Goose Mother: You promised some insight on the creation of and the difficulties of making historically correct patterns. I’m really interested in learning about this.
Andrea Schewe: Yes, I said I would talk about the problems of a modern pattern company making truly historically accurate sewing patterns. If you look back at old movies and photographs of theatrical costumes, up until about 30 or 40 years ago all the “period” costumes were basically whatever the contemporary fashion silhouette of the time was, made to look sort of like the desired period. Examples such as this 1920s Martha Washington pattern issued by Butterick or this costume Sarah Bernhardt wore in her 1912 movie of Queen Elizabeth I make this point vividly. Really … check out any period film from the 1930s through the 1960s or 1970s. What you will find are unboned bodices, zippers up the back, and totally wrong bodice shapes.
I mentioned earlier that I learned costuming from my mother, who made costumes for college and amateur theater. In any kind of theatrical costuming, but especially amateur theater because of budget limitations, the outside look of the costume is more important than how historical the cut or sewing techniques are. Even when I worked in the professional shops in New York City, the period dresses we made looked 85 – 90% correct on the outside. The inside was made unbelievably strong so these costumes could withstand eight performances a week for a few years. Also keep in mind that a theatrical costume has to be comfortable for the actor and is meant to be seen from a distance.
This was the mind set I held when I designed my first “historical” costume pattern which was for McCall’s. If you recall, that was the pattern that had the soft sculpture armor I designed with my two rough and tumble boys in mind. (McCall’s 4404) This was also the pattern that caught Simplicity’s attention because it was selling so well. Further, I had no idea that people were buying it to make costumes to wear to the Renaissance Faire!
After I was retained by Simplicity, I made another stab at a Renaissance pattern (Simplicity #9229). This particular pattern was a stage-type costume, but the folks at Simplicity were pleased with the sales. It wasn’t until Betsy Burger and I took that now pivotal trip to my local Renaissance Faire (read part IV of this blog, June 2012) that my patterns really started selling well.
Then, an unexpected thing happened. Simplicity began receiving phone calls and letters (no email yet) asking EXACTLY what year a specific pattern was supposed to represent. Well … I didn’t really know. I had been doing my own take on what folks were wearing at the Renaissance Faires that I had attended. I also had started subscribing to Renaissance Magazine, in order to be aware of the costumes being worn all around the country, but I was thinking like a theatrical costumer; not a historical costumer.
Now, you know that Martha McCain and I are long time friends. We met while working in those professional New York costume shops. She has much more experience and formal training than I do in costuming AND she loves detail and is intensely interested in how the clothing was really made. She had been working for Simplicity at this time, and wanted to design some truly accurate period costume patterns for them. The first were two Medieval patterns; a dress and cape (Simplicity 8725) and (Simplicity 8728). The pattern pieces were so large it had to be split into two patterns.
PROBLEM #1 – a pattern envelope can only hold 4 pattern sheets that are 42 3/4” x 56” and that has to be for the largest size the design is sized for.
Martha wasn’t sure if Simplicity would want to do any period that had very involved undergarments, because that would entail one or two separate patterns just for the underwear. And those underwear patterns would have to stay in the catalog as long as the dresses that go with them do. But, a couple years later, Simplicity’s Renaissance patterns were selling so well, they decided to give Martha’s idea a try. And it was very successful. She focused all her time and energy on learning everything about the clothing of the Civil War period. She learned how the fashions changed year by year and what fabrics were used and what accessories were worn.
PROBLEM #2 – you have to have a designer who can devote unlimited amounts of research time.
Martha’s costumes were received very enthusiastically by people involved in Civil War reenactment. (Simplicity 9769, 9764, and 9761 ) However, there was also a very vocal group who believed it necessary to point out every slight inaccuracy they believed was in her patterns. At this point in time, the internet had several groups focused on historical costumes in general and the Civil War specifically. Often, the people in these groups complained about details and sewing techniques in Martha’s Civil War patterns that they felt were inaccurate. However, these are things that had been changed by Simplicity AFTER Martha submitted her patterns to the production staff.
Remarkably, Martha not only researched how the garments should be cut, she also researched the way they would have been constructed at the time. When she submitted her patterns, she also submitted a book with step-by-step sewing instructions. But, Simplicity doesn’t have the room on the guide sheets to include all the information she provided.
PROBLEM #3 – Simplicity can only fit 4 guide sheets into an envelope. That’s if there are just 3 pattern sheets. If there are 4 pattern sheets then only 3 guide sheets can fit in the envelope. And, don’t forget, one of those sheets has to be for the Spanish and French translations. Ultimately, we are really only talking about 2 or 3 possible guide sheets for all the sewing instructions.
Meanwhile, I kept making stabs at trying to design patterns that were a little more historically accurate. I don’t have the patience that Martha has to specialize intricately in one time period nor the patience to write extremely detailed instructions. When I submit a design, for the most part, I let the instruction writers use standard sewing techniques. This, of course, has its own set of problems.
In the course of my design career, I made a “movie” Civil War dress (Simplicity 4900), based on Cold Mountain. And just this year, a more correct Civil War dress (Simplicity 1818) based on an 1863 illustration from Godey’s Ladies Book. Thanks to Martha’s previous research, along with her corset and hoop skirt, my design incorporates these undergarments which the model is wearing under my dress. I have designed so many Renaissance Faire costumes which are mostly fun and pretty, but not very correct. Then, in an attempt to give a more authentic Tudor silhouette, I used my Gondoliers theatrical costume as a basis for Simplicity 4508. However, the reality is is that pattern is merely an interpretation. Recently, I was able to design two very authentic Tudor patterns and one pattern of correct underpinnings. The first of the two, Simplicity 3782, still is more of a theatrical version, because I made the bodice so heavily boned it isn’t necessary to wear a separate corset. The next two I created were such delights! These were made with the correct underwear, tie-on under-sleeves and cap (headpiece). They are still in the catalog; Simplicity 2621 and Simplicity 2589. Here are some of the photos I took before sending in my samples. This should provide a visual of how to sew the cap and how to put on all the layers.
Photos taken by Andrea to show the people at Simplicity the correct order to wear the many layers of this costume. Simplicity 2589 and 2621.
PROBLEM #4 – This is probably the biggest problem. Creating and designing historic costumes takes much longer for the designer and the entire production staff at Simplicity and sometimes the sales don’t merit the time spent.
We now know what the limits are when trying to produce an authentic pattern. We can give you a very, very close version of the correct pattern pieces in a wide range of sizes to fit the modern body with instructions for modern sewing techniques. However, the enterprising historical seamstress can use our pattern pieces and research the correct way to sew them to obtain the most authentic garment.
Goose Mother: Yikes! I had no idea regarding the involvement of simply creating a pattern. And less about the constraints the designer is obliged to design under and the dilemas the designer faces. I more or less surmised that when patterns were split into two patterns in this manner, it was more the company attempting to drive the sales. I didn’t realize the limitations on the packaging end either. That was an excellent summation on the topic.
Andrea Schewe: I want to make the point perfectly clear of why patterns are split into two. It has never been because the company is attempting to drive sales. It is always because the pattern pieces are just too large. My first mention of this was regarding the popular King Henry VIII patterns. In order to have all the pieces to the costume; the doublet, the coat AND the hat, two patterns had to be issued. (Simplicity 9633 and Simplicity 9650)
Goose Mother: OK, so now where are we headed??
Andrea Schewe: Let’s see, next time … hmmm … I haven’t talked about my home decoration patterns yet. So, let’s do that!
Goose Mother: Readers, if you have questions regarding these patterns or costume design, please contact Andrea Schewe at AndreaScheweDesign.
To Be Continued …..