Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What's Old is New Again: Gathered Skirts

Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Susan reports:

One of the most interesting things about studying historic dress is realizing how, in fashion, there's really nothing new under the sun. If you're currently reading the spring fashion magazines or catalogues (because no matter how much snow there is on my driveway right now, spring will eventually come), you will have doubtless seen that this summer is going to be a season of skirts with gathers and poufs and little pleats ("geometry" and "origami pleating" seem to be big buzz words), all shown to best advantage in fabric that's striped or plaid. Here's one example, and another.

Very trendy, very 2010. But also very 1775.

Here Janea Whitacre, master mantua-maker of Colonial Williamsburg, models a replica gown that's the height of English and French style, and yet could be the inspiration for this
summer's most fashionable skirts. Pastel plaid silk displays the intricate pleating of the border trim and the cuffs as well as the flowing pleats down the back that are the mark of the inelegantly named but very graceful sack gown. The skirts of the gown are gathered up with ribbon bows in a style called polonaise. The gown is worn over a green glazed petticoat, quilted in a diagonal pattern (more geometry) that plays against the gathered folds of the gown.

Eighteenth century ladies understood the importance of accessorizing just as modern fashionistas do today. The silk flowers pinned to the front of Janea's bodice soften the sharp edges of the plaid, as does the sheer lawn used for her cap and for the ruffles at her cuffs. The final touch comes from the red buckled shoe, because every outfit is always improved with red shoes, no matter what the time period.

I'm ready for spring!


News From the Holmestead said...

Gorgeous gown! I'm blown away by the quilting on the green skirt. I'm almost afraid to ask if they did that entirely by hand. The mind boggles.

I'm reminded again just how flattering bonnets and caps are. That little cap frames her face in such a pretty way. How nice it must have been that you could cover up your coiffeur mistakes when you were having a bad hair day! ~Sherrie Holmes

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Everything's done by hand, Sherrie, and made by Janea and the other ladies in the shop. They're always working on something new: not only do they get to demonstrate 18th c. dressmaking techniques to visitors, but they get to wear what they make as well. Not bad! And I so agree about the caps. Some of the ruffled caps are just gorgeous, and so much more charming for bad hair days than a baseball hat!

Rowenna said...

If only bustles or polonaises would come back into fashion! All of my eighteenth-century gowns have polonaised skirts, even my crummy linen work gown--because if you have the choice of wearing a bum-poof or not, the choice seems clear to go with the bum-poof every time!

I have, by the way, been covetting a pair of red shoes like those for quite some time...when my current dull black pair wear out, they will be the replacement! Red shoes are the ultimate accessory regardless of century!

Thanks for sharing this--Ms. Whitacre looks just lovely and so springy in those pastels.

Leslie said...

I love this look, and I also love how the colors of the dress reflect the colors of the houses around her. Good eye, nice photo.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Rowenna, I believe Janea said her red shoes came from Burnley & Trowbridge. The ones on their site certainly look like hers, anyway:


Leslie, many thanks for the complement -- glad you enjoyed the pictures!

Mme.Tresbeau said...

Very pretty! I, too, love the colors. Is she standing on one of the streets of Williamsburg?

nightsmusic said...

I really need to build a time machine. :o)

Dress is lovely and you're right, the hat is much cuter than a baseball cap.

I have a pair of red shoes. They're 'modern' of course, red patent alligator, peep toes and 4" stilettos. My DH just doesn't understand the feeling of wearing a pair of red shoes and is always surprised when I hear "Oh! I love those shoes" from others.

So, to Janea Whitacre, I LOVE those shoes!!

She'll understand ;o)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mme. T., the picture was taken the day after Christmas (an unseasonably warm day in Virginia this year), directly behind the milliner's shop in Colonial Williamsburg. I wish I could claim otherwise, but the colors of the gown and the surrounding buildings was entirely coincidental.

Theo, red shoes change everything! I'm sure Janea Whitacre understands their power, too; I've seen her wear these same shoes when she's dressed all in purple, and it looks fabulous.

nightsmusic said...

I bet! Purple and red. I really think every woman should have one pair of red shoes. :o)

So, my question is, do you?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Oh, Theo, what you ask --! Of COURSE I have red shoes, both flats and heels. I even have red cowboy boots. So yes, I understand their power, too. :)

Ingrid said...

Modern shoes! I am surprised. Don't they have shoemakers in Colonial Williamsburg who make historically correct replica shoes by hand?
Love the dress by the way.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

There is in fact a shoemaker in CW, who makes beautiful shoes by hand in the traditional way. Loretta wrote about him here:


But he's only one craftsman, and he couldn't begin to supply enough shoes for all the employees -- so most do wear modern replicas. Though I imagine everyone does aspire to a handmade pair...

Ingrid said...

So there's quite a few mantua-makers, and tailors I assume, but only one shoemaker.
I wonder, are all these people paid employees, or volunteers?
If they are volunteers, shoe making is obviously not as popular as dressmaking. The results are less visible with shoes, of course. I also would prefer to train as a mantua-maker myself. Female shoemakers are probably not historically correct either.

nightsmusic said...

Susan, I too also have a pair of red loafers and a pair of cold weather patent boots with stacked heels and black fur around the top. Very fun!

LorettaChase said...

Ingrid, these are not volunteer positions like tour guides at a historic house or docents at a museum. These are paid employees, a number of whom have worked at CW for decades--and they are historical scholars. If you search any of their names at the CW site, you'll learn more about them. There's only one shoemaker shop, and at present only one milliner shop, which the tailors & mantua makers share. We find more people working in the clothing trade at CW most likely for economic reasons--like the carriages & carriage rides, it's very popular with visitors. Originally, Williamsburg had a number of milliner's shops, tailor shops, shoemakers, blacksmiths, etc--it was a thriving colonial capital, in which I'm sure one could have had a pair of red shoes made. But I thought the imported red shoes were in keeping with history, too, since the colonists were obliged (in many cases by law) to import goods of all kinds from England.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, there is always room in the closet for another pair of red shoes!

Ingrid, there are 2 mantua-makers and an apprentice, and 1 tailor and an apprentice in Colonial Williamsburg, as well as a single shoemaker. But there are hundreds of other employees as well, ranging from other master craftsmen to ticket-takers to the college students working as waiters in the taverns. They're all in 18th c. dress, as accurate as is possible. But because of the sheer numbers, not all the clothes are made by the mantua-makers and the tailor in the shop; most are made off-site.

As for a female shoemaker -- I bet there were at least a couple, somewhere down the line. Maybe specializing in ladies' shoes? Or it may have been one of those trades that was limited to men simply because women didn't have the hand-strength to stitch the leather. I know that as weird as it seems, corset/staymakers were generally men, because women weren't strong enough to muscle the needle through so many layers of stiff cloth, or to force the strips of baleen through the narrow channels...

Ingrid said...

Loretta and Susan, thanks for explaining. If I ever visit the US, Colonial Williamsburg will definitely be on my programme.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket