Revolution Dress – A Better Idea of What the Heck I’m Doing

The idea of how this gown, “the Revolution Dress,” is going to come together has been milling around in my head for a couple weeks now, in a somewhat nebulous form.  Luckily fashion plates and two new, fantastic books have pinned down the design.

Thanks to Costume in Detail: 1730-1930 and Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790, I’ve learned SO much about proper 18th c. patterning and sewing techniques, and am excited to get crackin’ on this early 1780s polonaise, using some of the new things I’ve learned.

But first, the design:

Click for a larger image.

I’ve decided to face my fear and do the back en fourreau, also known as “the English back.”  Some draping experiments, and cross-referencing Costume Close Up  (gown #3, pgs 24-28) helped me figure it out.  It’s so oddly like the French saque back, and I can see already how useful it will be in fitting the bodice perfectly to the wearer.

Here’s a little diagram of the back:

I’ve been looking at the English backs in Costume in Detail: 1730-1930, specifically the English backs + Polonaise, such as the gown seen on page 49.  The book has a great chunk of pages on Polonaise’d gowns, incredibly helpful, pgs 49-66.  Costume Close Up‘s example (gown #3) is also an English back as a polonaise.

I traced over the draped muslin in red so you can see it, otherwise it’s just a blob of white-ness.

The front, one solid piece with the strap that attaches both front and back, as seen on the gown in Costume Close-up, pg 49

Normally, now, I would spend several hours adjusting my draped pattern to fit my actual body, as opposed to my dress form.  I’m long in the torso, and my stayed waist measurement is smaller than my dress form can adjust down.  This is quite frustrating, and more often than not leads to garments that fit not-quite-right.

I’ve decided to *hopefully* fix this problem with a new dress form.  She’s actually a store display mannequin, but what I like about her is that her waist measurement is smaller than mine corseted, whereas her bust and hip are my natural measures, which means I can give her a batting wrap through the middle and put my stays on her for not only an accurate measurement around, but the proper length of waist.  She also has bendy arms, which I’m ridiculously excited about because they can be posed (even the fingers!), but more importantly used to fit sleeve heads over the shoulder cap of the arm, something missing in my other dressmaker’s dummies.

I got blondie, on the left.

Nameless Mannequin came from a website called StoreFixtures,USA, and cost just over $100 shipped.  Pretty flippin’ affordable compared to other dressforms.  I’ll do a review once she gets here and I’ve had a chance to work with her, and also hold off on continuing the patterning until she arrives.


  • Sanna K

    May 5, 2011 at 8:03 AM

    Oh, that's a simple but pretty design! Specially I like the hat and the buttons!

    I really should buy a dressform, too… And wow, bendy arms, that's so great!

  • Cynthia Griffith

    May 5, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    I hope the new dressform works for you. It's so frustrating trying to fit things perfectly with corsets and stays involved. A friend recently made a tape dressform for me, and although it's slightly wider (I know not to make things exactly to it in the front), it was a dream working on the back and armhole seams! I only wish I was able to put my stays on it, but I don't want to crush it.

    And this seems to be my mantra lately, but I definitely need to get more books. Once I've cranked out more outfits that I need, I would love to be able to really focus on the details of future garments.

    Best wishes!

  • Rowenna

    May 5, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    I love it! Costume Close-Up helped me a ton, too, in understanding the en fourreau back–I think Fitting and Proper may have one, too?

    Can't wait to hear how the dressform works–I neeeeds one 🙂 so I'm looking forward to your review! My current method involves lacing my stays on a pillow. Not exactly scientific!

    By the by–do you have a reference to an original or portrait with the button front like your beautiful design has? I've only seen faux-button-front stomachers and riding habits and would love to find more button-y examples! (I like buttons 🙂 )

  • Anonymous

    May 5, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    Ooh, this is looking like a fabulous design! I can't wait to see it in action!

    As always, Madame Duchess, thank you for sharing your finds and experiments with us – the en fourreau back is now making a lot more sense to me!

  • ZipZip

    May 5, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    Dear Lauren,

    Now there's a good idea, color in the muslin so we can see the pattern pieces on the model. How eye-opening!

    Very best, and have fun. I've only done 1790s so far, but the eighteenth century way of constructing garments is logical, economical, and sturdy, and creates a superb fit, and all you need is needle, thimble, scissors and thread, and you're in business. I'll have a hard time ever going back to Edwardian. Have fun!

  • Lauren Stowell

    May 6, 2011 at 12:04 AM

    Thanks, guys. I'll let you guys know how the dress form goes. I have high expectations, hope they aren't disappointed!

    Rowenna – I'll need to dig through and find some references for that button front, but as of right now I don't have a specific reference. I was thinking redingotes and riding habits, and that peculiar style of the 1780s and 90s, with the double-breasted "menswear" look. Inspiration for the style of buttons was the 1790 striped jacket in the KCI, with those big metal buttons, but even that is double-breasted.

  • Katinka

    May 6, 2011 at 9:15 AM

    When I was looking for a dress form, I opted for a display form as well, and for the same reason of long-waistedness! I hope that it works out as well for you as it has for me!

  • Margravine Louisa

    May 6, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    I think you are absolutely brilliant! and wish you would consider putting on workshops!
    You could make a fortune. thanks for the tip on the mannequin

  • Lauren Stowell

    May 6, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    Rowenna, I went on a little quest for the button-front reference – KCI has one on their "Revolution Dress," page 125 in the "Fashion" book. It's technically a zone front, but not by much. I'll keep my eye out for more extant examples, or portraits.

    @Katinka – that gives me great hope!

  • Unknown

    May 6, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    Lauren, have you read "What Clothes Reveal" by Linda Baumgarten (Yale UP 2003)? It's a *really* great 18th century clothing resource. Your public library might have a copy. It's a bit pricey ($65 through is the best price online) but it's full of color photographs definitely worth the investment.

    Also, regarding the button comment, CW is currently exhibiting a gown (Acc. No. 1991-474,A) in the "Conservation: Where Art and Science Meet" exhibit. Unfortunately the picture on their eMuseum doesn't show the front and the description calls it a stomacher. When I saw the dress it didn't look like an open front English gown but rather resembled the closed front gown like you've designed.

  • Lauren Stowell

    May 6, 2011 at 11:36 PM

    Sew, I will totally add that book to my wishlist. Linda is one of my heroes! Thank you for the source on the dress with buttons, too, that is very helpful. I don't mind "going rogue," as I'm more of a "get the look" person, but I know a lot of people who read this blog want me to cite sources and be able to back up my choices, so I'm always looking for an example from primary source material that I can refer back to.

  • Unknown

    August 30, 2012 at 11:11 PM

    My 4 year old daughter with pure glee made me stop scrolling through the page by squeeling "mommy thats it, thats my dress for halloween!!" She has decided to be a historical witch. Mostly due to the full skirts and fantastic hats, i am happy she decided that. I was wondering when you did the back draping, how wide was the fabric you used?

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