Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Secret Geometry of Seventeenth Century Dress

At a 'behind-the-scenes' lecture in the V&A's Sackler Centre on Wednesday 27th February, Senior Curator Susan North introduced two recently published books of Seventeenth Century Women's Dress patterns. 
Book One
Available from the V&A Shop
Book Two
Available from The V&A Shop
Susan shared many of the inspirations and sources of her research with us, including the extensive costume history book reading list. She showed how the approach to documenting and creating historical dress patterns had changed over the years. Most early works relied upon linear drawings and until the Tudor Tailor was published, there had been little direction for actually dressing a person.

Collaborating with Jenny Tiramani was essential to the project. Extensive research in authentic Elizabethan and Jacobean clothing for productions at the Globe Theatre, London had been carried out by Jenny and Luca Costigliolo, Claire Thornton, Armelle Lucas and Christine Prentis, all members of the wardrobe team at the Globe between 1999 and 2005. This team produced the detailed patterns for the V&A books.

A major challenge was to determine the original construction of the seventeenth century garments in the V&A collection without unpicking them. Susan described the process of looking at a complete garment and working out the order of construction as 'sewing backwards'! Once this stage was complete, the team made accurate half size toiles of the garments to be sure that 'sewing forwards' worked too. 

More secrets were uncovered when the garments were X-rayed. The X-rays revealed unexpected hidden features and lead to a better understanding of techniques used. For example, whale bones in the watered pink silk stays were sharpened to a point to go through narrow sewn channels, but were also shown on the X-ray as being stitched through. This could only be achieved by soaking the the stays to make them pliable, then threading and stitching them when still wet. 

Watered Silk Stays from the V&A Collection
Image from V&A
X rays of beautiful lace edged gloves similar to the ones below, revealed the tiny selvedges used in the seams.
Gloves on show in the V&A British Galleries similar to those in Book Two
Photo by Emma V
Although originally planned as one book, the beautiful photography and level of detail meant two volumes were needed to include everything the authors felt was key to understanding the secrets of the garmentsSusan's talk gave us an excellent insight into how much there is to be discovered in these fascinating books.

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