Monday, April 15, 2013

White and Floral 18th Century 'Marie Antoinette' Gown

This was the second ever costume that I made. Whilst I can say that I really do love it and I’m so proud of all the work that went into it considering how little sewing experience I had at the time, it is not historically accurate AT ALL in construction.

Since making this gown clothing of the early modern period (1500-1800) has become a somewhat of a specialty of mine in my academic work, and compared to the gowns that I have since studied and those which I come into contact with weekly during my volunteering with the fashion and textile department at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, this is, well, disappointing.

The whole reason for this is probably because I chose to work from the Simplicity pattern # 4092. I think the pattern was released when Pirates of the Caribbean came out, as the image on the front suggests that it’s for an Elizabeth Swan Costume.

By appearance the design of the dress is supposed to be Robe à la Française without the traditional watteau pleating at the back, and the separate stomacher in the front. The gown fastens with lacing up the back - something which none of these gowns ever did in the past (they always were put on like a jacket and attached to the stomacher in the front, which was in turn attached to the stays/corset underneath).

With all that said, once you get over the historical inaccuracies this is actually quite a nice dress for anyone who wants to easily make an 18th century-looking costume.

In terms of the colour palette, I wanted this to be a day dress, so I opted to use a white/cream cotton material with a floral print. I look inspiration from some of the garden dresses that are worn in the film Marie Antoinette shown below.

After searching around for materials I actually decided to use some old bed sheets that my mother had sitting in our linen cupboard at home. It saved my wallet a lot of money and makes for an interesting story when I wear the costume! The plus with using old bed sheets was that because they had already been used multiple times the cotton was nice and soft. The downside was that I only just had enough material and working our how to cut the fabric without wasting heaps of it was like doing a jigsaw puzzle!

Although this pattern isn’t very historically accurate it is still quite involved, mainly because the bodice of the dress has to be boned. Whilst ladies in the 18th century worn separate undergarments called ‘stays’ which were heavily boned and gave the body that 18th century conical shape this pattern does not call for that. Although this does have boning, it is still not quite rigid enough to really achieve that look, but its good enough.

I think the bodice took me a few weeks on and off to make. I’m pretty sure I did it in my mid-semester break at university which is 4 weeks so I probably took me about that long due to all the boning and trimmings that were required.

For the lace on the sleeves I again raided my mother’s cupboard and found some lace that had been left over from a bridemaid’s dress that she had made for her in the early 80s. I think she said the lace was quite expensive French or Belgium lace… any who I thought it would look great and she let me use it which was awesome.

The patterned over skirt was relatively easy to attach to the bodice, however you really have to be careful with all the pleating that is required at the seam of attachment - be careful to make sure it’s even!

The underskirt is actually really easy to make and really effective - I’ve made another one for an Elizabeth Swan / 18th century peasant Halloween costume that I quickly constructed for a party and has been worn by my friend’s a few times. It only takes about a day to make, and this underskirt it actually relatively historically accurate.

I never got around to making the pannier hoops that are included in this pattern even though the dress really does require them. However when I make my next 18th century gown I may use them to see how it goes.

Here are some pictures of the finished product


I have since made 1760s-1780s Paniers to put underneath the gown which you can see fills it out a bit and makes it look more period accurate:

If you want to make something really historically accurate to the eighteenth century (which I hope to get around to one day) you really need to a) construct the correct undergarments, and b) find an historical pattern.

The best patterns and guides for this I think are:

  • Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion v. 1 - if you have no experience in pattern making this could be quite hard to use, however if you have a basic pattern to work off, looking at Arnold’s sketches and pattern details of historical gowns that she has studied in detail can help you to alter what you are working with to make it more historically accurate.
  • I’ve read some reviews for Simplicity’s 18th century undergarments (#3635) and the consensus is that they are actually pretty good. I think they are out of print now but you can always find heaps of eBay.
  • Reconstructing History has some good 18th century patterns
  • As does Recollections of JP Ryan (these are probably the patterns that I will eventually work from)

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