Sunday, 10 July 2011

Catherine Walters - Work In Progress

Catherine Walters, better known as Skittles, was the last of the great Victorian Courtesan.
She was famous for her beauty, style and riding skills. And remembered by many riding one of her magnificent horses along Rotten Row in Hyde Park in a perfectly tailored riding habit that fitted her so well, and was so tight, that it was rumoured she wore nothing beneath it, and had to be sewn into it.

Skittles set high fashion trends, was rumoured to have had intellectuals, leaders of political parties, aristocrats and a member of the British Royal Family amongst her benefactors.

During her life as a courtesan, her discretion and loyalty to her benefactors became the focal point of her career. There were many rumours about her being involved with certain wealthy men of the time, but she never confirmed or denied these. This gave her great weight in the courtesan lifestyle, and made her a sought after commodity. This also gave long life to her career, and helped her to retire a wealthy woman of society around 1890.

There's something about Skittles' life that has really interested me. She inspired so much loyalty in the men that were her benefactors: many of them becoming her life-long friends.
She was also one of the very few great Courtesans that was truly successful to the very end of her life. So many of them ended in sad circumstances, with no money and very few friends. Ending their days living a life that was totally devoid of the riches they had once been used to, or dying alone and sometimes tragically. But Skittles was different. She retired with a great fortune, and owned homes in London and the country. She still had her loyal friends and the society she had always been used to, and lived in the style that she always had.
I don't know what made her different from many of the others. Maybe she was just much better with her money. Or maybe she was just lucky. But there is no doubt that her life was interesting.

I wanted to make Catherine in her perfectly fitting riding habit, and started with her underwear.
The pair of legs on the Victorian bloomers, joined only at the waist with ties or sewn to one waistband (and why we always say a Pair of knickers) are starting to get a bit easier now that I've made a few pairs of them. It's quite hard to get the baggy legs and the baggy sack like bum sections that mean that the gap between stays closed on its own. And I've tried a few different designs to get them the shape that I want on my skinny dolls and finally found a design that seems to work. Making each leg horizontally to the body section rather than vertically makes them look quite daft, but does provide the bags and folds, as well as meaning you can tailor the legs to how wide you want them to be.
Catherine would have had the best of everything - clothes, jewellery, horses and homes. So although Victorian underwear would have most certainly been made of white cotton with very little trimming so that it could be scrubbed clean I thought that as one of the richest women of her time, with fabulously rich patrons who may have bought her very expensive gifts, I made all of Catherine's underwear from pure silk, and trimmed it with a rich dark red satin ribbon.

I made a bit of a mistake when I made Skittles' chemise as I made it quite long before realising there was no way that I'd be able to tuck all that fabric into her riding trousers. I'm so used to making girls in dresses that I forgot that underneath the specially shaped and tailored riding habit skirts a woman riding side saddle would have worn wool or chamois bloomers so she would be better able to grip the saddle horns with her legs.
I shortened her chemise and made a soft cotton lawn lace-up body to go under her corset and protect the fine silk underneath against her skin. I know these were worn under corsets, but I'm not too sure what they were called as they seem to have a number of names. Corsets were expensive and needed protection from sweat and dirt from the body, as well as the wearer needing protection from the ridged boning and metal fittings. Although a lot of corsets were well padded with quilted interiors for this.
Next came wide elastic to simulate the corset itself, and fawn coloured wool felt riding bloomers.

Catherine was said to have the perfect figure, with a tiny waist and perfect curves, so I had to decide how I could give her this shape without using pads or bustles.
I'm sure that some women would have used a little extra help in the shape of the usual bum pads. But I wanted to try and give my Catherine her shape just using the shaping I could provide by structuring her clothing.
I rounded out her hips by pulling the gathers in the wool felt of her riding bloomers over so that the stomach of them was flat before attaching them to the waistband. The felt is thick enough to provide enough structure to keep their shape even under the layers of skirts. It would have been nice to make them from chamois leather, but I was worried that the leather might pick up moisture and become hard and brittle which would stop Catherine's legs from moving freely and spoil the bend at her knee.
My next problem was to somehow round out my dolls flat bottom. Some of the riding bloomers I looked at on the internet seemed to have an extra layer of fabric sewn to the bottom - something like the leather patches you see on tweed jackets. Which were probably meant to give a little extra protection for the rider. So I added a second layer of felt to the back of Catherine's riding bloomers, and stuffed it a little to create a more rounded bum and give her her proper silhouette.

I made Catherine's riding blouse from a smooth black fabric with tightly cuffed balloon sleeves and a high neckline. To try and make it look a little more interesting I layered over black lace that has teal coloured flowers. Fitting it around her bust to gather in a tight ruffle under her chin to give her that tightly buttoned up High Victorian look.
I'm almost finished dressing Catherine now. And only need to add the final embroidered details to her jacket and skirt. Hopefully I'll have finished photos of her soon. It was difficult to create the specially shaped skirt that has an odd construction to allow a rider to have extra room to draw up their knee over the saddle horns and still allow the skirt hem to lay even and protect the riders modesty, hooking up on one side so that the trailing side this strange shape makes doesn't drag on the ground when walking. For once I actually took the time to make a few draft versions to make sure I could get it right.
Her habit skirt is made of a soft grey suiting fabric, and has a dark purple lining. And I made her single breasted jacket to match, purposely sewing her into it as the rumours of the time suggested. It has wide pointed cuffs and a double collar, and when I'm done it'll have an embroidered frogging closure down the front to give it a slight military look.
As I've said before, I know that no-one can see all of these layers when my doll is finished, but I know I'm right to make them the way that I do as it just feels that way. When I hold a finished doll in my hands I can feel the layers of clothing beneath. And it somehow always makes me feel that it's somehow more finished. A more complete doll And more like the wonderful old antique dolls that I love dearly. It makes them sturdy, and less delicate than the thin limbed, strung together doll that I start with. But I don't want to change my dolls construction either as I love the floppy loose movement that they have - Oh well! I guess I'll carry on making and dressing my dolls the way that I do. It's all the better for me as I just love making and learning about the clothes these women I like to make wore at a time that isn't that long ago, but that still no-one can remember anymore.

I've always dressed my smaller dolls in a much simpler way with fewer layers and less exact period construction. But after the practice I've had on these last 6 extra-large dolls in sewing small details like tiny cuffs, necklines, lace details, embroidery and so much more I think the next smaller dolls I make will be made in much the same way. I've learnt so much by studying Victorian clothes, and have improved my sewing skills in so many ways. I've got quite a few new dolls planned once Catherine is finished; some fantasy and some real women. Including Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy (Colin Firth version - Obviously), an insane asylum nurse and one of her patient’s, and twin girls. It's been a while since i last had a proper sculpting day and I'm really looking forward to it :)

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