Living in the past. Long past!

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this Guardian story about people who choose to live in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s — estehtically, anyway.

And I recently did a lot of global reporting — speaking to people in Seattle, DC, Ontario, Genoa, L.A., Stockholm, London, Finland and Philadelphia — about a hobby they all share, historical costuming. (The man in Philly does it for a living!)

It means making and wearing clothing of much earlier eras and centuries, finding patterns and appropriate fabric, and wearing the correct undergarments to create the correct silhouette. (No sports bras allowed!)

It’s an amazing obsession, and demands a lot of patience and skill and meticulous attention to detail. It’s mostly enjoyed women, and mostly white women — something they’re well aware of! I did include an Iranian-American.

One of the women I spoke to is a mechanic in Finland. One is an Army wife in Ontario. One is a jewelry appraiser in Stockholm.

All were a joy to speak with! I could have spent hours geeking out with Jenny Tiramani, a legendary costume designer who worked for years at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — and who founded and runs London’s School of Historical Dress.

Here’s the piece, my first sale to the Styles section of The New York Times, for whom I write fairly often:

Here’s the start:

It’s a world of corsets, stays and chemises. Of weskits, bum rolls, breeches and hoop panniers. For actors, wearing period costume has long meant literally stepping into the past: lacing soft modern flesh into antique shapes and learning how to use the toilet without peeling off multiple layers.

“Bridgerton,” Shonda Rhimes’s racially diverse Netflix series set in 1813 England, has suddenly ignited new interest in Regency fashions. But a global community of hobbyists has been designing, making and wearing clothing from the 19th century and earlier for many years. Long a private obsession fueled by films like “The Leopard” and “Pride and Prejudice,” social media has widened the conversation, with fans of all ages and backgrounds worldwide now trading notes on how best to trim a sleeve or adjust a straw bonnet.

Pre-pandemic, they gathered in Los Angeles at Costume College, an annual conference, at Venice’s Carnival and the Fêtes Galantes at Versailles. Some lucky Europeans, like Filippa Trozelli, find themselves invited to wear their historical clothing to private parties at ancient local estates.

As someone who loves vintage/historical textiles — and who wore an Edwardian day dress for her first wedding — I totally get the appeal of this obsession. I love the notion of time travel, of swishing through a garden in yards of silk or meeting up in Venice with equally obsessed pals from around the world.

I had long wanted to write about this subculture, as I follow several of the women on Instagram, but never had a “peg” or “hook” — i.e. what relevance would it have now? Thanks to Bridgerton, it does!

17 thoughts on “Living in the past. Long past!

  1. I’ve heard of this subculture! There’s a great video of a guy who lives and dresses like he’s a Victorian in modern London and paints fancy pictures as a living. I admire them for their dedication and style. And if my novel set in Victorian England gets published, I plan to take a page out of their books and dress like a Victorian at events. Hopefully I can find all the components to look like a Victorian lord without having to pay an arm and a leg.

    1. Fun!

      There’s a very famous British guy, Zack Pinsent, who lives only in Regency clothing and who makes that clothing as well. He was too important (!?) to reply to my request for a NYT interview.

  2. Jan Jasper

    What a wonderful article! I followed the link and read the entire piece in the New York Times. Great photos, too. I absolutely looove this subject. I have always been fascinated by historical costume and have collected Victorian and early 20th century clothing for decades. I have a couple of late 19th century bodices that are too fragile to be worn, and a silk dress from about 1913 that I used to wear but can no longer fit into. It’s better not to wear them anyhow because they won’t last. If the silk hasn’tbeen eaten by silverfish, it is damaged by skin oils and sunlight. My collection is wrapped in acid free tissue paper and housed in acid free long boxes, from museum supply stores. Long boxes are important do you don’t have to fold clothes to fit them in.
    . The first time I encountered anyone who lived in this world was decades ago. I met a guy who was a Civil War re-enactor and he created his own costumes from historic patterns.. Everything had to be perfect down to the buttons.

    1. Nice! The Ratti collection at the Met is amazing — I got to see a very early paisley shawl there years ago, stored like that.

      I love the details of early clothing.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      1. Jan Jasper

        About 6 years ago, I saw a textile/costume exhibit at the Met that revealed previously-unknown information about the movement of people from one part of the globe to another. Cloth woven on a type of loom, or dyed from natural materials, that had originated miles away…just to give a couple examples. This revealed that people had traveled from one land to another, many years before had been previously known. How else would these methods have been used in such far flung lands, so long ago? Wish I could remember the name of the exhibit. It was so educational, and fascinating.

  3. I’ve seen bits and pieces about this over the years, but your article was thorough and wonderful and leads us to see the motivations behind this all. this is such a fascinating subculture and a beautiful one.

  4. What a great article! It was right up your alley, I imagine 🙂 I never became the seamstress of my dreams, but I love to see people being creative with not only their sewing machines, but their imagination in terms of how they want to feel, through period dress. I sent the article to friends who sew and love film and clothing. A nice pick-me-up on a frigid winter day!

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