Whenever I visit Colonial Williamsburg, my first stop is always the Margaret Hunter millinery shop to see what beautiful new gowns and other goodies that the mantua-makers (dressmakers) have been making. The gown, topleft, is one of their most recent creations, and worn by Abby Cox, one of the apprentice mantua-makers who helped make it.
This gown is a Robe à la Polonaise, a style popular in France and England c. 1780, and was inspired by the French fashion plate, right. This would have been a costly, high-fashion gown. (For comparison, see here for Abby dressed in the much more common clothing of an 18th c. maidservant.) The colors in this gown are reversed from the ones fashion plate because there was more orchid-colored silk taffeta on hand in their shop than yellow - something that an 18th c. mantua-maker would have done as well.
This gown was also an exercise in speed. A successful 18th c. mantua-maker had to be able to produce gowns swiftly, not only to answer the demands of customers who wanted a new gown immediately, but also to keep the shop profitable. In an era when the largest cost of a garment lay in the fabric, not the labor, the faster a gown could be created, the more profitable it was.
The CW mantua-makers have been working on improving their speed as well, striving to match their Georgian counterparts. This polonaise was begun on a Friday morning at 9:30 am, and was completed shortly before 3 pm on Saturday, including cutting, fitting, and stitching.
Everything was done in the 18th c. manner, and entirely hand-stitched. Seven women worked on the gown: the mantua-maker, two apprentices, and four seamstresses, working only during the shop's business hours (which in the 18th c., would have been the hours of daylight.)
Shortly after I took these pictures, I walked through one of Colonial Williamsburg's many gardens, and spotted the phlox, lower left, that were almost the same color. Fashionable silk, fashionable flowers.
Above left and lower left: Photographs copyright 2013 Susan Holloway Scott. Lower right: "Jeune Dame en robe à la Polonaise...", designed by Pierre-Thomas LeClerc, French, 1780. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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.