Monday, November 16, 2015

Small Progress and Big Plans: A Pineapple Block and an Arsenic Green Caroling Frock

Paper Pieced Pineapple Log Cabin: Block 20 of 36 Completed
So, one more paper pieced pineapple log cabin block was finished a few of weeks ago that I never got around to sharing.  Twenty blocks down, sixteen more to go.  My stack of blocks is growing, but I'm setting this aside (again!) -- to start some new projects!

I recently received an email from a fellow church choir member with the subject "Do you like to sing Christmas carols?"  Well, I like to sing Christmas carols about as much as Garfield the cat likes to eat lasagna. 

Rebecca is to Caroling as Garfield is to Lasagna

It turns out that he (Carl from choir, not Garfield) sings with a group that puts together SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass) quartets to sing at shopping centers, country clubs, corporate events, nursing homes, and private parties throughout the holiday season, and they are short on Altos.  I've been singing Alto for the past year due to ongoing issues with my upper vocal range, and I've been enjoying learning the Alto harmonies.  When I found out that I get to wear a "Dickensian caroling costume" while singing Christmas carols in 4-part harmony, I said yes immediately. 

The Holiday Singers of Charlotte, North Carolina
By the way, if any of you are planning a holiday event in the Charlotte, North Carolina area and you'd like to hire carolers, you'll want to book that ASAP as the calendar is already filling up.  Visit the Holiday Singers web page for detailsIf you tell her I sent you, Jeanine will try to schedule me to sing at your event unless I'm already committed to sing somewhere else that day.

The group has a repertoire of about 75 pieces, from the really old, traditional carols like The First Noel and Deck the Halls to classics from the 1930s-1950s, like Let It Snow, The Christmas Song (a.k.a. Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire), Jingle Bells, and Frosty the Snowman.  Then there's Vince Guaraldi's melancholy jazz Christmas Time Is Here from the Peanuts Christmas special, Jingle Bell Rock, and the fairly recent Mary Did You Know.  There are only one or two pieces I'd never heard before, but I've never sung the Alto harmony on any of them before.  I love learning new music, and I love the harmonies on those jazz and swing pieces, so I'm having a ball with the music.

But meanwhile, the costume...  What happens when a fabric-loving interior designer with a history degree is asked to come up with a "Victorian/Dickensian caroling outfit?"  Well, first comes research, then pattern perusal, delusional fabric shopping, Grand Plans...  and then a certain degree of panic when I opened the pattern instructions and discovered that this dress is way, WAY over my head.

Inspiration: mid-Victorian day dresses from about the time Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843.  There are some very frumpy mid-Victorian dresses that would be entirely appropriate for Deck the Halls (like the brown frock below) but that would feel anachronistic when it was time to sing something jazzy like Let It Snow.  I think my dress should look like a Dickensian caroling costume that Edith Head might have designed for a caroling number in the film White Christmas.

Circa 1862 Brown Dress That I Will Not Be Wearing
The dress does need to be a "day dress,"  with a high neck and covered arms, as opposed to a ball gown with exposed .  The silhouette is a very full, bell-shaped skirt (but not a bustle yet) supported by hoops, with full sleeves and a corseted waistline.  Obviously I'm not wearing a corset, since breathing is necessary for singing, so there's that to keep in mind.  Notice how all of the bodice shaping comes from vertical darts originating at the waistline -- no typical bust darts or princess seams, and that creates a poufy fullness through the bust and shoulders that contrasts with the cinched-in waist.

I found a fantastic pattern designed by Andrea Schew for Simplicity patterns.  The inspiration for the pattern came from this 1863 Godey's Lady's Book fashion plate:

1863 Godey's Lady's Book

Simplicity 1818 Pattern
What I love about this pattern is how Andrea has recreated the distinctive silhouette of the era not by relying on a period-correct corset tightened to the point that the wearer can hardly breathe, but by adding design ease through the bust of the bodice.  Sandwiched between the extreme fullness of the skirt and the angled and boned cone-shaped bodice, the waist just APPEARS smaller than it is.  This pattern is drafted with 2" of ease at the waistline, but 4 1/2" of ease through the bodice. 
Bodice Front has 2" Ease at Waist, but 4 1/2" Ease at Bust for Faux Corseted Silhouette
Instructions are included for creating booby pads to fill out that extra space if needed, but in my case the extra room up top means that I should be able to get a good fit without having to do any kind of full or prominent bust adjustment.  Yippee!  All that, AND I get to breathe!
I'm going to be making the view on the right, with contrasting ruffles, because in my mind that very graphic contrasting trim best channels the spirit of the two different eras I'm trying to evoke.
Edith Head's Sketch for Rosemary Cluny's Finale Costume in White Christmas, 1954
See what I mean?  The big full skirt, the bold, contrasting trim on the skirt, the small waist, the V-neck...  The only thing I think I'll ditch from the pattern is the very American Civil War looking collar of the chemisette or fichu (the white blouse thingy sticking out at the neck).  If you scroll back up to the inspiration dress from Godey's, I don't see anything that looks like a high white collar beneath that dress.  So I'll probably change that.

Circa 1850
The dress in the circa 1850 photo above is similar to the one I'm making.  Although she does have the white poufy undersleeves, she doesn't seem to have any kind of fichu or chemisette under the neckline of her dress, does she?  Hard to tell for sure, but there's definitely no high collar.  Maybe I'll see how much coverage I get just from the bodice of the dress before I decide whether I need anything under it.  V necklines are much more flattering on me than high jewel necks anyway.  We'll see.

As for color -- something Christmasy and festive, something that is flattering with my skin tone, and something that would be period correct for both 1843 and 1954...  I wanted a natural fiber fabric (modern synthetics hadn't been invented yet in Dickens' day) and something lightweight and crisp that would swish when I walk and make me feel fancy.  And I didn't just want to just copy the colors off the pattern envelope because that would be boring.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my ARSENIC GREEN dress fabric:

My Green and Black Silk Shantung with Trims, No Flash

My Green and Black Silk Shantung and Trims, With Flash
When I saw this silk shantung in the clearance section at Mary Jo's Cloth Store, I immediately knew that it would be a good color for both eras.  In the mid nineteenth century, this color fabric was actually made with arsenic dye and it was very expensive, wildly popular, and incidentally, poisonous!
Arsenic Green Day Dress Circa 1865, FIT Museum
Another Arsenic Green Dress circa 1860
The interesting thing to me is not that arsenic was ever used in clothing dye, but that Victorian women KNEW these green dresses were making them sick, and they wore them anyway because this shade of green was the height of fashion and they wanted to look chic, whatever the cost.  Some things never change!

1862 Political Cartoon, Punch Magazine
I found similar shades of vivid emerald or bottle green in my research for the Old Hollywood Glamour era as well, although by that time they were no longer using arsenic to dye the cloth:

1954 Balenciaga
Vivian Leigh's "Drapery Gown" Costume for Gone With the Wind, 1939
Marilyn Monroe's Green Dress from River of No Return, 1954
Now, THERE's a Christmas caroling dress if ever I saw one!!  That dress, worn by none other than Marilyn Monroe in the film River of No Return, recently sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars.  THIS dress actually reminds me of what my grandmother (yes, my GRANDMOTHER!) wore to my wedding...  But I digress.  Don't worry -- although I was briefly tempted, I ultimately decided against trying to incorporate waist-high skirt slits and a plunging neckline into my caroling outfit.  Because December is COLD. Also I don't want to get kicked out of the singing group for showing too much skin.  But see how nicely the green and black color scheme works for both a Victorian and an Old Hollywood vibe?

1838 Morning Dress, World of Fashion
1864 Godey's Lady's Book
Anyway, my dress will be made from the green silk shantung with black silk shantung ruffles and black gimp trim, as well as picot-edged black satin bows, as per the Simplicity pattern.  I found a poly/cotton broadcloth in almost the exact shade of green for the bodice lining, and all of the dress pieces will be underlined with silk organza (if you don't know what I'm talking about, there's a great article about underlining with silk organza in Threads magazine issue #97 from October/November 2001).  Why am I going to all the bother to underline a costume dress with silk organza?  To reduce wrinkling, for one thing, and add some body, primarily.  The silk shantung is very thin.  The organza underlining will strengthen the seams, carry the fusible interfacing in the collar facing so I don't have to fuse to the silk (which would cause the fused silk to lose its shine and no longer match the rest of the dress.  I also need the silk underlining to support the weight of the ruffles and trim.  Yes, it's a costume, but I need to wear it half a dozen times in the space of two weeks without being able to have it cleaned in between wearings.  I can't have it disintegrate into a rumpled, raveled mess. 

In hindsight, I probably should have skipped the local fabric store and sourced my fabric from my interior design fabric resources instead.  I could have gotten fantastic faux silk fabric with great body and wrinkle resistance at a reasonable price, in any color imaginable, and saved myself the considerable additional expense and bother of the silk organza underlining.  Shoulda, woulda, coulda!  Once I bought the silk shantung dress fabric, there was no going back.

As I mentioned earlier, this dress pattern is WAY beyond my garment sewing ability level.  Fortunately, my mom is helping me sew it.  So there's the obvious goal of having a costume ready to wear in time for my first caroling gig on December 3rd, but then there's a larger implied objective of learning new skills and gaining more confidence with garment sewing.  That's worth a caroling costume that costs more than my wedding gown did, don't you think?


SJSM said...

What a great dress! Nice that you could find a pattern from the Big Four that gives modern ease wihich mimics the look of the corseted body. I love that green and black. Just a thought to keeping fresh, you may want dress shields to absorb any perspiration. In theater to keep the costumes less odorous they spray vodka (yes, the alcoholic beverage) on the inside of the costume where needed to dissipate the odor for the next wearing.

The insides of the costumes are several layers to make them sturdy.One method has the closest layer to the skin be a muslin layer that is of a tighter weave (better quality). It has been washed and ironed before cutting. Using 1" seam allowances at the major seams a mock up is made for fitting. The adjustments are put back on the muslin (usually in pencil) and sewn again to perfect the fit. The muslin then becomes the pattern piece with all the markings from the fitting. .It is sewn to the fashion fabric by flat lining. You still want generous major seams for structure and future adjustments. Muslin helps stabilize the fabric and gives more body. Plus you can follow the lines you drew for the final fitting of the muslin. In this case you probably get by using the muslin just for the bodice. If you decide to use this method make sure the muslin is 100% cotton.

With your mom's help, I'm sure you will have a wonderful costume/dress. Have fun!

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks for your suggestions, Susan! The bodice of this dress is already three layers thick: silk shantung on the outside, then silk organza, and a tightly woven poly/cotton broadcloth lining closest to the skin. I did talk my mom into making a muslin of the bodice first to check the fit, but she likes to dive right into cutting and sewing. This is probably because she has a more realistic idea of how long the dress will take to make than I do. After all, I need to wear it in 13 days!

I'm planning to wear those thin silk thermal things underneath, like they sell in ski shops -- more concerned about freezing my butt off than sweating, since the first job is singing from 7-9 PM at an OUTDOOR shopping center on December 3rd! Maybe I should have used wool or a quilted silk for the bodice? Shoulda, woulda, coulda... But I'll look for those dress shields; that's a great idea. And vodka?! Who knew?!! :-)

Thanks for stopping by,

colleen said...

Beautiful and don't forget the shawl and hat and I hope you don't roast when you have inside singing engagements.
Last year we went to Disney land with our 5 grand children we stayed in the California grand hotel and they had a group of of 4 (2 men 2 women) sing old fashioned songs
It was lovely

Lara B. said...

Such interesting research Rebecca! Arsenic gowns! Holy mackerel.
Your gown is going to be gorgeous and I sure hope you show us a photo of you caroling in it! Best of luck to you and your Mom while your sew it.
Would love to hear about your daring grandmother too. :)
Also -love that pineapple block... almost forgot to say that.