Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Costume for a Wench - part I

I know you've all been bursting to know about my costuming exploits so here is the story so far...  Are you sitting comfortably?  OK...

My pattern cutting teacher June, was contacted by a local playwright who is putting on a one woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe all through August.  The play is delivered by a serving girl in the court of Richard III (as in Shakespeare's Richard III) and she needs a costume of the period, with a few 'quirks', so the brief is, a plain red dress, with 'workaday' accessories and a bodice which is a coarse corset.  June was not available to do the job, so passed it to me! 

I was amazed, flattered, amazed, flattered and amazed again, in that order ... I know it's only a serving wench costume, but June is a designer of some skill and experience, who runs her own clothing business,  and for her to pass the work to me, an inexperienced 'dabbler', is a huge complement indeed.  And so, here is the drawing she gave me.

And here is the picture they gave her - this is 'my' actress wearing a costume from the RSC which was borrowed for a while but now has to be given back.

From this I had to draw the pattern, source the materials, do some corsetty research, meet with and measure the Actress, discuss the concept of the play with the writer, and start making with a three week deadline!! 
This picture from Spain, dated 1470-80 is one of the first pictures of the beginnings of corsets as we know them, and of the 'farthingale' which is the hooped skirt.  
The corset was needed to support the skirt,  but these early versions were just stiffened fabric with a laced front.

The play is set in the year 1460 when there was no such thing as a dart (or a corset for that matter), and servants clothes were very basic and functional.   The dress has to be plain, simple and yet comfortable for the actress to wear under scorching lights in a theatre space 4 levels underground.  The chosen fabric, we all agreed,  was linen, but alas, my local fabric shop did not have any,  and in the absence of time to research internet supplies,  I have dyed some calico with dylon machine dye in "Rosewood Red".. I think it's turned out very well! 

Next is the pattern design, and I have learned a clever new trick here.  This is made with a "dartless bodice block", which basically means that the shoulder dart is moved to the arm hole, and the waist dart is removed completely ... This makes the arm hole bigger, whilst giving the necessary 'shape' up top, and keeping everything very loose and, although dartless, the dress is still quite comfortably 'fitted' - if you see what I mean.  It looks a bit like a Maxi dress if you ask me!

Now, because the armholes are bigger, the sleeves go in very easily with hardly any easing at all.  For this dress I have used a standard size 12 block, altered to match the measurements of the actress who is a high street size 10+.

In 1460, as I mentioned, there was no such thing as a corset - although people have been using things like corsets to alter their body shape since the Minoan culture around 2500BC, the actual 'corset' didn't exist until the 16th century.  BUT!  They want a corsetty type thing (artistic licence!) for this outfit - more so than the 'original' RSC outfit pictured above, so, I have looked up pictures of serving girls from as far back as I can find, scoured my corsetry books for information, studied the pictures given to me, looked in old costuming books, searched through other patterns, and come up with this bodice design which will be stiffened and lightly boned.

Because corsets, or  stays as they were known in the 16th century were also without darts, there was no curvy shape to them as there was in the Victorian era.  All these stays did was make you look flat and triangular, and this was a fashion favoured by both men and women as you will have seen in many an episode of Blackadder.  You could say then, that stays of this period are quite masculine.  

The straight lines of this design therefore make for very easy seamage.  Whilst keeping a dart in the right place - ie: passing through the bust point at the front, and via the shoulder/waist darts at the back,  I was able to be a little more 'free' with my lines, in order to produce a stiff, straight bodice, with straight lines angled towards the centre, which will still be comfortable for the actress as there are hidden 'curves' in the right place.

The outer bodice is made from brown linen (obviously not so popular as red!), and backed with  a very very stiff calico material - actually, i think it is artists canvas - which when ironed smells like a horse in a stable.  This really puts me in mind of a medieval wench-like scenario which is a good thing!  Nothing like 'getting into the subject' for authenticity!!  

And so, this is as far as I have got with the costume.   Left to do is the apron, two hats, and a cloak, plus the finishing of the bodice - binding, eyelets and laces, and hand hemming and finishing of the dress - I can't decide on a closure.  The Writer of the play suggested velcro, but although this isn't a 're-enactment' piece, and only a 'representation' or an 'idea of authenticity' is required, I can't use velcro - it's just plain wrong!  So I am thinking hooks and eyes, which will be painstaking to sew, but worth it in the end.  

What do you think for the closure of the dress?  Have you got any better ideas???  I would love to know.

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