Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stitching Mrs. Newton's Gown: Finale

Saturday, November 14, 2009


























Susan reports:

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.

20 comments:

Jane O said...

"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."

To be fair to the down-at-heels lady, it would have been a lot easier to make a round gown forty years later. The 1770 lady might have had better luck selling her embroidery.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I agree, Jane O. Later gowns are less complicated and would have been less challenging to construct. But there was also much more to the biz than just the sewing -- having to deal with suppliers, making connections with importers for the latest fabrics, the nuts and bolts of bookkeeping and making ties with other women in the same trade –– that I still think it would have been very difficult for any outsider to break in. You could probably make a different kind of parallel: a gentleman might be very familiar with how he wished his horses shod, but he couldn't jump in and become a blacksmith.

I think the down-at-heels lady would probably do much better in a managerial role with a trade, putting to use her connections and transfering the skills used with servants to the seamstresses. But that's just my 2 cents. *g*

I also can't forget poor Lily Bart (a down-at-heels heroine if ever there was one) in "House of Mirth" who tries to make a go of it dressing hats, and fails woefully. But then Edith Wharton never does cut her ladies much slack....

Deb Salisbury said...

Hello! I just discovered you via Jenny Rae Rappaport's blog, Lit Soup, and you have a wonderful blog.

I'd like to Follow you, but I can't find any of the Follower buttons. Don't you permit lurkers? Thanks!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Welcome, Deb, and many thanks to Jenny Rae Rappaport for mentioning the TNHG in her blog!

We don't post pix or avatars of followers like some blogs do, mainly because we can be shy, too. But you can most definitely become a follower, and receive our nerdy history every morning in your mailbox. Over to the right, beneath our smiling, we're-holding-our-own-camera-distorted-faces, you'll see a place to enter your email address. That's all you have to do to subscribe, and then you may happily lurk in peace, or come in and just as happily comment, too. The choice is yours! :)

theo said...

Fascinating. I just love it here. I learn so much.

I'd have liked to see bigger pictures though. I could only see the first two super sized.

I still say though, I was born in the wrong era. I would love to wear a dress like that.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, I know about the pictures not popping up. It must be some sort of limitation of Blogger, and it's frustrating to me, too. I may end up running this series of pix again over on my website, super-sized, and I'll be sure to post a note and link here when I do. Sorry for tantalizing!

Monica Burns said...

Curious Susan, how much advancement was made in the dressmaker's shop between 1790 and 1890?? Any idea how long it would take to make a dress in the late 1800s. I know there were sewing machines around that time, but not sure how they were viewed by the experts dressmakers. Worth??

Vanessa Kelly said...

The artwork involved in making those gowns just stuns me. And the complexity of the gowns also reinforces why women needed maids or dressers to help them get prepared for the day!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Monica, you raise a whole bunch o' questions! Certainly the industrial revolution led to many changes in fashion and dress -- most specifically in how technology made fashion available to more people, and clothes that were once labor-intensive could b made in mass quantities for much lower costs. Remember too, that the invention of the cotton gin and the growth of the big textile mills also helped bring costs down. So yes, for the average woman, it must have made a huge difference.

But for those wealthy 19th c. ladies visiting Charles Worth -- I doubt it. His salon (and others like it) probably did use sewing machines for long tedious inner seams and basting, but I'd bet most of the work was still done by hand. As complicated as an 18th c. gown may appear, one a hundred years later is infinitely more so, with pieced tailoring and elaborate bustling. Plus there was so much decoration sewn on top, bows and swags and embroidered dragons and rows of buttons. Design-wise, the Victorians did like a lot of surface detail!

Couture fashion today still relies heavily on custom handwork and skilled seamstresses -- which is why Paris couture is supported by the wives of oil sheiks and few others, and why, too, it's a dying art.

But I'm sensing another series of blogs here. The nearby (to me) Philadelphia Museum of Art has a fantastic collection of historic dress....:)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, the complexity amazed me, too. I was also struck by how much pleating and tucking there was, and almost no cutting, which explains why so many of these gowns were picked apart and their beautiful fabrics reused by later generations. I thought of origami, watching all that folding!

As for needing maids to help dress -- the CW ladies swear that once you get the hang of it, it's easy enough to dress yourself. They must be right. Interpreters are loaned their clothing, and come to work dressed in it (which presents many incongruous scenes in the town of Williamsburg, with colonial people chowing down at Burger King or waiting at the ATM.) I doubt that any of them have lady's maids, so they must HAVE to master dressing on their own. But compared to pulling on a pair of sweatpants and a tshirt....

Monica Burns said...

But I'm sensing another series of blogs here. The nearby (to me) Philadelphia Museum of Art has a fantastic collection of historic dress....:)

I'm on the edge of my seat in anticipation!! WOOT! These posts (although I don't always posts) are one of the highlights of my day!

Sandra Carney said...

This has been a fascinating series. Thank you and Loretta very much for sharing your insight and research with us. I hope you will post your pictures again with pop-ups so we can see all the details. They're wonderful snaps, and deserve to be studied. And yes, I'd enjoy a series on Victorian dresses, too.

Edittorrent said...

This has been a fascinating series. Thanks so much for posting these detailed pictures and explanations!

Theresa

Vanessa Kelly said...

Oh, I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art! Don't they have Grace Kelly's wedding gown? I think they only bring it out on special occasions.

Monica Burns said...

Oh, I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art! Don't they have Grace Kelly's wedding gown?

And that was one HELLAVA dress!! I wasn't around when she got married, but I've seen enough specials on her to remember that gown. Beautiful

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks for all your kind words! Loretta and I launched this blog with only one goal: that we'd entertain one another, and if there turned out to be other nerdy history folk out there, we'd consider ourselves lucky. Well, now it seems we're very, very lucky. :)

Yes, the Philadelphia Museum of Art does have Grace Kelly's wedding dress, and yes, it's mighty impressive -- but what else could it be when your groom's a prince? *g* But there's lots of other fabulous clothes in their collection. Much to explore...but I have to warn you, before I can go off on that tangent, I'm afraid I do have a book demanding to be written first.

Besides -- Loretta and I haven't begun to exhaust our Williamsburg adventures. More cool stuff is definitely on the way!

LorettaChase said...

One of the things our CW experience made clear was that a dressmaker in the 18th-19th century was an artist. Those in the cities and large towns were competing with highly talented rivals, and only the best would attract the most stylish clientele. Any capable seamstress (not the same thing) might be able to stitch a simple gown, but that wouldn't earn her more than a pittance. So we need to distinguish the seamstress (a laborer) from the dressmaker (a master of the trade). And we need to distinguish among dressmakers as well. The sophisticated urban eye would immediately recognize Marianne and Elinor's (of S&S) gowns as countrified, made by a local dressmaker. It's not the sort of thing one of Almack's patronesses or her counterparts would be caught dead in. Our several visits to the milliner's shop made it very clear to us what the differences were--and you can be sure I'll be using the info in a future book!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Just for grins -- here's the link to Grace Kelly's wedding dress. The Philadelphia Museum of Art not only has the dress, plus her accessories, and the bridesmaids' and flower girls' dresses, too.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/56621.html?mulR=1879

fuchsias18thcdress said...

Oh gosh! How could I have missed this blog before!?
The gown looks wonderful! I love the color! I only wish the images were bigger - or at least clickable... =/

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Fuchsia, the un-click-ability of the pictures frustrated me, too. Chalk it up to weirdnesses of Blogger. But I'm planning to post all of these pictures again in larger size on my own blog soon -- I'll post here with links on the TNHG when I do. And thank you for your compliments!

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