Gown-in-a-Weekend: 1790s Vigee-Lebrun Round Gown from Simplicity S8941

Nov 16, 2020 8 comments

For some reason I got a wild hair to do a "gown in a weekend" project. Dr. Carolyn Dowdell and I made a pact to fill the void of black gowns in our wardrobes and I just happened to have a ridiculous amount of black/brown shot taffeta hanging about. I'd also been wanting to do my version of the Simplicity S8941 gown for some time, to report on pattern notes and adjustments.

For the record, "gown in a weekend" is a bad idea (lol). Even a really simple dress like this one is just a bit much to put together by hand in two /partial/ days (because I like to sleep in, and I also needed to eat and walk doggos). It stops being fun towards the end. For the sake of the next couple posts, the "...in a weekend" part is kindof irrelevant. My intention with these posts is instead to go over the adjustments I made to the pattern and give tips and tricks.

I'm going to break the posts up because otherwise this'll get loooooong. I'll start with the end first - here it is! The finished gown!

I have finally achieved epic train status. For whatever reason, I never make my trains long enough and they end up not really, well, training. So yes, I am overcompensating.


Now for a quick rundown of the making.

I started by taking a few vital measures, then making my adjustments to the pattern. There are a few things I already know about my body vs. Simplicity patterns - height, waist length, and shoulder width primarily. I also measured upper and lower arm length and bust depth for the empire waist and neckline. I will go over all of these adjustments in detail in the next post.


After I made my adjustments to the pattern, I rolled out and furiously brushed the salt spots off my taffeta. I got this humongous bolt of glorious black/brown silk taffeta at our local Mill End for an killer deal because it was *covered* in salt spots. I can get them mostly off with a horsehair shoe brush, but it takes elbow grease and time, which in a gown-in-a-weekend project is annoying but heck, $2/yard silk taffeta...I'm willing. I cut all my pieces. I later returned and cut the bodice front piece again after realizing I'd cut it on the wrong orientation.

Tip: With shot fabrics, even when the warp and weft are very similar in color, it's important to cut all pieces going the same direction (uppy-downy), otherwise the light will play on the parts of the gown differently and it'll look wonky.

The bodice front piece is on the wrong grain here - I had to recut that piece later on.

Next, straight into making the bodice. I used a medium weight linen for the underbodice and back lining, hemming the front edges where they are separate from the black taffeta, and using English stitch to join the back and side back pieces (AD Guide pages 13, 181). (Yes, I reference The American Duchess Guide *every* time I sew anything 18th century).

Here is the back with finished neck and waistline edges, and the side back seams English stitched together.

A quick fitting on the bodice, to pinch up the bust darts. My front waistline *should* be under the bust, but a few things inhibited that - 1) I set my shoulder seams waaaaay back and therefore lifted the front; 2) my bust darts aren't as full as recommended on the pattern; 3) I'm wearing 1790s stays that have a low and somewhat ambiguous bust point. This pattern was designed to go over either Regency high-busted stays *or* a modern bra. The good news is that this affects the finish gown very little, because these underbodice straps are there merely to hold the back of the gown taught.

Next, the skirt back and side back pieces were joined with mantua-maker's seams (AD Guide page 13, 184). I decided to add a hem guard to the quite-long train at this point for a couple reasons. First is to weight the hem so the back trains nicely. The second reason is to protect the fabric where it drags on the ground. I used 6 inch wide lengths of acid green silk taffeta, turned on each long edge and running-stitched (AD Guide page 107).

A riveting photo of a mantua-maker's seam joining two skirt panels. For those who have puzzled over how to finish skirt seams with no visible stitches on the outside, this is how.

Who can resist roughly pinning the skirt up to see how it will look?

The hem guard in progress - you can see the "nun tucks" to get around the curved hem.

Tip: Hem guards on 18th century gowns are usually strips of silk taffeta cut on the straight and "nun tucked" to shape. It's important that the material be very lightweight and tightly-woven so that it is not too heavy and pulls the skirt funny, and also so it does not catch on the ground. Cheap, tightly-woven silk taffeta is the most common, and what I recommend.

Not all 1790s gowns have hem guards, and to be honest it was probably unnecessary in this one, and took a LOT of time. It probably also wasn't wide enough, but lesson learned. Consolation prize: bright-ass green occasionally peeks out, and that brings me joy.

With the back skirts prepared, I pleated the top breadth to fit the bodice back. I chose to pleat instead of gather because I don't love the bulk of gathers and pleating is faster. I pleated, turned down the top, pleats and all, leaving the edges raw inside, and whip-stitched the skirt to the bodice, right sides together, with heavy thread (AD Guide page 12, 186).

Pleating the skirt waist. I never measure pleats - I just get that center box pleat right and then make it fit with roughly the same visible width per pleat.

The bodice matched right-sides-together to the skirt back waist.
The waist edges of bodice and skirt are whip stitched together with heavy thread

Nicely finished waist edge with very little bulk.

Back done. Huzzah.

The front of the gown is done in two pieces - bodice and skirt, joined at the empire waist with a combo seam + drawstring channel. I had a little issue with my side seams not matching up after I adjusted my bodice piece, but I futzed it to make it work. The drawstring channel went in the neckline edge (tricky), and then it was time to apply the whole front piece to the gown.

I had a little trouble getting the front bodice all matched up nicely around the shoulder straps. This is because I sent my shoulder straps very far back for my narrow shoulders, and it affected the armscye and shoulder seams. This is where things went a little haywire.

Narrow back problems - I set my shoulder straps very narrow and this causes issues with the bodice front. The fix for this is to add extra seam allowance to the end of the shoulder strap.

...and also add extra seam allowance to the fashion fabric, in case it gets a little tight on turning under the edges.

(In between, I constructed my sleeves, using a lightweight striped cotton for the lining, and joining both the front seam and the long dart with the tailor's method (AD Guide page 186))

Sleeve construction and quick fit test...ah, but I didn't have enough shoulder cap seam allowance for my narrow-set straps. Tough lessons for me in the domino effect of alterations required on paper patterns!
Lightweight stripey cotton lining on the sleeves. I don't like to line my sleeves with linen because it's usually too heavy, so I go for lightweight cotton.

I forged ahead and set the sleeves right-sides together, thinking they'd be fine. It was almost 11 pm on Sunday night and I was feeling rushed to get the gown done, but truth be told, I've since re-set the sleeves the correct way and they actually fit now. I'll cover this more in the alterations post, but...

Tip: If you have narrow shoulders or set your straps further into the back than the pattern intends, it is necessary to add extra allowance to the sleeve cap, to make up that space.

Another Tip: Get yourself a nice arm for your dressform. Boostrap Fashion has ePatterns to download for your specific arm measurements, in addition to their custom-fit dress form patterns (highly recommend!).

11 pm on Sunday night and the gown was done! (technically)

Finished gown, but not perfect - see that funk on the sleeve head and also how short the cuffs are?

With that, the gown itself was DONE! But, of course, a gown is just a gown...an ensemble is made up of many different parts, so I made a red sash, trimmed my sleeve cuffs in lace, and tore my sewing room apart to find my lace-ruffled chemisette and turban cap (AD Guide page 202). I'm quite happy with the final gown, and now finally have an elegant black costume with an epic train to drag around in which to feel huge and elegant. ;-)

Millinery (accessories) make all the difference - Here is the gown with a chemisette and cuff ruffles and the red sash a la Vigee-Lebrun. You can also see the re-set sleeves here.

All put together, and with the sleeves re-set. I didn't even have to piece the sleeve heads.

The test of a good armscye and sleeve ;-)

Photos by Chris Stowell

Comments

  1. This is a wonderful construction breakdown - this is exactly the sort of quality blog content that made me sign up for historical sewing years ago. :-) (And also should be a good guide to sewing 1790s gowns in general.)

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    1. thank you so much! I am so glad I could help. thank you for reading - I know blogs aren't the hot thing right now, so I really appreciate it.

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    2. I'm still stuck in blog land, to be honest - and I got recently reminded of how much I liked the format for historical costuming despite it not being popular now, so that's exactly why I commented. :-) You just can't really convey the same amount of info in such concise and back-referrable manner any other way.

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    3. I completely agree! I think I need to take a look at structuring the links on projects, too, to make the series easier to follow if somebody wants to start from the beginning. It's the old "dress diary" concept that is still so useful and valid in blog form. I think videos certainly help on some things - certain stitches or seams that are easier to see done than follow in pictures - but I just don't have the bandwidth to do a whole video or series of videos on making a gown.

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  2. It's MAXIMUM yummo. I never really got this era but you are sweet talking me into loving its monstrous fabulosity!

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    1. Thank you! I was never into the later 1790s either until I saw Vigee Lebrun's work. That convinced me. I'm still not into the Regency period though...yet!

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  3. "I never measure pleats" SAAAME it just feels like a bizarre amount of work for very little payoff. As long as it's fairly even on both sides, I genuinely can't imagine anyone noticing a difference, especially on a solid fabric. Totally going to be referring to this post when I finally get around to a 1790s gown, as I also have a super cheap dark brown/black taffeta set aside, lol! Thanks for taking the time to write it all out...I still go back to years-old blog posts all the time for little details I'm stuck on, or for full-outfit inspiration. Much as I love Instagram for, well, insta-gratification, it feels very fleeting by comparison.

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    1. Indeed, and 18th century milliners didn't bother to measure pleats too. It took too much time and effort - they just pleated it up until it looked good. :-)

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