Vintage garments are our windows to the past. In them we can discover the techniques of early designers and dressmakers. Since I value each garment as an original source for research, I am reluctant to do anything to an original vintage garment that would destroy that information. However, some time ago I had a client approach me with an intriguing project: could I replicate a Paris original, circa 1912, salvaging the primary elements that made it a true work of art?
The dress was beautiful! The skirt had been draped cleverly in a novel style, and several sections of the gown were embroidered with metallic threads. There was a heavy, luxurious silk tassel at the front of the skirt. With all the draping and embellishment, it was clearly of the era. The shape of the skirt was slim, yet there was a graceful train. There was a high waist to the bodice, but a structured lining beneath it all. The most significant design detail was the square neckline in front, with a rich vestee of metallic lace, and a corresponding vee shaped section at the back closure. We have seen this line in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, and of course, in the elegant dinner gowns in films like “Titanic” and shows like “Downtown Abbey.”
However, this particular garment was damaged beyond any change of wearing or even exhibiting it. The bodice had worn away on the shoulders. Sections of it were in shreds, probably due to the weight and roughness of the beautiful metallic embroideries. Sometime in the past, someone had cut away a section of the skirt, probably to use the rich embroideries as a home décor item. The skirt was ruined. And finally, the client wanted to wear it but couldn’t in its current condition. It was a size too small.
The tops of the sleeves had worn away.
I agreed to take on the challenge. Along the way I documented the original gown as well as I could so that I would have a record of the 1912 Paris couture techniques that were used in the original. Here is what I recorded.
In my next post, I will share the step by step process of recreating the 1912 gown, using new materials where necessary and the original luxurious fabric where possible.
Skilled interpreters at historic places consider their audience, the setting and the story they are about to share. The historic replica clothing they wear should be chosen for authenticity and appropriateness. At a site that is open throughout the summer season, the interpreters’ clothing is generally lightweight and appropriate to the weather. But many seasonal parks open in late spring and stay open into fall. This is the “shoulder season,” a time when mornings can be chilly and cold rain can challenge the interpreter and the audience.
Recently I worked on a project with Craig Wilson, the Museum Historian at Mackinac State Parks in northern Michigan. You may have heard of Mackinac Island; it’s a place where automobiles were banned almost as soon as they were invented. There are still no automobiles on the island today. People get around on foot, on bicycles, or by horse-drawn conveyances. You may have seen bits of Mackinac Island, including the historic Grand Hotel, if you watched the romantic film “Somewhere in Time.” Mackinac City is on the mainland, one of six local park sites.
In the wintertime the region is cold and covered with snow. But starting in early May, the summer visitors begin to arrive. Mackinac State Park welcomes them with historic sites from several eras, including the 1889 lighthouse.
Here’s what their website tells us about the history:
“A point in the storm and a guiding beacon since 1889, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse helped passing ships navigate through the treacherous waters of the Straits of Mackinac. There’s just as much to see from the top of the tower as inside the original buildings. Authentically restored quarters and exhibits, including the original lens and an audiovisual program, Shipwrecks of the Straits, make this “Castle of the Straits” a true gem of the Great Lakes.
The lighthouse is located in Mackinaw City, Michigan. It is closed in the winter and will reopen May 5, 2014.”
Problems in clothing the interpreters
Craig Wilson wanted to provide something that was both warm and authentic for the primary interpreter during the cool spring and fall days. The women interpretive guides usually wear skirts and shirtwaists from the era of 1910 to 1915, mostly in neutral summer colors. Some days, those cotton blouses just aren’t enough protection! Lavender’s Green worked with Craig to research and create a jacket that was both warm and authentic.
Designing the jacket
Fashions were changing rapidly during the ‘teens, the time represented at the lighthouse. A review of fashion plates and photos shows a wide range of styles that might have been worn in the big cities and by the wealthy vacationers at Mackinac Island.
However, a lighthouse keeper was not among the well-to-do classes, and the lighthouse keeper’s wife or daughter would probably not wear a high-fashion suit on her daily rounds. Instead, we looked to examples provided in contemporary paintings. These were scenes from everyday life, and they helped us to see what a woman might have thrown over her clothes in her home or garden.
We chose this basic style, with a high waisted belt and some flare over the hips, as a typical style of the time. We had measurements for Helen, one of the long-term interpretive staffers. I started with a pattern from Folkwear Patterns, which is now out of print. Folkwear’s “Equestriennes Riding Habit,” (copyright 1994) was a copy of a three-piece 1920 linen riding habit, unlined. I began with that jacket, simplified the pockets, and added a silk lining.
Fabric and color choices
Craig wanted the new jacket to be a dark color that would coordinate with the existing wardrobe at the park. Skirts in the collection were tan, black and other neutral shades. I selected a nautical blue wool flannel based on its warmth and the beautiful color. I was able to discover a 1907 painting that showed that exact shade being worn in a casual, watery summertime setting.
The wool jacket is lined in white china silk, similar to what you might find in a vintage garment, and a useful extra layer against the Lake Michigan wind.
The finished jacket
While it may not be high fashion for 1915, the new jacket is certainly an authentic and practical addition to the lighthouse interpreters’ wardrobes.