During a workshop live last month, I shouted some honest truth that I’ve been holding in for far too long. “I don’t even like the eighteenth century.”
Once upon a time, probably four years ago, I had one mid-sized plastic bin in the costume section of the basement labeled “18th C.” It contained the underpinnings, gown, and accessories for the Clockwork Droid that I made in 2011 for the Halloween costume contest at my job. I only wore the ensemble once and it was a Big 3 pattern with a host of fit and textile issues. As a Whovian, I’ve seen my share of the fantastic and the horrendous visually, so there was no pressure for perfection here. It served its purpose, but I never considered it to be an entry into my historical repertoire. While I’d always been enchanted by the romanticized history of France via Madame de Pompadour, Dangerous Liaisons, and Marie Antoinette (the person and the film), Colonial America has always been a hard pass for me. Even my Anglophile tendencies cut off at the turn of the 17th century, and until reading The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story last year, I couldn’t even begin to suss out where the blockage was coming from. My conclusion: It was the proximity.
Living on the East Coast, you can toss a garter and have it land on a historical site. We have museums, markers, churches, and quite a few taverns dating back to someone’s grandaddy’s grandaddy. It’s great for walking tours and IG photos, but as a Black woman who grew up with the whispers of the NAACP and the Black Panther party wafting through my family and the same community center where I took etiquette classes, I never felt comfortable embracing the Founding Fathers. Can’t imagine why that might be. Attending predominantly white institutions prepared me for the “But you’re not Irish” jabs on St. Patrick’s Day and the “You can’t be in the May Crowning procession” at my Catholic church. Choices were name based, but their tone suggested something more. Listening to classmates fight over which ancestry is the best and how even the “mutts” are proud to be some mix of all the “good” ones forced me into silence and picking my cuticles until we could get back to what everyone was wearing to the skating rink–this was before DNA companies were a thing and everyone decided to claim an Indigenious heritage skill point to ease their guilt. [Side Note: I hated going to the skating rink.]
Since my historical costuming focus was related to eras covered by renaissance faire storylines, I had no reason to venture forward in time. The dear friend who really kicked off the hobby for me did some living history events for her museum job, but I didn’t bother exploring why I felt uncomfortable tagging along. I could always recite dates and documents and recall dead men’s words, but watching Founder’s Day parades that lacked melanated representation was an obvious sign that Colonial America wasn’t where I belonged. I was tempted to dip a toe into some Georgian repro shoes from American Duchess when I was introduced to them in 2013, but the expense didn’t seem worth it for the one gown that I had and rarely wore. I followed the company on social media and purchased their dressmaking book, but still only lusted after their Elizabethan Stratfords until I finally purchased them. That was two months after pre-ordering a pair of pink Kensingtons in 2018.
That summer, The Plush Seamstress had a themed birthday party, so I pulled out the pink gown, frowned at my modern shoes, and sang “Non-Stop” until I was hoarse. Once the first AD shoe order arrived and fit pretty well, I put them on the shelf and waited for the next costume party. When Patterns of Fashion 5 was published, inspiration hit and I set my mind to work through the AD 18th century dressmaking book, just to increase my historical knowledge base. The next event was our local pirate festival, so I could easily shoehorn in a 1740s look. The English gown that I created, and the shoes and accessories that I ordered to complete the picture adjusted the angle of an already slippery slope into a dropoff that I didn’t see coming.
Today, I have enough Georgian clothing to both camp and court at my leisure. I’ve taken enough classes, lectures, workshops, and sew-alongs specifically for the 1700s to complete the equivalent of a very specialized college semester. And similar to my undergraduate book stipend, my bookshelf has succumbed to this new focus with a weighty selection of dress history manuals to rival my rennie museum books. In this way, constructing 18th century clothing was both an issue of personal detachment and of accessibility. When the plague hit, all eras’ livestreams and tutorials on YouTube replaced the purely pre-Stuart blogs that I’d been reading for over a decade. My favorite part of costuming is the research that comes with construction, and it was being given freely, so in the absence of live rennie events, I took what I could. I had no thought for where I’d be wearing and storing these items, I just knew that I needed to make them. Starting from the skin out, I worked through my stash making pockets and other accessories, but the escalation was swift to ordering a rainbow of linens, wools, and silks with the appropriate threads and hand sewing tools to round out my already bursting studio. As I’ve mentioned previously, the community that I’d carried on without for years, started paying attention amidst the global crisis. And then there were the invites.
For every potential outing, I need a look–it doesn’t have to be new, it just needs to be appropriate. I enjoy creating a variety of styling choices that I’ve never bothered with for mundane dress. I’m currently in an online workshop about 18th century fitting, and I just finished two later period gowns for a pattern testing trial. I have my sights set on a new pair of stays, I want some separates to match all of these petticoats that I keep making, and I’m confident that I could set sleeves in my sleep. In order to justify this absurdity, I try to make the garments as flexible as possible so that I can wear them to both garden walks and comic con. In theory, I could even compete some of the looks with a few upgrades, but despite my desire, we know that I won’t. I’m constantly inspired by the fandoms–all of them, and the easiest way to hop on the trend train without being noticed is to do it in a different style than the original.
Turns out that I am quite the 18th century fashion student, and my disdain for the follow-up era, Regency, has certainly waned to the point of acceptance. Realizing that the silhouettes suit my figure and are deliciously supportive, going off of my self-imposed rails proved a boon. As they say, “No Costume Without Context”, and while my perspective was different from the point of the message, it still stands. As a person with enslaved ancestors and a point of view that doesn’t allow me to look favorably on how this nation was created (or largely, where we are right now), I have gained a penchant for the Georgian period rooted in dress construction methods. The knowledge that I’ve gained has bled into my 16th century closet in the best way possible–especially through textile upgrades, making each piece just a little more wearable. I guarantee that when The Typical Tudor is finally in my hands, I’ll forget that 18-C and Me were ever besties, but these things happen in cycles, right?
And If I ever open my mind to 1837 through 1865, please send me your crinolines because I’m going to be spending a lot more time in that research sobbing at the injustices than I have sewing hours in the day. Now that I’ve firmly thrown my original statement in the bin and taken it to the curb, please feel free to add to my caffeine allowance.