Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 30th

So today is a Leap Day, it only comes once every four years, but there are far stranger dates in history. Take February 30th, for example. That's right, there was a February 30th.

In 1712 the Swedish Empire, in an attempt to balance their calendar and switch from the Julian to Gregorian year, added a day in February. It was the 29th in the Julian Calendar, but in countries where the Gregorian system had been in effect for a while it was March 11th. In 1753 the changeover was finally completed when the Swedish omitted eleven days in February to catch up.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Patron Saint of Genital Disease

Now that we have entered the season of Lent, according to the Catholic calendar, it seems like an appropriate time to bring out this morbidly fascinating article on one of the strangest saints of which I have ever heard. Head of Saint Up For Auction in Ireland. Okay, so this happened months ago, and I'm a little late to the party, but it's still interesting to share.

For more surprising saints I recommend reading about; Saint Bernardino patron saint of advertising, communications, compulsive gambling,  and respiratory problems, or Saint James the Greater, patron saint of millinery (hatmaking), or Kateri patron saint of World Youth Day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Grand Duchesses/Wedding Gowns

Empress Alexandra
I hope I'm not raising all kinds of hopes with the title of this post. We received the final albums from our wedding which occurred last July. There are a couple of bridal portraits that seem to capture the turn-of-the-century Russian Grand Duchess inspiration of my dress. First, two of the inspiration pictures:-
Olga Nicolevna

And now, my dress:-

Do you see the resemblance? Okay, now I promise to stop posting wedding things. We are officially finished...until I get to those posts about the places we went to on our honeymoon.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Style That Ruled the Empires- Exhibition Review

I am getting to be quite bad about cross-posting my blog entries, but I find that since the Regency period is related so perfectly to both the Georgian era and the 19th century I just can't decide which audience to share it with.

My husband and I attended an exhibition yesterday afternoon that I think my readers here would enjoy hearing about. For more information (spolier alert: there are empire gowns!), you can visit my other blog at


Friday, February 17, 2012

In Their Words- Thomas Jefferson On Honesty

“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”- Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In the News- Remains of Carolingian Palace Found

I love when new information comes to light about the past, and this excavation sounds promising. remains of carolingian palace found

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Regency Society of Virginia

I don't usually post the same thing on both of my blogs, but this news is worth repeating!

There is a brand new re-enactment group called the Regency Society of Virginia. This is of particular interest to people like me who live near Washington, D.C. and have despaired of finding a casual (but knowledgeable) group of people on the East Coast who aren't doing Revolutionary or Civil War events. I quote from their website:-

"Do you adore Jane Austen and her works (or the movies based upon them)?  Are you a War of 1812 or Napoleonic Wars re-enactor?  Perhaps you love the fashions of the Regency era or wish you had a place to wear such finery?  Enjoy the elegance of an English Country Dance?...We are a group of early 19th century enthusiasts who seek to unite all those who wish to recapture the refinement and civil society of this by-gone age.  Join us in this, our inaugural year, as we host workshops, costumed events, lectures and more with a distinctly Regency flavor."

 Sounds like fun to me! Excuse me while I go plan some Regency costumes

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Theatre Costuming vs Re-enactment Costuming: Part 2

In my last post we explored the experience and requirements of theatre costuming, today we'll look at the counterpart; reenactment costuming.

Let me start by saying that I am not exactly currently part of a reenactment group. Enthusiasts and authenticity-conscious reenactors may be horrified to know that I was, at one point, part of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Let's be clear. If you like history, want to wear costumes from a bygone era, and would like to be part of a very welcoming group that has very simple (almost non-existant) standards for historical accuracy from a beginner, then the SCA is a great group to which one can belong. I was personally attracted to the words "Creative," (I'm a costumer by trade, and even in college creative was my default adjective for myself) and "Anachronism" (from another time). It's how I met my husband and I made many great friends. If you want to be really authentic, you can; if you want to just have fun, you can do that to. It's purpose is not to exactly replicate the Middle Ages.

If total accuracy is your thing, or an era other than the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, then there are lots of other groups around the world that are much more focused on creating perfect replications of a certain time and place and experience. I have a great deal of respect for the work that goes into this, for the knowledge that the people who do them have, and I am on several listservs with reenactors so that I can learn from them. I am a fringe member of a lovely European group called Lumieres, but living in America means that I can never make it to their events (which are often shared with other groups). I do not want to reenact as an American Colonial, or devote myself entirely to one era. I love history from many time periods and many cultures.

So now that I've put the soap box away; how is reenactment costuming different? Well, for one thing, the focus is on history, education, and accuracy. If your persona would not have had access to the new color "mauve" because she's from a small mining town then you cannot buy it, dye it, or use it in your clothes or accoutrements. If you decide to go ahead and do so then you are knowingly misrepresenting the time period and have basically fallen from clothing into costume. The idea is to lose yourself (and potentially any audience you wish to educate) in the realism of the experience you are re-enacting. A lack of proof that something didn't exist is not a good reason to do it either. You can't prove a negative.

Just how accurate you have to be can be up to a range of people. Just as in theatre the director and producer are the final voice in how the costumes look, so too do some re-enactors have to pass inspection (usually for military units), or just run the gauntlet of gossip. Some people will be harshly critical, and some wouldn't dream of it. In some groups it is entirely a personal choice, but wearing Mary-Janes with your empire dress will probably get you at least a few raised eyebrows, and some polite suggestions as to where you can get better footwear.

Just how far does this accuracy extend? As far as you can imagine. I know of one woman who raised her own sheep so she could spin the wool, weave the cloth, dye it with plants from her garden, cut it with reproduction shears, handsew it with reproduction thread etc, and trimmed it with hand-woven decoration. That's dedication! From time to time I think about trying to do something similar, since I know how to spin wool into thread, but the reality is that I'm both busy and lazy, and that would take a really long time. Most re-enactors try to use fibers and colors that would have been available in their time and place to their persona, and cut their costume according to extant examples, handsewing at the least where the seam will show, and using portraits to determine the kind of reproduction accessories that should go with it. It's like a master's dissertation (and I should know), where you should be prepared to offer a reason for every decision you make. This makes the costume as accurate as possible, and in a roomful of re-enactors it is possible to feel like you've stepped back in time.

Unlike in big-budget movies, re-enacting can be a bit pricey since all of those reproduction items don't come cheap, and no studio exec is paying for them. This can lead to shortcuts. Often newcomers are offered loaner gear by the group they join, with the expectation that in good time they will create their own kit, and the loaner gear can be passed on. Some items like eyeglasses you might not really notice, but others like shoes and hairstyles you will.

The last facet of re-enactment costuming I want to talk about is travel. In film or theater the costumes are either made on site or transported en masse to the location (or very nearby) for the actors to use. In the re-enactment community a social gathering can involve traveling many miles, or even flying. Packing a hoopskirt and a rifle is a lot harder than jeans and a t-shirt.
Unfortunately it's hard to drag a trunk onto a plane.
Fortunately there are ways to lessen the bulk of what you're packing.
For things like hats; you can pack them crown-down on a thin layer of clothes, and stuff the inside with smaller things like stockings, caps, jewelry bags, and gloves. Hoop skirts or panniers can have the boning removed, you'll just have to reinsert it when you arrive. Corsets roll down tightly. Mostly it's about planning how to get the most out of the fewest outfits by mixing and matching strategically. I do this when I pack for long trips in the modern world too. Solids colors that compliment each other and a few key pieces will go a long way, and limit yourself to two kinds of shoes if not one.

Are you a re-enactor? Want to add something? Have a question? Leave a comment!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Theatre Costuming vs Reenactment Costuming: Part 1

With my most recent show finishing tech tomorrow, and everything well in hand for opening on Monday, I feel that now is a good time to address the differences between costuming for theater and to re-create historical styles. I do both. I love both. They are completely different things.

Costuming for Theatre
First of all, when designing costumes for a theatrical production or television you aren't alone in getting to decide how they look. The director (and/or producer) is the ultimate authority and if they want a leather frock coat with studs, you will give them a leather frock coat with studs. You can try to point out historical inaccuracies all you want, but they only thing this will make you is unpopular with your creative team. Believe me, I learned that the hard way years ago. I also used to point out every historical discrepancy in films, but now I know that far from being ill-researched there was probably a good reason for doing something differently.

This brings me to my second point; necessity. Yes, that really should be a robe a la francaise if we're setting this play in the 1750s, and not a l'anglaise, but the second style hides a zipper and the actress has a ten-second quick-change. Sometimes the designer has to be the one to introduce anachronistic solutions to a problem, even if the director is into historical accuracy. The biggest factor determining what the costumes look like is always, always, always the budget! You're doing "The Taming of the Shrew" set in Edo-period Japan but you have a budget of nothing; sorry the nice brocades and gorgeous wigs are out. You'll be using printed cottons and re-styled Halloween wigs. You'll be borrowing or renting from every costume stock around you, and there's no telling what kind of selection for that style they will have. Did the local High School just do a production of The Mikado? Better call them as well.

This is not to say that style isn't important, it absolutely is, but the needs of the show are the most important thing. The whole point of costume for theater and film (including opera, musicals, etc) is to help the actors to tell the story. Mostly, I find, it's about expressing character. I once went to go see a film with a friend, and in one scene the lead actress was at a fancy party in a pink dress with ruffles. I leaned over and told my friend that the scene wasn't going to end well for our heroine. I was right, it didn't. The dress didn't fit her character, who was strong and self-reliant, from a working-class background and not at all fussy. The costume designer had used that dress, which was lovely in it's own way, to express that the character was trying to be someone else and was out of her comfort zone.

So maybe black is the color of mourning, but you have a character who isn't in mourning. Do you put him or her in black because they're conniving and evil? Or do you worry about the fact that in that time period black was an expensive and difficult color to achieve, and therefore more rare? You put the character in the color that best expresses what we're trying to say. Half the audience won't know that tidbit about the history of the color anyhow. Don't even get me started on the fiber content of fabrics.

Now, it's important to note that a costume designer can't afford to think that an understanding of historical clothing styles etc is unimportant. It's still exceptionally important, and where theater and reenactment costuming meet is the fact that they both start with lots, and lots of research. It can make the difference between a good production, and a stellar one; and I've had more than one actor tell me that putting on the costume changes their understanding of their character, and makes it more real. After all, the shape of our clothes, the height of our shoes, the number of layers, the wearing of hats or veils all change the way we walk and bend and reach and even hear. It changes the width of doorways, height of ceilings, amount of furniture in a room, and spacing of objects. This is why you get problems if a set designer and a costume designer don't talk to each other.

In our next installment we'll talk about reenactment costuming and how it differs from theatrical costuming. Have a burning question? Want to know more about costuming for theatre? Leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer!