Sunday, January 26, 2020

Anguish and Intensity: the making of a Jane Austen Regency gown

Gina Mulligan, left, and me. Learn how I struggled
to create this white Regency gown.

I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America because of a secret writing project (literary agents, it needs me). I wanted to be ensconced by other Janeites. And when I learned of the Jane Austen tea that took place in January, I was so in. I asked a good friend to go with me, and we both embarked on vintage-a-fying ourselves.

I must give credit to this website, with its “Easy-Peasy Regency: From Bed to Ball Gown in 30 Minutes or less” project. It is ultimately what I ended up doing, with a few (okay, many) left turns along the way.

I give a shout-out to Diana Birchall, Devoney Looser, Bianca Hernandez of Drunk Austen, Gillian Bagwell, Chloe Filson—all people I consulted at the outset of this costuming dilemma (Gillian even offered to mail me hers, what a generous soul!). Bianca told of the Simplicity pattern (S8941), so I hied myself to JoAnn’s fabric where I found it in a drawer. It felt like the sewing equivalent of opening a card catalogue in the library. They actually had about six envelopes of this Regency dress in different sizes, so when there is a rush on Regency, they’ve got it covered! I took the pattern envelope out, noticed the intimidating price (especially since I had been swayed by watching the video above where a single bedsheet becomes a dress), contemplated the failure I might confront in attempting a “real” dress, and yet still committed to finding the items on the envelope.

Part of the envelope cover. I was texting my sisters for help
while in the sewing store, and sent this when they asked
what I was making.

Those required items were: 1/8” wide twill tape, hook and eye, 60” fabric such as linen or taffeta, 45-60” muslin for the lining, and satin for the sash. My first mistake: I went after the notions first. I found the hook and eye immediately, but stalled with the twill tape. The store had 1/4” tape but not 1/8”. Since I didn’t understand what it was for, I didn’t know if it was okay to literally double the width asked for. I consulted with someone at the cutting counter, who sent me to find linen tape (on a spool, so I didn’t have to buy more than what I actually needed), which I had a really hard time finding. I noted the sash ribbons and then went inexplicably to hunt down the muslin for the lining.

Oh boy.

The muslin available was only 44 inches, not the specified 45—and instead of the specified alternative 60” it jumped up to 90 inches. I was frankly paralyzed with fear and loathing. I consulted another customer who said, “Yeah, they always do that. You never get the right amount of inches. I don’t know why they don’t make it consistent.” I did start to wonder, with an excellent application of math, if the 90” muslin could be halved to make the required 45”... but then, was it a thing about being horizontal rather than vertical? I mean, a Regency gown has to be one length of fabric from shoulder to feet, and I’m fairly tall. So then more math was applied to figure out that since I am 66 inches tall, plus add for the fabric to go out and around some butt and bust, I’d be in trouble with merely 45 inches to cover up all my parts. Right?? I imagine legitimate seamstresses will read this blog post and snicker at my appalling ignorance.

By now, a striking amount of time had passed as I combed through the muslin... what do you call them? bolts?...feverishly certain I could find the magical 45 or 60 inch selections. So I decided to turn my attention to the actual fabric itself, which I really should have started with.

I couldn’t find anything taffeta. Whatever that is. It sounds like something for the prom. I enlisted help from an employee who I pathetically showed the envelope to, expecting her to say something like, “Oh you poor dear, this is certainly above your head, and please let me walk you through the store collecting everything you need, and ultimately I can just sew this for you.” She showed me the fabrics of the correct size, but there were very, very few apparel fabrics that were 60 inches as the envelope wished. In fact, none of the fabrics looked like anything Jane Austen or her cohorts would wear. I was in despair. Finally, I decided one of the florals could possibly work even if it wasn’t perfectly 1813 vintage looking...but as I pulled it out, I realized there was not much to it. And sure enough, at the cutting counter, they told me there was not enough to get the required yardage. Ohhhhhhh why did I spent so much time there?

I’m not going to go so far as to say I was “freaked out,” but there was something very interestingly psychological going on with me there. Maybe in a past life I was a seamstress who perished mid-garment?

I walked around the store, carefully putting everything back.

For a while, I was going to use these shower curtains because of the
lovely embossing and the prebuilt hem. But they weren't tall enough.
Discarded the idea and turned to the bedsheet.

I went to Marshall's and bought a lovely shower curtain with light embossing, and even a nice hem for the bottom. I was proud to be following the Von Trapp and O’Hara heritage of wearing window treatments.

At home, I reacquainted myself with the blogpost above and set about pinning the curtain as directed. However, it was quickly determined to be too short for me. I had been (faultily) reasoning that when you stand in a shower the curtain is taller than you, but the blogpost requires the fabric to be folded in half vertically. In retrospect, I ought to have just sketched out a rough dress (the width of the fabric was certainly enough) and gone for it, but I was in a torpor of realizing I had zero sewing skills and was letting down my forebears.

So I set the curtains aside and decided to actually use a bed sheet. It seemed more my speed and we even had a white flat sheet! I did worry a bit that the sheet might show evidence of what you might call marital exertions, but a glance through assured me it was going to pass muster. In the garage, I quickly located the sewing machine box and brought it inside. I pulled out the sewing machine out of the box and...gaped.

It had been put back by the last user in a distressing state. Someone had removed the bobbin cellar and the foot on the needle. It felt like I went in for a hug and realized the person had been partially amputated since I last saw them. I had to go watch youtube videos to understand how to put it all back together again, how to install the bobbin and pull up the bobbin thread, etc. I use my machine about once a decade, and each time it requires a huge reeducation. I pledged that I would record a youtube video for myself so that in 2030 when I again try to sew something, I will have already answered my own questions.

I remembered that on Project Runway, everyone irons their material before sewing, so I did that. I like the little exhale the iron makes now and then. However, I don’t believe it’s possible to master ironing. And who would want to, anyway? It’s a tool of the patriarchy. I got depressed thinking that if I could get out all the wrinkles, the car ride to the Jane Austen tea would just reinstate them. Ironing tricks you. Do you agree that that is not fair?

I followed the blogpost but had some questions. I cut down the sheet because it wasn’t a twin, but even still wondered how much excess fabric was good to keep around. I liked the idea of a bit of a train trailing the ground but in terms of width/girth, I wanted to look slender or whatever passes for slender at my weight. I followed the instructions and created the double column that, with ribbon under the bust, actually looked legit! However, it really was too thick, so I cut a wide swath off and went back to the sewing machine. 

The mysterious "overlap"...why was it necessary? Read on!

Note: I was very, very confused by the use of safety pins to “overlap” the two edges of the column. I even reached out to the blog poster via email and Twitter to understand. I was thinking the safety pins were only temporary, right, until you could get to a sewing machine? No. The absolute brilliance of her design is that the overlap means no body parts are inadvertently seen/flashed as you wear the safety-pinned garment to whatever Jane Austen event you are attending. Afterward, you unpin it and keep using it as a bedsheet. I love the complete reduce/recycle/reuse nature of this project. No bedding was harmed during the making of her gown! In my case, I had had to cut down the oversized sheet, so it was never getting back to the bed anyway.

As a side note to my above note, I found that these “safety” pins were misnomered because I did get Aurora’d by them.

At one point in my traumatizing evening, I went and took a photo of the sunset off the balcony. It seemed like a metaphor.

Q. Did I also take photos of myself in the various iterations of this project?
A. Yes.

Q. Will I be posting them?
A. No.

Q. But why?
["not suitable for work"]

Q. Is that all?
A. Also NSE.
["not suitable for eyes"]

My previous musings for the costume had been:
  • Amazon's Jane Austen costume, but I worried everyone would wear it (or recognize it as the Amazon costume).
  • Party City has one, but not in stock at my local store.
  • And finally, the thrift store, where I surprisingly found a few possible options. A decade or so back, there was a small resurgence of popularity of the Empire waist, and so I bought two dresses that while only calf length, definitely had the proper waistline. I had thought perhaps I could layer something as long as the bodice worked, but in fact what I ended up using was one of the dress’s little demi-jacket which approximated a Spencer. [Janeites, I was googling “Steventon” thinking that was the name for the little coat!]
"Simply" Vera Wang thrift shop find in a nice ombre.
But calf-length, so I'd still have to figure out something
and also need a Spencer to cover the "shocking" shoulders

The "Spencer" attracted me although in a light metallic sheen
Jane Austen wouldn't have had access to. But hey! Close enough.
The sheaf dress is also pretty cute and might be wearable for real.

So with my bedsheet covered by a pale lilac Spencer, I thought I could bear to go to the event although I did worry that someone would know the dress was a sheet. “Oh, where’d you get that? The store called Percale?” 

Satisfied, exhausted, I opened up my email to learn that “most people don’t dress up for the event.”


But I did not fash (yes, I’ve been rereading and watching Outlander, why do you ask?), or at least did not fash much. As good friend Gina and I learned at the tea, a fair number of attendees did dress up, so we were not foolish. It was amazing to see some of the gowns, and even a few men in wonderful Regency attire too! We heard several wonderful lectures, partook of an amazing high tea by a company called Novel Tea, and enjoyed chatting with table mates. I even won a Cinemark giftcard in one of the raffles. Sigh. A beautiful day. I highly recommend this event.

Lovely couple at our table. Check out her gorgeous hair AND cheekbones.
She made her own gown. She knows how to sew.

Timing recap:
Monday: 2 hours at JoAnn’s flipping out
Tuesday: unproductive panic. Purchase bonnet online so at least I’d have something that looked legit.
Wednesday: 1.5 hours going to thrift stores and finding options, going to Marshall's to get shower curtains. Returned to JoAnn's in a furtive skulk to buy the ribbon I'd put back the day before in shame.
Thursday: 3.5 hours (yes this is embarrassing), trying to make inroads of communication with the sewing machine.
Friday: 2 hours sew for real, including cutting down the sheet and redoing the seam. I’m slow.
Saturday: the event!
Total: 9 hours to sew a dang sheet.

Cost breakdown:
Sheet: free from closet.
Curtains: Might use them to make a Regency dress for elementary school child’s “wax museum” (one of the joys of this project was that she wants to be Jane Austen—her idea!), $20
Thrift store dress with “Spencer”: $7
Second thrift store dress I bought thinking it could be used because of its neckline (it’s Vera Wang! okay, "Simply Vera," the Kohl's lower-priced line): $7
Notions (thread, elastic, pretty pink ribbon): $11
Bonnet: $10
Cute hairpins: Borrowed to put up hair. Never got photo of hair under bonnet, alas.
Total: $55. Well, that’s discouraging. I do think I’ll wear both the short dresses in summer (sans Spencer), and hopefully the bonnet gets a second use and the curtains get a first use, so I have to factor that in. Plus, I’ll definitely wear this “ensemble” as Carol Burnett calls it again sometime, for next year’s tea and hopefully something before that, too. The national JASNA convention is in Cleveland in October.

And thus I close this chapter on my wild adventure with fabric!

Here are some more photos of the event, the Jane Austen tea on her birthday, put on by the Sacramento branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

A model demonstrates a lovely Regency gown with train

Check out the gorgeous table settings! If anyone recognizes the water glass,
let me know. Gina was quite taken, and I'd love to get her a set.
Each table was decorated differently and beautifully.

The beautiful room where the tea took place. What do you call those walls?
In the center, the woman in red was the presenter who made these gowns; hers is 
based on the one featured on the event program in the photo above.

. . . .