Monday, March 23, 2015

Artefact Focus: Four ways to Fasten the Bodice of an Eighteenth Century Gown

So you've decided to make an eighteenth century gown.

After you've finally determined which one - Mantua, Robe à la française, Robe à la anglaise, Robe à la polonaise, Chemise à la reine, Round Gown – to name but a few, you're faced with the question: how to you fasten the front of the bodice?

If you are making an earlier style of gown such as a Mantua or one that was worn with a stomacher, a contrasting and sometimes ornately decorated triangular panel that covered the stays underneath, the bodice of the gown was pinned to the stomacher.

Mantua, c. 1720-1730, England. Victorian & Albert Museum. T.88 to C-1978

Woman's Robe à la Française and Petticoat. c. 1760-5. France or England. LACMA. M.56.6a-b

However if you're making a mid-late eighteenth century gown, particularly the Robe à la anglaise, then the front panels of the bodice met and fastened together in the centre of the torso. But how?

Robe à l'anglaise, c. 1776. British. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2009.300.952

Lucky for me I have access to a few extant garments from the eighteenth century that are in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. So I decided to do some research....

The garments housed in the museum show four different ways of fastening an eighteenth century gown.

Gown # 1: Hooks and Eyes

Satin Brocade Robe à l'anglaise, 1760-1770.


Hooks and eyes have been around for a very long time. Personally I've seen them on seventeenth century dress and in a melted pile as remnants of the Great Fire of London, at the museum of London. However, they first start to appear in English literature in the fourteenth century, although they could have already been around much earlier. This dress is strange in the fact that the front of the robe is made up of three panels. I personally haven't seen that before on historical examples, but then again my specialty isn't the latter eighteenth century so maybe it's not as uncommon as I think?

Anyway on to the fastenings:

Gown # 2: Ribbon

Silk robe à l'anglaise polonaise, 1765-1780
This particular example fastens with two bits of ribbon/material ties at the front of the gown. I'm not sure if the fastenings on this dress are original (the condition of a few leads me to believe that some may be newer editions added by conservation), however it still seems a plausible eighteenth century method.

Gown # 3: Press Studs

Silk Brocade Robe à la Française, 1770s
So this gown is interesting as it has press studs/snap fasteners.A quick Google search tells me that they weren't invented until 1885 by a German inventor, Heribert Bauer. So this leads me to believe that this dress was restored in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. I say restored because it doesn't appear to have been altered (thank goodness) like a lot of early modern clothes were during the nineteenth century were.  Although not an historically correct eighteenth century closure, if you already have some in your sewing stash then I say use them!

Gown #4: ???

Flemish Brocade / Satin, Robe a l'anglaise, 1760-1

So this gown doesn't have any fastenings. I'm unsure as to how they closed it in the photograph above, however, I assume they used pins. Pins are a very historically accurate option and were used for a variety of purposes throughout the early modern period, and as I mentioned above they were used to secure the bodice to the stomacher in early eighteenth century styles.

I hope you enjoyed! If you've seen or know of any other methods of fastening the bodice of eighteenth century gowns let me know!


Some one of the lovely ladies from the Historical Sew Fortnightly facebook page had a couple of very interesting and insightful things to say about the fastenings on these gowns: 

- Most late 18th century women's gowns with a centre front closing were also pinned, like those that had stomachers. I've found a modern demo here.

- Hook & eye fasteners generated a lot of discussion, some said that they were very rare, others that they were found most often pre-1780s. The difference seems to be between England and United States, they were rare in extant examples of English dress, but 50/50 in extant American examples. 

- The ties on gown number two are most probably additions by the museum for conservation or display purposes. 

- Buttons were also common on "compere fronts" during the 1760s/70s