Saturday, 5 August 2017

#CoBloWriMo 5: Origin story

I wish I could give you my full origin story with pictures; I can't at the moment, because all the relevant things are at my father's house and I won't go there until later! Pictures to be added at a later date.

It's a long story, because I'm trying to bring together many different strands. And I'm sure I'm still leaving a lot out.

* * *

The start is clear. It all started with a little book. It was small but thick and it was an overview of the history of (then) Czechoslovakia. And somewhere around the middle of that book, there was a visual overview of the history of clothes. I purposefully say clothes, because it included prehistoric people, the "proletariat" (a must for a book published before 1989), and folk costumes.

All these people were pictured standing next to one another as if in a crowd, or more likely in a line long waiting and hanging out, or something. Underneath on each page (the book was landscape-situated), there ran on a description that went something like "from left, pilgrim and a girl from the 14h century, a burger's daughter from the 15th century, etc." There were often such grups of people fromo around the same time lumped together.

Two things to note here:

Firstly, I learned to read at a very young age (I think I started reading when I was three) because I am the youngest of three and apparently as a child I always followed my sisters' lead. By the time I started school, I was already reading fluently. So I was looking at the pictures and reading the descriptions at a very impressionable young age, so of course I was imagining real people with personalities, not just depictions of historical fashions.

Secondly, I may have been able to read words fluently, but obviously other reading capabilities were still not quite caught up. I apparently did not yet understand the function of a colon. Also, "from left" is a single word in Czech that vaguely resembles some names, too. At the very beginning, I kept thinking that Odleva was a person in the line-up, and then the numbers never added up. Even after I caught up to its real meaning, I had to keep figuring out who was who in the line-up (and remember, from above, that these were people, not "diagrams") because of the odd way it was written.

All this added to my fascination with that overview. I must have spent hours and hours looking through it at that impressionable young age.

In retrospect, it was a bad, bad overview - not just because it was written so oddly, but because for example "burger's daughter from the 15th century" is clearly a rich Italian lady from the end of the century, which is very, very misleading in the context of the whole of the 15th century in the Czech lands.

And there are zero Directoire / Empire / Regency fashions. The closest I get is a woman in cca 1820s fashions (okay, that might technically be Regency), who's facing a group in cca 1840s fashions and even from the description rather appears to be part of it. Bad, bad overview.

I'm writing all this from memory. That should give you an idea of just how imprinted all that is.

It also serves to drive home the fact that even at the time, I was most interested in the clothes, because I can't remember anything else from that book.

* * *

My first meeting with Regency-ish fashions was around that same time through a thin booklet, somewhat newer of date (after 1989), that was apparently a promotional booklet of a bank, aimed at children, also depicting fashions from various eras. It was called Clothes Make the Man (which, in the Czech version of the saying, is actually "human"). These were done almost as caricatures of the said fashions. The "Empire" lady was wearing fashions that were definitely 1810s, all narrow but with poofy decoration (weird to a child's eye!), close-fitting bonnet and ridiculously tiny parasol. In white and purple. And she had a very snooty expression on her face.

Not a good introduction.

* * *

I loved costumes in fairy-tale films (of which the Czechs have many), but it did not entirely click that those had historical inspirations behind them. For a while, my love of historical clothes was mostly directed to ethnic clothes. Like a lot of Central European children, I was fascinated by Native Americans, thanks to the books of Karl May (I won't go there). Unlike a lot of them, me and my sisters had more to go on, thanks to the books of Alberto Vojtěch Frič (in terms of South America), the permanent exhibitions Náprstkovo muzeum in Prague (where I could go several times over the years because we lived near Prague and one grandma lives in Prague), and last but not least, a most excellent encyclopaedia by Mnislav Zelený, which was published by Albatros, the children's books publishing company, but written by an actual ethnographer with a lot of experience in the field and access to a lot of sources. It's heavily illustrated, so suitable for children, but it's also perfectly good as a source.

I mostly bring it up because it does feed into the way I got back to European historical fashions: through ancient and ethnic clothing. The second time (I think) we visited the museum, there was a temporary exhibition on Ancient Egypt.

* * *

My love of historical clothes was re-awakened and nurtured in art classes at the local art school (that's a phenomenon that might need explaining to international readers, but I won't go there here, either). I think I was about eleven or twelve. We were doing a project in which we were designing a poster for an imaginary exhibition of historical fashions. The teacher brought into class a number of books from the Czech series written by Ludmila Kybalová (which I've quoted on this blog before). And I was fascinated.

I chose to do a poster for an exhibition on Ancient Egypt in Náprstkovo muzeum. But it started there. I came home with stars in my eyes, talking about awesome books on historical fashions. At the nearest opportunity, I got myself the one on ancient cultures. Others followed. Before I got there, mom brought home an old-ish (1980s) book, which was a textbook for textile / designing high schools I believe and covered something of design but mostly did history of fashion. And that was the first time I saw Empire fashions depicted properly.

Considering my first new historical fashion love was ancient, I guess it's fitting my current beloved era draws a lot of inspiration from that.

* * *

And it must have been around that same time, maybe a little later, that I first saw Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz. My oldest sister convinced me and mum to go see it in the local cinema. (It was almost empty.) I was blown away. I borrowed the book from the library (on my mom's card, because it was in the adult section and the two were treated separately). I was a very avid reader. Normally it would take me about a week, max, to devour a book. It took me two months to chew my way through this 19th century novel-length poem. But I did. It was, I think, the first time I ever voluntarily read a book I could not read easily.

My love for Regency-ish fashions has nothing to do with Jane Austen. Well, at least not originally.

* * *

The realisation that I COULD DO THIS has nothing to do with all that. It came, originally, from Star Wars and Padawan's Guide. It was Padmé / Amidala's costumes, I think. They were fascinating and I wanted to know more. It was the moment where I found a fascination with the construction of clothes, the way things go together, preferably in fascinating unusual ways, as opposed to a wish to wear pretty pretty clothing. It's where I started - very early on - veering off the path of standard modern patterns.

I have never made a Star Wars costume. Through Padawan's Guide, I found Koshka-the Cat, and that was it. I had found the world of historical costuming. From there, I quickly found others.

It's a gross simplification, mind you. I was devuoring everything to do with sewing then, and it's about the same time I found Burda Style in its original Open Source conception, as well. (Although I'm fairly sure that was only after I had found Padawan's Guide. And after Craftster. Which is a part of my crafting history I've nearly forgotten about.)

Even then, I think it took me several more years to start sewing historical clothes. That's strangely different from my apparent default sewing approach which is to plunge headfirst into projects several rungs higher than my current experience (my favourite example to bring up is that I did not start with a pillowcase and the first pillowcase I ever made was a quilted patchwork one). It's less strange when I realise probably the first project I plunged headfirst into in my teens was a medieval(-ish-ish) dress for a party. I started seriously sewing in my late teens because I wanted historical costumes of my own.

* * *

My graduation ball (prom-ish) dress wasn't historical; but it was empire-line. I used an altered Burda magazine pattern, moving bust darts from the sides to the waistline. It was almost nude-coloured and had a light-coloured sheer overlay over a somewhat darker satin-y lining. My skills didn't live up to expectations, not too surprisingly, but I can still derive a sense of satisfaction from the fact I wasn't wearing a sleeveless tube corset-bodice monstrosity from a rental shop, and that the dress is still salvage-able if I ever get around to it.

And I derive a sense of retrospective validation of my tastes from the fact the original idea, discarded due to pattern and fabric constrictions, was for gathers all around the skirt. The original idea was also that the dress would be red. And it had a slight train. And would have been worn with a bigger shawl than the eventual dress was. It was, basically, a very late 1790s-early 1800s idea. Now I think of it, I think I should include the original idea, only slightly altered (with sleeves), among the things I want to make one day.

* * *

What bothers me now, in compiling my personal retrospective, is that I can't for the life of me remember how I found The Dreamstress. It was definitely before she moved to Wordpress (let alone before the site overhaul). The old comments are thus lost in the transfer, so I don't even know when I found her.

It's a bit like that story about the northern lights on November 17 1989: it can't be proven. Except it can be proven by my following her site to this day, so that's much better. ;-)

She's very important for my origin story because she was, I think, the first person I came across who exudes a love of learning about historical costumes for learning's sake; not that the others I had found before don't have it, but they don't write about it as much, what with structuring their sites around their projects...

It's less of the - even completely unintended - drive to create more and more costumes to wear to events one attends, of which I had almost none (events, I mean), and more of the drive to make costumes because it's FUN, and because one LEARNS from it.

(The Historical Sew Fortnightly gave me one of the final impulses to really do it.)

It suits me best, that approach.


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  2. Wow, you have made quite the journey to arrive in the costuming world. And we have something in common. Without the Dreamstress and the HSF I might have never started historical sewing either. They are both important "institutions" within the sewing community.

    1. I'm sure everyone has, in some way... it's a matter of the telling, I guess.

      HSF wasn't the real impetus in my case, but it IS a good motivation.

    2. Yes, because they are the well-frequented. The same also counts for Historical Sewing and Koshka the Cat. But I discovered those later in fact.

      And the HSF for me was a first motivation, too. When I joined in, it was like the point of no return when the sewing became an actual hobby.

  3. I suppose most people wouldn't make the period clothing if they didn't have an affair to attend, but you are truly driven, it seems. (maybe not the best word, and kindly meant). :) Two asides: interesting that Native Americans are of much interest to Eastern Europeans, and - Northern Lights were visible on 11/17/89, and there is some disagreement about it? Anyway, I'm glad you're back to blogging again, Hana. :)

    1. Ah, I forgot to link to that older post with the Northern Lights story! It's a family memory.