Costuming from One Extreme to the Other

by Clovis Carleton

I've read and listened, twisted and knotted and I still don't know how to tie a cravat? Could you help me please!! I'd really like to wear a cravat that totally covers my neck but anything will do.

OK, here's my trick: start with a cravat that is about 5 inches wide and at least 48 inches long. If you can't find one, they're relatively easy to make - just finish the edges and Voila! Start by draping each end over each shoulder from the front to the back (in other words, hold the middle of the fabric to the front of your throat and throw the ends over your shoulders). Reach behind and do a half twist with the two ends; the end that went over your left shoulder should come back over the left shoulder, and vice versa. What this does is cover the front of the neck nicely, and the half twist keeps the fabric from traveling during wear and either choking you or slipping halfway off. Now that the ends are in front again, you have a variety of choices. You can tie a simple loose bow and tuck the tails into your weskit; you can tie a loose half-winsor and let the ends dangle; you can tie a loose square knot and tuck in the ends; you can even just tie a half-granny (right over left) and pull the end underneath until the knot pulls down and the end on top drapes gracefully down (this should definitely be tucked in, or else it will just work its way loose and you're back where you started). You may have noticed the one common feature: tie your cravat loosely - as loosely as you can and still keep the knot together. Pulling the knot tight scrunches up the fabric and does not give you the neck coverage that you want. It also looks mean and stingy, and feels really uncomfortable. So relax...!

I'd really like to cross dress at balls, especially since there's often a shortage of dancing men at balls. Since you do it so well, can you give me any advice on cross-dressing effectively? Any tips on where to get the proper dress coat (say, for Victorian), shirt, pants, shoes, etc.? Any advice on hair (mine is shoulder length) and any other pointers on how to bring off the "masculine" look?

First off, forego the essential feminine garment - the bra. It may not be as comfortable as you would like, but it does change the silhouette. I also go with boxer shorts, just to keep in the spirit. Flat shoes change the posture; and buy men's trousers. They will be too big in the waist if they fit correctly over the hips (that is to say, with no tension whatsoever). Keep them up with braces (or suspenders, if you're American) instead of a belt, as a belt will only emphasize the male/female waist difference. On top, a tank-style undershirt - good ol' BVDs are my favourite - under a buttondown or stud-fastening dress shirt that is just slightly too large, which again hides the feminine shape. A waistcoat is an option for men, but essential for crossdressing. A good men's coat completes the ensemble; add cufflinks and whatever neckwear (tie, cravat, etc) and you're ready to go. I like to shop at Ross (or "Crossdress for Less", as we like to call it) because you can try new looks for cheap. For formal wear, try the sales outlet of your local formal rental shop, like Selix. Call them and ask if and where they sell off their old rental stuff. It's used, but you can almost afford the good stuff. They also have a lot of good accessories for cheap: studs, dress shoes, cravats, cumberbunds, and so on. Vintage is always a delight, but it tends to be expensive, and not in your size (no matter WHAT size you are….). Hair is a problem; if it's even moderately short, go with pomade. Yep - the greasy kid stuff. Most men's hair styles from the early 1800s through the 1930s were greased or oiled. Get an old photograph, and you'll see what I mean. Longer hair can be braided, or tied back, or stuffed down the collar (NOT my personal favourite - it itches). A great enhancement is to go to a GOOD costume/makeup house (Kryolan, for example) and get some facial hair: a moustache, beard, or sideburns. Get the good stuff, the kind where the individual hairs are set into a net, and are held on with spirit gum. It's not that expensive, and will make a real difference. And for those who MUST ask: no, I don't use a sock, or wadded cloth, or a balloon - I use ½ a Nerf ball. It sits comfortably, and compresses much like the real thing…. It's subtle thing, but can make or break the image from across a crowded room.

I like the idea of having a separate ballgown bodice for an afternoon dress. Is this actually a "period" thing to do?

Absolutely! Until the cottage I lived in burned down (don't ask), I myself owned 2 sets of just that: one skirt, two bodices, one set from the 1860s and one from the 1870s. (And yes, I still have the patterns I took from them…) The afternoon or day bodice tends toward high necklines and long sleeves, while the evening bodice tends to show shoulders and decolletage. Both pieces would be made of the same base material, while the trims could be very different. Just remember that our predecessors had a LOT less closet space than we do, and had to be even more conservative than those of us with significant others who demand room to hang a shirt or two…

Where can I buy a gown that would be suitable for Gaskell's and PEERS Victorian balls? It doesn't have to be authentic - just "in the spirit." My sewing skills are limited and I'd really like to try to find something readymade to trim and adapt than to try to create something from scratch.

Ummmm… this is a difficult one for me. I personally hate conversions; they're the worst kind of alterations to do, and as a seamstress/tailor, they give me the screaming willies. But for you, I'll try… First thought is to go to the GunneSax Outlet in San Francisco. It's in a little alley off of Brannon just before Third Street. Check out the list of San Francisco outlets in the SoMA area; I think the list is somewhere on the Net. They sell evening gowns that have a Victorian feel to them, and you might find something to suit you there. My next thought would be to go thrift shopping for a wedding dress. The Victorian period is extremely popular with brides - and not everyone treasures the gown they were wed in. The big hang-up there would seem to be that ever-present white; but you can take it to a professional cleaner who offers dying services and change that for a reasonable price. Call around to see who offers dying, and at what price range (let them know it's a wedding gown; size does matter in this case…) One last caveat: the biggest giveaway of a gown's age is what's worn under it. Most modern gowns have no real structure, and are not designed to wear corsets under. While you're changing the trim, try adding some boning to the bodice to prevent wrinkling and to sharpen the silhouette. At least consider wearing a longline bra or other support garment. Have fun!

I really like wearing black but every time I wear black at a re-creation event, someone starts a "bit" about me "being in mourning." When did black stop being a "mourning" color and start being a fashionable evening gown color?

1920s; Coco Chanel. The original little black dress. Need I say more? (But it never stopped being a mourning colour; one still wears black to a funeral, if you're polite.)

The Empress of India Ball takes place in 1878. I haven't a clue about what kinds of gowns were fashionable then. What do 1878 ballgowns look like?

First, ballgowns of that season (thereabouts, anyways) tend to have shoulder straps that sit ON the shoulders. This is necessary, because both front and back have low necklines: a scoop in the front and a 'v' in the back. The bodice is long, to about high hip level, and fitted. The bustle has collapsed to a mere drape of fabric over the behind, and the skirts are long, slightly trained, and asymmetrical in ornamentation. (For dancing purposes, you may want to shorten or eliminate the train altogether, unless you already know how to hold one while dancing…) It's an odd flash of natural shape between extremes of bustle styles; it's almost as if someone decided it was OK to look human (and vaguely comfortable) for a while… Check out Dover Publications for historical illustrations of the period.

For the Tango ball, is it better to wear a tuxedo or a tail coat?

Either is perfectly acceptable; tails were and remain the standard of formal wear, but the tuxedo jacket started its way in fashion back in the 1880s. It was primarily a dinner jacket until after the Great War, when the young bucks decided they didn't want to seem as stuffy as their elders. By the end of the Twenties, it was pretty much either/or except for the most formal of affairs. Wear 1) whichever you have, 2) whichever you look best in, or 3) whichever you dance better in.

I love the styles of 1910-1917 but don't have the uniformly slim figure to do them justice. I've heard that even Kate Winslett had to diet constantly while she was making "Titanic" to get the right silhouette and had to put up with a lot of ridicule from director James Cameron. Should a size 14 lady give up on this period and concentrate on something else?

Ok; I promised not to tirade for TOOOOO long. No, No, NO! Despite the modern image of what is fashionable, women of the period were NOT uniformly skinny. And by the yardstick of the times, Kate Winslett is skinny. Not thin; not slim. Skinny. No figure. Not much to speak of. Do I make my point? Women of fashion were the matrons of society; they were mature women who already have (perhaps several) children. Thin women were seen to be Suffragettes or spinsters. Watch old newsreels of the Teens (they do exist); look at the newspapers of the time; examine old photographs. I doubt that Lady Ormond and Lady Constance Butler and other jetsetters of the Ascot season of 1910 felt overweight and unattractive; and the majority of them were size 12 or better. They may have had smaller waists due to life-long corseting, but the bust and hips were ample - and men liked it that way! Anyone who makes comments of any sort to the contrary is decidedly uninformed (and in my opinion, rude). So there!

Do you know a good source of masks for the Masque of the Red Death ball?

The first place I would go would be to a decent costume shop - and look at their rentals. There might be something fun for sale, but I have found that the unique and better quality pieces tend to be rentals. If you really fall in love with something, it's possible that you can purchase it off the shop; but it will be much more expensive than anything off the shelf. Remember to reserve masks early if you are renting - they tend to disappear when you need them most. Other sources that I found on the web that look intriguing are Elephant's Trunk costumes for feather masks; Greg's Picks has some fun Mardi Gras style masks; Mansour Design has wonderful (but pricey) leather masks; and my personal favourite, masks by Cheryl Mandus at angel-mask.com. (Word of warning: I've already ordered my "Darkfall", so unless you want to look like a copycat….) There's some different feather masks & headdresses at American Feathers and Feather products (www.gatormall.com/ahb.ostrich.feathers1. No, really.) There's plenty more outthere; I had such fun doing this research! Whoops - one more too keen to miss: Mask Parade at home.swbell.net/masques.

The Music Hall Ball is set in the 1890's/early 1900's. I don't have any outfits from that period. Is it better to wear my 1860's crinoline gown or a modern evening gown? Or is there an easy way to fake an 1890's look?

The problem with wearing the crinoline is that it will take up enough space for two people. That can be fun on the dance floor, but when the crowd pulls in to watch the actual show, it means fewer folks get close to the stage - or that your dress may get crushed. This might not be the best outfit to choose. The other thing to remember is that although there may be royals and other upper-crust types in appearance, music hall theatre is the darling of the lower classes. This means you needn't dress to the nines; just showing up clean is dressing up for some. If you choose this route, a simple long skirt and blouse combination is perfectly appropriate, and easy to obtain. Just choose a fairly full skirt (try to wear at least one petticoat, or another skirt underneath), and a Victorian-looking blouse. Add granny boots/shoes, a shawl and a hat, and you're set. Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, and sing along!

I need a better bustle. The one I have is OK as long as I'm standing but gets crushed if I sit on it, no matter how carefully I sit. Is it possible to create a bustle that you can actually sit on? (Readymade or patterns?)

What is your bustle made of, I wonder? A bustle pad is usually a stuffed affair, like a pillow; a "crinoline" bustle is made from ruffles of a very stiff horsehair fabric that is no longer available (and the plastic stuff just don't cut it, folks); and the cage bustle is reinforced with steel, like a hoopskirt. In fact, hoopwire makes an excellent bustle that is flexible but recovers well. There are a couple of patterns I would recommend: the one by the Wisconsin Historical Society (or maybe it's Michigan - I can't recall offhand, and I'm still in the process of unpacking from a recent move - I'm lucky I can find the keyboard!) and the one by Jean Hunnisett in her Period Costume for Stage and Screen. They're pretty similar, and both make fairly resistant bustles. Oh, and by the way, try to sit straight down so that the bustle folds upward like an accordion. It will distort less that way - and keep you from slouching, which is unattractive in Victorian dress.

I love Regency dancing but I really hate the clothes. Some women look really great in Regency but the Empire line makes me look pregnant. What other options do I have for Regency dancing? Is there anything I else I can wear that won't make me clash too badly with the Regency Society people but which doesn't have an Empire line? And if so is there a pattern for it?

I'm sorry to have to tell you that even the court women who by decree still wore panniers (sidehoops, like Marie Antoinette) had their dresses cut with the Empire line. I'm not joking - look it up, it's the ugliest fashion trend in at least 1000 years. On the other hand, by the mid-1820's, waistlines had lowered - and Prinnie was still in power, so it's still Regency by definition! I'm not aware of any patterns in that style available, but there are some really charming examples in Ackerman's Costume Plates, available wherever Dover editions are sold. Hopefully, you'll see something there to inspire you. Happy dancing!

How far off the ground should the hemline of a Victorian be? If it's as long as the fashion plates show, the gown is going to get torn in the course of a normal evening of dancing in crowded ballrooms. What do you think?

So, do you believe that real people wear designer clothes just like the runway models do? I'm afraid it's a rude awakening, but fashion illustrators back then were just as unscrupulous as they are today (legs that are 2/3s of the total body height - yeah, right). Dresses are presented this way to invoke a sense of luxury and indolence, even when the women buying them are hardworking and practical. Also, portraits tend to show dresses that look like ballgowns, but are pretty much useless for dancing. All that these women were doing in them was posing to look good. Real ballgowns have shorter hems so as not to interfere with the real activities - dancing 'till dawn.

I'd like to come to the Canterbury Feast but the only Medieval gown I have is purple. Can I wear that or should I go ahead and make a new gown? I've heard that purple was only for Royalty.

The restriction of purple for royalty was much more an economic thing than a set of unbreakable rules. The sumptuary laws came later, when the middle class began to have a lot of money, and you couldn't tell the difference between the classes without a scorecard. Red and purple were worn extensively among the higher clergy, but again, it's not a restriction, it's just that the dyes were outrageously expensive - at least the good ones were. On the other hand, many readily available plant dyes create lovely shades of red and purple, but they fade very quickly when exposed to sunlight or washing. If the dress looks worn, it might be hard to justify; if it looks new, no problem. And besides, this is a PEERS event; no one is grading you, there will be no quiz. By all means, make a new gown if you want, but you certainly shouldn't feel obligated. If you feel you need another excuse, just tell everyone you're Scottish; the Scots had NO such restrictions among the clans. The question you should be answering is "A I having a good time?"

How do you tie a cravat?

This question deserves a whole article of its own. I promise to present a full report in one of the next few issues. Beau Brummel himself had no simple answer to this question; why should I be any better than he? Really, though, there are as many different ways to do so as there are fancies to try it, each one with its own flavour and attitude and history. If you must have something RIGHT NOW, I suggest either a simple loose bow tucked into the waistcoat, or a slightly crisper fabric tied like a bowtie. What, you don't know how to tie a bowtie? Shame; go immediately to your nearest Tie Rack store (found in many malls) and request their illustrated brochure - they're free last time I checked.

I'd like to make one of those great tango gowns from the 'teens but don't even know where to start? Is there a pattern?

The first thing that comes to mind is the wonderful pattern from Folkwear - it's even called the Tango Dress. Past Patterns also has a collection called "Attic Copies" that do require a higher skill level, but will give you something a little different than what everyone else is wearing. But I must confess; even I wear my Folkwear Tango dress, and not just for dancing. It's such a classic that I have two more in line for the future...

Where can I get suitable "heeled" shoes to wear with a mid-Victorian ballgown? I'd like at least a two-inch heel.

Alas - 5 years ago they were as common as dirt. Now, you have to keep a sharp eye out to find them among the legions of platform atrocities-I mean shoes. (They were ugly twenty years ago; why should we bring them back now? That's my opinion and I'm stickin' to it!) If you really love Victorian shoes and can afford it, get some custom made for you. They're about as expensive as a pair of high-heeled sandals at Gumps ($200-$300) and much more comfortable. And, given a reputable shoemaker, they should not only last you for years, but you will be able to resole them and have other repairs done as the years go by, which is not the case with most off-the-rack shoes. If you're not feeling that flush, I suggest haunting the discount houses: Ross, Payless Shoestore, Shoe Pavilion. Slightly out-of-date shoes at good prices can be found there, and Victorian types qualify. Never neglect thrift and consignment stores; I've found nearly brand new Italian shoes for pennies, and period style shoes that I've never found anywhere else.

What exactly does "White or Black Tie (Optional)" mean?

White Tie means ultra-formal. Men wear full dress (tail coats), with white tie, white waistcoat, white gloves, and white high-collared shirt. Any formal order or award may be worn. For military men, full parade dress is appropriate - but one should leave the sword and sabretache at the door. Women wear evening gowns, with long white gloves. Jewelry should be of the most expensive and tastefully elaborate style.

Black Tie means formal. Men wear tail coats or tuxedo jackets, with black tie, black waistcoat, white gloves, and high-collared white shirt. Coloured waistcoats are not appropriate. Again, formal orders and awards may be worn. For the military, parade dress or even full mess dress may be appropriate; check with a military expert, or ask again and I will do further research. Women wear evening dresses or dinner gowns, with gloves of the appropriate length; jewelry is more subdued, but definitely in evidence.

So, the "optional" part means dropping down one level: "White Tie Optional" means you may dress full white tie, or you may dress black tie; "Black Tie Optional" means you may dress in full black tie, or slightly more casual, i.e. coloured waistcoats, coloured gloves, highly formal day dresses, etc.

I really want one of those fabulous caped coats for the vampire ball. Can you recommend a pattern? Failing that, can you recommend a good pattern for a cape?

The caped cloak you're describing sounds like an Inverness Coat – the sort of coat movies generally put Sherlock Holmes into. The big difference between an Inverness and, say, a Coachmen's coat or Greatcoat is that the Inverness has no sleeves - just the body and the cape(s). This means it will fit over a larger number of outfits and styles. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any commercial patterns available for the Inverness. It certainly would have made my job easier when I had to make several; I ended up drafting my own. (Do you think there might be enough interest to justify producing one?) For straight capes, I can always recommend the Kinsale Cloak from Folkware Patterns. I don't like most mainstream fashion (Simplicity, McCalls, Vogue, etc.) for capes because they tend to be too skimpy for the look most of us romantics prefer. Another good choice would be the Capes and Tabards pattern (#92) from Period Patterns/Mediaeval Miscellanea. One last spot to look might be in mainstream catalogs in the costume patterns for Civil War outfits; sometimes they include an Office's cape that could be lengthened to a more appropriate hemline.

Any advice on what to wear to Le Bal des Vampires? Whenever the costume guidelines for an event are not strict ("Evening dress or dress uniform of the country and century of your rebirth"), I get confused. What will most of the other guests there be wearing?

Ahhh - a difficult one; I'm tempted to give you the easy-but-still-true answer - Black! But I know that's not what you're asking. Most folks coming to the Bal des Vampyres will be dressing in historical dress from their favourite period, in the formal manner of the period (and predominately black, I'm afraid). However, that does not exclude ethnic garb from around the world, historical or modern; or modern formal wear; or even futuristic dress. My advice would be to wear something fun, something you like, something that you look good in, something that looks expensive or dressy, and something you can dance in. Trains may look gorgeous, but you can look rather foolish when someone treads on yours and brings you to the floor during that pavane… speaking of which…

I'm going to two Viennese balls in October and wondered if you could give me some advice. One of the balls published costume guidelines suggesting that the ladies wear gowns either without trains or with train loops. Are train loops actually "period" and do you recommend them?

As far as I know, train loops are a modern innovation for brides who want a trained gown at the wedding but want to dance at the reception. Women of earlier times simply took a handful of the gown near the hem at about 7 o'clock (where noon is straight in front of you), and danced, either in set dances or the type with a partner. Extremely long trains were draped over the arm, or not worn to dancing events.

When dancing with a partner, you need to be sure that you can handle the gown comfortably, and that your partner is comfortable with you using only your right hand in position. If you can handle this, I think trains of moderate length are great; otherwise, I would avoid them. I personally don't like loops because they always seem to be in the wrong place, and expose more leg or underwear or whatever than I like, especially if you bring your hand even as far as your partner's elbow. This also distorts the line of that wonderful gown you worked so hard on or spent so much money on - dancing should enhance the line of your dress, not ruin it.

Where can I get hoops for a Victorian ballgown? And how big should they be?

Victorian hoops could get quite large - as large as 8-10 feet across! However, most ballrooms today prefer much smaller hoops in order to fit more folks on the dance floor in comfort. I would suggest 4-5 feet across as appropriate for these times. As far as purchasing them, most of the places we all used to depend on seem to have vanished; but you can still get them through mail order and on the web. Check out the Costumer's page at www.toreadors.com/costume, or contact Amazon Dry Goods at 319-322-6800.

I really like vintage clothing, especially from the 1930's and 40's, but I'd rather not dance in it. I'd like to try making my own Swing clothes. Are there any good patterns on the market?

Oh, lordy, yes! There has been a virtual explosion of vintage patterns in the mainstream pattern industry. I particularly recommend Simplicity and Vogue - clear and distinct patterns with modern instructions, but great vintage styles. Check it out! And by the way, good for you for not wearing and thereby damaging or destroying valuable vintage pieces that will provide information to the future about the fashions of our past eras. Kudos!

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