Anyone visiting the Margaret Hunter millinery shop in Colonial Williamsburg this spring will see this gown, left, on display in one of the display cases. Just like all the other garments and gowns found in the shop (and on the staff as well), the gown is a modern copy of an 18th c. original. Also worn with the gown is a decorative apron of white silk organdy, a style that dates to the 1770s-80s.
But this particular gown is a bit special: it's the star of the newest video-vodcast on the CW history resources website. Called "Dress in a Day," part one of the vodcast can be watched here. Part two, featuring more of the actual construction, will be up on the same page soon.
For the vodcast, Janea Whitacre, Mantua-Maker and Mistress of the Trade in CW's historic trades program, and her staff were determined to follow in the footsteps (or is that stitches?) of their 18th c. predecessors, and create an entire gown from start to finish in a single day. Eighteenth-century customers were no different than those of today: when it came to high-fashion attire, ladies wanted their gowns yesterday. All women's clothing was still made to order, and custom-fit to the wearer. The raw materials of a gown - the fabric, linings, thread, and other notions - were the majority of the gown's final cost. Labor, however skilled, was comparatively cheap. The mantua-maker (the 18th c. term for a dressmaker) whose shop could create a gown in a day or less would be the one who prospered.
This gown is a copy of an original English gown from 1770-85 in the CW collection. Like the original, the copy is made from a ribbed silk called lustring, in an ultra-fashionable color of the time called "laylock", or lilac. (The museum's gown has since faded to a pale pink, but interior seams reveal its original lavender.) Also like the original, the copy was made of silk woven to a width of 221/2". Modern sewers will realize how unusual this width is - today fabric usually runs at widths of 44-45", 60", or 72" - yet the specially woven 22 1/2" silk permitted the selvages to be used for neat, perfect seams in the petticoat in the copy, a feature of the original gown.
The gown was begun at 8:43 in the morning, with four women (Janea, journeywoman Doris Warren, apprentice Sarah Woodyard, and intern Kristin Haggerty) working together, and was completed at 4:20 p.m. All fitting, cutting, stitching, and pressing was done entirely by hand, exactly as it would have been done 240 years ago. Even the pinked edging of the silk trimming the neckline and sleeves was created by using a replica pinking tool, made for the mantua-makers by the CW blacksmiths.
How did they do? The gown is undeniably lovely, and I'm sure that their phantom customer must have been delighted. Janea admits that by 18th c. standards, her team was very slow. A top-notch shop in London in the 1770s could have produced the same gown in even less time. But then, Georgian seamstresses didn't have to pause for video cameras to be set up or lighting to be checked, either, so I'd say the ladies from the Margaret Hunter shop did very well indeed.
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.