A New 1780s CandyStripe Italian Gown

Italian gown – The Met – 1785-87 C.I.66.39a-b

Well, I just can’t stay away from the late 18th century (can you blame me?). There is just so much to be explored in the last quarter, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on the 1780s, which was such a wacky-ass decade for ladies’ dress.

Pink and ivory striped silk taffeta. I had to wash this to get some black marks out of the previous hem, and the fabric lost some of its body and lustre – the hatch marks you see on the surface are from washing it. Still workable and pretty, though.

I’ve had this pink and ivory striped taffeta in my care for a long time. I originally made it into a mid-Victorian ballgown and absolutely loved that dress, but it’s been quite some time since I’ve been able to fit into it. In the spirit of the mantua-maker, it was time to recycle this beautiful fabric into something else.

The pink and ivory striped 1785 Italian Gown from The Met – the one we all know and love – immediately came to mind. The scale of my stripe is a little bigger, but not outside acceptable scale for 1780s gowns.

Italian gown – The Met – 1785-87 C.I.66.39a-b

I only have 4.5 yards of striped fabric, so I won’t be able to get the petticoat out of it. I’ve also made some changes to the design for economical cutting – I’ve omitted the flippy-flappies and the zone. I’m sticking with 5/8 length sleeves and may try the pinked edges for the cuffs and possibly the skirt edges too, which is a fun detail you see in 1780s fashion plates and a few originals.

So far the construction has gone well. I’ve used the basic 18th century bodice block Abby draped on me at Rufflecon last year, but already made a mistake here and there (as usual!). The first is that I didn’t add enough allowance on the center front overlap, so I had to try’n eek that out with a narrower seam allowance and fitting through the side back seams.

English Stitch on the back seams – this is used for the CB seam and the two on the sides, joining the multiple back pieces that make Italian Gown backs so interesting. For more information on the English Stitch, see pages 13 and 139 in “The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.”

The CB seam joined by English Stitch, then pressed out flat. I’ve also go boning channels in the CB seam allowance, accessible by those two eyelets, so I can remove the bones later. The boning just at CB keep that deep center point behaving.

The completed back – CB and two side back seams all joined by English Stitch, then all pieces pressed out flat.

The greater mistake I made was in cutting the stripe on the slight bias for the front piece of the bodice. Now normally you want the bodice front cut on the bias because it allows a smooth fit over the stays. In the case of stripes, though, having a “V” design at the center front causes all kinds of visual difficulty with a pin-front closure. Those Georgian mantua-makers knew what they were doing when they cut these gown fronts on the straight:

Italian Gown – V&A – 1775, T.9&A-1972
Robe a l’Anglaise – LACMA – 1785-90, M.2007.211.931

I ended up re-cutting one side of my stripes so the overlap, when pinned *just so* will hopefully result in a perfect “V,” but just in case that doesn’t actually happen, my plan is to hide it under an enormous bow and/or the crossed tails of a fluffy kerchief.

I have precious little fabric to re-cut from, but I felt this was worth the piecing that will inevitable come later…

The CF now has an overlap so I can pin it and the V stripes should – hopefully – look alright.

There is too much margin of error here to ever cut a striped bodice on the bias again – lesson learned – but it looks alright for now, just roughly pinned like this.

So far so good, then. I have some more challenges ahead of me with potentially needing to piece the skirt at the waist to get enough length to go over the split bum, and also eeking out the sleeves from the very small amount of fabric I have left. In the words of Tim Gunn….”make it work!”


  • Unknown

    December 18, 2017 at 11:08 PM

    I'm impressed with the ambitious fabric matching when you have so little material! And I love seeing the authentic techniques…really need to try those out on my next 18th c. piece. It looks great so far, I look forward to seeing it develop further!

    • Lauren Stowell

      December 20, 2017 at 8:40 PM

      I'm not a genius at cutting stripes the way you are, lol. If they come close-ish to matching, I'll be happy, but I wish I'd just cut them on the straight like the original. There would have been a more wrinkly bodice perhaps, but less noticeable than stripes that are off. :-

  • Nancy Nichols

    December 19, 2017 at 1:10 PM

    Fabulous, Lauren, and this is so close to that orig fabric! When I heard you were short of fabric my first thought was "wait, don't I have stripes somewhere that could make a petticoat?" Then, as a corner cutting costumer — not a historical re-enactor, and I realize not your style at all, I thought that the zone front look could be achieved with a bias strip slip stitched on each side of the front. This would also satisfy one of my costuming requirements for actors in the summer — as few layers and as light as possible!

    • Lauren Stowell

      December 20, 2017 at 8:39 PM

      Absolutely – you can get a zone-front look with just a strip of trim (they did it often with gathered organza or even fringe sometimes). In hindsight, I think the zone fronts are actually very economical for cutting if you're needing to piece stuff, so maybe it would have actually been better to cut the zone for this bodice. 😀

  • Anonymous

    December 20, 2017 at 2:05 PM

    Hi Lauren, it looks great so far, I'm very much looking forward to seeing the finished dress. Your text sparked a question for me, though: Don't you wash new fabrics when making historical dresses? I'm quite new to sewing and I have been wondering how you would clean a garment after its worn – I'm making my first late 18th century dress and even though it is still far from being finished I'm already wondering. Do you just air or febreze the dresses or handwash them?



    • Lauren Stowell

      December 20, 2017 at 8:37 PM

      Hi Alexandra – I don't usually wash silk before I make it into a dress. I washed this silk because it had a horrid blackening where the previous hem was and I was hoping to get it out. In hindsight I should've just cut around it, because the hand and lustre of the taffeta changed a lot.

      I DO, however, wash cotton and linen. Those gowns can be washed by hand later on, so I pre-wash the fabric to get the sizing out and pre-shrink it.

      I don't wash wool prior to using it. It's also a hand-washable fiber with air-drying only. I do more airing-out of wool.

      A good all-rounder for de-stinking is cheap vodka sprayed on, but there's only so far that'll take you. I would skip Febreze – it just masks the smell with another smell, which can end up being a terrible combo-smell.

  • Anonymous

    January 14, 2018 at 11:53 PM

    Question, if you can get around to it. Isn't the front supposed to be cut on the bias? I have a lovely green stripe I want to make into an Italian gown, but I was wondering about the direction of the stripes and if it would look good on the bias.
    It looks lovely!

  • Anonymous

    January 17, 2018 at 4:51 PM

    Hello! This looks gorgeous! I'm creating an Italian gown bodice based on the pattern in your book and I had a question about altering the size. If I find that, after making a mock-up, it doesn't meet in the front, do I just add inches to the center front and it will still look right? Still kind of new to this. Thanks! 🙂

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