Project Journal: 1880s Steam Molded Corset: Inspiration

The first corset I ever constructed was from a modern historical pattern company. While the corset was fitted to my specific curves, the pattern pieces for it still created a basically cylindrical shape without a lot of hip or bust shaping visible when the corset was laid flat. (I’m wearing that first-ever corset in the pictures in this past blog post.) I’m not saying that shape is wrong for the 19th century, because there are extant examples, patents, and other information showing us that style, such as the corset below.

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French corset c. 1885, The Met

Looking at corsets from the last half of the 19th century, however, there are a variety of other styles that have more interesting lines and definitive flare at curvy points than the basic cylindrical shape. My c. 1860 pink silk corset is an example of a style of corset that uses bust and hip gores to create a more curvy silhouette. (I discussed this in detail in a post about that c. 1860 corset that you can read here. That post has examples of extant corsets showing that shape.) Here is a catalog page of corsets from the 1880s showing that same style.

In addition to the hip gore style corset, there are also a growing number of curvy seam corsets as the 19th century progresses. Some of these also make use of bust gores while maintaining the curvy seams to really provide shape. These all lead up to the s-shape corset of the early 20th century, but we’re not quite there yet in the 1880s.

Here are some extant examples of curvy seam 1880s corsets: black, light blue, and ivory (very similar to the one pictured above, but more extreme in its curves if you look carefully). The curvy seam corset style is what caught my eye for this project, because it is a style that brings new challenges in terms of patterning and because it will be a new style in my wardrobe when completed. Compare this to the the photo above and you can see quite a difference in terms of the cut of the pieces.

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Edwin Izod corset, 1887, V and A.

This Edwin Izod corset from the V and A is my inspiration. I’m intrigued by the shaping of the panels and the completed silhouette, but also by the construction method. The V and A gives some tantalizing information about the steam molding process patented by Edwin Izod and used to create this corset, just enough information to make me want to see if I can create some form of steam molding and discover how it might change the finished silhouette and wearable feel of the finished corset when compared to other corsets I’ve constructed.

From the V and A:

Fashion and technological innovation changed the shape of late ninteenth-century corsets. As the bustle replaced the crinoline and bodices contoured the figure, corsets became longer to achieve the desired hourglass silhouette. They encased the abdomen and enveloped the hips, and the amount of whalebone also increased to give a smoother outline and help prevent wrinkling of the fabric. This corset from the 1880s is composed of twelve separate shaped pieces and forty whalebone strips.

To improve shape, performance and comfort, manufacturers claimed numerous inventions. One of the most successful was the steam-moulding process developed by Edwin Izod in 1868, and still used in the 1880s to create elegant corsets such as this one. The procedure involved placing a corset, wet with starch, on a steam-heated copper torso form until it dried into shape. The result was a beautifully formed corset, whereby ‘the fabric and bones are adapted with marvellous accuracy to every curve and undulation of the finest type of figure’ (The Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion advertisement, London July 1879).

I’ll be coming back to the nuggets of detail contained in this description, because some relate to patterning and some relate to the steam molding itself, but those are topics for future posts.

* In case you’re wondering why I spell steam molding without a “u” but the V and A quote spells it with a “u”, check out this little bit of information.

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Project Journal: 1880s Steam Molded Corset: The Plan

I have a number of corsets, some made for me specifically and some made for other ladies but which I wear, but there are still periods for which I don’t have any corsets that are really perfect. When it comes to the later 19th century, I’ve got a corset intended for the 1860s, whose style continues to be seen through the 1890s, and a corset from the 1890s that wasn’t made for me and doesn’t fit as well as I would like it to, despite the fact that I wear it rather regularly. The 1890s corset is being worn under most of the 1890s/turn of the 20th century garments shown here on my blog, but I’ve never shared pictures of the corset itself here before.

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1890s corset on the body it was constructed for in 2009. The pattern is from Corsets and Crinolines and has 4 elastic panels in the front.

Someday, I’ll make a new 1890s corset that is fitted for me using the features I like from the current one, such as the very comfortable elastic panels, but changing things such as the busk length (the current one is too long and pokes me in the legs when I sit or bend… it’s ok if I get it just between my legs, but has caused bruises when I’ve bent over unexpectedly in the past and dug the busk into my leg…) and creating more room the bust area. But I digress, because an 1890s corset is not on my to-do list for this summer.

What is on my to-do list is completing a summer dress from the 1880s (that I started back in 2013, yay for super overdue UFOs!). The skirt is pretty close to completion, but I’d been holding off on the bodice not only because the project has been generally on hold, which is most of the reason, but also because I really wanted to fit the mockup over the corset I planned to wear with the dress. The plan was to have a new specifically 1880s corset to wear. And now that the dress is on my to-do list again, the corset has joined in as well!

I’ll be doing a Project Journal series on this corset, because in addition to showing in progress pictures, I also plan to attempt to steam mold this new corset, so there will be lots of interesting information and success or failure updates. Next post in this series will be about my inspiration!

A Floral Headband For Annabelle (Returning Heroes Ball 2014)

Not too long ago, I was again able to be part of the annual Returning Heroes Ball hosted by The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers. I decided to wear Annabelle again this year, even though I’d worn her last year, because I’d just worn Evie and Belle at the 1860s Dance Weekend in November.

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Annabelle at Returning Heroes Ball 2014.

Each time I’ve worn Annabelle, I’ve been slightly disappointed with the various incarnations of flower hair wreaths I’ve attempted to match her: the first wreath and the giant mass of flowers. So this year I decided to try again to see if I could get something I like. There are quite a number of evening dresses decorated with flowers right about 1860 and many of them are depicted in fashion plates and portraits with matching flowers in the hair. Here are some examples: 1859 fashion plate, another 1859 fashion plate, a third 1859 fashion plate, 1861 fashion plate, 1861 portrait, 1862 fashion plate, and 1863 fashion plate. For this new incarnation, I decided to try a different style from what I have for my other two evening dresses (Belle has a crescent and Evie has a hair wreath).  The style I settled on I’m calling a headband. It creates a halo around the face and extends down towards the ears, but does not connect across the back of the head. Instead, the hair must be interestingly arranged to fill in the back of the head. Here’s an example of the headband style using flowers that match the dress from 1862. And here is the fashion plate that Annabelle is based on which shows a headband style hair wreath worn with the dress.

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Here is Annabelle’s new floral headband. 
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Back view of my hair style. I needed something dramatic to fill in the base of my head. I wanted to do a sideways oval surrounded by rolls, but that didn’t work out and this is what I ended up with. I was dubious at first, but I think it worked. (It’s hard to see, but there’s one big central roll/puff and one smaller one above and below that.)

In addition to my new headband, I was also able to wear my new ca. 1860 corset and my still rather new purple paste jewels (a matching collet necklace and drop earrings) from Dames a la Mode. They worked wonderfully with my outfit (of course, I did pick the purple knowing it would match multiple outfits…!) and I enjoyed wearing them again.

The ball was lovely, as usual, and filled with well dressed people and more uniformed gentlemen than we have seen in recent years. The dancing was well executed and the intermission boasted a lavish spread of refreshments that both looked and tasted scrumptious.

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Bowers, during the Grand March.
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Bowing at the end of a polka.
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One small portion of the refreshments table.
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Looking lovely and dashing.

You can see more pictures of the event at Raven’s Plaid Petticoats blog post about Returning Heroes.

Ca. 1860 Corset Intense Details

This is a follow-up post to my last post: ca. 1860 Corset For Me! (HSF #4)That post has a short background on my reasons for building the corset, but it doesn’t mention other details, so that’s what this post is for!

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My new ca. 1860 corset.

So let’s start with more background, since this post is all about intense amounts of details! We’ll start with the pattern I made for this corset: you’ll notice it has bust and hip gores as well as that curved piece on each side of the front. The bust gores aren’t so unusual for a modern 1860s corset recreation, but I don’t see too many corsets made (and certainly not many corset patterns) with hip gores and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone reproduce an 1860s corset with that curved piece in front. I found these details intriguing and wanted to make this style for two reasons: 1, because it’s a style I haven’t seen recreated, but which I have multiple examples of in my research, and 2, because it seemed like it would fit into a new thought I absorbed a few months ago.

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1865-1867 corset, The Met

First, a discussion about the style. It seems like a lot of modern ca. 1860s corsets are cut with vertical seams that run from top to bottom of the corset to create shaping, sometimes with the addition of bust gores. (The corset on the right is an example of one from the 1860s that uses this style of seaming to create shape.) These corsets are cut with shaping in the seams to create space for the bust and hips, but an alternative to this is to use bust and hip gores to achieve shape for the body. The interesting thing is that hip gores do not seem to be very commonly used in historic corsets made by modern people, despite their use in historic clothing. I attribute this to the fact that shaped seams are easier to execute than inserting gores of any type, but especially gores that are not in a seam (like the gores in my corset). Also, I would think that pattern companies have an easier time grading patterns using the shaped seams, because the gores (particularly hip gores) really need a lot more individual adjustment and fiddling on a body than shaped seams do.

Second, about this new thought that I absorbed. While reading Merja’s most recent blog posts about corset construction, I was rather surprised by a simple statement that makes so much sense but which I haven’t necessarily followed in corset making  in the past (here are Merja’s gusseted 1870s corset, which has the sentence which mentions this magical new thought, as well as her 1880s purple corset and 1860s white corset with seaming like the Met corset, above, which exhibit the thought without it being explicitly stated). Essentially, she says that she always makes adequate space in the corset for bust and hips, so that the corset is only constraining her waist. Duh! A related thought is that when you tighten your corset you displace some bits to your bust and hips, so your corset really does need adequate room there to accommodate the normal and the extra. That makes so much sense and sounds so much more comfortable than having a corset that digs into your hips or pushes your bust around uncomfortably. I made the goal to take this approach for the new corset and all future corsets! and this new corset was my first attempt at really following this sound piece of information.

So given that the style I set out to make is one that I haven’t ever seen a pattern for, where did I get mine? Well, it’s loosely based off of one in Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh (the pattern is ca. 1873, pg. 80). I say loosely, because I started there, but then began combining pieces and changing the shape of them to suit my measurements and the seam placement that I wanted (most importantly the hip gore and that curved front piece). Interestingly, Waugh notes on a different corset pattern (ca. 1860, pg. 78) that the 1860s style of corset without bust or hip gores (more like what I seem to see in modern made ca. 1860 corsets like the one from the Met at the top of this post) was a style preferred in France. The English preferred the style of corset I am making with gores. (Merja’s white 1860s corset I mentioned in the pervious paragraph uses this French corset pattern in Waugh, if you’d like to see what it looks like made up.)

I wound up making two mockups to get the pattern the way I wanted it even after adjusting the pattern from the beginning (and still made a few alterations before cutting out my real fabric). The original pattern in the book had a waist that was much too small and a bust that was a little large relative to my measurements. Despite my changes, the first mockup was too short waisted, needed bigger and longer bust gores, smaller hip gores (I had overestimated how much ease I needed there), and a little bigger waist. The second mockup was still a little short (I added another ½” to the top), the hip gores were still just slightly too big, and the lacing gap between the back pieces was wider than I wanted it to be by about 3″. Ugh! I actually determined that last fact after cutting out and sewing up my actual fabric. Turns out my shoulder blade area is bigger than I thought. I had an inner struggle about if I wanted to take out the small stitch size flat felled seam to insert a piece or if I wanted to just let it go. Adding a piece won in the end, because I figured that I was spending so much time on the corset that I really wanted to be pleased with it and not have nagging doubts for the next number of years until making a replacement. (The piece I added is between the front and back pieces. You can see it easily in the first picture in this post. It’s a v shaped piece that extends from top to bottom.) Adding the piece actually wasn’t so bad, despite all my inner complaining and I’m very pleased I did it, because I am happy with the result.

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1864 corset, The Victoria and Albert Museum.

That’s all the aspects of choosing the pattern and executing it. Now I can move on to my inspiration for creating it. This blue corset at the V and A is the most thoroughly photographed piece of inspiration (click through, there are lots of different angles of the corset, and close up pictures!). As you can see, the blue corset has bust gores, that curved front piece, (and if you look at the pictures of the back…) hip gores, as well as useful close up construction photos showing the flossing, how the busk is sewn in, how the binding is sewn on, etc. You can also see great detail for things like how to sew the points of the bust darts and the tops of the hip gores: they are overcast near the tips of the bust gores and tops of the hip gores before being machine sewn with topstitching to the binding. I used this method in my corset, sewing the overcasting by hand. I found that it was very useful on the bust gores (since mine are set into a slit in the fabric, not a seam) because the amount of seam allowance near the points is negligible (like, less than ⅛”) and that would have been extremely frustrating to try and machine sew! Also, the overcasting kept the edges from fraying as I was working with them. It also adds an extra measure of stability and sturdiness to those areas.

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1839-1841 corset, The Met.

Other very useful images to me were this orange 1860s corset front and side views (with generally similar lines as the blue V and A one) and this 1862 Godey’s image of a corset (with very similar lines as the blue V and A one). (As a side note: Does anyone know what collection houses the orange corset? I’ve only been able to find images, but no real source.) These corsets provide a nice end date range for my corset pattern, because in the 1870s the corset begins to change shape. But to determine a good start date for my corset I had to look elsewhere. The Met has a corset dated 1839-1841 with similar hip gores and the front curved piece (great zoomable pictures including an interior view, click through the image!), but it does not have separate bust gores (they are cut in one with the front pieces as is usual for 1840s corsets) and it does not have a front opening busk (those weren’t in general use until 1849). The 1839-41 corset is more curvy than the 1860s ones, as you would expect from an 1840s corset, but it still looks like a forerunner to me! Waugh has an 1844 corset pattern (pg. 77) that has similar lines to the 1839-41 Met one, with bust gores but without hip gores or the curved front piece. These 1840s corsets are useful for determining the start point of my date range, which seems to safely be the 1850s. Thus, my corset is dated ca. 1860, which is just a shorter way of saying 1850-1870. That makes sense looking at the silhouette of the dresses from these decades, as well, since neither the 1850s or 1860s require the curvy shape of 1840s or 1870s corsets.

EDIT: The orange corset mentioned above is in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery via this link.

I used all of these different images to look for construction details to use in my corset. Specific things I was looking for include: stitch size, width of the binding, method of sewing the binding, placement of bones, design of flossing, seam placement, method of setting bust and hip gores, location of topstitching, placement of eyelets down the back, finishing of the interior of the corset, and length of the busk. Some of these things can be determined by looking at the extant corsets I’ve shared in this post, but others required other helpful research. Specifically, the gusset construction method I used came from this image that Merja shared in her 1870s corset post. It’s from 1872, but is still relevant for my corset, because if you look at the blue and orange corset pictures you will see it used on the overcasting at the bust and hip gores. This image, from 1868, shows similar methods as well (and has a selection of mostly French and a few English style corsets if you’d like to see more examples of those).

And now, here are the close up construction details of my corset that I promised.

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An interior view of my corset. It’s important to me that the inside of garments is as nicely finished as the outside, as you can see. It’s a little hard to see, but the grommets near the waist are set closer together than the ones a the top and bottom.
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Details: Hand sewn overcast stitches at the bast of the bust gore and machine top stitching above that. Machine sewn button holes for the busk hooks (I’ve found this method to be much sturdier than leaving a gap in a seam on the edge).
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Details: The busk is top stitched around the top curve to keep it from moving. There is flossing at the top of the boning channels (every boning channel is flossed at the top and bottom). Machine sewn top stitched binding.
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Details: The top hook of my busk is a few inches below the top of the corset, so I added a hook and thread loop at the top to keep it closed. I used coutil cut on the straight of grain for my boning channels: the edges are pressed under and then they are topstitched into place and into the proper number of channels (keeps the inside tidy and doesn’t require extra notions!). The seam allowance of my bust gores is turned under and flat felled by hand with a whip stitch that only catches the coutil. The curved front piece is flat felled by machine.
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Years of use have caused my busk to have a bend in it at my waist line. See how it curves up from the table in the middle? Impressive, really, that my body can permanently change the shape of metal.

I’m hoping to get pictures of the corset on me this weekend at its first ever wearing. Hopefully I’ll be able to share those in the near future!

Ca. 1860 Corset For ME! (HSF #4)

Unfortunately, I’m a few days late completing my project for the HSF Challenge #4: Under It All. I tried really hard on this one and was definitely motivated to keep working consistently by the fact that I wanted to get it done for the HSF challenge. I was held up by a severe cold that took me out for about a week and other dealing with life things. So while I’m late, I’m super glad and excited to be done with this project (especially because the last two days have included a lot of flossing, and my fingers/hand muscles are so done with that for awhile)!

The last ca. 1860 corset I built for myself was made in 2006 or 2007 (you can see it in this post). It’s been worn more times than I can count and has stood up to the test of time and tension well, especially considering it was the first corset I ever made! But the time has come for a new corset for this period–one that is made to fit me using all the skills in pattern making and construction that I’ve gained over the last 7 or 8 years.

I realized while working on this corset that aside from building my first corset to fit me in 2006 or 2007, the only other stays or corsets I wear with my historic clothes that were made to fit me are my 18th century stays, my short Regency stays, and my c. 1825 long stays. I wear other corsets from 1895 (hm, I don’t think there are pictures of this on the blog), 1903, and 1913 but none of them were constructed to fit me (though I did construct them beautifully!). I’ve made them work and they sort of fit me, but all of them have problems because they were made to fit other people: a busk that’s too long, being a little small, especially in the hips, or being too big and needing a tuck. So it occurred to me that I should probably invest in making a few more corsets made to my measurements for the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Sounds obvious, but it was a revelation to me when I sat down and thought about it!

So that’s what this project is: a ca. 1860 corset made to fit me!

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Hard to see the details in this picture, I know. There will be detail shots and lots of commentary in an upcoming post!

I have lots of other thoughts and inspiration to share with regard to this project, but I expect it to be lengthy, so I’ll be writing it up in a separate post. Plus, I want to post about my completion of the challenge as soon as possible. So for now, the very much condensed details.

Fabric: 1/2 yd ish of white herringbone cotton coutil and ½ yds ish of slightly slubby pale pink silk satin.

Pattern: Created by me, though I began with a corset pattern in Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines and made lots of changes to it.

Year: c. 1860.

Notions: Metal boning, metal grommets, a recycled metal busk from my old ca. 1860 corset, regular weight ivory thread, and heavy weight ivory thread for flossing.

How historically accurate?: Pretty darn accurate, I’d say. I wanted to create a corset using the seam lines found in extant garments, but which don’t seem to be much recreated. I used construction methods that are accurate as far as I know. Let’s say 90% because you can’t ever quite make it to 100% if it’s modern, can you?

Hours to complete: A lot. I didn’t keep track, but I’ve been working on this for  at least 2 or 3 weeks, and some of those days have been a full day’s work on the corset, not just evenings.

First worn: Has not been worn yet, but will be worn to a ball in March.

Total cost: Free (all stash materials)!

Project Journal: 1864 Ball Gown Part IV: Three Series Of Photos

Remember in my last post I promised pictures of the finished ball gown now known as Evie? The time has come! I had a hard time narrowing down the options (because of course I wanted to share ALL of the good pictures), but I’ve tried to limit myself to only the best of the best. This post will focus on the completion of my dress, Evie, but there are two more posts coming soon that will share some of the other photo series as well as pictures of the ball itself!

These photos are the idea of my friend with the camera. She wanted to take series of pictures of us in our modern clothes, 1860s undies, and then dressed in our 1860s ball gowns: all in the same location and the same pose. It’s a neat idea and the results are great, not only because it provided lots of pictures (yay!) some of which are of things I don’t have pictures of (like my 1860s undies), but also because you can see the time passing through the evening by looking at the light in the photos. They start in the afternoon, proceed to early evening, then finish at night. Not all the series are a complete set, but all around, it’s pretty cool. Which series do you like best?

Series 1: To The Right

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To The Right: first layer
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To The Right, second layer
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To The Right, third layer

Series 2: What A Change

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What A Change, first layer
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What A Change, second layer
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What A Change, third layer

Series 3: On The Stairs

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On The Stairs, first layer
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On The Stairs, second layer
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On The Stairs, third layer

I’ve never been able to get pictures of my 1860s undies before, so this is exciting! I’ve got a chemise, corset, drawers, cage crinoline, and petticoat (in addition to stockings, shoes, jewelry, hair wreath, gloves, fan, and gown). The crinoline is entirely hand sewn, except for the waistband. The measurements of the hoops are taken from an extant crinoline, and I believe the circumference of the bottom hoop is about 120″. The crinoline closes with a hook on the waistband. The other pieces are machine sewn and trimmed with lace, pin tucks, and ribbon. The chemise slips over the head and the drawers close at the back with a button and loop arrangement. (And that poor petticoat does need a press… but I threw it in the washer and dryer a while ago and since it doesn’t usually get seen I haven’t taken the time to press it.) The petticoat ties around the waist. As you can see, the crinoline stops mid-calf, so the intense petticoat ruffle really helps keep the shape for the skirt below that point, in addition to keeping my hoops from showing as horizontal lines through the skirt of the gown.

Want to be further amused? Look at the apparently changeable feathers on my hair wreath. Sometimes they’re brownish/gold and sometimes vivid green! They really do seem to change color depending on the light!

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but the basic pattern for this gown is essentially taken from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 2. The trim however, is based on two things. Thing 1: the skirt trim is from the fashion plate I shared with you in the first post of this project journal. Thing 2 : the bodice trim is based on this gown, below. I went through a lot of phases trying to decide how to trim the bodice, since I didn’t really like the fashion plate bodice trim. In the end, I decided on this look: a graduated ruffle (just one, in my case, to match the one ruffle on the skirt) that gets longer toward center back, a triple pleated bertha that has a swoop towards center front rather than being straight, and a big trim thing right at the center (in my case, a rosette to match the skirt, rather than a bow). It’s pretty hard to see the front of my dress in these pictures I’ve shared so far, but there are some coming up in the next two posts which will show off the front of the gown better, so stay tuned for that!

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A costume from the movie Il Gattopardo (1962, costume design by Piero Tosi). It’s lovely, despite the fact that it is not an extant gown from the 1860s.

While getting dressed we might have been making silly faces for the camera while the owner walked away…

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Haha! Moose making companion! In case you don’t know, this is my favorite silly face to make. Don’t believe me? Look here and here!