About the Seamstress

Statement of purpose: I create and recreate historical dress in order to understand its original creation and wearing processes, and to reinvigorate interest in the aesthetics of the past, its material culture, and its creators and wearers. In order to do so, I research the history of clothing design, the historical practice of dressmaking, and the social/cultural role of both. My works emphasize historically appropriate materials and construction methods, and so serve as a means of understanding the visual, tactile, and engineering aspects of clothing from the past – and the past more generally.


In less formal terms… Kendra Van Cleave has been sewing since she was a wee lass, when her mother taught her sew on her Singer machine. Her first big project was a purple calico sundress for 4-H. Little did she know that she would have to participate in a judged fashion show wearing this sundress (evil fascist 4-H!), where her hem was determined to be sub-par. Her hems sucked for a long time after.

Later forays into sewing were relatively unsuccessful, such as the upsetting-to-remember tiered iridescent lace skirt made with her mother’s help (after sewing wrong sides to right sides too many times, they swore that next time they’d just buy the damn thing).

Kendra discovered the joy of sewing late in high school, when a friend (very sweetly!) made her a very badly fitting Renaissance Faire bodice. She thought, “I can do better than this!” and lo, she could! Her first bodice (bright blue cotton, coffee dyed to pass costume approval, and smelling of coffee forever after) was a success, and she was soon suckered into creating costumes for other Ren Faire friends. She quickly developed a need for a new costume every year, and when she started dancing at historic balls, a dark path opened before her.

Kendra primarily creates historic costumes for herself (she has sewn for profit before, and could be talked into it again for the right amount of money). She is a certified member of the Costume ADD club (ie she likes pretty much any era), although she’s particularly fascinated by the 1770s-1790s, 1870s, and 1910s; she’s been spending the last couple years intensely studying 18th century costume. She has an almost unnatural passion for stripes, thinks that all clothing should include box pleats and massive amounts of piping, and would be inordinately happy to spend her life on the couch hand sewing.

Kendra has merged her interests in social/cultural history and fashion. She studied European history as an undergrad, then received a master’s in history focusing on American social history (along with one in library science). She now works as a librarian at a university, and pursues scholarly research in the history of fashion. She’s published three scholarly articles on fashion history, one about the late 18th century robe à la polonaise, and two about the role of fashion in the lives of students at Smith College (a Northeastern US women’s college) in the 1920s. She’s now working on a larger research project on the late 18th century trend for Turkish-inspired high fashion, including the robes à la turque and circassienne, which will hopefully become a book. She has self-published a book on the history and how-to of 18th century hair and wigs.

Kendra has taught numerous workshops on the history and how-to of fashion and costume, primarily for the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild and Costume College.


Questions? Email me (Don’t forget to change the “at” to an @!).
I love getting email about this site and costuming, but be forewarned that I’m not always prompt about writing back (job, life, sewing, etc.). It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I kind of suck!



18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques. A book that combines meticulous research with easy to follow instructions that will help you create historically accurate hairstyles of the 18th century.

Scholarly writing & presentations related to costume:

  • Van Cleave, Kendra, and Brooke Welborn. “`Very Much the Taste and Various are the Makes’: Reconsidering the Late-Eighteenth-Century Robe à la Polonaise.” Dress 39, no. 1 (May 2013): 1-24.  Read summary
  • “Fashioning the College Woman: Dress, Gender, and Sexuality at Smith College, 1920-29.” Journal of American Culture (March 2009).
  • “‘A Style All Her Own': Fashion, Clothing Practices and Female Community at Smith College, 1920-29.” Dress (2005): 56-65.
  • “Fashion (WWI),” and “Fashion (WWII).” In The Home Front Encyclopedia: United States, Britain, and Canada in World Wars I and II. James Ciment (Ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
  • “Moral and Dress Reform Movement, 1800-1869.” In The Encyclopedia of American Social Movements. Immanuel Ness (Ed.). Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 2004.
  • “‘A Style All Her Own': Fashion and Gender at Smith College, 1920-29.” Western Association of Women Historians Annual Conference, 2004.

Frock Flicks: the costume movie podcast.





  • Reply Marie McDonough May 4, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Thank you, Kendra, for these lovely images! It’s such a treat!

  • Reply Leanora Ortiz January 20, 2011 at 1:17 am

    Just wanted you to know how very much I enjoyed your podcast FROCK FLICKS
    It was a joy to hear every detail. I love fashion and period films so your podcast was a treat Wish it didn’t end…Would love to know if you ever do another…

    [Shop websites removed by Kendra – sorry, it feels weird to post what could be seen as advertising!]

    All my best to you,
    Fleur de Lee

  • Reply Joseph Hisey July 20, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Love your work. I haven’t dared to venture into the 18th century or earlier yet. I do have plans though.

  • Reply Loryn October 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I just had to say how happy I am that I found your website and your tutorial on the 1770s poof! My degree is in art history, and I am about to do my masters in Makeup and wig design, specializing in period styles. I’m working on this huge Rococo photoshoot with several looks, and I am so grateful that you made this site! Thank you for being fabulous, and I hope to see more awesome things in the future!

  • Reply wickedvox March 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    I’m pretty sure we’re soulmates. I too have costuming ADD! Can i be in the club? Our early sewing experiences are even eerily similar. And I was just saying tonight, “I wish I could always be as content as when I’m sewing eyelets and watching Bleak House.” Seriously weird, right? My husband ALSO calls my historical movies my “girly costuming movies!” Does it get any wierder?? Where do we go from here? Lattes while roaming a fabric store? Handsewing as we drink tea and watch Downton Abby? (I get to be Mary!) Ok, don’t be afraid, I’m not really going to stalk you…much. :) I am however very excited to find your blog and will checking in periodically for a huzzah and inspiration. Ciao!

  • Reply sasha waddell December 16, 2013 at 11:07 am

    I have been looking at you really interesting site – I am writing book on Indian block printed fabrics and Sophia Pelham feeding chickens looks as if she is wearing a block printed fabric. I wondered if you knew where the painting is held as so far I can only find it in back and white and yours is in colour. I would be really grateful if you could let me know
    Best Wishes
    Sasha Waddell

  • Reply Sandra January 18, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    A chap contacted me via my blog – he is doing a short 3D animation of an 18th century portrait of Elizabeth Linley by Gainsborough and was having trouble working out what the back looked like. I figured if anyone knew what was going on with her hairstyle you would!, so I’ve directed him your way. I hope that was ok. Couldn’t think of anyone better qualified to help him.

  • Reply William Cameron November 16, 2014 at 4:06 am

    My complements.
    I am a man, writing a city slicker western taking place in 1881. I spend months hunting and searching for appropriate hair styling, finding only braids, which is of course necessary. As a man I am ignorant of hair.
    Then as I need to compare the hair styles of an older lady of 41 vs a young up to date young lady sitting in a Pullman coach; I stumble on to this site; in the last second, being in the second to last chapter.
    I had done both women’s and men’s styles as close as possible, even lucking into a Fall 1881 fashion magazine for the fall colors of that year.
    Thanks to the hard work done on this site; when I go back to do the cutting, I can add more, and accurate hair styles.
    With out this page of your site, I’m sure I’d had women readers grumbling….nothing but braids and more braids.
    The info on the net grows so fast, I am lucky to find things that were not on the net 4-5 years ago, that makes for accuracy in settings.
    Thank you very much for the work of love, in that is all it can be when one puts so much work into something.

  • Reply Giancarlo Mariot April 12, 2018 at 12:42 pm

    Hello, do you think you could publish something on how were male queues/pigtails done in the 18th century? I can’t find this anywhere! I noticed there used to exist a military queue called “soldier’s queue” that used natural hair, and then there were the wig queues. But how does one use the bow? Are there methods and styles to choose from?

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