Thursday, March 21, 2013

An 18th c. Dress in a Day

Thursday, March 21, 2013
Isabella reporting,

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.

Photographs copyright Susan Holloway Scott.


Hallie Larkin said...

I came across an interesting advertisement recently, "two women in this town made nine gowns in one week", New Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1768. Apparently it was meaningful enough to make it into the newspaper.

jacqueline | the hourglass files said...

I would love to see them work in person. Must be awe inspiring.

greg6833 said...

Lovely gown! I imagine one might have had to work very hard to remove it (from a male point of view)! Curious though, how many pounds or Spanish dollars would this have cost? Would the makers ever barter? Could I have traded some livestock or homemade whiskey or an acre of corn for one of these?

Isobel Carr said...

When I did a sack gown workshop with her, we weren’t quite so fast, LOL! Mind you, many of us were learning the stitches and Janea also had to teach us the basics of how the gown was draped and stop to explain lots of stuff as we went along. It took ten of us all day Saturday to construct the basic gown and then Janea trimmed it on Sunday while we broke into teams to pattern our own. It was one of the best weekends of my life!!!

Cynthia Chin said...

I saw the original gown from the DeWitt Wallace museum while
researching with Linda Baumgarten:

What a fabulous experience!!

Unknown said...

This gown is looking gorgeous mainly because of the combination of two colors. Giving an out class look.A good suggestion for Women's shopping.

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