Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Guts - Inspecting the Insides of 18th Century Garments

Vintage Textile, c. 1780s (click through for more). This is the waist edge at the center back of the bodice.

Lauren here >

Historical costuming is a journey. It starts with an interest, grows into experimentation, and somewhere along the way it might turn in to ... well ... obsession. ;-)

For me, over the years I've become more and more interested in the original construction techniques of various garments. I know how things are put together today but how did mantua-makers in the past approach garment-making? We face the same challenges across the centuries - draping, fitting, setting sleeves (ugh!) - but we come at them from different perspectives and experiences.

The back of the bodice, interior - what do you see? There are boning channels at the center back. The armscyes are left raw; there's some top stitching and facing around the neckline; I see two whipped seams either side of the CB; the side back seam was finished in the lining then the outer fabric applied and top stitched. The more we look, the more clues are revealed. Vintage Textile - click through for more.

With 18th century dress I'm fascinated by the "order of operations." The Georgian mantua-maker seemed to do everything in reverse, fitting the lining of the gown first, then building the glorious outer garment atop, making heavy use of top/visible stitching and working from the outside of the garment.

They appeared to give few hoots about interior finishing. The interiors of surviving 18th century gowns are often a hot mess. Many a gown shows raw edges at the waist seam and armscyes. At the same time, some archaic stitch techniques were used to produce clean and efficient seams.

Vintage Textile - gown - 1770s-80s. This is the center back where the skirt is stitched to the bodice. Feel better now?
This idea of efficiency seemed to override everything else - how quickly can the garment be put together, and how quickly can it be disassembled and re-made? How easily can your milliner get that old trim off and get the new, fashionable trims on? 18th century people were an impatient lot - they expected their gowns fast and the milliners and mantua-makers obliged. Fabulous on the outside, janky on the inside.

The interior of a sacque gown, showing the back. eBay listing (click through for more)
So next time you're beating yourself up over the wack interior of your Georgian dress, cut yourself some slack. <3

For *lots* more Georgian gown interiors, check out our Pinterest board.
To learn how to construct these gowns by hand with the original methods, pre-order The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.


  1. You know after a six-post-long lecture on research, you should not label this particular post "research".

    For your pictorial evidence you are literally just taking other people's pinterest collections wholesale - along with the jaunty descriptions. And you take both at face value. (Or is "ex-Francaise" a technical term I never heard of?) There is no editorialization here or even a good selection: the "1780s Francaise" pin is without any attribution, source or alternative view and might not be an original. The fact that it is a *1780s* robe à la francaise should ring a few alarm bells.

    And your point? Yes, some of these dresses are shoddily finished. But a lot of others are good on the inside, the court gown bodice in your pin collection is practically perfect. You would not get a better looking one from any haute couture's atelier.

    This is not research and this is not an informative post. It's an informercial using other people's shoddy research.

    1. Sorry you didn't like the post. Pinterest is just a place to corral images and study later on. I didn't say that all 18th century gown interiors are rough, just that a lot of them are, with pictures here in the post to illustrate. By the way, if you click through these photos in the blog post (not the Pinterest board) you'll find more information on each gown, and more photos.

      My point is not that the gowns are shoddily finished but that by today's standards of "perfect inside and out," the linings are often left raw on edges and the stitches rough. That's all.

      By the way, you might want to do a little more research if you think sacques didn't exist in the 1780s.

    2. I love the blog and steadfastly wish that know it all trolls who sign things "Anonymous" would roam elsewhere to peddle their poison. This blog was of great value to me while costuming "She Stoops To Conquer." Keep up the excellent work. Hopefully anon will get the sacque!

  2. Ummm... I just wanted to post and not be upset like the comment above. I always enjoy your posts even though I have NO interest in historical sewing! Keep up the good work! <3

  3. I for one am glad they left interior seams raw, because I hate finishing them!

  4. There is a lesson here (well there are a number of lessons, but this one I want to point out). That lesson is that we can't assume that simply because a garment was entirely hand-made in a prior age doesn't mean it was made with perfect stitching and is meticulously finished, inside and out. The 18th century was disinterested in meticulous finishing and you state the reason why--they had gowns re-made so often. Medieval clothing, in contrast, was typically sewn to be wearable a long time. Different periods had different ideas about what was "economical" and practical in clothing.

    1. That's fascinating about medieval dress. I had no idea, but it makes sense!

  5. Thank you for sharing your observations and thoughts! Your posts are always so interesting and informative.

    Re the neat insides of court gowns... there's an explanation for this, and it doesn't just apply to top-of-the-line clothes. In Germany and other parts of Northern Europe, court gowns as well as most other women's clothes were sewn by male tailors. The guilds were strong, and resisted the introduction of mantua-makers for a long time. And the guilds upheld quality standards, not just for royal orders bur for mundane clothes as well. So, whether the interior finishes of 18th century clothes are nice or shoddy largely depends on where the clothes where made. In some countries, tailors worked within a guild tradition; in other countries independent mantua-makers set their own quality standards. :-) (In a forum post, someone had studied an 18th century woman's jacket in a US collection and was astonished to see that the interior very neatly finished - my interpretation was that it might have been the work of an immigrated German tailor.)

    1. That is a very good point. It wasn't just exclusive to Germany either - you get this transition in England as well, from tailors to mantua-makers, and as you point out, some garments remained the work of tailors, like the court gowns and riding clothes.

    2. True! But the transition in England happened about a century earlier than in Northern Europe, so tailors in Germany etc kept sewing ordinary women's gowns at a time when British tailors had left it to the mantua-makers. There's a Swedish dissertation on this subject, I've posted a summary here:

  6. I'm not really sure why "Anonymous" said this shouldn't be labeled research. Research doesn't have to be done with an academic voice, and I loved this post, because it fascinates me to see the insides of the dress.
    Also, I really laughed at the "some random Pinterest board," when I clicked through and saw it was YOUR random Pinterest board.

  7. Well, funnily enough this post might just be the kick in the pants I need to submit for publication a piece of research I've been sitting on for a few years now. My MA research was on 18th century women's clothing construction in England and the working lives of needlewomen. I wrote an article based on this and have been wondering about submitting it to Costume. I think now I will as it appears it may really be relevant after all.

    The position you present is of long standing, espoused by such titans of dress history studies as Janet Arnold, Anne Buck and Madeleine Ginsburg, o it's entirely understandable. However, they were all working approximately 40 years ago, the field has been moving on, especially within the last 10-20 yrs. My research challenges this perspective based on 2 major factors:

    1. Which you actually do touch on in a way - that the approach and sensibilities towards women's dress construction at the time was very different from our own. To which end, I do not think it appropriate to make value-based comparisons between pre- and post-industrial work. What was actually considered "neat and tidy" work in the 18th century meant something different than it does today. Even with regards to raw edges at armholes and waist seams, these are not random actions. These are very consistently the *only* raw edges on the insides of women's 18th century gowns - this was intentional.

    2. Chances are, when you see a really messy 18th century gown interior it's because it was altered later in the 19th century for use as a costume (theatre or fancy dress). I have examined, up close and in detail, inside and out, 400+ women's 18th century garments in the UK, Canada and the US (so - I am speaking primarily of the English-speaking world, less so continental Europe) and approximately 90% of those show evidence of alteration in one form or another (which topic actually formed my PhD work, during which I performed 3/4 of my object-based research). The single most common type of alteration amongst these was later 19th century interference for costume-use purposes. Examining the few un-altered garments that survive one finds extremely neat and tidy stitching with very consistent techniques used throughout the century and across distances. Again, *only* armholes and waist seams are ever left raw-edged. Even when these garments were altered during the 18th century the work tends to be fairly neat - understandable when you consider how valuable clothing was. It's only when you get into alterations made a century or so later when the garment is not valued as clothing anymore but is relegated to playing dress-up that really shoddy workmanship is in evidence.

    I could go on and on in more detail but I should probably save something for the article itself, lol! However, this has also given me an idea for possible posts on my own blog. Perhaps I should put more effort into sharing some of my research on there, what you share here is so often so helpful!

    It took years and careful examination of literally hundreds of garments for me to feel confident in making my claims so I hope you don't think I'm criticizing you - I love you and what you do!!!

    1. Oh PLEASE publish your paper! Yes, please! I think this is a fascinating subject and should be talked about more. Your article would be fantastic and extremely helpful.

    2. @themodernmantuamaker Thank you for your comments! I was not aware that there was a pattern in 18th c dress as to *which* seams were left unfinished. I too would find your paper interesting. Would you be willing to comment again and give us a general idea as to why that was so?

  8. With you, always, Lauren. Love your blog, your posts, your patterns. Someday, someday, I'll sew again.