This week the mantuamakers in the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg have been working at a feverish pace to finish one of their most ambitious and elaborate projects, a ball gown for the royal governor's wife. While the original Countess of Dunmore would have desired her gown in time for a ball given here in Williamsburg in her honor in May, 1775, there's another deadline this week in 2010 that's just as pressing: the new gown will be part of a special event at CW this weekend called Lady Dunmore Prepares for the Ball. Lady Dunmore will be portrayed by visiting guest artist in residence Mamie Gummer.
True to the taste of a peeress like Lady Dunmore, the gown is in the most fashionable formal style of the mid-1770s, featuring a flowing, pleated back and wide, spreading skirts to accommodate the widest hoops. Cut silk brocade in cream and pale yellow, the gown is being trimmed with delicate off-white lace and looped gold braid, and a wealth of poufs, gathers, ruffles, and bows.
For a similar style gown, check out this one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But while the cost of an 18th c. ball gown was based primarily on the value of the materials rather than on the labor, there were still hours and hours of cutting, pleating, and stitching, with every step done by hand. All employees in the shop would have concentrated on completing such an important commission, and so is the case with the three CW mantuamakers.
In the photo top left, Sarah Woodyard stitches the long channelled panels for the petticoats trimming. Each channel is stuffed with sheepswool, and will be gathered and tied into a lavish border.
In the middle photo, Janea Whitacre pins one of the ruffles in place on the gown's elbows; the loose gathers of the skirt will eventually be filled by the hoops.
In the bottom photo, Doris Warren stitches the more trim in place, with the gown's skirts spread before her. Each one of those long strips of trim has been hemmed, edged with gathered lace, and finally topstitched with the gold braid – and yes, everything is being done by hand. No one is sneaking off to the sewing machine, no matter how fast the clock is ticking.
And just as an 18th c. mistress of the trade might hire an extra common seamstress or two for the less important stitching, so, too, in this case there's at least one outsider
who has helped out. In the bottom picture, those hands stitching gold braid on the trim are...mine.
Check back over the next few days for more pictures of Lady Dunmore's gown.