Archive for April, 2020


We are studying the 19th century in Fashion History class so now is a good time to discuss the ball gown I had made some years ago.

I had been attending the Gaskell Ball, which was a formal Victorian dance held several times a year at the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland. Quite the time travel event, the Gaskell Ball (named for the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell) gathered a couple hundred people all dressed in formal attire mostly 18th and 19th centuries, a few 20th.  Men in tails or kilts and women in satin or velvet gowns with swishing hoop skirts, elegantly yet swiftly spun in pairs around the large auditorium keeping up with the pace of the band called Brassworks. There were waltzes, polkas, and my favorite Congress of Vienna .

When not dancing, people strolled the room as if part of a royal court. They nodded to one another, perhaps fluttered a fan or tipped a top hat. It was all rather dreamy.

(Most of the women made their own gowns. Probably members of the various costume guilds in the area. There was always a flurry of last minute hand sewing going on in the Ladies Room before the start of the evening, not to mention a lot of heightened emotion.)


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For my first Gaskell I wore a 1930s style cream color lace gown, which was lovely, BUT I soon decided I wanted my own 19th century ball gown. That began an adventure into patterns and fabric, seamstresses and fittings.


Women’s printed cotton dress with demi-gigot sleeves. c. 1830-1835.

I started at Lacis – a fabulous Berkeley store featuring all things antique and vintage from lace and lace making tools to patterns, books, notions, jewelry and a collection of clothing much of which is now part of their museum. At Lacis, with the help of my mother, I settled on an 1830s gown pattern by Past Patterns (technically not Victorian, but close enough). It has the distinct 1830s demi-gigot sleeves, slightly high waist, and full skirt. This time period in fashion was all about the sleeve and there was a lot of variation in puff, from extreme to “demi.”

The next step was to find a seamstress and Lacis recommended Deborah Starks, who actually specialized in Art Deco wedding gowns, but she was willing to take on this project, luckily for me because she did an excellent job and I know it was challenging.

On to the fabric. My mother guided me toward something dressy and suitable for evening. I went with a peach brocade. I liked that the fabric didn’t need any embellishment. After seeing lost ribbons and bows scattered on the Gaskells dance floor and women in tears over ripped ruffles or collapsed hoops, I knew I wanted no fuss. The brocade gave the look without the hassle.

To fill out the skirt, I thought a crinoline would work and I went to a bridal shop. I remember the saleslady had a really hard time understanding:  “No, I don’t want a wedding gown,” I explained. “Just the crinoline for an 19th century … never-mind. Just show me the crinolines, please.” This was the very beginning of themed events, when not so many of us were doing it and the idea of dressing in period costume was puzzling to most people.

Then the shoes. There was no way I could be period accurate with the shoes. Soft satin slippers were not a good idea on that fast moving dance floor. I needed protection and frankly, at least some height. Again my mother assisted in shoe shopping at Nordstrom, where I found a cream leather and lace shoe by Amalfi with a two inch Louis heel.

I chose for the evening bag, or reticule as they were called back then, a little pouch bag that had belonged to my grandmother and was embroidered with silver thread.

IMG_20200425_173143What to do with my hair? Well, that was tricky as the styles of the day were complex and not flattering (see image left). I kept it simple and pushed back my hair with a green ribbon, letting a few curls fall around my face.

It was a cold December night when I debuted the gown. My dancing friends and I took photos and proudly participated in the opening march where we all sang Rule Britannia. Full of energy and excitement the ball sped by as quickly as a Victorian waltz and left my head spinning, too.

In addition to the Gaskell Ball, I have worn my gown to a masquerade dance, a Victorian-themed Christmas party, and once to the Victorian literature class I took in the MFA program at Mills College.

The Gaskell Ball, sadly, is no more and there are few opportunities to sport this  gown. Over the years I have considered selling it, but then I think not. Even though Victorian dances are long gone, there is still the dress and with it many fond memories of times past.

Recently, during this pandemic, I put the gown on and wore it around the house for a few hours. What fun to revisit the soft rustle of the crinoline, the texture of the fabric, and the overall feeling of elegance wearing something so lovely.



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Patti Smith in 1977 sporting a Giorgio Armani jacket. Image: Lynn Goldsmith

Even as a kid, what I was wearing was always very important to me. I very much identified with my clothing. 

Patti Smith, American musician.

I never thought of Patti Smith as someone who would be interested in fashion. But in this article (Harper’s Bazaar, April 2020) Smith discusses just how much she liked fashion and once she got to NYC she even tried to get onto the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

With a taste for high fashion, but not the budget, she shopped Philadelphia thrift stores where she found treasures by Dior and Balenciaga and donned them in her own way.

I love everything about Smith’s style in this photo. In particular the scarf around her wrist, which is something I do with ribbon, and her rings. She’s wearing one big one with a black stone that might be antique and several bands in front. Stunning in its uniqueness.

Click here and check out her outfit in a live performance of Because the Night. 


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Excessive dress vs. toned-down attire. Left image from Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume & Style. Right image from Survey of Historic Costume.

Just now English clothing is all the wear. Rich man’s son, sprig of nobility, counter-jumper – you see them dressed all alike in the long coat, cut close, thick stockings, puffed stock; with hats on their heads and a riding-switch in their hands. Not one of the gentlemen thus attired, however, has ever crossed the Channel or can speak one word of English … No, no, my young friend. Dress French again, wear your laces, your embroidered waistcoats, your laced coats; powder your hair to the newest tune; keep your hat under your arm, in that place which nature, in Paris at any rate, designed for it, and wear your two watches, with concomitant fobs, both at once. 

Louis-Sebastien Mercier (1740-1814), French dramatist and writer. This quote is from The Waiting City: Paris, 1782-1788.

In the last 25 years of the eighteenth-century, Anglomania was all the rage in French fashion. Both men and women had grown tired of the French excessive look and turned to the simpler styles of the British. Frenchmen appreciated in particular the excellence in British tailoring and except for appearances at court, they adopted a more casual mode of dress.



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Figure left: Early 18th century three piece suits made of the same fabric were called Ditto Suits. Figure right: Three different style banyans in the late 18th century. Both images from Survey of Historic Costume by Phyllis Tortora, 5th ed., Fairchild Books.

I never thought I’d say this, but while studying fashion history I have been just as, if not more, interested in men’s fashions as women’s. Men’s fashions from the 15th through the 18th centuries are fascinating for their silhouettes, layers, and extensive decoration.

In the 18th century men were sporting a shirt with breeches, a waistcoat (vest), and a narrow coat –  all in beautiful sometimes embroidered fabrics. But at home the coat was hung away and replaced with the banyan. This loosely fit garment was what we might think of as a robe or dressing gown.

Called “undress at home” the look was more relaxed yet still fit for company and portraits. Some fabrics used for banyans included Indian cotton, silk, velvet, or brocade and often gentlemen topped the ensemble with a nightcap and perhaps toasted the evening with the other kind of nightcap.

How are we doing out there? Holding on OK? I hope so.

Remember to Keep Calm and Keep Your Distance.


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Image from Lingerie Parisienne by Juliette Morel (Academy Editions, London, 1976).

Remember those scenes in old films where the movie-star lead actress sits in their bedroom in front of mirrored vanity in a fur-lined, floor-length, semi-sheer chiffon gown? … Those are house gowns. Can we bring those back, dahhhling? Seriously, why not? Why shouldn’t I butter my sprouted-grain breakfast toast in a bell-sleeved satin robe? Or pour myself a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch while wearing the vintage kimono I bought for my wedding? Because let me tell you, it’s pretty **** splendid. 

Jessica De Jesus, creative director for Bitch magazine.

I recently found this quote in the Glamour issue of Bitch magazine, Issue #84, Fall 2019.

Splendid indeed! Let’s bring back the elegant house gown. Doesn’t breakfast taste just a tad better sitting at the table in more festive attire? While we’re at it, let’s enjoy that morning coffee in a pretty mug and place in our laps a cloth napkin. Like Ms. De Jesus says, why not?

I don’t want to “save” my pretty, expensive things for special occasions. Every day is a special occasion and a little attention to seemingly frivolous detail just might lift the spirits.

While we’re lifting our spirits remember: Keep Calm and Keep Your Distance … it’s working!


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Image: Decades of Hats by Sue Nightingale. Schiffer Publishing. 


There will be no Easter parades this year but we can still don our Easter bonnets while making the best of the holiday at home. 

Happy Easter!

Happy Passover!


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How about a little fashion distraction?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion history class I’m taking was on hold for two weeks while the instructor figured out how to move it online. Well, we’re back at it now and I’ve been reading about the hoop skirt called farthingale.

In mid-16th century Europe, skirts for women became more rigid. Up until then, layers of petticoats were worn to create shape, but to achieve the desired stiffness and the cone shape, more support was needed.

Enter the farthingale. Made of whale bone, cane, or steel, farthingales graduated in size from waist to hem and were sewn into a petticoat.


In addition to the rigid cone shape skirt, ruffs around the neck were popular as well as a jeweled belt called a demicient, that hung from the V-shape waist all the way to the hem of the skirt. Image, c. 1584.

This look was a favorite of the Spanish, who didn’t give it up for years while England later adapted the hoop into different shapes such as the bum roll, which gave more bulk just under the waist (see image below).


A fancy lady at a ball sporting the a bum roll in addition to the farthingale underneath her skirt. c. 1582. Image from Survey of Historic Costume (Fairchild Books)



Image from Fashion: The Definitive History (DK Publishing)


This week we have our second exam. I have to say I enjoy studying for these exams (we have three) because the subject is so fascinating and of course, I appreciate the distraction.

Remember, Keep Calm and Keep Your Distance.

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9781524740955Dear Miss Sweetie, 

I do not possess the plump curves so in fashion. My arms are like sticks, and I have a barrel for a chest, but wearing a corset makes me red in the face. How shall I ever look beautiful? 

Miss Broad in the Middle

Dear Miss Broad in the Middle, 

Puffed sleeves deemphasize a stocky middle, and adornment on the bib adds “treasure” to the chest. Leave the whalebone to the whales; it is healthier for both man and fish. The best way to boost your attractiveness is to accept yourself the way you are, which will free your mind to pursue creativity and joy. 

Yours truly,

Miss Sweetie

This exchange is from The Downstairs Girl (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) the story of a seventeen-year-old Chinese girl in 1890 Atlanta, GA working as a lady’s maid by day and moonlighting anonymously as the Agony Aunt columnist in the local newspaper. Written by award winning author Stacey Lee, there’s a lot of action and fashion in this well- crafted novel.

The Downstairs Girl is a Young Adult novel (written for ages 12 to 18). ODFL readers may not know that I have an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in children’s literature from Mills College. I came away from the graduate program with a completed  middle grade novel and several picture books stories as well as a few short ghost stories. I have a fondness for children’s literature and every so often I peruse the children’s section of my local library.

Reading is a wonderful escape while we shelter-in-place and although public libraries are closed around the country, many have e-books and audio-books available to check out online. Take a look on your county library’s webpage.

Remember, Keep Calm and Keep Your Distance.


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