In deciphering the mysteries of historic dress, a picture is worth a thousand words...except when it isn't. When Loretta and I have seen fashion plates like the one, left, (full image here) from 1812, we've assumed that the colored bodice was part of the dress itself, an early 19th c. version of colored-blocking. We also assumed that the word "bodice" in the plate's description simply referred to a section of the dress: "a peasant's bodice of pink satin or velvet, laced in front."
However, we don't have to elaborate on what happens when you assume, especially about fashion. Fashion changes constantly and always has, and what often seems like a logical description can refer to something entirely different.
Fortunately, one of our readers and fellow nerdy-history-girls is Natalie Garbett. Natalie is a professional historical researcher, costume-maker, and re-enactor whose work has appeared in productions of the BBC, Shakespeare's Globe, and many others. While she specializes in creating reproduction clothing from 1600-1940, she is especially drawn to the clothing of the early 19th c.
Natalie had also seen bodices like the one above, but while we assumed, she researched. Turns out that peasant bodices and evening spencers were in fact separate garments. Usually made of a luxurious fabric like silk or velvet and often decorated with fringe, lace, and other trimmings, these bodices added a touch of color and richness (and a smidgen of warmth) to the white and light-colored dresses of the day. In an era when the cost of fabric still outweighed labor, they were an economical indulgence, too, as well as being a way to change or update the look of an existing plain gown, or make it more suitable for evening wear.
The photograph, right, shows a reproduction evening bodice that Natalie created based on her research. It's made in silk satin with a military inspired decoration using vintage linen cord and Dorset high top buttons. The lace is antique silk blonde lace.
Here's the link to Natalie's own blog post on the bodices, with more examples of fashion plates, plus several actual examples. Also included are photographs of the bodice that Natalie recreated, both inside and out – very useful to historical seamstresses as well writers like us who worry about correctly getting our characters dressed (and undressed.)
Above left: Fashion plate, "Ball Dress: a round Circassian robe of pink carpe,or gossamer net, over a white satin glip, fringed full at the feet; a peasant's bodice of pink satin or velvet, laced in front." c. 1812 Lower right: Reproduction evening bodice by Natalie Garbett. Photograph by Natalie Garbett.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.