historical costume, Sewing

Drunken Dress: Riley Farm Colonial Fair Dress

Wherein I give you a run down of my endeavors to create my first 18th Century (ish) dress for an weekend event at the Riley Farm Colonial Fair with my Costume Sisters. Since I’m not a great sewer/sewist (I never know which to use), I’ll just let you peek into my “process”, which – naturally – involves alcohol. (If you’re not interested in the sewing but more interested in the “Heather gets kinda vulnerable and talks about her hang-ups” part, scroll down. )

Getting the 18th Century Dress Started

First, I have to explain that I am a terrible procrastinator when it comes to sewing projects. I’ll let you in on why later. I’ve had the fabric and most of the materials for this project for months sitting in my closet. I finally got started when I kinda-sorta figured out that I had just enough weekend time remaining to get things in order.

So I decided to suck it up and make something. So I made rump padding. With a ruffle. And then a drawstring petticoat out of a sheet, which is one of the easiest things anyone can make, ever.

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Super-springy rump padding

Theeeen. . . I took another weekend off. I knew I was wigging myself about this project on some level, but I decided not to get too curious about that yet.

Then I spent one Sunday evening attempting to draft a pattern from the American Duchess 18th Century Sewing book and failing miserably at it. I was soooo not into this. I just knew I was messing the whole thing up.

Then, last weekend during 104 degree temps and fans and AC going in my house, and with a new alcohol-infused verve, I went to my pattern stash to see if there was any assistance to be had there. Not really. The Simplicity look isn’t entirely what I’m going for here. But I cut the bodice pattern pieces out anyway to compare their general shapes and sizing to what I had and made a few adjustments to my bodice muslin.

So, while I continued to imbibe, I cut out my muslin and did my first fitting. On my second drink, I had made adjustments and finalized my pattern pieces! That is when I dubbed this dress #drunkendress.

Since I felt a glimmer of hope in my bodice mock-up, I decided to continue the process on my mid-week holiday for Independence Day. (We had plans to stay in, anyway.)

So, today I poured myself a vodka and soda and slowly began to work toward several “moment of truths” in building a dress.  1). The moment I first cut out the fashion fabric after having gone over in my head three times how it should be cut and making certain that I have enough fabric leftover (or an alternative fabric) at hand to re-do it if I completely screw it up. Thank god I always overbuy fabric.  And 2) the moment I sew it together, try it on and see if it is waaaaay too small.

Well, it wasn’t. Not even close. I had to take it in a bit, in fact!  I did have an issue with the sleeves in that there was too much fabric for the closer fit I wanted. Normally, my lazy-ass would have just lived with it, putting in some ugly pleats or something. But this time, I actually asked a little more of myself and I trimmed up the sleeves and reset them. This is a small win for me in terms of what I’m willing to accept for myself in terms of my costumes. Yay!

So, after 4 hours and a couple of drinks, the bodice has landed. It still needs its velvet trim and lace cuffs, but this is a major leap forward! Getting the bodice done in a way I’m okay with is always anxiety producing for me.

Thus the alcohol.

Now I have my fabric remnants set aside, my skirt and trim fabrics labeled, and my little notebook with my plan for next weekend ready to go. Dealing with skirts is usually much more of a pleasure for me.

My hang-ups about this project

Okay, so. . . last weekend, my anxiety and dread about this project got so bad that after piddling about and avoiding getting down and dirty with the work for an hour, I just said, “I can’t deal with what this is right now, but I have to get out of my own way and dive in.” And that is when the alcohol came out.

I don’t usually use alcohol as a lubricant this way. Food is my comfort drug of choice (which I’ve gotten way better at managing in the last year). I’m one of those people that doesn’t usually drink at home and has to remind herself that she can have a glass of wine in the evenings to relax. So using alcohol to grease the creative wheels is not normal for me. At all.

However, I KNEW I was having hang ups and that I needed to calm my ass down. So when I used the liquor bottles from our bar table to hold down the muslin fabric under the fans, I just decided I needed a drink to go with them. It was now a “theme”. I ran with it. It worked.

This time.

But as soon as I got through the work of drafting and fitting my muslins and felt a little hopeful about the project, I stopped. I got curious about what was going on in my head that prevented me from jumping in with this process. I had my suspicions, but I asked my husband for his input as well.

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Here’s what it pretty much came down to:

  1. I’m pretty insecure about my limited skill set. I sewed more many years back, but I’ve lost a lot of that mojo and my skills have atrophied. I also know a lot more now than I did then about “historically correct” clothing and know I’m not gonna get anywhere near it.
  2. I’m judging my goals. I’m a firm believer that when it comes to sewing or historical costuming that everyone should serve their own goals and not anyone else’s. I’m pretty honest that my goal right now is not for perfect period gowns. My goals are more of a “picture of the times” approach. My techniques are not going to be great and I tend to be a pretty improvisational sewer, solving problems in ways that work for me and using my very limited materials and resources to do it on the cheap. But part of me also feels like that goal is not good enough.
  3. One of the weird things about historical costuming is that it is a pretty public hobby. I know of no one who sews historical costumes who doesn’t then wear them to an event to have them looked at, photographed, and shared on the internet. This means there’s a lot of judgement from the outside as well. And when you’re not great at it, that can be anxiety producing.
  4. My friends are soooo much better at it than I am. Two are professional costumers who have been designing and wearing historical clothing for decades. The other, who says she doesn’t like sewing much but loves to do historical events, is quite skilled and knows how to design for herself. I am way more of a beginner at this, even though I started sewing a dozen years ago or so.
  5. On an even more visceral note is the fact that my body is very much in flux right now. While I’ve lost 65 or so pounds and I feel good about that, I’m still a big girl and will always have certain body idiosyncracies that make fitting historical garments for me a little trickier. Especially since I fit directly on myself and don’t have a dress form in my life.

    And even were I at my ideal weight, I will always be the cute little pudgy pudding compared to my Amazonian Costume Sisters. I’m 5’4″ and have always had a “built for comfort and not for speed” way about me. I think my BFFs are between 5’8″ and 5’10” in bare feet and typically look pretty spectacular. As a result, I tend to want my dresses to keep up at least the bare minimum of standards when we’re together.

    And then add the aforementioned public photos and sharing of costumes on the internets, and yes. . . I want to look good in whatever I wind up with.

Important Reminders

All of this pretty much adds up to a massive fit of procrastination and anxiety around a project that is for something fun. “What the hell am I doing to myself?” I ask. So I begin to rewrite the narrative.

I remind myself that our “time-travel weekends” are really about spending time together and reconnecting as friends. I know that having additional expectations for the weekend or how I’m not meeting them just adds unnecessary pressure – it serves absolutely no purpose.

I tell myself that my body is my body right now and it deserves to exist the way it does right now. And more importantly, it is in that body that I will experience this weekend I’ve been looking forward to for 8 months, so treat it with some positive talk.

I know for a fact that there is nothing wrong with being at the beginner-intermediate level and that my goals are perfectly reasonable.

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”  – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

As for the public nature of this hobby. . . well, it’s not like I don’t do a shit-ton of other things publicly. I’ve directed HOW MANY plays? All of which were seen by audiences; most of which were reviewed publicly. I work with actors, artists and authors constantly. Photographers are around me all the time. Getting worked up about it is, again, profoundly counter-productive.

So now that that (I hope) the worst of my costuming anxiety attack is over, I’ve got two more weekends to get the bulk of it done. I’m pretty sure I can manage it without the alcohol lubrication from here on out.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a scotch once the remnants are organized and put away.

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Remnant pile, labeled fabric and trim, and plan book with my project notes for next weekend.  (With a nip of scotch peeking in.)
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