Saturday, November 16, 2013

Construction Study - 1790s Silk Gown

As I was perusing Pinterest the other day, I ran across a dress that I had pinned a while ago, but hadn't really examined up close. The dress caught my eye again and I popped over to the MET website for a closer look (it is the best museum website - many pieces in the collections have HUGE pictures that you can zoom to get a closer look at garment details).

This dress is put together with a billion pieces of fabric. Well, maybe not a billion, but way more pieces than I would consider using. I would have given up on squeezing a dress out of what appears to be an insufficient length of fabric (I suspect this was an older style dress which was re-made in the 1790s). However, this is  great example of the thriftiness that was implemented in a lot of historical garments. I pulled pictures of the dress into Illustrator and made flats of all views, in order to decipher just exactly how this dress was constructed. I left off the little webbing tie in my drawings, because it seemed purely decorative and does not contribute to the construction of the dress at all.

- The sleeves are clearly two-piece sleeves that are patterned into a slight "L" shape, with a bend at the elbow. As we'll see in the SIDE picture, they open at the wrist for about 6"-7" in a button placket which closes with a single button.
- The front neckline has a small (1/4"-3/8") drawstring casing, probably formed by an internal binding or lining. I did not see any prickstitching along the top edge, which makes me curious about where the lining attaches. However, that may be because the front view photo doesn't zoom in quite closely enough for me to see the stitches.
- There are two extra seams in the front-bodice: one on each "princess" line (vertical, mid-breast).
- There is definitely a waist seam (I have wondered that about some of these dresses!) There are tiny stitches delineating a drawstring casing below the waistband (3/8"-1/2" wide).
 - There is a slit from center-front of the neckline, down to about 7"-8" below the waistline. This little slit ends at the first block of pieced skirt. The edge of the slit is finished with tiny running stitches or prickstitches.
- The skirt is pieced together in three rows. There does not appear to be any order or symmetry in the piecing of the skirt, although it appears that the largest unbroken block of fabric was placed in the vertical and horizontal center.
- The hem is stitched very close to the edge (1/8"), with tiny stitches. I can't tell if the hem is faced, and the stitches are little prickstitches that are holding the facing to the fabric, or if it is just a teeny, tiny hem.

Dress, 1790s, French via the Metropolitan Museum of Art - FRONT`

- The shape of the sleeves is most obvious in this view. There is a little puckering at the elbow, indicating that the "L" shape of the pattern was more pronounced than the shape of the wearers arm at rest.
- The button placket at the wrist is finished around the edge with tiny prickstitches. There is a single button (approx 1/2"-5/8" diameter), and the lone buttonhole is placed at a 45 degree angle.
- It is clear from from this angle that the front of the skirt is a rectangle, and the fullness at the side-front is created with two deep pleats, layered directly on top of each other.
- The next set of pleats is placed at side-back, and is made up of another two deep pleats (but possibly less deep than the side-front pleats).
- The front skirt peice ends at side-back, farther back than the side-back pleats. There is an odd triangular shape piece of fabric added, presumably in a spot where the dressmaker was desperate and needed to patch for a perfect corner.
- The height of the lowest row of fabric appears to be consistent, despite being made up of random widths.

Dress, 1790s, French via the Metropolitan Museum of Art - SIDE

- As was standard for backs around this era, the center-back panel is very small. Because of this, the sleeves extend quite a ways into the back. I noticed, however, that there appears to be no correlation between the placement of the back sleeve seam, and the CB panel.
- There are two small triangular wedges at the shoulders, adding just enough fabric to make up a nice wide shoulder strap that meets at CB.
- The actual CB panel is pieced down the center, but I didn't call that out with a red line because that was a common construction, in order to achieve symmetry in the fabric pattern. This seam could probably be left out, though. The embroidery around the panel consists of a backstitch lining the outer and inner edges, and a wiggly chainstitch weaving between the two lines of backstitch.
- Both sides of the front bodice extend all the way around to meet the curved seams of the CB panel. These also appear to have been pieced. Note that, unlike the skirt, the bodice is carefully pieced with symmetrical seams (which makes the dress look less like it emerged from a rag-bag).
- At the base of the bodice, where the CB panel joins the side-front panels, there are two little medallions. These medallions are made up of self-fabric covered buttons (same size as the sleeve buttons, 1/2"-5/8" dia), mounted on a gathered cockade of self-fabric. I like this little detail - it makes the dress just a little sweeter!
- This skirt back has a LOT of fabric! In addition to the double pleats on each side-back, there appears to be a triple inverted box pleat directly at center-back. That is to say: three deep pleats folding one way, and three deep pleats folding the other way, all meeting in the center. Each of those pleats has got to be between 3"-4" deep. (The museum appears to have displayed this dress with a little bum pad in the back, which would have been accurate for a few years in the late 1700s. All that pouf is not caused by the skirt, but it would probably also be pretty full without the pad!)
- There is no train - the hem of this skirt is even with the floor (more or less) all the way round, from front to back.

Dress, 1790s, French via the  Metropolitan Museum of Art - BACK
Dress, 1790s, French via the Metropolitan Museum of Art - BACK close-up

Staring at this dress and drawing it for the past few hours makes me want to try my hand at patterning it! I love the simple, full shapes of the 1790s. Maybe for next summer... Or the summer after that...

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