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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

exhibitions, travel

Death Becomes Her: Mourning Costume Exhibit at the Met

Last fall I took a trip to New York, where I was lucky to see the just-closed Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called “Death Becomes Her.”

The exhibit was relatively small, but not TOO small, and it was full of a lot of stunning items. Here’s a few thoughts!

There were tons of stunning details, which is even MORE intriguing to me when it’s in all black, because they’re so subtle. Check out these spangled rosettes on a hem!

Continue Reading

research, travel

Stockholm!

I just got back from a week in beautiful, cold, dark Stockholm!  I was there doing research at the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum), looking at an 18th c. robe a la turque and some other garments related to my Big 18th-Century-Turkish-Influence project.  It was something of a whirlwind trip, given the flying time from San Francisco to Stockholm (THREE — count ‘em — flights to get home, meaning about 24 hours of travel time), but it was lots of fun!

Stockholm is very pretty.  Lots of it is very Victorian looking, but mixed in (especially in the older parts) are beautiful, warm colored buildings:

Gamla Stan

This was even prettier on the second day we were there, when it snowed!

Kungsträdgården

I was there with my husband, and we did a ton — museums, architecture, shopping for design-y items (Michael’s an illustrator, so he was all “Swedish design! Yay!”).

Kendra & Michael

I got to meet Elisa of Isis’ Wardrobe and Madame Isis’ Toilette.  She took me to Livrustkammaren, where they have the HUGE and fabulous royal dress collection.  I got to see TWO (count ‘em!) Swedish 18th century court dresses, and Elisa was able to tell me lots of interesting things about the various pieces and the royals who wore them:

Coronation dress of Queen Lovisa Ulrika, 1751 | Livrustkammaren: http://emuseumplus.lsh.se/

Wedding dress of Queen Sofia Magdalena, 1766 | Livrustkammaren: http://emuseumplus.lsh.se/

The Nordiska Museet is STUNNING:

Nordiska Museet

And they had a number of really fascinating exhibits, my favorite being the jewelry and costume exhibits (of course!):

Modemakt/Power of Fashion

Modemakt/Power of Fashion

Modemakt/Power of Fashion

Modemakt/Power of Fashion

Equipages

16th c. pendant

And best of all, I got to study a number of interesting 18th century costume pieces! The curators and conservators were really nice and great to work with, and they had some really interesting items in their collection.

You can see all of my pictures, including many more of the costume and jewelry exhibits, in this Flickr set.

18th century, travel

BTW – France Photos

Okay, so I lied. One REALLY last post about France!  You might have already found my photos from our trip to 18th century France, but I thought I should go ahead and post a direct link to the full set.  I also wanted to highlight some faaaabulous posed photos that we did on our last day.  I was inspired by Fanny’s fabulous “Nonchalance Chez la Duchesse” photo shot to do something similar with our group, and here’s what we came up with:

Conversation piece

Dieuxieme conversation piece

I particularly love Leia’s innocent pickpocket facial expression in the last one!

shopping, travel

One Last Post About France: Shopping!

A costumer cannot go to France (and Italy) and not go shopping!  So what came home with me?

One rainy/misty day at the Chateau, a group of us attempted to go see the ruins of the Chateau de Montségur.  Sadly it was too rainy to make the trek up the dirt path to the see the chateau, but we did have a fabulous lunch in a medieval-y (in a good, non-cheesy way) restaurant and find a great medieval-y shop attached to its own blacksmithing forge.  I have been wanting to find some nice silverware for use at Renaissance Faires, but I wanted something that wasn’t the same as everyone else’s (tried that, quickly lost my Hampton Court Palace spoon in the sea of lookalikes).  Although they’re more medieval, I found a nice spoon/fork set with ladies heads on the handle and snatched them up.

In Venice, I headed straight to Antonia Sauter’s shop on the recommendation of Trystan & Thomas’s Carnevale DVD.  There I found a GORGEOUS mask that will perfectly match my green Venetian Renaissance dress, made of silk velvet, spangles, and feathers.

Being a book slut, I also grabbed the catalogue for the Mme Elisabeth exhibition, and a book on the Fragonard Costume Museum, while seeing each exhibit.

Venetian mask from Antonia Sauter, book from the Fragonard Costume Museum, catalogue from the Mme Elisabeth exhibit, medieval silverware from Montségur

Of course, I needed to buy some fabric!  Doing tons of research on 18th century these days, particularly Provencal styles, I wanted some 18th century-appropriate Provencal fabric.  Sadly I didn’t find anything OTT fabulous!  There are two manufacturers of French printed cottons still in existence:  Les Olivades and Souleiado.  I went to Les Olivades shop in Arles, where I got one yard of a pretty red cotton print — only a yard because it was really pricey!  I also trekked out to the Souleiado outlet (Les Olivades has one too, but you need a car to get there and I was car-less).  Sadly they didn’t have anything I was in love with, but having taken a bus and walked about 15 min. with suitcases, I was determined to buy something!  I found these mustard yellow (not my favorite color, although I think I can probably pull it off since I’m a warm color girl?) pieces (no idea what they’re for — quilting?) with FABULOUS 18th c. designs printed on them and I grabbed a bunch — I do wish the background color was more exciting!  And then on my way out, I noticed the sale bed linens and am glad I did, because I found this fitted sheet with a fabulous red sprig design on it.  I’m thinking of using the sheet for a petticoat and the red for a jacket, and making a Provencal ensemble.  Still no idea what’s going to happen with the mustard fabric pieces!

Fabrics from Souleiado, Olivades, Souleiado

1770s camisole, 18th century, projects, travel

Costumes at the Chateau pt. 4: the white ruffly camisole & petticoat

Last project to blog about from France!  For some reason this was the project I was most excited about making, and ended up loving the most while wearing — I think I just had a fixation on being WHITE and FROOFY and RUFFLY.  In all caps, natch.

I posted a bit about the early steps on the project here.  After that, it was all a matter of borrowing Trystan’s embroidery machine to sew the scalloped edges on the miles of windowpane ruffles.  I had a small crisis when I thought I’d run out of the windowpane before trimming the skirt, but managed to find a bit more of the fabric — I had to wing it on my machine for doing the scalloped edges, as I don’t have a fancy machine like Trystan, but it all worked out.  Minus the scallops, all of the rest is handsewn.

I added some striped lavender and white bows, from ribbon that’d been lurking in the stash for years, to the CF neckline and sleeves to bring some color to the ensemble.  And I wore it with the hat I originally made for Vaux le Vicomte, although I changed up the trimmings a bit to suit the lavender color scheme.

The one thing that’s bugging me is that, since I was worried about wearing stark white with my warm coloring, I used a slightly off-white lining for the jacket — and in these photos in the shade, it really changes the base color of the jacket.  I’m not positive it looks that off-white in regular lighting, but it’s annoying, as it’s made of the exact same fabric as the skirt!

Kendra

Kendra

Kendra

Mrs. Meringue & Mrs. Marshmallow: Kendra & Sarah

Kendra

18th century, 18th century wigs, travel

Speaking of Wigs…

I still have at least two more posts to write about France, so I really should get busy!  And speaking of wigs, I wanted to post about the wig I made for France.

Luckily, somehow, all of the projects to which I was drawn were right around 1780, so that made it easy — one wig to rule them all!  I did contemplate making a grey wig for a more historically accurate look, but realized that a big trip like this wasn’t the time to take a risk — if I was going to have only one wig, I wanted to know the color would work on me.

Here’s my inspiration board, which I had up while I was making the wig:

My first try needed rework, which seems to always happen (yes, that advice is going in the book!), as it was TWICE as high as the final version.  I almost went with it, then reminded myself that that wasn’t the era I was going for.  Here’s how the wig turned out:

I have a vintage 1960s hatbox that I use for my wigs when I travel.  The wig block never fits, so I stuff the head portion of the wig with plastic bags or newspaper or whatever is on hand, and if the wig isn’t as tall as the box, I do the same with any empty space.  This wig was wide enough that I had to take off the rolls to pack it, but part of my plan was that I could move the rolls around for different looks, so that was fine.  The other thing I planned was different ways to style the chignon (the back hair) and various hair accessories, to mix things up… didn’t want to get bored of wearing the same wig over and over!

Here’s the many ways I wore it:

First day with redingote, no hair accessories finished so nada, cadogan in back:

Kendra

Kendra

Evening look, with fake flowers pilfered from my room at the château (and returned), chignon looped up:

Kendra

Kendra

With purple ribbon and feather:

Kendra

With ridiculous hat — I love the “floating hat” you get in this era!

Kendra

With an organdy pouf, feather spray, and brooch for redingote rewears:

Kendra & Leia

The rolls were looking a little shabby by the end of the trip (note to self, fix those up before CoCo!) but otherwise the thing made it through the whole trip!