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Countess of Castiglione costume reproduction
18th century, 19th century, events, Frock Flicks, projects, travel

Countess of Castiligione Fancy Dress

Nobody freak out, but I’m going to write a post. About a dress. That I made! I have wanted to make this particular costume for about 20 years, which is why I am blowing the dust off my keyboard and doing this. I’d like to share some of the making on social media, and I’d like to be able to share more than just photos. So, let’s see if I remember how to do this?

I’ve shared the story of the real-life Countess of Castiglione, Virginia Oldoïni (1837-99), as well as my own personal interest in her, in a review I wrote for Frock Flicks. As I wrote there:

The Countess of Castiglione was Italian; she was married off at age 17 to the count, who was 12 years older. She was renowned for her beauty, which helped take her life in a couple of interesting directions. She got involved in the movement for Italian unification, moving to Paris in 1855 (initially with her husband) to try to gain political support from Napoleon III. She ended up becoming Napoleon’s mistress, and her husband separated from her. She became famous for wearing amazingly gorgeous and inspired costumes to the fancy dress balls that were then popular, and collaborated with French photographers Mayer and Pierson to create these insanely cool, artistic photographs of herself that were meant to recreate important moments in her life, many of which focused on fancy dress costume. She returned to Italy for a few years, then moved back to Paris where she lived in seclusion until the 1890s, when she did another series of weirdly arty photographs.

I’ve been a fan for over 20 years, and I played the countess at the Dickens Fair, where I had to make an “everyday” (i.e. not fancy dress) day dress, which I posted a bit about. But the costume of hers that I have always been obsessed with is this 18th century fancy dress/masquerade costume from the mid-1860s:

Portrait of Countess Virginia Oldoini di Castiglione by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of Countess Virginia Oldoini di Castiglione by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art

There’s so much I love about this. First, the over-the-top take on 18th century, which is my first love. The lushness of All That Fabric. The INSANELY interesting, very 1860s but not in a butterchurn-y way hair. And the intense gaze — she looks like the best kind of evil sorceress.

I’ve thought before about making this costume for Costume College, because it’s not something you would wear to most occasions. But even Costume College didn’t seem big enough for such an amazing costume! Plus, it would be huge and annoying to dance in.

Well, I finally made it to Carnevale in Venice this past February (back when we were able to do such fabulous things! Remember that time?), and I knew I HAD to make this, finally. I mean, VENICE! Not only was the countess Italian, but Carnevale is about over-the-top, tweaked and twisted and arty costumes, not just showing up in your standard ballgown. And I was invited to an amazing party with the theme of “Royal Favorites,” i.e. dress as the favorite of a king/queen/emperor/etc., which is perfect for the countess. And so, it began.

First, the fabric. The countess was an early pioneer in photo alteration, and in fact she colorized many of her photos using different variations. Here’s some of the ideas she had for this dress (note: I am just now noticing the bows on the petticoat, only because she colored them here):

[Variations on the "Elvira" Dress] by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861–67, Metropolitan Museum of Art

[Variations on the “Elvira” Dress] by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861–67, Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, one of the things that has always drawn me to this photo is the acres of light colored fabric, so I knew I wanted to go with ivory or cream. I originally was looking for silk taffeta, but couldn’t find anything in the exact shade I wanted. Everything was too yellow-y. Then I found a silk gazar, which is basically lighter than taffeta but heavier than organza, on sale at my local fabric store (Stonemountain and Daughter) that was ivory but had a beautiful sheen and a slight peachy undertone to it, and I bought every scrap they had. I was thrilled with how beautiful the fabric was in the end, but this stuff WRINKLES LIKE NO TOMORROW. On the advice of friends, I (for the first time) pre-ironed everything before packing, and then carefully layered things with this dress the most protected. Yeah, that was a waste of time:

What the dress looked like after unpacking.

What the dress looked like after unpacking. Pre-ironing is bullshit!

One of the best things about the countess is the many, many photos she had taken of herself. And this particular costume is quite well documented, although given the quality of the early photos, there’s still some guesswork involved. But I managed to find a number of photos that gave me a lot of information.

The fact that some of the photos call it a “pleated peignoir” let me know that it’s a loose gown, kind of like a robe volante (the full, pleated, unfitted gown fashionable in the 1720s-30s):

La peignoir plisié by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

La peignoir plisié by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Notice how there’s no fitting around the waist, and the pleated trim along the center fronts is unbroken from neckline to hem:

La peignoir plisié by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

La peignoir plisié by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here again you can see the unbroken line — the gown is clearly not stitched down to any lining in the torso:

La peignoir plisié by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

La peignoir plisié by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here’s a robe volante, for comparison:

Robe Volante, ca. 1730, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robe Volante, ca. 1730, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I decided to change this. I’m a curvy girl, and while this dress is basically a giant merengue, I wanted SOME kind of fitting. So I ended up giving it a waist seam in front, more like the later robe à la française, although because I was working over a Victorian corset, I went full princess seams as they would have cut this in the 19th century.

I started with a fitted lining with bones at the seams, as I knew they would be needed to support the gown given the low neckline.  I ended up cutting away some of the V waistline when I realized that there didn’t appear to be a “stomacher” effect under the robe:

The lining. I long ago embraced the joy of straight-pinning closed front-opening bodices, so this didn't have any closures sewn to it! And I could hide the overlap under the trim.

The lining. I long ago embraced the joy of straight-pinning closed front-opening bodices, so this didn’t have any closures sewn to it! And I could hide the overlap under the trim.

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Before trimming, it basically looked like a wedding dress. Apologies, my sewing room is SMALL and I had three projects going at once.

Before trimming, it basically looked like a wedding dress. Apologies, my sewing room is SMALL and I had three projects going at once.

The back was hard to figure out. Clearly there’s a VERY low neckline in back (the countess was particularly proud of her shoulders), a train, and the pleated trim goes all along the hem:

[Countess de Castiglione as Elvira at the Cheval Glass] by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861-67, Metropolitan Museum of Art

[Countess de Castiglione as Elvira at the Cheval Glass] by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861-67, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Well thankfully I found this amazingly sharp closeup, that told me SO MUCH about the back (as well as the trim and hair, but we’ll come back to those). The back is pleated somewhat like a robe volante, with stacked box pleats, although there’s no inverted pleat at the center back.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I did the same, although I skipped the train. I knew I would be wearing this at a crowded party, and I didn’t want to deal with having my (white!) hem stepped on all night. I did give myself a heart attack one evening when I walked by and thought, “Oh my god, I made the back pleats wrong! There’s supposed to be an inverted pleat in the CB!” Luckily I rechecked my sources and was relieved to discover I had done it right.

Pleating the back. I wanted to work on the straight of grain; the lower row of pins were to give me a sense of the actual neckline, although I think it was a scooch higher in the end.

Pleating the back. I wanted to work on the straight of grain; the lower row of pins were to give me a sense of the actual neckline, although I think it was a scooch higher in the end.

IMG_0991 IMG_0992

Here you can see that I made it somewhat like a française, adding pleats at the waistline side underneath the back pleats, which have many layers.

Here you can see that I made it somewhat like a française, adding pleats at the waistline side underneath the back pleats, which have many layers. The width of the pleats across the back is more like a volante, however.

Here’s the finished dress, before trimming and sleeves:

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Next up was to start the trim. First, that clear back shot was a life saver in that I could really figure out what was going on with the trim:

The pleated ruches are trimmed with a dark AND light lace along the edges. Each box pleat is sewn down with a pearl at top and bottom. Along the neckline, there's a row of beading lace with a dark ribbon, then three rows of lace forming a tucker.

The pleated ruches are trimmed with a dark AND light lace along the edges. Each box pleat is sewn down with a pearl at top and bottom. Along the neckline, there’s a row of beading lace with a dark ribbon, then three rows of lace forming a tucker.

I bought SO MANY TRIMS, Y’ALL. I could NOT decide what color/effect I wanted. I couldn’t find anything with the two-tone effect that I liked. I really wanted a dark silver, but worried that wouldn’t go with my peachy-undertoned ivory, so bought a couple different gold and copper trims, and then a couple different silver. I finally decided to go with the silver, since that’s how I pictured the dress in my mind, and found a tiny silver braid on Etsy that worked, as well as pearls and vintage lace:

And I hand hemmed/attached the lace, as well as the trim itself, because I'm crazy like that.

And I hand hemmed/attached the lace, as well as the trim itself, because I’m crazy like that.

Then, I trimmed:

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I had to use EVERY SCRAP to eke out enough fabric. This was one of the back hem ruches, so hopefully it doesn’t show given the placement and the pleating:

Screen Shot 2020-10-03 at 1.04.12 PM

The sleeves took some definite parsing. From the photo above, I could see that there were pleats at the armhole in back, towards the interior. Looking at this faint photo, I decided that the sleeve was trimmed on the INSIDE, and then flipped back on itself:

L'Agrèable by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

L’Agrèable by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

What I see.

What I see.

I patterned them as HA-UGE versions of pagoda sleeves, which is what I think they are, and tacked the interior back on itself:

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The petticoat is actually three-row tiers of lace, with what I think is flat ribbon in between. I’m not sure how I missed those ribbon bows, except that this was the photo I spent a lot of time peering at, and you can’t see them here:

The wrinkles are what give it away.

I found some various antique laces for the neckline and skirt, but I didn’t have enough of the skirt stuff. I ended up buying some flat nylon lace and was pleasantly shocked to find you CAN tea-dye nylon lace! It looked great after I’d done that. I didn’t have enough yardage to make the three-row tiers, so I went with two, using silk satin ribbon for the join.

IMG_1136 Screen Shot 2020-10-03 at 1.04.06 PM

The fan she carries in this photo survives at the Met! Which is SO cool. I had plans to try to make my own — I found lace appliques in similar shapes, and took the leaves off of an antique fan — but I ran out of time. In the end, it probably would have looked janky (I keep picturing a hot-glue nightmare), so it’s probably for the best — but I may try someday!

Fan, ca. 1858, possibly Spanish, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fan, ca. 1858, possibly Spanish, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Of course, I HAD to have that hair. The real countess had blonde hair (which you can see in the colorized photo above), and she was also so into the 18th century that she was known for powdering her hair. I couldn’t pull off blonde, but I could do powdered… but I’ve always seen these photos in sepia in my mind, and dark hair just felt right. Once again, THANK YOU whoever took that back detailed shot, because I don’t know if I ever would have figured out the back otherwise. Here’s my working image board:

hair

And my result. It was a little too wide at the sides, but I played with pinning it and wasn’t sure, so I ended up going with it. I wish my back twist was a little smoother, and may try to comb that out and retwist it at some point:

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Because my BFF Trystan is the best, she helped me take some carefully posed photos in our palazzo before the event. I really wanted to try to recreate the original photograph as much as possible. Unfortunately my version of bitchface mostly looks like “sad dog” (I have a natural downturn to my mouth – resting bitchface!) and the smiley photos ended up much better.

Countess of CastiglioneCountess of Castiglione2Countess of Castiglione3

And, I had a FAAAAABULOUS time:

(C) Alain Trinckvel

(C) Alain Trinckvel

(C) Christine Yoo Millar

(C) Christine Yoo Millar

Countess of Castiglione costume reproduction

gold1sm
16th century, Bella Donna, events

Carnevale Fantastico: New Italian Renaissance Faire in the SF Bay Area!

San Francisco Bay Area people: you should know about a NEW event coming up May 2-3 in Vallejo! Carnevale Fantastico is a brand new Renaissance faire, but it’s not just any Renaissance faire. It’s specifically an ITALIAN event, with performers, theater, food, and more that will be more than your usual “renfaire”! Bella Donna Historical Performers will be performing, and I’m really excited about it!

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Menacing Linda in the Great Hall
events, GBACG

Game of Thrones Costume/Event

Would you believe it, I sewed something! It was crazy around here! The Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild held a Game of Thrones event at Castello di Amorosa, a winery in the Napa valley. Now, I like Game of Thrones — I watch the show religiously, although I can tell that the books would drive me crazy. And I like the costumes, although I don’t love them. But when the event was announced and so many of my friends wanted to go, I decided to go too!

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18th Century Hairdressing Book, 18th century wigs, Costume College, events, publications, teaching

COSTUME COLLEGE!

In all caps, because it’s taken me so long to write about it! Costume College happened, and it was tons of fun, as always. I got to hang out with old friends and meet new people, and teach some classes, and go to some classes, and flog the wig book!

First, though, I want to echo what everyone else has said. Although I had a blast hanging out with friends, it definitely felt like there was less interacting among individuals and groups. As with everyone else, it’s the usual things: you’re teaching, or running around, or out of class whenever everyone else is in class, or sick, or what-have-you. For me, I had the added layer of book stuff. I only sold and signed my books on Friday night, but it still meant that I could only make it to the social for about an hour, and couldn’t make the court dress meet-up, and then I was selling books for most of the night. And Sunday, I was in a limited class all day. So, I do think a part of it is just scheduling.

I also feel like as historical costume blogging has grown, so too has Costume College, and I don’t know about you, but I feel like I spend most of the weekend in visual overload over how much Completely Frickin’ Amazing costumes everyone is wearing… to the point where I’m so overloaded that I probably don’t even tell you that how amazing your costume is, because there are SO MANY amazing costumes, and it just becomes this whirl. CoCo has always been a place to strut your stuff, and now that there are so many more of us, there are so many more costumes. I don’t know about you, but I feel like my conversations went something like, “Oh my god, I love this — SQUIRREL!”

Also, I’m really happy that so many people are blogging about costume. It means there’s so much fabulosity out there, and so much information. But, it used to be fewer of us, so there would be about 5 people who you’d stalk and say, “Hey! I know you! Online!” Now, there are SO many bloggers that I know a lot of us have a hard time keeping up, and captchas and spam make it hard to comment, so we’re probably interacting less online. Which then means, there are a gazillion people you might recognize from online, but at the same time you might not feel as close to them as when there were fewer. So, I now spend half of CoCo going “I think I know that person?” And it’s not til later, when I’m looking at pictures or whatever, that I realize “Hey, that was so&so!”

I’ve also given up on trying to take too many photos, since we’re all getting great formal pics from the official photographers. I like that it frees me up to just relax and socialize. But at the same time, it means I miss those opportunities to have a quick squee and pic that I used to; now I’m more likely to sit on the other side of the room and mutter, “Wow, that’s a seriously good dress” than run over.

So yeah. A bigger CoCo, more costumers, all of these are good things. But it does change things somewhat, and I know I for one miss being able to have longer, better chats. So, if we missed connecting, please know that it’s not you, it’s that I’m overwhelmed! I’m not sure whether there are obvious solutions. Some people have talked about reinstituting an LJ meet-up, but I don’t know if I even qualify for that anymore, since I’m hardly ever there!


I mean, just look at all of this pretty!

Okay, on to my CoCo report:

Thursday night I only made it to the pool party for a brief time. We drove down that day, and I was super blown, so there was a bit of chatting and hanging and then I hit the wall.

Friday morning I had to be up bright and early to teach a hairstyling demo. In the class I showed how to do one of the styles from my 18th Century Hair & Wig Styling book. I only gave myself two hours, which isn’t enough to do a hairstyle well when you’re in front of a bunch of people… and yeah, I actually did a really crappy job. But luckily those who I spoke with her happy to see the techniques, even if I didn’t fix and futz to make it all look pretty.

(C) Toni Wilhelm Tumbusch

Later that day I went to Janea and Abby’s class on 18th century dressmaking terminology, which I loved because I’m a terminology geek. There are so many terms we use now to refer to 18th century dress/dressmaking that are totally not used in the era, and then there’s the whole French vs. English thing.

That evening, I wore my this-old-thing (to me) white caraco a la polonaise. I definitely felt the pressure to bring my A game in terms of wigs, but I didn’t want to wear my Kick Ass Wig both Friday & Saturday nights, so I whipped out a quickie 1780s style based on the Balloon. I got about an hour of socializing in before it was time to start hauling books down for my signing & sale. Jennifer Rosbrugh was also there signing her publications, and I felt very verklempt to be supported and celebrated in that way by Costume College.

(C) Laurie Tavan

Saturday was pretty flexible for me. I had one lecture class to teach (on 18th century hairstyles), nicely in the middle of the day, so I decided to make some effort and dress up. I wore my vampire bride costume, which was an easy one to throw on (and hey, one of the very few things I made last year!). I taught my class, I had some lunch… with the cast of Ab Fab, because my friends kick ass like that. Trystan was Edina, Sarah was Patsy, and Karen was Bubbles.

Photo by Andrew Shotwell

What happens when you leave your roomies alone.

Bubbles takes notes.

Oh, also that day, Merja wore the wig that I made for her as her reward for donating big during the book’s Indiegogo campaign. She picked the style, and I made it. She wore it with her STUNNING striped polonaise, and I think the striped bows that she added to the wig just really took it over the top.

Merja - she made the dress, I made the wig.

Merja - she made the dress, I made the wig.

Saturday night was the gala. I didn’t have time to make anything fabulous this year — I knew I wanted a kick ass wig, but beyond that, I just about killed myself to get the book done in time. So I banged out an 18th century sultana — a posing gown, based on Ottoman clothing but interpreted through European eyes, specifically inspired by this painting of Hester Thrale:

Hester Thrale by Joshua Reynolds | Wikimedia Commons

I bought a really pretty ivory and white silk sari on ebay and went to town. The top of it is pretty Ottoman, in fact, and I ended up hand sewing it in bits on the couch. I decided to pleat the skirt to get more fullness, and ended up machine sewing most of that because I was in a hurry. The sash is a bit of red silk organza with gold stripes from Renaissance Fabrics, and I was shocked to find that my last minute hunt for gold fringe was successful — at Beverly’s, of all places!

For the wig, I took down and washed out the wig I made for France. I completely restyled it, adding more hair and making a different frame. It’s not a literal version of one of the book wigs, but it uses the same techniques. I was inspired by this wig, with its silly dangling ringlets, from Gallerie des Modes (I think 1779?):

Gallerie des Modes | Boston MFA

Meanwhile, Trystan had come up with the idea to do a book-themed costume, and Karen and I decided to join in. Both of them wore the wigs they modeled for the book, and we decided to put miniature books in our wigs, which I flogged my husband into making (ah, the joy of hot gluing the night before leaving for CoCo!). Trystan made us mini book jewelry (necklaces & earrings), and for her outfit, she even made a printed-on-silk stomacher with the table of contents, and paper roses made from print outs of the book pages.

Photo by Andrew Shotwell

Photo by Andrew Shotwell

Photo by Andrew Shotwell

Photo by Andrew Shotwell

This was my first time attending the gala dinner in a number of years, and I was glad I did, although a lot of YOU skipped it which made it harder to hang with you! But you guys. There was SO MUCH COSTUMEY GOODNESS.

Loren & Sarah both did gold Marie-Antoinette-inspired 18th century outfits. Leia looked like 18th century Snow White in her stunning francaise (and wig she made based on The Book). Photo by Andrew Shotwell.

Two empresses in Edwardian court dresses.

Sahrye as Madam Vastra — I had no idea that was her!

Fabulous 1830s — the dagging!

Beautiful bustle-y goodness.

Fabulous robes de style.

Merja. You’d hate her if she wasn’t so nice.

I am kind of obsessed with this late teens amazing-ness. It would never suit me, but hot DAMN.

And, unlike the rest of us laggers, Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Katherine kicked some serious ASS in their stunning, over the top, beautiful 18th century court gowns. All three are just drop dead WHOA.

And, my friends, that is just the tip of the iceberg on the AMAZING costumes that were worn all weekend. Every era was there. Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, the list goes ON. I would need a week to track down all of the amazing-ness and post it here, so instead I’ll just send you to the official photographer’s gallery.

Sunday, I had an all-day limited class with Candace Kling. I’ve passed up (just through sheer laziness) the chance to take workshops with her before, and now I am REALLY sorry I did. I was exhausted, but it didn’t matter. That woman knows her stuff!! We made some GORGEOUS ruched trims, and I got so much out of it. I’m really inspired to take more classes from her. She had all these amazing ways of making ruches, pleats, and gathers more interesting that I never would have thought of!

And so, that’s mostly it! It was a great time and over too soon.