By Joy Kraft
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Dressing authentically for Tall Stacks, Wednesday through Sunday, is not just tossing a hoop skirt over your sassy curls and sashaying across the cobblestones.
First, a lady slips on a chemise, a loose, slip-like garment that may or may not have sleeves.
Then comes a pair of long, split drawers, the grandmother of the crotchless panty, sometimes with ruffled or trimmed edges in case they peek out.
After that, a corset is tied on with anywhere from 20 to 35 steel bones (originally whalebone) followed by layers of fluffy petticoats and a hoop skirt from 120 to 200 inches in diameter.
That's followed by an over-the-hoop petticoat and a bumper roll (or bum-roll) - a 3-inch rounded sausage-like piece that ties around the waist to raise the back of the skirt.
Finally, comes the icing on this crinoline cake - the dress.
All tied or with hook-and-eye closings. No zippers.
And we thought layering was a recent trend.
"Now you know why they needed ladies' maids to get dressed," says Joy Galbraith, owner of the Costume Gallery in Newport, which rents and custom-makes period costumes.
"You almost can't get into these clothes without help."
Hoop skirts the choice
The hoop skirt from the 1880s seems to be the choice for Tall Stacks' steamboat era (1811-1890s), though a few are opting for the bustle and brighter colors and plaids of the end of that era. And some are choosing saloon-girl outfits with full skirts, off-the-shoulder tops and corsets worn on the outside or late-frontier dresses. Volunteers' guidelines were pretty general advising dress appropriate to the mid-1800s.
"We get requests for more hoop skirt dresses than anything else," says Martha Buchanan of Buchanan Studios, a costume rental in Cheviot that has stitched up about 100 costumes for men and women since Tall Stacks started in 1988.
However, East Row Historic Foundation members in Newport, who will be opening their homes for tours this weekend, chose costumes in keeping with the year their homes were built, 1865-1910.
Mary Beth Crocker, owner of an 1865 Newport home, could have worn a hoop skirt dress for authenticity, but she opted for a bustled design instead.
"I had a dress made previously with an overskirt, one with ruching where the bustle poufs out." This year, she asked Carol Lee Peter of Blue Ash to make her a longer jacket to wear over it.
Most costume experts are betting Tall Stacks' characters take shortcuts underneath their rented or custom creations, opting for black leggings, opaque tights and flats instead of more authentic lace-up boots and stockings.
So don't be too surprised if you see a pair of period-imperfect Nikes peeking out, a horrifying sight to Porter, a stickler for period dressing detail who gave us the layering rundown.
"Most ladies, I wouldn't want to peek under their hoop skirts to see new-age stockings and bikini bottoms," laughs the seamstress, who learned dressmaking at the elbow of a pattern maker, Miss Flo, in Chicago 30 to 40 years ago.
"You have to walk that fine line between comfort and period correctness, which is hard to do," says Caren Young, owner of Cincinnati Costume Co. in University Heights with her husband, Jerry.
They have compromised by making dresses with fitted bodices without corsets underneath "so you get that fitted look without the authentic underwear," she says.
And the hoops, which can be as big as 120-200 inches in diameter, are being undercut as well.
"Those who have volunteered in the past are pretty aware that the really wide hoops are problematic on some of the boats," says Young.
They offer a modified 65-to-100-inch hoop petticoat that gives the dress a bell shape so "you're not as wide as a house," says Young.
Most women's costumes come with dress, a hoop slip, hat and gloves. Wigs, parasols, period shoes are also available.
"We've got it down to the look. They're not authentic to the skin but they look good in the pictures," says Young.
What the men choose
Men have fewer flashy options than the ladies.
"We're dressing men in frocks or cutaway coats," says Galbraith. "A few want to go more blue-collar with pants, shirts, vests, suspenders and a loosely constructed sack suit jacket." And there's always the riverboat gambler suit with string tie, brocade vest and wide-brimmed hat.
Civil War uniforms are popular as well, and the preference is evenly divided, according to Carol Torbeck, owner of Best of Both Worlds in Withamsville, though Galbraith says Kentucky people choose the gray and gold Confederate uniform and Ohio folks go for the Union blue.
"I try to steer men towards the traditional man's outfits. I feel you should know something about the war and uniform if you are going to wear it," says Galbraith.
"When people come in, I try to give them a little bit of social history ... what a lady would have worn and why ... like a woman coming in who wants to look like the wife of a riverboat captain. I try to give people tips, pretend they live on Fourth Street in downtown Cincinnati and you are walking to the riverboats so they have something to relate to and know why they are wearing their outfits."
Both Galbraith and Peter, who prides herself on her millinery, have a library of historic reference books, patterns, photo books and drawings to help folks choose their look.
Photographs are especially useful to Galbraith. "Photo books are nice because you can see the clothes on actual people instead of a drawing that might not be in realistic proportion."
Peter keeps her patterns and fabrics organized by decade and orders from reproduction houses, wholesale and commercial fabric houses or lets folks find their own if they have an idea. Galbraith's customers buy their own fabric with the help of her suggestions and swatches.
Costume shops have fabric requirements separate from authenticity. They need fabrics that will take some abuse and repeated wear.
"They have to be durable," says Torbeck . "We don't do silk for rental." And, although she buys taffetas, wools, failles from Chicago and New York, she's not above picking fabrics up at Wal-Mart if she spots something that would look good.
"Quilting shops are another good source," says Peter. "The important thing is to keep people away from Hollywood because they have been so wrong about things."
Custom costumes can take 12-20 hours to make, depending on the embellishments, and can cost from $150 on the low end to $1,800. Men's suits tend to be a bit higher because of the tailoring involved.
"Two of us can do a dress in six hours," says Peter. "But I've made dresses with more than 100 hours of just beading. It's very labor and time-intensive."
Both costume creators also make pieces sold separately - bonnets, aprons, little boys' caps, blouses, jackets and reticules, little matching handbags attached to dresses.
Because of October's unpredictable weather, custom and rental costumers suggest ladies add capes, shawls, jackets, stoles or cloaks to their throw-back look.
Some adjustments have to be made in the interest of staying warm riverside.
"A lot of people are trying to be as authentic as possible but still realistic," says Young.
"They want to be beautiful but not miserable when they're down there."
Historic homes tour
A dozen historic homes in Newport will open their doors for tours during Tall Stacks with costumed hosts and hostesses. The homes were selected by a neighborhood committee and reflect Victorian-era exterior architecture, ornate detailing, stained glass windows, pattern masonry and in some, reproduction wallpaper, gaslight fixtures and hand-painted ceilings and stenciling.
What: Historic Home Tour
Where: 12 homes in Newport *
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Tickets: $20 sold until 4 p.m. at George Weidemann Jr. Mansion, 401 Park Ave. Advance sales (866) 327-8769. 10 percent discount to Tall Stacks pinholders and groups of 10 or more.
Information: www.eastrow.org. Brochures available at Tall Stacks.
* No spike heels allowed in homes and some may not be wheelchair-accessible; free limousine service will make periodic stops through the tour route.
Where to rent
Though it is too late to get an authentic Tall Stacks costume made, there are several shops that rent. Be sure to ask what undergarments come with the costume and what accessories are included or available for an extra charge. Most shops require a deposit and offer special rates for Tall Stacks multiple-day rentals.
Best of Both Worlds, 1085 Ohio Pike, Withamsville, 753-6611.
Buchanan Studios, 3723 Harrison Ave., Cheviot, 481-7701.
Cincinnati Costume, 2724 McMicken, lower Clifton, 541-6803.
Costume Castle, A467 Wards Corner Road, Clermont County, 831-8121.
Costume Gallery, 638 Monmouth St., Newport, 655-9419.
Schenz Theatrical Supply, 2959 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington, 542-6100.
Talk of the Town, 9111 Reading Road, Reading, 563-8844.
Walk small: Women in the "old" days took smaller, more dainty steps than today's women. We may be in stride with the times but big steps make the hoop skirt swing like a bell chiming the hour. Mini ladylike steps are the rule, especially on the cobblestones at the riverfront.
Keep shoes in step with the period. Laced boots are probably best and Best of Both Worlds in Withamsville has some period shoes. Some will opt for dark flats. Comfy tennis shoes may be great on the cobblestones, but are a no-no to those toeing the period line.
Split drawers (the original "crotchless" panty) are authentic but many wear pantaloons, more like loose, long underwear some trimmed at the bottom in case they peek out. Most costume shops rent them as extras. But many women opt for leggings and tights instead for warmth, especially if it's chilly on the river.
Sitting pretty: Women in the 1880s didn't have to get in cars. But if you can't dress at the site, hike up your hoops and slide in sideways. To sit in a chair with a hoopskirt, sit perching between the hoop bands, pulling it up and push forward at the hip level.
Gloves and hats: Women wore both outdoors all the time. Men wore gloves outdoors as well. In the evening men even wore gloves when dancing, to avoid soiling their partner's dress, and ladies wore lace evening gloves to protect them from getting dirty. Bonnets were the hats of the day. For evening, fancier headgear was worn.
Glove etiquette: Keep them on when shaking hands, getting your hand kissed and ever-so-carefully sipping a drink, but take them off (at least the hand you use to eat with) for dinner.
Smoking in period dress is a no-no. Go behind the barn, dearie.
Make-up: Keep it pale and understated. Joy Galbraith of the Costume Gallery in Newport recommends doing the eyebrows, "very soft eyes" and mascara.
Canes: A fashion item, and sometimes a defense mechanism, most men carried some kind of walking stick or cane, some gold-headed. They were measured from a man's hand to the ground at the time. Don't wield it like a sword or strut like a bandleader. Just carry it loosely and keep it below the waist.
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