Travelling in Costume — at Christmas!

This blog, as you will notice from the header, is supposed to be about writing and travel. That’s been challenging over the last few years due to Covid restrictions. Especially in Australia, some parts particularly, we’ve been very limited in travel, or even leaving the house. It’s been very isolating.

Choir rehearsal by Zoom, during the beginning of lockdown in June 2021.
The background is from our travels in Greece in 2018.

I’ve been busy writing, I published two group anthologies while Sydney was in lockdown from late June 2021 to early October 2021, when there was ‘early release’ for those who have been double-vaccinated. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of the government directives. It just is, and merely sets the scene for what now follows.

I love to sing. I especially love close harmony, but that becomes increasingly challenging when ‘close’ conflicts with the need for social distance. I belong to two choirs which each give me something different, musically. One sings modern arrangements in a barbershop style while the other performs music from past centuries in multiple languages.

I’ve written earlier about my links with historical clothing. When we went into the latest, longest lockdown in Sydney, it was just after my attendance at Blacktown Medieval Fayre. I felt dissatisfied with my attempt at costume and resolved to do more. I wrote about this in Down the Rabbit Hole. https://wordpress.com/post/helenjarmstrong.home.blog/1529

First I repaired the medieval clothing of other family members who are regular historical reenactors. That gave me the confidence to try more.

Dressing/road-testing the new kirtle, about to go for a short walk in the neighbourhood.
St Birgitte coif. The band is sewn from an old, torn chambray shirt.
The coif, being worn. It hides a multitude of hair-colouring sins.

During the early part of the lockdown, I hand-sewed a 13th century kirtle (think, Maid Marian). Then I think I went a bit crazy. I had some old, worn fitted sheets with ‘dead’ elastic. I spread them out on the lawn in a desperate attempt to keep involved with life and hopefully say hi to any passing jogger. Cutting out fabric, I hand-sewed several chemises, learning more in the process. A coif or two as well, using an old torn shirt and a ripped sheet. I found myself binge-watching historical videos and clothing history sewing videos while I stitched. As I adapted the discarded fabric in my life, I channelled my inner Scarlett o’Hara (remember those green velvet curtains at Tara?). One way or another, as God was my witness, I would never be costume-less again.

Ready to cut.

As we began to come out of lockdown, our Renaissance choir (ROH Ensemble) was able to rehearse once more (under very strict conditions). I showed photos of what I had been making, and sat at rehearsal finishing the hand-stitching on another St Birgitte coif.

“Would you make me a ruff?” one male chorister asked.

I thought about it. That would be stretching my skills. “I’ll have to find out more,” I told him.

More binge-watching. The information was frustratingly scarce. The process seemed frustratingly tedious and painstaking. The more I studied, the more I realised that ruffs, while worn by ‘ordinary folk’, were very much a status symbol because of the effort (and therefore expense) involved in their making.

ROH Ensemble rehearsing as lockdown eased. (Cheat pic – taken back in February 2021)

I was determined to try, however. One video looked more useful.

The first day we were allowed to leave our local government area, we went to visit our daughter. She gave me an old cot sheet which I carefully unpicked. “While you’re sewing costumes,” she remarked, “Master Six wants to be able to dress up as a Tudor prince.”

Okay, another request for a ruff. And a Tudor cap. My to-do list was rapidly growing.

I visited a neighbour with whom I do a lot of community sewing. In her basement I rapidly machine-sewed a number of quick projects. Using her rotary cutter and very careful measurement, I cut the old cot sheet into as many lengths of 10-cm-wide strips as I could, then carefully machine-hemmed one side. The video had said there was no need to hem the other side. I’ve since found this is bad advice…

Learning by doing. Some videos were more helpful than others…
Sewing the ruffles to the neck band. That raw edge was a bad fraying problem, it needs to be all done again.
Finished ruff. For now… that curve is because I had to sew it to the band at an angle, because of the fraying.

As Bernadette Banner (noted dress historian and prolific YouTuber) so often says, “there is no such thing as true historical accuracy.” All we can do is study the past and try to extrapolate how it was done, and hope we can get as close as possible.

Back at home I sat and hand-stitched some more. I developed a technique of hand-stitching a ruff that let me carry it around in my pocket, so I could take it out and sew a little more wherever I was. I was almost manic in my zeal, when our choir director told us that we had two gigs in the city. We needed costumes! She was determined to improve the historical accuracy and the look of how the choir presented.

In our Renaissance choir, the look is very individual. We do not look like each other. Often, we’re not always from the same time period, our brief is medieval and Renaissance. I had originally planned for my own costume to be 13th century, but now I was sewing a ruff, that put my costume in the Elizabethan period. Late Tudor.

At my neighbour’s place again, I raided her stash of upholstery samples and made some pockets. These were worn in medieval and Tudor times either under an over-dress or on the outside. When you hear the child’s nursery rhyme, “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it”, it is referring to these old-style pockets which tied around the waist. According to reports, some women would even carry live chickens to market in their pockets. I figured I could use one to carry my medieval mobile phone and my medieval Opal card (public transport card). I sewed a couple more for other women in the choir.

I went shopping. Cautiously, wearing my mask and keeping my distance. Maybe I could make another dress… then I saw some lace, and some braid. I scurried home with my treasures. And did more sewing.

Kirtle with braid – it took exactly six metres. Trying to turn a 13th century costume into something that COULD be 16th century.

Another friend bought himself a new costume. There was nothing wrong with the old one, but he wanted a change. Unfortunately, it needed work. So that pulled me away. He also needed a Tudor cap, and in my fabric stash I found some royal blue corduroy and fuschia taffeta. An old music folder contributed some stiffening for the brim. It was brilliant. Sadly, too small (hopefully, it will fit Tudor-prince-loving grandson). So I started over, using two layers of plastic drawer liner as stiffener. This time — too big.

The lining and the outer layer — these are the same. We just tuck one inside the other and stitch together.
The stiffened brim of a Tudor cap.
Finished Tudor cap. This first one (too small) had to be finished in green bias binding,
I was only able to use what I had in he house. No shopping permitted.

My other choir, Endeavour Harmony Chorus, was also booked to perform in the city, on the first night of the Sydney City Christmas program, which was very exciting. Getting the costumes organised was a lot easier for a choir where everyone dresses the same. The City of Sydney was providing t-shirts for us.

Endeavour Harmony Chorus performing Christmas carols by the Martin Place Christmas tree.

The City of Sydney also offered t-shirts to ROH Ensemble but our director graciously declined. It would have looked so wrong with a ruff.

Ready to travel, in costume. My character back-story is seamstress. Of course!
Costumed and masked on the train to Martin Place in the centre of Sydney.

On the day our Renaissance choir performed Christmas carols in the city, we did our best to travel in as a group. With Covid restrictions still in place, there was nowhere sufficient, or with enough time, for us to fully change into our costumes so we travelled in to the city by train already in medieval and Renaissance costume. People were carefully not looking at us.

On Sydney’s public transport we still need to wear masks. Next to the performance area a hotel gave access to two toilet cubicles and a warm-up space. The hotel required QR check-in, proof of double vaccination and masks. But as performers, we also needed to put on some make-up. Masks make a big mess with lipstick, especially.

We managed. We managed it well, I think.

ROH Ensemble Choir at the big Christmas tree in Martin Place, Sydney. December 2021.
Post performance. Will the rain hold off? Note the pocket. I also carried my musical instrument in there.

Endeavour Harmony Chorus has now performed twice this year in this Christmas tree space, and each choir has one more performance to go in the city. It’s been exciting, challenging (fitting in song sets in between the large city clock striking every quarter hour, and an over-enthusiastic programming of the giant musical Christmas tree). On our next Renaissance performance, apparently a nearby cathedral has brought in bell-ringers from around the state, and they will be enthusiastically pealing bells while we sing of Christmas. In costume.

It’s different. But it’s wonderful to sing again, and to be out and about. What a Christmas gift!

After our next performance in Renaissance costume, I’m taking the ruff apart. It needs more work to ‘floof’ it out a bit more. However, each time I do something or make something, I get better.

Tired after a busy day. Returning home on the train. The ruff didn’t come through too badly, but it needs more work.

I have a long way to go, but it will be a fun time getting there!

Last night one of the other sewer choristers gave me three boxes of fabric for costumes… *sigh*

An old doona cover. I’m thinking maybe red underskirt, brocade overskirt and boned brocade stomacher…

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