Wednesday, February 20

Dresses of the Past...1700s-1840s

"Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness." - 1 Timothy 2:9-10, NASB

I mentioned back in the summer that I planned on making a new dress for my volunteer time at the living history farm outside of town here.  I've finally gotten around to doing some research and beginning to create a design I like, which I will share here.  I'll also share how I go about creating a design from research, instead of going off of a ready-made pattern.  I find that creating my own design is actually easier, because I can tailor it to my exact measurements and specifications.  I find myself making all sorts of adjustments to ready-made patterns purchased at the store, so if I'm capable of making something specific to me, why not go for it?  I love to do the research before I create my designs, and knowing that no one else has what I've created.  However, documented clothing from the 1840s is a little bit rare, really.  It's between the Regency period, which dates roughly from around 1810-1835, and the well-known fashions of the Civil War.  Many examples exist of the fashions of the Regency time period, because they are so well known due to the popularity of Jane Austin novels.  During this time period, women's clothing is very distinctive with high waists, narrow skirts, and modest, yet low necklines.  In my opinion, this style was a rebellion against the large robes a la francaise, robes a l'anglaise, and robes a la polonaise that were so common in courts and high society from around 1760 to after the American Revolution.  Those are the dresses that were made of exquisite fabrics and had very wide hips (which were actually supported by two individual cages worn around each side of the waist, and doubling as pocket cages).  I tend to believe that after the years of the wars (in America, the Revolution and War of 1812), people wanted to scale back and simplify.  There are numerous examples of fashion items that remain from these time periods.  For more information on each picture, click on the blue link in the photo description.
Robe a la francaise, dating from 1775-1800.  Photo courtesty of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Regency dress, 1807-1812.  Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village.
Once you start getting out of that and into the 1830s, the collections of clothing examples becomes more sparse.  There are still examples, of course, and from those examples one will notice the stark style difference in sleeves, which become strangely puffy and large to the point that sleeve pads were used to make the sleeves puffier (think pillows strapped onto your arms!), and more volume in skirts.  Waists become more emphasized and move back to their natural place on the torso.  Multiple petticoats are added to give the skirt a fuller appearance.
1830s day dress with gigot sleeves.  Sleeve pads (below) would be worn at shoulder level or just below the armpit area for this dress.  Photo courtesy of Mary's 19th Century Clothing.
Sleeve pads, worn around the arms for added volume in the 1830s.  Photo from the Kyoto Institute.
By the time you get into the 1840s, what examples of clothing styles we have reveal sleeves that have reduced in puffiness to a degree, and have become more narrow down to the wrists.  Emphasis is on the appearance of a narrow waist and almost a triangular-shaped, somewhat flat-fronted torso, to which a V-shaped bodice also contributes.  There is great emphasis on skirts becoming bell-shaped and flared--a trend that continues and seems to explode in size through the 1860s and Civil War (and our collections of historic clothing increases again for the time periods of the Civil War and beyond).  Crinolines and hoop cages are not yet used to create the effect, though; this doesn't occur until the mid 1850s.  Skirt fullness is created by layers of petticoats and/or corded petticoats (petticoats that are stiffened by the addition of stiff ropes or cords sewn into the petticoat material).  Only after the war, around the early 1870s, do skirts become more subdued and narrow again, by the time of the turn of the twentieth century, dresses begin to become smaller, shorter, more revealing, and are ultimately given up in exchange for pants and jeans (this also leads to the start of women shaving legs and underarms, but that's another topic for a different time and someone else's blog).  But I digress...all of that history simply to say that there is not a wide array of patterns available for my time period, 1847, but there are many museums that display 1840s collections online, and from that I am able to study and create my design.

Here are some dress styles that I really like:

Good use of pattern, bold and just beautiful:
I like the sleeve caps of these dresses:
I plan to continue using a v-shaped bodice and button front closure:
I will also use some piping and darts on the bodice.  Here is the design idea that I've come up with:
My fabric.  Absolutely love this.
Sketch of front and back of the dress.  Simple, but appropriate.
Because of the bold pattern of the fabric I purchased, I thought a simpler design might be better.  The previous work dress I designed was also patterned, but it was a bit more muted, and the details that I added were not lost in the pattern.

Clothing in the 1840s were all hand-sewn; sewing machines were not yet found in homes.  They had been invented, but were very new, and therefore, very expensive!  They were not commonplace in homes across America until after the Civil War.  It's a good way to figure out the date of a dress if the style is plain, or uncommon to a certain time period--was it hand-sewn, or machine stitched?  For the sake of time, I'll sew all unseen hems with my sewing machine.  Trims, hems and button holes will all be done by hand.  It's been four years since I did this last...wish me luck, and I'll keep you posted!

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