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Sew cool: Catching up with the ‘Couture Courtesan’

Samantha Bullat in an 1807 ensemble (Courtesy of Samantha Bullat/The Couture Courtesan)

One of our most popular presentations each year is our talk on Regency fashion, and this year should be no different. Samantha Bullat, a tailor for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., will discuss Gothic fashion. We chatted with her about historical costuming.

Tell us a little about yourself. I research and create historical clothing from the 17th and 18th centuries for our historical interpreters [for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation]. I also do freelance work for other museums or historic sites that need historic clothing. When I’m not sewing for others, I make historical clothing for myself for living history and educational events, anywhere from the 16th to early 20th centuries. In summer of 2012 I served an internship at the Margaret Hunter millinery shop at Colonial Williamsburg, which I feel was instrumental in shaping how I approach researching and making historic clothing. I also have an online presence, The Couture Courtesan, and have had so many wonderful opportunities and connections come from it.

What made you get into historical costuming? As a child, I adored American Girl dolls and “Little House on the Prairie,” and begged my parents to take me to Renaissance fairs and historical sites. My grandmother taught me the basics of sewing, but I started getting into historical costuming on my own when I realized it would be much more affordable to make all of the beautiful clothing I wanted than buy it (especially on a young teen’s allowance!).

Bullat in an American Girls-inspired Felicity Christmas grown (Courtesy of Samantha Bullat/The Couture Courtesan)

Which historical period is the most challenging to create a piece or outfit for? So far I have found that the most challenging period that I have done is the one I spend the most time working with: the early 17th century. Part of what makes it so challenging is the lack of surviving garments, especially women’s garments, and those of us who try to re-create historical clothing as accurately as possible rely on surviving garments, art, and written records to inform the decisions we make. Without a wealth of documentation, it’s harder to confidently say, This is how it was done, so you have to be able to move forward with what is available at the time, knowing that new research may come along in a few years and completely change your understanding of something.

At JASP you’ll be discussing Gothic fashion. Can you talk a little about what makes Gothic fashion different from general fashion of the time? The Gothic period is just beginning at the time of “Northanger Abbey” and “Frankenstein,” but its influence can be seen in fashions of the period. Gothic art and literature took inspiration from the past, particularly the medieval period, and these elements appear in fashionable dress. In the 19th century, Gothic influence in fashion does not necessarily mean wearing all black like it does today, but the death of the beloved Princess Charlotte in 1817 plunged the nation of Britain into mourning, and magazines featured many suggestions for mourning dress.

Do you have a go-to resource that you consult whenever you have a question about historical fashion or a project you’re working on? That really depends on what period I’m working on! Recently, I’ve been consulting “17th-Century Dress Patterns for Women, Vol. 1 and 2,” and “17th-Century Dress Patterns for Men.” These books are very recently published and an absolute godsend for those re-creating early-17th-century clothing. Original garments were carefully studied and re-created, with the whole process documented in the books, including patterns and sometimes X-rays of the garments.

What advice do you have for participants attending our ball for the first time? Ladies should try to be unencumbered when they are dancing, for their sake as well as the sake of their partner. That means leave your shawl, fan or reticule with a friend or at your table. It’s also quite difficult for everyone involved if you are trying to dance in a gown with a train. Gowns for dancing usually have quite short skirts for ease and lightness of movement.


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