Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Angela Mombers of Walking Through History

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It is one thing to study fashion history, but it is another entirely to recreate and wear it. And yet that is the everyday reality for Walking Through History‘s Angela Mombers, whose impeccably-crafted, historically-based designs have captured the hearts and imaginations of fashion lovers the world over. From a 15th century Burgundian hennin to the regal attire of Queen Elizabeth I to an 1880s bustle gown, Angela’s portfolio spans the expanse of men and women’s fashion history, no historical dress too great for her to recreate for herself or the dashing Jasper. And recreate she does, with the highest level of skill and craftsmanship: each piece is painstakingly hand-finished, if not entirely hand sewn. The Art of Dress recently had the pleasure of interviewing Angela, who provided some insight into her passion for bringing fashion history to life.

 

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Left: Wool tapestry at the MET Museum, c. 1440-50, South Netherlandish. Right: c. 1450 reproduction of a hennin and c. 1500 gown by Angela Mombers.                                          Photograph by Jimmy Purimahuwa.

Why is the study of fashion history important to you? Historic clothing was made with the highest level of craftsmanship, that nowadays can only be found in couture. I love to study old paintings and (photos of) existing antique garments from museums, to see how garments are constructed and built up, what’s worn underneath, how it’s lined and interlined, how the clothing evolved through the years, which class is wearing which garments, materials, colors etc etc.

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Angela looks to primary source material when beginning a new project, such as this painting of Isabel de Bourbon, Queen of Spain, c. 1620.

And the more I learn about it, the more my hands are itching to reproduce all this beauty. Usually when I make a reconstruction of a garment, I already have an idea of what kind of garment this will be. I get my inspiration from paintings, visiting museums, reading books and seeing the work of other costume makers. Then I dive into the subject, trying to find anything I can on similar dresses, same period, same country, same class. I try to find images or paintings of the backside of garments, pictures of museum pieces, for example the V&A and Janet Arnold provide great images of the inner side of garments. I look for the similarities between all these images, what was common and clearly in fashion? After this I look for historical patterns of the dress. I usually work out several patterns, just because I am curious about the differences. If I can’t find any patterns, I draft them myself. When the patterns are ready I make one or several muslins, until I am happy about the fit and shape. Only after this (now usually 3 weeks have passed), I start cutting into the real fabrics.

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Angela often provides her followers with step-by-step instructions about how to recreate the pieces she makes, such as this 17th century ruff.

I use a lot of vintage and antique fabrics and trims. Old velvet curtains, antique laces, or I cut up vintage garments. Anything that looks authentic. I use the sewing machine for most inner and invisible seams. All visible stitches are usually done by hand. I also attach the trims and stitch the lining by hand. On average I spend about 2 months ( = c. 200 hours) on one costume. This is including the underwear and the accessories like hats, bags, collars and sashes.

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Angela in her c. 1620 Isabel de Bourbon costume. Photograph by Jimmy Purimahuwa.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Hmm art, it depends. I think some designers (I am not talking about modern clothing) definitely dared to step away from the usual designs and came up with new ideas that changed fashion forever, for example Paul Poiret. To me his work is art. But for most historic clothing I would rather talk about craftsmanship. Not sure if it can be called art. Like Worth, the craftsmanship in his designs is exceptional.

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Jasper posing with the character that inspired his costume. Painting by Bartholomeus van der Helst: “The Compagnie of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz. Blaeuw”, 1642 and in the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: My favorite eras are the 16th and 17th century. Unfortunately little is known about designers from these days. Some tailors are known, but not designers. So I would say, Charles Frederick Worth would be my favorite designer. His dresses possess and out of this world beauty.

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It took Angela almost three months to create this c. 1872 bustle gown, embroidered with one thousand hand-cut, hand-sewn beetle wings. Photograph by Erwin van den Eijkhof.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Definitely the books from Janet Arnold. They contain so much detailed information and on top of that patterns, so you can recreate the garments yourself. She wrote 4 books, each book covers an entire period (one book covers all info regarding smocks, collars, cuffs etc) and they are indispensable for anyone who is interested in the subject. For corsets I recommend the pattern book of Norah Waugh. This one is fantastic.

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Angela as Queen Elizabeth I. Photograph by Henk van Rijssen.

This is only a small sampling of Angela’s work, which you can find in more detail on Walking Through History’s Facebook and Instagram accounts: http://www.walkingthroughhistory.com  and http://www.instagram.com/walking_through_history. There you will find the process of each piece well-documented, from research to pattern making to sewing to photographs of the final garments!

Thank you for sharing your love and passion for fashion history with us Angela!

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Angela and Jasper as Philip I of Castille (Philip the Handsome, 1478-1506) and Joanna of Castile (Joanna the Mad, 1479-1555). Photograph by Rob van der Laan.

 

 

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