In Defense of Faux Silk – The Revolution Dress in Colonial Williamsburg

Day two in Colonial Williamsburg – it was pouring down rain all day.

This post will probably ruffle some feathers, but I feel compelled to report on my experience concerning faux silk – yup, polyester, the fake stuff – and the day I was never so happy to have a polyester dress in my life.

I have been to Colonial Williamsburg three times now, three different times of year, and each time it has rained.

I hate the rain, but my silk gowns hate the rain even more. I will survive, but silk taffeta dresses will not. So what’s a pretty pretty princess to do? I wasn’t about to sit home and mope – I flew all the way across the country to play dress-up in Williamsburg, and by golly, I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me!

Except it did stop me. I was freaking miserable. My feet were wet, my epic silk bonnet was soaked, my cotton petticoat was sagging, but what still looked great?

…my faux silk dress.

This dress is completely soaked – you can see it’s a little darker where it is most wet, but it still retained its puff in the skirt

Now, not all polyester taffeta is created equal. There is a lot of poor-quality faux silks out there, fabrics that look as fake as they are, that are difficult to sew, that have poor hand and no crush factor. These, I implore you, are to be avoided.

But there are *good* faux silks out there too. Really good. Can-hardly-tell-the-difference good. Easy to sew, easy to press, correct sheen. These polyesters are fantastic fabrics to use for wet-weather costuming.

Polyester is an interesting fabric. It’s hydrophobic, which means that moisture is dispersed evenly through the fibers. So when the rain attacked me in my red dress, I was wet through, but you couldn’t tell by looking at me. The faux silk did not keep me dry, but the fit, shape, and puff of the gown were unaffected. Most importantly, I did not worry about the dress, whereas if I had chosen to wear The Creature that day, it would have been utterly, permanently melted within minutes.

We’re smiling, somehow. I was happy to be inside.

The argument, of course, is to wear natural, historical fibers like linen, cotton, and wool. Fair enough, and I agree, but there are also times when you just want to be a princess. There are times when your treasury may not allow for a real silk gown. There are times when it’s going to rain on your holiday, but you’re still going to get dressed and go out. Those are the times for a good faux silk gown.

There are times not for a good faux silk gown, too. Skip the faux silk when it’s going to be hot. Skip it when you’re attending an event where you may be scrutinized for historical accuracy. Avoid faux silks if you are going to be interacting with fire, open flame, ovens, etc. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason in choosing a faux silk over a real one or another fiber, skip it.

How to choose a good faux silk?  The best way is to take a piece of real silk taffeta with you when you visit the fabric store. Be very diligent in comparing the real and the faux:

  • look at the sheen – avoid shot (iridescent) poly taffetas
  • avoid anything that looks or feels like plastic
  • compare the fabric weights and hands (drape)
  • crumple the fabric in your fist and see how it reacts when released. You want it to “crush,” not spring back to its original shape right away.
  • try the upholstery section rather than the fashion fabrics


  • Jenny

    June 15, 2015 at 10:34 PM

    I have made a few gowns out of faux silk and you CAN find the stuff at drapery stores and in the home dec areas. It looks and feel like silk but you can throw it in the wash and voila! It's as good as new!
    I for one cannot afford real silk for every event and I am often dancing and sweating and spilling champagne (ok not often) so I NEED washables! Thank you for the post!

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 15, 2015 at 11:03 PM

      I once spilled lemonade all over a vintage 1950s taffeta dress….I freaked out, but thank goodness it was cleanable. I'd like to not repeat that experience again!

  • Anonymous

    June 15, 2015 at 10:59 PM

    Great tips, Lauren, and let's hear it for faux silk! Now, I'm usually a silk snob, but there's a time and a place for the real stuff and for the fake stuff.
    For a Steampunk ensemble I used a gorgeous–absolutely gorgeous–faux silk taffeta in an iridescent plaid (purple, blueberry, magenta–delicious colors!) that I found in the holiday collections aisle of the local JoAnn's. It was a heck of a lot cheaper than real silk, it's beautiful, it crushes and scroops almost like real taffeta, and it has a beautiful hand, drape, and sheen. I love it. Best of all: throw it in the wash. Sure, it wears like a raincoat for dancing, but real silk would be almost as hot AND get sweat-stained. I even purchased some more from the same collection for another Steampunk ensemble. Honestly, I wish they'd make more of it. Since I'm using it for non-historical 'period' dress-up, I don't care that it's not real. But even if I was going for a period-accurate appearance, I don't think I'd have a big problem with it. Most people are utterly convinced that it's silk taffeta.

  • Emileigh

    June 15, 2015 at 11:01 PM

    Such a RELIEF! I was just thinking about starting some sort of historical costuming, but I've always been put off by the idea that I had to invest in the real, expensive stuff for every piece. (Especially as a beginner, that just seems like throwing money away in the learning process!) This makes me feel a lot better about finding a good, but cheaper, option and being okay with it.

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 15, 2015 at 11:06 PM

      Just be very picky in what you choose for a faux silk. VERY picky. Don't discount the use of cotton, too, though – great to learn on, cheap, and 100% accurate ๐Ÿ™‚

  • DLM

    June 15, 2015 at 11:14 PM

    I had this experience with a vintage New Look dress in a still-stunning magenta faux silk moire, which wore gorgeously all night long and then was sopping wet by the time I made it to my car in the rain. The dress is actually fascinating, in construction and provenance (made in the UK and large enough to fit me, which is extremely rare; it's a modern American fourteen or so). But it dried PERFECTLY and the moire was just as beautiful after as before. It's well made and also enduringly beautiful.

    Your faux silk is lovely, and … yep, still not tired of that bonnet!

  • Gina

    June 16, 2015 at 12:16 AM

    Excellently written Lauren! I use faux silk when I can't find the color in silk I am looking for and when my pocket book looks at me askance, cackles maniacally, and says, "Yaaaaaah, I don't think we can swing this at this time." There are some pretty fabulous faux out there!! Your red dress looks incredible!!!

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:14 PM

      Indeed! And thank you! My pocketbook sometimes looks at me askance too, lol. In the case of the red dress, I made it quite awhile ago, when we'd first started the shoe company, so my pocketbook at that time was screaming even over the faux stuff!

  • Time Traveling in Costume

    June 16, 2015 at 3:20 AM

    Yay for faux silk! I'm all for it, and I tell anyone who asks that its a silk blend, aka faux. And you're right, it looks, feels, and handles like the real stuff, and it machine washes. I can make many more dresses and make more mistakes, using it.
    Now I just wished somone would make printed faux silk in florals and stripes and spots.

  • Morgana

    June 16, 2015 at 3:23 AM

    Wow, it really does look just as amazing as real silk! That is such a beautiful dress – and the colour! So incredible!
    The trouble is for me, I live in a fairly isolated area and the local fabric shops don't have anything even resembling silk – so it's order online or nothing, which makes it hard to judge the quality! Anyone have any tips for ordering good quality artificial silk online? That might ship to Australia? ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:14 PM

      Yes, in this case I would say don't try to order it online. It has to be seen and felt in person, otherwise you have no idea what may arrive ๐Ÿ™

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:15 PM

      It's definitely a process. I would say familiarize yourself very well with the natural fibers of the period, so you know what will and won't work in a blend of synthetic.

  • Morgana

    June 16, 2015 at 7:33 AM

    Wow, it really does look just as amazing as real silk! That is such a beautiful dress – and the colour! So incredible!
    The trouble is for me, I live in a fairly isolated area and the local fabric shops don't have anything even resembling silk – so it's order online or nothing, which makes it hard to judge the quality! Anyone have any tips for ordering good quality artificial silk online? That might ship to Australia? ๐Ÿ˜€

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    June 16, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    LOL, in 25 years time you will feel differently – polyester and I are no longer on speaking terms EVER. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I am so pleased you weren't totally rained out, and I love the Lauren's colour co-ordinating. I miss Our Lady's blog posts.:(

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:17 PM

      In 25 years time I bet the polyester stuff will either no longer exist (it's a product of oil, afterall), or be so good we won't be able to tell the difference, or silk will be so expensive and rare that none of us will be able to afford it even for a splurge. I like to think we'll all go back to natural farming and fiber production, though. I hope that's where the world is heading ๐Ÿ™‚

    • MrsC (Maryanne)

      June 17, 2015 at 9:46 AM

      I like that idea! I was referring to the breathability of it when you get a that certain age women do and hot flushes become a permanent unwelcome guest however ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • NanaBrauner

    June 16, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    I agree! The dress is beautiful and looks totally accurate!

    It also happens with wools, etc. If you choose the right one, the differences are slightly visible. Natural fibers also shine!

    In addition, I decided to avoid silk as long as I have a cruelty-free alternative. If I don't wear real fur… why would I wear a fabric which process involves boiling silkworms alive?…

  • M'lady

    June 16, 2015 at 10:30 AM

    I've used curtain material (faux silk) for my red 18thC dress and I love I can get the look without the worry. Plus it was cheaper than buying 100% cotton! Fortunately I wear it for comicons so no one is checking the HA factor.

  • Unknown

    June 16, 2015 at 5:00 PM

    I played the young Queen Victoria for a historical interpretation company around 10 years ago, and the role involved being outdoors at garden parties in the grounds of many UK stately homes – in all weathers. Thank God for faux silk! My 2 dresses, made by me, survived 4 summers of intense heat, driving rain, showers and mud, as well as having a couple of ice creams dropped on them by toddlers who came tottering over to kiss the Queen! They went in the washing machine and came out looking fine. Well done Lauren! You look fab, as always.

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:19 PM

      There's definitely a time and a place for faux silk – being the queen vs. toddlers, caught in a rainstorm, etc – just like there's a time and a place for real silk, too. ๐Ÿ™‚ I'm sure this post ruffled more than a few feathers, but hopefully they'll understand (plus the next post is about an all-hand-sewn silk and repro cotton costume)

  • Rowenna

    June 16, 2015 at 5:22 PM

    I also think we can't forget how many non-silk options there are, too. Wool, linen, and cotton won't be negatively affected by a little (or a lot of) rain, are typically washable or dry-cleanable, and any or all may be good choices for the garment you want to make. If using manmade fibers doesn't conflict with your goals, peachy! But if it does, there are LOTS of non-silk options to play with. Sometimes I think silk gets put on a pedestal (Making new gown, ZOMG it must be silk)–but one of the fun things about both costuming and reenacting is exploring the variety available to us!

    And I am totally behind you on NEVER wearing polyester around an open flame or fire. The melt potential from an accident is nightmare fodder.

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:23 PM

      Definitely. Wool, linen, cotton, all natural fibers, period fibers, and well-suited to bad weather. I was so thankful to have the Chemise a la Reine, as it was an amazingly practical dress in the rain as well as the heat. I also spent a good 45 minutes hiding inside one of the house tours because it suddenly started pouring on an otherwise sunny day when I'd chosen to wear a silk taffeta petticoat. The women of the time must've dealt with these things too – choosing the wrong dress on the wrong day, lol.

  • Anonymous

    June 16, 2015 at 6:01 PM

    The idea of faux silk is tempting. It's cheap, it's (sometimes) very close to the real thing, you can throw it in the wash and it can weather the rain. But there is one drawback that I just cannot ignore – the most expensive thing about my gowns is never the fabric, it's always the time I invest in them. The math never works in favor of faux silk.

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:26 PM

      Indeed, it is the time and effort that goes into the gown that is the most "expensive," but just imagine for a moment that you spent all that time and effort to make a splendid dress to wear to a historic site, you wear it, and it suddenly starts pouring down rain. Your dress is ruined, utterly ruined. That's exactly why I took this faux silk red dress to Williamsburg. I had planned to wear my all-silk polonaise, or the cotton jacket with the silk petticoat. Indeed, before I checked the weather, I had planned to take ALL silk gowns. I'm so glad I rethought that!!

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 16, 2015 at 8:28 PM

      See, if I'd never pointed it out, nobody would have known!

      The bonnet is awesome. I love it to pieces – consequently, it got ruined in the rain, but only the brim buckled and I just need to replace it with a new piece of cardboard. Phew!

  • Eleonora Amalia

    June 16, 2015 at 10:23 PM

    Yes! Oh, finally! Finally someone said it out loud. Non-natural fabrics are able to look as gorgeous as the natural ones and can be as comfy – if chosen properly. I recently discovered the greatness of IKEA fleece blankets, they make awesome winter jackets and are super easy to sew. (And nobody has to know that they're as close to wool as my swimsuit…)

  • Cassidy

    June 18, 2015 at 12:31 AM

    I have a contrariness problem, and so while I personally am all about fabrics that are as accurate as possible when I'm sewing, whenever I see fire safety put forth as the main reason against synthetics I get more pro-poly. It's hard to advise all people for all situations, but with the number of casual/civilian/costume events these days, it's a bit self-centered to assume that everyone's in a camp with open flames!

  • C

    June 18, 2015 at 2:27 AM

    I'm so glad you brought this up! I'm completely with you as far as how practical faux silk can be, and I really don't understand why a lot of costuming people stick their noses up at it. I made a choice to avoid polyester–unless it's "upcycled"–but that's just from an environmental standpoint, not a historical one. I'm always taking apart old curtains and practicing on those! I totally agree with your hope for natural farming and fiber production by the way. ๐Ÿ˜€

  • Anonymous

    June 18, 2015 at 3:13 AM

    I think I may need to make myself one of these! I can't really do real silk for myself in a gown, because I can't wash it. I unfortunately sweat to much to not be able to wash something. And it looks great, I would never have know it was faux if you didn't say! I do have the tendency to stick my nose up at 'fake' fabric, but I think you are absolutely right that it has a place in costuming.

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