This post is the second in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.
After deciding to embark on this first voyage into historical costuming I then had to research: what era would I go for, what were the contemporary styles, what patterns would I use, how would I make this as historically accurate as I could?
My first step was picking a decade. My starting parameters narrowed things down a bit: I knew that I needed an era after 1907 so that I wouldn’t be using an anachronistic machine, and I wanted an outfit which I could wear in 2020 and not get too many funny looks. So first I started to look at late Edwardian fashion – circa 1907-1914. Think Kate Winslet in Titanic. I was quickly put off this for a couple of reasons. As much as the fashions are gorgeous, and I’m not ruling out making something from this era in the future, they looked a bit too ‘historical’ – I don’t think I can pull off a floor length skirt walking round my local town.
So my research went further forward in time. For similar wearability reasons I was put off making something from the 1920s (I also didn’t know whether I could pull off the boxy silhouette) so I settled for the WWI era. I love late 1910s fashion as I feel like it is the point at which both the structural undergarments and outer garments begin to resemble what we would recognise today. Whilst corsets remain, the shape into which they mould the body is more natural than Victorian corsets. The ideal silhouette for the era relies less on padding and crinolines disappear. What we would recognise as the precursor to the bra appears. As we near the 1920s, hemlines of skirts also rise off the floor.
So now that I had my era, I could start on the other elements of my research.
I first started to see historical costuming as a realistic endeavour for myself when I started watching people making historical costume on YouTube. As well as showing me that making historical costumes was something attainble for the modern sewist, these videos introduced me to the types of sources I could use for research in this sort of project. I’ll list below some of the ones who inspired me in particular for this project but there are so many!
- Bernadette Banner: based in New York, Berndatte creates historical costume to a high degree of historical accuracy by drafting her patterns from extant garments and contemporary books. Although referencing the late Victorian era, her videos on making 1890s combination and corset have been very helpful for this project.
- Abby Cox: Abby examines extant garments on her channel in both an educational and generally charming way. Seeing the quality of sewing on extant garment has been quite reassuring after reading very precise instructions in contemporary manuals. Also, her video on using thimbles inspired me to finally get my act together and learn how to use one (it’s now my best friend).
- Cathy Hay: as well as being an amazing seamstress, Cathy’s videos on mental health, self-confidence and self-care are really helpful for someone embarking on their first project.
- Costumingdrama (Noelle): as part of cocovid (a virtual convention for costumers) Noelle released a couple of videos (one with Nekonamicosplay) about being a beginner in costuming, it was really helpful. Her vlogs are also a great accompaniment to long stretches of handsewing.
- Priorattire (Izabela): I’ve been following this channel for ages out of curiosity but for this project it became really helpful. Izabela makes short videos showing her putting on costumes from various eras from the undergarments to the outer ones. These videos are great for getting an idea of all the pieces that go into a historical costume.
These are just a handful of the channels I watch a lot but there are so many videos on sewing and historical costuming that you can look after tutorials for specific techniques or patterns.
Contemporary sewing manuals
We are so lucky that so many historical sources are now being digitised and can be accessed from anywhere. Particularly in covid times, this has been super helpful. It was really important to me to find contemporary sewing manuals from the 1910s so that I could use historically accurate techniques as much as possible. I knew these manuals must exist – we have them today and I learned from people’s projects on YouTube that they existed in the Victorian era so logic dictates that they must exist in the 1910s. Really all I could do was go to Google and type in searches like 1910s sewing manual. In these google searches I came across an extensive clothing and textile bibliography which included contemporary books from the 19th and early 20th centuries (http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/h/hearth/bibs/clothing.pdf). I highlighted all the things that were relevant to the late 1910s then started searching online. I found three which I’ll detail below
- Baldt, Laura Irene. Clothing for women; selection and construction. Philadelphia, London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1916 (https://archive.org/details/clothingforwome00baldgoog/page/n50/mode/2up) – this book is extensive. It’s a textbook full of information from budgeting dressmaking projects, the manufacture of fibres to the construction of clothes themselves.
- Blackburn, Juditha. The home dressmakers’ guide; containing knowledge found to be of inestimable value during a lifetime of experience in dressmaking and tailoring. Indianapolis Ind: The Blackburn Company, 1919 (https://archive.org/details/homedressmakersg00blac/page/10/mode/2up) – this book includes instructions for how to draft garments as well as more practical construction techniques. Honestly, I just want Juditha to be proud of me.
- Butterick Publishing Company. The dressmaker; a complete book on all matters connected with sewing and dressmaking from the simplest stitches to the cutting, making altering, mending and caring for the clothes. New York: The Butterick publishing co., 1916 (https://archive.org/details/dressmaker01butt) – this is the book I have referenced the most so far. Remarkably, the instructions for dressmaking techniques are pretty much the same in this book and in Juditha Blackburn’s. There are illustrations throughout which are very helpful.
I know I am not at a level at which I can draft my own historical patterns yet so I wanted to use modern reproductions of historical patterns. I had picked up a few names from the sewing tutorials I have watched but a quick google was also helpful. There are lots of shops on Etsy which sell reprints of historical and vintage patterns.
- Wearing History: this is the company from which I am planning to get most of my patterns. After researching extant garments, contemporary images and the projects of other historical costumers I settled on their combinations pattern, corset cover, Elsie blouse and suit pattern. On this website I also came across the Scroop Rilla corset pattern which I’ll use.
- Truly Victorian: When I initially started this project, I intended to get all my patterns from this company. However, on further research I realised that their combinations pattern was more appropriate for an older person in the 1910s or the earlier Edwardian era. I also decided not to use the narrow panel blouse and skirt pattern I had wanted to use because I couldn’t find any extant garments or images which showed similar costumes. It does say on the pattern that its appropriate for 1911-1915 and my period is just after that.
- Black snail patterns on Etsy also have some Edwardian patterns which are lovely, just too early for my period.
This is really a matter of googling and finding blogs which are relevant to your project. When I was googling for more information on the Wearing History combinations I came across the Dreamstress (who is also behind Scroop patterns) at thedreamstress.com, who has an entire blog series on making WWI era costume. I’ll be referencing it a lot.
Another resource I have used a lot is the online collection at the Met Costume Institute (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!?department=8). It is a little frustrating that you can’t narrow your search beyond 100 year periods (what is up with that, Met Costume Institute??) but if you are prepared to trawl through lots of items that aren’t relevant to your period, looking at images of extant garments is super helpful. I used images of skirts from 1916 to help me settle on the Wearing History suit pattern.
There are other collections online as well but the Met’s is the one I have referenced the most.
When it comes down to it, Google is your friend in this sort of project. As long as you’re aware of provenance, Google is so helpful for finding fashion plates and images as well as all the sources I have mentioned above.
So, now I had done all my research, I was theoretically ready to go. But I wasn’t quite prepared to get going. I felt honestly very overwhelmed by the challenge I had set myself to be as historically accurate as possible. I knew I would definitely get something wrong, use the wrong material or technique. So I went out on a limb and messaged Costumingdrama on Instagram asking for some words of encouragement. I didn’t really expect a message back but what do you know she did! She sent me a lovely voice messaging encouraging me not to be scared and to take the first step as I’ll get better with each project I do! This was the last little push I needed. I got my act together, stopped getting in my head about historical accuracy and got my supplies. Next stop: combinations.