These Three Women Are Obsessed With Historical Dressing And The Meaning Behind The Clothes.

by Leah Franqui

Meet three extraordinary women who have become time travelers, not with a hot tub, but with a needle and thread. By meticulously recreating and wearing historical clothing, they’ve discovered hidden secrets about women’s daily lives 

Dressing up in 1970s vintage clothing is one thing—but wearing an outfit that’s vintage 1870s is an entirely different story. That’s because, for centuries, most of the world had their clothing made at home, often sewn by the women of the family. Only the very privileged could have their garments made for them by tailors, and even ready-to-wear garments, which were a late-19th-century invention, remained a luxury until fairly recently. So, to dress like it’s the 1870s, you’d need to be able to sew like they did in the 1870s—and before.

Surprisingly, that’s exactly what a growing number of contemporary seamstresses are doing. While sewing skills are no longer a necessity, and some feminist movements of the 20th century even discounted tasks like sewing as menial drudgework, many find making clothing to be an empowering act. It also opens a portal to infinite fantasy worlds, allowing stitchers to time travel to Regency Bath, medieval China, the antebellum American South, and everywhere in between. These days, scores of people, mostly women, spend their free time researching and reconstructing garments from other eras, meticulously tea-dying linen and felting wool to achieve as much historical accuracy as possible, and sharing their creations with others via videos and social media. 

Here, we spotlight three super-talented creators who are making historical garments to confront and interrogate the past, exploring the experiences of women from inside the very clothing they might have worn. By sewing and wearing historic garments, they are able to investigate the stories of women who are often viewed as a faceless, nameless mass, rather than as individuals. Their garments center women’s experiences in literal, tactile ways, giving us all a deeper sense of their lives through time. After all, women may have been written out of history, but with historians like these at the helm, there is no reason they can’t be woven and stitched back in. 


Vi’s medieval maiden look 
 Image courtesy of Vi

“Fashion is often dismissed as frivolous, meaningless, and only something you’d be interested in if you aren’t smart enough for other topics,” says historic and contemporary costume maker Vi. “But when you go back into the social history of clothing, it was a huge deal. [Clothing] changed the world. It touched everyone’s lives. There is such a significance to it, if you are willing to look at it as something meaningful.”

A California-based hairdresser who engages in experimental archeology as a part of her hobby, Vi, who prefers not to use her last name publicly, creates historic reproductions of women’s garments as a way to explore and understand women of the past. “You’re trying to understand every aspect of something better by experiencing it, rather than just looking at it from a distance,” she explains. “You want to put yourself in that person’s shoes and in their mindset and feel what the material is like in your hands.” 

Vi learned the basics of sewing as a child, but the craft was confined to hemming pants and taking in waistlines. Then her adult interest in sci-fi conventions led her to costume sewing, and her deep curiosity and commitment to contextualizing historic garments in videos garnered her close to 90,000 YouTube followers (she posts under @SnappyDragon). Creating clothing, especially the kind Jewish women would have worn from the medieval period to the Victorian era, is an expression of Vi’s identity and a bridge to her family history. In her video series, “The Clothes On Their Backs,” she demonstrates how she recreated the dress and foundation garments of her great-great-grandmother Carolina, a Jewish immigrant to New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1880s. Inspired by a dress in a photo of Carolina, Vi created the layers of the outfit piece by piece—the chemise and bloomers, the corset constructed with synthetic whalebone (real whalebone is no longer available), the petticoat and bustle pad, and the top and skirt that look like a single gown once assembled on Vi’s body. With long sleeves and a high neckline, the outfit is modest and appropriate for a Jewish wearer at the time, while the cinched silhouette and deft gathers make it fashionable. Carolina would have understood her outfit as a way that she could move through both her Jewish immigrant community and her new country without critique or disturbance.

So much of making the dress allowed Vi to connect with her ancestor’s life. Thinking about how the original outfit was made, Vi crafted hers through long days of work, mediating on how her relative probably did the same, snatching a few minutes of sewing after long hours working in a factory, as Carolina might have done. Vi also sewed it at the pace and rhythm of her great-great-grandmother, while socializing with other friends, drinking and talking and stitching by hand. When she was out of buttonhole thread, she asked a friend for some rather than finding the perfect thing at a textile shop, mimicking what must have been a common experience for immigrant women living in close-knit communities: exchanging resources while solidifying social bonds. “There would be so much work to be done that, if you were a working class or even a middle-class woman, you wouldn’t have a free minute to just socialize,” she says. “You’ve got to be working, but you’ve still got to find a way to keep that social fabric, so you combine the two.” 

Vi’s Victorian-era creation emulates what her great-great- grandmother might have worn 

While it’s easy to look at women’s outfits of the past as being severely restrictive, Vi’s research has given her a different perspective on clothing, which she describes as part of the armor of femininity. As Vi puts it, “The world is patriarchal, but women find power within, and I think clothing is a way in which women can find power,” she explains. “It’s taking something that’s used to box you in and keep you down and saying, ‘If this is what I’ve got to work with, I will find a way to make it powerful.’ I think about how I dress for modern scenarios. If my options are being dismissed by the world, I’m going to end up dressing in a way that makes me a little bit intimidating. And I’m OK with that.” 

Hairan Zuchelli 

Zuchelli dons an outfit similar to that of an 18th-century Brazillian BIPOC woman  Image curtesy of Zuchelli

With her exquisite work and riveting historical knowledge, Hairan Zuchelli, known online as the Brazilian Baroness (@brazilianbaroness), occupies a well-earned space in the growing community of historical costume makers specializing in the clothing of the colonized. A Brazilian who now lives in St. Louis, Zuchelli focuses her research on African diasporic cultures in colonial Latin America. Her love of the subject came from learning early on in her educational career about enslaved women who filed lawsuits against their captors to gain their freedom. Zuchelli’s interest blossomed from there, leading her to study fashion design and pedagogy as well as pursue a certification in diversity and inclusion from Cornell University

For Zuchelli, sewing began as part of her fashion study as a teenager and led her to become a designer and textile consultant, creating costumes for clients and theatrical productions such as In the Heights. Eventually, she began experimenting with historic garments. “It started as a hobby to reconnect with my heritage, but then I noticed the lack of research in this area,” she says. As a result, Zuchelli works to combine academic research with practical making skills and an analysis of historic clothing. Her work includes elaborate 18th-century gowns and Belle Époque corsets, and she pays special attention to the garments of Brazilian Indigenous and enslaved people. Through her social media presence, she demonstrates how these historic women’s garments were made, which allows her to talk about the women who might have worn them, and the lives they led. 

So many women’s experiences historically have been below the surface, and in the case of clothing, quite literally. Foundation garments—pieces worn underneath the visible, outer clothing items—have molded women’s shapes, established ideals of female beauty, and defined modesty and the lack thereof, which were essential qualities for moving through the world. For Zuchelli, foundation garments are an essential part of spotlighting colonized women of color, because the foundation garments they wore were often wildly different than those of their European counterparts and colonizers. In fact, they largely eschewed foundation garments completely. “The lack of these European foundations and ideals tells me more about who they are and who they were trying to be,” she says. “It takes a lot of strength to thrive in a system that doesn’t want you to succeed, and yet they created their own sense of fashion through resisting European standards. And that is what I try to talk about most. This resistance.” 

Many BIPOC women in Brazil donned Regency gowns without the stays and petticoats designed to be worn underneath them; mixed headscarves and wide skirts with uncorseted waists and chests; and wrapped local woven cloth around their bodies instead of copying the rigid farthingales and stiffened bodices of their Portuguese colonizers. “It is important to say that I am not saying BIPOC clothes versus the colonizers’ clothes,” Zuchelli explains. “These are all colonizers’ clothes, but we assimilated them, and we wore them in a uniquely Brazilian way.” Looking at an image of Zuchelli in her white simple blouse with a drawstring neckline, full navy ankle-length skirts, bright floral headwrap, and charms at her waist—a mixture of religious objects called a “pride of balangandan”—it seems like she has stepped out of 18th-century Brazil and into the modern day.

Zuchelli dons an outfit similar to that of an 18th-century Brazillian BIPOC woman  Image curtesy of Zuchelli

“Brazil was the last county to abolish slavery, and that had a huge impact in everything we are today,” Zuchelli says. “I try to rescue these untold stories through my craft.” Her work making historical garments has helped her examine the power of even the most disenfranchised. While in the United States it was rare for enslaved people to have or be given money, this was not the case in Brazil. Some enslaved women could earn wages and were able to save to buy their freedom, aided by abolitionists or lawyers for a small fee. Enslaved women in Brazil could and did go on to accumulate wealth, and they dressed the part. 

“Some BIPOC Brazilian women would commission beautiful jewels that mixed Brazilian and African craftmanship and would dress so lavishly with colorful dyes and finishes that the government tried to forbid it,” Zuchelli says. “I’d like to tell a bit of their stories, but not sugarcoat the horrors that others faced. The women I want to showcase through my art are strong, intelligent, resilient—and sometimes successful—people who history insists on erasing.”

Naomi Glaser

Glaser on the grounds of Historic London Town in Maryland 

“I really try to embody the Black experience whenever I’m making clothes,” says Naomi Glaser. “Whether that’s researching fabrics of a certain era or including accessories that are specific to Black culture, it is important to me to focus on that because fashion is history, is Black history, is Black women’s history. I want to make what actual Black women or enslaved women were supposed to wear or chose to wear.” A Florida-based historian, costume maker, and seamstress, Glaser, who goes by Naomi Loves History (@naomiloveshistory) on Instagram, learned to sew from her mother. Her early fascination making clothing for her American Girl dolls soon turned to an enduring passion after a trip to a historic 1870s farm near her hometown in Florida, where her love of history snowballed. The tactile, visceral, living history of the farm inspired Glaser, and spending time there motivated her to make her own 1870s garments, at first with her mother’s help, and, by the time she reached high school, all by herself. 

Now, working on costumes for films and documentaries as well as for her own practice as a historian and seamstress, Glaser immerses herself in the techniques and materials of historic garment construction. Although she sews from many periods, the main thrust of her interests are the garments of enslaved and emancipated Black women from the 1860s and 1870s, a deeply transformative time in Black fashion. Making clothing by hand, stitch by tiny stitch, constantly reminds Glaser of the people who lived in the pieces she studies and replicates. “You can see, in many original garments, how they’re pieced together or cut at a strange angle, showing us how careful the maker had to be to make the most out of every bit of cloth they had,” she says. “There might be a bloodstain from someone pricking their finger; you can see little imperfections and all the original details telling us more about the person who made and wore this. I love that I can add that to my own clothing making—that I put my blood, sweat, and tears into it.”

Exploring those historic garments, especially the clothing of enslaved women, gives deep insight into the day-to-day experience of Black women of the 19th century. “The techniques to make those specific clothes are so unique to being enslaved. Many garments were made with a mix of flax, wool, and cotton, woven like a flour sack. It was a very common, cheap fabric, and sewing and working with it is a completely different experience than working with cotton and satin,” Glaser explains. “The rough weave and heavy weight made it really uncomfortable, [but] it was not about comfort. It lasted a long time, was easy to source, and speaks to people who didn’t get to choose their fabric.”

Glaser enjoying a spirited game of 19th-century croquet in Florida Image Courtesy of Glaser

Glaser’s costume-making process also includes the transition from enslavement to emancipation. Looking at historic garments that demonstrate how the owner remade them over time reveals how women balanced the many pressures of their lives—the pressure to be appropriate, even respectable; the desire to stay current and to engage in the world of fashion using the resources they had. As Glaser puts it, in exploring and re-creating the garments of emancipation, “I had re-learn the specific things Black women did to bring their culture back into their clothing.” For Glaser, that means incorporating headscarves and wraps emulating historic images, including cowrie shells in ornamentation, and constructing historic shapes in vibrant fabrics, to reflect the lives of the Black women whose garments she is referencing. It helps her feel a sense of an individual Black woman in each item she makes. 

While Glaser is thrilled to explore and create the clothing of the enslaved, her garment-making practice has also shown her how much exists beyond the singular narrative. Recently, she shot a video of herself on the historic farm of her childhood, wearing clothing of the 1870s she’d created, enjoying herself—and was surprised by the response. “So many people were blown away by the fact that I wasn’t portraying a slave,” Glaser says. “They couldn’t imagine Black people in a position of ownership of a farm or happiness in that kind of space. I think that’s really what my main goal is: to show that Black people weren’t always in a state of oppression. We had lives, we had fashion, we had culture. Some of us had access to money and power.” The response also led Glaser to her next project. “I’m starting to develop a series where I take a famous piece of artwork of a Black woman and recreate the dress she’s in. I want to show us in a light of leisure and a light of opulence,” she says. “There’s so much more to us; there’s so much more to our story. And I can tell that through the clothes.”

Top photo: Hairan Zuchelli in one of her 18th-century Rococo creations

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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