Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What the French Lady Wore, 1780

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Isabella reporting,

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, top left, 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.


Shelley Munro said...

What a gorgeous gown. I can't get over the speed in which they used to make these gowns. It was truly amazing considering they were all done by hand.

Anonymous said...

Taking her posture into account, I am NOT impressed with the fit and finishing. These ladies have the skills, but the speed counts for nothing if it has to be redone.

Abby said...

Anon: It is difficult to see in the picture and in the original gown, but the gown, being a polonaise, is meant to flow away from the body. It connects at the top center front and is cut away. Add to this, we opted to make it a stomacher front, so there is nothing closely fit to the torso. Making these decisions helped create a silk gown that was a bit more practical to wear in the summer, in Virginia. Summer in Virginia meant wearing the clothing a little loser, and not as tight. That extra air circulation (flowing around the entire torso) is greatly appreciated in 95*F and 90% humidity.

Cynthia Chin said...

I witnessed the creation of this gown (even basted nearly a yard myself) and can attest to the excellence of workmanship of this and all other gowns produced in the shop. This isn't the first time these ladies have sewn under a time constraint and in every instance their efforts yield an accurate product of consistent quality. As Abby commented, the gown is a polonaise and by design flows freely.

Karen Anne said...

I think it's gorgeous, and it copies the lines of the print exactly.

What a wonderful skill to have. I can sew, but I've never attempted anything like that.

Anonymous said...

Given the availability of perfectly matching fresh flowers I wonder if a lady of fashion might have used them to temporarily replace the blue bows on her bonnet?

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