my trusty, well travelled brick of a laptop decided to do what it has been threatening to do for about a year now, and died. Not in a dramatic rain of sparks, or even a blue-screen-of-death way, which I could understand, but rather in a failure-to-launch way, which doesn’t allow it to get much past the windows screen. I have tried re-booting, re-loading, and everything my inner nerd suggests, but nothing has worked.

So I’ve been forced to splash out on a new toy. Forced. I had no choice. Well, alright, I did have a choice. It didn’t have to be an excessively pretty Apple, but that’s what I went with. I figured it would be quicker and easier to order it online. You know, go onto the website (not so mch – turns out my work runs the oldest version of Explorer known to computer-kind, and Apple refuse to deal with it anymore), place your order (on the phone), and it comes out to you within a couple of days. Or it should, if you’re not me. Because I’ve just gotten off the phone and found out that my shiny new laptop will not actually be MY shiny new laptop until, as the helper-man put it, “early or late next week.” So about the only thing I can be sure of out of that is that it shouldn’t come on Wednesday.

But in the meantime, here are some pretty pictures of things I would like to have made, but didn’t. Excellent tools for distraction from irritation, until I remember that I am unlikely to ever attain the skill level of the people who made these. But enough of my irriation, what do you think of this tiny sample of the works from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York?



Beautiful, yes, but not so practical with this early 20th century evening dress. Love the beading and the layering.


The work of Madeleine Vionnet, revolutionising the world of fashion by creating the bias cut, the halter neck, and any number of other innovations in the 1920s and 30s. A woman so influential that it was almost impossible for me to narrow it down to just one dress.