by Renée Camus
After college, I moved to Boston and joined the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers (CVD), a performance team for 19th century social dance. Since I wanted to make dance history my career, it seemed like the natural first step. What I didn't realize was that it meant I'd need to get caught up. Not on the dances. Those were easy for me. I had to catch up on sewing.
I had been dancing for years, but I had nothing to wear, and CVD was a particularly demanding audience. They were serious about having the appropriate, authentically accurate clothing for their gigs. This included not just ballgowns, but the proper underclothes as well.
I'd never really sewn before, and now I needed to build a full 19th century wardrobe. Fortunately, CVD is full of wonderfully helpful members who are expert costumers. After some time and lots of help, I built a small collection of outfits: an 1890s day wear outfit, an 1860s ballgown, an 1890s ballgown, and a 1914 ballgown. I also had an 1860s chemise, bloomers, and corset, though the buttonholes are a mess and the garments held on by safety pins. Still. I have them.
But I never felt secure about my sewing skills. My friend Katy helped me with these items — and when I say "helped," I mean she would say "here, sew this sleeve to this armhole," and while I labored carefully over that one small task, she would practically finish the rest of the garment.
When I heard about the Jane Austen Evening in January 2015, I decided to attend at the last minute. I also decided that I needed a new gown. I own a boring, worn out, faded-white, modern recreation of an Austen-era dress with no trim, and it just would not do.
The first test was taking on such an ambitious project with so little time. I got my tickets on Wednesday for the Saturday night ball. I went to the fabric store on Thursday, bought some inexpensive and historically inaccurate fabric that I liked (a deep purple polyester, because it's cheap), and got to work. On Friday night, I cut out the pieces, then spent all day Saturday putting together the gown. Using the Simplicity pattern directions, along with instructions from Sense and Sensibility, I set up the machine in my office, locked my playful kitten outside, and focused. When I felt I had done enough and it was getting late, I quickly got dressed (with extra safety pins here and there), did my hair, added the sash from my Ragtime gown, and left for the ball.
I missed most of the event, finally arriving there at 10 p.m. (it ended at 11), but I danced joyfully and beamed with pride in my new gown. I cheerfully volunteered the information — that I only just arrived because I was making this new gown — whenever anyone approached. I was amazed, but pleased, at how quickly I threw it together. The last time I worked on a sewing project was probably a good 10 years prior, and I had help on it. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever made anything completely by myself before. I marveled at how much sewing technique I had picked up over the years, and how easily much of it came back.
In November, I decided to make a new garment for the JoCo Cruise: an awesome pattern I found of a 19th century style Doctor Who TARDIS dress. I gave myself more than two days this time, and was able to do it mostly by myself, though I did write the designer, LoriAnn, a couple of times and asked her advice. I finished the last few touches of the gown while on the cruise, but I'm pleased with how well it came out. It's exciting and fun to know I'm capable of creating such cool things.
As I've been sewing more these last 18 months, I realize just how much I picked up from Katy. It may be less technique and more simply how to read the patterns, but that's fine. Following directions is a huge part of sewing, just like following recipes is a huge part of cooking.
Granted, a big difference is in my overall confidence level. I've always battled with low self-esteem and high self-doubt, but I've been working hard these past few years on bolstering the former while ignoring the latter. The regency gown was a big test in improving my self-confidence, because I saw how quickly I threw it together. The TARDIS dress proved that the regency gown wasn't a fluke.
Now I'm excited for whatever my next project might be, and I feel confident that I'll be able to make something cool. Even if I need a little advice along the way.
Renée Camus is a writer, dancer, and pop culture junkie living in Burbank, California, with her animator husband and two beautiful cats. She has written about dance, television, and dance on television for Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly, Reel Life with Jane, Moviefone, Mashable, and Playboy, among others. She also writes about pop and geek culture on her blog at Geek Adjacent. Follow her on The Twitters at @camusr6.