Monday, November 18, 2013

An update!

Wow, last update was in March! And here it is mid-November! Pretty much nothing noteworthy has happened during that period, until very, very recently. I am currently putting the finishing touches on my first draft of my thesis! I was spurred into action by my sweetie who said he'd treat me to Disneyland if I finished my thesis before February. Well, ok then! Apparently I am very bribeable, because that was two days ago, and here I am, wrapping up the first draft. Nothing like a good reason to get motivated, eh?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

And suddenly... Progress!

Well, my little breakdown a few weeks ago has passed, and the good news is that there is now some progress in the way of finishing my degree. I received notification last week that I have been approved to take the comprehensive 2 exam, which is the part where my thesis committee comes up with questions pertaining to my proposal, and I do my level best to answer them. Once the committee has been satisfied that we're all on the same page, I get to enroll in the thesis writing course and write write write until I go cross-eyed.

But that's not all that this new development has given me... I now am motivated to work on my chemise gown Mark I based on the visual analysis I did of the Platt Hall chemise gown and the diagram in The Cut of Women's Clothes by Norah Waugh.

Some thoughts about the process, so far:

  • I used the sheerest, lightest weight cotton voile I could find. After swatching a zillion fabrics, I settled on this stuff for the body and sleeves of the gown. The neck flounce is going to be made from the bleached harem cloth from Dharma Trading, Co. The difference between the neck flounce and the body and sleeves of the gown is based on the Platt Hall chemise.

  • Waugh's diagram lacks seam lines, which has always frustrated me. Based on the measurements I took of the Platt Hall chemise, each panel is ~31" wide from seam to seam, and the whole outfit is comprised of 4 panels, for a total finished circumference of ~124". 

  • My fabric, however, is 59" wide, so I settled for a width of 29.5" for each panel, not including seam allowance (~1/4"), which gives Mark I a total circumference of 116". Given that this is essentially a trial run for my pattern and construction techniques, I'm not too worried about the 8" difference between then original and my version. However, for the final version, I am going to cut the panels from the length of the fabric, rather than the width (selvedge to selvedge), to get more width into the gown. 
  • The first thing I did was to measure my neckline to waist, and then divide it a little less than half for the first row of gathers. The top row of gathers should technically hit about where a bra band would hit on your body, and I under-estimated a little bit and ended up with the top row of gathers slightly above that point. The second row of gathers should sit at the natural waist, though the Platt Hall chemise shows a dip in the CF waistline, which could either be intentional or the result of hanging on a mannequin for all these years.
  • DUDE, THIS FABRIC IS SHEER. Seriously, it hadn't really hit home to me until I finally got the body of the gown assembled and on my dress form that this style of gown really is not like anything else seen during the lead-up into the 1780s. Sure, we can look at the portraits and the fashion plates and say, oh, yeah, it's not quite the same sort of gown people typically wore during this period, but when you're actually working with the fabric and putting it together, it just smacks you in the face how skimpy the chemise à la reine really is. I can wad it up into a little ball about 5" around. And this was something meant to be worn out and about? Yeah, no wonder it caused a sensation.

  • Once the gathering channels were stitched down (by hand, because I'm hardc0re like that), I inserted the cords and tightened them while on the dress form. This is where the loss of 8" in the dress was first apparent. There should be more fullness from the waist down, and the additional width from the waist up would make the bodice portion of the dress less transparent when gathered. Still, it's not too bad.

  • One of the things that is not apparent until you examine the Platt Hall chemise up close and personal is that the neckline is actually piped. I hadn't consulted my notes prior to going for it and piping both the front and back portion of the neckline, and it turns out that there's a possibility that the front neckline is actually still tied closed at the CF. I stitched it down, however. The irritating thing is that my notes and photos are a little unclear on the treatment of the front neckline, so I'll have to go back and visit the dress again, I guess! ;)
  • The back neckline, however, is definitely piped all the way across, with the gathers totally stitched down.

  • You will notice, no doubt, that I haven't actually cut the armscyes at this point. I wanted to get the neckline stabilized and the shoulder straps put in before I started cutting away extra fabric around the armholes.

  • And this is where I stopped progress. The shoulder seams are stitched down in front and need to be attached in the back after I put it on my own body to make sure they're properly positioned. 

Next stage will be figuring out how to insert the sleeves. Gotta let it sit and stew in the gray matter for a while, though, before I take that leap...

Saturday, February 23, 2013


I have been feeling super guilty for neglecting to update this blog for so long, so I'm gonna be honest with y'all here and tell you straight up what the deal is with my thesis. I want to preface this by saying that I've been pretty tight lipped for a number of reasons regarding my thesis, but I think it's time now to just be up front.

First of all, yes, I am still working on my thesis, and it is still dealing with the history of the chemise a la reine. Yes, I still do intend to publish my research. So that's all great. However...

Things have been really complicated for me with regards to my thesis committee. I'm not pleased with the administration right now, because after four years, I should have been long graduated from this program, and yet... Here I am. Rest assured I have been working with the administration on an exit strategy, but one road block after another has come up in a seemingly endless supply. The most recent is my thesis chair is apparently abdicating from the position, leaving me without someone to take administrative responsibility for my thesis. This is complicated by the fact that there are currently no full time faculty members in my department who specialize in the 18th century. When I began this journey into 18th century art history, there was a single professor in the department, who absolutely refused to work with me and then quit to go back to school for another degree. The department encouraged me, nonetheless, to pursue the 18th century and assured me that something would work out. Another 18th c.-focused professor was hired a year later, but no position was available for her on a continuing basis, so she too left (or really, was left by the department). Again, I was reassured that things would work out and I should just keep focusing on my research.

Now, two years after I announced my intention to write my thesis on the topic of the chemise a la reine, I am without a committee... AGAIN. I am pretty certain I am the orphan grad student in the program who no one wants to take responsibility for.  Well, except for Dr. J and Dr. R who have both thrown themselves into getting me the hell out of this program with a degree, but who for one reason or another, cannot be my thesis chair. So, without the thesis chair position filled, I am, well, fucked. It's making me wish I had stuck with 16th c. English portraiture like I originally thought I was going to write my thesis on when I started grad school, lo those many years ago. Or writing it on 21st century corporate art. Because no one at San Jose State loves the eighteenth century as much as I do, and I'm in way too far with my research now to start over, and fuck it. I want to write this thesis and to hell with everything.

Sorry for all the f-bombs. I'm fed up with my program (everything I've written above is only the tip of the iceberg and only told in the most general terms... There's just so much more insanity to the story beyond this, that I can't even), and it has made me so apathetic about my research that I can barely bring myself to work on this thing I'm calling my thesis but who the hell knows if that's what it actually is. In fact, I'm posting on this blog right now rather than open up the research folder and work on it, because there's a part of me that has been kicked back so many times that I don't know what I'm doing any more.

Apathy, I haz it. Also, anger and frustration. In spades. So, if that's why I smile through gritted teeth and tell you that I don't want to talk about it when you ask how grad school is going, you know now. And at any rate, if you did somehow get me to talk about it, it just be a string of incoherent profanity spewing forth, so it's not like there's much to tell. The research itself, however, is something I love deeply and want to share with everyone. I need to focus on that. So, I beg your patience while I figure out how to reclaim my passion.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Stays and the chemise gown

One of the things that was so scandalous about the chemise gown when it first debuted was that it required shockingly little in the way of underwear. Descriptions of lightly boned stays and pink or blue silk petticoats are plentiful in relation to the chemise gown. Comparing these light weight undergarments to the more sturdy and stiffly structured stays, bumrolls, panniers, and petticoats of the period, it must have seemed as though women were running around half naked when they adopted the fashion of the chemise a la reine.

But what did these scanty undies actually look like? As luck would have it, the Manchester Gallery has two pairs of stays that are contemporary to the chemise gown, and I was able to study them closely.

Both stays belong to the same acquisition lot, and are similar enough in size and construction to indicate that they probably were worm by the same woman. The top photo shows the more heavily boned of the pair. It is made from a pale pink linen, and is very stiff. A few stitches had popped on the lining, allowing me to see that the stiff material was likely a coarse woven linen buckram. Just thinking about hand stitching all those boning channels through that stuff made me want to lay down.

The stays in the second photo are less rigid, having about half the overall boning in them as the pink pair. The outer fabric is a cream silk satin, and it does not appear that the same kind of stiff buckram was used in this pair, as was in the pink stays. Both stays, however, have the same partial lacing down the center front (functional), a thick band of baleen that shaped the front of the stays into a pronounced curve, and a sturdy baleen strip acting like a busk down the center front.

Two curious things had me scratching my head, though. First, both sets of stays had these wide twill tape straps applied from the base of the armscyes and stitched to the front of the armscyes about 3" or so. At the opposite end of the straps were 5-6 worked eyelets. The straps appeared to coordinate with the position of small loops stitched to the back of the stays, as though they were intended to pass through the loops and be secured somehow.

I thought at first that this must be some later alteration for mounting the stays on a mannequin, but the more I examined the straps, the more it looked like they were added as an element of functionality when being worn. Could it have been a DIY job of the woman who wore these originally, to help the stays stay in place while she wore them? There was no indication of built in straps having been removed... The stays looked as though both were intended to be strapless.

The other oddity was what appeared to be two rust spots in the exact same position on either side of the center front on the pink stays.

In all honesty, they looked to me like blood stains. I could find no indication of iron metal being used in this corset, but truly, it was hard to tell without taking apart the stays. On the left hand side of the stays, the stain looked as thought it was eating through the fabric from the outside in, and on the back of the stays, there were no corresponding stains to suggest that the anything had pierced the wearer's body. Perhaps the stains were left from some other thing, like iron hooks used to secure a pannier (a technique that was used in Victorian times, but which I have no evidence to support being used in the 1780s).

At any rate, these stays are good examples of they type of stay worn beneath the chemise gown. Not something we would consider "scanty" but when compared to earlier stays, they do appear a great deal less heavy duty.

And speaking of earlier stays, look what was on display in the 17th century gallery:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My one on one with the Manchester chemise a la reine

So, today started off lazily and the quickly spun into high gear. I had a hard time sleeping last night (jet lag sucks for a reason) so I ended up hitting the alarm a few times and dozing off. No problem to sleep in a little, seeing as how my hotel is right across the street from the Manchester Art Gallery. It would be all of a thirty second walk to get there, after all. So, by the time I got out of bed and dressed, and did my 30 second walk across the street to the front door of the Gallery, I was feeling pretty smug about myself and how lucky I was to find a hotel SO CLOSE so as to make this research trip ridiculously convenient. I rang the bell, as I was instructed, and was admitted.  However, upon introducing myself to the reception staff, they seemed completely surprised I was there at all.  Huh, I thought to myself, this is odd.

It got odder.  I asked for Dr. Lambert, but was met with blank stares.  Curator at the Gallery of Costume? Ring a bell? That's when the young man at the reception desk suddenly came to life. "Oh!" he said, picking up the phone and punching in a series of numbers. "You want to go to Platt Hall!"

Apparently, in my haste, I neglected to observe that the costume collection is housed at a separate facility some three or so miles from the Art Gallery proper. Epic fail, Sarah! The reception guy got Platt Hall on the phone and related the message that I was at the Art Gallery, and then suggested it would be about a 15 to 20 minute bus ride toward the university. Or, you know, I could just hail a taxi... Which, as luck would have it, had drove up just as I was walking out the door.  Hopped into the aggressively scented cab, handed the address to the driver, and I was off! Only ended up being about 30 min late and £10 poorer all told, but my professional dignity was salvaged  as the staff at Platt Hall were very understanding and we all had a laugh.

I was shown to the gallery room which houses about a dozen 18th and early 19th century costumes but I barely noticed anything else in the room because... there she was.  Right there in front.

I squeed. So much for professional dignity.

I was unsure if I'd be allowed into the display case since Dr. Lambert was busy attending to donors (who, understandably, are far more important than hanging out with me) but his assistant, Adam, lead me through a back passage way cluttered with the typical assortment of odds and ends that you see stashed behind the scenes at every museum, and suddenly, there I was, face to fabric with the only extant chemise a la reine from this early in the 1780s.

One of the first things that struck me was that the fabric was actually patterned. That had never been mentioned in any of the descriptions I had read of it. Nor had there been any mention of the narrow cotton fringe that had been applied around the hem and up the center front to the waist.

According to the museum, the style of embroidery is called "chikan" and it looks to me like a very fine tambour stitch, though I admittedly haven't researched it to see if there is any similarities. The chevron motif is all over the body of the dress, however, the sleeves and the flounce around the neck are undecorated. In fact, the sleeve material is possibly the same as the gown, except for unembroidered. However, the flounce is a looser weave muslin than either the body of the gown or the sleeve fabric. It had a similar effect of cheese cloth, whereas the gown and sleeves were woven finely with a tighter weave. All of it is definitely cotton fiber, which answers my question as to whether or not this was a linen muslin. Nope, definitely cotton, and most likely of Indian origin.

That's all I'm going to post for now... Admittedly, I am trying to strike a balance between giving all of my information up immediately (because I'm a huge fan of instant gratification) and drawing this out slowly and deliberately. Part of the reasoning is that I don't want to spoil my thesis... Hopefully, you will all get to enjoy the entire package once the thesis is written and available for download!

Coming up, I have some thoughts on the type of undergarments worn with the chemise gown, including more pictures from the Costume Gallery!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The time is almost nigh...

Well, it's T-Minus 53 hours until I get on that plane and head for the UK.  Excited? You bet!  Terrified?  Oh, totally.  I'm heading off for the first leg of my trip all by myself, and I am reasonably certain I will avoid disaster ably enough, but it's always a little daunting to get from Point A to Point B in a foreign country.  Even if the country is England and I've traveled alone there many times.  Traveling solo is awesome, but it's still a little scary for someone like me who tends to prefer safety in numbers.

First stop is Manchester, where the bulk of what this trip is really about will take place.  I have my appointment set up and ready to go with the curators at the Manchester Galleries, and there is a decent chance I may get to look at a few other things while I'm there, aside from the chemise gown.  Specifically, I want to analyze one of the stays they have in their collection that is contemporary to the chemise gown.  Based on the description, I'm hoping its one of the lightly boned stays that were supposedly worn beneath the chemise a la reine, but we shall see. 

My reading has fallen behind, sadly, owing to a number of distractions in the last month or so.  I'm hoping to get caught up somewhat on the flight, having perfected the art of skimming pretty well.  I cannot wait for the day to come where I can once again read for pleasure, not just info.  :P

Anyway, there is so much to get done in the next two days, and as usual, I am having a hard time focusing on it all.  All of my lists have sub-lists!  And it still feels like I'm going to forget something vital! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Two interesting videos worth watching...

I just found this video linked to on The Royal Corospondent.  It's a video from 2007 of Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore To The Revolution, giving a lecture at the University of Michigan on the topic of Marie Antoinette's "sartorial semiotics."  In other words, the significance of the fashion that Marie Antoinette used to create a political identity.  It's a really good overview of her book, distilled into 50 minutes or so of discourse, with questions at the end (though, spoiler alert: She sadly does not give us the Lacanian analysis of the pouf hairstyle). I also came across another interesting vlog that Dr. Weber recorded talking about the comparisons between pre-Revolution France and modern American fashion:
If haven't already bought the book Queen of Fashion, I just so happen to have a brand new hard copy version for sale on  It's a fantastic book, very readable, and a very different take on Marie Antoinette.