Friday, March 11, 2011

The Influence of History

I've said in various places that I quite often draw ideas and inspiration from history. I've always been interested in historical costume, and I recently finished a degree in Heritage Studies which drew out that interest even more.

What this actually means for my work is variable. One of the first designs I created (in fact, thinking about it, the very first design I created) was my red velvet cape, which is proving to be agreeably popular. This idea was originally inspired by some of the beautiful half-length velvet/velour cloaks popular among ladies in the nineteenth century.

Here's a fashion plate from the November 1854 edition of La Belle Assemblee. 

Being me, I naturally couldn't just recreate one of those (though  maybe I will someday: they are delicious). I had to give it a fairytale twist. I created a shorter version with a tapered hem - because it looks pretty, and it leaves the arms free. And, of course, I put an enormous hood on it.

The end product doesn't look much like the above, but that's the nature of inspiration.

More recently I have been drawing from eighteenth century fashions, and specifically the technique known as 'polonaise'. Here's a photo of a gown currently in the V&A, London:

'Polonaise' refers to the method of pulling and tucking up the fabric of the overskirt into those pretty gathered layers. The lovely thing about this technique is that it looks very beautiful and sophisticated, but it's really quite simple to create.

It consists of tapes or ribbons sewn into the waistband of the skirt. Loops of thread are stitched inside the skirt at intervals down to the hem, and the tapes are threaded through these loops. Then simply use the tape like a drawstring, pulling the fabric up into gathers, and secure the end at the waistband once you're happy with the arrangement. Easy, but no one'd guess that from looking at a gown like this!

Here's the use I've made of it this week:

I've been experimenting with creating fairytale skirts for a few months now. This new interpretation retains the asymmetrical handkerchief hem of earlier designs, with a polonaise skirt over the top.

I've embellished it with the embroidered leaf trinkets I was working on last week. The effect is much more elaborate than my other designs: I think this calf-length style is destined for a ballroom. I'll be creating a similar skirt in sea-green, dark silver and white twinkle tulle next week.


  1. I love it! My first sewn project I did with very little help from my mother was a Kinsale Cloak that I wore to conventions and Renaissance Fairs for 20 years. I still have it.

  2. There's nothing so special as something you made yourself. Kinsales are really delicious! It's wonderful that you still have it. I can clearly remember the first project I did - a Cinderella dress I made out of a sheet, because I was too tall for the Disney store dresses. Sadly that dress is long gone - it would be interesting to look at it now.

    Thank you for commenting. Do you still sew?