Being Sophia Thoreau

My fingers took an extended break from sewing today – not necessarily planned, but that was the end result! So instead of an update on the 1830 stays, I though I’d reach further into the past and pull some photos and details on a long-ago-completed 19th century project. Behold the Sophia Thoreau 1845ish gown…

Huge thanks to fabulous J.S. for taking the photo... and then letting me steal a copy!

Huge thanks to fabulous J.S. for taking the photo… and then letting me steal a copy!

Title page of Henry D. Thoreau, Walden; or life in the woods, 1854, showing Thoreau's hut at Walden Pond, Massachusetts at the Library of Congress

Title page of Henry D. Thoreau’s Walden; or life in the woods, 1854, showing Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond, Massachusetts at the Library of Congress

Umm, yeah… so she probably wasn’t quite as pouty! For those that don’t recognize the name, Sophia Thoreau was the youngest sister of 19th century transcendentalist and author Henry David Thoreau of nearby Concord, Massachusetts. You know – the guy that wrote Walden and Civil Disobedience and made lots of people think it was noble to go off and live in the woods by himself  to simplify and be closer to nature for a year or two. (I’m not a huge fan of Henry, in care you didn’t pick up on the sarcasm.)

Fondness aside, back in 1999 or 2000, I happened to be working for a museum in Henry & Sophia’s hometown. R.S., one of my then-colleagues was (and I believe still is) a magnificent living historian who particularly excelled at bringing dear ol’ Henry to life. Somehow or other I was convinced to portray sister Sophia during a 30 minute performance/afternoon tea at the museum – along with my friend as Henry and another colleague portraying a third local personality that I can’t remember. (I do remember which co-worker she was – just not who she was acting as.)

Sad to say, the totality of what I recall about Sophia is that she was Henry’s sister, apparently idolized him, sometimes brought him meals to his cabin near the pond, helped do his laundry when he brought it home, and perhaps most notably, is especially responsible for making his name a household one by driving the continued publication of his books and essays after his death. At least that’s how I remember it… Wikipedia and local museums may differ on that subject so feel free to do your own research ;o) I’m pretty sure I didn’t allude to any of those ideas while I was pretending to be her, but after 15 years I’m a bit fuzzy on what I actually did say!

Lucky for me, I haven’t changed size too much since then, so the pictures presented here are far more recent – taken at the 2013 Dress University in eastern Pennsylvania.  The dress itself is a loose copy of one from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion and was made up in a woven black and white plaid with a heavier white cotton as the bodice foundation.

I mentioned it's a loose copy, right? Apparently I never added the sleeve frills or the center front placket. Oops!

I mentioned it’s a loose copy, right? Apparently I never added the sleeve frills or the center front placket. Oops!

The pleated detail on the front was created on pieces of pink medium-weight linen. I didn’t originally make it to fit over stays/corset, but it looks much better when I do. The bodice is also a bit too long, but one thing I do remember is cartridge pleating the entire skirt waist too the bodice…. and I’d need a REALLY good reason to do that over again.

Another shot courtesy of J.S. Thanks!!

Another shot courtesy of J.S. Thanks J!!

The shoulders and front pleating don’t fall exactly where I would like them to but an artfully arranged shawl does a great job of camouflaging decade and half old costuming sins. All in all it’s a nice piece to have on hand in the closet for the odd early Victorian event or as a loaner costume!

On a side note… this makes me really miss the Dress U. crowd, classes, and events! Here’s hoping that 2015 is the year plans start getting made for another east coast costume conference!

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