While the mantua-makers of Colonial Williamsburg concentrate on recreating historic dress from the 1770s, they do occasionally let their talented needles venture back and forth in time for special projects like this. The gown and turban, left, would have been the latest fashion for English and American ladies around 1800. The fabric is white cotton muslin, and the surface has been embroidered overall with tiny sprigs, stitched in white cotton thread.
While this style of gown with a raised waist and simple lines is familiar to modern eyes – particularly modern eyes familiar with the recent films based on the novels of Jane Austen – in the late 18th c., it would have seemed shockingly new.
For hundreds of years, the focus of women's dress had hovered around the natural waist, and stays, boning, and lacing had been combined to present a rigid, tapering torso. The appearance of a narrow waist has been increased by the full skirts, supported in the earlier 18th c. by hoops. Rich silks were the fabric of choice, with vibrant colors and elaborate patterning that came from either embroidery, or damask weaves. (See here and here for examples of gowns and here for stays and hoops from the 1770s; worn by the same model, Sarah Woodyard, it's easy to compare how the clothes change her shape.)
But all this changes by the end of the century. Aiming for classical simplicity, the new fashions featured high waists, simple lines, and pristine, light fabrics. While a few daring Frenchwomen would wear such a gown with few if any underpinnings, respectable Englishwomen did not – though compared to the whale-boned stays and hoops of the previous generation, it certainly must have felt wonderfully unencumbered.
Under her cotton gown, aboveright, Sarah is wearing a high-waisted petticoat with broad straps. Not only would this have given graceful volume to the gown, but it also would have offered a degree of modest opacity to the translucent white cotton, as well as helping to highlight the white-on-white embroidery as well. (See the detail of the embroidery, below right.)
Beneath the petticoat is a soft corset. Unlike the shorter stays, the corset extends below the waist and over the hips, creating a long, smooth line beneath the gown. Support comes from elaborate stitching rather than narrow rows of whalebone. The corset would have been worn over a light linen shift or chemise, never directly against the skin.
On her head, Sarah is wearing a silk turban for a touch of the exotic. The turban is trimmed with silver thread, silk ribbons, and of course an ostrich feather. Waistlines might rise, but feathers seemed to always be in style!
An observation: these photographs were taken in the Margaret Hunter millinery shop, which is illuminated entirely by natural light (and my camera's flash). On a late autumn afternoon, I was struck by how bright this all-white gown appeared in the shadowy room – an effect that never shows in 18th c. fashion plates. How the ladies originally dressed like this must have stood out in a sun-lit drawing room, or later in the evening by candlelight!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.