The Kirsten Project | Dress Inspiration

dress, late 1830s, metropolitan museum of art, daguerrotypes of women and girls in mid 19th century dresses

dress, late 1830s, metropolitan museum of art, daguerrotypes of women and girls in mid 19th century dresses

The real root of The Kirsten Project has been for me to try to untangle the mystery of how each aspect of Kirsten’s costume came together and to make my best guess on what Pleasant Company used as an inspiration, all while staying true to early photos and extant pieces of 1850s fashion.

pleasant company catalog

pleasant company catalog

Luckily, when it comes to Kirsten’s dress, we know exactly where to look… remember the early catalogs and the girl sized dresses you could buy to match your doll? On Kirsten’s page an ecru printed dress was shown with the following copy:

“This antique dress was Pleasant Company’s inspiration for Kirsten’s wardrobe. Made with loving care more than 125 years ago by a mother that took pride in tiny stitches, it’s hem faced in coordinating fabric, a practical, thrifty way to use precious scraps of material, but such a pretty touch that we did it on purpose when we recreated Kirsten’s dresses for you.”

This extant dress is also shown in the “Peek Into the Past” section at the end of Kirsten Saves the Day and in Welcome to Kirsten’s World 1854. If you look closely you can find picture credits (right behind the title page back at the front). This dress is from the Wisconsin Historical Society and thanks to a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland herself (the creator of Pleasant Company and the American Girls), the entire children’s clothing collection is available to view to the public. God bless the museums that post their collections online - it’s a priceless resource for costumers like me! It took me just minutes to scan through the collection before I found the dress that inspired Kirsten’s! The description of the dress reads:

“Ecru-colored cotton, printed with a half-drop pattern of small red and brown radishes on a ground of small scattered brown spots; hand-sewn; slightly above natural waistline, with inset self-fabric band, 1.5" wide, with pattern going the opposite direction from the rest of the dress, and piped on both seams; bodice is gathered into the waistband in a section in the center; calf-length skirt is cartridge pleated into the waistband all the way around; long and full bishop-style sleeves; 1.5" pleat taken in above hem of skirt; narrow band collar; various calicos used to line hem of skirt, waistband, and bodice; center back opening closes with 5 white cone-shaped glass shank buttons from neck to waist, and two metal hooks and eyes at the waistband.”

women and girls in printed dresses, radish print child’s dress, 1853-1857, wisconsin historical society

women and girls in printed dresses, radish print child’s dress, 1853-1857, wisconsin historical society

The signature elements I will recreate in my adult sized dress (which are also very similar to the dress shown above from The Met) are: dropped shoulders with piping on the armscye, full sleeves pleated into a cuff, fan pleating at the center front (gathered in the girl’s version), piping at the waistline, gauged/cartridge pleats to attach the skirt to waist and finally, a printed hem facing that differs from the body of the dress. I’m using a sewing pattern that has been made from an existing dress dated between 1856-1862.

Prints from an 1850’s Swatch Book

Prints from an 1850’s Swatch Book

While the original dress is ecru with a small radish print, Kirsten’s dress is described in Meet Kirsten as “patterned with little red flowers” and has a blue background. My guess is that the blue, paired with the red stripes of her traditional Swedish apron, created a very American look for Kirsten. This shade of blue was also pretty popular in the 1980s when the character was created. While there are a lot more examples of brownish tones during this era, as seen at left, some blues do survive. I’ve created my own adult sized print based on the description of Kirsten’s dress, illustrations from her series and from the doll’s original printed dress. I can’t wait to reveal it to you in the final photos of this project!

Extant examples of blue print fabric from the mid-19th century (Top LEFT 1845-1850 MODE MUSEUM HASSELT, TOP RIGHT 1867-1869, KENT STATE UNIVERSITY, CHILD’s Dress 1850-1855, Metropolitan museum of art)

Extant examples of blue print fabric from the mid-19th century (Top LEFT 1845-1850 MODE MUSEUM HASSELT, TOP RIGHT 1867-1869, KENT STATE UNIVERSITY, CHILD’s Dress 1850-1855, Metropolitan museum of art)

Time Traveling | 18th Century Summertime at Old Fort Wayne

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Just singing Hamilton on repeat, as we do.

Just singing Hamilton on repeat, as we do.

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Over the weekend me and my kids jumped back in time while visiting the Old Fort Wayne in my hometown in Northern Indiana. I found the event by chance so this costume wasn’t the result of long planning but I just love we looked as a little group (Adam was sick and couldn’t make it!). Let me tell you a little more about what we’re wearing!

My costume is mainly the result of pieces I had on hand and upcycling second hand fabrics. My jacket is made of an Indian print cotton that was a tunic I found at the thrift shop (see the project here). My skirt was a brighter blue thrift store fabric that I over dyed navy and ended up a pretty periwinkle. I attempted to coordinate it all with navy blue silk ribbon which I pinned at my bust and on my cap.

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Speaking of my enormous cap, it’s made big to fit with the hair. If you’re unfamiliar with the period, you’re probably wondering why go for the Martha Washington look, Jess? but frizzing and powdering one’s hair was quite stylish in the 18th century. I used the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty for both guidance on my hairstyle and my cap and bows. I wanna say something like ‘big hair, don’t care’, but the truth is I do care - I love it so much! I got my curls and volume with tiny sponge rollers and an overnight wet set, some hairspray and the powder is corn starch. No backcombing or cushions! I did use one hair piece in back (but it’s mainly so I had something to fill out my cap a bit and pin it onto.

My other accessories are a white cotton voile fichu made from leftover yardage from my Jane Austen project, white knee socks and my American Duchess buckle shoes. I carried a basket to hid my phone and camera!

My son is wearing the shirt, waistcoat and breeches from his Hamilton costume. Beatrix is in a simple cotton shift, very common for toddlers of the time, with a drawstring neckline and grow stripes at the hem. I didn’t use a pattern - just measurements and an hour of machine sewing!

I loved visiting the Old Fort when I was a child, so coming back as an adult was a lot of fun. All of the costumed interpreters were so nice - I always get nervous if I’m going to feel accepted into the group. I’ve been to events with really grumpy re-enactors and this was completely the opposite. I will definitely do events here with my family again in the future! You can even register to spend the night in the Fort and hello! I WOULD LOVE THAT! Let’s see if I can get Adam on board and cobble together enough of a kit for us to do an old timey overnight!

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Felix practices his beats with a toy drum we picked up from  samson historical .

Felix practices his beats with a toy drum we picked up from samson historical.

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Introducing | The Kirsten Project

My pleasant company edition of meet kirsten (1986, when it was just her, samantha and molly!) from childhood plus original outfit.

My pleasant company edition of meet kirsten (1986, when it was just her, samantha and molly!) from childhood plus original outfit.

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Over the course of the past year I’ve returned to one of my childhood passions with historic costumes. It was only after going to my first Jane Austen Festival did I remember how I spent so much of my early years wearing pioneer dresses, bonnets, aprons and petticoats. Anything historic was my jam, but especially the world of old fashioned clothes. I wore braids and lace up black boots to elementary school! I have memories of running through an apple orchard in my full kit and loving it so dearly.

A huge part of my introduction to history was through the American Girl Dolls, specifically Kirsten, who lived in the Midwest in 1854. You can read my whole story of how much this doll meant to me here as a background to the new project I am dying to tell you about today.


I’m calling it The Kirsten Project and it will be a multi-month exercise in creating a historically accurate mid 19th century costume from the inside out. The first book in the series, Meet Kirsten, will serve as my inspiration. I’m even going as far as designing fabric based on her dress and scaling it to the perfect adult size for me. Because Kirsten was an immigrant farmer’s daughter living in the Midwest, her ensemble won’t the same as fashion plates from Paris, but I’ll do my best to guess what that kind of woman would have worn and still embrace the spirit of the artwork from the Kirsten series. My plan for this project is to research and plan every layer - from chemises and petticoats, to a corset, hand knit socks, period footwear all the way to her signature spoon pocket and gingham bonnet. I’ll share photos and videos of my progress, just like I’ve done with past projects.

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Speaking of sharing… the other half of the experiment is a little crowd funding proposal. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to chip in whatever you can to watch the project unfold? I have a private instagram account I’ve set up exclusively for contributors. You can support the project with a one time donation and in any amount through my PayPal. Drop me a DM and I’ll approve your follow request! All of these funds will go towards the hefty expense of making a historical costume (buying patterns from independent designers, creating my own original fabric designs and having them printed, buying from mom and pop fabric stores, supporting women owned shoe companies, knitters, and more) and will make me feel supported as an artist (thank you thank you thank you!) Think of this like a one-on-one guided museum tour through an incredibly specific part of costume history.

If you can wait until the very end, look for the full project to land here. Otherwise, watch me in real time by supporting this project!

I can’t wait to create my own historically accurate adult version inspired by kirsten.

I can’t wait to create my own historically accurate adult version inspired by kirsten.

Jane Austen Festival 2019 at Locust Grove

This time I’m the one looking beyond the antique glass at the Promenade of festival goers below.

This time I’m the one looking beyond the antique glass at the Promenade of festival goers below.

It’s no secret how excited I get for costumed events and the Jane Austen Festival at Locust Grove in Louisville is like my Superbowl. Last year I went as an observer but this year, I went in costume and loved every single second of it. In the past year I’ve made so many new friends around the country and it was my first time meeting many of them in person. So many conversations started something like “I know you… but I don’t know you, but I know your instagram!” Thank God for social media and the good it can do in creating so many friendships for such a niche hobby.

For the sake of getting these photos up onto the blog, I’m not linking to each person’s blog or social media right away but if you see yourself and would like that - please let me know! I’ll update them as you contact me! And feel free to snag any image you want with a photo credit in your post (I’m @jessicajquirk on Instagram!)

I can’t wait to see all of my costuming babes next year at the Jane Austen Festival!

Sara and I pose for a photo - follow her  here  on Instagram.

Sara and I pose for a photo - follow her here on Instagram.

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Jenn and Jessica of  Penny River Costumes.

Jenn and Jessica of Penny River Costumes.

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Time Traveling | Jane Austen Festival circa 1810

Regency Gown 1810
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Regency Gown Back
Regency Gown 1810

It’s mid July which means it’s time for the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, KY! I went last year on a whim and it’s what sparked my interest in historical costume. Before this I’d made historically based costumes, but nothing very researched or accurate. Now that I’m in… I’m all in! You’ve seen my 1780s looks here and here, but let’s jump forward in time to the early 19th century! Let me tell you all about it!

Short Sleeved Gown

This dress is based on an extant gown from the Fashion Archives and Museum of Shippensburg University and was found in a family attic in Pennsylvania. Could you imagine finding something like that? I would lose my damn mind! The pattern for this dress is made by Fig Leaf Patterns and I actually tried this style on at last year’s festival, so I knew it would fit! My original plan for my Jane Austen dress ended up being a huge bust, but this style came together easily in a few days!

Shorter sleeves are typically an evening look, but knowing how hot it can be in Louisville, I decided I’m ok with wearing it for the daytime. Plus - THOSE SLEEVES! They’re the feature that drew me to the pattern in the first place and in a cotton batiste fabric, I think they’re perfect.

Under the gown I’m wearing my corded stays (which may skew a little later than 1810, but not by much), a regency style petticoat (which is almost like a short bodice attached to the skirt - otherwise it would be difficult to keep up at the empire waistline) and a chemisette (which was patterned from the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Fashion. It’s partly for modesty (strangers don’t need to see your cleavage, girl) and partly to keep the sun off your delicate skin. Interestingly, showing some skin is appropriate in the evening when amongst one’s peers. So for dinner I’ll take off the chemisette, change my hair, scarf and jewelry but wear the same dress.

Accessories

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All of my accessories are homemade, from my costume box or from the thrift store. I blocked and trimmed my hat (video here)using silk and velvet ribbons from Let’s Sew (which is my all time favorite fabric store in Evansville, IN) plus a faux snapdragon I had in my stash. The style isn’t an exact copy but I used fashion plates from the era to get inspiration. The necklace was something I made waaaay back in the day that I found in my basement! Ditto with the scarf - it was something I had on hand and has an Indian style print which was very popular in the early 19th century. My broach was 25 cents at a garage sale and my gloves are from the costume box. On my feet I’m wearing white ballet slippers, also a thrift shop find, but as we speak the paint is drying on another pair of flats that I may wear for the actual event.

One of my favorite accessories is my little pocket edition hardback book… which is actually my iPhone case! I made it myself by cutting out the interior of the book to fit my iPhone and Adam drilled a hole for me where the camera lens goes (which he actually did right after we took these photos, so there’s not an actual pic of that - sorry!) So now I can look like an accomplished lady reading in the shade of some great oak tree while I’m actually updating my instragam with photos from the day!

I’ve said this before, but there’s something about wearing historic garb that really makes me feel like me. I’ve always loved history and especially costume history and I cannot wait to spend the day with ladies and gentlemen who share the same passion. I’ve been corresponding with so many folks over the past few months that I get to meet in person tomorrow and although I’m a wee bit nervous, I’m also really excited. These are my people, this is my world. Let’s time travel, darling.

Regency Gown 1810
Regency Gown 1810