Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: The Dress

I'm going to tell you, dear readers, about my Victorian dress, even though I generally like to wait until the outfits are complete, I'm afraid this one will take a very long time, and might be retired before it is ever finished.

Have you ever seen some fabric in a store and known exactly what you'd make it into? Even if you do not currently "do" that period? How long would you hold on to said fabric just waiting for the right opportunity?

About 10 years ago I came across some tan linen fabric embroidered with  white and gold flowers that I just had to make into a mid-nineteenth century gown. At the time there was very little possibility of me branching from the Renaissance into 19th C. but I could not pass up the fabric. I liked it so much and worried about the amount a hoop skirted form would take up I actually bought more of it when I saw the same pattern again the next year. The fabric then sat in a bin for a very long time. Five years after going into the bin I pulled out my lovely linen when it looked like there was a possibility that we would put on a Wild West show. That opportunity fell through so the fabric went back into storage. I thought I'd get to make it up when a friend got married and had a tea party theme, I ran out of time.

Well obviously the fabric was destined to be an 1870s garden outfit for me to wear in my role at Strawber Banke. The funniest part is when I first started contemplating making my own 1870 dress, I had completely forgotten about the embroidered linen! I was thinking about my current fabric stash and the possiblity of purchasing something new, and got to wondering if there were any more bins of fabric that were still out in the shed... Voila, the perfect Victorian garden dress material. Purchased so long ago as to now feel like it was free.

When deciding on a dress shape and pattern I spent a bit of time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photo collections site and almost immediately found two lovely linen dresses that I thought would be suitable for the garden. The best part of both, is that they were not covered in ruffles that would weigh down a dress or pick up more garden debris. The dresses I liked had lovely looking scalloped hems, which is completely different from anything the Mrs. Goodwins wear. I even managed to find some extant dresses with scalloped hems that were embroidered with little flowers. Yay for documentation! Yay for having an eye for fabric even before I knew what I was doing!

I started in on the skirt first. I’ve done quite a bit of sewing now, and my last few historical skirts have turned out awesome. So I took a big risk and decided to make my skirt with only my own patterning. Ugh. I used much too much fabric, both width and length. I was attempting a little bit of poof with petticoats, so I made it a few inches longer than usual. I wanted to be able to work in it, and to have the width for some poof so I put plenty of width in there. It turned into a heavy, flappy mess.

I was heartbroken and in a total panic because it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I was due to start in the garden and I only had some underpinnings and the horrible skirt. The person in charge of role playing at the museum saved me. She pulled out the maid’s outfit that I’d worn 14 years before, the first time I worked at Strawbery Banke. The thing fits me better now than it did then, and although it is worn, and not very regal, it was time period appropriate. And complete. After that first day I took my skirt home and chopped off almost 5 inches in length, and 35 inches in width. I wore it the next time I was in the garden and I’ve gotten tons of compliments on it ever since. The skirt still does not have a closure in the back, and the ribbon binding on the bottom edge is only sewn to the front of the scallops, it is not turned under. But no one seems to notice, and it is holding up fairly well.

I wore the nearly completed skirt and the old green bodice for a month and a half while I fussed over my own bodice. My friend Kristina helped me make the pattern and fit it, but as soon as we were done I lost the pattern piece for the back. then when I re-made the pattern I spent a few weeks getting the fit right by sewing and re-sewing the lining pieces. When I finally got the lining right, fixed my pattern and cut the fashion fabric (my lovely embroidered linen)  it was mid-June. I was determined to have something wearable other than the old green thing for the Fourth of July festivities at the museum since I would be in the garden that day.

A big part of stitching the bodice was putting on the trim. A bland tan linen needs a contrasting trim to make it special, so I matched the golden skirt trim with some golden piping, and put a chocolate brown ribbon underneath to make it pop. Before I stitched the lining to the bodice I put chocolate brown piping around the whole thing. This is a Victorian garden dress after all. By the time I got that done I barely had time to finish the front hook closure before the 4th. I did not manage to make sleeves or a belt or any of that. Luckily the museum had purchased with blouses for all of us gardeners to wear on the very hot days, so I pinned the button front of the shirt into the bodice so my arms are covered by the shirt sleeves. I ran out of time to sew hooks on to the skirt top, so I put safety pins on the inside an for the past month and a half have been attaching the hooks on the bodice to the little bit of the pins that show on the outside of the skirt.
4th of July, in the Goodwin Garden. I promise better photos some day!

I keep promising myself that I'll put on the sleeves, finish the skirt, and make the apron and bustle bit that goes over the whole thing, but at this point I happy wearing it the way it is. Maybe I'll have to come up with some mid-nineteenth century event this fall to get me motivated to finish it. Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Telling Lies

A while ago a visitor asked me if the sink in the Shapiro's bathroom is enamel or porcelain, I got to tell her truthfully that I'm not sure I'd know the difference. I told her it was purchased second-hand from one of the scrap metal yards, which is conjecture, but is very likely. I'm not sure why, while kneeling on the floor staring up at the base of the sink with a visitor this should pop into my head, but pop it did: " I bet if Mrs. Shapiro was confronted with a nosy visitor like this she would be tempted to lie."

That is a thunderously dangerous, but highly liberating thought. It is dangerous, because it is my job to inform the public about history as it occurred. But at the same time everything I say has some falsehood to it because I am not really mrs. Shapiro. My husband and I did not purchase the house in 1909, but Mrs. Shapiro and her husband did. So my job is to personalize facts, but I strive to make sure they are really facts, just delivered in a more theatrical manner.

I’m reading Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage. I’ll put up a book review when I’m done, but in the meanwhile I was struck by one of his points he makes about interpreters. He says interpreters should never lie. In fact, Joyce Thierer in Telling History makes a big deal about checking every fact and having at least three sources for every fact. But what about storytelling? What if we don’t have all the facts but have certain themes we want to get across?

In Shapiro we make a pretty big deal about Mollie’s birthday. It happens right in the middle of the summer, and is something most American kids can relate to. Getting a gift for Mollie’s birthday is how we connect kids to the past, and connect the Shapiros to the American culture they are learning. We don’t know what Mollie was given for her 10th birthday, we don’t actually know for sure that she was given a gift, but the museum has purchased a reproduction of a 1919 pogo stick that the kids who visit can take into the yard and try out. We call it Mollie’s birthday present even though her grandson is pretty sure she did not have a pogo stick while growing up. But at least some 1919 kids did have them, and trying out the pogo stick can help kids who have been stuck listening to museum folks and need to be active. Since those of us who are interacting with the visitors are doing so as Mrs. Shapiro, do we have a little more leeway to make up the story about the pogo stick being a gift for Mollie’s 10th birthday? Or is that lying?

I hope that most of the audience will forgive us these stories and see them as story telling. I am obviously not Mrs. Shapiro living in the year 1919. So is it more like seeing a play, or is it more like a scene in a documentary which is expected to reflect the actual events?

Many years ago when I was working as a museum garden intern, I lobbied hard to get a well put into the back yard garden where I was working. I was willing to concede that it could not be an actual well, but a wooden platform representing the well top and a well sweep could be very educational to the visitor. The argument I heard against it was that although there was evidence there was a well in the yard, we did not know where in the yard it would have been, so it would be inauthentic to just place it randomly. My arguement was that is was even less authentic to knowingly exclude a well, when we know that there was one. So is it more of a dis-service to the visitor to put the well in the wrong place, or to not indicate that folks back then had to work hard to get their water?

So back to lying. I justify letting visitors walk around the house with a mix of biblical hospitality and with the  fact that the Shapiro's rented the third floor to boarders. I treat most visitors like potential renters so they have an excuse to explore the house and I have an excuse to tell them about my family. As part of that I talk up the newness of the indoor plumbing, and the cleanliness of the kitchen. I am giving historical information about the technology and urbanization of sanitation, and I am giving cultural information about kosher meals in a gentile city. I hope that my visitors know that as Mrs. Shapiro I might be exaggerating the cleanliness of the kitchen, but I also hope that does not diminish the factual knowledge I am sharing. According to Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro, their daughter Mollie was so smart and good, she always finished her homework and did her chores. Was Mollie the perfect child? I doubt it, but she died young and as a good girl was the way her parents wanted to remember her.

But what about whoppers? Actual falsehoods? We make up so much of our characters out of the scraps left to us through the ages, that we all try very hard to give as accurate a presentation as possible. If visitors can not tell very deliberately that I may be stretching the truth (like saying that my daughter is always such a good girl) I try to avoid lies at all cost. But I bet Mrs. Shapiro lied, on occasion.

So now I’ll have to think about some lies I could tell as Mrs. Shapiro. Not to the visitors, that would be awful. But in the spirit of A-E Shapera’s Easy Street a lie through which I can include visitors, as a story I am telling that they are now in on. I already do something similar when folks ask how the peaches in the jar on the counter are preserved. When they ask I look around, lower my voice, and ask if they are police. When they assure me they are not I tell them that the peaches are in vodka, even though prohibition is gearing up all over the country. So I am informing them about food customs, but also the politics of the day, and including them in something that was illegal at the time, but now is considered quaint. Now I’m challenging myself to come up with a few more, see what I can do with some whoppers.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: Where's the Corset?

I've been working in the Victorian garden this weekend and, prepare yourselves readers, I did not wear the proper undergarments.

I love my properly made corset, but I spend my days gardening. That does not mean strolling around cutting flowers; Sunday morning I was twisted around a mountain laurel bush trying to pull out a maple tree that was growing up through it while trying not to: get my skirt and petticoats snagged on the brambles, have my bonnet ripped off by the laurel, and get goosed by the yucca plant growing below. While I could have done it in a corset, my oxygen intake would have been severely limited, and I'd have been no good for the afternoon of weeding that was on my agenda.

When I talked to my boss a few weeks ago about the fact that I was having trouble balancing the two parts of my job, interacting with museum visitors and completing all the things on the garden checklist, he told me I was there to garden, and include people in the garden experience. Making my clothing decision from there was heartbreaking, but necessary.

For a while I wore a modern elastic-sided corset instead, but that was too small in the arm scythe and was not giving me the correct shape. What I really should do is make a corded corset or riding corset that will allow me to bend at the waist, but I only have so much time for sewing, and that is not on my list of projects I MUST complete this year.

Luckily the bodice I made is fairly rigid, and most of our guests are regular Americans on their vacations. Anyone have any suggestions? I'm gonna put a few boning channels in the lining of my dress bodice if I can't come up with anything else soon. Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Portland, OR

Just got back from a short vacation trip to Portland, OR. Usually I like to stuff my trips with historical sites, but this was supposed to be a relaxing type vacation, and I did not spend a ton of time planning. Since I had never been to the west coast I was more interested in getting a feel for the place than absorbing all of its history. Stephen and I rented a motorcycle and for the first few days we rode around the lovely forests and amazing mountains just outside of Portland. I was proud of myself for dusting off my rusty herbal knowledge and recognizing yarrow, St. John's wort, and a bunch of other roadside wildflowers, and I was interested to see all of the differences in flora and environment. Our east coast mountains are so old and worn compared to the youngin's out west.

We rode around Mt. St. Helens, which was beautiful, and also is a part of our history, Stephen is old enough to remember the eruption itself. I was too young in 1980 to remember the event, but the story and the aftermath is part of my childhood memories. The Lewis and Clark expedition was referenced all over the place: on route signs, in the hotel bar, and when riding down the Columbia River Gorge. We both remarked on how attractive the Columbia River must have looked to those intrepid travelers. In Portland itself a lot of the buildings and institutions are celebrating their 100th years. I love both Art Deco and Art Nouveau, so there was plenty in the architecture to delight me.

On my one day in Portland I visited a couple of lovely gardens: a rose garden created to save those old varieties that were in danger during the world wars, and a Japanese garden created to honor the immigrants from Japan who made Portland their home. Stephen introduced me to Powell's City of books, and during my two short trips to the store I picked up 7 books! 6 on historical themes, three of which were on my wishlist, the others look incredibly informative. I even managed to purchase a dress for a 1930s themed wedding that I'm going to in December at an amazing vintage shop downtown.

So, not a historical trip, but I still managed to learn a lot of history, and enjoy a lot of historical contexts in all that I saw.

Stephen and I on the motorcycle, with Mount Hood in the background.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Hyndl the Happy Chicken

I've acquired another chicken.

My parents have had chickens for a number of years, and this past spring got a bunch more chicks to increase their flock. They live in a much more rural area than I do and have not had a dog for a number of years, so the predators came calling. In early July a weasel or something got in among the young birds. When my folks got up in the morning there was only one youngin left, all the rest had been slaughtered. They tried putting her in among the adult chickens, but there really is a pecking order, and the older birds immediately started beating up on the poor traumatized thing. Not knowing what else to do my folks cleaned up the coop where the carnage had happened and let the little chick hide under a bush nearby, while leaving the door open if she wanted to go back to her old home.

When Alysa and I went to visit that evening, my dad was in just as much shock as the little chicken, so I took pity on both of them and volunteered to take it home, set it up outside in our dog crate, and try to integrate it into my much younger flock. Mom even had an antique chicken crate she gave to me for transportation. So we made a bed of straw, put in water and food, and then caught the poor thing. Actually she was quite willing to be caught and carried around, she actually calmed down and stopped stopped panting while we carried her around the yard and placed her in the old crate. Alysa and I put the chicken in her antique home in our bathroom overnight, and the next day I set about making her a new home.

The next morning when I opened the chicken crate she popped her head up, and let me pet her. She hopped up out of the crate, and cooed for a while, then let me pick her up and walk around with her. She seemed so content that I actually took her into the living room, sat her on my knee, and proceeded to check facebook from my laptop on the other knee. She spent most of the next 45 minutes preening. She had a ton of dandruff, probably from all the stress, and sat there cleaning herself and shaking chicken dander all over, but perfectly happy to sit on my knee. This chicken actually likes people.

She is a Cochin, she is golden with feathers all over her feet. So she isn't a heritage breed, but what she lacks in history she more than makes up for in gentleness. In fact, the first week she was living with us I actually took her to work one day.

It was a day I was Mrs. Shapiro, and there is some oral history evidence that the Shapiros did keep chickens. Also, the back yard is fairly enclosed, and there is a covered area under the wheelchair ramp that is the perfect size for chickens that need to escape rain or sun. It was tough for me to both watch over the house and help folks interact with the chicken, but it sure was fun having her there. She ate bugs in the compost pile, flirted with the catbird that lives in the mock orange, made herself a dirt nest under the horseradish, and let me pick her up so that visitors that wanted to touch the chicken could do so. I justified having such a funny looking bird (her feet really are hilarious) by saying that I needed a brooding hen: a hen that would lay on the eggs and be a good mother to my next year's chicks. Cochins are in North America by 1919, and I read on the internet that they are broody, so it worked as justification for the one-day appearance.

I did not have a single person respond badly that day. I did encounter folks that were uninterested, and that is totally cool. I had many more people who wanted to know more, about chickens, about the history of livestock in early 20th Century urban settings, and most who just wanted to actually interact with this live animal.

She did not have a name before I brought her to work. Stephen does not approve of naming things that eventually will get eaten. But I was taking care of her separately from my other chickens, and I knew that museum visitors would ask me if she had a name. I looked up the word "Chicken" in Yiddish, Mrs. Shapiro's first language, and decided that "Hyndl" would be a fine name for a chicken. Since we are calling her chicken, just in a different language, Stephen has approved this name. He has also approved of one of my other chicken names, for the smallest of our other flock I've been calling her Marie Antoinette. He is okay with this name as long as we are all aware that eventually Marie Antoinette will loose her head. I might have to name Marie's siblings Mary Queen of Scotts and Anne Boleyn.

But back to Hyndl. I have not brought her back to the museum, though I would like to. I just have to convince the powers that be to let me interpret chicken that day and not be stuck with a house to watch too. In the meantime, I have sucessfully integrated her into my little flock. She is not exactly welcomed by my three other birds, but they let her at the feeders, and tolerate her presence without too much harassment, which is good enough for a chicken.

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