Friday, November 13, 2009

Stitching Mrs. Newton's Gown: Part II

Friday, November 13, 2009

Susan reports:

As promised, here's more about how the mantua-makers of Colonial Williamsburg recreated a 1770 gown belonging to Mrs. Thomas Newton.

A lady's gown was custom-made for her.  It was created by draping, cutting, and pinning directly on her, and before any of that could take place, she needed to be wearing the proper underwear to give her a fashionable conical shape.  In the first picture above, Sarah (apprentice mantua-maker, here standing in for Mrs. Newton) is wearing her shift, stays (corset), and pocket hoops, tied to her waist to support her gown at the hips. She's also wearing a kerchief at her neck that will be removed in later pictures.

In the second picture above, Sarah has pinned the first "piece" of the gown, the stomacher, into place onto her stays.  Most 18th c. gowns were constructed of components like this, and pinned together with straight pins rather than permanently stitched.  Not only did this allow for changing sizes (you know, fat days), but like modern separates, the different pieces could be swapped around for a variety of "looks."

In the third picture above, Sarah has tied on the gown's petticoats – what we'd think of as skirts - that will form the lower part of the gown. Now you can see how the pocket hoops give the petticoats structure, and that stylish wide-hipped look.  

The last picture right, shows Sarah from behind, with the petticoats tied in place.  Note that she's wearing her stays over her shift, not bare skin.  Note, too, that the stays are spiral-laced in a zig-zag rather than criss-crossing, and fasten at the top with a knot rather than a bow.

That's two-thirds of the gown - more to come tomorrow!

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.


Loretta Chase said...

I was sorry I'd missed this, but how wonderful now to have a series of photos to show the layers. Though the styles changed, and my early 19th C corsets were different, the layers didn't change much. And now I understand better about pinning clothes together. Great pix!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you, Loretta! :)

I agree that one of the most fascinating things about fashion is that it doesn't change so much as evolve. Though the high-waisted 19th c. gowns may seem completely different from those of a generation or so earlier, when compared more closely it's easy to see what near relations the two actually are.

Sandra Carney said...

One question: were actual whalebones used in the lady's corset? I know these are endangered now, but did Colonial Williamsburg get permission to be accurate? I can't imagine them using plastic boning.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sandra, I can't say what kind of bones are used inside the stays worn by the interpreters in CW, because I really don't know. As you note, whalebone is very hard to come by these days.

I can, however, tell you what's inside the stays worn by Sarah, the model for the gown-fitting in these pictures, because she told me herself. Her stays, which she made herself, have thin wood splints slipped into each of the channels. Clicking on the first picture will enlarge it, and you'll see not only how many channels there are to her corset, but how neat her stitches in the contrasting thread are, too. Now look at the bottom edge, where the binding has worn away, and you'll see one or two of the wooden splints poking their way through the binding -- something Sarah said she had to fix, but useful to us for explanations!

Sandra Carney said...

Thank you, Susan. The wooden splints make sense, are green, and are historically sound. I hadn't noticed them poking through the edging until you mentioned it. A vivid touch of reality.

Bearded Lady said...

I always wondered how they fitted these clothes. Question - did the model comment on her comfort level. How tightly would her stays have been? Also, I am wondering how heavy everything was when it was all put together?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hey, Bearded Lady! Asking this particular model about the comfort of these clothes wouldn't result in an objective answer, at least to modern ears. Since she works full-time in the mantua-maker's shop, she (and the other ladies here) dress like this every day, and I suspect in a way they're more at ease in 18th c. clothes than in 21st c. ones.

Still, 18th c. clothes aren't uncomfortable -- I've volunteered at a local restoration and gone the whole stays-and-petticoats route, and they really aren't bad. The goal of 18th c. stays is to make a firm basis for the clothes on top, and to "improve" the figure into a conical shape. The tight-lacing for a tiny waist is a 19th c. idea. Besides, it wouldn't have been possible before the invention of metal eyelets in later corsets. With thread-worked ones, there's just so far the lacing will go.

As for the weight -- this particular gown must have been pretty light. The fabric was a light, breezy silk, and though there are yards and yards of it, there isn't any embroidery, beads or faux pearls, or fur trimming to weigh it down. It's not like, say, a heavy Tudor-era gown made of stiff brocade, edged with fur and velvet. And it did make the loveliest rustling sound as Sarah walked about in it. I wish I could add an audio clip for that!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Bearded Lady -- I went back to my notebook (instead of depending on my questionable memory), and can now add two more facts about the gown:

1) It took about 18 yards of silk taffeta, 27 inches wide (which was more or less standard widths of fabric in the 18th c.)

2) The mantua-makers estimated that it took about 85 hours of hand-stitching, a high-ish figure because of all the trimming.

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