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September 10, 2013

Off to England!

Jane AustenI’m headed to the UK to lead this year’s Historical Fashion Tour. My group will be in Bath for the opening of the Jane Austen Festival, then in Winchester and London. You can follow us over on my Facebook page, where I’ll be posting pictures and insights from the trip.

Come along with us for a virtual tour of England and all things Jane and historical fashion!

March 18, 2013

Closing out the 2013 Tour list!

BathCostumesWell, the little time I’ve had online has been spent working on this year’s tour instead of formatting pictures from last year’s! Time is flying by far too quickly. In less than seven months, we’ll be in Bath, Winchester, Chawton, and London, touring Jane Austen sites and viewing historical fashions up close.

The guest list filled up very quickly, but I’ve had a few drop-outs that have left a couple of open slots. However, I’ve got to give my final numbers to our hotels and museums so we can wrap up all our tickets and such as soon as possible. That means I’m going to close the group next Monday (March 25). If you would like to join us, please let me know!

This is going to be one fantastic tour, as we’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice and have the opportunity to attend a full costumed Regency ball in Bath (including supper, card tables, and all the trimmings!). We’ve got more Jane Austen stops on this trip than on any trip for the past four years, so if you’re an Austenite, this is the tour for you!

Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll be happy to help.

September 16, 2012

Symington Collection

Thursday we packed up and traveled to Coalville in Leicestershire to enjoy up-close study of items in the Symington Costume Collection. Symington was a corset factory near Market Harborough from the 1840s on, and sample corsets were preserved in mint condition, including their boxes and advertising. We also got to see some 1770s “jumps” (at-home wrappers) and two sets of 1830s stays that we’re donated to the collection.

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In addition to the wonders we were able to handle in the study room (thank you, Sarah!), we also enjoyed touring the extensive costume gallery in the Discovery Center, which contains items from the 1760s to the modern day:

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There was even fun stuff for a wee one to do!

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We all walked out with costume overload…in a good way! Lots of wonderful stuff to enjoy and digest. Well worth the drive, and this is an under-reported collection that should be known more broadly. We’ll have to come again.

August 31, 2011

2012 Historical Costume Tour!

Beautiful Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire boasts an incredible collection of original Tudor/Elizabethan tapestries and embroideries. We’ll be visiting!

I’ve got all the details posted on the Tour Pages, so pop on over if you want to see what will be on tap in September 2012. I opened up the tour to my waiting list first, and all slots filled within two days. However, I do keep a “just in case” waiting list, as we have had drop-outs each year due to schedule conflicts or other difficulties. If you really want to go in 2012, please drop me a line at contact AT sensibility.com, and I will put you on the list. If slots open up, they will be offered to each person on the list in order until filled.

Looks like it is going to be one FUN trip! I’ll be posting details about our itinerary over the next few months, especially as I want to showcase wonderful Manchester and Derbyshire! We will have a short London extension at the end of this tour, but London will not be the focus, especially as the V&A’s costume collection is not available for private study until they finish moving it to its new storage facility. So we’re headed northward to enjoy new stops, and we’ll bookend with the opening of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath with its Costumed Promenade–always a blast!

September 23, 2010

Monday in London

We were once again greeted by the sun as we rose to meet the day. Truly, the weather this trip was nothing short of spectacular. The temperature was neither too warm nor too chilly, and we had a lovely breeze all day. After a yummy breakfast at our hotel, we headed to the Gloucester Road underground station for our journey to St. Paul’s and walk to the Museum of London. Just as the tube was pulling into Holborne station where we’d change lines for St. Paul’s, the loudspeaker announced that Holborne had just been closed! So I did some rapid rethinking and decided we’d switch to another line at the next stop to disembark at Barbican. It would be an equal distance to the museum from that point, but we’d be a tad bit later due to the longer tube ride. Ah, the joys of the London Underground! We did manage to arrive just a few minutes past ten a.m. to find Suzi awaiting us in the museum’s main hall with curator Hilary Davidson on her way upstairs. Dividing our group in half, we sent a bunch downstairs with Hilary while the rest of us toured the new ground-floor exhibit hall. It is absolutely incredible–better, I think, than the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History (the MoL’s displays are far more child-friendly and so nicely laid out). Here’s my photo tour:

18th-century court dress on display. A screen next to it showed a video of a woman wearing all the proper underpinnings of the era and moving gracefully about to demonstrate "courtly" movement. It was lovely!

Close-up of the court dress bodice--stunning!

18th- and 19th-century shoes on display in a floor case. There were several floor cases in the exhibit, many showing things that have been dug up during excavations around London.

Close-up of another floor case--this one filled with China that has been dug up at various London sites.

Another gorgeous 18th-century dress on display...

And a close-up of the bodice and sleeves...

18th-century officer's "red coat" uniform. The embroidery work was so intricate.

Off the gallery’s opening display is a room dedicated to fashion. It is a recreation of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a famous place where social climbers and royally connected people once mingled and showed off their taste. The historical clothing is behind glass and rather difficult to photograph due to the low lighting designed to protect the garments. The lighting does cycle up to brighter several times a day, but, unfortunately, we were shoo’ed out to make way for a school group before we got the good lighting. You’ll just have to put up with my attempt at low-light photography here! Later in the morning I saw some photographs in the costume workroom that showed how this exhibit was designed. Live people were put into costume (reproduction–not the real thing) and “blocked” just as though they were in a stage play. After trying out several arrangements of people, the final display model was photographed from several angles so those setting up the final exhibit would know where to place mannequins. It was really fascinating to see how this was done.

1780s gown in the display...

Close-up of the gown...

Amazing embroidered man's suit...

Outside the glass cases were several reproduction outfits for up-close inspection. This girl's dress could easily be reproduced with my new 1780s Girls' Portrait Dress pattern!

Original boy's "skeleton" suit.

1780s gown with unique inverted "V" front lacing.

And a close-up...

1780s court dress with unbelievable amounts of trim...

Lovely 1780s gown with sash. My new womens' pattern (coming soon!) will easily reproduce this one...

Close-up of the gown...

Sorry this is so blurry; the lighting was just so low. Gorgeous 1770s gown with long elbow ruffles...

Here's another angle. The underskirt was so ornate with ruffles and embroidery (white on white).

A reproduction costume with an amusing display angle!

And a close-up...

This reproduction is really a fantasy dress when it comes to the fabric, but it was a lot of fun to study up close. The antlered head-dress is one of many outlandish hats designed for this exhibit by the famous milliner, Philip Treacy...

After leaving this exhibit, we went back to the rest of the displays to finish out the hour before our meeting with Hilary. The MoL is extremely child-friendly with hands-on things to do around every corner. My girls had a wonderful time opening secret doors, pressing buttons to turn on lights, trying on hats, and playing with train sets. Well done, MoL!

Peeping into doors and windows in the Georgian London exhibit.

Looking into the London Underground model...

Yet another children's area filled with antique toys and surprises...

An 18th-century bodice on display in another case. Gorgeous fabric!

One entire section of the new gallery is devoted to Victorian storefronts. Here you see my older girls gazing into a London toy shop. They only wished it was open for business!

My 2009 group saw this same lavender dress down in the costume storeroom last year when it was being restored for this display...

A beautiful antique automobile on display in the early 20th-century section...

A selection of Victorian, Edwardian, and 1920s garments on display...

A detail shot of the center dress from that case. The embroidery on the skirt was simply stunning.

A darling 1940s girl's dress on display...

There are several interactive displays like this one in the new gallery. If you touch areas of the table, they come to life with illustrations and descriptions. This table was a map of things near the Thames. My girls loved it!

A lit-up model of St. Paul's on the table...

And the famous London Eye...

We made it through the new gallery in time to enjoy a short refreshment break in the cafe’. Then we traded places with the other half of our group, heading into the treasure room that is the MoL costume storehouse with Hilary. As before, I am not allowed to share any photographs of what we saw, but I can tell you everything was drool-worthy. We enjoyed seeing an unusual 1730s corset, a pair of Queen Victoria’s ball slippers, three 1820s bonnets, a lovely 19-teens evening gown, an 1890s evening gown bodice, and an absolutely breathtaking 1880s evening gown that looked brand new, it was so well-preserved. There were lots of “oohs” and “ahhhs!” as Hilary removed the protective coverings and held things up for our admiration.

After finishing our visit at the MoL, we walked a short distance to the nearby El Vino Alban Gate restaurant for lunch. Joining us was Cathy Hay of Your Wardrobe Unlock’d, who had brought several vintage pieces for hands-on study. We passed opera cloaks and an 1850s dress around the table while waiting for our meals. El Vino did a fantastic job with our food, which was oh-so-delicious and provided in a timely manner (no small feat for a group this large!). Hilary joined us, so we all got in a delightful visit, sharing costume stories and swapping history. It was wonderful fun. Cathy didn’t bring anything for dress-up this time, as we didn’t have room enough for trying anything on. Maybe next time…!

Cathy shows off one of her beautiful opera cloaks...

After lunch, our group divided up once again, some ladies going with Suzi to the Museum of Childhood to meet with Noreen, the curator of the costume collection there. The rest of us had tickets for the special Grace Kelly exhibit at the V&A, so we said good-bye to Suzi and dashed back to the tube at St. Paul’s, glad to find that Holborne station was open once again so we could take a shorter trip to the museum. The Grace Kelly exhibit contained several of her film costumes but focused mainly on her life as Princess of Monaco. I was disappointed that the Philadelphia Museum of Art had not loaned Grace Kelly’s wedding gown to the exhibit, as I’ve always wanted to see it. I also wished there had been a wider representation of her film costumes, but it was still delightful to see what was on display:

An outfit from "To Catch a Thief"

Another beautiful film dress...

I believe this dress is from Grace Kelly's trousseau, but I'll have to double-check my book to be sure...

Low lighting made it very difficult to photograph much in this exhibit–especially the hats and accessories. It was also crowded to the gills with visitors, so I didn’t get a whole lot of good pictures. Oh, well! After finishing up at the V&A, I took my daughters back to the hotel to await the rest of the group. They began to trickle in around 5:30, most of them ready for an evening’s performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Shakespeare’s Globe. Because my mother had never seen the Globe or attended a performance, I got a ticket for her this year. I was sorry to miss out on the performance, which is a yearly highlight, but I am tickled pink Mom got to go. Christopher Benjamin (who played Sir William Lucas in the A&E “Pride & Prejudice”) performed as Falstaff to great critical acclaim. With everyone off to the Globe or out to eat, I took my girls on a little jaunt to Fortnum & Mason, where I knew they’d be astonished at the beauty of the displays (chandeliers in a grocery store?!). We’d hoped to grab supper at the delightful Parlour, but they’d closed up early that night. Instead, we walked down Piccadilly, looking for an interesting place to stop. My middle daughter stopped me suddenly with a “Mommy, look!” so I turned to see what she was pointing at. Next to us was an adorable restaurant called “Cilantro,” just begging us to come in and take a seat:

Colorful and comfy--my kind of eatery!

As we walked through the door, we were immediately greeted by someone at the counter. I asked if they were closing up (it was already 7:30), but he said they didn’t close until 8pm and invited us to come and take a seat. A huge selection of sandwiches and drinks awaited us behind the counter, but the waiter urged us to get comfortable so he could show us menus and take care of us. We were waited upon with such friendly service that we felt right at home and knew this was going to be a real treat. My girls ordered spaghetti bolognese, while I got a chicken and tomato panini.

Mmmmm!

Baby Girl is obviously enjoying her supper!

The whole atmosphere of Cilantro is cheerful and restful with lots of books around that customers are free to browse while they wait. We dove into our food, which was delicious and inexpensive (another plus!). After finishing up, an obliging waiter told us about the dessert selections, leaving our mouths watering in anticipation.

Can she eat the entire fudge cake alone? Oh, yes, she can!

A splendid hazelnut chocolate mini-cake for me. Heavenly!

Looking back toward the front of the cafe' with its cases full of tempting food.

It is always a delight to find a new favorite place in London. I thanked my daughter for pointing this one out. If you’re anywhere near 193 Piccadilly, be sure to stop by. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. The food is fantastic, the prices are right, and the staff is incomparable. We left satisfied and happy with our special evening out. After returning to our hotel, I put the girls to bed and waited up for the group from the Globe. They came back bubbling over with excitement at the evening’s performance, leaving me quite envious. It is something not to be missed if you ever have the chance.

And so the 2010 England Tour officially ended. We couldn’t believe how quickly our week had gone by. I said good-byes to several ladies Monday night, as they had early flights. We departed friends, and I know we’ll all stay in touch. I’ll finish up later with one last post to tie everything together. So many good memories!

September 15, 2010

Wednesday at Berrington Hall and Hereford Museum

Well, dear readers, it has been a red-letter day for anyone in love with historical fashion. I’ve never heard so many grown women squeal like schoolgirls! From start to finish, it was an amazing treat. So let me walk you through it!

First off, we boarded our coach for the two-plus-hour drive north, winding through absolutely gorgeous countryside (including a short nip through Wales):

We passed through Hereford on up to Leominster (which we learned is pronounced “Lemster” by the natives and not “LEE-oh-minster” as we’d thought!). After winding down the country lanes, we arrived at the entrance gate to Berrington Hall, which looked far too narrow for our coach. Yet our driver managed to get us through three gates and over a cattleguard before one of the docents came frowning out to tell us we’d gone the wrong way in, as the coach park was in back and accessed by a different gate! Never mind that no one told the driver this when he called or that the first gate was not marked “NO Coaches!” Oh, well. We still managed to get to the proper place to park and headed in for our appointment with costume curator Althea Mackenzie, who is caretaker to the famous Snowshill collection (now at Berrington) and the Hereford Museum collection (more on that later!).

Berrington is a wonderful estate. Famous landscaper Capability Brown’s son-in-law built it in the 1780s, and it was the last landscape job Capability did. The outside of the house is rather austere, but that was done on purpose by the architect, who wanted to lead the visitor into a surprise jewelbox of perfectly symmetrical rooms with Wedgewood-style moldings and fittings. Here’s a short tour of a few of the rooms:

The opening hall is exactly as it looked in 1783, with the addition of two French tapestries added by the next generation of owners.

Detail of the Greek-inspired door trimming

One of the French machine-made tapestries (sorry it's a bit blurry; I am still getting the hang of the low light setting, since flash wasn't allowed!)

Next we entered the drawing room, another perfectly proportioned room, down to the matching mirrors, picture arrangements, curtains, and even symmetrical furniture. Jane Austen would have been right at home in this room:

The stunning ceiling of the drawing room

The back hallway is even more magnificent than the front entrance! This staircase leads up to the family rooms.

Here is what lights the staircase--a glorious glass dome!

A view under the dome from the balcony overlooking the hall below...

This is the back of the main house inside the courtyard.

One half of our group toured the house while the other half enjoyed the delights of the private study table with Althea. Then we switched off. I cannot show you any of the things we looked at from the stores, as they are all copyrighted by the National Trust, but when I am able to look up call numbers, I will post them so you can Google them for yourselves. Suffice it to say that you would short out your keyboards drooling if I was able to share pictures!

After we all finished at the study table, we gathered for luncheon in our own private Edwardian Tea Room below stairs:

Lunch was absolutely delicious with an assortment of sandwiches, soup, and scones with jam and Devonshire cream, and, of course, tea. Yum! We finished up and walked back through the grounds toward the coach:

Looking into the walled orchard/garden...

Beautiful allium!

Looking past the fountain towards the house...

A lone water lily in the fountain...

View across the velvety lawn in front...

This is called "The Triumphal Arch" and serves as side entrance to the grounds...

A peep through the courtyard archways to the view beyond...

After boarding the coach, we buckled in for the short ride back to Hereford, where we were to meet up with Althea at the museum for still more up-close study. We were told to go to the main museum building, so we toured it for a bit and enjoyed its exhibits (lots of hands-on things for the children–hurrah!).

My girls trying out the play kitchen.

Too much fun!

This case contains original fabrics from the 1740s-1780s.

Detail view of the fabric. We saw such bright colors today--lots of pinks and greens especially from this period.

A purse "embroidered" with (are you ready for this?) beetle wings! Thanks to Stephanie for pointing this out!

After waiting a good 20 minutes and seeing no Althea, we asked again at the desk if she was expecting us and knew we were there. They decided to ring her up and found she was actually at another museum building several blocks away and expecting us there! Oy! So we packed ourselves off in a hurry to get to the museum’s resource center, which contains a simply mind-boggling number of storage bins, drawers, shelves, racks–you name it. Once again, I can’t show you anything we looked at, but you can see our ladies walking down the long corridor next to the storage cases:

What treasures lie in store?

These run on a neat trolley-type system that pulls the shelves apart along tracks so you can walk in between and get to all the drawers and bins. Althea gave us much more of her time than we deserved, and we oohed and ahhed for a good hour and a half. We could have stayed a week and not seen everything. This was absolutely the highlight of the day, with all our ladies getting to see things from different time periods and areas of interest. Never to be forgotten!

After a quick stop to get some water and other odds and ends, we headed back to Lacock Village for our evening meal at The Red Lion Inn, which is an absolutely charming spot (its exterior was used as the Meryton Assembly Room in the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice”).

Cozy!

Charming!

Ladies awaiting their suppers...

A happy (and delicious) ending to our wonderful day...

The Chicken and Stilton is not to be missed!

Great conversation and lots of laughter...

Nothing better than candlelight...

So we’ve finished out our day tired but happy. Tomorrow we travel southward to Exeter for still more historical costume at Killerton House and Rougemont House. If all goes well, I’ll be telling you about it tomorrow night! Sweet dreams!

September 14, 2010

Day One in London!

Well, we’re all here and accounted for (though finding folks at Heathrow this morning proved a bit of a challenge!). We went straight to the Victoria & Albert Museum for luncheon, then had a couple of hours free to see exhibits before meeting up for our private study session in the costume storage area. As with the Museum of London last year, we are not allowed to share photos of the objects displayed, but I can tell you we did lots of ooohing and ahhing! We saw a stunning 18th-century court gown, an 1880s day dress, and an ethereal Regency gown with silver thread embroidery. When I have time, I’ll look up the call numbers on the V&A site and post links so you can see, too! At left is a 1780s gown we saw last year (it was one of the inspiration pieces for my Ladies’ 1780s Portrait Dress pattern, now in progress).

After finishing at the museum, we boarded our coach for a rainy drive to Wiltshire, enjoying lots of visiting back and forth in the coach as we rode. The sun broke through the clouds in dazzling glory right at the end of our trip, casting that golden English glow over the countryside and lighting up the rain-wet trees and stone walls. It was stunning! Too bad I had packed my camera away by that point. If the weather holds tomorrow, I’ll be sure to get our gorgeous view.

Here are some highlights from today:

Back of a Grace Kelly gown on display at the V&A

Suzi showing Mom a photo of her bonnet for Bath. It's yummy!

Man's banyan coat made of a military toile, if you can imagine such a fabric!

Exquisite Victorian baby gown from the British Gallery at the V&A -- all lace!

My favorite gown in the British Gallery -- lots of amazing whitework on this trained Regency gown.

My girls peeking into a miniature room display, which was really astonishing in its detail.

Things to come... A bunch of us will be seeing the special Grace Kelly clothing exhibit next Monday afternoon!

That’s all for today. Tomorrow we head to Leominster in Herefordshire to see the Snowshill collection at Berrington Hall and enjoy the delights of the Hereford Museum costume collection as well! Cheers!

October 24, 2009

Bringing England Home…

102_1379Ever since I can remember, my parents served hot tea–not always a full afternoon tea, but definitely the steaming cupful with milk and sugar. Mom and Dad brought this tradition home with them from England on an early visit when I was little, and it stuck fast. Having grown up with “teatime,” I just naturally kept to it when I was married, and now I love to share it with my own children. Some days it’s just a hot cup during afternoon quiet time without ceremony. But, every now and again, we pull out all the stops and put on full afternoon tea. Today was such a day!

After our recent tour, sweet Amanda and Cari gave me a gift from Fortnum & Mason of loose-leaf tea, strawberry preserves, and tea biscuits. We broke these out today, enjoying the unmistakable fragrance that came when we opened the lid of the tea canister. Oh, this was going to be good! I pulled out our favorite “pink” china (a gift from my folks for my hope chest when I was 15), polished up the “Silver Beethoven” cultery, and laid out the tea tray with all we’d need.

Next, I tied on my favorite apron (a new find from the scrumptious Cath Kidston store in Bath!) and pulled out the ingredients for Suzi’s utterly delicious scones: self-rising flour, butter, sugar, salt, and buttermilk.

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Let me tell you, I’ve tasted scones from all over, and Suzi’s are the best I’ve ever eaten. They have a moist texture and a slightly sweet, almost creamy taste. I’ve never had better. But don’t take my word for it! Here is Suzi’s recipe:

My mother worked in a cafe in Stratford on Avon, and was given this recipe by a French lady who ran the place. It was called “The Cobweb Tea Rooms.”

  • 10 oz self-raising flour or 1 1/4 cups (You can use all-purpose flour with a raising agent – the best thing is to read the instructions on the packet for this, if you can’t get self raising flour.)
  • 1.5 oz sugar (3 tablespoons)
  • 1.5 oz. butter or margarine (I think about 3 tablespoons – equal weight to sugar.)
  • pinch salt (don’t leave this out – it really helps.)
  • about 1/2 cup sour milk or buttermilk, or milk curdled with lemon juice. Plain milk will also do.

Rub the flour, sugar, salt, and butter together until they look like breadcrumbs. Stir in the milk, very gradually, to make a firm, pliable dough. Don’t let it get too sticky. Roll out on a floured board to about 1/2″ thick. Cut in circles – I use a cutter about 2″ – 2.5″ across. Place on an ungreased baking sheet – you should get about 12 from this quantity.

Put in a hot oven, 200 degrees C (that’s about 400 degrees F), less for a fan oven, for about 10 minutes. I know this has to be different at altitude, but I don’t know by how much.

Serve with strawberry jam and thick heavy cream, or clotted cream if you can get it.

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Now, I completely forgot to bring home clotted cream from England, so we had to make do today with whipped cream. If you’d like to try clotted cream (which is like a thick, rich, sweet butter), you can get it Stateside from the English Tea Store, which offers lots of exclusively British teas and treats.

Here’s our spread with the scones hot from the oven!

Care to join us?

Care to join us?

Suzi's famous scones...

Suzi's famous scones...

We sliced our scones in half and dolloped whipped cream on top, followed by a generous teaspoon of Fortnum & Mason’s strawberry preserves:

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102_1383Absolutely delicious! We savored every bite and enjoyed the amazing tea fresh from the pot. My girls adore the ritual of a proper afternoon tea, complete with cloth napkins and beautiful silverware. I am thankful to my parents for always bringing home the best of foreign lands and for taking my siblings and me all over the world when we were growing up. It’s one thing to travel and just be a tourist; it’s another thing to study each culture you move through and come to appreciate and enjoy its own unique traditions and pastimes. Going through England and Germany as a teenager and staying for a goodish stretch in South Africa was a great gift. So was driving all over the United States and Canada and visiting in different homes. Each family has a culture, too, and it is so good to learn what is important to others and what they treasure. I feel my life is infinitely richer for the gift of “studious travel” given to me by my parents. They whetted my appetite for more. My husband and I desire to give our children this same gift as the years go by. On my next trip across the pond, I’ll be taking my daughters. I can hardly wait to share my love of England with them first-hand!

But you don’t have to hop in a plane or board a ship to dip into foreign places and learn from them. There are books galore that will take you on journeys, show you exotic ports, and even let you step into another household and see how life is lived there. Over the years, I’ve picked up books at used book stores, flea markets, and all kinds of yard sales, including lots of “coffee table” eye candy. These books have influenced my decorating style, my color choices, and even my taste in literature and food. Here’s a stack of some of my favorite (well-worn!) books on English living:

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102_1385I never tire of dipping into these and enjoying a glimpse into someone else’s well-loved home. If there’s anything that describes the English house, it’s certainly “cozy.” Little nooks for reading, warm kitchens, wide hearths, groaning bookshelves–these are England to me. Pots spilling over with flowers in abundance, gardens crammed with color, roses climbing old stone walls–these, too, are England. And how much richer our lives have been from bringing these things home, whether from a trip or from the pages of a book! This last journey over with our lovely tour group was an opportunity to share the things we love with others, and we are so glad we had the opportunity to do it. It’s a pleasure we hope to repeat with our children and with friends many times in the coming years. Perhaps you’ll come along next time and drink it all in? I’d love to have you! Thank you for sharing “my” England with me through this blog and indulging my lifelong delight in all things English. Until next time….

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October 1, 2009

But why study historical costume? (Allow me to wax philosophical!)

ladyaclandWhile we were in England, I had two different people (both of whom I met while on the tour but who were not in our group) ask me why we’d bring over a group to study clothing, of all things. Weren’t there far more important things we could have devoted our time to? Clothing just seemed, well, frivolous–lacking any real depth.

Naturally, I beg to differ. And so allow me to give you the philosophical underpinnings of my lifelong passion for the study of historical fashion (particularly women’s clothing) through the centuries.

This topic actually came up the first full day of our London tour when we went through the Globe. Our guide, Kitty, gave a detailed costume demonstration and touched on many of the very things I love to discuss about clothing. But first, a little background.

These post-modern times hold out a schizophrenic approach to dress. On the one hand, we’re told that no one should judge a book by its cover and that clothing really doesn’t matter at all — if I want to wear torn jeans and a wrinkled tee-shirt with bed-head, that’s just fine, and please don’t even think about calling me a slacker. On the other hand, our checkout lanes are stuffed to overflowing with celebrity-soaked fashion magazines full of headlines screaming about the latest “must-haves” and what is “in” this season (and so yesterday from last spring)–the clear implication being that clothes make the man, and you’d better not be left out of the constantly changing parade of style. So how you dress either shouldn’t matter in the least, or it is of utmost importance and should consume your pop-culture-bound life. But what’s reality?

"I don't know, dear.... Don't you think just a few more pearls would better express my status as Marquess?"

"I don't know, dear.... Don't you think just a few more pearls would better express my status as Marquess?"

Let’s get back to our Globe tour, because history has a lot to tell us about ourselves. During Shakespeare’s time, there were “sumptuary laws” dictating exactly who could wear what type of fabric, trimming, lace, jewels, etc. To boil it down to a short synopsis, there was a runaway problem of young men spending themselves into debt to dress “above their station” — trying to imitate the fashions of the nobility whether or not they could afford the expense. And clothing was very expensive for centuries before the industrial revolution brought us giant looms and mills full of laborers (which is another subject entirely, so don’t get me on that bunny trail!). In order to rein in the excesses of expensive fashion, the Elizabethans came up with sumptuary statutes spelling out exactly who could wear what types of finery (even specifying particular colors for certain officials, royalty, etc.). We might scratch our heads at this and wonder what all the fuss was about, but here’s where I think our Elizabethan forebears showed a greater understanding of what clothing communicates than we do–even if their response to it went overboard legislatively.

Benjamin West's depiction of a scene from King Lear, in which clothing plays an important supporting role as Shakespeare explores deceit, disguise, rank, and true nobility.

Benjamin West's depiction of a scene from King Lear, in which clothing plays an important supporting role as Shakespeare explores deceit, disguise, rank, and true nobility.

Our Globe guide, Kitty, mentioned that the nobility often donated their “cast-offs” to theater companies for use as costumes so that an actor could play a proper duke or represent a particular high office realistically. But it was clearly understood that the actor was only playing a part and that what he portrayed would stay inside the theater. In fact, any actor caught wearing the apparel of a noble outside of the theater could be jailed or fined one thousand pounds! This was such a stiff penalty that no one risked it. Now do you begin to see the significance of disguise in so many of Shakespeare’s plays? To put on apparel belonging to someone of another station was essentially to deceive others about your own position in life — a highly risky thing to do in those times. It was dramatically exciting in a way that we can’t quite comprehend in our so-called egalitarian age. Our guide talked about the play we’d be seeing at the Globe, “As You Like It,” in which disguise plays such an important part. The main character, Rosalind, disguises herself as a boy when she flees from her uncle into the forest of Arden. Kitty asked if any of our ladies had ever dressed up as a boy. When one said she had done so for a play, Kitty asked, “Didn’t it make you act differently? Didn’t you immediately put on male mannerisms and try to fit the message your clothing communicated?” Our young actress nodded, acknowledging that the clothing made a huge difference.

vigee-le-brun_self_in_straw_hat

And this is the seat of reality, however we may congratulate ourselves on how “advanced” we are when it comes to not judging books by their covers. The truth is (and always will be as long as humans are humans) that clothes do communicate, and we do read (and misread) the messages they are sending. The fact that we do this comes up for comment in the New Testament, where James admonishes believers not to judge based on appearances:

For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? ~ James 2:2-4

The point is clear: Because clothes communicate something about the wearer, we do have a tendency to judge based on appearances, and we have to work to overcome a judgmental or preferential attitude. If we were angels instead of humans, we wouldn’t need the exhortation. Some take this a step too far and insist that clothing should be merely functional and not at all ornamental. If we have a tendency to judge, then we should just eliminate the possibility by having rigid rules that force everyone to dress the same — or we should create a legalistic code of dress that ensures no one will be tempted to dress to impress. But such approaches miss the mark as much as Elizabethan sumptuary laws did. Top-down approaches to uniformity will never get to the heart of the matter.

Illustration of men's and women's clothing from Greco-Roman times (NYPL Digital Library)

Illustration of men's and women's clothing from Greco-Roman times (NYPL Digital Library)

Clothing always has and always will communicate a message. For the most part, men’s clothing has told the viewer exactly what kind of occupation the wearer held. In Colonial times, if someone was called a “leather apron man,” you knew he was in a trade like soap-making, printing, iron work, or another job requiring manual labor. Occupational clothing goes all the way back to ancient times when men wore short tunics coming to the knees to keep their legs unhindered for hard manual labor in the fields or on horseback — or for fighting and marching, as soldiers did. Even today, we have terms like “blue-collar” and “white-collar” to describe the different fields of work — phrases which had their birth in clothing styles worn by men in particular trades.

For centuries upon centuries, women’s clothing has said, “I am feminine. I am different.” Seeing how this plays out (and how fashion repeats itself over and over again) is utterly fascinating. I love to study timelines of fashion from ancient days forward and across cultural lines (for a good starter timeline, click here — for more, go to this link). You think the bikini was new and shocking in 1946? Think again. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Bikinis show up in Greco-Roman frescos dating back to 1400 B.C. What has been will be again, and understanding what our clothing says about us is important if we desire to communicate a clear message in confused times.

bustledressNo one who has visited my website can doubt that I am a huge fan of femininity and feminine dress. I think it is a tremendous privilege to be female, and I love to dress the part. I love studying how our foremothers clothed themselves in distinctly feminine ways. Yes, there have been excesses and ridiculous turns for the worse in fashion — as much as I may love to look at them, I’m glad I don’t have to live in those over-the-top bustle dresses of the 1880s. ;) But I do love the unabashed celebration of femininity that has persisted down through the centuries, even with all the foibles and fripperies thrown into the mix. How dull would fashion history be if our foremothers had all slopped around in sweats and shapeless tee-shirts? The past century has represented a dramatic and unprecedented shift in the way women clothe themselves. And I’ll be frank here: I don’t think the change has been for the better. You can gripe ’til you’re blue in the face about the “restrictive” corsets and beruffled skirts of the Victorian Era, but you can’t convince me that a woman sweating on an elliptical trainer to be a size two isn’t just as restricted, despite her “freeing” Lycra workout suit. We’re trying way too hard to convince ourselves that we’ve outgrown our ancestors, only to come back around full circle and let pop culture dictate the shape of our bodies and the drape of our clothes.

The study of clothing isn’t therefore just a frivolous hobby for me or something I do for the sheer fun of it. It is fun, but I take it as seriously as I take the study of any other facet of history or literature. Clothing has told a story from the Garden of Eden onward, and to ignore the story or pretend it doesn’t matter is to become bound up in our own age as the be-all and end-all of civilization–which it most certainly is not. When I study portraits of my foremothers, I see character leap from the canvas. I gain a better understanding of biography, of place, of historical antecedents. It’s why I’m so grateful I have photographs of my ancestors dating back to the 1840s. It’s why I absolutely love the fact that the Proverbs 31 woman is represented as clothed with feminine dignity:

She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants.
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come. (verses 22, 24-25)

I believe this is our heritage as women–our birthright, so to speak. Femininity is an amazing privilege, and to see it shrugged off as insignificant or unimportant just strikes me as oddly ironic in this age of “equality.” Why does menswear get the upper hand? Why is it the default when it comes to casual Friday or slouching around the house? Do we not see the inheritance we’ve sold for a mess of unisex “style” in our day? Call me old-fashioned, but I think we could learn an awful lot from the unabashedly feminine women who have gone before us. We can glean from what they did right and thoughtfully archive what they did wrong. The key lies in searching out and preserving the timeless feminine style that transcends.

vigee-lebrunmariachristinaportraitSo I design historical patterns. And I take women to museums and art galleries to ponder the fashions of ages past. And I teach my girls to climb trees and swing from branches in sturdy pantaloons and girly dresses because it is absolutely delightful to glory in and enjoy our feminine heritage in a modern context. Restrictive? Far from it. Feminine adornment is freeing. It says I am proud to be a woman; that I tip my hat to my foremothers; that I embrace my place in history without pushing aside its feminine context. Study historical costume? You betcha. Thanks for coming along for the ride with me — and for letting me wax philosophical today. ;)

April 11, 2009

An update on the Brompton crypt!

My husband stopped in London on his way back from Sudan in late March and visited Brompton with WD-40 in hand. After thoroughly spraying the lock, the key turned as nicely as you please, and he got in!

cryptangel3

He managed to shoot a short video of the crypt’s interior. If I can get it formatted properly, I’ll share it here. The good news was that he discovered the missing glass panel from the bottom of the door back behind one of the columns next to the altar table. It had not broken after all, accounting for the lack of shattered glass on the floor of the tomb. Apparently, it just came loose and fell off. Someone years ago must have stowed it safely in the back so it wouldn’t be broken. Matt doesn’t think it will be too hard to fix, so that might be a future project on another trip.

At any rate, it was great to have a happy ending to the crypt key story, and I thought you’d enjoy the update. ;-)

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