Monday, December 23, 2019

18th Century Printed Cotton Do’s & Don’t’s

A beautiful printed cotton gown, 1785-95. The Met.
A very condensed version of this essay, without pictures, appears in The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking. Because there is *so much more* to be said about 18th century printed cottons, we're publishing the original version of this essay by Abby here. Enjoy!

A beautiful cotton printed with flowers is one of the most beloved and recognizable aesthetics of the 18th century. It’s during this century when the imported Indian fabric blows up the Georgian fashion industry. These fabrics are so popular that they come in and out of fashion even today. While this popularity of printed floral cottons can be a blessing, when pursuing an accurate 18th century look, it can be a murky swamp of confusion.

Cotton with a woven stripe and overprint - 1796 - The Met.
Not all modern floral cottons are created equal. The vast majority of printed cottons available in big box fabric stores are totally wrong for this period. It takes a careful, trained eye to spot a printed cotton appropriate for an 18th century gown. To make it even trickier, new original prints and designs are being discovered every day! To start training your eye for printed cottons the best thing to do is carefully study original gowns and fabrics in museums and pay very close attention to how they have dated the textile and the function of the textile.

Trying to create guidelines and rules for period correct printed cottons is tricky. The study of printed cottons, their design, manufacture and appearance, is complex, and as with most things historical, there are always oddities and exceptions to “the rules.” While we strongly recommend that you go down the textile rabbit hole yourself, here is a rough guide to get you started.


Today, we are so used to cotton being a cheap utilitarian fabric that it’s difficult to understand just how expensive an 18th century printed cotton could be. The more colors in a printed cotton, the more expensive it would have been. Each dye/color required a different mordant and a special application that ended with the customer shelling out serious cash for enough yardage for a gown. Keep in mind that it was not uncommon for a multicolored printed cotton to cost more than a medium-grade silk taffeta. In today’s costuming world, just because it’s cotton doesn’t mean it’s “cheap” by 18th century standards!

Examples of expensive vs. cheap printed cotton.
However, there were also cheap cottons. Fashion was big business and the lower classes also wanted to look fashionable. If you want a ‘cheap’ printed cotton for your lower class gown, look for a single or two color design with inconsistent or offset printing.


The available technology, or lack thereof, had a strong effect on printed cotton designs in the 18th century. Floral printed cottons originated in India in the 17th century and quickly became some of the most popular clothing fabrics. To create the designs, artisans would use carved wooden blocks brushed with mordant to make the dye adhere to the fabric, stamp the design on the fabric, dye the whole piece of fabric, rinsing it to reveal the stamped design, and repeat this process as needed to create their beautiful fabrics. Dyes were natural in the 18th century, primarily coming from vegetables and plants. Different dyestuffs need different mordants to fix the color onto the fabric, and so this printing method could be repeated a number of times to achieve the desired outcome.

A carved wooden block for fabric printing.
If the design contained a lot of delicate flowers, artisans would hand paint in each flower to achieve the color desired. This is why multicolored printed cottons were so incredibly expensive in the 18th century, and why the amount of color in a printed cotton correlates with its expense.

Copper plate printing, which is the method used to create the “toile” prints we are familiar with today, was developed in Ireland in the early 1750s. Though you could get incredibly detailed designs, you were restricted on single color printing with the plates, which could be hand painted in later with different colors. Roller printing was invented even later in England, in the 1790s. As an improvement on the copperplate method, roller printing helps bring the cost of printed cottons way down at the end of the 18th and early 19th century.

A copper roller printing press in Le Musee de l'Impression sur Etoffes, Mulhouse, France. 
The restrictions the artisans faced when creating their printed cottons is why it is important to view historic cotton designs and colors independently from silks and wool. Silk and wool take dye differently than cotton, resulting in a wide assortment of hues and saturation that are not achievable with cotton. Designs that could be painted or woven in silk, cannot always be recreated in cotton, and it is important to keep this in mind when you’re buying your next floral cotton fabric. Was this design achievable with 18th century technology? Am I using a painted or brocaded silk as my inspiration? Does it look like natural dye colors? Etc.

When looking at dress inspiration, be mindful of what the fabric actually is. Is the design brocaded silk, hand-painted silk, embroidery, printed cotton? Look closely and read the descriptions on museum listings. All of these are from The Met.
Scale & Density

Printed cottons were manufactured with their use in mind. The scale and density of the print played a role, with larger, sometimes denser prints often used in furnishings or surviving from earlier in the 18th century.

First, let’s talk about bed curtains or furnishing prints used for gown fabrics. Yes, gowns made out of old bed curtains do exist in museums today, but ask yourself, “is that actually commonplace and something I should do?” If your goal is to be fashionably dressed for the 1780s, the answer is probably no. Bed curtains were a luxury item unto themselves, the scale and density of the print quite larger to balance the print in correlation to the size of the bed. For most gowns the scale and density of a bed hanging is just too visually overwhelming for a body to carry off.

Notice the difference in scale between the print on the bed curtains and coverlet and the Colonial Williamsburg reproduction dress print on Lauren's jacket.
This also applies to what we call “toile” today. While there are a very small selection of original toile printed gown that survive in collections, it does not mean that you should be making a gown out of it, tempting though it may be.

This incredibly rare and unique gown is held in the Snowshill collection. It is copper-printed toile, and appears to be the only toile-printed gown of its kind known today. We don't know the context of this gown - why it was made and who wore it - but toile is most definitely NOT a common textile for clothing in the 18th century.
Another issue of scale is a matter of dating. Printed floral designs changed constantly and were subject to trends just like everything else. Typically, the bigger the print the older it is. Since older style gowns were just, well, wider all over -wide sleeves, wide hoops, robings that can make a broad-shouldered lady look like a linebacker - it makes sense that the cotton prints of that time were bigger. However, smaller scale prints with open grounds coincide with the narrower silhouette of the later 1770s, 80s, and 90s.

Thie poor sacque gown has obviously been remade and Victorian-ized, but the scale of the print would indicate that the textile is likely from the first half of the 18th century. Whitacker Auction, c. 1750-1775.
A much smaller and denser print on this 1796 gown. The Met, C.I.55.50.4

The color of the ground and flowers are other factors in selecting a printed cotton. Pay particular attention to what colors appear where on original textiles. While white grounds were arguably the most common for printed cottons, you do see that  dark brown, Turkey red, and blue were used for colorful grounds.

A dark brown ground on this c. 1774 printed cotton English gown. The Met, 26.38a

Pastel grounds, however, don't seem to exist at this time. Avoid that yellow and blue floral cotton in your local fabric store, along with pink, powder blue, or mint green. Nope. No Ma’am. Almost every printed floral cotton in your big box fabric store is going to be wrong for the 18th century.

Look closely - this is not a solid pink ground, but very dense dots (vermicelli). Manchester Art Gallery c. 1774 
Consider instead this documented reproduction from Colonial Williamsburg - a white ground with polychrome printing.
A white ground with colored flowers is the ‘safest’ choice for an 18th century gown. Shades of red, pink, blue, purple and yellow were used for flowers, while green, black, and brown were used for the vines and stems. When looking at original fabric samples in museum collections, consider as well that historic dyes were often unstable  - that brown flower was probably purple when the fabric was new.
Another good print from Colonial Williamsburg, but notice the brown flowers - the original this design was taken from probably had purple flowers.
Final thoughts

A few more thoughts on printed cottons to keep in mind when you’re going fabric shopping.

First, if it looks Victorian walk away. Saccharin cabbage roses have no place in the 18th century. Second, if the print looks like it is inspired by silk or wool damask or jacquard, leave it behind. What works for weaving, does not work for printed cottons.

It doesn't have to be complex - a simple floral or geometric design may also be very accurate. Bodice front panel of printed cotton, c. 1770-80 Platt Hall, Manchester Gallery.
Third, always exercise caution with a certain amount of forgiveness. That carefully reproduced printed cotton from a museum is a safe bet, but that does not mean they’re perfect. It is common for scale and color to be messed up in the reproduction process. Does that mean you shouldn’t use it? No, but it does mean that you should be prepared for inaccuracies that will happen. That perfect printed cotton is hard to find, and just like in the 18th century, sometimes you’re going to have to pay a lot more for it than you would for 100% silk taffeta. If you are overwhelmed by the idea of a printed cotton, but you want your gown to be made out of a cotton, remember that small stripes, polka dots, and some basic geometric shapes are totally accurate for the 18th century and are easily found in your local fabric stores!

Read More

Monday, December 16, 2019

Holiday Shipping Deadlines, 2019

Here's just a quick reminder to get your American Duchess and Royal Vintage orders in by the following dates so we can ship them out and get them to you on time:

If you're outside the continental USA, please check out this page on the USPS website for specific shipping deadlines for your part of the world.

Happy Holidays!

Read More

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Historic & Retro Winter Shoes & Boots

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane snow is glistening... <3

Here's our annual guide to this year's historic and retro winter shoes and boots from American Duchess and Royal Vintage. Now, before we start, please note that all American Duchess offerings and most of the Royal Vintage (except Alpen boots) have leather soles, which is the historically accurate material but is not the safest or most durable for winter wear. While our soles have a topical sealer applied to inhibit water and salt from soaking in too much, we highly recommend having your soles rubbered or half-rubbered at a shoe repair shop if you intend them for everyday wear in inclement weather.

So with that being said, here's what's on offer...

Londoner Edwardian Oxfords in Cherry - full-coverage, all-leather lace-up oxfords with 2 inch French heels. These shoes are solid, comfortable, and beautiful.

Vienna Victorian Booties - available in brown or black - pull-on congress gaiters with short 1.5 inch heels, all-leather construction, and adorable little bows on the softly-squared toes.

Renoir Victorian Button Boots - true side-buttoning boots with a scalloped edges, softly-squared toes, and short 1.5 inch heel. 

Camille Edwardian Boots - gorgeous leather and velveteen lace-up boots, available in black/black or burgundy/black.

Tavistock Button Boots - our classic true side-button boots with welted soles, 2 inch French heel, and pointed toes. 

Claire 1940s Oxfords - available in Army brown or black, these are a full-coverage, lace-up leather oxford with 1.6 inch heels and attractive perforation throughout.

Alpen Boots - our iconic, practical, comfortable winter booties are now avialable in brown velveteen and leather paired with natural sheepskin. RUBBER SOLES and 1.6 inch heels - warm, cozy, and cute!

Alpen Boots - RESTOCK in black/black! The original vintage winter boots in black velveteen, leather, and sheepskin. RUBBER SOLES and 1.6 inch, practical heels.

We hope you like these styles! Several of these are also available in other colors, so go have a peep at and to see our full ranges.
Read More

Friday, December 6, 2019


The Countess of Melbury's Ball c. 1789 - Inspo!

The Met, 1780s Italian gown. Inspiration for my own gown for this event.
Next March, 2020, I am attending the Countess of Melbury's Ball in Walnut Grove, California.

The event is set in 1789, and I've already been patterning and cutting, and stitching a little bit on my dress. So far it's just a plain ole Italian gown, the basic cut and construction of which carries from the mid-1770s all the way to the mid-1790s.

I like having versatility in dress (and they did too, back then), so I'm looking for ways to tether my costume to 1789 a little more specifically. Enter the fashion plates...

LACMA, fashion plate, 1789
Magasin des Modes, January 1788 - sortof a zone front robe a la turque combo.
Magasin des Modes, February 1788 - the 1780s are a lawless wasteland.
Interestingly, while I was compiling my 1788-89 Pinterest board, I didn't find much in the way of depictions of ballgowns specifically. The way I would identify evening dress is: sumptuous fabric, low, exposed decolletage, dressed hair (no hat), short sleeves (3/4 or 5/8). And yet, 99% of extant images show kerchiefs or chemisettes, hats or caps, and a lawless wasteland of styling that - to be honest - is leaving me confused!

Magasin des Modes, March 1789 - what do you think? Is this evening attire?
Ann Frankland Lewis, 1789 - notes say "The Windsor Uniform - worn at the ball at Windsor given on the King's recovery 1789." So this is specifically noted a ballgown and she appears to be wearing a kerchief and event-specific cap.
La famille Gohin by Louis-Leopold Boilly, 1787. This French portrait shows the woman in white wearing what I would identify as something appropriate for evening. I see her gown skirt is tied back in a swag in a similar way as the Ann Frankland Lewis drawing above - maybe I'll try this.
I suspect the fashion choices, and the choices about what sort of garments were depicted in paintings and fashion plates, had to do with social and political sentiment and unrest around this period. Needless to say, there was a lot going on in 1789, and generally across the history of western dress we tend to see more extravagance/expression/outlandish modes during periods of uncertainty.

It might be 1788 if you've got spots, stripes, swags, fringe, lace, scallops, AND flowers. Journal des Luxus, 1788.
So then what does this mean for my sartorial plan for evening dress of 1789? Well, jury is still out on that one. I  may experiment with contrast cuffs and collar, spangles, and a very fine silk gauze kerchief. Maybe I'll pull one side of the gown skirt back with a tie, or perhaps wear a wide fringed sash around the waist. Just a few ideas.

In the meantime, I've got the gown to construct first!

More info:

The Countess of Melbury's Ball
March 14, 2020
Grand Island Mansion
Walnut Grove, California (outside Sacramento)

The evening will include dinner, dancing, gaming, and performances. Off-site accommodation and taxi service is available.

Also, to search 18th century fashion plates by year, I highly recommend Dames a la Mode Tumblr here.

Read More

Monday, December 2, 2019


Book Review: Women of the 1920s: Style Glamour, & the Avante-Garde by Thomas Bleitner

Louise Brooks
On the eve of the 2020s, the spell of the exciting and revolutionary 1920s looms large. It was an unforgettable era with deep cultural shifts and powerful aesthetics. Women, in particular, sought new ways of expressing and defining themselves in all aspects of society. They present a fascinating topic, though the expansiveness of their experiences may prove a daunting subject to approach if you are unfamiliar with the influential names and their stories.

Here, Women of the 1920s: Style, Glamour, & the Avant-Garde provides a gateway to the world of notable women in the jazz age. In this visually fascinating book, Thomas Bleitner presents the stories of 17 women who were incredibly influential in their fields. The varying areas of culture are split into 5 chapters; Literature and Art, Society and Fashion, Photography and Film, Cabaret and Dance, and Adventure and Sports. Each section contains a brief introduction to that sphere of culture through establishing notable names, locations, and events before laying out short chapters on each woman. Infamous names, such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Amelia Earhart are, of course, present. But for those less intimate with the period, a variety of less commonly known women such as Tamara de Lempicka, Lavinia Schulz, and Suzanne Lenglen are also included.

Tamara de Lempicka
Overall, the book is a concise 163 pages, sprinkled with photographs and art. The effectiveness of this book lies in the fact that it does not attempt to provide extensive biographies for these 17 women. There is just enough information to capture the reader's interest in the individual. At the end of the book are a few pages of recommended reading, not just on the subject of the 1920s, but on each woman. The next step in research is laid out for those that want more than an overview.

Edward Steichen for Vogue, 1928
As for the biographies, I was pleased to find that the content was filled with contemporary quotes, which helped to steer the discussion clear of the authors personal opinions and assessments. It speaks to their public impact and personal relationships in a way that a modern voice cannot. The academic in me would have preferred these quotes to be followed by citations, but I don’t feel that this book was intended for that purpose or audience. It is the perfect light read for someone who has always been curious about the era, these influential women, and their impact on a unique culture.

-- Nicole

*This post contains affiliate links.
Read More

Friday, November 29, 2019

Winter SALE at American Duchess & Royal Vintage

La la la la la - it's that time of year where we put, like, everything on SALE!

Here are the links:

American Duchess

This year we have the traditional FREEBIES - a free pair of stockings, buckles, or a button hook on any regularly-priced shoes or boots.

Clearance & Imperfects!

Books & Pattern Discount Bundles

Plus we have a nice full stock of all the favorites - Camilles, Tavistocks, Renoir, Londoners, Astoria, Gibson, Manhattans, Maes, and more.


Royal Vintage

Clearance & Imperfects!

And, as always, we have free shipping on most orders, and free exchanges in the USA.

The sale runs November 29 - December 2, 2019:

Read More

Friday, November 22, 2019

, , ,

The Isabella Mactavish Fraser Pattern & Documentary!

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are very proud to release to you today the Isabella Mactavish Fraser gown pattern and construction PDF along with our short documentary about this famous tartan gown and its re-creation this past June 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Click here to go download this FREE pattern booklet!
This entire project have been a labor of love for most of this year. Abby and I worked with an amazing team to recreate this gown in two days. The process was documented in photos and on film, and we have developed all of the bloods, sweat, and tears of this endeavor into this pattern booklet and video for everyone to enjoy.

The pattern is FREE to download on (with a little coupon offer when you do 😉). It contains the gridded pattern, photos, diagrams, measurements, drawings, links, and detailed instructions of how this gown was made. We hope you enjoy it!
Click here to download this FREE pattern booklet

Read More

Wednesday, November 20, 2019


The Reno Tweed Ride, 2019

Chrissy wore her bicycling pants, spatterdashes, and a corset on her Columbia 1920s reproduction bike.
The same weekend we invaded Virginia City with our Spoop-Troupe, we enjoyed the local Tweed Ride.

Tweed Rides are a *thang* all over the world, but the Reno Tweed Ride is only in its second year. Despite its youth, there was a pretty good turnout with about 30 riders and more at the picnic spot.

The Reno Tweed Ride, 2019
Chrissy and I tweedled up and chose our mounts - mine was my trusty beach cruiser I've had for 11 years; Chrissy's was a bright red Columbia 1920s replica with handy wicker panniers. But the showpony amongst us was definitely Chris on his hand-built 1930s-style motorized bike.

My trusty beach cruiser with the cupholder, lol

It's Mr. Chris! He does exist!
Getting Chris to come out to a costume event is a raaaaaaaare treat indeed, but he couldn't sit this one out. Chris loves to build and tinker, and he particularly loves bikes of all sorts, so the great beauty that is this motorized bicycle finally got a public running, though he peddled it for most of the way (understandably), only firing up the engine once or twice.

Me, Chris, and our motorized bike child.
(I'm totally going to basically wife-steal this motorized bike and make it my Starbucks stallion. 100% need jodhpurs for this).

Handbuilt - Chris is very detail oriented, so it's the small touches on this bike that bring me the most joy - the leather seat and tool case from England, the white tires and grey frame...LOVE!
We again had lovely, perfect weather. The ride was a very short distance to a local park where we had lunch, tea, and played games, then rode back to the start point, where drinkies and music were enjoyed.
Carolyn sketching at Sierra Water Gardens, in her jodhpurs and straw flat cap.

Vivien rocking her 1890s bicycle sweater and adorable witch hat.

Sam competes at Tea Dueling - she won!

Chrissy and Lauren M. at the Tweed Ride picnic.

Riding back to Sierra Water Gardens after the picnic...

Adrienne and Vivien at the Tweed Ride Picnic. They look great!

For my "costume" I wore my Walker Slater trousers and vest from Edinburgh with my favorite cap from Buxton, UK. It's not really a costume, lol, these are just my clothes.
Almost all of these great photos are by Eighty 8 Studios, which is wonderful because it can be pretty tricky to take photos on a bicycle! Huge thank you to Eighty 8 for taking and sharing these.
Read More