Posts Tagged ‘fashion distraction’


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.)


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.



Read Full Post »


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.


Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »