The Teen Victorian

A Profile of Margaret Simmons


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Tailor at Work on Sewing Machine.

Caroline Restrepo, Writer

A musty smell hits my nose as I enter the small room. It’s not cramped, but it is cozy. I get the urge to take off my shoes, but my company warns me quickly.

“Be careful where you step. I’ve dropped my needles so many times that I don’t bother looking for them anymore.” I take a step back and scan the carpet for any glimmering objects before going any further. “I haven’t stepped on any, so I think I’ve either found them all, or I’m just really lucky.” I take a second look around the room as Margaret Simmons pushes some things into the closet. Her raised bed has a small, well-organized desk space beneath. Several books take up the area there, but I’m less concerned with the desk than I am with the rest of the room, which pulls me back in time immediately.

On a desk at my right is a large, half-open jewelry box with gleaming gold decorations of all manner. Margaret informs me that most of them are from her grandmother. Moving on, I see a silver vanity mirror. It’s a little dull but still beautifully made, with all sorts of flowery patterns on the back. I turn it over and find that almost three-fourths of my face are entirely obscured by decay, and a foggy film covers the part that I can see. Lastly, I see an old sewing machine, but not the kind I’m used to. There’s a metal panel on the bottom of the boxlike contraption with several wheels along the side. I lean down to inspect it when Margaret shows me how it works.

“This is my treadle sewing machine! It gets stuck sometimes, so” She pauses to spin one of the wheels before she begins moving the metal pedal with her foot, making the needle move. She smiles and speaks with energy comparable to a little kid with coffee and doesn’t stop moving as she speaks. “I have to help it start.” She has a more modern sewing machine quite close, but she prefers to hand-sew if she can. This machine is a beautiful compromise. However, she soon points out that this one is broken. I check the floor for needles once more before sitting to discuss what she’s made.

Currently, Margaret has sewn several skirts, but that’s hardly where her pride is. She specializes in a fashion that isn’t even around: the extravagant styles of the Victorian era. Bustles, corsets, and petticoats are where she shines. She spends hours hand-sewing everything to be as accurate as possible. She’s been busy creating undergarments like her white chemise and corset cover, but she hopes to have a full outfit made eventually. She’s taken every detail into account, even the proper order of dressing oneself.

She may be doing well with her hobby, but her real struggle is the current ideas others have— the image of young women forced into bone-crushing corsets and too-modest outfits by a patriarchal society. Though women did not have the societal rights of modern times, Victorian fashion was not a part of this. “Corsets are hardly different from a bra. They’re both just underclothes,” Margaret informs me during a long rant about this very subject, getting loud from having to explain what she believed was obvious truth. “The Victorians were experts at illusion. All those 17-inch waists are exaggerations […] They only looked that way because of the illusion they used to create silhouettes.”

When asked about fainting, she shrugs it off quickly with a dismissive wave of the hand. “That stuff was mostly in romance books, where they liked to give the ladies tuberculosis.” So really, the culprit for swooning Victorian ladies was a respiratory infection, not respiratory restriction.

The way she describes these clothes is often like art. While fashion is an art of its own, Margaret only found her specialty because of illustration. When I asked her how it started, she replied, “I think it was when I started drawing. I referenced some Victorian clothes for my OC’s.” OC is an abbreviation often used in online spaces for “original characters.” She continued, “The more I looked, the cooler I thought it was! The dresses- everything from that time is just, like… so pretty! I already knew some sewing from my family, so I thought, why couldn’t I make my own?” She gestures to herself with a dramatic prideful look that is quickly replaced with a grin at the bit of sarcasm.

In addition to family wisdom, Margaret takes inspiration from online creators like Bernadette Banner and other fashion historians. They’ve made their own perfectly fitting creations from various periods, something she aspires to achieve. (She says one of the benefits of creating her clothes is that she doesn’t have trouble finding her size.) She often calls her love an obsession, but her passion is evident. The work and time she puts into something she finds fun is more effort than many teens her age dedicate to their schoolwork. She even plans to complete her own prom dress by next year and is optimistic despite the time limit. She knows what she wants to do and works hard each day to get it. She runs her life according to her own ambitions, and she couldn’t be happier.