Group brings life to Victorian style

Costumes: An Ellicott City sewing circle will share its obsession in a fashion show and tea.

February 10, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

For a certain kind of modern woman, 19th-century America meant beautiful dresses, afternoon teas, courtly manners and an easier, more relaxed way of living.

Back then, getting dressed was a pleasurable ordeal -- tight corsets, long pantalets, heavy hoop skirts and gowns -- something straight out of the "Gone With the Wind" fashion handbook.

Scarlett O'Hara might have been only a fictional character, but today's woman can dream.

For a few Howard County women, playing dress-up is an all-consuming passion.

Once or twice a month, members of Almira's Polite Society meet to form a sewing circle and make authentic reproductions of garments that were worn in Maryland during the mid-1800s.

On Sunday, the women will hold an afternoon tea and fashion show in the Victorian parlors of Mount Ida, the former home of the Ellicott family built in the historic district of Ellicott City. The annual event is part of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park's calendar and is a popular attraction.

Each dress that will be featured in the fashion show has been painstakingly handmade, and every attempt has been made to find and follow garment patterns that are true to the time.

"This is a hobby, but it's a really weird hobby, I admit," says Ellicott City resident Cindy Hirshberg as she works furiously to finish the long-sleeved, eggplant-colored dress that she'll wear during Sunday's fashion show. "I get so enthusiastic about this stuff, and I put so much effort into looking back 150 years to see what life was like then. I really love it."

Adele Air, another member of Almira's Polite Society -- named after Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, a well-known educator of the time and the principal of the Patapsco Female Institute from 1841 until 1856 -- has been making Civil War-era clothes for years and says the practice is addictive.

"The clothes are so beautiful. They really take on a life of their own, and they don't seem like costumes," says Air, 44, who lives in Middletown, Frederick County. "Sewing seems to be a dying thing and it takes time.

"Everything is so fast nowadays," Air says. "You've got to check the telephone and e-mail. It's a crazy era. I love this time period because it was a slower time and people showed consideration to one another."

Some members of the sewing circle have never darned a pair of socks, much less made a dress with all the trappings. These aren't just any dresses -- they're authentic reproductions of day and evening dresses that were handmade by women of the time.

Long before the days of sewing machines, women spent hours embroidering, pleating, mending, lacing and measuring their garments, which were expected to last for years.

"Because of the manufacturing practices in the 19th century, we can't always match the clothes exactly, but we do the best that we can," Air says.

For Amy Evseeff, 46, a pharmacist who lives in Ellicott City, making her day dress from the 1850s meant learning more about Victorian-era Maryland.

"I've always been interested in the time period -- how homes were decorated, the clothing and the customs," she says. "This is a really nice way for ladies to come together and enjoy a custom that was popular at that time in history."

First look

The first time Air dressed in her Civil War-era finery, she looked in the mirror and acknowledges she was pretty impressed.

"Well, I don't want that to sound conceited, but I thought I'd done a pretty great job with my dress and that it had turned out very nicely. I was thrilled," Air says.

Hirshberg describes herself as "hot stuff" in her corset, petticoat, bloomers, under-dress and pleated day dress with the lace collar. "The dresses back then were very feminine and you get a lot of attention," she says. "You also get a wide berth."

In the three years they've been getting together, the members of the sewing circle have become good friends. They help each other with their costumes, attend Civil War re-enactments throughout the region, and discuss local history and lore.

Hirshberg acknowledges being "obsessed" with the history of the area. "I'm really interested in finding out the tidbits of information about the community at this time and the important people of the day."

Foods of the era

Hirshberg and Air also scour the Internet and bookstores for cookbooks that feature American recipes from the mid-19th century. After a bit of research, they determined that a few minor adjustments should be made to some of the cakes, cookies and confections of the time.

"Some of the earlier recipes weren't very palatable," Air says, laughing. "When things start calling for a cup of brandy, a half-cup of nutmeg and that kind of thing, I figured it'd be better to alter it a little bit."

Sunday's tea will feature cucumber sandwiches, salmon pate with caviar on homemade crackers, lemon cookies, poundcake, walnut shortbread and scones with rose geranium butter.

Hirshberg says she still gets a chuckle out of her hobby.

"If anyone had told me that I'd be wearing hoop skirts and a corset, I'd have told them to seek professional help," Hirshberg says. "But it's a lot of fun to do with friends."

Victorian tea and 19th-century fashion show, featuring clothing of the 1840s, '50s and '60s, will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at Mount Ida Visitor Center, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Historic Ellicott City. Tickets are $15. Reservations: 410-461-8500.

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