Notes from Costume College

rambles & thoughts on method & approach to historical accuracy in costuming


The following are thoughts that I jotted down while reviewing my notes from the Sally Queen 18th Century Clothing Review luncheon at Costume College 2006...


Art & Mystery of the Mantua Maker

The thing that made the biggest impact on me was Sally Queen's emphasis on what she called the "Art & Mystery of the Mantua Maker".

She pointed out that as costumers we fall into the trap of copying extant garments too exactly – "Janet Arnold has a seam 3 inches from the center back so I must have a seam 3 inches from the center back too". (I’ve noticed living history people are the worst at this, feeling the need to minutely document everything that is done.)

We also desire to standardize everything – "pocket hoops were this many inches wide" or "pleats were always done in this width on a petticoat ". In fact there is nothing so standard about extent garments & other primary sources. Sally showed us several examples of un-evenness, imperfections and things that would cause a failing grade if you turned it in to a home ecc teacher today. One of my favorites was a en fourreau back were the pleats were not even on each side, in fact they didn't even match the pattern of the fabric in the pleating - a rose in the middle of one pleat and on the other side the rose was in the seam of the pleat! (Actually that was in Kendra's class... but a great example none the less.)

As Sally pointed out, the key to reproducing clothing is learning the "Art & Mystery of the Mantua Maker". These garments were draped and made for individuals by individual seamstresses. These dress makers or mantua makers worked at varying levels of skill and education. However the goal was always the same: to look balanced and proportional. The Baroque & Georgian periods were obsessed with balance and it was reflected in the ideal for clothing & beauty as well and everything else in their worldview.

Sally suggested the better method was to find an extent dress in approx your size and study it for the correct proportions, not the exact measurements. But beyond that to simply use common sense, physics and proportions when fitting, fudging and altering. All within the restraints of the technology and techniques of the time of course. (Something Jean Hunnisett talks about in her books as well.)

The real trick is getting into the minds of our forebears to come up with solutions that fit their thinking processes. This is when it becomes valuable to go back to a previous era in fashion than your project. When you come forward again you have a much better understanding of how the manuta maker would interpret a new style. I could never have made the late 1790s Bee Robe so easily without the experience of so many 1780s robe a l'anglaise gowns under my belt. It's a different garment but the basic construction is very similar. I also noticed the c1800 dress that went under the robe made a lot more sense after I'd been making 18th century gowns than before that experience. The style had changed, but not the technology.


A Life Changing Approach

Most of you probably already figured this out some time ago but it blew my mind and forever changed the way I look at historical costuming.

It makes so much sense and is such a liberating approach to costuming! Especially when Sally showed garments that had solved fitting problems the exact same way that I had been forced - by common sense - to do on my own costumes (ignoring those "documented" solutions that I had access to at the time). It also makes sense to me now why some period patterns work for me but others do not - some of those straps, sleeves, pleats or darts simply don't work with my personal proportions.

To be honest, I'd already come some of the same conclusions but I felt guilty about not being "accurate", like I was cheating somehow by being practical. It was a relief to find out, in fact that my practically was a period approach to the art of the mantua maker!!

This has become my favorite costuming soapbox - learn to think outside the box and just play around with the fabric! Research shapes, styles & accessories and then go to town on your dress form. It's a period approach, it gets better results & it's much more fun!

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