Perfectly Pleasant Middle Class





This dress is my “one day special”. (I was having some issues and needed to spend some
quality time with my sewing machine.) The doublet and skirts went from pattern drafting
to done in about 16 hours. (Yes, yes, quite that many issues to work out.) The doublet
is based on the picture of a spinster on page, erm, 794 or something in Norris’ “Tudor Costume
and Fashion”. The book is out in the car just right now, so I’ll have to get the page
number later.

When I started working with elizabethan costume, I only wanted
to do noble. (I wasn’t quite doing it, mind, because I wasn’t entirely clear on
the concept, but I *wanted* to do noble. *laugh*) My sewing skills have improved over the
years, and my focus has shifted a bit. I still love to do nobles. But I am developing
an increasing fondness for middle class dress. In a way, doing middle class well is
more of a challenge than doing noble. With noble, you reach a point where you are constrained
as much by your budget as your abilities. If you start with 9 yards of cotton velvet,
it’s pretty difficult to come out with something less than impressive. (Not impossible, however.
I’ve seen it done.) For most people, noble is about fancy, expensive fabrics, fancier
and more expensive trims and laces, and beads beads beads. Middle class is different. Your options
for fabric and trim are limited by an imaginary budget and faire guidelines. (In many
cases, that “imaginary” budget is pretty close to what your real budget should be.) You
can’t just assume that you can cover all your errors with beads.

A well done middle class is more of an exercise in economy,
creativity, and tailoring than most noble gowns turn out to be. Economy and
creativity go hand in hand. You are working with the idea of a budget, and you
want to get as much impact, as much detail, and as much “period” value as possible
into a reasonable small budget. Most of the entrants for the middle class category
of the costume contest at Bristol represent the upper end of the middle class
– the really uppity types who would have paid sumptuary taxes to dress on par
with members of the nobility. Very few people think to do something with the
less pretentious, and far larger, segment of craftsmen, tradesmen, and comfortable
merchants who had enough money to be stylish and possibly purchase tailored
garments, but not enough money for silks and pearls. The tailoring of middle
class costume really stands out. There are no jewels and such to distract the
viewers eye. The tailoring, therefore, will either make or break the garment.
The fit and silhouette speak not only to the skill and research of the costumer,
but also to the apparent rank and status of the wearer. This dress is made of
an ochre shade of brushed cotton, and a reddish wool. Both fabrics are equally
suited to (and often used for) peasants. The fit of the costume, as well as
the use of metal buttons and aiglettes and the modish tall hat, are what makes
it middle class.

The bodice is red wool, and the inside of the collar is lined
with a double layer of white wool (scraps from a chemise). The whole thing is
lined in green denim (left over from last year’s corset). There are shaping
seams on either side of the front and back. The only piece of stiffening is
at the center back, to keep the standing collar standing in the back. The front
edges of the collar are as stiff as they are because of the amount of material
in the seam – the inner and outer wools, the denim lining, and the grosgrained
ribbon I used for decoration. That thick seam is sewn again 3/4″ inside from
the edge (from where I sewed down the other side of the ribbon), which creates
a ‘stiffening by quilting’ sort of effect that was popular in period. The ribbon
serves two purposes. Most obviously, it is decorative, but it is also there
to hide the back ends of the loop closures on the front of the doublet. The
doublet buttons up the front with alternating loops and buttons. A number of
people told me they thought that was a very nice touch, but it was actually
a born of desperation – the buttons were from one of those ‘jumbo tub of buttons’
assortments, and I only had about 2/3s as many as I needed. I think it turned
out rather nicely, though. One thing I will point out is that I started the
curve to the center point of the bodice two far back on the hips, which is what
causes the wrinkling at the waist. Ah, well. I’d never made a bodice with this
much of a point to it before, and I got so hung up on getting the right length
for the point that I made a mistake on something I know how to do! These things
happen.

The shoulder rolls were made as separate pieces, wrapped tightly
with yellowish soutache cord to create the sort of puffy effect, and the whip
stitched onto the shoulders of the bodice. The sleeves are made of the ochre
cotton. They are unlined. The top edge is finished with more of the orange gross
grained ribbon used on the bodice. The cuffs are finished with red wool, and
have an appliqued placket looking bit at the back seam that I keep meaning to
put buttons on. They are made from a single piece “pattern” for a bent sleeve.
(Actually, I put my left arm down on the fabric with my elbow at an angle, and
cut along the outer edge of it with my right hand. If this inspires a pretty
odd vision, that’s because it was a pretty odd posture. Then I cut the top curve
of the armscye, folded the thing in half, cut the other side of the sleeve,
and took a triangular piece out of the middle of the lower arm area. It doesn’t
sound quite like it should work out if you think about it, but it was late enough
that I had stopped thinking almost entirely and it all worked out. The sleeves
tie in with the points at the shoulder. There are ribbon loops inside of the
sleeve for the points to thread through.

<p
class=”stpara”> The skirt is double knife pleated (ie, each pleat is 5 thicknesses
thick, instead of the normal 3 for a single knife pleat. There’s about 180″
gathered into the waistband, and while my waist is not the size it used to be,
it’s nowhere near large enough for single pleats to work out. I had planned
on having several petticoats, but the the serger decided it would rather not
work with me on that one, so I am wearing an the underskirt from my italien
doublet.

The hat, which technically inspired the dress, is a pleated
tall hat I had made two days earlier. Unlike most of the hats I have done to
date, this one was almost entirely put together by machine. The bit of yellowish
you see on the bottom of the brim is a piece of cording that I tacked into the
brim seam, which is rolled under and 1/8″ to the inside of the brim. The hat
band is a simple piece of that same grosgrain ribbon (I had a lot of it lying
around), and between that, the pin, and the feather spray, well, I had to make
a dress to go with it. ;)

The color scheme, btw, was a serendipitous accident. Believe it or not, I am not actually one
of those really obnoxious people who thinks for half a second and says, Ah, periwinkle and orange would be perfect
accents for red and ochre. Personally, if someone had suggested it to me, I would probably
have patted them on the shoulder consolingly and told them there was still hope for them.
This costume was entirely assembled from things I had lying around. I had had brown cording in my trim basket which
I was planning on using. I didn’t know until I opened the baggie that I only had a yard
and a half of it. (Yes, I keep all my trims and things rolled up neatly in little zip
lock baggies. I’ve got two cats who like to sleep in baskets that are clearly not meant to be slept in.) The
blue was there, and there was enough of it. Sometimes, you just have to go with what you’re handed. My whole cost
for this outfit was under $10.

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