Monday, January 4, 2010

Beautiful Red Dress

Monday, January 4, 2010

Loretta reports:

I thought we could start off the new year with a beautiful red dress.*

This one, which was made at the Colonial Williamsburg Milliner’s Shop, is a copy of a dress worn to a congressional party about 1813-1817 by a Virginia congressman’s wife. Since I often need to dress and undress my heroines, the clothing fastenings are endlessly fascinating to me. The back fastenings are tapes as well as metal hooks which hook onto threaded loops.

Making the red cotton dress, we were told, took 10-12 hours. The white cotton embroidery took 13 weeks. One interesting thing we learned was that fancy embroidery work was often done by the customer, rather than the milliner. Embroidery, after all, was an occupation for ladies. Furthermore, it would add considerably to the expense of the dress.

I believe this would be the case for gentlewomen in England as well, but it would depend on their rank and wealth. While Jane Austen and her relatives might embroider their own dresses, I strongly doubt that stupendously wealthy aristocratic women in London would. Would it be work for one or more of their maids? Maybe. I’m not sure. Even the wealthiest Americans did not, so far as I can determine, begin to approach the income levels of England’s noblemen until the time of the robber barons, later in the 19th C. For many aristocratic ladies in early 19th C England, money was no object, and I can easily imagine the embroidery being left to the modiste and her assistants.



Katy said...

Beautiful dress!

Vanessa Kelly said...

I love that it's red - so vibrant, and so unlike what we too often have in our heads as "correct" Regency dress.

nightsmusic said...

Lovely dress. Somehow though, I can't imagine the lady who would have worn it singing the song Beautiful Red Dress :lol:

Very interesting about the owner of the dress embroidering it herself. I would have never thought of that at all. But you know, I always wondered what the heck they're always embroidering because very rarely is it mentioned. The item, I mean. Just that they're embroidering.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

What I really loved about this gown was the weighty heft of that embroidery. The cotton thread was thick and glossy and the stitches used made the most of it, making the contrast of the color even more rich and tactile. Definitely a gown for a lady who wasn't afraid to make a bold fashion statement, esp. if everyone else in the room was wearing dainty white muslin!

DanielleThorne said...

Beautiful! Just Beautiful! I'd love to try that on!

Jenny Girl said...

Lovely dress, but I can see that my dresses would have been plain back in the day.

LorettaChase said...

I absolutely loved that it was red. And I guessed that the sort of woman who'd wear it would, if she lived in our time, relate to the song. There's a wonderful painting of Pauline Bonaparte in a red dress, which I'll try to find some excuse to post one of these days.

nightsmusic said...

Oh, I love the color. It's just the image that song conjured with a woman from that time dressed like that and dancing along to that song. LOL

The dress is gorgeous though really. And the embroidery is interesting from the point that I don't think embroidery designs really changed much over a century or two. I remember seeing handwork my grandmothers did that closely resembles that.

News From the Holmestead said...

That gown is exquisite. Red and white -- one of my favorite color combinations. I also drooled over that gorgeously feminine peach colored replica of Mrs. Newton's gown. I know you said it was pink, but it's a lovely peach on my computer.

The one thing that keeps niggling at me though, is dirt. How did they keep those gowns from getting dirty on the hem or the sleeves? One day's wearing would, I'd think, start showing soil marks on the hem for sure, especially if they went out in it--walking on the street, for example. And those lovely lacey sleeves surely must have been a dirt magnet. I've heard some gowns had removable hems and sleeve cuffs or lace that could be laundered separately. Also, were these gowns pinned onto the wearer (well, not pinned ONTO the wearer, but you know what I mean), or were they completely sewn? ~Sherrie Holmes

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Sherrie! Glad you're enjoying our "fashion show". *g*

To answer your questions about keeping these clothes clean: It's a great modern myth that people of the past were all dirty. Perhaps they weren't dipped in antibacterial soap, but the middle and upper classes were quite scrupulous about the cleanliness of their clothes, particularly their linen -- meaning their shirts for gentlemen and shifts for ladies. These were in fact made of fine linen, and changed at least once a day, and sometimes more often. They were the garments that touched the skin -- the fancy silk gowns and waistcoats never did, which helped preserve them. While linen was washed, scrubbed and bleached if necessary, silk garments were seldom if ever immersed. Instead they were "spot cleaned" using dry-cleaning agents like Fuller's Earth. Cleaning expensive clothes was an art, practiced by personal servants as well as tailors and mantua-makers.

As for dragging hems in the street: first of all, at this time the skirts were about ankle high, and cleared the ground. Also, a lady dressed like this wasn't going to go walking in the street: she rode in her carriage. As for the lacy ruffles on the sleeves: yes, they were detachable, for ease of washing and for versatility, like switching separates today.

Mrs. Newton's gown (1770 or so) would have been a combination of pinning and sewn. The 19th c. red gown would have been entirely sewn, or pinned in only a few strategic places to fine-tune the fit.

Hope that helps!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

BTW -- here's the link to our post on fuller's earth for cleaning:

And a post on pins and pinning clothes:

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