Guest Post – Researching & Writing ‘Making Edwardian Costumes for Women’

Guest contributor Suzanne Rowland has a background as a theatrical costume maker. She is a lecturer at the University of Brighton where she is about to start a PhD looking at the development of the ready-to-wear fashion industry in the 1910s using the blouse as a case study. She is sharing her experience researching and writing her book Making Edwardian Costumes for Women available from Crowood Press.

Evening gown, Worthing Museum. Beaded tulle bib

This was my first book and it proved to be a steep learning curve and Monica and Brenna suggested I share something about the highs and lows of researching and writing it. The UK publishers, The Crowood Press, publish a wide range of specialist books and costume is a recent and growing area for them. As a dress historian, with a costume making background, I was commissioned to produce a book with patterns and instructions for making every day Edwardian dress. To provide a focus I decided to reproduce a collection of garments and accessories which could have been made by an Edwardian dressmaker, either someone sewing in the home or at a small workshop.This meant that I would not include couture, tailored outerwear, or corsets.

Having researched and worked as a volunteer and museum educator at two regional museums in the South East of England, Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, and Brighton Museum, I was familiar with the collections which helped when selecting projects. Worthing Museum has a wide selection of social history materials which compliments its costume collection. This includes home dressmaking manuals and women’s journals from the Edwardian era, some even include the original brown tissue paper patterns. There are also albums of photographs, mostly donated and collected family snaps, which are useful to study how the clothes were worn.

Evening gown, Worthing Museum. Back and front.  Illustration by Joe McCrae

Working with the curators from both museums it took a few visits to decide on the final projects. Many worthy pieces were rejected because they were too complicated to re-make or the fabric could not easily be sourced. The next stage was to photograph each garment from all angles and to record detailed measurements, not always easy when faced with a full skirt, too frail to mount, and a small table not big enough to accommodate the whole skirt. Sketching each garment proved to be as useful as photography, especially as it draws the eye to the details of a garment. I tried creating a measurements sheet but as each project was so unique it did not really work. Taking measurements was a trial and error process and because I kept missing or needing to verify a measurement I ended up revisiting each project an average of three times.  I originally intended to photograph all of the original garments to feature in the book to document a before and after story but because some pieces were in need of conservation and therefore could not be put on a stand it was not possible, and so I worked with an illustrator who had the idea to draw the garments as they are now.

My first source of research was the clothes themselves. I looked for details to show whether they were handmade or machine stitched, what labels, if any, were included, what kinds of seams were used, and I began to notice repeat processes such as the use of deep hem facings, and the prevalence of small metal hooks and bars for fastenings. Edwardian clothes have many fine details including tucks and pintucks, and faggoting as a decorative method for joining two sections of fabric. Lace also features widely and in order to identify the types of lace I used reference books by lace expert Pat Earnshaw, this particularly helped to identify the lace on the underwear and blouses. To buy exact replica lace for all projects would have proved too expensive for my modest budget and so I used a mixture of vintage and contemporary lace. Fabrics were slightly easier to source although contemporary fabrics do not have the look and feel of the original. I dipped 4 metres of black and white cotton stripe in cold black tea to get the aged look for the day dress project.

Reproduction day dress

A pattern cutter used my measurements, photographs, and diagrams to produce a set of patterns suitable for a modern shape. Each museum piece is a different size so while the exterior of each garment in the book remains as true to the original as possible the sizing has been standardized to a British size 10. The next stage was to make toiles and then to cut in fabric. Each project involved sewing a section and photographing it before moving to the computer to write step-by-step instructions before moving on to the next stage. I also had to regularly upload and edit my photographs. Photography was one of the greatest challenges and although I used professional photographers for the chapter openers, I took most of the step-by step pictures and discovered the need for good lighting.

Original advertisements provided contextual information.  Cash's Cambric Frilling in 1907

Each of the 11 projects has a chapter in the book shows how to complete that project from start to finish. Chapters open with some historical background and with a detailed description of the museum original. All patterns are reproduced in a reduced scale and have the scale printed next to them. A list of materials is followed by information of cutting and preparation. Each process is then explained separately with accompanying photographs. At the publishers request a  final section gives ideas on how to adapt the project to make it suitable for a range of ‘characters’ and how to adapt it for a quick change on the stage. As well as the projects, the book also includes an introduction which gives an outline of the collections at each museum and provides an object-focused history of Edwardian dressmaking. There are further chapters on measurements, techniques and fabrics, and a final chapter on how to wear Edwardian clothes. There are 200 images in the book which includes scaled down patterns and close-up photographs of details of the original pieces, as well as step-by-step pictures of the reproductions.

It took me just over a year to write, fitting it in around lecturing commitments and other freelance work. Most of the work was done in the final three months and I seriously underestimated the time it would take to produce the additional material such as writing captions for photographs, and compiling a list of thumbnail images for the graphic designer. I ran over my deadline by about three weeks which is not great for a small publishing house and I have to admit to finding it pretty stressful in those last few weeks! I got to work with some really talented people including the curators, a flower artist, a pattern cutter, a milliner and an illustrator. The book is aimed at costume designers, makers, students, re-enactors and anyone with an interest in the Edwardian fashion and sewing, and object-focused research. Sadly due to the detail in the clothes it is not suitable for complete beginners but on a positive note it brings to life a set of every-day clothes and accessories from two regional museum archives. I am now working on a follow-up book about fashion in the 1920s which uses the same museum collections and format and which is progressing at a much faster rate!

Making Edwardian Costumes for Women by Suzanne Rowland is available through Crowood Press.

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