Saturday, February 22, 2014


Coming soon to Cinemax is the Steven Soderbergh produced and directed original series THE KNICK about the Knickerbocker Hospital in NY during early 1900's. Three things: Clive Owen, black actor Andre Holland (from 42), early New York, the clothes.  Also stars Bono's daughter Eve Hewson. I am so there, and hopefully, you will be too.  It looks like early Black New York will figure prominently since the 10-episode mini series also deals with race barriers.  Take a look at the newly released teaser trailer and some set photos and see what we have to look forward to this summer!

Thursday, February 13, 2014



Looking to Spring and Summer, I decided on a white Edwardian lawn dress. I didn't want a reproduction. Although there are excellent ones out there, it's just not the same, and they tend to be expensive, with the lace workmanship far inferior to that of the authentic period dresses.

I found one on Etsy from 1910 in very good condition that has only had small repairs, a couple of tiny holes, and is the RIGHT SIZE! So many of the measurements on these dresses are for teenagers or teeny tiny women (22" waist). I need about a 27 or 28" waist and that's what this dress is supposed to be. The seller wanted to make sure I was okay with the minor repairs to the dress and a 13 inch neck. I happen to have a slender 13 inch neck (yes, I measured - exact measurements are essential when buying vintage), so after confirming the quality of the dress via close-up photos, I went ahead and bought it and I'm waiting for it to arrive. I like the line and length of it. I plan to wear it outdoors as well as indoors, so I nixed a dress with any kind of train.


One of the most important aspects of period dress, which I learned early on when playing roles on stage in Shakespeare and Chekhov, are the proper undergarments. For instance, you will stand, walk, sit, dance and breathe differently when you're wearing a corset. And the dress falls differently on the body. Having read of the horrors of the severe S curve corsets of the Victorian era, during which time some women broke and even surgically removed ribs to attain the tiniest of waists, I had reservations about buying an authentic period corset. Also, some things worn close to the skin need to be new, in my opinion. So I was okay with a reproduction here. I chose a waist reducing under bust corset of white brocade fabric, with steel bones and corded ties.
The corset was the first item I received. It was pretty and unexpectedly heavy (those steel bones!) My daughter helped lace me into it to see how it fit. It was beautiful on and created the right line. I could only take small breaths, and had to stand and sit with perfect posture. I take Latin Jazz dance classes every week, and my back has been a little sore. The corset had the wonderful benefit of making my back feel better. However, I couldn't imagine waltzing around a room during a ball wearing it. How would you breathe? The logic behind fans, settees, dance cards, frequent dance breaks and fainting became abundantly clear. A lady had to pace herself. Or not wear a corset.

Next, I received the petticoat. PERFECTION. In beautiful condition, fit like it was made for me, authentic, lovely lace hem, and the right weight and style for a lawn dress. Happy dance.

The chemise (not to be confused with the camisole, which goes over a corset) is worn under the corset to protect your skin and to keep the corset clean. It was harder to find for some reason. I found one listed on Ebay as "Antique Edwardian Victorian Cotton Nightgown Chemise." What did I say about checking measurements? It was a great authentic cotton chemise that turned out to be a child's nightgown that barely fit. But it's perfect in so many ways and has Ayreshire lace on it, so my choice is to cut my losses and buy a different one, or alter the one I have. I've decided to put gores in at the seams and see if I can wear it.


What can I say? I adore hats, especially the large, extravagant touring hats of the Edwardian period. What's not to like about the swoop of a brim topped by lovely flowers and a veil? I look good in them, but in general, I love looking at them as well as wearing them. I found a reproduction made by a woman who specializes in period hats. (Authentic hats in good condition are hard to find and are quite expensive). My hat is wide brimmed with lace, flowers, a large tulle bow, feathers, and a bird. Yes, a bird.


Luck: I found white, kid leather gloves with lace like cut-outs at the wrist IN MY SIZE (7.5). Again, finding the right size in what you want is not easy. It becomes part of the hunt.  I've learned to no not bother falling in love with a dress, or any item, if I haven't confirmed that it will probably fit.


This is probably one of the easiest home pulls for me. Somehow, I seem to have a lot of reproduction and authentic period jewelry. Most of it is costume. So I'm good here.


There are lots of new, pretty Battenberg lace parasol umbrellas available (popular for weddings). I wanted something different. I went on the hunt, and found that most new ones were too modern, plastic, polyester and tacky and the authentic ones were falling apart or ridiculously expensive. Then there was the water resistant, frilled, wood handled reproduction parasol that I stumbled across. On my Watch List.


I don't buy used shoes. Like the corset, the shoes have got to be new. So I found a reproduction house that sells reproduction heeled leather lace up boots. I haven't ordered them yet, because I'm on a Dress Budget, and they will have to wait.

Speaking of which...


One important thing to note: vintage dressing can set you back a chunk of change. It's not a cheap habit, so don't start unless you really have a passion for it (or are really handy at sewing reproductions). Some people collect to display, others (like me) buy to wear. Whatever you choose to do, realize that a natural fiber garment that is over 200 years old is subject to wear and tear and can be quite fragile. It is essential that you care for, clean and store your items properly.

With shows like Downton Abbey responsible for a resurgence of interest in collecting and wearing vintage, some really exquisite items have become available. Many are "deaccessions" from museums that might need money. However, many of these items are from the finest designers and command prices anywhere from $800 - $5,000 or more, depending on the design house (i.e. Worth), condition, embellishment, purveyance (i.e. a countess wore it at a famous ball). You can find lovely, beautiful items in good to very good condition between $35 - $500 on Etsy or EBay or from one of the period costume sites.

If you're handy with a needle and thread, you can get great value for items that need a little repair. Rarely does a Victorian or Edwardian garment for sale in the 21st century come in pristine, original condition. Even the most expensive garments have had additions and inventive repairs made to them, often because a lady was careless, or had a change of weight or simply wanted a change of style. The important thing is to avoid major damage like rust stains or large tears and holes. Also, try to shop reputable sellers and period costume sites, so you know what you're paying for and don't end up with a 1970 Gunny Sack blouse.

Once I have the entire outfit assembled, I'll try it all on and post pictures.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


My grandmother's British Guiana
passport: married, 29 years old
and about to embark with her only
child (my mother) to New York.

The South American country of Guiana
  (or Guyana) was a British Colony
from 1831 until 1966.

Elaine Bradford

My grandmother on my mother's side, Elaine Eversley (nee Bradford), was born in 1912 and spent more than fifty years living in New York before she died in her adopted city at age 95. But she was born in British Guiana and was an unapologetic anglophile. She was a British trained midwife and her brother Chummy worked for the British government (we were told he became a British Diplomat to Nigeria). She had a combination of a Guyanese and British accent that became decidedly more British when she pointedly reminded us that she wasn't from Guyana, she was from British Guiana.

A colorized postcard view of Georgetown, 1890. A street railway began carrying passengers in Georgetown in 1877. The line was acquired by Georgetown Tramways Company in 1880 and used vehicles built by John Stephenson Company in New York. 

Dr. Joseph Alexander Bradford

My great grandfather, the well known dentist, Dr. Joseph Alexander Bradford, lived in Guyana in a two story mahogany home in the capital city of Georgetown at 21 Camp Street. It had a large staircase, a parlour and piano.  The dentist office itself was in a room within the house. There were servants who grandma remembered polishing the silver and taking care of linens. Dr. Bradford wore spectacles and carried a silver tipped cane. He held Chess Club and Cricket Club meetings at his home, and gave regularly to local charities.  A businessman, he had holdings in gold, diamonds and bauxite. The house and property was eventually taken over by the Guyanese government in the 1970s and used as a foreign consulate.

My great grandfather, Dr. Bradford

Georgetown, with its series of canals, was once considered the "Riviera of the West Indies."

While my great grandfather clearly had African and perhaps even some Arawak Indian roots (grandma remembered two old African aunts who sat in the backyard and spoke in a language she did not understand), my grandmother was definitely mixed race. She had a head full of long black hair down to her waist that was usually capped with a big white bow.  My great grandfather did not marry my grandmother's mother,  Marie DeRocha. She was from Portugal and evidently returned there several years after my grandmother was born.

Sunday School Teachers in British Guyana, 19th century

My Portuguese Roots

Research can take you to some wonderfully interesting places. Britain abolished slavery in 1807, but continued to run plantations of sugar fields in Guyana that needed workers after the African slaves were freed. In trying to figure out how my Portuguese great grandmother ended up in Guyana, I learned some facts about the Portuguese and how they, Scottish, Chinese and Germans were used as farm laborers in sugar cane fields in Guyana by the British to replace the African slaves who were no longer at their disposal. During the Portuguese migration from 1834 to 1882, 30,645 indentured labourers arrived mainly from Madeira to the British Colony of Guyana. I'd known about the migration to Brazil, but not to my grandmother's country.

Class and the British Empire

I was told that my great grandmother was from a middle or upper class family, so her family must have arrived directly from Portugal or merged after the end of migration, as described by Sister Mary Noel Menezes, a Sister of Mercy and an emeritus professor at the University of Guyana. (My grandmother, by the way, was a devoted Catholic and went to Catholic school in Guyana with some terribly mean, strict nuns who hit her and made her remove every stitch of the embroidery her mother had painstakingly added to her school smock and sent from Portugal. But I digress.) Sister Mary Noel chronicles the rise of the Portuguese in British Guyana:

"The end of the 1860s and the 1870s saw the Portuguese well entrenched in business. The roster of Portuguese entrepreneurs was extensive. Apart from being property owners, they were provision and commission merchants, spirit shop owners, importers, iron mongers, ship chandlers, leather merchants, boot and shoe makers, saddlers, coachbuilders, woodcutters, timber merchants, brick makers, cattle owners, pork-knockers, charcoal dealers, bakers and photographers.

This commercial success of the Portuguese received high praise in the Royal Gazette.

19th century Portuguese immigrants

The rise of the Portuguese in this colony from a state of most abject poverty to one of comparative affluence, and to the possession, in many instances, of thousands of dollars within the space of a few years, is one of the most remarkable occurrences in modern Colonial History.

This unprecedented success of the Portuguese in business aroused the jealousy and animosity of the Blacks to such an extent that riots resulted, one especially violent one, the 1856 “Angel Gabriel” Riots during which Portuguese shops were extensively damaged.

By the turn of the century the Portuguese had created their own middle and upper class. They were never accepted into the echelons of white European society though they themselves were Europeans. Much less did they “bolster white supremacy”. The rapid economic progress of the Portuguese, their strong adherence to the Catholic faith and their clannishness bred respect but never whole-hearted acceptance among the population either in the nineteenth or twentieth century."

The layers upon layers that one discovers when you delve into historical facts surrounding black life, and in particular one's own family,  never cease to amaze me. And in this case, it brings to light so much about the roots and causes of classism, self hatred, and the need to belong that so often fuels Colonial anglophilia.

NEXT: New York vs. London - a Victorian Timeline from a Black Perspective

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I have always liked cosplay and to dress in period costume. From a little girl dressing extravagantly every Halloween, to my early career on stage, to Comic Cons and costume parties, it has long been a peculiar passion. I am a stickler about authenticity (to the best of my ability to get it right and afford it). My particular interest has always been in the layers of chemise, corset, petticoat, dress, hat, gloves, boots, parasol, fan all in exquisite fabrics from the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

When I recently renewed my interest and decided to purchase a stunning Edwardian outfit, I wondered what the hell is this black girl doing getting all dressed up in 19th century clothes? I make a point of avoiding the Civil War years like the plague. Too many negative connotations. Not that later years were a picnic for black folks, but I personally stay post 1870 (just after the 14th and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act were originally ratified). But even then, why was I drawn to these images of white ladies in pretty frocks? But I knew I was just as happy looking at Worth dresses on a mannequin, so it wasn't about who was wearing the clothes. Or was it? Were there black folks who dressed like this?

I caught sight of a framed photo of my great grandfather, buried behind other family photos.  Dr. Bradford, had been a dentist in British Guyana in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Sitting right there in front of me was visual proof of a black Edwardian, dapper in his jacket, linen pants, bow tie, spectacles, shiny leather shoes and a fashionable cane.

I went on line and researched Black Victorian's and a host of beautiful, stunning, dramatic images came up. I was in seventh heaven. There I was, and my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my friends. We were represented. The accounts of Frederick Douglass' visits to Ireland and England were enlightening. It empowered me to know that the next event I wore my period costume to, it would represent a little known and rarely seen reality and be historically accurate. Anyone who dared to tell me "Oh, but you would have been a maid in that time" would have to suffer my backlash of "There was a black middle class! We were business owners, lawyers, teachers! We were even millionaires! (Madame C.J. Walker, who my 7 year old grandmother met in Ms.Walker's Irvington, NY home when Dr. Bradford brought grandma Elaine on a cruise to New York to celebrate her having survived the Spanish Influenza epidemic.)

Yes, there was history to be had and explored, and it was about my people. Literally. I became insatiably curious about who these Black Victorians and Edwardians were in New York and London. What were their lives like? Where did they live? What was their specific historical context? And, of course, what did they wear?

I decided to research all that I could and to start this blog to celebrate and inform. I've created a timeline of Black New York and London that spans the Victorian years (1837 - 1901) through to the end of the Edwardian era (1910). I will post the timeline along with photos, resources, historical facts, and anecdotes, as well as a chronicle of my costume building and events.

My 1910 white lace dress is on it's way. The white brocade corset arrived today and I'll try it on tomorrow. If you're willing to come on this journey with me, it promises to be an eye opening, fun, deep, disturbing and fascinating ride. Reclaiming the past in style.