"Becoming Victoria"

I am honoured and excited to have been invited by the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival committee to appear as a young Queen Victoria at this year's festival from 22nd-28th August 2016. In preparation for this role I will be designing and making the costumes for the young queen over the coming months. These will be authentic reproductions of the fashions of the early years of Victoria's reign and will include a range of 1840s women's garments from corsets and petticoats to day dresses, ball gowns and bonnets. This blog will document and share my progress as I research, design and stitch each element to reveal the secrets of "Becoming Victoria".

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The first petticoat

53 days to go and the first petticoat is complete.

A total of 31 rows of cotton cord have been sewn into petticoat to stiffen the hem and create this shape. The petticoat will also be heavily starched to help it stand up under the dress. A deep, shaped waist-band helps to minimise bulk at the waist. Although this is not common in extant petticoats, I have seen some examples with a deep yoke and when wearing multiple layers this helps immensely to preserve the line of the figure created by the corset.

The skirt is cartridge pleated and hand-stitched to the waistband. Cartridge pleats are formed when evenly spaced gathering stitches are drawn up to pull the fabric into pleats like a concertina. The back of each pleat is then secured with a stitch through the waistband. At the back, the pleats stand away from the waistband three-dimensionally and this helps to give the pleats a little extra kick to make the petticoat stand away from the body.

Cartridge Pleats in progress
Over this petticoat, a second flounced petticoat will help to add softness to the silhouette and bulk out the skirts, before a final, lace-hemmed petticoat is added to smooth over all of the layers. By the early 1850s, women had to wear multiple petticoats to support the increasingly large skirts that were fashionable - sometimes as many as twelve. The invention of the cage-crinoline, as oppressive as it may appear to modern eyes, was therefore undoubtedly a relief to many women as it was certainly lighter, cooler, less-restrictive and more hygienic than the huge quantities of petticoats they were used to wearing.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Structural engineering

56 days to go and work continues on the corded petticoat.

So far 24 rows, totalling 48 metres of cording have been sewn into the hem of this petticoat. The 1/4" cotton cord is sandwiched between two layers of cotton and sewn tightly into parallel channels to create a ridged effect. These cords will give the petticoat structure to support the skirts of the dress. The cording will continue up the petticoat to just below hip level. The top will then be cartridge pleated onto a waistband to draw in the excess fabric and create the bell-shape that was fashionable in the 1840s and early 1850s.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

One down, a dozen or so to go!

57 days to go and the corset is complete.

Front view an the mannequin

The finishing touches included binding the top and bottom of the corset, stitching the flossing (decorative stitches that help keep the boning in place) and neatening and finishing all of the edges inside the corset.

I used strips of blue linen cut on the bias (diagonally across the material to allow some stretch) to bind the edges of the corset. These strips were hand-stitched to the corset from the outside and then folded over and slip-stitched to the inside to cover and reinforce the raw edges.

Applying the linen binding to the edges of the corset
Then, once all of the loose edges had been carefully stitched down on the inside of the corset, it was time for the flossing. The term flossing refers to embroidery stitches used specifically on corsets that were designed to keep the bones in place and prevent them from moving around and poking through the fabric of the corset. As well as this practical function, they were also highly decorative and used to enhance the aesthetic appearance of corset, especially when worked in contrasting colours. For an excellent tutorial on how to create flossing stitches visit Sidney Eileen.com

An example of decorative flossing stitches on an original corset, 1893-97, Glasgow Museums, PP.2002.8.13_02
The flossing on my corset was worked using the same cotton floss as the other embroidery. The criss-crossed stitches cradle the end of each bone and extend up the sides to hold them firmly in their channels. These stitches are worked right through all the layers of the corset.

Flossing at the lower edge of the corset
And finally, fully laced with 7m of cotton lacing, the corset is ready to be worn. The next step in the project will now be to complete the petticoats. It is important to have all of the layers of underwear in place before starting the outer garments as Victorian clothes were very tight fitting. For gowns to be able to hug the figure and lie smoothly, very careful measurements should always be taken over the underwear to ensure a perfect fit.

A back view of the corset lacing

Thursday, 23 June 2016

When home sewing becomes DIY

60 days to go and time to bone the corset.

In the nineteenth century, corsets could be boned with whalebone (actually the baleen, or teeth of the whale) or, thanks to advances in industrial technology, steel. Whalebone was a particular favourite as this natural material which has a consistency somewhere between hair and horn is light, elastic and flexible. Whalebone could be split into thin strips and still retain all of these features and, if softened in hot water, could be shaped to the form of the corset where it would remain set once dry and cold. However, the great demand for baleen meant that the numbers of these magnificent creatures dwindled as they were constantly hunted. The answer to the scarcity and rising price of whalebone was steel. By the mid century spring  steel had been invented, flexible enough to bend to the shape of the corset.*

An example of baleen on display in Colonial Williamsburg. Picture from The Two Nerdy History Girls. Click here to read their interesting short article on baleen.

This is the material used for corsetry today. Solid steel or spiral steel (tightly coiled and flattened wire) bones provide excellent support for garments such as corsets, but are light and flexible enough to shape to the body. Corsets are also still fastened with steel busks (wide, strong bones with hook and stud closures) and metal lacing eyelets, patented in 1829 and 1828 respectively.

The two halves of the busk are inserted between the corset and facing at the front edges. Spaces in the stitching allow the hooks to poke through the seam and an awl is used to pierce holes for the studs. And in a taste of what is to come, safety goggles are worn when sewing around the busk as sewing machine needles break and fly up in the air very easily if they accidentally hit the steel!

Front fastening buck inserted
 For the next stage even more DIY tools are required. Setting the lacing grommets in the back of the corset involves no sewing whatsoever but a fair amount of hammering. The grommets (or eyelets) come in two parts. The side with the long shaft is inserted through a hole pierced in the right position and the second side, resembling a washer is placed over this. A special tool is then used which, when hit with a hammer, forces the shaft to roll back over the washer to secure the eyelet in position.

An array of tools for setting the grommets

The two halves of an eyelet

The grommet setting tool in action
And a good whack with a hammer!

Finally the bones themselves can be inserted into the channels sewn earlier. I was using continuous spiral steel for this project, so once again raided the tool box for lethal looking items to try to cut the steel (not an easy job) and fix the end caps in position. With the bones cut to the tight length and the ends finished, these were then inserted into the channels ready or the top edges of the corset to be bound.

Scary wire and tools...and the safety goggles again because this stuff springs everywhere!

Close up of the spiral wire
And finally, the result. One corset ready to be finished tomorrow:

Front with busk

The back with eyelets
 * References
Norah Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines (Routledge/Theatre Art Books, Oxon, 1954).

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

From tiara to coronet

61 days to go...

Jumping briefly from the beginning to the end of the project, I took the opportunity today to rework a simple tiara to resemble one of Queen Victoria's coronets/tiaras. For attendance at the Festival's Grand Ball and other evening events I was inspired by Winterhalter's 1846 painting of the Royal Family to recreate the sapphire tiara worn by Her Majesty.

The Royal Family in 1846, by F.X. Winterhalter, Oil on canvas, 1846. Royal Collection
This tiara was part of a suite, consisting of a sapphire tiara, earrings and brooch, that were designed for Victoria by Prince Albert. 

To recreate this, I used silver jewellery wire to attach deep blue Lapis Lazuli beads to simple silver and crystal bridal tiara.

The original tiara

The Lapis Lazuli beads
The completed tiara

More cording...

64 days to go...

Whilst awaiting delivery of the front-fastening busk and some other notions for completing the corset I have begun work on the first of my petticoats.

Throughout the early Victorian period skirts became gradually more voluminous. However, it was not until 1856 that the steel cage crinoline was patented as a means of supporting these ever expanding skirts. Up until this point layers of petticoats had to be used to create the fashionable bell-shape of the 1840s and early 1850s. Various means were used to stiffen these petticoats including starch, petticoats made of fabric woven with horsehair (known as "crin", French for horsehair, hence the origins of the word crinoline) and cording. The photograph below of an 1830s petticoat from the Met Museum's collections show how closely spaced rows of cord sewn into a cotton petticoat created a structured undergarment that supported the shape of the skirts.

The Met, 1992.635, 1830s corded petticoat

For my petticoat, I am sewing rows of 6mm cotton cord between an outer layer of white cotton twill and a inner layer of thinner cotton sheeting. So far I have completed 12 rows at the hem. It's slow going but the effect is already apparent - the hem is stiff and padded, more than able to support multiple layers of fabric. I have a feeling that this is going to be somewhat heavy to wear though!