Thursday, December 04, 2003

Old Gowns

Two interesting dresses, via Teresa: a reconstruction of the Irish Moy Gown, and a rather beautiful painting by Edwin Austin Abbey (American, 1852-1911) titled 'The White Dress'. I recommend the first one in particular to any resident or visiting dressmakers or costumers. And for the second, does anyone have any notion of its design, construction and fabric(s)?

Sunday, November 30, 2003

The week in bras

My mission to promote the development of the anti-gravity bra is, as usual, not bearing much fruit. Which I'm used to, but having my favorite catalog company consistently running promotions for the "Love Kylie" line just gets a bit depressing after a while. I admit some of them are cute enough that I even posted a hot-linked thumbnail of one at my regular weblog, The Sideshow, but while it makes nice eye-candy it doesn't really add anything to my choices.

Meanwhile, Gina Lynn atTechTV, who is looking for a decent sports bra, tried to reduce the amount of ignorance in the world by informing her readers of something you really think men ought to have figured out by the time they are 14: that the number in a bra size is not the bust measurement. She even tries to explain how the band measurement is determined, although she gets it wrong, I'm afraid:

Men, here's a quick primer in bra sizes. The number is the "band size" -- the part that goes around the ribcage. The letter is the "cup size" -- the part that holds the breast. You measure your ribcage under the breasts and add five inches to get your band size. (I don't know why we add those five inches to get the band size. I don't remember doing that 20 years ago.)
Not then, and not now, either; whoever told her that should be ashamed. You add two to the ribcage measurement, rounded to the nearest even number, more or less. (And depending on the style of fastening, since some bras have three sets of hooks and some have just a single clasp.)

I'm sorry, it just amazes me that men know so little about this subject. They obsess on breasts, they love numbers and stats, they like to pretend they know something about women - and god knows they wish they actually did - so why don't they just find out before they run around babbling bra sizes as if they knew what they were talking about? "She's got huge knockers, I bet she's a 44B!" they will say, completely unaware that few people seeing a woman of such dimensions would be impressed by the size of her jugs.

Meanwhile, shopping for bras in stores continues to be a frustrating experience, as this article attests. I love the idea that they actually paid a firm to find out why women don't like to shop for bras in department stores, as if most of us wouldn't happily tell them for free.

Many long years ago I once found a bra that was perfect for my purposes. It looked like it was made from a pair of stockings, it was the sheerest bra I have ever seen, and of course there were no seams in the cups. Astonishingly, it gave terrific support without underwires, and a comfortably natural shape. And I never noticed I was wearing it.

Trust me if you don't know this already, but all those qualities in the same place just do not happen once you get past a C cup, but this bra - which was all alone at the top of a jumble bin - was in my size, which at that time was a D. I wore it happily for years until I gained too much weight, but I never saw another one like it in any size.

About a decade ago I found the second-best bra I've ever had, a comfortable underwire that didn't make me feel like adjusting the straps every five minutes. It had a lace cup, but, miraculously, it was seamless and didn't even disturb the smooth look under my t-shirts. I'd worn it twice when I realized I'd finally found It - the comfortable, practical, sexy bra of my dreams. My minions and I looked everywhere to find out where I could get more of them, and discovered that I'd found the last of a run and the company was discontinuing it; they did not replace it with anything similar.

And so it goes. My current favorite is a cute little seamless-cup racer-back, but frankly I prefer back-closure bras (which, although men never seem to figure this out, are actually easier to remove). The anti-grav, alas, is still far out of reach.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Oh dear, I guess I don't dress properly for writing. Maybe I'd do better if I wore better clothes. Then again, maybe one has to be dressed properly for what one is writing about. I'm afraid I've just been reading the new Mary Gentle which should doubtless get me thrown off this list as it is thoroughly contemptuous of any form of clothing that is unsuitable for fencing in.

So for reviewing it I'm wearing a pair of leggings and an Australian rugby shirt. I'll worry about putting on something more elegant when I have Emcit #99 out of the way.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Seals and Strata

One book I'm tempted to buy in Mr Wood's Fossils is Edinburgh and Lothians Geology, which features a lot of excursions to sites of geological interest. Edinburgh is of course rich in them - for a start, it's built around the remnants of an ancient volcano - and one of the excursions is one of my regular walks. The coastal path between the Hawes Pier, just beside the Forth Bridge, to Hound Point is described in detail: fossil beds, oil shales, intrusions, all in the space of a few hundred metres.

The other day I walked through the village, past the registry office where a small crowd was gathered around a young bride (in a cream wrap coat over a tea-length straight white light satin dress) and on along the shore. As I approached the Long Pier (the one after Hawes Pier) I saw a man fishing from the slipway, a couple of metres away from a seal. Seals are a common sight around here, as are seals basking or resting on the slipway, but I'd never seen one so close to a human before. The fisherman was just giving up as I arrived, and we talked for a bit about good places for fishing (I suggested the pier at the main harbour). He threw half a mackerel from his bait bag to the seal as he left. The seal ignored it.

After he'd gone I walked over to the seal. This one was quite small, about a metre from nose to hind flipper, pale yellow-brown and mottled with black. It turned its head back, looked at me with its dark, thick-lensed eyes and snorted. Very carefully, I poked the fish a bit closer to it withthe toe of my boot.

'Look,' I said stupidly. 'Fish.'

Snort. Snort.

I backed off. Not only was this dialogue going nowhere, I doubt if the seal even identified the object almost under its nose as a fish. Seals' eyes are perfect underwater, not so on land, and to these eyes a fish is a moving flash in the sea, not a dead tail on the ground.

There's something very satisfying about seeing a seal, a wild mammal making its living in the busy industrial seascape of the Firth.


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Shopping Serendipity

Many interesting things can be found while looking for something completely unrelated, and I can no longer remember what it was I was looking for to begin with, thanks to Petticoat Pond - a site for those of us who adore petticoats, crinolines and any kind of bouffant fashion (Poufbunnies). The gallery of men dressed in ultra-feminine clothing is a sight to behold, though they now have a special gallery for women too. Some of the pin-ups are terrifying, others remind me of Lea Delaria's comments about Ru Paul - looking far better in a frock than I ever do.

But help is at hand. Normally, I ignore ads on web sites, but the petticoat I bought in Toronto has whetted my appetite and I want more! I had to look at Petticoat Dreams. They indeed have a full range of glamourous underskirts in sizes that fit me, and at prices well below what I paid in Toronto. They'll even do the bridal petticoats in black, and bags to keep them in. And they're based in Edinburgh.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

One Wedding and a Final

Finally got to watch 'Bend it like Beckham' last night, and very good it was too. Thank God and/or Guru Nanak for a British feel-good movie set in an idealised but recognisable version of the real England (Hounslow, with its gasometers on the horizon and airliners over the roofs) instead of the ethnically rinsed disneylands of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral', 'Bridget Jones' Diary' and 'Notting Hill'.

The Sikh wedding looked pretty lively, too.

A Writing Outfit

Writing at home with chickenpox and registering that almost all my clothes smarter than jeans and thermal vests are in my flat in London, has made me think about what I wear to write and the way in which writing and long dresses is actually associated in my mind.

Like many writers, I have an idea in my mind of a writing outfit. I can’t write if I don’t feel “smart”. I like to dress up and go out to write, in a suit, or a frock. I like to feel professional. If I stay home I have a writing outfit: soft black cotton trousers, a soft t-shirt and a head band (think plump dancer) but it has to match. In the summer I have two Laura Ashley dresses of dark cotton, with empire line waists and huge bell skirts pleated from the waist down and reaching the ankles. But I’ve been known to put on a suit if I have writers block.

What I realised, now I’m well enough to register that I’m not dressed “properly”, is that I have in my mind what a female writer should look like, and it looks remarkably like Katherine Hepburn in Little Women. A shirt waist, a long skirt, a big artists smock with false cuffs to catch the ink, and hair bundled up in a hair net (hair nets have always looked terribly romantic to me—a black friend at college used to have her hair rolled into a gold wire, beaded net). This is odd, as for years, my most despised book has been Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

In case you were lucky enough to miss this book at A level, Vera Brittain was one of the UK’s first really famous woman journalists (and as her daughter is Shirley Williams, you can’t say it was at the expense of making a more maternal impact on the world). The book is her memoir of the Great War. It’s about 500 pages long, very shoddily written and my class tutor used to dictate to us what we needed to know from each chapter. I was caught between resentment at such a dreadful way of teaching, and the realisation that the teacher was absolutely right and there really was no other way of teaching the book.

Because the book is a mess. It is touted as this touching portrayal of love, loss, and an entire generation. What it actually is, is the story of small town domestic life and the internal agonies of a bright but rather shallow teenager. This is sort of interesting but not if you are looking for the feminine version of All Quiet on the Western Front. What stands out in my mind is the pettiness of the book, and the way almost every really important moment is deflated by an unexpected description of what the author was wearing. So we have a short description of a WWI hospital ward, followed by a very lenghy description of the made to measure nurse’s uniform that Brittain secures. We have a brief description of the interview at Somerville, but only after we have been told about the blue evening gown in which Brittain attended the interview. And a speech on the suffrage is much less important that the full length, brown velvet “outfit” that Brittain wore to give the speech.

I only stopped sneering at this misdirection of energy a few years ago when I studied a few diaries of the period and realised that clothes and the clothing allowance were to that generation of young women the same as food and calorie counting are to young women now—pretty much the only part of their lives they had any control over. But I also stopped sneering when I realised that of all the many pages in the book, those are the three images that have stuck with me for thirteen years now.

I can’t get away from it: the idea of the young Vera floating across the lawn in blue silk is ravishing (she was very pretty); the idea of being able to give a speech in a full length brown velvet suit; the possibility of having a uniform custom made. Of that uniform having a long, swishy skirt so I rustle when I walk. Ooooh. Imagine walking into class in a full length new look skirt? It all makes my fingers itch—especially as my favourite shop, Droopy and Browns—offers just such confections.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Big White Wedding Stress

The culture of weddings is examined by pop culture self-help and academia.

Sunday, November 23, 2003


Today's Mainichi Daily News WaiWai concerns Gosurori, better known to us as 'Gothic Lolitas'. Having a new word in my armoury, the resulting Google first led me to this site selling Gothic Lolita fashion doll clothes and this more authentic looking Gosurori doll.

Several of the main suppliers of clothing and accessories for the discerning Gosurori are online. Victorian Maiden has a nice line in furry chintz coats/coatdresses, and their Winter 2003/2004 long coat is the epitome of that the words simple elegance mean to me, but at around £340, I think I'll get out my blocks, old newspapers and sewing machine. Then there's Inoocent World, much more classically Gosurori with flounces, frills and other trims, though even their recent collections are more subdued - maybe it's the winter.

But all of this is a little expensive, and cut to fit Japanese women to boot, which is why I bought myself a copy of this Gothic and Lolita pattern book, and that's where the dress Ken saw at Novacon came from (you can just see it on the cover, middel row of photos, second from left). The book gives you a set of basic patterns, and instructions on how to adapt them to make the designs shown - this means, if you have a set of personal patterns blocks, you have all the information you need to make them to measure. No knowledge of sewing is assumed, but if you are of average ability there's no need to be able to read Japanese - the illustrations are that clear. The only gotcha is that they don't get round to telling you how much seam allowance to add until the diagram showing the pattern pieces laid out on the fabric! And remember, the instructions go from right to left. Personally, I think the Gothic Lolita stuff looks better when cut for, and worn on, the sort of curvacious figure I have.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

'These are desperate dresses ...'

Thanks for the links, Feorag. They're going into the sidebar.

I must have really bad taste, because I like a lot of the Simple Elegance / Ellyanna dresses. They click on my mental template of what a wedding dress should look like: totally over the top. This template was formed in the 1980s, which was definitely the high point of sock-it-to-me frocks, though the style continued into the early 90s. After that, the fashionistas got their manicured hands on the industry and it's been downhill all the way to 'classical' and 'elegant' and 'uncluttered'. Even bridesmaid dresses started looking like evening wear. It's only prom and quinceanara styles that have remained on the true path of excess.

I think I noticed the moment when the tide turned. Sometime in the mid-80s there was an article in The Guardian titled something like 'The Bride Trap', in which the author described her bridal shopping experience in New York. She was looking over what seemed to her perfectly acceptable and reasonably priced styles when the shop assistant took her in hand. 'These are desperate dresses,' he told her. 'All that glop and gingerbready lace. They're for some girl from New Jersey who has never worn a formal gown in her life and never will again and who wants to be queen for a day ...' And he swept her off to the racks of classical, elegant, uncluttered and ten times as expensive.

I have a hypothesis that bridal fashion works on a two-generation cycle. Today's bride doesn't like her mother's wedding dress, but she likes her grandmother's. If this is true, Ellyanna will be top of the range in the 2020s.


Welcome to all who've joined, and all who've posted. Any comments on the new title and description before I select 'public blog' and launch this on an unsuspecting world?

Friday, November 21, 2003


I made my own wedding dress - no surprise there - but if I hadn't, I doubt I would've bought anything from Simple Elegance. The designs are mostly neither simple nor elegant, and they seem to have a thing for triangualr panels of cutwork embroidery and Dynasty-style sleeves. As an added extra, you can choose to add rhinestones. The most useful page is that of Hoop Slips & Crinolines which contains a pair of surprisingly economical means of keeping that skirt nice and full.

And seeing as the matter has been raised by Cheryl, my Hugo corset came from Gallery Serpentine. As well as some wonderful corsetry, they do a line of 'Victorian ' skirts, based on the styles fashionable in the 1880s. The PVC and lace version is remarkably elegant. The full petticoat I wore was bought in Toronto, at a shop on W. Queen Street, but the dress itself was all my fault, using surprisingly cheap fabric from a local shop which specialises in Asian stuff. A sari in 'the stuff that looks like circuit boards' - now there's an idea.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Gernsback Collection

I can see that you are getting bored here Ken. About time somebody else posted.

Now me, I'm not a great expert on fashion or the history of costumes, but I do like a good posh frock. And given how we know each other, how about we start at the Hugos, which is where folks we know are most likely to be seen in something stunning. I've been keeping track of Hugo fashion for a few years now and here are a few highlights from the photos section of my web site.

In 2000 I wasn't really up to scratch, just a posh skirt. You can see it here, along with Freddie Baer in a magnificent patchwork something.

2001 was much better, but I was totally upstaged by Kathryn Kramer.

2002 was a little crazy due to my being Neil Gaiman's minder for the evening. I did manage to get a photo of my dress, but the style prizes when to Mary Anne Mohanraj and Sue Mason for turning up in saris.

I had to push the boat out in 2003 due to being a nominee. The little red number seemed to go down very well, but once again I got totally outclassed. Feorag NicBhride was just stunning.

Now the interesting thing about this is that I got all three of my dresses in half price sales at shops in the Queen Victoria Market in Sydney (I'm lucky enough to get a business trip to Australia once a year or so). And Feorag bought her dress from a mail order company in Sydney. Paris? Milan? Who cares? Sydney is where it is at.


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Elegant, s'pose

'The white satin meringue is so last century!' cried Angelique. 'Instead, I'm going for a collapsing pink blancmange!'

The Grassmarket

There's a short stretch of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh where I always take any visiting fans who want to be shown around. It seldom fails. The Grassmarket itself is a great place - one of the lowest streets in the Old Town. You can stand there and see to your left the castle, then a stacked skyline of tall old buildings, then a steep cobbled street curving away up, and as you turn around you see on your right the bridge across the Cowgate like the lintel of a giant doorway. In the right light - winter dusk - it all looks like part of an early modern old city in a fantasy novel, only without the hay and the horse dung and the bodies hanging from the gibbets.

There's still a pub there called The Last Drop.

A particular cluster of shops, just at the viewpoint above, is the one where visiting fans can get lost for hours and emerge with severe damage to the plastic. The first is Armstrong's, a vintage clothes shop. It usually has a striking window display - currently it's bridal, but more usually it's some kind of historical or theatrical costume - and a quirky display in the doorway of a military uniform or a party dress on some ancient mannequin.

Pushing your way past that and brushing the cobweb hem of yet another dress - hanging from the top of the doorway - out of your eyes, you enter the shop. The counter is back on the left. The left-hand wall is taken up with a couple of rails of ballgowns, and a circular rack of 1950s party dresses occupies the middle of the floor. Down on the right, just past a low shelf of advertising leaflets and cards, is a rail hung with very old stuff: Victorian and Edwardian petticoats and chemises, the occasional Victorian skirt, and those Victorian dress-tops or bodices-with-sleeves, that look like something like a fitted jacket or a cropped blouse. Rich pickings for a rich goth. Above that is another rail, hung with night-dresses and other underwear. You can find kilts and jackets, I think, diagonally across on the left.

Ahead there's a passageway to the back of the shop. This passage has mirrors and changing-cubicles and a clutter of mannequins and carved and painted figures and luggage and other not for sale displays. Up a couple of steps is a room of leather jackets, greatcoats, tweed jackets and military gear, the whole lot incongruously watched over by a mannequin in a frock and wig.

To the right of the passageway is the main room at the back. Along its right-hand wall, just past a cluster of petticoats, are ranks of suits, dinner jackets, and other menswear. This is the bit where several female fans I've taken here have found something really natty. Overhead, hoop-skirted wedding dresses hang down like really big lampshades, or the flare nozzles of a really fragile main stage booster rocket. The other three walls are crammed with dresses of all kinds, blouses, shirts, tops (spangly disco smock type thingies are big at the moment) and some odd stuff like academic gowns and theatrical tabards. There are stepladders for the upper levels. The floor itself is occupied with clutches of accessories and several long racks: 70s long dresses, ballgowns and party dresses, chinoiserie, and so on. The decor in spare nooks and crannies is jazz themed dioramas and Wurlitzers and stuff.

Turn right out of Armstrong's and it's a few yards to another fan-trap, Mr Wood's Fossils. Small and brightly lit, the shop has everything from rare and expensive complete amphibian and reptile skeletons and Pleistocene large-mammal teeth the size of bricks to trilobites and fish teeth and ammonites. The emporonymous Mr Wood is a famous palaeontologist in his own right, academically untrained and phenomenally respected (I've seen this, at a palaeontology conference decades before he was famous) and astoundingly productive of scientifically valuable finds.

A few steps past the fossil shop is Transreal Books, the best SF bookshop in Edinburgh. Its owner Mike Calder used to work at the local Forbidden Planet, but quit when it became too much like a toyshop. Transreal concentrates on books, of which it has a fine and large selection, but Mike's commercially canny enough to carry the peripheral stuff as well: plush dinosaurs and Lovecraftian horrors, pressed fairy calendars, coffee-table astronomy and fantasy-illustration books, and so on.

After that, visitors are usually ready for the pub. Head for The Doctors, up past the top of Candlemaker Row. That is if you don't fall into Wind Things - kites and skateboards - or the comics shop on the left as you go up, or the museum in Chambers Street, or the old churchyard, or ... but these are for another day.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The site name and possible new title, Bridesmaid, is one I've vaguely meant to use for a fanzine ever since Yvonne launched 'Barmaid'. This fanzine would have been illustrated with my not at all famous pen and ink drawings of girls in the above mentioned styles of dress (one of which, many years ago, appeared as a small ad for a bridal dressmaker of my acquaintance in Brides, no less, and much later in the romance issue of Barmaid.)

Thursday, November 06, 2003

The Romance of the Long Dress

Why are long dresses so attractive? They undoubtedly are, for some women and some men. From the occasional fascinated internet site showing nothing but pictures of women wearing pretty frocks, through vintage clothing shops, the covers of historical romances, to current bridal fashion, this enjoyment is apparent. In many accounts of fashion and costume, such a taste is paradoxical - whether from the viewpoint of the putative female wearer (inconvenience, the reinforcement of traditional 'femininity', etc) or the putative male gaze (covering up the female body).

I would like to discuss the continuing appeal - and perhaps contestations of - this enduring style. And to have some fun doing it.