Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book review- Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

I had heard a lot about this book before I bought it, both positive and negative; how the author made many assumptions, it was a fun romp through early history, drew parallels and causality between ideas in history not previously connected. Seeing it at a book fair for a really low price I figured whatever the experience of reading it turned out to be, it was worth the cost.
 Turned out to be a good investment. I started this book at the beginning of the year, and the only reason it took me so long to finish it is that I have a habit of reading multiple books at a time; recently, however, I have been trying to finish all of my half-read books before starting any new ones, and once I got back into Wine-Dark Sea I couldn't put it down. The author, Thomas Cahill, reads like a lecture from a favorite professor, one who is passionate about his subject and wants to share what he loves with his students. It's not just a straightforward history, he breaks it up with categories like "The Warrior: How to Fight", and "The Artist: How to See".

There's also more source material than the writings of philosophers and early historians; there's poetry, sculpture, funeral orations, plays, and at times Cahill's own words take on a mesmerizing kind of cadence not unlike poetry themselves. Even when quoting the usual philosophers he doesn't stop there and includes lesser-known writers and thinkers of the time. So packed with information is the book that the reader, upon finishing, may find themself wondering how it was all contained in such a relatively slim volume, because while it is a sort of "Ancient Greek History for Dummies", it presents more than just the bare-bones essentials.

Quick in pace, broad in scope, easy to read without any condescension (you may still find yourself looking up a word or two), the experience of this book is like sitting at the feet of a beloved family friend, and hearing a great story, that just happens to be true. The only criticism to be made is that at times the author's own opinions about modern politics, culture, and belief show through rather forcefully, but that is also in the nature of storytelling. By the end you feel like you know him, and the Greeks, personally.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

And I Quote- George Bernard Shaw

“Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.”      

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New Vender- The Rusty Zipper

I am working on a production of something set in the early 60s, and the designer sent a bunch of links to this site yesterday, at which point I was instantly smitten.

The Rusty Zipper homepage states that they opened in 1995 and were the first vintage clothing store on the net. The selection is pretty big and features pieces from the 1940s to the 1990s, as well as categories like shoes, accessories, vintage ties, and sewing patterns. I'm simultaneously intrigued and horrified by their entire category of Ugly Christmas Sweaters.

The prices can be kind of on the high side, but things are returnable (within 15 days) usually one-of-a-kind, and they are very clear about any damage the item has sustained prior to purchase. If clothing isn't your thing, but you're still looking for something retro it may be worth your time to check out their other odds and ends. I'm sure that someone has a need for ceramic ashtrays in any color and shape, an aluminium Christmas tree, or 1970s sitcom posters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The House of Worth

1905 aqua Worth gown
These days when many of us go clothing shopping we are liable to end up in a large department store surrounded by ready-made garments, perfumes, jewelry, shoes, and even housewares and furniture; but in the 19th century this was far from the experience of most shoppers.

Godey's 1874
Clothing then was still an individual creation for the most part. Magazines like Harper's Bazaar, La Mode, or Godey's showed illustrations of costumes (complete with hats, undergarments, and hair extensions and accessories) that could be ordered to be made, but going into a store still involved simply looking at fabric to be made into clothing.

This began to change in the late 1850's. A man by the name of Charles Frederick Worth was working as a draper in a dress shop called Maison Gagelin. He first introduced the idea of not merely swathing models in fabric for the customers to look at, but creating whole muslin outfits so that they could see the cut and decoration of something before choosing a fabric to make that same costume. His designs were soon amongst those on display at the shop, and despite their novel and (for the time) daring departure from accepted styles, won a gold medal for Gagelin.

Worth gown 1883-85
It wasn't long after that when he opened his own fashion house. He also started the practice of sewing labels with his brand into the garments that were made. This is part of how we know so many examples of his work today, and also because a gown from the House of Worth quickly became the absolute height of fashion, and anyone who was anybody had to have them.

He kept the tradition of using live models, but rather than draping them in fabric, or showing them in muslins, he moved to having shows at his atelier where they would model actual garments in full fabric and decoration and with appropriate accessories, all available for the patrons to have made in their own size and with their personal modifications if desired. His was also the first fashion house to offer perfume, and commissioned the famous glass-maker Rene Lallique to design a bottle to showcase it. The modern perfume industry was thus born, and more scents followed; though "Je Reviens"(1932) remains the most popular to this day, thanks in part to soldiers during WWII who likes to give it to their sweethearts, probably because it means "I will return".

Worth gown 1910
The House of Worth remained a leading style icon until 1956 when the firm was closed following it's sale by Charle's great-grandson. In more recent time, however, it has had a resurgence under new designers and a renewed interest in this once-innovative legacy. Worth gowns can be found in nearly all of the great museums of the world, and their decorative techniques, tailoring, body-conscious cut, and refined elegance make them timeless works of art. Charles Frederick Worth earned his title as "The Father of Haute Couture".

Monday, October 10, 2011

History in the News- The V&A

My husband came across an article recently that was of interest to me, and which I thought might interest others as well. How the Victoria and Albert Museum Dealt With the Dying of Christianity.

That's a lengthy title, but fairly straightforward. The museum, largely considered to be one of the best in the world, was surprised to find that people are posessed of very little relative knowledge about the history, doctrine, and stories of the Church and the Medieval and Renaissance eras in general. Of course it is nearly impossible to discuss any aspect of these time periods without mentioning Christianity, which was at the time in Europe very pervasive.

Having been raised Catholic, and attended Catholic schools and religious education classes during much of my childhood, I had always assumed that I had a better understanding of the background and ritual of Christianity than non-Catholics, just as I am ignorant of the tenants and history of other religions (though I am learning). Two things surprised me, however; how much I didn't know, and how few people are actually practicing Christians of any sort.

I had always thought of certain countries as being enclaves of staunch Catholic adherence, but even in Italy only 36.6% of people are practicing Catholics, versus the 87.6% who claim it as their religion. How then, was the museum to help its patrons fully understand the intended meaning and history of its objects, when they had little or no specific knowledge base on which to build? The article tells the story of how the V&A strove to solve this problem, and what they learned along the way.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This Day In History- The Portuguese Revolution

October 5th, 1910. It seems like it should be the first rule of preventing revolution; do not let the military change sides. It happened in France, it would happen in 1917 in Russia, and it happened in 1910 in Portugal.

King Manuel II was in charge, but his political counterpart, Prime Minister Joao Franco was compelled to step down and go into exile, necessitating a new election. Unfortunately the void was not quickly filled as different political factions fought each other. In the midst of this struggle came a visit from the president of Brazil, which only provided further incentive for republican demonstrations.

As if things could not become more tumultuous, several of the warships anchored in the Tagus River broke into mutiny. Orders from Lisbon to put down the mutiny were ignored, and the ships took up position around Lisbon, causing the royal family to flee for their lives to Britain. With the king out of the way, a provisional republican government was finally formed, and elected Teofilo Braga, a writer, as president.

Eventually this First Republic would dissolve, like the the First French Republic before it, into a dictatorship, paving the way for further revolution.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Gray Elizabethan Project 1

Back on the Tudor Gown post I mentioned that while I was waiting to get new fabric for that nightmare of a misadventurous project, I had something else to work on- the Gray Elizabethan Men's Project. This fits into my attempt to finish all of the unfinished things sitting around my house because both the doublet and breeches have been cut out for about six years.

It started as part of an entire wardrobe I was making for a friend back in 2005, but after doing four complete costumes he really didn't need a fifth, so this one stayed in my sewing stash waiting to be finished. The problem with trying to sew something you cut out that long ago is that you no longer entirely remember how you were going to make it look. Fortunately at the time I was altering a commerical pattern to be (more) historically accurate, and I still remember how that pattern used to go together.

I also remember that I was going to edge the large silver and black trim I had for it in burgundy velvet ribbon, but the ribbon was re-appropriated for Christmas decorations only last year. So the silver and black trim, with matching buttons had to be used alone.

The breeches were made of a slightly mottled gray linen. From the photos it looks like a sweatshirt knit, but I promise it isn't. I started out by putting the pieces together, and estimated an appropriate waist measurement, since the top is gathered to a waistband. The pants are self-lined in gray linen as well, making them very dense. Initially I planned to do this because they would be worn while fencing rapier.

Once they were near to complete with only the waist and leg bands to turn and finish, and the buttons and buttonholes to add, I started placing the trim. I chose to pop the seams at top and bottom so that I could press the pleats into shape beforehand and have them stay in place. The trim was only attached top and bottom, and floats freely over the leg.

After sewing back the popped seams I finished the waist and leg bands, leaving an overlap for the buttons at the legbands and center front. I then stitched on the same trim I'd used previously, this time covering the entirety of the bands.

Finally, I attached the buttons and made buttonholes. The whole project was done by machine where able, as I intend this to be more of a costume than a recreation. Next up...the doublet!