When I told the group of junior high school girls in my youth group that I was a fashion designer, the look of disbelief on their faces was priceless. I have to chuckle at the thought of that myself, as I certainly don’t fit the preconceived notion of what a fashion designer ought to look like. Shortly after my first child was born, I began losing touch with the world of fashion as my sense of style gave way to practicality. I dress up a little for the occasional wedding or funeral, but for the most part, jeans and t-shirts have been my mainstay for the last 18 years. Despite my outward appearance however, I do have a fascination with fashion… historical fashion. If you take the time to look at the clothes people wore, you will soon discover that fashion speaks louder than words when it comes to telling their stories.
From the moment I donned my first sunbonnet made lovingly for me by my Grandma, I have had a growing fascination with historical clothing. At first, my interest was limited to what I read about in my Little House on the Prairie books, but as my reading expanded, so did my interest in what people wore. Anne Shirley’s puffed sleeves, Sara Crewe’s elegant wardrobe, Meg March’s white gloves, and Dolly Madison’s hats all had a certain charm to them that made my wardrobe seem dull by comparison. What struck me most was how each period of time had a way of dress that distinguished it from the others. Before long, I could determine what time period a person lived from a quick glance at what they were wearing. I had little taste for history when I was in school, or so I thought, but when I realized that the clothing that was so captivating to me was also teaching me about the people that wore them, history became an exciting adventure.
The century between 1780 and 1880 is one of the most interesting periods of time when it comes to historical fashion. While the United States and Great Britain recovered from the American Revolution in the 1780’s, the French Revolution was looming. Women’s fashionable dress shifted quickly from the heavy, stiff, and elaborate styles that had been the standard for hundreds of years to looser and simpler styles that reflected the new ideology of liberty and freedom. The idea of liberty wasn’t embraced by everyone however, because although this meant freedom and equality to the lower classes, it meant condemnation to the aristocrats and nobility. For this reason, elaborate trimmings and accessories were also discarded as the French upper classes tried to fade into the background… though this wasn’t so much of a fashion statement as it was a means to keep ones head firmly attached to ones body.
This extreme shift in fashion was to be short lived however, and as the upheaval in society began to subside, dresses began to return to more elaborate and restrictive styles. This time, however, fashionable clothing wasn’t limited to nobility and wealthy merchants. Queen Victoria, unlike her predecessors, was a model of propriety and greatly influenced the newer styles which were much more modest than in years past. Perhaps the biggest influence on fashion during this period was the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Mass production meant more fabric and trims at lower prices, which made fashionable dress attainable to all but the poorest people in society. In an effort to outdo one another, ladies dresses grew larger and larger, and trimmings became more and more elaborate.
As the American Civil War pushed the expansion of steam powered transportation across the United States, other nations followed suit. By the time the war came to an end, not only did the American slaves gain their individual freedom, people around the world enjoyed a whole new kind of freedom as travel opportunities opened with the boom of steam powered boats, ships and railways. By the 1860’s hoop skirts had expanded to as wide as six feet in diameter, but these monstrosities made poor traveling companions so the great cage crinolines were shed and the excess fabric was drawn up toward the back and draped in elaborately decorated layers. Fashion had become more mobile, a trend that would continue to evolve as women discovered the liberties and pleasures of being active.
Recently, my work with historical fashion has rekindled an interest in my own wardrobe. Could it be that a lady still resides underneath these jeans and t-shirts? You would think that as a seamstress and designer I would have a natural eye for fashionable clothing… but alas, my eye is deeply rooted in the past and my first trips to the mall were rather discouraging to say the least. I felt hopelessly out of touch with today’s styles and because my body had gone through some rather drastic changes over the years, I found myself reevaluating the value of corsets. Historical fashion interests me because of the story it tells and I just couldn’t find a story in the modern clothes I was looking at… until I began taking a closer look. I discovered that elements of historical design still exist today and I suddenly found myself having a great deal of fun looking for all those little details in a sort of treasure hunt. Before long, I found I was reading a new story in the world of fashion, my own story. Yes, fashion still speaks louder than words.
Let’s see who reads this article to the very end. I am listing one of each of the four cover dresses from our 1870s Bustle Dress pattern for free on our website today. First four early birds get the worm… but only one dress per person please.