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.

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