Tour Through the Closet of a 19th Century Lady
If you were ever a schoolchild in Saskatoon, you may have toured the Marr Residence. Located at 326 11th Street East ever since it was built in 1884, the Marr is the oldest unmoved house in the city and, since 1979 when it was restored by the City of Saskatoon, it has served as a time capsule of late 19th Century domestic life. Throughout the year, the Marr hosts special immersive events, one of which is a historical romp through the period's wardrobe with an optional participation component for Victorian sewing enthusiasts. This event is hosted on three dates (one past, the next two being Sundays May 3 & May 31) by seamstress extraordinaire and my own high school alum, Taran Meyer... whom I promptly messaged for a little behind the scenes tour. So join me wherever you are, Reader, on this trip back in time.
Photos by Boehmer Photography.
Photographer and OCM'er Tammy Boehmer and I met up with Taran at the Marr Residence as she set up for the day alongside her mama, Dianne Wilson, a long-time Board Member for the Marr. The house felt more alive than I expected, as though people from that time period could easily still be living there and just happen to be upstairs. Scroll through the photos above to get a sense of the ambiance.
Having an actual room for a closet in my home, my set-up wouldn't have been a typical one for a lady in the late 1800s. Back then, you'd have very few outfits, but each would consist of a multitude of parts. First, one would don a chemise to absorb perspiration. Contrary to what I consider to be a "chemise" now (a blouse), it was actually a linen slip. The one above, beneath the corset, is a reproduction but follows an original pattern. And if you can believe it, that ENTIRE OUTFIT was made by Taran herself. Click here to check out Taran's blog on that sewing journey.
Shapely derrieres were still in vogue in the late 19th Century, and this fanny pack-like bum pad (or as I like to think of it, the original Booty Pop) were worn over the chemise and underneath the skirt or dress. The evolution of the desired silhouette of each era is interesting, and Taran simplified it for me: "The 1880s were all about the bustle and the '90s were all about poofy shoulders." Arguably, this equation is kinda like the '80s and '90s most of us remember. ;)
But I'm skipping ahead a bit in your outfitting. Let's go beneath that chemise and discuss the other bit of your outfit you'd need to wash: your drawers. Because laundry was far more complicated back then, requiring well water, elbow grease, and a ringer, you'd wash only what was needed. And that meant your chemise, and your drawers. Drawers were your undergarments and although they seem terribly unsexy compared to the panties we buy now, they were often crotchless. So beat that, Victoria's Secret. (Okay, the crotchless design may have been more of a convenience factor for outhouse use, but it's still hilarious.) Above, Dianne holds up a pair of drawers in all their crotch-free glory!
Accessories were important, too. Yes, gloves, but more important: stockings! Gusseted nylons weren't available yet, but gartered stockings were all the rage.
Shoedazzle didn't exist back then, of course, so footwear collections were rather sparse. Taran estimated that a woman would have about four pairs of shoes: everyday heeled boots, a spool heeled boot (far right), a warmer pair for the winter (perhaps these would have been mukluks), and if she were wealthier, she'd have a pair of white canvas shoes to go with her tea dress.
Back then, boots often had spats overtop, which made for more protection and warmth. We all agreed it's time spats make their comeback. They change the style of a single pair of boots so dramatically, Taran joked that you could just have one base pair of boots and fifteen spats!
Of course, no Victorian lady went anywhere without a hat! (Think Anne of Green Gables.)
And when it came to dresses, they were truly fine. It's not a wonder women only had a few pieces in their closets-- the handiwork of sewing each lining and detail was clearly painstaking. Scroll through the above gallery to see some detail.
So how did Taran get into the world of Victorian style and how did this exhibit at the Marr Residence come to be? Well, before I'd heard of this interactive exhibition, I was following Taran's sewing escapades on Instagram so I knew she'd been experimenting with vintage patterns. But her love of sewing began even before dial-up modems, when she used to make Medieval fantasy clothes for her Barbie dolls (stealing swords from her brother's toy stash). Next up in her sewing life came costumes, including those for belly dance. And then, when Taran had worn her mother's Hudson Bay blanket coat to death, her first big everyday-wear project was the coat pictured above-- two years in the making including research, design, and other practice projects.
After the coat, Taran was inspired to research more Victorian sewing and it turned out there's a world of enthusiasts out there that she could connect with (American Duchess has been a great online tool for her). Using vintage patterns, she played with pintucks and lace and all things of that period, and eventually, she'd made that amazing corset, drawers, and chemise you saw at the beginning of this post. And being that her mama Dianne has been involved in the Marr Residence for years, it was a natural progression for Taran to host this interactive exhibit.
I encourage you to go see these beautiful pieces in real life, set in their historically-accurate home of the late 19th Century. And if you're a sewer, get immersed in the fun! The Marr Residence offers many other interesting hands-on activities throughout the summer including a laundry day, so be sure to check out their schedule on a regular basis. And do check out Taran's sewing blog to follow her journey in creating.
Thanks so much to Taran Meyer and her mama Dianne Wilson for hosting Tammy and I, and to Tammy herself of Boehmer Photography for collaborating with me. I'm sure you'll agree that her photos captured the spirit of the time period perfectly. And if you live in Saskatoon, I encourage you to explore the historical clothing of the late 19th Century for yourself: May 3rd and 31st from 1-4.