A year or two ago, I opened my closet full of fabulous historical evening gowns and felt… tired.
Inside were all those impossible confections I’ve made for countless Costume College Galas. Days, weeks, months of blood, sweat and tears are represented in that stuffed wardrobe, along with many happy memories of friends and fears overcome. Every single time, I’d figured it out and finished the dress in time.
And I had to ask… why am I doing this, anyway?
You may be concentrating on the imagined sight of those folds of taffeta and satin in front of me, but I was looking down at my jeans. What the hell is this all for, anyway? Why is all this expertise shut in a closet for 99% of its life, and why am I wearing synthetic rubbish, mass produced in sweatshops I’d rather not think about?
From time to time it’s worth remembering why we got into this, anyway. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rush to have something new to wear for this event, or that event, that we forget why we learned to sew in the first place.
For me, it’s all Ginger Rogers’ fault.
As a teenager I was too young to register disgust at Third World manufacturing practices or vanity sizing, but I *was* sighing heavy sighs at the design of high street clothing. Why couldn’t I buy the stylish togs that movie stars were wearing in the 1930s? Why must I select from a rack of ten identical garments? Why don’t I get to be unique?
I learnt to sew a little at 14, and a lot more at 17, and it was immediately all about evening dresses for University balls, and then wedding dresses for my bespoke business. Somewhere in there, personal, everyday style got lost… which is why I have so much love and admiration for makers like Constance MacKenzie and Zack Pinsent, who live in another era every day. I wanted that unique form of self-expression too.
And that’s why this rather plainer red wool skirt was such a big deal for me this year.
It may not be spectacular silk, but wool was a joy to work with (more making-of details here). It may not be flashy, but it’s something I can wear on the Tube and make heads turn. It’s devastatingly elegant. It makes me feel like magic. It’s from a real 1895 pattern draft – time travelling clothing!!
This is not a costume, it’s my own clothes, and it’s been a joy ever since I first put it on, from those lovely pleats swishing at the back to the little crow’s feet I used to reinforce the corners of the great big POCKETSESSSS.
It’s so ME.
My ideas on style have developed since my teenage years. The Thirties don’t speak to me like they used to, but late Victorian and Edwardian certainly does, with its rich colour palette, its obsessive inventiveness and its glorious overthinking on everything from pattern drafting to architectural ornament.
And that’s why it was such a joy to take these photos with the delightfully eccentric and also-beautifully-dressed Bernadette Banner in my favourite Victorian surroundings – the Grand Staircase at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London. (Thank you, Bernadette!)
This is one of a series that have been playfully dubbed our “engagement photos”. Note the matching American Duchess Londoners. You’ll have to ask Bernadette about her fabulous cape, but my shirt is a Victorian one, bought in mint condition in an antique shop in Carcassonne, France; the waistcoat is about the same age as me, purchased at Levison’s Vintage Clothing, off Brick Lane in London; the pearls were Grandma Irené’s; and I wish I could remember the trader at TORM who sold me the earrings.
I’d like to expand on this style – the eccentric Edwardian lady entrepreneur. In these photos I was not imagining myself as a guest at the hotel… more as the hotelier herself. And wherever my life and career are about to take me, I’d like to think this looks like a pretty awesome personal brand.
So I urge you… don’t just think about a costume for the next convention or event. The most striking, ambitious, groundbreaking, game changing costume you make might be the costume you make for when you’re dressing as your true self.
What would THAT costume look like for you?
That’s actually exactly how I’ve been thinking of my own wardrobe as I try to figure out what in the world my style is. It helps so much to approach myself like a costume designer with a character, to look at clothes and think “does this fit the Shannon aesthetic” rather than simply “does this fit and do I sort of like it.”
That’s a great way to look at sewing.
I have been seriously thinking of going Viking dress in out next winter. Living in a mountain town the weather certainly dictates many layers. My stash has a most extensive wool section. This will work well.
I love what you have done. Love Bernadette, been following her on YouTube for a bit. She’s a wonderful seamstress. I’ve been sewing since I was 4. I’m now 64. Lol. The Viking thing is a new era for me. I love learning new things. It’s all great fun
Wow, that sounds amazing! Id love to see pictures.
Oh yes, you absolutely should! It would be nice to also see more Nordic stuff integrated into the every day. English stuff has a certain allure, but I’m excited for diversity!
Lovely post, Cathy. I absolutely agree with you! Wonderful when we can find something that’s so “us” that we can just relax into it. Good for you–thanks for sharing, and thanks for being an inspiration! Hugs!
I’ve been watching your New modern Edwardian walking skirt.
Can you tell me where I can purchase the pattern as I would love to make it myself.
I’ve got itching fingers.
Many Thanks Mary
It wasn’t a purchased pattern, Mary, it was drafted from instructions in the Keystone Jacket and Dress Cutter from 1895, which you can find digitised on archive.org. 🙂
That’s a lovely skirt! And I also had a Granma Irene.
I need several skirts like this in lighter fabrics as it tends to be warm and humid here in Atlanta. (Despite the fact that it’s been in the upper 20s – low 40s since Thanksgiving!)
Sigh… I feel you. How many times in high school did I draw something I wanted to make to wear?? Awesome that you are there!!!
This definitely strikes a chord. I used to spend a lot more time on cultivating my personal style in High School and College, before I began sewing. Then, obsession with historical clothing took over and my closet became 90% things I only wear to events and reenactments, leaving me with 10% humdrum things to wear to work, the gym and around the house. Where did my fabulous style go, and why can’t I sew things for every day wear that don’t rely on a big production? I’ve added a 1940s wartime day dress to my docket, and a simple circle skirt with 50s blouse that I can wear to the grocery store or wherever. I think it’s important to know that we can feel that magic every day, that we don’t have to dress like the princess to feel special. We can and should make practical things to wear that are still stylish and help to “keep the dream alive.” Sometimes we look to the heroines in our favorite costume dramas and strive to recreate those dresses, hoping that by doing so, some of their mojo will transfer to us. But we need a little nudge now and then, reminding us that we are our own heroine. I’m delighted to see your inner Edwardian Entrepreneur come out to play! Well done!
Yes, I have been struggling with that question for quite some time. I’m heading toward a historically inaccurate hybrid that will work in a tropical climate. I don’t want to emulate British/European colonial fashions for all sorts of reasons.
It’s looking a bit 1890-1945 with a little bit from my 2015-18 Japanese pattern magazines (high summer mainly). I’m looking for the things I like that have some historical continuity: long, high waisted skirts, and light blouses with interesting features that will go with those skirts. Also I have a secret love of long jupe-cullottes (after 1890) although they can be a little too warm.
So many ideas so little time.
This really strikes a chord with me today Cathy, I am in the process of re- designing my wardrobe to incorporate the vintage looks I love. When I was young ( read teens and twenties) I wore mostly vintage and had some lovely twenties and thirties dresses that I’m ashamed to say I wore to death. Then once I had children, I somehow slipped into the Mum uniform of jeans and tee shirts and there I stayed. I put all my sewing energy into sewing beautiful clothing for my three daughters. Having to wear corporate work wear meant I was able to be entirely lazy ( and to be honest unhappy) with my personal style. Since my daughters are all grown up and at university and I have changed careers and have more energy and freedom to dress as I choose I have been exploring ideas of how to incorporate the vintage look I love (particulars the teens of last century) into my everyday clothes. I love your skirt and the beautiful details and I’m so glad it makes you feel like the real you! Ideally that’s how we all want to feel – like the best most authentic version of ourselves.
Oh yes. Very wise and cool. Definitely something to think about and plan.
For a long while now I’ve been trying to incorporate Victorian or other costume details into my everyday clothing. Right now I’m working on an outfit inspired by the character of Newt Scamander (from Fantastic Beasts), but so that I can actually wear it to the office. Also, I’m helping my fourteen-year-old along on a similar road.
Why should we wear junk when we can do so much better? Thanks for this article, Cathy!
Ohhh, I love Newt’s outfit! I love the tailoring, and I love the colours, the blue and the mustard yellow.! You could totally do that at an office!
I’ve been wearing the fantail skirt by Scroop patterns for a year now, literally living in it and I really should make more! I’m struggling a little finding blouses I can make or buy that work for the Edwardian every day wear but aren’t pigeonbreasted… I haven’t tried to see if it looks good on me but there’s something about it that makes me hesitate.
Give it a try! I think we hold back from thryig things when we have to go through the expense or the effort of doing something different, but there’s still nothing wrong with trying something to see if it works. You might be surprised – and if you don’t like it, there’s nothing wrong with shifting a little earlier or later for the blouses. You go to the next level when you mix and match to create your own style!
Oh my god, can you believe I never thought of that?! That’s a really good idea, I really love the 1850’s blouses, I may just try what that does for every day wear and it’s a good way to dip my toes into making tops! Thank you!
My body has changed a lot since hitting my 30s and I’m trying to develop a new personal style for my curvier figure which is suitable for cycling and comfy enough for studio work… I seem to be wearing a lot of jumpsuits! I’m in love with 30s, 40s and 50s styles so am absolutely going to experiment after reading this.. thank you Cathy!
Thank you for this! I feel like I have struggled to find my personal style… I always think, well, when I lose weight or have spare time… But, time is passing and my body is changing in ways that I’m still coming to terms with. I love your style! Thanks for the inspiration to think about what I would like to be wearing.
Yes, yes, yes! And it was also Ginger Rogers who floored me when I was a teenager. The first retro dress my mother drafted for me was a copy of her dance instructor dress from “Swing Time,” and I wore that baby to death. Since then I’ve gone through lots of phases: Edwardian, 1910s, 1940s, and (currently) 1950s, but I feel myself coming back full circle to that 1930s aesthetic and am ready to dive back into that decade. Some days I just don’t bother to “dress Jennie,” but I always feel amazing when I take the time to. More confident, more put-together, more with-it. My glam grandmother was a knockout in her generation, from her 1940s days serving at the USO in Hollywood to her Air Force hostess days in the 1950s and 60s. When at home, she always wore signature “at home” dresses that she would change when it was time to go out. And she did it effortlessly. She has always inspired me, and I think our goal should be to inspire the young women around us and coming up after us. Dress YOU. Don’t default to cheap junk that falls apart and probably hurt someone in the making. We can change fashion for the better. Thank you for all you to do further this!
Gosh how elegant, I can understand how you feel about your outfit especially the skirt. You do provide inspiration and for that I thank you so much.
Loving the complete outfit. Was that what you wore to the patterns of Fashion 5 study dsy/book launch. I admired it then, so lovely and very wearable. Where is that beautiful staircase?
Thank you Gill, well spotted, yes it is that outfit!
The location is the Grand Staircase at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London. It’s worth looking up – it’s a glorious building that only just survived to the present day, and was only recently lovingly restored. I spend as much time as I can there, I adore it!
Thank you for writing this, the enormous difference between my beautiful costumes and the tragic t-shirts I wear every day has had me thinking about dressing for the person I really am. You have inspired me to think differently, thank you
I am in a Celtic band. We play at Ren Faires and other venues. I feel like “myself” in my non-authentic 1700s-style gown with shift and petticoat. I am planning an authentic outfit, but if I could wear this clothing every day, I would be happy.
Excellent post. I’ve been re-examine my wardrobe of late (serious weight loss will do that) and decided that I’ve lost my way and have been swallowed whole by graphic tees and pull-on polyester pants. I’ve recently discovered that my personal style lays somewhere between the fabulous Phryne Fischer and the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with a splash of Stevie Nicks circa 1970s. Oh the fun I have planned.
I couldn’t agree more! I have thought about this so often, particularly since I just finished, and wore, an 1850s silk ensemble. Now it’s just crammed in my wardrobe, along with my edwardian outfit, 1920s reproductions reproduction dress, and various others. I have a very eclectic and random style I am happy with now though, which incorporates historical and modern items which suit and flatter me. I’m nudging 50 and shaped like the older Queen Victoria, so often a fun challenge!
The funny thing is, I’ve been approaching even my (small) historical wardrobe much like this. Not a gown to wow others but an outfit that wows and pleases me, which in the historical context often means simplicity and relying more on colour and interesting cut than complexity.
My one problem with my everyday wardrobe right now is that for safety reasons at work, I can’t wear swishy long skirts, whether wool much like this or Directoire/Regency dresses – which is a direction I would otherwise undoubtedly also head…
That skirt is so beautiful! I’ve always loved those victorian walking skirt type skirts. It looks rather difficult to make. As for style, I am horrid. I love the elegance of the Victorian skirts, but I also am perfectly happy with a favorite t-shirt or sweatshirt. In my case, I often wear my favorite skirts with my favorite t-shirts.
It’s no more difficult than any other skirt, Ann – just a bit of pleating in the back!
I swear I wrote a long reply to this post when you first put it up, but somehow it never seems to have made it. This post spoke so much to me, as your more recent one did. I feel the same way that so many others who replied do, and am slowly finding my way to my own style and trying to remove the fear of what others ‘might’ think of me for doing so. You would think I would be more confident at nearly 50 but somehow I am not. A work in progress!
I must say, as someone still struggling to find the right clothes to fit my figure (not even trying to go for a specific style) this is inspiring. I have an extensive wardrobe of (horrifyingly inaccurate) costume pieces due to my LARPing obsession, but at times wearing them feels more right than a T-shirt with leggings. Sometimes I wish I could just wear my corset to school, but with much sorrow I have to report that 21st-century high schools are not keen on floor-length skirts and tailored vests.
Basically, I am stuck making circle-skirts out of thrifted tablecloth.
Your outfit, especially the skirt is beautiful. Yes, an excellent personal brand. It’s been 34 years since I sewed clothes for myself — maternity clothes. Those were followed by endless little girl clothes. I still sew, I sew quilts. Usually they are reproduction of historic quilts. Yes, it’s my passion. I still miss handmade clothing, linen, 100% wool & a perfect fit. You & Bernadette inspire me to make something fabulous again. I’m off to fabric.com to order linen????
I love you so much right now – both you and Bernadette! Watching Bernadette’s videos has been breathtaking. Reading your blog post was like coming home.
I, too, am so very glad to have discovered you and through Bernadette Banners, whom I’ve recently discovered. Why not dress in bespoke in time period we prefer? It
I have only recently found you through Bernadette. I love the red skirt and your entire outfit. I have been sewing garments since I was 16 and I needed less expensive clothes for working in the hospital. I taught myself through patterns and books as well as magazines like “Threads”. Now I find a need to be more me. I am working as a cashier in a Home improvement store. I dress up on my days off. Days on are Jeans or chords and a knit or woven top. Also, I would really like to see how you fix your hair!
I recently turned 68 and have decided to make the leap and dress my true self. All of the patterns I’ll be working with are of the rectangle, triangle variety, very simple structurally. I’ve made a few pieces by hand and I am on the way to making more. I am comfortable wearing the items I’ve made as the fabric (linen) the structure (simple) and sewing skills I’m developing suit me down to the ground. Watching the folks on YouTube who share their knowledge and experience in making historical accurate/historically adequate clothes has helped me get through 2020. They have been the inspiration for me to actually get my needle threaded and make garments I enjoy wearing.