These are the last in the series of photographs showing the mantua-makers of Colonial Williamsburg making a replica 1770s gown. (Click here and here for the earlier posts.) Often called called a robe a la Francaise or a Watteau gown, to an 18th c. English lady, it would have been simply (if inelegantly) a sack or sacque. It's actually three pieces: a stomacher, a petticoat, and a robe, which features a loose back with flowing pleats and a closely fitted front, pinned in place over the stomacher and stays.
These pictures show the fitting of the robe, the last and most complicated part of the gown. In the first picture, top row, mantua-maker Doris displays the sleeves that have been constructed separately, including three rows of silk ruffles finished with another deep ruffle of lace. The next two pictures shows mantua-maker Janea helping apprentice Sarah into the half-finished robe. The silk is adjusted and pinned for later stitching onto the lining -- the yellow linen visible in the back. A tuck here, a gather there, and slowly the robe is fitted perfectly to Sarah. It's an intuitive process based on a good deal of training and experience. Finally the sleeves are set into place, and the gown is ready for final stitching in the first picture, second row.
A day later, and everything is stitched in place and ready for the final fitting (and yes, Janea has changed her clothes.) The second picture, second row, shows Sarah arranging the sides of the robe over her petticoats; the sides will be pinned in place over the stomacher. The other two photographs show the final adjustments to the back pleats and the robing (the trim along the neckline.) Later everything would receive a final pressing, but much of the beauty of a changeable silk like this was in how the light would play across all those folds and puffs: undeniably a most stylish and airy confection.
Since we NHG do indulge in the occasional de-bunking, I'll add another here. After watching these ladies make this gown over several days, I realized that the much-loved plot device of a down-at-heels lady deciding to turn her excellent fashion taste into a dressmaking career overnight just wouldn't have happened. A girl was apprenticed to the trade at eleven or twelve, and it took many, many years of training before she possessed the skills to create anything like this gown. As Janea said, it's not just a trade: it's an art, and like the best art, an expert mantua-maker makes it look easy.
Many thanks again to Janea Whitacre, Doris Warren, and Sarah Woodyard of the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg! For more information about 18th c. clothing, including patterns for a sack gown like this one, check out CW's excellent Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction & Pattern 1750-1790.
Update: I returned to the shop two months later and saw the finished gown on display – pictures here.
Due to a software glitch, the photos in this post would not enlarge. For those of you who wish to see more detail, I've reposted them on my own blog here.