Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Elizabeth Armistead - Work in Progress

I've been working hard at my next doll, the courtesan Elizabeth Armistead.
Although I wouldn't want to live the lives they did, these women, the last Grand Courtesans, have impressed me. Yes, they sold their favours for money. And Yes, many of them were almost forced into their circumstances by poverty or pressure. But they were powerful, capable, independent women at a time when that just didn't exist.
The story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox is one of the all time greatest romances. After being the companion to Dukes, Lords and even the Prince of Wales, Elizabeth fell in love with her patron, and he fell in love with her. She stayed with him no matter what, supporting him with her own money when he had none. Selling her considerable property and houses to remain with him. They were happy together, and finally married and lived in peace together for many years. To protect Fox from the ridicule of Society Elizabeth even insisted that their marriage remain a secret for many years, until friends found them out. She was lucky to gain a certain amount to acceptance from many of the people she thought would spurn her. Everyone that met Elizabeth couldn't help being charmed by her gentle, calm, kind nature.

I decided to make Elizabeth as she was around 1790's, when she would have been between 38-42yrs old. When she was happy , at the height of her fame, and in love.
This was very early in the Regency period. Just at the point when fashion dramatically changed from the over the top, highly decorated, wide hipped and tiny waisted, powdered wig styles of a young Marie Antoinette, to the simple, high-waisted, pale, Robe de Chemise gowns we all associate with Jane Austen and the lovely girls from Pride & Prejudice (My favorite book ever!).

These gossamer, floaty dresses didn't start of quite as barely there as you'd think. And at first anyway, they had some layers underneath. It's a no bloomers era again, so again I'm making a doll with no knickers on! These started coming in when the dresses got really thin and even more transparent. But as I can't stand the thought of someone looking up her skirt and seeing her bare bum she does have a little pair of lacy ones on. And trust me, everyone looks up a dolls skirts, no idea why, it's just a fact.

I started off with a plain shift that has the slightly longer straight fitted sleeve, and that reaches to her ankles, but is shorter than the hem of her dress so that it won't be seen. Next are the short stays, which you can see just over the top of her high petticoat. As these won't be seen I've not made them exactly as they should be, but have used a piece of elastic to suggest one that can be felt through her clothes. As you can see, adding this layer has helped to keep the low neckline of her shift down and in place so it won't be seen peeking over the equally low neckline of her dress. Her petticoat provides the support for her dress and sits just below her bust, supported with straps over her shoulders.

The skirts at this time were still quite full, with a gathered front, and with most of the bulk of gathers in the back. It's a big difference from the styles of a few years previously, and completely hides the waist. These gowns were made to show the high bust that was forced into a very high position by the stays, and also the neck and shoulders. It also has a train in the back that I'll add some sort of fixing too so that it can be pinned up in the back as they were for dancing and walking outdoors.

I've made Elizabeth's gown from 100% ivory cotton voile, which was used at the time. It's been a pain to work with, and frays really easily as well as being really delicate. I thought at first that maybe this may have been a more comfortable style than others I've looked into. But with her bust up under her chin, and fabric so delicate that the slightest catch could ruin it I'm starting to wonder. I suppose at least it's not a full corset and tons of layers to carry about.

Her gown is made in two layers, with a lined bodice and two layers of skirts to give it a really floaty look. It has three quarter sleeves with a large puffed top. I'm going to be changing these puffs a little as I'm not happy with them. And will be adding an extra seam or two of gathering to make them more of a half Marie sleeve - A puffed shoulder followed by other smaller puffs.This is going to be an evening dress, and I haven't added any of the trimming yet, so Elizabeth still looks quite plain. The hems of her skirts and train will be decorated with a fine lace once I've finished. And you can see that her underskirt is a little longer than the top layer so that the lengths will remain equal when this is added. Although her slightly older age would suggest that she shouldn't really be wearing such a light colour, Elizabeth was still unmarried, and was a very, very fashionable woman. One of the first to adopt all the latest styles, and setting fashions of her own. And as it is an evening gown I decided not to worry about it too much as I have found pictorial evidence of older women wearing white and cream gowns. If your wondering why she's sitting on my stairs it was the easiest way I could think of to show her size :)

Once her dress is trimmed with lace and a pale pink satin sash I'm going to try and make a pellise (coat) from a dusky pink dupion silk which will follow the shape of her gown, being high waisted, with full skirts. I'm hoping I can make this removable, so that she'll be able to be displayed with or without it. And I may even attempt a shawl, bonnet and bag, although I've not decided on her accessories yet.

I wish I'd had daylight to take some proper photos to show you, but it's very dark and damp round the edges in my part of Wales at the moment, so I've had to take these in artificial light.
I'm really happy with how she's coming out at the moment. And she'll be one of the prettiest, girliest dolls I've made. With soft features and a lot of detail in her dress once it's finished.

I hope you'll like her.
I'll take more photos soon.