Historical Clothing’s Comeback
A collection of sewing enthusiasts, dedicated to the anachronistic art of making old-fashioned clothes, stumbles onto a path that revives quality, comfort, ecological consciousness—and respect for the female form in all its varieties.
By BETH WINEGARNER
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the months since this article was first published, in May, 2021, controversy has arisen around the central project in this story. The article has been updated accordingly, with a new sidebar.
In 1902, Lady Mary Victoria Curzon, Vicereine of India, ordered a show-stopping gown from the renowned House of Worth in Paris. The off-the-shoulder dress would be made from gold silk taffeta and embroidered with silver and gold thread in a pattern that resembled overlapping peacock feathers. At the center of each feather’s “eye,” a blue-green beetle wing was stitched into place.
The gown would feature panels embroidered by the Kishan Chand workshop in Delhi, whose work Curzon had grown to love. The panels went to Paris by boat to be transformed into the gown, which was shipped back to India in time for a coronation ball held to mark the succession of a new Emperor and Empress of India, Britain’s King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
A century later, dress historian Cathy Hay encountered this mesmerizing gown in a glimmering glass case in Kedleston Hall, the British home and final resting place of the Curzons. Even though the metal threads had become badly tarnished, Hay was stunned. “It was like the scene in Wayne’s World where there’s this one perfect guitar,” Hay says. “It had this gentle lighting, this glow. It was one of those moments where the Heavens open and the angels sing. And I started to think, ‘How was this made?’”
Hay didn’t know it yet, but her quest to find out would remain with her for more than a decade. In the course of her investigations, she would become obsessed with the hidden story of regional craft and global trade, struggle to find the time and money to reproduce the garment herself, and stumble on painful truths that underlie many historical garments.
Over the past few years, a growing legion of historical costumers, like Hay, have started to painstakingly source rare fabrics, and spend hours sewing them together with tiny stitches so they can wear clothing that is hundreds of years out of date. One sewist, Bernadette Banner, arguably the most popular historical costumer on YouTube, has attracted a million subscribers since she launched her channel in mid-2018. Another, Abby Cox, started her YouTube channel in March 2020 and reached 100,000 subscribers by the end of the year. A Facebook group dedicated to people who make and wear historically inspired clothing in everyday life has more than 9,000 members.
What’s drawing all this enthusiasm? Many see the process as a hands-on, experiential history lesson, or even a kind of time travel. They are learning about history that would otherwise be lost; and about techniques that created a kind of quality in clothing that is increasingly hard to find. Seeing historical clothing in a museum can be educational, but it’s nothing like reliving what it was like to make everything from chemises and corsets to bustles, hats, and gowns from scratch, or putting them on your body. To people like Hay, the work gives the wearer a sense of what it was like to live in an earlier time; it also teaches them the enduring value of natural fabrics, which have been largely abandoned in favor of cheap, synthetic alternatives. On another level, “It’s playing with identity, and deciding who you are,” says Hay. “There’s a feeling like we are not quite of this world. I like feeling like a Time Lord.”
In Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film version of Little Women, Jo March (played by Saoirse Ronan) wakes up on Christmas morning dressed in a hodgepodge of clothes: a long white nightgown, knee-high blue socks, a dark green frock coat with gold embroidery, and rust-colored, calf-length drawers with pintucks at the cuffs. For her purposes, she had simply donned whatever would keep her warm on a long winter’s night, but I found the aesthetics irresistible.
My mom taught me to sew when I was so young, I don’t remember learning. In high school I made some of my own clothes, including a few ankle-length skirts and pairs of drawers—the often frilly undergarments that predated underwear. The glimpse of Jo’s drawers made me want to make some again, and I wound up making three pairs.
I’ve never quite fit in with mainstream society or fashion, and I have long struggled to find modern clothing that fits me well or flatters my body. I’m short, with a very high waist and a round, soft belly. As I explored historical sewing and fashion, I discovered skirt and dress styles that happen to work surprisingly well with a shape like mine. Sewing and wearing these clothes also allows me to bring romantic and fantasy elements into my style. There’s something satisfying about feeling like the heroine from a costume drama when everyone else looks like they just got out of a yoga class. And, after nosing around online, I found a collective of makers who are as delighted by the swish of a long, full skirt or the aesthetic of pintucks and lace as I am. I’d stumbled into a not-so-secret coven of crafty history nerds, and I felt right at home.
It might not seem that sewing has changed much through the ages. Anyone who hand-sews today still practices the same basic techniques, such as the running stitch, whip stitch, and back stitch, that sewists developed centuries ago. And we’ve been using sewing machines ever since their invention, in 1790. Over time, however, as the industrialization of the garment industry led to a focus on mass production, quality has suffered. Many garments today are hastily sewn with industrial serger machines, which create bigger stitches; in contrast, sewists of the past, working more slowly and by hand, could create stitches as small as 1 millimeter, which are far more durable.
One vintage dressmaker’s popularity on YouTube has inspired so many historical costumers that YouTube now offers roughly 125 different so-called CosTuber channels.
There were perfectly practical reasons for this change, says Hay, a woman in her mid-40s with a soft, British-accented voice, a warm smile and twinkling brown eyes. Machine stitches were probably lengthened to speed production, or to make it easier to unpick a seam after a mistake. Either way, an element of craft, especially at the level of homemade clothing, was largely lost.
Every week, Hay, who dresses in long skirts, crisp white blouses, and waistcoats, delivers YouTube videos filled with down-to-earth advice for fellow sewists and creatives. “We’ve devalued our clothes,” Hay says. In the pre-industrial era, she says, sewists would use their tiny stitching for the purpose of “showing off your craftsmanship.” And today, “what we think of as couture techniques was nothing special back in the day.” As proof, Hay says, one need only look at the work of designers such as Christian Dior.
“From the start, Christian Dior fulfilled his dream of making clothing based on solid construction and long-forgotten techniques,” writes Alexandra Palmer, in Christian Dior: History & Modernity 1947-1957. “He drew upon 18th, 19th, and early 20th-century styles, but he also studied historical dress construction. Dior deliberately revived dressmaking methods that had not been used since the end of the First World War, when fashion eliminated the structure of boning and layers of petticoats.” And perfect stitches were not the only goal. Beneath the surface there was a practical functionality to the historical garments.
Dress historian Cox, who hosts a YouTube channel devoted to the history of clothing, has produced several videos examining garments from the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the outsides of these dresses and bodices may look beautiful, one quickly notices that the insides are sometimes a mess of rough, uneven stitching and slapdash repairs or size adjustments. This occurs because hand-making clothing is inherently time-consuming, and taking shortcuts on a garment’s interior, which few are likely to see, saves considerable time. Larger stitches are also easier to remove when you need to let out the seams for a pregnancy or as bodies change over a lifetime. Throughout the owner’s life, garments were continually adjusted, mended, and sometimes completely refashioned—a highly useful option when fabric is expensive, and making a garment requires so much time. It’s a much different mindset from today, when a t-shirt or a pair of jeans is expected to wear out or fall out of fashion within a couple of years, and then be thrown out.
Cox is petite with pale skin, dark eyes and dark, wavy hair. When she’s passionate, she can be loud and goofy; she once described herself as the Carol Burnett of the YouTube costuming community. For her part, the simple act of seeing these garments’ messy interiors creates an intimacy across time with their makers, normalizing the imperfection that goes with sewing one’s own clothes.
Hay grew up in Northampton, England, a self-described “weird kid” who bristled against wearing the same department store clothes as everyone else. Instead, she would watch costume dramas, or Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and wonder, “where do I get one of those?”
When she was a young girl, Hay’s grandmother and great-grandmother introduced her to sewing, and she made a few attempts through pre-packaged kits and her high school’s sewing classes. It wasn’t until she entered Loughborough University, where students attended twice-yearly balls, that she tried her hand at making a dress. “I was in a very small town, and there were not a lot of options for formalwear,” she says. “So I borrowed my mom’s sewing machine, bought a pattern and some cotton fabric, and made a dress.”
One of Hay’s first attempts was a replica of Marilyn Monroe’s famous white dress—using white cotton sheet fabric. “It was terrible,” Hay says, “but it was a start.”
She eventually earned a degree in mathematics, but went on to make her living as a dressmaker. In the mid-2000s, when she joined the early social media site Livejournal, she discovered a nascent community of sewists making historical clothing and swapping information, and Hay dove in with both feet.
Within a few years, Hay realized she had gathered about a hundred people who would pay her to teach. She founded Your Wardrobe Unlock’d, an online school for historical costuming, and Foundations Revealed, which focused on corsetry. Now, she teaches everything under the Foundations Revealed umbrella, offering a team of mentors who specialize in corsetry, tailoring, and historical sewing techniques.
Lady Curzon’s Peacock Gown, with its beads, metallic threads, and beetle wings, was so dazzling that it made headlines around the world.
As Foundations Revealed became Hay’s day job, she joked that recreating Worth’s Peacock Dress was going to be her next hobby project. In 2011, she raised funds to help rebuild an orphanage in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, and promised donors she would make the dress if they chipped in. She raised more than $10,000 for the orphanage—and earned herself a commitment.
In dreaming she can recreate one of Worth’s intricate gowns, however, Hay has set an ambitious goal. British designer Charles Frederick Worth, who founded the House of Worth in Paris in 1858, was one of the most sought-after designers in the world. The House was known for producing high-end, fashionable gowns for royal and celebrity clients, including Empress Eugénie, Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, Jenny Lind, Nellie Melba, and Curzon. Worth gowns were made from luxe fabrics and intricate trimmings, and they fit like a dream.
Curzon’s Peacock Gown, with its beads, metallic threads, and beetle wings, must have shimmered and sparkled as the six-foot-tall Curzon moved about the room on the day of the coronation ball. It was so dazzling that it made headlines around the world, including in the American-born Curzon’s hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Historians say it weighed approximately 10 pounds.
Few in the costuming world have attempted to recreate one of Worth’s intricate gowns. But in 2009, Hay had remade one—a garment dubbed the Oak Leaf dress for its leaf-embroidery motif—so she thought she knew what she was getting into. In 2012, she set up a massive embroidery frame in her home and started picking away at the Peacock Dress. After a year, she’d produced only a few embroidered feathers, and her hands and arms were in pain from the detailed stitching. She calculated her progress, and realized it would take her 30 years to finish. The Peacock Dress went onto the back burner.
Over the following years, as Hay continued to develop her skills, she learned a lot more about why historical clothes are often constructed differently than their modern counterparts; she also discovered that getting those details right can make the difference between a garment that looks like a Halloween costume and an attractive, faithful replica.
As an example, the modern way to construct a skirt is to gather the top edge of fabric and sandwich it inside another, folded strip of fabric. But this can make the skirt look bulky. In the Victorian era, this problem was solved by stitching down the fabric, then letting the fabric blossom out below. This maintained that wasp-waisted look, while also making the hips look fuller. (You can watch her demonstrate the technique in this video.) Today, skirts are typically made with a lot less fabric, which creates a slim silhouette through both the waist and hips. Few people go for a full-hipped look now, even though the proportions created by the old way make one’s waist look smaller.
Sleeves were also made differently—one could argue more intelligently—in dresses of old. On a modern sleeve, the top looks like a bell curve, but in earlier eras, the top of a sleeve looked more like an s-shape. Historical costumer and embroiderer Christine Millar, who goes by Sewstine online, says the old approach gave the wearer more room to move the arm, particularly in the area behind the shoulder. Although an s-curved sleeve is more comfortable and more tailored to the wearer, it’s much more difficult to mass produce.
Textiles have changed, too. Today’s fabrics—polyester, nylon, thin knits—are cheap to make, but not all that durable. “It’s become difficult to get fabrics as fine, as densely woven, as well made as back then,” Hay says.
Until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 (and the ensuing exploitation of enslaved Africans that fueled the cotton industry), our most common fabrics were wool and linen. These materials are not only more durable and versatile, they’re also better at keeping the wearer comfortable. “Wool is amazing,” says Cox. “It’s the most incredible material ever. It comes in different weights, from summer weight to good, heavy broadcloth.”
In September of 2020, Cox, who lives in the desert of Northern Nevada, released a video in which she and two friends trekked outside on a 91-degree afternoon to compare how comfortable they felt in contemporary, synthetic clothes versus Victorian-era outfits made of silk, cotton and wool. “If it’s not modern, people assume that you must just be so hot wearing all of those layers of clothes,” Cox said in the video’s introduction. All three felt much cooler in their layered historical garments, in part because the outer layers protected their bodies from the direct glare of the sun, while a single layer of polyester did just the opposite.
Because linen and wool have fallen out of favor, their quality and variety today is limited. And other historically common textiles, such as tarlatan, a starched cotton used as an interlining to give skirts more fullness, have all become expensive, specialty items.
Cox, who lives in linen during the summertime, says she’s now seeing a resurgence of this material among some major brands, like J. Crew. In recent years, wool has begun making a slow but promising comeback, particularly as clothing and shoe companies rediscover how versatile it is. [See Craftsmanship Quarterly’s article, “The Hidden Powers of a Sheep.”] As we learn more about the environmental harms of synthetic fabrics, including the shedding of microplastics into soil and waterways, “I hope we see the industry going back to wool,” Cox says.
Shasta Schatz, a costumer who goes by SciFiCheerGirl online, had an “aha” moment in 2012 while attending the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. Schatz, who is Black, has a round, friendly face and wears her curly hair in a kind of wide mohawk, with the sides of her head shaved. She had been attending Renaissance Faires for years, and was frequently asked what compelled her to turn out, in costume, for such a white-dominated event. “I started to wonder: what about people who looked like me? I started looking at true history: if I were living then, what would I have worn?”
When Schatz began studying historical paintings, she noticed that medieval and Renaissance populations of Europe were fairly diverse—people of many races are represented in the artwork of the times. In some cases, Black subjects were kept to the backgrounds, but Schatz could make out enough of their clothing that, combined with more well-lit examples, she could piece together what they wore.
For the most part, Schatz draws on these resources to make something that’s entirely her own. She made an exception, however, when she stumbled across an image of a 1580s painting, “Portrait of an African Slave Woman,” attributed to Annibale Carracci. “Even though she’s Black, she’s well dressed in a beautiful gown that had some shine to it,” Schatz told me. “This wasn’t someone who worked in the kitchens. She must have been well-liked to be in the painting.”
Schatz proceeded to recreate the image she saw, down to the white organdy partlet (shawl) around the woman’s shoulders, the shimmering white net that held her hair, and the gold clock she held in her hands.
For Schatz, putting on the gown and posing for her version of the portrait brought up complicated feelings, in part because nobody knows who the original subject was or why the painting survived. Quite likely, she was included in the portrait as a way to show off the wealth of her enslaver.
Although Schatz was thrilled at the success of her recreation, when she took photos of herself for Instagram she forced herself to “tone down her natural expressions” to match the woman in the original portrait. “While this was a joyous moment for me, this woman, whoever she really was, was unlikely to have been in the same state,” she says. Women like the portrait subject were largely portrayed as “living props,” not humans with agency. “She may be likened to a table holding a clock,” Schatz says.
Over the past few years, more and more sewists have been joining the historical clothing movement, thanks, in part, to the irresistibility of Bernadette Banner.
Banner is like a younger, giddier, more openly nerdy Cathy Hay; she combines old-fashioned words like “anon” and “whilst” with modern slang. Among historical costumers, Banner is one of the most outspoken opponents of fast fashion, partly because of the industry’s destructive effects on the environment, and partly because of its unethical labor practices. For an alternative, she encourages what is often called “slow fashion”—making durable clothes by hand, and mending or repurposing items when they begin to fall apart.
Watching Banner’s meditative videos, which largely focus on making garments inspired by the Edwardian era, you want to slow down, and start hand-sewing items that will last for decades. They are calming, backed with the kind of music you’d expect to hear in a Merchant Ivory period film. I’ve personally spent hours watching her teach and create, frequently sewing or knitting while I do.
Banner’s popularity has inspired a surprising number of historical costumers to start their own YouTube channels, and there are now roughly 125 so-called CosTubers on the platform. Their videos range from tutorials on making Viking shoes to Victorian hoop skirts, medieval kirtles and Regency gowns, as well as chatty sew-alongs.
Once Hay realized she couldn’t do the embroidery on the Peacock Dress on her own, she followed Lady Curzon’s footsteps a bit further, and searched for an Indian embroidery company that could create the panels. Banner, who formerly worked in costuming for Broadway theaters, also stepped in to help. “She said, ‘What if I made a video about the dress go viral, and give you the ad revenue (from the video) to pay for the dress?’” Hay recalls. That video, which is no longer available, was viewed more than 1.5 million times. Hay wouldn’t say exactly how much money it raised, but it was “a high four-figure sum.” Many commenters said they were moved by Hay’s unmistakable passion for the dress and inspired by her determination to re-create it.
In the meantime, the rising interest in historical costuming has driven hundreds of new students to Foundations Revealed. Until recently, membership (which costs $30 to $50 a month, depending on the amount of coaching one wants) had plateaued at somewhere between 500 and 800 students. Last year, Hay held two enrollment periods that increased membership to about 2,300—partly driven, Hays believes, by the fact that people needed something to do during the pandemic. The resulting boost in income allowed her to hire a professional business manager for the first time—and to begin squirreling away funds for the Peacock Dress’s embroiderers.
In June of 2020, after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd forced an international reckoning around race, Hay woke up in a sweat at 3 a.m., wondering if she should continue trying to make the Peacock Dress. After all, it was a symbol of British colonial rule over India, both because it was made in celebration of the coronation and because of how it was made.
Indian cotton muslin, prized for its soft, lightweight weave, became hugely popular across Europe during colonial times. As Hay made plain in a video she released in late June, it wasn’t long before Britain decided it wanted that industry for itself. In the late 1700s, British forces proceeded to smash Indian weavers’ looms, and break or cut off weavers’ thumbs. (Indian MP Shashi Tharoor describes this sorry history in more detail in his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, and in a speech before the Oxford Student Union.)
By the early 1800s, Britain had begun making these fine fabrics—and then exporting them back to India, charging hefty tariffs. This made Hay suspect that the muslin that backed the embroidery on the original Peacock Dress was probably made in Britain, and then sent to embroiderers in India. While digging into the subject, she also discovered that several of her ancestors, including her great-great-grandmother, Mary Hall, worked in cotton factories in Manchester after the British takeover of the Indian cotton industry. In some ways, this implicates her own family in the tragedy. On the other hand, her family wasn’t part of the power structure that robbed India of its fabric industry. “It’s not as though I’m blaming my great-great-grandmother,” Hay said in the video. “They were just a working-class family in the Manchester area who were going where the jobs were.”
And yet, at its core, Hay admits, the Peacock Dress is “a great, big, shiny symbol of white supremacy.” She thought about giving up. But then, she realized, “that would get me off the hook of having to tell the story… part of the solution is to retell the story and include India, and Indian craftsmanship, as well as Worth.” Muslin-makers in Bangladesh are now trying to reclaim the production of fine muslin, in part by applying for a geographical designation similar to the one that protects Champagne.
“You don’t need to be stuck in the 21st century,” says Hay. “If you can zoom out and have a longer view, you feel more secure.”
Even after Britain took over India’s cotton industry, the detailed work of embroiderers remained in India—including the Kishan Chand workshop, which likely worked on the Peacock Dress. Hay hasn’t yet uncovered details on how those workers were treated, but an American newspaper at the time reported that they were respected craftspeople working 9 to 5, carrying on a long, hereditary tradition. It’s hard to know whether that’s truth, propaganda, or a bit of both.
Exploring the origins of almost any garment holds the possibility of discovering an ugly history, whether it’s an embroidered Worth gown, a gown worn by an enslaved woman, an Edwardian shirtwaist, or something else. They may be beautiful on the outside, but underneath, the truth is much messier—just like the imperfectly sewn interiors of the garments in Cox’s collection.
So Hay decided to continue with the Peacock dress project. In November of 2019, she received the first sample of the embroidery for the new gown, created by Indian embroiderer Irshad Ahmad in connection with Mystic Beading in New York. Like the panels on Curzon’s gown, the embroidery has traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. The new embroidery is bright and sparkling, just as the original must have once been.
Hay was scheduled to go to New York In April, 2020, bringing a pattern of the gown’s skirt so the embroiderers would know the shape of the piece they would produce. The pandemic of course made that more difficult. Not only was Mystic Beading working at a reduced capacity, but the flood of new members in Foundations Revealed forced Hay to focus on growing her business—and to put the Peacock Dress on the back burner yet again.
Then, in the fall of 2021, disaster struck on an entirely new level. Activists in the historical dress community started raising new objections to Hay’s project, and to her business practices in general. After months of fraught exchanges, in videos and on social media, Hay finally decided, in November, 2021, to completely abandon the Peacock dress. (See sidebar, “Cathy Hay vs. Her Followers,” for details.)
Throughout all the setbacks, Hay says she learned that the Peacock dress project was never really about finishing and owning the dress; after all, she wasn’t likely to have many opportunities to wear it. Instead, she told me, it was about doing something that seems impossible.
“The sewing is a vehicle for something else,” Hay says. “It’s teaching people that they’re more capable than they think they are, that they’re a master of their destiny. It’s teaching people that they’re in control of who they are in the world.”
And to Hay, this matters more today than ever. “I think we’re in a very uncertain period in history, where we feel like we haven’t got control over the future,” she says. “And technology is advancing so fast, it’s kind of stealing our mental health, making us anxious and stressed out.” Hay believes that aspiring to a historical aesthetic “kind of balances that out. … I feel like I’m saying to people, ‘You don’t need to be stuck in the twenty-first century. If you can zoom out and have a longer view, you feel more secure.’”