Friday, 17 May 2013

Cravat Research

The next Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is "Literature". You have to sew something from a book, play, or poem, or make something that you imagine your favorite literary character would wear. Choosing a project for this one was extremely difficult since the options are pretty much endless. I settled on a cravat mentioned in an Edgar Allan Poe story.

The story, "The Unparalleled Adventure Of One Hans Pfaall", is about a man who goes to the moon in a balloon. It begins with an odd little being, supposedly a man from the moon, delivering a letter to a large crowd in Rotterdam. The letter is from a man named Hans Pfaall and contains a ridiculous narrative explaining how he killed three men, who had been harassing him for quite some time, and traveled to the moon. He finishes the letter by saying that he has been living on the moon for the past 5 years and asks to be pardoned for his crimes. The story itself ends with several notes saying that Hans does not deserve a pardon and that the whole story is obviously a hoax. It was published in 1835.

There is a fantastic costume description near the beginning of the story, it's not the one I'm using for this challenge, but I'm including it all the same because the "very singular somebody" also wears a cravat.

"This was in truth a very singular somebody.  He could not have been more than two feet in height; but this altitude, little as it was, would have been sufficient to destroy his equilibrium, and tilt him over the edge of his tiny car, but for the intervention of a circular rim reaching as high as the breast, and rigged on to the cords of the balloon.  The body of the little man was more than proportionally broad, giving to his entire figure a rotundity highly absurd.  His feet, of course, could not be seen at all.  His hands were enormously large.  His hair was gray, and collected into a queue behind.  His nose was prodigiously long, crooked and inflammatory; his eyes full, brilliant, and acute; his chin and cheeks, although wrinkled with age, were broad, puffy, and double; but of ears of any kind or character there was not a semblance to be discovered upon any portion of his head.  This odd little gentleman was dressed in a loose surtout of sky-blue satin, with tight breeches to match, fastened with silver buckles at the knees.  His vest was of some bright yellow material; a white taffety cap was set jauntily on one side of his head; and, to complete his equipment, a blood-red silk handkerchief enveloped his throat, and fell down, in a dainty manner, upon his bosom, in a fantastic bow-knot of super-eminent dimensions."

Someday I will make a blood-red silk handkerchief that is big enough to tie in a fantastic bow-knot of super-eminent dimensions, but; seeing as that will require dyeing silk, and the challenge is due in 3 days, and I have never made anything out of fine silk before, I will start with making the cravat of Hans Pfaall. Which isn't described, but rather, is put to use as a makeshift rope.

"Having, as I thought, sufficiently collected my ideas, I now, with great caution and deliberation, put my hands behind my back, and unfastened the large iron buckle which belonged to the waistband of my pantaloons.  This buckle had three teeth, which, being somewhat rusty, turned with great difficulty on their axis.  I brought them, however, after some trouble, at right angles to the body of the buckle, and was glad to find them remain firm in that position.  Holding within my teeth the instrument thus obtained, I now proceeded to untie the knot of my cravat.  I had to rest several times before I could accomplish this manœuvre; but it was at length accomplished.  To one end of the cravat I then made fast the buckle, and the other end I tied, for greater security, tightly around my wrist.  Drawing now my body upwards, with a prodigious exertion of muscular force, I succeeded, at the very first trial, in throwing the buckle over the car, and entangling it, as I had anticipated, in the circular rim of the wicker-work."

The cravat must be quite long if he's using it as a rope. Every picture of an 19th century man I have ever seen shows the cravat wrapped twice around the neck, which would also require a long piece of cloth.
Here's an 1830's cravat from the Kyoto Costume Institute. It's wrapped twice around the neck and, judging from the bulky part in the middle, appears to be either a rolled up square or a triangle.
Source (You can't drag pictures off their site so I had to take a screen shot, I hope I didn't break any laws.)
Edgar Allan Poe's cravat is from the 1840's but it still looks a lot like the 30's one, although it is knotted in a different way.
Edgar Allan Poe in 1848 (source)
The small, pointy corners of the cravat also support the idea that it is a rolled up square or triangle.
 So do these two cravats from The Met. The website says they're from the mid 19th century, which seems about right, although their dating is not to be trusted.
 That looks like a folded up triangle.

Aha! Fold marks! This one looks like a triangle too, if it were a square the other half would probably be visible through the weave. It could be a square that's only half unrolled, I just can't see what's going on. What the heck is it doing draped around a mannequin like that anyways? And why are both cravats pink, white, and tan?

While I don't have solid evidence for this conclusion, I think that some cravats are triangles rolled up from one corner, while others are squares folded in half diagonally and rolled up from one corner. The two linen ones from the Met appear to be triangular, while the bulk in the front of the silk one from the KCI suggests that it is a square.
This makes sense, seeing as fine silk is less bulky than fine linen. I am making mine out of silk, so it shall be a square.
Hans does not mention the colour of his cravat, but the vast majority of cravats of this era, as seen in portraits and fashion plates, are white.
Francois-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of a Man, 1809 (source)
Yes, this one is from 26 years before the story was published, but I have looked at a lot of fashion plates from the 1800's to the 1830's and the cravats hardly changed at all during that time. The only difference was that colours other than white began to pop up towards the 1840's, but, for the most part they were white and tied in little bows.

I'm off to sew a cravat now, which hopefully shall be completed by Monday.


  1. I'll wait to see the cravat. That should be your easiest project yet.

    1. Thank you. But the cravat is actually proving quite difficult, I've hemmed one side of the square already and the silk is terribly thin and slippery. The hem is really wobbly, even though I went very slowly and carefully. Honestly, I'd say the stays were easier.