Williamsburg Wardrobe

Back in early October 2019 I heard that Burnley & Trowbridge, purveyor of my favorite fabrics, kerchiefs, and other goods, would be holding a minimarket in February of 2020. Since making a trip to Colonial Williamsburg had been on my travel “to-do” list for a couple of years, and I assumed the minimarket would bring other costumers into town for the weekend, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to finally make the trip. That was further reinforced when Colonial Williamsburg announced that the same weekend would be a “Fashion Days” weekend, featuring programming specific to the clothing culture of the area. And coming off the high of having finished my Saratoga Dress, I immediately got ahead of myself with grand plans of finishing a bunch of UFOs and making a new riding habit (a hand-sewn one at that) for the weekend. I booked my stay at one of the Williamsburg hotels, and then sat down to plan.

My initial wishlist for my Williamsburg wardrobe was:

  • riding habit
  • cloak
  • mitts
  • finish men’s waistcoat, breeches, shirt, and frockcoat

I had started a men’s waistcoat years prior, but it still wanted buttons, the frockcoat was perhaps ¾ finished (and still wanted buttons), the breeches and shirt I had not even started, and the riding habit had been mocked up at a Costume College workshop in 2017, but otherwise was not started. I requested red wool fabric samples, mocked up the breeches quickly (since I’d already purchased the fabric for those) and slowly started plugging along.

I decided on a 55/45 wool/poly blend for my new riding habit, because of all the samples I got, that fabric was the one in my ideal shade of red in the weight and texture that I was hoping for. So I sent off the order while I got to work finishing up the last paperwork, admin, and presentations from my grant project and I cut out my shirt, which I figured could do double duty as a mens shirt and be worn under my riding habit instead of having to make a separate habit shirt. I used instructions that came with my Mill Farm waistcoat pattern to make the shirt, which is really just a collection of squares and rectangles.

Doing a tiny rolled hem on the neck slit of my shirt.

It was November before I got around to cutting out the first pieces of the riding habit. I double-checked the fit of the mockups made two years prior from the J.P. Ryan 1770s riding habit pattern, but it’s still always a nerve-wracking process to cut into a heap of unblemished fabric.

Seven yards of fabric being prepped for cutting.

I started with the waistcoat and hand-sewed the whole thing, which only took me a weekend (waistcoats being pretty small and having few seams), using 100% linen fabric from JoAnn’s for the lining and back.

Once I moved on to the habit jacket and started stitching all of the buttonholes that it needed (there are something like 42…?) it became evident that I was not going to be able to handstitch the whole outfit if I wanted to be done in time for Williamsburg.

I plodded along handstitching the buttonholes, because with those being so visible and me not trusting my machine to make proper, neat buttonholes, I had no other choice. On top that I got bogged down around the holidays, so it was early January by the time I finished all of the habit buttonholes and could move onto the rest of the assembly. I spent something like two months just handsewing button holes. I sewed everywhere: on lunch break at work, at family’s houses during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Buttonholes. Everywhere.

Button holes on the breakroom table

Once the button holes were all finished, I machine sewed the jacket pieces together, relieved that it was finally starting to resemble something.

Most of the jacket went together in a day, but I had to puzzle out the skirts a bit to ensure I was doing them correctly, as the “stacked pleats” described in the instructions were a little confusing. Hopefully my series of photos below illustrate the skirts helpfully.

Marking the pleats in the side panel.
Folding the pleats on the side and back panels.
How the pleats of the two panels look “stacked” together.

it was a relief to get the final jacket pieces assembled, and then it was time to put on all the buttons. I also had to throw together a simple petticoat with the remaining red wool, though I see to not have taken photos of that. Hemming the petticoat gave me tennis elbow (probably the last straw, after all those button holes) and in the course of sewing on all the buttons, I stabbed my finger and got blood on the jacket lining in at least two different places. I was, thankfully, able to finish the habit just the weekend before our trip, though.

I also managed to throw a quick cloak together with wool gabardine that I had picked up from a tailor shop that was going out of business a couple of years prior. I followed a blog post by Fashion Through Herstory for my cloak, though I only had about 2 and 3/8 yards of fabric, so I had to do some piecing to make it work.

I also mostly finished a shirt to wear under my riding habit, though I did not have time to hem the bottom of the shirt, or to hem the cravat that I wore with it, though luckily both of those facts were hidden by the way the items are worn.

The mitts and the rest of the menswear outfit had to be abandoned for lack of time. After sewing approximately 42 million button holes by hand on the riding habit, I knew there was no way I would also be able to sew the approximately 42 million button holes needed to finish off the waistcoat, frock coat, and breeches, not to mention the construction needed to finish the latter two items.

But I had at least finished a complete new outfit to wear on my trip as well as a warmth layer to add to one of my existing outfits. So we packed up the car, left Upstate New York in the middle of an ice storm, passing half a dozen vehicles, including a jack-knifed tractor trailer, off the road, seriously making me question my life decisions, and made it safely to Williamsburg for our adventure.

We stayed on property at the Griffin Hotel, an acceptably tidy hotel not a far walk from Duke of Gloucester Street. The first day we met up with some costumers I knew from Costume College at the art museum and attended a talk about shoes by historian Neal Hurst, all in “normal” clothes as it was an exceptionally windy day.

The second day I debuted by riding habit, twinning with my friend Emily (on Instagram as @bonnetsandbits) who had made the trip out from California.

We met up with a large group to socialize and promenade around DoG Street. There were tons of us there in costume, and it was impressive to see, and also slightly intimidating for an introvert like me.

This was only part of the group that met up.

It was still quite a chilly day (though nothing like February in New York), but my riding habit kept me nice and toasty. It was still nice to stop at Chownings and get a hot “fortified” beverage, which I’ve unfortunately forgotten the name of.

We explored a bit, stopping by the different workshops and taking some photos of my riding habit.

Then we went back to the hotel to do a quick change before attending an evening dance event at the Governor’s Palace.

The Governor’s Palace by night.

We also stopped by a little get-together at one of the Williamsburg houses you can book, organized by some of the costumers who were visiting for the weekend.

The next day I wore my repurposed-tartan pierrot jacket to meet up with people at Tarpley, Thompson & Co. and do more exploring.

Some of us also ventured off property for a bit to get some lunch in (modern day) town and it was refreshing to hang out with a small group, after the huge crush the previous day. I’m also, a year later as I write this, exceedingly grateful that I was able to put aside my travel and social anxiety to make that trip to Williamsburg, and spend time chatting, walking, eating with, and getting to know people, as just about a month later the world changed completely, of course, and it’s nice to know that I spent that February getting as much costumed socializing in as I did.

I also published two videos on making this riding habit on my YouTube, where you can find me under The Victorian Archivist, but if you have any questions about the riding habit construction, please feel free to leave a comment, or find me on Instagram (@thevictorianarchivist)!

Hopefully it will not be another 12 months between blog posts. Bye for now, and be well.

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