Meet the Woman Who Uses Fashion as a Tool to Study History
Bernadette Banner looks as if she were from the 19th century, minus the YouTube channel.
“You can tell which was her dominant hand by the seam of her dress because she's putting her hands in that pocket,” says Bernadette Banner . Some people learn about fashion through history. Others learn about history through fashion. This young nostalgic prefers to glean knowledge of the past not from books and lectures alone but from the study of historical dress. “You literally get to study the history of humans, because we use the way that we dress so much to express who we are,” she continues excitedly. “Our clothing reflects us, it reflects our movement, it wears, we adapt our clothing to suit our needs. You can tell a whole story about average, everyday people just by looking at the clothes that someone wore.”
In an admittedly ironic shift, the young nostalgic has taken to YouTube to take her followers along with her as she attempts to both recreate historical garments and construct them in the traditional manner—no electric sewing machines in sight. Some of her recent titles range from “Making a Badass Sewing Toolbelt” to “How Did They Pee in Those Dresses?” A fan of the 19th century manner of dress in particular, you might even catch Banner sporting one of her waist-cinching constructions about town.
Though we’ve shed historically superfluous aspects of clothing—i.e. the crinoline—the past got one thing right: the connection with and respect for one’s clothing, an inevitability when you only have three dresses. “A garment had an intrinsic value to it that we just don't have today,” she explains. And it’s that value she attempts to rediscover. Below, she tells Coveteur a bit more about her unique career trajectory, the myth of historical accuracy, and the sustainable reasons we should all connect a bit more with the past.
Can you tell me about your career trajectory and how you got to where you are today?
“I had a bit of non-linear schooling, I suppose. At 17, I got my first job working for a costume designer on Broadway. I thought I'd have a peek into this world and then I would go to college and do the normal person thing. One thing led to another thing led to another. I just wasn't expecting the reality that shows happen one on top of another, there is no breathing room.
“Four years later, I was like, ‘Maybe I should go get my degree because isn't this a thing? Even though I was fairly sure that I was going to stay in costume design. I thought it would be super simple since I already knew what I was doing. So, I did that for a little while. I was working full time and doing school on the side. It was a bit much. But while I was at school, I realized how much more there is to learn in the world—fancy that.”
On how going back to school helped to broaden her horizons:
“They make you take courses in science and humanities and language, which I initially begrudged. I was like, ‘why are you making me sit through these classes? I know I'm going to be a costume designer.’ Then I ended up in some Shakespeare class, because that's tangential to theater and thought, ‘oh, this is actually kind of interesting.’ That led to more of a study of the historical side of the dress that I was designing for the stage. I took courses in Old English and archaeology and ended up studying all these really interesting things. In my final year of university, one of my professors noticed I was more interested in the study of historical dress rather than costume design. So she set me up with the School of historical dress in London. So, I got to come here. It was just back and forth for a number of years until I finally moved here and somewhere in there, YouTube happened.”
What about the way people dress specifically piques your interest versus other elements of history?
“I think it just came naturally to me because I was studying costume design. It was what I knew best. I know a lot about clothes. I know how they're constructed. I understand fabrics and am learning about the origins of how the construction techniques evolved over time. So, fashion really came most naturally to me, just by default of where I had been already.”
Why did you launch on YouTube?
“It really just started as a passion project. I was posting on Instagram because I was doing reconstruction work (reconstructing clothing as it would have been done, historically, not with electric sewing machines). People would comment asking why I was doing it, not quite understanding. Isn't that taking you forever? Before I got into costume design, I spent a little bit of time briefly studying film, before I discovered that I actually liked dressing the people more than making the films. So I thought, you know, this comes naturally to me, this sort of visual storytelling in motion. So, I started putting together little videos for my own enjoyment. And then out of nowhere, one of them went viral. And that became a job.”
Not to be annoying and ask the same question, but why do you like to reconstruct these garments?
“I think it was the mystery aspect of them. It's not sewing because I had sewn costumes before. And in that, there's a hard deadline, you have to get it done before curtain goes up. And it's a different experience, sewing a costume than when I took on reconstruction work. It was less so sewing as a means to an end and more of the sewing itself as the point of the project. You discover after hand-making a pair of stays, which is this 17th century version of a corset, you've got the bones that are poking you before you bind it, you're working with stiff materials, you're pulling your seams very tightly because they have to hold this very tightly fitting garment. By the end of the three weeks, your hands are just destroyed. It's such an interesting process of discovery. It's not always not painful. You discover and discovery does breed intrigue, I think.”
Are you wearing a lot of these more historically accurate pieces in your day-to-day life or is it more so for the experience and of creating it?”
“I do try and wear what I make. I try to pick projects that are things that I can also wear. A lot of my earlier reconstruction work was done for publication and institutions. I can make a big 18th century silk gown, but I don't like to pick those projects for myself because I don't like to make something just to have it sit in the closet. I specifically do a lot of late 19th century work because I also really love to wear that stuff.”
What are the specific elements of that era’s silhouettes that you love today?
“Oh, gosh, I love the silhouettes of the late 19th century specifically because they simultaneously read as historical. They did a lot of tricks with padding, padding the figure, padding the bust and the hips to get that very specific proportion of bust to waist to hips without cinching down your waist impossibly. They had illusion techniques to do that so you get that quintessentially historical silhouette. It's also highly practical for everyday life. You're not wearing a big crinoline gown or 18th century panniers. It's nice to sort of have that essence of, ‘is she a ghost?’ but without encumbering your practical everyday movements.”
What are some of the aspects that clothing has possessed in history that we've kind of lost today that you think we might do well to rediscover?
“Oh, the value of clothing because when clothing was handmade, obviously, it took so long to do so you'd have your one or two or three gowns for most people. They had to last you a lifetime. They were precious. And even into the 19th century, clothing still had value, people had more items of clothing in their wardrobe, but a garment had an intrinsic value to it that we just don't have today. We don't have that connection with our clothes anymore. You could identify people with the clothes that they wore.”
I’ve watched a lot of your videos where you discuss how accurate costume design is in film and television. Why do you think it's important to kind of have those conversations and address whether something is historically accurate?
“Historical accuracy is a myth. Obviously, we cannot possibly recreate the past. We'd have to be making these clothes in non-temperature controlled, non-electrically lit rooms. And they would have to be made by people who don't have vaccinations and medical equipment. It goes on and on and on. You cannot create something 100 percent historically accurate. The purpose of those videos is to educate primarily through the medium of popular culture. So people love Bridgerton . We know that it's not historically accurate, but why don't we use this as an opportunity to compare Bridgerton costumes to the historical fashion and what these clothes would have looked like in the actual Regency period.
“It's mostly an educational tool but part of it is a little bit of a commentary on the entertainment industry in general. Not every piece of media has to strive for depicting the past, but in some, the point is to tell us a story that you are supposed to believe is in the past and yet, there's very obvious scholarship disproving some very clear choices in the silhouettes.”
On utilizing her own experience in costume design to review historical accuracy:
“I don't like to be too mean because having come from the world of costume design, I know in many cases, the designer comes in with fantastic research, and the director just goes, ‘I don't like this. It's not pretty,’ or the actress goes, ‘I'm not wearing that.’ Or the producer says, ‘we don't have money for that.’ So, there's so many things that can go wrong. The danger then is if no one is having these conversations, the unknowing person will watch a historical drama because they are interested in history, and they will get this mental image of what the 1830s actually looked like. It's so cool. When in reality, this is nothing like what the 1830s look like. It can be so magical when a show gets it really well done and well researched, to have the chance to see what we don't get by looking at paintings: the clothes moving on real bodies. It can be so thrilling to watch.”
You’ve immersed yourself so much into the past, does it ever leak over into any other parts of your life? Obviously, you are wearing old silhouettes, but are there other traditional elements that you experiment with outside the vein of fashion?
“The past is in my head and in everything that I do. I'll be walking down the street, and I'll see an old building and wonder what it used to be. That's naturally where my head goes. But there are many modern conveniences that I would not sacrifice for the world. There was a time in my life where I experimented with historical laundry methods. And it's just the absolute worst. So I mean, there are things that history did better in a way that I admire them for and then, of course, there are other things where I'm like, no, no, no, thanks.”
YouTube didn't really exist:
“Yeah, the irony is a lot of people have asked me if you could go back in time, would I? And no, I'd stay in the present. My job is on the internet. I would literally have no means of livelihood.”
What's your goal with your YouTube videos? Is it just to generally educate and start these conversations?
“It has evolved into education but started just as a fun passion project. Inevitably, when you accumulate a platform whether you like it or not, you have a responsibility to use that platform for something useful to society. But my intention with the channel has been to educate and to entertain and to inspire. I suppose it's a trickle down effect. So, you entertain them first by drawing in people who have no interest in historical dress but who watched and liked Bridgerton . Then, you educate them a bit about the silhouettes and the history of dress. I have gotten messages and some wonderful comments from people saying that they started watching my videos a year ago with no interest in fashion history, and now they've picked up a needle and hand-felling the hems of their trousers because they're too long. So eventually, the hope is that it feeds into inspiring people either to pick up a needle and start sewing for themselves or mending the clothes that they have, preventing those from going to landfill if they start to wear out, or just to have a bit more consciousness in regards to the clothes that they wear and how much labor and time and effort went into them.”
Photos: Courtesy of Bernadette Banner
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