A CLOSET FULL OF COSTUMES & A CUPBOARD FULL OF TEA:
MEET VALARIE LABORE
Continued / Part III
Goose Mother: Valarie, you’ve had a very busy last few weeks! However, we’re ready to delve into how you found yourself venturing into sewing historical costumes.
Valarie LaBore: It was slow going in the beginning. I had joined a Yahoo group for tea and came across some others involving costumes and historical costumes. You have to be careful doing searches for “costumes” because some really *interesting* ones would show up; not always child-friendly. (laughter) I wasn’t aware there were groups of people into historical costumes and I was surprised when I started coming across photos online of Civil War reenactments and Western ones with ladies wearing bustle gowns. This was back in 2003, and I’m not really sure how big it was then, although Civil War reenactment has been around for years. However, it appeared to me that was mainly guy stuff. I kept hunting online for help and information on how to make things, but there were no sewing classes for this type of thing. After finding a couple different Yahoo groups relating to historical fashions, I joined a few and became comfortable with some of the ladies on Reenactment Ladies/Yahoo Group. After sharing some of my problems of making a bonnet for my first Dickens Festival, one person, Lynne, who lived over 600 miles away from me, stepped up and offered to make me a bonnet. I’d been sharing photos of an antique wire frame bonnet I had purchased that only had shreds of fabric left on it. Lynne, taking a giant step in faith, asked if I would trust her and send her the wire frame so that she could demonstrate in a class how to cover one. In turn, she would cover it for me in period materials.
After listening to my pleas for help in sewing, she asked if I’d ever heard of the Costume College convention, or the costume guild in Los Angeles. My first reaction was, I’m not that good! Lynne spent a lot of time convincing me that beginners went too and it was a place to learn. She invited me to share a room there and she would be my guide.
Many of the other ladies were recommending Truly Victorian as the best patterns to make bustle gowns. I purchased my first ones online. Truly Victorian was run by two sisters, Heather & Laura McNaughton in Riverside, California. I later drove to their house to pick up some others and bought a ready-made corset and bustle from them. (The corset was a little bit long for me, however I didn’t know at the time about having them fitted to your body so they are more comfortable.) The construction on their patterns is different from the Big Three pattern companies. Instead of buying a pattern to your size, you use your measurements to cut the individual correct size pieces. It’s a great system once you get the hang of it, and not really that difficult.
My first outfit was an 1880s Summer bustle gown; very simple. Having very little knowledge of fabric types and designs, I bought a cotton fabric with tiny little pink flowers. But I rebelled when Heather McNaughton advised me I needed to make a muslin/toile for it, and then flat-line the bodice fabric. Those were both new terms for me. I wanted my dress to be cool (as in lightweight), and try as Heather might, she couldn’t convince me that having an extra layer wouldn’t defeat my purpose. I now understand that the importance of flat-lining is to give the fabric body and keep it smooth; one of the important things in Victorian dresses.
As Costume College, or CoCo as many of us call it, came closer, I started to panic that my gown wouldn’t be done in time. I was introduced by a friend to Mary Swanson, who was an avid Civil War reenactor and made many beautiful gowns. Years later she did something that would bring some big changes about in my life. She attempted to show me how to make a pattern myself, but I was impatient and wanted to make the dress, not the pattern. She gave me the name of a woman who might help me sew my gown. As fate would have it, the woman made my skirt so the whole outfit was done in time. That was my third mistake. She sewed Civil War gowns, and the skirts were full all around to go over a hoop. Bustle gowns are smooth in front, with the excess in back to go over your bustle. I often wondered what Heather thought when we had our photo taken together at CoCo. She very diplomatically pointed out I was supposed to have two darts on each side of the front bodice. I mistakenly thought they were for different size busts. As you can see the skirt is limp and full instead of smooth in the front, and my bodice is a little baggy. It’s also rather plain with only a bit of lace on the cuffs. After a few years, I learned the Victorians loved their trims, and I finally started piling it on. My favorite saying is; I learned to bake the cake, now I had to decorate it. Years later I displayed that costume at CoCo to show other newbies exactly why we are told to do certain techniques.
Finding hundreds of people in one location who loved costuming too, and did all sorts of costumes: historical, fantasy, sci-fi,theatrical, opened up a whole new world to me. The classes held at CoCo are taught by other costumers to pass on their knowledge to others. That made a big impression on me. I just realized this while I was preparing for this interview. I realize that’s why I want to share what I learn with others. That same year I was introduced to a few members of the San Diego Costume Guild, which was pretty small at the time. I joined them, and with some help from a teacher at JoAnn’s Fabrics, I made an 1890s sage green, silk taffeta ball gown using a Truly Victorian pattern (#490/297) for the following year. And here I’m on the right with the tall white ostrich feather in a 1795 blue open robe that I made from an altered Butterick pattern. (Butterick 4890)
Over the years I learned more period sewing techniques from other costumers and, taking classes at CoCo, I grew confident enough that I could in turn share some of my knowledge with others. I was posting on LiveJournal at that time and sharing photos and information with other costumers I’d met at CoCo. My circle there started to grow. I wanted to document the gowns I was making and share construction photos. After a few years it wasn’t very conducive to doing it in that manner and my posts would get lost among the hundreds of other people. I joined Facebook and my circle of costume friends quadrupled. One thing I’ve noticed about most costumers is they love to share. We become cheerleaders for each other and encourage each to keep going, do better, and build up confidence. We all need that. When I first heard about blogging, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Eventually I tried blogging and found it was the right place for what I wanted to do: really document how I made my costumes, with lots of photos, and I could edit and add at will. Time Traveling in Costume
Goose Mother: I want to encourage all of you to visit Valarie’s blog. Even if you aren’t into sewing costumes you will find yourself mesmerized by the many costume photographs. And if you do enjoy costuming, you may find some helpful tips and instructions along with detailed photos accompanying the “how-to’s”.
Valarie LaBore: A friend of mine created a banner for me to use that included a timeline of my favorite photos of gowns I wanted to make. My blog is still pretty basic in its layout and I know there’s a lot more you can do to that and its artwork, but I’m not creating a website, just a journal. My first blog entry was in August 2009 right after Costume College. I had just finished what I call my 1885 Best Black Bustle Gown with lots of icing on the cake using Truly Victorian #460/362/221.
I wrote up my methods for organizing my patterns & fabric swatches so I could carry them in a small notebook. I believe that got the most hits of all my posts.
For me, this is how I’m paying it forward from all the other costumers and teachers who taught me. I still consider myself a student though because I still have a lot to learn.
Goose Mother: It’s really a lovely blog and helpful! Thank you, Valarie, for taking the time to do it so that we can all enjoy it and learn from it.
To be continued …..