Saturday, 18 March 2017

Why not have a simple white dress and a camisole to go with? You'd cover evening and daywear easily?

Spring has sprung, and with this I see the annual increase in mail reaching me with contents like „I would like to start into the hobby, what do I need?“ or “I am a member of a dance-group, what minimum items do you recommend?” or “I love the look you achieve. How do you do it?”

Back in 2011 I’ve put a comprehensive beginners list on my LJ (I can post it later if there is interest, else those who are on LJ can hop over and have a look)

Now this is now “Ale’s little minimum list for beginners”.  
Please bear in mind this is what I consider to be a basic kit, for about 1800; It is not based on inventories (e.g. the number of shirts), nor is this etched in stone. I do heartily encourage you research and explore your groups or events time and fashion a bit more in detail. 

Pinterest can (doesn’t need to be) be a good start, so are blogs (reading list at the bottom of this article) to have a quick first look. Of course, there is wider reaching literature, originals to study, some patterns even taken from Originals. For a beginner, the amount of information can be overwhelming; that’s why I like to ease people into research (another good set of articles can be found over at American Duchess).

I am a particular fan of the Rijksmuseum's Rijksstudio app, what is limited to their collection, though on the other hand it's not as muddled as Pinterest

One can easily get lost, as it was a time of quickly changing fashion and styles. If your group is mostly doing 1810 events or dances, and their kit is all late Empire early Restauration, you’d like to have the flat front and the puffy sleeves.

That is why my recommended kit is based slap-bang on 1799 to 1800. An LWD can be tweaked with accessories to be a bit more fashion forward or backwards, more formal or more casual. It can have a train, but doesn’t need one. (and of course, you can always make yourself more dresses…)
Over the next few weeks I will be working on such a basic kit with a new dancer, if she consents we will make progress posts on how she advances with her work.

2 linen shirts
Stockings and garter
Shawl & Fichu
Jacket, Spencer & Canezou
Jewellery, Fan, Parasol

2 linen shirts, with short sleeves
I recommend using short sleeves. They do show at times, but they do protect your dress from sweat and stains. Especially in the beginning, when you only own one dress, you don’t want to mess it up too quickly. And I recommend linen as it won’t smell sweaty after a day of dancing. A pattern can be found at

Also (and especially) for smaller ladies, as you will not be able to achieve the silhouette without.
If you’d like more in-depth information, check out Sabines great Article  
Basically you want your girls up, and slightly divided for 1800 (the big divorcé look comes later, and squished together is earlier. But rather up and squished together than down and hanging). The available short stays patterns can do the job, but the longer I am wearing long stays, the less I am convinced. 

Stockings & garters
In an ideal world: Invest in some silk stockings and knit/sew/embroider some garters.
Machine made silk stockings clock in at around EUR20-25 a pair (e.g. American Duchess or Nehelenia Patterns). Sally Pointer makes hand-machined stockings (on an 19th century stocking frame), what are a bit more pricey. 
For dancing I recommend cotton knee-height stockings with a bit of elastic (yes, those from the department store) 
You won’t be able to pull those off for a re-enactment event, but not to run after your garters during a full day of dancing is simply an option too good to let pass.

For a beginner, a pair of good simple leather ballerina flats will do. Pointy shape would be nicest, but check what your feet say to them. Leather sole is nice, but if you already own a pair with a rubber sole, go on use them, they are fine enough for a first event. No glitter, animal print, patent leather, cut-out patterns, really weird bows, butterflies etc. Just plain leather will do.

For dancing, I personally love SCD pumps, e.g. from James Senior  if you have slim feet, and Thistle for wider feet– and spend the extra £ for the shock absorber inlay if your producer doesn’t offer them, your back, knees and ankles will thank you. E
lse buy yourself some white ballet practice flats (not the hard point-shoes, the soft shoes). Try them on in your local dance store, a dance shoe needs to fit like a glove, you don't want it to slip while you are skipping around.

The colour: Formal dress shoes for a ball should be white, if your dance shoes are white, either go for black or a quirky colour for your street shoes, to have a more divers look. Once you decide, that the hobby is something you’d like to continue, I’d recommend getting a pair of boots, e.g. from American Duchess or Robert Land, Sarah Juniper or Andy Burke.

If you like to wear a sheer dress, you can’t do without a petticoat. I used the simple “two rectangles gathered into a waistband”, and either baste it onto my stays or wear with straps.

You may have already your “dream dress” in your mind, maybe something you’ve seen in a movie or on another reenactor. 
Keep that one in mind, yet as a first dress I recommend starting with a simple LWD in cotton muslin or batiste.
An LWD is a “Little White Dress” – what can be styled for a country outing, for an evening at the opera, even for a ball, with a few simple tricks. Start with that, and use this to learn what you like and what you would like to change. And cotton because: It can be washed. If you only go to an event once a year, the dry cleaner (if they accept to clean a hand-sewn garment) is affordable. But if you are in kit about 2-4 times a month or even more often, you'd like to have a washable wardrobe. Especially if your wardrobe isn't that extensive.

A LWD with some coloured accessories - and suddenly it looks different

Around 1800 the sleeves are still narrow; they can extend down to the wrist or be just at elbow-length or really short. They can be separately embroidered or with some lace inserts to render the little white dress more interesting.
The dress typically has front closure (drawstring or apron closing) and still some fullness in the skirtfront. It can have a train, or no train, but usually comes down to your feet (shorter for working women) And yes, one can dance with a train. Tough I personally I am not too much of a fan.

There is a multitude of patterns available, most commercial patterns mess up the neckline in my opinion, by closing off too much. It’s a deep wide neckline, we’ve had a short period of higher necklines in the early to mid-90ies, but nothing shouts “Commercial pattern” as much as a high neckline. You don’t need to worry about “falling out” - that’s where your friendly fichu (Neck-kerchief) comes to the rescue.
My next pet peeve about necklines concerns especially Empire gowns, where the grain of the fabric is completely disregarded, and thus the fit just… off. But more about that later.

Another major issue is the position of the waistline. If the waistline hangs down to the small of your back, or ellbow height - it’s too low. It’s difficult to check that when one works alone, we’ve all been there, when after an event we look at pictures and just go “Duh! Why didn’t anyone tell me it looks so frumpy?”

Skirtpart - Do not skimp. Again. Do.Not.Skimp.You can be short of fabric, but don’t skimp. Add in gores, use the last bit of fabric you have. There are commercial patterns what have very narrow skirts - add your own skirt, burn the pattern.
As a a rule of thumb for a dancer: If you can do anything you’d like to do, you are good to go. To me this translates into a minimal hemline of 1.90, preferably more. If you want a train, lay out your skirt flat, and puzzle in the triangle you need for the transition between front and side and back.

My patterns were created by draping though I did try out some commercial patterns as well, because I want to be able to give recommendations when asked. 
My number one commercial pattern: Saundra Altmans Pattern at Past Patterns what is based on this dress.
I don't recommend using the pattern as it is, as the result is a rather deep waist, but it doesn’t take much to tweak it (Shorten the bodice and add the skirt by logical fabric use instead with the pattern.
It goes together pretty easily, and when using the unaltered pattern but with long sleeves it works very well for the Early to Mid-90ies, and can even stretch a bit further. Added benefit, it fits several ladies, thus a good dress to lend to a first timer. 

The girl front right, with the back to us. Her dress was made using Saundra Altman's pattern.
Photo by Jeannette Heller. 

Another one what I’ve seen done up without issues and with a nice result and without drama: Lieblingskleid by Nehelenia Patterns.
I do in any case strongly recommend making a mock-up and try it on over your stays. (Add the drawstrings by a simple gathering stitch to work as one. And then take a pencil or pen, and draw in where you might need to cut lower (Neckline) or higher (Waistline)  Don’t be scared, look at fashion plates beforehand, draw the new line, cut (or fold) back, and keep it on, then return to the mirror a cup of coffee later. 

And to answer a request laid at my door regularely -Why I don’t give copies of my own pattern: My current pattern was draped by my friends Cristina and Ester, based on an original garment. As with all draped patterns it has it’s quirks, but I know them by now inside out, and know how to handle it, it is perfectly fitted to me, that’s why I don’t share it. Because you will see, after you’ve worked your first own dress, you will discover that there is a little step from altering a pattern to entirely draped pattern. My recommendation for experienced seamstresses is: Find a friend who also wants to sew, find pictures of what you want to achieve (e.g. Costume in Detail, extant garment pictures, PoF - you name it) and drape it. 

Simple: Short sleeves need long gloves, and long sleeves short gloves. 
There are some (very few) exceptions to that rule. Don’t make the common rare and the rare common. Short sleeves, long gloves. 
I recommend going chiner (perusing flea markets, brocantes, ebay, etsy.). Have a pair for “ball” and a pair for “not as fine”. And I do recommend having a pair of sewn mittens for simple strolls, made from either silk, linen or cotton muslin. Great sun protection.

You need something on your head. For a first outing try with a silk scarf worn as a turban, but then try to find a style what suits you. I like capotes with veil (I love veils…), or a simple tulle-fichu as headdress. But also caps are delightful, and some strawhats can be lifesavers on a hot summer day.

White silk capote with embroidered tulle veil.
Photo Fabrice Robardey

Shawl & Fichu
A fichu is a kerchief, what you wear either under your dress to fill the neckline from inside out, or over your dress to decorate and protect. Just think about it this way - there was no sunscreen 200 years ago. And while it may be fashionable to sport your decollete, having a tanline or a sunburn certainly wasn’t. (Remember Caroline Bingley sneering at Eliza Bennett  “so brown and coarse”

The Lady with the Spanish Comb, with a sprigged muslin fichu

The famous Shawl. Scrap the Paschminas. Honestly, scrap them. Use them for your everyday wear, but they simply don’t cut the mustard, they are too small, too light and the pattern is usually not good enough.
If you have the good luck to find two with a pattern elegant and unobtrusive enough to pass muster, feel free to hack them with Jen Thompson’s trick, else you’d be better off with a 2.7-3m length of plain wool fabric. 

Long embroidered shall, fichu and tulle fichu for the head
Photo by Sabine Schierhoff

Jacket, Spencer & Canezou
The easiest way - take your basic pattern, and go from there. For a mere beginner I’d say it’s not a necessity, but you’d soon discover that you’d like a layer more.

Little unlined linen canezou. Photo by Helga Varadi

Jewellery, Fan, Parasol, Reticule
Less is more, that is true with Jewellery today as well. Either save up for something good, or leave it be. A plasticine cameo will always look cheap, a flamenco fan isn’t period, and those lace parasol even less. 
Many admire combs, tiaras and cameos. Of course, so do I. But these are a serious investment of money, and you may wreck a piece of jewellery what survived 200 years, or have it stolen. 
I have a different range of jewels - some for “very fine” - those I wear for high-end events, where I want to sparkle. But for some balls I don’t feel like I’d like to risk my good combs, so I will settle for ribbons or flowers or a veil. (or for everything in one go) 
At flea markets or on online auction platforms you can sometimes score antique pearls or corals (please don’t buy Chinese coral. Please don’t), or not too bad looking Jasperware brooches. 

There are some retailers who have sort of ok’ish looking Brisee fans. If you score one made from white wood, it’s worth the trouble to gently sand it, and add a layer of fine whitewash or lacquer, and rethread it with some silk thread. It’s not perfect, but will look closer like a worked ivory one, without robbing a museum. 
There are also some artisans who make beautiful fans. They cost about the same as a real antique one, but without the risk of ruining an original.

For years I preferred to use a big straw hat and a fichu instead of a parasol what will look wrong. And even today, to some events I don’t bring my parasol (e.g baggage restrictions, or if I am already bringing my big hat)

Make yourself a couple of nice drawstring bags for a réticule, and start looking for inspiration, there are so many nice ones out there what will push your outfit to another level.

I hope this is somewhat comprehensive. 

I have some closing remarks:

Always up. Contrary to many movie and telly adaptations, we don't suffer of the Bobby-pin shortage. Practice how to make an updo, or if all fails, how to bundle them up and wrap a turban around. (Feel free to add hairpieces, it was done in the period as well, called cheveux postiches). Jen Thompson, Lauren Stowell and Janet Stephens have published each a nice tutorial with a nice and neat hairdo including videos.

Yes. There was make-up, but it was neither glitzy nor smokey.  I found a portrait from the period what appealed to me, and I tried to copy that look, I thus reach for concealer, fair powder and rouge, all from natural cosmetics.
BTW: I count nail-art into too glitzy as well ;-)

Man-made Skin discolortions, aka Tattoos & Piercings
Cover them up. If you try to be a lady of around 1800, a tattoo will break the look you so carefully tried to put together. A pair of mittens or fichu will be your friend.
Same goes for facial piercings. They may be trendy today, the were not in 1800, and would turn the "Timetraveller" into a "modern woman in costume"

Sabine Schierhoffs charming, well researched and wonderfully geeky blog.
Sarah Wagner’s page. If you speak Swedish (or know how to handle google translate), you find her approach to this list here: (insert link)


  1. Eine für mich sehr nützliche und unterhaltsam zu lesende Zusammenfassung, umso mehr natürlich im Hinblick auf Weimar (schreibt die liebe Hannah und hat die Schürze nach einem Deiner anderen wunderbaren Beiträge noch nicht einmal fertig). Vielen Dank für Deine Mühe, und die "Anfängerzettel" helfen mir ungemein dabei, ein völliges Abschweifen und "michinschönenBildernverlieren" zu vermeiden, deshalb würde ich mich sehr freuen, Deine Zusammenstellung lesen zu dürfen (was ist LG???) herzlichst, Hannah

    1. Liebe Hannah,
      Es freut mich, wenn es etwas hilft. Cristinas originale Kitlist ist noch länger, ich habe hier für Tänzer oder einen Schnupper-Anfänger zusammengekürzt.
      Ich finde es immer so schade, wenn ich sehe, wieviel Zeit, Mühe und Geld viele Anfänger investieren, um am Ende dann schräg angeguckt zu werden. Ich möchte die Freude, die mir die Zeit um 1800 bereitet teilen, denn die Zeit hat soviel mehr zu bieten als nur schöne Kleider.

      Ganz liebe Grüsse, und Gut Näh :-)

      P.S.: Es ist nicht falsch, sich in schöne Bilder zu vergucken, das passiert mir auch dauernd. Aber ab und an muss man praktisch sein :-)
      P.P.S.: LJ ist eine Blogplatform, in der Beiträge nur für explizit freigeschaltete Leser zugänglich sind. Viele Blogger hier haben auch einen LJ Account (ich hab mit LJ angefangen zu bloggen, da es für mich die beste Platform war. Ich würde nie ein Bild öffentlich auf Blogger stellen, wo ich ausser Hemd und Mieder und einem halbwegs angepasstem Probestück vor dem Spiegel steh, mit dem Untertitel "Es wirft hier Falten. Wieso?" - Auf LJ geht das aber ohne Weiteres, weil ich die Leserschaft genau definieren kann)

    2. Ich habe die Antwort erst jetzt gelesen, vielen lieben Dank!

  2. Thanks for putting this together! I will refer to it often :)


    1. You are welcome. It's nothing compared to your well written posts and not half as helpful. But it's a beginning, I hope :-)