Ever wonder what a mantua is? Think cosplay is the name of the band Chris Martin sings lead in? Intrigued by some corset myth-busting? Get ready to be enlightened.
Carolyn Dowdell is our March Teafluencer and one heckuva seamstress! She sews everything, from her daily wardrobe to beautiful, elaborate historic pieces. After you read this, we think you’ll agree that Carolyn has got this gig all sewn up!
Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational background, where you live, family, etc.
Hi, I’m Carolyn! I’m a Dress Historian and costumer from Canada.
My early background is in visual art; I have Bachelors of Fine Arts in it from York University in Toronto. Then my growing interest in sewing fused with my love of historical costuming. After a break from academia I went back to do graduate studies in dress history, researching various aspects of 18th century dressmaking, first with a Master’s degree and then a Doctorate (so yes, I’m technically Dr. Dowdell).
I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, Canada and then lived in downtown Toronto for a number of years but have since lived in Edmonton, Alberta (to do my MA at the University of Alberta), eastern Ontario (where I did my PhD at Queen’s University), Washington DC (for a four-year posting of my husband’s) and within the last year moved back to the small city of Kingston in eastern Ontario where I did my doctorate.
With our last move, my husband (an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces) and I went from being mostly city mice to quasi-country mice as our new house is in a technically rural area and sits on a nearly one acre lot. So now, in addition to sewing, I’m going to try becoming a serious gardener!
My time in DC is when my personal costuming really took off and became what you see on my Instagram account now. I still can’t believe what’s happened with it! I was really fortunate to have fallen in with a vibrant community of makers shortly after moving to the US, and I finally felt like I’d really found my people, my tribe of weirdos! Life became a crazy, beautiful succession of historical events, meeting amazing people, making even better friends and having a community with which to share this niche obsession.
On your Instagram page, you describe yourself as a “dress historian, obsessive sewer and all-around nerd.” When did you first start sewing? Did you have a sewing-nerd mentor?
I started sewing as a teenager. My mom walked me through the steps of my first couple of sewing projects – a spring dress and then my high school graduating formal gown – and then it just kind of took on a life of its own. I quickly became obsessed. I’d always done creative things with my hands and gradually paint, paint brushes, coloured pencils, pastels, canvases and high-tooth papers gave way to fabrics, needles, threads, scissors… I haven’t really looked back.
I can’t say I have a single, specific sewing-nerd mentor. There have been innumerable makers over the years I’ve looked up to at different times and in different ways. But I had no single person who really guided me after my mother first showed me how to use a sewing machine and cut out a sewing pattern. And while she can sew and made me some things as a child, it was never her passion the way it quickly became mine. So in the end I’m largely self-taught and mostly learned through trial and error and just by doing.
When did you first start being interested in clothing from other periods of time?
I think it probably started way back when I was about 9 or 10 and first watched the Megan Follows/Sullivan Entertainment Anne of Green Gables and the sequel. I am a devoted Anne-girl and immediately fell in love with the fashions in those productions. I remember, as a little girl, manipulating and pinning one of my mother’s dresses on me to try and mimic the pretty pinafore dress Diana wears in the infamous “Raspberry Cordial” scene. From then on I was always fascinated with the costumes in period film and television productions. I loved the beautiful fantasy of them but have always also loved history, so I felt a keen desire to peer into windows on the past as well.
While I was working on my BFA in visual art, I took all of the costuming courses the theatre department at my school offered and thought that I wanted to be a costume designer. In time, however, I realized that I was particularly interested in the history of clothing. Seeing actual extant (historical) garments gave me a bigger thrill than modern costumes. And an unquenchable thirst bubbled up in me to know how they were made in their time and what they meant to the people who made, owned and wore them.
What is it about the specific time periods you focus on that attracted you?
Well, full confession: what first attracts me to a period is the aesthetics; do I find it personally attractive? Do I think it’s pretty? Does it make my heart go pitter-patter? Does it make me want to play dress-up in it? Do I think it would look good on me? I can answer an emphatic “yes” to many periods such as the mid- to late-18th century, the Regency era and late Victorian and Edwardian (1870s-1900s). But sometimes there’s also curiosity about how a period’s fashion would look both on a real person in general and on me specifically. The late 17th-century mantua is a good example of this since it’s not a period that’s often made by costumers, and the period imagery can look quite strange to our eyes. And sometimes a period I used to reject for being too over the top starts appealing to me for that exact same reason, which is particularly the case with the ridiculous but fabulous fashions of the 1830s and 1890s with their ginormous sleeves and the 1830s crazy hair!
Beneath that, I am indelibly drawn to how pieces are made. The mechanics and evolution of dressmaking through various periods fascinate me. Every fashion era has its own complementary sewing techniques, and I find that my own versions are most successful when I try to stick closely to period methods – they always did things the way they did for a reason. However, I’m particularly captivated by pre-industrial sewing techniques and methods – how clothes were made before sewing machines were invented. There’s something so particularly personal, organic, soulful about hand-sewing clothing, even though I know that at the time dressmakers were likely more preoccupied with turning over work as quickly as possible so they could earn enough to eat. But when I’m sewing something entirely by hand, I can’t help but feel as though I’m somehow communing with my pre-industrial forebears.
Confess: the 17th and 18th century pieces are really about the hats and wigs, right?
Hahahaha, that is certainly sometimes the case! More than once I’ve been taken aback (and even a little exasperated) by how much attention a last-minute hat gets compared to the dress I spent weeks making. But it also depends on the specific period. Some parts of the 18th century are definitely all about the dress, and the hair is pretty small and modestly proportioned – like the 1750s-60s, think Madame du Pompadour – while in the 1770s and 1780s the hair and hats are huge and the dresses less ornate. But for me, it really is so much about the sewing and getting to work with lengths of gorgeous silks so much of the time that the gowns will always be centre stage for me. The hats, wigs and accessories are integral to filling out a look, and sometimes inadvertently become show stealers, but I’m ultimately about the dresses and the sewing process.
Where do you find your patterns? Do you make your own?
My patterns come from a variety of sources. Sometimes I use commercially available patterns, I use a lot of patterns in books such as the Patterns of Fashion series by Janet Arnold that are scaled-down drafts from surviving historical garments that I then enlarge; sometimes I draft my own. But even when using pre-drafted patterns, I nearly always change them in some way or other. I do a lot of what’s called “franken-patterning” where you put pieces of different patterns together to get the result you want. Most of my inspiration comes from portraits, fashion plates or other period images and there are rarely patterns available to recreate specific ones, so I have to get creative and manipulate what’s available to try and realize my vision.
What’s a mantua?
How much do you want me to get into Dress Historian mode?
Short answer: Mantuas were a style of woman’s gown that was popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (c1680-1720). But they were really more than just another dress style. They developed from basically a dressing gown – like a 17th-century version of a housecoat – and were much more relaxed in style and fit than the heavily boned bodices and heavy skirts of women’s formal gowns to that point. Women wore heavily boned stays underneath, but the mantua was still less restrictive than previous court bodices.
This proved a sea change in women’s fashions for the next century, as pretty well all 18th-century fashions that came after more or less directly evolved from the mantua. It was also highly significant to women’s involvement in the garment trades. Contrary to what many people may think, the vast majority of clothing was not homemade; cloth was simply too great an expense and labour comparatively so cheap that it was far more economical to have new clothes made by a professional tailor or seamster. Even more surprising: until the late 17th century, most of them were men. However, with its origins in something more like lingerie, the mantua was commonly made by women. When they became the new fashionable style, it opened the door for women to become the primary makers of women’s clothing, establishing the association we have with that today.
How much research do you do on your period pieces?
This depends on several factors: the piece and the period, whether it’s for an event and what kind, and how much time I have. Some periods, like much of the 18th century, I already know very well, so don’t need to do a lot of additional research in terms of fabrics, pattern shapes and sewing techniques. I’ve been very fortunate to have spent a lot of time examining surviving garments in museum collections from various time periods, so I’ve gotten to see exactly how things were made. But this kind of “object-research” is pretty addictive, so I jump at every chance to examine things in person and always find something new to learn. However, I do have a decent-sized costume library that encompasses costume history, patterns books and sewing manuals that I’ll consult from time to time.
Most of the research I perform is now visual, finding styles and elements I want to use or incorporate. It’s more along the lines of finding inspiration or finding historical evidence of an inspiration I’ve had. I spend A LOT of time falling down Pinterest rabbit holes and have boards for every stylistic period basically from pre-history to about the 1960s (my personal wardrobe is heavily vintage-influenced).
Tell us: are stays comfortable, and have you ever felt like fainting when you wore one?!
Stays and corsets are quite comfortable as long as they fit you properly and you’re not trying to push your body. There is A LOT of misinformation and myths still circulating around about corsets and stays as torture devices, but those are mostly unfounded and flat-out inaccurate.
The general impression is that the primary aim of corsetry was to make women’s waists as small as possible. This was actually never true. Fashionable silhouettes of some periods are curvier than others, but the primary motivation behind all periods in which women wore stays or corsets was to create a firm bodily foundation on which to mount ones clothes and achieve a smooth, well-fitted appearance. There were always some people who took it to extremes – just like today with all the fad dieting and cosmetic surgery people engage in to alter their bodies – but they were always a minority.
Corsets and stays don’t prevent me from breathing, they don’t prevent me from eating (you just want to make sure you put it on before eating, rather than after) and they don’t prevent me from being physically active. For centuries, women worked in fields, ran after children, did laundry and housework and factory work all while wearing stays or corsets. We aren’t any smarter or intrinsically more evolved than women of the past; they wouldn’t have kept wearing these garments if they couldn’t function in them.
Do you sell your dresses or take commissions? What happens to all those clothes?
I occasionally sell something when it either no longer fits me or I feel I’ve moved beyond it and it’s now just taking up space. But this doesn’t happen often! I don’t typically take commissions, no one wants to pay you even a fraction of what you’re worth, and it’s just so stressful. I will occasionally make trades with other costuming friends or make things as gifts. I recommend the Instagram account @canyousewthisforme to get an idea why I shy away from commissions, lol.
Over the past several years, most of my costumes have been made for specific events, so they get worn at least once for whatever that event is. Gradually, I’ve developed enough breadth and depth in my historical wardrobe that I don’t always need to make something new for a new/upcoming event. For example, my two trips to Venice for Carnivale – last year and this year – comprised costume wardrobes of both old and new costumes and pieces. Last year about half of the six costumes I brought and wore were new, this year less than half of the eight outfits I wore were new.
Most of the time, the costumes hang out in the costume closet in my sewing room. With our move back to Canada last summer, I was finally able to set up a dedicated sewing room for the first time in my 25 years of sewing! The room in our house that I chose was perfect because it has a closet that seems specially designed for storing my costumes; it really felt like it was meant to be.
What’s Costume College?
Costume College is an annual teaching conference for costumers held in the suburbs of LA for three to four days over the last weekend of July. It encompasses all forms of costuming from film and theatre or commercial, to historical to cosplay. The primary format is approximately three days of classes taught by volunteer teachers on a wide range of topics from lectures on different periods of fashion, to making cosplay armour, to styling hair and wigs, to tips on posing for photographs.
It’s also a very social event, the biggest event on the costumer’s social calendar for many people. There are meet and greets, teas and a gala on Saturday night. These are places for people to socialize and dress up and ooh and ahh over each other’s work. Each of these events has some kind of overarching theme that people can choose to follow or interpret, or you can just totally do your own thing! People from all over the US and beyond (as far away as New Zealand) attend Costume College, and it seems to be growing every year!
However, I have to admit that since I’ve a) moved back to Canada and b) discovered more immersive costume travel, such as going to Venice for Carnivale, I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to Costume College. It costs about the same for me to go there as to do a trip to Europe – and I know which one I prefer!
What was the most difficult costume you’ve ever made, and how long did it take?
Hmmm. This is actually very difficult for me to answer. I don’t tend to think of my sewing projects in terms of difficulty because all sewing is simply a series of steps. Some projects require a lot more steps and greater care in performing them than others, but then I just think of them as bigger, more time-consuming projects, not necessarily as being more difficult. When I do think of something as being difficult, it’s not about the complexity but about how physically or mentally/emotionally demanding it may be. For example, a little over ten years ago I made a set of mid-18th century stays for a large-scale reproduction project as part of my Master’s degree. Stays are not overly complex, but they can be physically tough because of the layers. I chose to bind the edges of these stays in leather -- by hand -- and it was awful. I broke needles, I poked myself countless times, I cried over this binding more than once.
In terms of overall difficult sewing projects I can think of two, but they’re not costumes. The first was my wedding dress in 2010/11. I spent six months wrangling that thing and ended up completely redoing the bodice almost last minute because I just could not make my original idea work for me. The second was a reproduction of a 1950s Charles James “Tree” gown in 2014. I’d been lent patterns for the foundation layers by Timothy Long, former curator at the Chicago History Museum, who designed and executed an exhibition of James’ work that included reproductions of those foundation layers as part of the display. I met him when I was in London for six months in 2012-13 for the research portion of my PhD when he was a curator at the Museum of London and I was doing research there. Anyway, I traced off the pattern pieces he’d lent me, and the following year decided to make a reproduction of this gown to wear to an annual military ball in Toronto with my officer husband. It was a very intense process, and I basically worked on it full-time for about three months.
What advice do you have for people who are intimidated by sewing? What’s the best way to get started?
Hmm. I’ve been sewing for so long now that it’s honestly difficult for me to get back into the mindset of a beginner – sorry! And I did not start the way most people recommend. I started out sewing regular, everyday “muggle” clothes, not costumes. And that’s actually expanded considerably over the past ten years so that I now basically sew all of my clothes. And I started by jumping into the deep end. I made a dress with sleeves, a gathered skirt, a zipper and back lacing, pockets, neckline facing, a hand-sewn hem, a bodice fitted with darts – just about every technique that goes into just about any garment. I did it all very badly! The sewing was a mess! But it was wearable, so it made me want to keep going. So, I guess that may be a roundabout way of my saying start with something that excites you and use fabric that you love the look of. If you aren’t actually interested in what you’re making, that’s just going to make the process a drag, even if it’s a good “beginner” type project. But also be prepared to make lots of mistakes and for it to be far from perfect – cut yourself lots of slack. Like I said, I’ve been sewing a long time, and I’m still waiting for the project on which I haven’t made a mistake somewhere along the line.
And while it may not work for everyone, I think the most important thing is to just do it!
What are you sewing now? What haven’t you made that you’d really like to?
I’ve just come back from ten days in Venice for Carnivale, which dominated my sewing calendar for the past several months. Now I’m gearing up for the next big sewing project: an Edwardian wardrobe for a week-long trip to Prince Edward Island that several friends and I are taking this August. We’re planning one fancy dinner, so I’m in the process of planning and starting on an evening gown from c.1901. The various components have just recently slid into place for me so that I should be able to make it all from fabrics already in my stash, including a piece of antique silk net fabric in a seafoam colour (I’m very excited about that!). It’s also going to be extensively embroidered with silver sequins – which is why I need to get started on it asap!
But I also need some new regular clothes and am hoping over the next couple of months to add to what I’ve dubbed my “Canadian Spring Wardrobe” – essentially, winter-weight clothes in spring colours.
So, how much do you love tea? What role does tea play in your life?
Tea is Life.
Tea is a hugely defining aspect of my personality and character, nearly as much as sewing is! I don’t drink coffee, so my morning starts with a full pot of tea (3-4 cups) and I usually have an afternoon cuppa with a few biscuits and sometimes also an evening decaf one before bed. I have two cupboard shelves in our kitchen devoted to my tea. Over the past 10 years, I gradually shifted over to drinking primarily loose-leaf and typically have about 20 different blends available to me at any given time. I drink almost exclusively black tea with milk, switching to green or herbal only when I’m sick. I am a BIG fan of Earl Grey variants – give me all the bergamot!
I also love tea apparatus! I have multiple china tea sets, an antique silver tea set and several dozen china tea cups that I both love to look at and do use. I enjoy hosting tea parties – whether costume-themed or not – not least because it gives me an excuse to bring out all the tea cups and see them used!
Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea (or anything on your list to try?)
Harney and Sons has such an extensive catalogue of teas that it sometimes overwhelms me, but I’m really keen to try out the Viennese Earl Grey, Earl Grey Supreme, Florence (I’m a sucker for chocolate and hazelnut), Diamond Jubilee and Scottish Morn.
You can see more of Carolyn’s amazing work and transport yourself back in time by visiting her blog or Instagram. We appreciate both her time and her immense talent and are a bit envious that she gets to go to some really cool places and wear even cooler clothes! All photography has been provided by Carolyn.