Monday, January 27, 2020

Who Am I?

A little while ago there were some powerful stories circulating on Instagram about the experiences of people of color in the costuming community. As a person of mixed race myself, I felt both saddened and strengthened to read about these experiences and know what I wasn't alone. I didn't share my own experiences at the time because it can be painful and emotionally exhausting to do so, and I applaud those who had the strength to share.

Yesterday I posted a video on my Facebook that interviewed mixed-race people to talk about their experiences. In the ongoing discussion about race in America, mixed race people's voices are just beginning to be heard. The people interviewed spoke to the ambiguous place that mixed race people occupy, never feeling fully a part of any culture and continually being "othered" by white people and people of color.

My identity as a person of mixed race is something that I have struggled with my entire life, and I am still on a journey of understanding and acceptance. Even though this blog is almost entirely for sharing my historical clothing research and recreation, there's no denying that my racial identity is a huge part of me as a person, an historian, an artist, and a maker. So read on if you'd like. If you're just here for pretty pictures, I'm hoping to have a new costume post very soon and you can check back later.

My grandmother, Michiko Watanabe, came to America in the 1950s after she married my grandfather, Arthur Stickel, an American sailor from Columbus, Ohio. He was stationed in Japan during the Korean War and my grandmother worked in a cafe in a train station. My grandpa's brother had survived the Bataan Death March, but was killed when the US sank an un-marked Japanese ship carrying POW's. It still amazes me that my grandpa's family embraced my Japanese grandmother the way they did, even though their son/brother had been a prisoner of the Japanese and died in their custody. When my grandma came to America, she stopped speaking Japanese except when talking to her family back in Japan. She learned to cook German-American food. She converted to Catholicism. She loved baseball. She took a job as an alterations seamstress in a department store in Columbus. She became, as much as possible, an American.

My grandpa loved musicals and movies and one of his favorite things was introducing me to his favorites. I'll never forget when he showed me the 1957 movie "Sayonara", about an American Air Force pilot in the Korean War who falls in love with a Japanese woman. He told me, "This is the story of your Oma and me." He also told me that the Navy chaplain who married them warned them to avoid the southern United States, since they would most certainly not be welcomed there as a married couple.

I was told that because of illness, my grandma couldn't have children. My grandparents adopted my mother, born of Chinese-American parents, in Los Angeles, where they relocated. My uncle, of Chinese and French descent, was also adopted. My mom and uncle weren't raised knowing anything about their Chinese culture, nor did my grandma teach them how to speak Japanese or cook them Japanese food. None of that stopped the racist teasing that my mom faced in school, because of course, she still looked Asian.

Both my mom and dad worked when I was growing up, but my grandparents lived around the corner from us and they were our after-school carers. I am so grateful to have had the close relationship I had with them. I absolutely took it for granted as a kid, which is one of my biggest regrets in life. I only know as much as I have shared with you thus far about their story, and I know there is so much more. My grandma sewed every Halloween costume, recital costume, and First Communion dress for me and my sister. She taught me the basics of sewing and absolutely laid the foundation for my passion and career. I owe so much to her. Still, I learned almost nothing about her culture. My culture? Even though I'm half-Chinese, I think I identify more with Japanese culture because of my grandmother, who at least was a living link to my "family" in Japan. She did teach me how to count to five in Japanese and say "Moshi moshi" when answering the telephone. But I was still a half-Chinese daughter of a Chinese-American woman adopted by a Japanese immigrant. What did that mean? Who was I?

I distinctly remember being ashamed of my tan skin and squinty eyes as a kid. I resented blonde characters on TV and in movies and always rooted for the brunette in a show because they were more like me even though they were white. I was in grade school when I experienced deep anxiety about my skin color, because of an off-hand comment that a friend said to me about it. My paternal grandmother tried to comfort me by telling me about her attempts to get a tan artificially and just turning orange. It still didn't help. My family often visited Hawaii when I was growing up, and while I felt most "normal" among the majority non-white population there, I still covered my skin in hats and rash guards at the beach because I didn't want to get any "darker" than I already was. I wanted to be white. And I'm going to be completely honest here--there are still times where I wish I was, especially when it comes to living history and historical clothing. I'm always surprised when people assume I'm white, especially in historical clothing, but deep down inside a tiny part of me is relieved.

My love of history and historical clothing has always been with me, even when I was little. I loved the period pieces my grandpa showed me, such as "The King and I." But I wanted to be Anna, not Lady Thiang or Tuptim. As I learned more about historical clothing and began to make things for myself and go to events, the micro-aggressions began trickling in. A reenacting friend asked me if I had ever considered portraying a Chinese woman during the Civil War (there were incredibly few, if any, Chinese women in America during the Civil War, by the way. And I shouldn't have to justify my existence to take part in a hobby). When I joined the Queen's Court at the Renaissance Faire, another courtier bemoaned "They're (the Asians) taking over!" (I was one of three Asians in the cast at the time). I could list a dozen other examples, but that's not really the point. And also, it's painful to relive them.

These instances related to historical clothing and living history are only a small part of the "regular" microaggressions that mixed-race people encounter on a daily basis. I have come to understand that most of the microaggressive comments and questions white people say to mixed-race people come from a place of curiosity or admiration (not quite the word I'm looking for but I can't come up with anything better) and not from malice. Undoubtedly the most common one is "What are you?". And you know what really hurts about this question? Think about the last time you saw a really cool looking dog out for a walk. You ask the owner if you can give the good boy or girl some pats. And then you ask "What kind of dog is it?" Well, asking "What are you?" feels like you're asking me what kind of dog am I. That I'm a mutt, a mongrel, and you want to know what purebred dogs make up this unique mix. It's not a compliment. It's not a conversation starter. You've made me feel like an animal. This analogy also works for another common comment I've received, that mixed-race people have better genes than.... purebred (?) people. My own health issues aside, it's also not a compliment. Neither is it comforting to be told that since so many Americans have multiple European nationalities in their heritage, that it's somehow the same as having mixed non-white ethnic heritage and "we're all one big melting pot!" It completely ignores the often painful experiences of mixed-race people and the centuries of racism that have shaped this country.

Perhaps what is most frustrating for me is the notion that the "gift" of being "exotic" or having a "unique" look that comes from being mixed-race somehow erases or makes up for the pain and confusion that also come from being mixed-race. It all comes down to what has been termed "othering", that is, making a person or group of people feel like they don't belong, that they're alien, that they're "not one of us." I'm here to tell you that whether you're a little kid or a grown adult, being "othered" hurts, especially when you already have no idea where you belong.

I know my friends and family love me regardless of my racial background. I know that my skills have value regardless of my racial background. But I still have to endure the microaggressions, stereotypes, and flat-out racism that come with my Asian-ness. And what's more, I don't have any connection to my Asian culture (again, would that be Chinese or Japanese?) in which to find comfort or identity. It's not uncommon for mixed-race people, even those who aren't partially white and instead are from different non-white cultures, to feel like they aren't fully accepted into the cultures that make them up. White people will never see me as white (and they shouldn't--I'm not white) but I'm not culturally Asian either, so how can I identify as Asian?

There is so much more I could say about this, but I've already said a lot. If you've made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read this. I'm not looking for compliments or to be told race and ethnicity shouldn't or don't matter and I should just love myself for who I am. The reality is that in our society today, those things do matter and they do affect our identity. My sincerest hope is that you, dear reader, will have learned something and will in the future stop to consider your words before you say or write them. Just because I've experienced hurtful and thoughtless words doesn't mean I am perfect and always say the right thing, because I don't and I'm human just like everyone else. What we need more than ever right now is to listen to each other, to affirm that what that person is feeling is valid, and to promise and endeavor to be better in the future.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Not-a-Pilgrim c.1620 Gown

I have been wanting to make a new early 17th century gown for some time, one that would demonstrate more of what I’ve learned in the past few years. I also wanted a posher gown than the one I had made previously. I also had recently done research into the 1620-24 entries of the Ferrar Papers, which provided documentation for women’s gowns being worn in Virginia.

With that in mind, I began looking for black worsted wool, which would be a solidly “nice” fabric for a woman of comfortable means but by no means wealthy. Worsteds, being lightweight and smooth, became increasingly popular from the middle of the 16th century for better garments. Black was a color that showed sobriety but also fashion sense. Obtaining a “true black”—not blue-black or natural sheep’s black—was an costly process compared to other colors (like red shades from madder or blue shades from woad) so black garments also showed the money invested in the material.
For trim, I found a vintage wool lace that I dyed black. The last thing to source was the black glass buttons—actually manufactured for teddy bear eyes but made in a similar way to glass buttons from this period; that is, a wire shank inserted into the glass.

Studying period images led me to choose a “high-bodied” gown, a term used in original sources most likely to denote a gown with a bodice made high up to the neck with a color as opposed to a low, rounded neckline. You can see my Pinterest board of images by clicking on the picture.

Two gowns of this style are in Patterns of Fashion, but there is very little construction information given. None of the newer publications on 17th century dress have anything like them either. I decided to base the construction of the gown on the information in Patterns of Fashion on the woman’s doublet and on doublets examined in Seventeenth Century Men’s Dress Patterns. Since tailors we’re making women’s gowns during this time, I feel it’s safe to assume that women’s gowns would have been made using similar techniques.

The bodice is interlined with two layers of linen canvas and boned with synthetic whalebone. While boning in pairs of bodies and the bodices and sleeves of gowns had been the preserve of the elite at the end of the 16th century, it had begun to trickle down the social scale by the first quarter of the 17th century. A 1611 ordinance for the City of London actually forbade maid servants from having whalebone in their clothing, which encourages me to believe enough of them had done it for it to be considered a problem (the problem, of course, being dressing in a manner considered inappropriate for their station). And since this gown is for a woman who would have employed servants, it seemed reasonable to have boning in the bodice. I used a similar layout for the boning that is seen in the woman's doublet in Patterns of Fashion.

The outer layer of worsted was put together with the interlining. I whipped the seam allowances down to keep everything neat. The center front edges of the bodice are faced with black silk taffeta, as are the cuffs of the sleeves. The buttonholes are worked in silk buttonhole twist.

The tabs that make up the wings were each made separately, consisting of the worsted wool folded over a piece of linen canvas and trimmed with the wool lace. The tabs are mounted onto a single piece of taffeta and then the tabs are bar-tacked together to further keep them in place.

Next the lining goes in. First I laid in the back lining and then the fronts were laid on top and the seam allowances felled down at the side backs and shoulders. The lining was also felled down along the facings. Finally the black silk taffeta collar lining went in, again using a felling stitch.


To bulk up the skirt pleats just a bit, I put a strip of wool coating along the top edge if the skirt and folded over the excess fabric. The skirt is gauged (cartridge pleated) to the finished waist edge of the bodice.

A crisp white linen ruff, cuffs, and coif finish the outfit along with a black fur felt hat blocked by my husband. While this looks like the stereotypical garb of a Thanksgiving Pilgrim, it’s something that could have been worn by any Englishwoman of moderate means regardless of religious leanings.

Back in October, I used this gown to do an historical witch photoshoot, which was incredibly fun! 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Lady of the Knights of the Blended Rose, 1778: Part 2 Construction and Thoughts

Now on to the actual making of the gown!

I started with putting the petticoat together, which is something I usually do first with most of my projects these days. Not only is it usually the easiest part of an outfit, but I've accepted (after many years of not doing this) that it really is best to do fittings on the upper body over as many of the under layers as possible, which includes all of the petticoats you will be wearing. It just saves frustration and time because you know exactly where your waist is and how the petticoats and other layers affect the way the bodice will sit at the waist.

Once the petticoat was made and trimmed in the pink silk with fine silver lace, it was time to move on to the polonaise. I have no problem admitting this style of gown intimidates me, even though I made one last year for the Museum of the American Revolution. I also took a polonaise jacket workshop from Janea Whitacre back in 2014 so I wasn't going in to this completely unprepared. And since Brooke Welborn and Kendra VanCleave published their article on the "true" polonaise, other costumers have made beautiful polonaise gowns. But I was anxious about how this style would look on me and if I would absolutely hate it after putting all that work into it.

There are a few variations within the polonaise style, so bear in mind that what I chose to do is not the only way to do things, although every choice was made based on a period example.

The back of my polonaise is cut similarly to an English gown, with a pleat on either side of the center back seam. This was done on a beautiful polonaise in the Glasgow Museums collection.
Glasgow Museums

I cut the back of the polonaise first and stitched the pleats on either side of the center back seam. Then I cut the fronts of the polonaise, which flow from neckline to hem without a waistseam. There is extra fabric at the side back that is pleated to provide fullness to the skirts and draw the polonaise closer to the body, allowing the fronts to fall away from the center point. I chose to make an attached "waistcoat" or under-bodice that is stitched at the side-back seams and the arms. Other options are a completely separate waistcoat or a stomacher, but I liked that an attached waistcoat would mean fewer moving pieces and it would provide a more fitted look (again, I was really concerned about not liking how a looser gown would look on me). The waistcoat fronts are lined but the fronts of the polonaise are not.

A look at the inside of the gown. Here you can see the wrong side of one of the polonaise fronts including the two pleats that run along either side back. The attached waistcoat is to the right.
Once the waistcoat fronts are whipped in, the interior looks similar to an English gown. 

Because this style of gown doesn't have robings or a separate shoulder strap, I treated the polonaise and waistcoat fronts as one and backstitched the sleeve in all the way around. 

Here are a few views of the gown with the skirts left down.

(Wow... I need much better photo-taking equipment...)

The outfit got to make its debut at the Colonial Williamsbur Garden Party, and Eliza came dressed in her costume for the ladies of the Knights of the Burning Mountain!

I was sewing up to the very last minute so I ran out of time to make the turban and veil the way I wanted to and in a way that would better represent what the descriptions say. I also didn't get to spangle the stockings! But I am very much looking forward to wearing this outfit again, with all of the accessories fully finished.

What would I change? After talking to Brooke Welborn about my polonaise and getting her advice, I'm going to put a diagonal tuck in the polonaise fronts (which will be hidden behind the trim) which will eliminate the folds you see in the front and help the fronts cut away from the center of the body a bit more. I need to re-set the bottom of the sleeves to eliminate some excess fullness. And I want to see if I can do anything to make the cape lay more nicely and not wrinkle so much. But I'm also an incurable perfectionist! I really did love wearing and making this outfit and hope to find another event to which I can wear it!

Friday, May 10, 2019

A Lady of the Knights of the Blended Rose, 1778: Part 1 Research and Design

Last September I had the opportunity to portray the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family, Peggy Chew, at the Occupied Philadelphia event organized by the Museum of the American Revolution (also in Philadelphia). It was incredibly enjoyable to explore and share the experiences of such a young woman, as her family was neither wholly Loyalist nor wholly Patriot/Rebel, but instead walked a fine line that many wealthy, established families did. It's all too easy to want to divide the participants of the American Revolution into either camp but the reality was much more ambiguous. Indeed, the event centered around the mixed feelings of Philadelphia residents and their new occupiers--or liberators, depending on who you asked.

Peggy and three of her close friends (the infamous Peggy Shippen, Rebecca Franks, and Rebecca Redman) constituted the "little society of Third and Fourth Streets", the most celebrated young ladies in Philadelphia. It was only natural that they caught the attention of the romantic and dashing Major John Andre when the British occupied the city late in 1777. Although Peggy Shippen is often suggested as Andre's main squeeze (as in the TV show "Turn"), it was Peggy Chew that Andre chose to be his "lady" for the most extravagant party of 1778.

The Meschianza was a wildly imaginative farewell party for General Howe, designed and orchestrated by the theatrical Andre himself. It was essentially Georgians reenacting their idea of the Medieval period, complete with knights and jousting. The knights belonged to one of two opposing teams: the Knights of the Blended Rose, in white and pink, and the Knights of the Burning Mountain, in black and gold. As Andre was a Knight of the Blended Rose, Peggy Chew and the other ladies were attired in their colors. (For more information about the Meschizanza, see here and here.

Because of the extravagant and unique nature of the Meschianza, considerable information about it is still available today, including descriptions and images of the costumes worn by the ladies. This was incredibly helpful for this project! I must thank Eliza of Silk and Sass for instigating this crazy undertaking, and I'm very glad she did. She has been researching and portraying Rebecca "Becky" Franks, who was a lady of the Knights of the Burning Mountain, so we would conveniently have one lady from each group.

For the ladies of the Knights of the Blended Rose, we have the following descriptions.

Andre wrote an after-action report of sorts and described the costumes this way:
They [the ladies] wore gauze turbans spangled and edged with gold or silver; on the right side a veil of the same kind hung as low as the waist, and on the left side of the Turban was enriched with pearl and tassels of gold or silver & crested with a feather. The dress was of the polonaise kind and of white silk with long sleeves; the sashes which were worn round the waist and were tied with a large bow on the left side hung very low and were trimmed, spangled, and fringed to the colors of the Knight.
A memoir by John Fanning Watson gives this description related by a fellow lady of the Knights of the Blended Rose, Miss Craig:
He [Major Andre] sketched it [the dress] to give the ladies an idea of the garb they should assume. In reality it was this:– for the Blended Rose a white silk, called a Polonaise, forming a flowing robe, and open in the front of the waist– the pink sash six inches wide, and filled with spangles– the shoes and stockings also spangled– the head-dress more towering than drawing, and filled with a profusion of pearls and jewels. The veil was spangled and edged with silver lace
There is also a sketch Andre did of the headdress of a lady of the Knights of the Blended Rose:
Armed with this information, I set about gathering the materials for my polonaise gown and accessories. My dear Stephanie destashed some figured ivory silk and I got the remainder of the materials from various Etsy sellers. I had just enough silver metal boullion fringe to use on the ends of my pink silk sash, which is also spangled according to the description.

I had to use creative license for the design of the polonaise since their are no surviving images of the full outfit, but my design would still be strongly rooted in historical examples. I wanted to bring in the pink to the polonaise itself, not just in the sash, so I took inspiration from two-tone polonaise gowns that appear in French fashion plates and extant Spanish gowns. There is also an extant British polonaise in the V&A that is white with purple silk fabric trim, so I felt confident that my choice was within the realm of possibility. 
 Victoria and Albert Museum

Museu del Traje

This was the little sketch I did so I could better see my design:

This has ended up quite a bit more involved than I expected, so I will end here and put the construction of the polonaise and accessories in a second post! Check back later!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Year in Review

This year was so incredibly busy, not only with sewing but with conferences and workshops as well. It didn't seem like I made much, but this list has helped prove otherwise, especially when I consider all of the little things like caps and mitts. Those count too! So here is what I did in 2018!

Conferences and Workshops:
*taught a B&T shift workshop
*assisted a B&T sack gown workshop
*planned and hosted our second 17th century clothing workshop featuring Jenny Tiramani and The Tudor Tailor
*spoke at the Jane Austen Summer Program
*spoke and taught at the inaugural Corsets and Cravats mid-19th century conference
*wrote and performed a program on 17th century clothing at Agecroft Hall

Contract Work:
*two sets of clothing to represent Sally Hemings for Monticello's new exhibit
*a silk gown representing Martha Jefferson for Monticello

*white silk Italian gown representing 1787 Eliza Hamilton

Projects for Myself:

*17th century ruff

*1770s jacket (no picture)
*1770s cap 

*black wool mitts (no picture)
*remake of 1616 gown

*tartan 1814 dress

*1820s bonnet

*1860s black evening gown

*16th century Belle gown

*1770s short sack and petticoat

*1770s pelisse

*1815 evening dress

*1676 gown
*1842 dress