Pieces of Me – Remaking an 18th Century Gown

Sacque gown, partially deconstructed, 1765-69 – National Trust NT 1350856

It’s commonly known that 18th century dress textiles were made and remade and remade again. A great many extant gowns in museum collections show evidence of being altered – some of them in the 19th century (darts, omg) and some of them in the 18th century.

Some of my favorite museum pieces are 1840s gowns made from great great grandma’s old 1740s Spitalfields brocade. Can you imagine slicing into a century-old textile and refashioning it into a gown for yourself?

It was common and expected, though. And pretty cool! It’s like dress history geology – a core sample of sedimentary mantua-making rock revealing layers and layers going back in time to the origin. Just how many incarnations has one silk fabric undergone? {nerd moment}

This year for the Costume College gala I want to finally make my version of the Madame Guimard portrait.

Portrait of Madame Guimard by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, c. 1790 – LACMA

I’ve broken down the many layers of this stage costume into three main parts: the robe, the gown, and the petticoat (or possibly harem-type pants, which is what I’d like to make). For the gown, the yellow part, I plan to make an Italian gown that can be worn on its own. I love versatility.

I happen to have a yellow gown already. Or, well….I had.

My Costume College gala dress last year was a 1750s gold shot taffeta English gown. I loved it, but I also love cheese and Starbucks, so I can no longer get the thing on (along with most of my other costumes. Joy). Here enters the idea to pick apart and re-make it.

Alas, this gown – in this incarnation – is no more. I still have the petticoat and stomacher.

What a great way to study a mantua-maker’s experience. In picking apart the dress, small but significant discoveries come to light. Some are really obvious – boy these hand stitches are easy to pick, while my regret in that one machine-sewn seam is palpable. Also, the amount of fabric in a pleated back, and a particularly cool discovery of pulling apart pleated robings to find they form that recognizable 1770s squared-off bodice front perfectly. Additionally, there’s no need to re-cut or sew the sleeves. They’re still assembled, sans cuffs, ready to be set in again and re-trimmed.

The English gown picked apart. I left the creases in to show what everything used to be. There’s quite a lot of textile here waiting to be refashioned.

The next step is to press all this out and carefully re-cut what’s needed. I look forward to the discoveries at this part of the project too, and sharing the process with you.

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