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.

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