Thursday, June 22, 2017

Don't Call Them 'Blue Jeans'; Denim, Jean, Indigo, and Otherwise Blue Trousers That Weren't Levi's in the 19th Century

This post will discuss my research into indigo dyed work pants in the 19th century. In a later post I will talk about how I created my own reproduction of these commonplace trousers.

Please note: this is meant to be a general, digestible summary; an exhaustive report could be a book unto itself.

The iconic "blue jeans" that somehow endure but are also constantly new have such a strong association with the present that I find a lot of reenactors and living history people downright phobic about implementing trouser fabric that even vaguely resembles what is currently known as "blue jean." Not helped, surely by the horror stories most have us have heard and witnessed of some folks blatantly or mistakenly subtly utilizing modern blue jeans in pre-1960s contexts.

For a corroborating perspective/further reading, Ms. Downey has an excellent piece here geared toward history and myth busting regarding Levis here:

A wide a range of shades of blue have been utilized in blue jeans and referred to as "denim," including cotton weights and weaves, which do not resemble at all the heavy cotton drill to which the name was originally applied. The result being that nearly any blue dyed cotton fabric made into trousers makes many reenactors cringe at the inevitability of some ignoramus (fancying himself a clever fellow) inquiring about their "blue jeans."

But work trousers, cotton and otherwise, of such a color and even texture were not an innovation of Levi Strauss at all. The only distinguishing feature of his pants at the time actually seems to have been the rivets. Modern Levis, however, do not resemble denim/jean/indigo trousers of the 19th Century. Even in their classic/early cut versions, the waist line is noticeably low as far as the 19th Century is concerned. Likely because it would seem too foreign to modern customers.

Jean, itself, is a modern misnomer for the fabric of blue jeans. In the 19th Century, "jean" referred to a blended weave of wool and either cotton or linen (linen being either flax or hemp). If the cotton or linen was left natural, with the wool being dyed blue, it can resemble the modern concept of denim or "jean" from a few feet away. This is a legitimate choice for trousers and other garments even early in the 19th Century, when such goods were domestically produced rather than imported (making it frugal for them; modern recreations have often swung the other way price wise). Examples include these breeches belonging to Isaac Shelby, Kentucky's first governor, at the Kentucky Historical Society (ca. 1815):

And this frock coat at Western Kentucky University, accession # 1930.19.3, ca. 1850-60:

And here are some examples of actual mid 19th Century trousers made of blue cotton that to modern eyes might be thought of as denim (though not necessarily qualifying for the technical term).

First, some well known ca. 1840s trousers from the Museum at FIT (thanks to the Two Nerdy History Girls for providing an accessible report):

And second, some details of a fly front pair in a private collection. They are mostly faded to nearly white but some less exposed areas reveal that the original color was blue. Date is difficult to determine. They are very plain and entirely hand stitched. My impression is no earlier than the 1850s and absolutely no later than the 1880s:

A survey of 19th Century art work reveals frequent occurrences of such trousers (specific textile, of course, being impossible to determine). Just a few examples:

Leisure Hours by William Sydney Mount, 1834

James Goodwyn Clooney, Mexican News, 1847

James Goodwyn Clooney, 1847

Rail Shooting by Thomas Eakins, 1876

Even more than two decades after Levi's famous patent, such clothing, in denim, specifically, was still just commonplace work wear. Page 178 of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog advertises several "denim overalls" corresponding to images that are what would now be thought of as trousers with "apron overalls" (more like the modern concept of the form of overalls) being a separate product. None of the items were produced by Levi Strauss Co.

NONE of this is intended as a slight to the Levi Strauss products; just as a clarification on their context in the broader 19th Century world.

Yours & c.,

The Victorian Man

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to to Give Your Collars a Good, Heavy Starching

I spent a long time trying figure out how to break my spray starch habit and give my detachable Victorian shirt collars a good, heavy starch that would keep them crisp and shapely (and not yellow) all day. I by no means mean to say that this is the only or best method- if you already have a process that works for you then by all means stick to it- but hopefully this will help someone make the leap to well starched collars.

The Collars- 

It starts with what you make your collar out of. I have found plain weave linen, a little heavier than you might ordinarily make a shirt out of, to take the starch best. This is a good economical solution, 5.3 oz from 

An example of one of my own attempts to deviate from this- I made several collars out of cotton twill, thinking I had really stumbled onto something, but when I tried to starch them, they just turned into a limp, powdery mess.

The examples I'm going to use here are collars I made for the early Victorian period (and as far back as the 1820s) that button in the center front, tie in the back, and stand straight up (actually, they kind of gradually mold to your contours as you wear them).

First- they must be CLEAN. At this point they will be a wrinkly, limp mess, not resembling the end result at all.

Giving credit where credit is due, this fellow's video gave me the foundation of my method:

My Starching Method- 

For up to three collars and maybe more- take a smaller sized mason jar and thoroughly mix 1/4 cup of starch (can be just plain off brand corn starch) and 1/4 cup of cold tap water. Then add 1/2 cup of boiling water and mix thoroughly.

Then add the collars and screw the cap on tight.

Get them all thoroughly saturated. For the next hour or more, turn the jar upside down and then back again a bit later repeatedly to keep the starch mixture flowing (and soaking in) evenly through the collars. Then, remove them from the jar, ring them out, and use your fingers to slough off excess water and starch. Hang them up and let them dry until damp. Do NOT let them completely dry.

Now it's time to press them. For a modern iron, be sure there is no water in the reservoir and heat it to the "linen" setting. Also, cover the portion of your ironing board that you will be using in a piece of scrap natural linen or cotton (don't use synthetic- it will melt).

Slowly, firmly, and evenly, run the iron over the collar, working it into a smooth firm surface as the starch dries under the heat of the iron.

They will be stiff as a board, which is exactly what you want! A very tall collar like this may be a bit uncomfortable at first but will gradually shape itself to you and will be fine to wear all day.

If you are making a collar for a later impression that requires heavy starch but folds over:

Follow the pressing procedure in two parts (with your protective cloth) over a tailor's ham, working it into a curved shape as you go.

Do the neck band first, then place a piece of natural cloth over the neck band, fold the upper portion of the collar down into position, and repeat the pressing process on it (with the piece of cloth between the neck band and upper portion; again- working it into a curved shape over the tailor's ham). 

Remove the piece of cloth between the neck band and fold over.

Photo by Naomi Faith Hammond Wilson

I hope this helps! There's nothing like starting the day by affixing a clean, crisp starched collar to your shirt.

Yours & c.,

The Victorian Man

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Common Sack/Lounge Coat, 1880s-Early 1890s

I have been working toward this for five years, gone through a few versions, an feel like I am at least close. It is the simplest looking but most complicated coat to nail coat I have ever done. My objective was to make a typical "sack" or "lounge" coat (with a number of other designations depending on specific characteristics applied) that would straddle the 1880s to the early 1890s. Here is what came out:

It was one of the only fashionable coats made with three seams (no side body piece) after ca. 1840. The details ebbed and flowed once a rather ill fitted version had taken hold by ca. 1860 through past the end of the century. For basic shapes, I actually started with an 1860s sack coat pattern that kinda-sorta fit and worked from there. Widened the collar and lapels by 3/4", shaped the area between the second to top button and start of lapel fold to better fit my chest, slightly more heavily interfaced the chest, re-shaped the sleeves (the early 1860s fashionable sleeve was very wide) based on some extant pieces in my collection with a similar shape that I was going for, introduced a body fish between the armsye and pockets with help from page 108 of The Victorian Tailor by Jason MacLochlainn, and introduced a ticket pocket above the right hip pocket (also with some help from MacLochlainn's diagrams). The ticket pocket pocket occurring more often than not in a variety of primary documentation from the 1880s. I moved the breast pocket slightly but next time need to adjust the angle. I also used a cotton/linen blend canvas for interfacing and regret not using hair canvas; will not make that mistake again. Some primary documentation to back up my decisions:

Beginning of the general look- Bat Masterson, ca. 1879.

Ca. 1880s, Patterson Homestead in Ohio, via my friend Katie Nowack.

Ca. 1889-1890, J. Mitchell Co., New York, Fall-Winter.

Ca. 1890 via

Extant suit conforming to general characteristics via Augusta Auctions.

By the end of the 1890s, styles were changing again (as they do), with the most conspicuous difference being a more dramatic slope to the front bodies:

MET Collection.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ca. 1820s Coat and Trousers, National Museum of Denmark

I've had this suit in my head all week but just finally found the source. It is from the National Museum of Denmark and is a perfect example of the deepening lapels that took hold in the early 1820s.

Link to the museum page:

The museum's website describes it as: "Long pants and morning dress from the 1820s....informal summer clothing....[Coat] is of white and blue narrow striped cotton . The pants are light yellow Nankin (sic) . In front flap with 3 buttonholes. Linning (sic) and crew (sic) are torn at the top."

Evolution of the collar and lapels is especially apparent wen compared to the common style of 5-10 years prior, as seen on this American linen coat from the MET, accession # 1997.508 and a coat of similar cut worn by Granville-Leveson, 1st Earl Granville in England, both ca. 1815.

Collars and lapels sat very noticeably higher at that point. Look closely here and you can see that William Croghan, Sr. of Locust Grove near Louisville, KY was keeping up with evolving fashions when his portrait was painted in 1820 at the age of 68 by John Wesley Jarvis (Collection of Historic Locust Grove, Louisville, KY):

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

1912 Rolls

Have been loving experimenting with recipes in the 1912 Lowney's Cookbook I found at Locust Grove's book sale recently. Tonight, I had great success with their recipe for "Parker House Rolls."

They took all afternoon with the various rises and all but the result was an amazing, big, fluffy, buttery roll. If you would like to give it a try:

(Part 1)

(Part 2)

Since the oven temp was vague, I cross reference with another recipe for Parker House Rolls from my 1924 cookbook, which recommended a 400 deg. oven. Amy found the experiment successful:


Yours, & c.

The Victorian Man

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Where Have I Been?

Can't believe it's been almost a year since I last wrote- it's been a busy one! Returned to the staff at Historic Locust Grove here in Louisville, this time as Program Coordinator. Never thought my actual job would be planning and executing programs at a 200+ year old historic site. Just to make things better, my office is in a loft perched on top of ca. 1810 log house.

Got to return to the museum where history first came to life for me in the first place (launching all you see here!), Heritage Village at Sharonville (Ohio), to do a special first person presentation as John Tipton. NOT a feel good story! The audience looked shocked. I will be returning to do a new presentation in March of 2016.

And, of course, tons of research an development on Victorian clothing and material culture, mostly my favorite book ends- the 1840s and the 1880s-90s. Made an 1840s frock coat and trousers for my friend Keith who does and 1842 interpretation at Locust Grove. You can't see it in the photo but the trousers are a nice, subtle blue plaid.

Wasn't happy with the way the last 1840s frock coat I made for myself was fitting in the arms but, luckily, my friend Michael Ramsey and I spent a weekend geeking out on Victorian clothing construction and he helped me diagnose the issue. Made a new one, happy with the result. Here with my 1790s friend Bob at my friends' Lance and Regan's Christmas party. Photo by buddy Asha.

Mostly everything else was just trying to get everything in shape to shoot it to the next level. One ongoing project- I had such good experience with Past Patterns' 014 Mid 19th Century Summer Trousers pattern that I have been using them as the basis for trousers of the 1880s-1890s by tweaking the back a little based on some details from the day and using Jason MacLochlainn's chart on page 86 of The Victorian Tailor to modify the knee and cuff widths. Results have been promising!


So- hopefully back on track and can share more actual information on the world of real Victorian men soon!

Yours &c,

The Victorian Man

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making the Butterick 1890 Men's Shirt Pattern

Around age 10 or so when history became a tangible concept to me that I wanted to recreate, the first period that I automatically keyed in on was the 1880s. Not sure why, it just happened. And although most of the periods I have worked to recreate have been earlier, the drive to experience the material culture of the very late 19th century is still very much alive in me. So, a year or so ago, I ordered Past Patterns' reprint of Butterick's men's shirt pattern from 1890:

This is a straight reprint of the original with only the original instructions- not a modern pattern intended for modern sewers. The first time I opened it up and spread it out, I was overwhelmed and put it back away for months. But not too long ago, I got it back out with a more patient and determined attitude and could not be happier with the result:

So happy that if I don't make a couple more soon, this one is going to wear out- it gets incorporated into my day to day wardrobe as often as possible.

Two major things you need to know before getting started- the pieces are not labeled and the instructions are not legible enough and are too squished together to expect to be able to follow them effectively while making it up. They are also not as complete as a modern sewer may prefer so it helps if you have made a yoke back shirt before (in my case it was the 1920s repro pattern from EvaDress, which is also outstanding, but its instructions are actually much less complete).

My solution was to, first, transcribe the instructions with logical breaks to make following them more manageable (I will be happy to forward my transcription to you if you are undertaking this project). Luckily, there is a list of pattern pieces at the beginning, so it was just a matter of matching from there. The most major unexpected part of this for me was that, instead of grading one pattern piece for the different neck sizes (15, 15 1/2, 16), there are separate pieces for the top portion of the shirt front. You match the appropriate top with the one front for your size:

(Notice- they also lay opposite ways.) There is also a separate yoke piece for each size. For the collar band and the top portion of the collar, there are notches to indicate where to fold them over to achieve your size. I only applied the collar band as I wanted to be able to attach separate collars, but I found that the piece needed to be folded in another 7/8 of an inch in order to fit in the space provided (and my neck). 

Making tacks at what were perforation points on the original pattern is essential but do not cut the notches at the edges of the top piece or yoke piece- with the seam allowance being only 1/4", the cut out portion will not be enclosed in the seam. These notches are also not at all necessary for matching the pieces effectively.

The instructions for the front placket piece are impeccable and should be followed exactly. Also repeated for the similarly shaped piece on the sleeve.

For the cuff piece, I used a 1/2 inch seam allowance at the top instead of the specified 1/4 inch because it made it more closely correspond to the the dimensions of the cuff on the extant piece featured in William Brown III's Thoughts on Men's Shirts 1750-1900 and another extant piece on loan to me from a friend. Each extant garment also guided me on button placement for the cuff, which is set slightly back from center (for more observations on that, see this post on my other blog):

I also used these two extant shirts to determine how I fit the cuff to the sleeve piece- both had a small gathered portion in the center and pleats on either side. Fitting the yoke is better explained, which only involves a gathered portion on each side:

You see here, too, that I also added a button hole in the center back for passing a stud through to attach separate collars. There should also be a buttonhole on each side of the front of the collar band.

Here are some of my collar studs- on the left are a pair that were a Christmas gift from Amy from Mr. Alan Jeffries Fine Gentlemen's Apparel  and on the right are some of my antique china pieces.

I used advertisements from the 1890s to determine a common quantity of buttons on the front (3 seemed reasonably standard) and placed them accordingly. They are all antique china buttons:

If you are intending to use separate collars for this shirt, I recommend using either Timeless Stitches TSM-716 Collars and Cuffs for Men:

Or one of the excellent collars offered ready made from Amazon Dry Goods (which I am wearing here, accompanied by Fred the cat):

If you have a few shirts under your belt, I highly recommend this pattern. Beyond the great result, it is a wonderful experience knowing that you are working with the same resource that stitchers in the 1890s were. If you have any problems, please drop me a line!

Yours &c.

The Victorian Man