Saturday, 18 February 2012

Its a 1000 piece jigsaw!

Behind the scenes of the occasional blog post, this project is starting to feel like a 1000 piece jigsaw without a picture.  Ok, maybe 1000 pieces is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift.

It is a problem entirely of my own making in that I started with an end result firmly in mind, rather than looking at what was available, and have been working backwards to find the individual parts to suit.

This approach worked fine with the Victorian Costume.  Although a fair amount of research was required there was a wealth of information available, including contemporary patterns, resources and clothes.  Modern, redrafted patterns are plentiful and once I had identified a style and it's era, it was simply a matter of selecting the various elements to piece the outfit together.  It was a 250 piece jigsaw with a good picture;  some complexity, a few bumps in the road, but the end result was identifiable from the start.

Go back another 300 odd years, and whilst there is a surprisingly good body of primary sources available in the form of written documents and artwork; the main narrative feels like it is missing.  There is so much that is different between the Tudors and ourselves; even down to the way we think about our clothes.  I think that they would have been deeply disappointed with our throw away tendencies and our lack of care and attention to our clothes; even the simplest clothes then are a work of art by our standards today in terms of detail and construction.  Interpreting and deciphering the very few pieces of clothing still existing, the fabrics, the manufacture, the language of their documents and patterns, even the measurements that they used... it is a skilled piece of detective work requiring great skill and dedication.  Luckily, for amateurs like me, there are great resources; the work of Janet Arnold, books like the Tudor Tailor, websites and tutorials written by other keen recreationists.  But, in comparison to the Victorian era, the information available is far smaller and focused.  Back to my jigsaw, it feels like a picture with big chunks blacked out.. and I'm a whole picture kinda gal.

Take the painting of a young Queen Elizabeth I that I posted at the start of this project.  My initial thoughts were no more complicated than "I want to make this", but as you read, you learn; as you learn, you study and dissect and, as you dissect, the whole process becomes a little more complicated!  Now I think more like this:

- The sleeve and neckline I have patterns for.
- A kirtle too, but there are a variety of kirtle patterns, which does I choose? Which would support the rest of the outfit best?  Boned or not?  If boned, how so?
- I have made a corset and a bumroll, based on my initial research and enthusiasm!, but does she actually wear either?  She is 13 in this picture, therefore I would say is probably not wearing a corset, rather a boned kirtle or placard, if anything at all.  There is a hint of bosom too; does this mean there is no boning at all and a buckram lining instead?
- Is she wearing a bumroll?  you can't see, but following the line of the skirt below the right hand sleeve, it could stand proud of her back, so possibly.
- Initially I was certain that she is wearing a farthingale.  The Alcega pattern dates from 1589 and the Tudor Tailor Henrician costume uses a bumroll to create a softer but similar shape, if her dress had been arranged for the portrait? Suddenly the question is whether farthingales were worn in 1546; back to Google and yes, she undoubtably is, farthingales having been available from 1545 and quickly became fashionable.
- And then there is the bodice.  Not one of the patterns that I have for this era show a bodice like it.  They have defined, gathered waists with a slight "v" shaped placard (stomacher) attached to the front of the bodice.  Later Elizabethan patterns have stomachers shaped more like this, but they are from the French farthingale era and so the entire dress shape is very different.  The Tudor Tailor taught me that Tudor and Elizabethan portraits contain a wealth of detail and it is possible to see even pinnings (closures) shown.  Zooming in on the right of this portrait it is indeed possible to see a join at the side of the bodice.  Faint, but there.  So is the bodice a shaped placard?  It seems reasonable to think so.  I have no pattern like this, so to recreate this I would need to adapt one.  But how does it work with the rest of the gown?  If it attaches at the sides of the bodice, as the placards I've patterns for do, how does it (does it?) attach to the skirt?  How does it retain it's shape?  Boning is most probably surely? Does the sharp shading indicate boning?  If so, the boning sits below the bosom?

You see, the questions could be endless.  Or maybe, just maybe, the boyf is right and I think too much!

It is leading me to two conclusions: one, you pick a pattern and you make it, learning as much or as little as you want in the procees; or two, you find something beautiful, want to recreate it faithfully and take the necessary, educated leap of faith.  I know that I don't want to do one, but am I ready for two?

All this reading and Googling and looking at images raises another problem, I've found other dresses that I like better!  Particularly when looking at other people's modern dresses, where you can see the drape and fall of a gown made from modern materials, the way it moves with them.  I am now far more drawn to 1530s dresses, not 1550s onwards as I originally planned.  I love the Hans Holbein portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1535 (left).  There is also a family portrait of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Prince Edward and the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth at Hampton Court that I also like.  Painted in 1545 (ish) it is an imagination of the happy family that many think Henry had always wanted. Jane Seymour died in 1537 and Elizabeth was born in 1533 so there is a fair amount of artistic license.  However, the outfits worn are of the earlier period, and whilst I am not as fond of the colours of Mary and Elizabeth's gowns, the shape is lovely and fulfils my desire for a costume with a flat bodice, fabulous sleeves and long full skirt with train (below).

As I learn more, put the pieces together a little better, this project feels like it's always turning on it's head.  It's the first time in a long time that I've started with a project and found myself frequently having to go right back to the beginning and start again.

This brings me back to my farthingale.  I don't think it's right for me or this project.  It was a pleasure to make the Alcega pattern and I am going to finish it.  I just won't be boning it, not yet anyway.  I can wear it as another petticoat, or may look at how it works with the kirtle patterns that I have, it may be adaptable.  If all else fails, it can wait it's turn; I may one day want to revisit the 1550s.

So, the Elizabethan project is still the Elizabethan project, just a revised version; my Elizabeth is getting younger.  I would still love to make the dress that I originally wanted to make, but I don't feel that I know enough about how to to do a decent job.  The best way to truly learn is to make something and by going back 20 years I have access to well documented patterns and all the help that I could ask for.

Now to pick the pattern, once and for all, just pick the darn pattern!


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