This Friday, more than 30 people will walk across the stage at the Newberry Opera House, showing off a variety of outfits. But the clothes won’t be cutting-edge haute couture or provocative skimpy lingerie. The models will show off a collection of painstakingly crafted, pinpoint accurate casual and formal wear from the 19th century — specifically the period from 1830 to 1870. And the people modeling the clothing made it themselves.
The theme for the 19th Century Fashion Show is a simple one: “I’m On My Way!”
Participants will be showing off the best in period beachwear, hiking attire, formal wear and sleepwear, all made from natural fibers like cotton.
The Friday offering is one of the key events at a three-day conference called Corsets & Cravats, a full slate of displays, lectures and workshops on just about any 19th century topic you can think of, from music and literature to bonnets and hand fans.
“Our focus is on the material culture of the 19th century,” says Rose Marie Favors, site coordinator and co-organizer of the Corsets & Cravats conference. “Material culture means art, literature, music, fashion, domestic skills like sewing or making jewelry or crafting leather goods, from 1830 to 1870.”
It might sound like a brief span of time, but Favors says there’s a lot of variation in those 40 years.
“That covers a broad range, particularly within the evolution of fashion,” she explains. “It’s about how the dresses fit, what the fabric of the period was, what was period-appropriate. It’s meant to be authentic and research-based and not just rely on assumptions and conjecture.”
Favors points to a couple of specific examples of errors that people commonly make about 19th century style.
“If you saw an authentic sea-bathing outfit, you’d learn it was OK if you saw women’s ankles,” she points out. “And the pictures we usually see are black-and-white or sepia, so we don’t realize what crazy colors they had back then.”
Authenticity is perhaps the most important mission for the 18-member volunteer staff of Corsets & Cravats, and those who visit the conference from around the country.
“It’s not just, ‘What did they wear?’” Favors says. “What did they think? What dishes did they use? What did they eat and drink? We’re an educational group that includes librarians, historians and costume designers. This is academics-based. We don’t call it a hobby. This is living history; we’re bringing history alive.”
So how does one become the co-organizer for such an event? For Favors, the roots of this began when her mother taught her how to sew as a child.
“I dropped it for a while and moved on as an adult,” she recalls. “But around 2007, I discovered a group of ladies who sewed, but not modern attire. And I reconnected to what I knew. Sewing is becoming a lost art, but there was a group of ladies in Gettysburg with an understanding of stitchery and construction, and it was exciting for me to learn about that.”
True to her experience, part of the point of Corsets & Cravats is to visually present what people may have only read about, hopefully strengthening their historical knowledge.
“You can read history, but it’s different when you make it come to life,” she reasons. “I learn by seeing. I remember better if I can see and do it. So when we’re wearing a pair of shoes that someone might have worn in 1850, people can look at them and you can talk about how precious those shoes were. We learn by watching how other people lived.”
And Favors adds that there’s scarcely a better place to show off historical fashion than a historical building like the Opera House.
“The Opera House stage is exactly what we need for the fashion show,” she says. “These people spend so much time on this clothing, it’s a real treat for them to be in the spotlight. I’ve lived here in Newberry for nine years, and there’s so much charm here and so many people who love history.”
But isn’t it hot wearing all that stuff in the South Carolina summer?
“All of these layers are natural fibers,” Favors says. “The other day, I was wearing three layers of cotton and a corset, and I caught a nice breeze. The cotton just breathed so well. I was cooler than the lady standing next to me wearing Spanx.”
What: Corsets & Cravats: 19th Century Fashion Show
Where: Newberry Opera House, 1201 McKibben St.
When: Friday, Aug. 2, 7 p.m.
More: 803-276-6264, newberryoperahouse.com