After moving a couple of years ago, I threw out or donated so many things I wasn’t sure what made it here and what didn’t. While looking through my stash for some fabric for a friend, I found a bag of what at first I took for scraps. Nope. It was an old gown that I’d taken apart! I made the gown years ago from a bedspread, block printed in India, and wore it to a few events until later research suggested that the center front closing style was popular later than the 1770s. I took it apart intending to re-make it, and there it sat in a bag in the plastic tub used to transport and store the “great fabric stash”. The gown was originally a center front closing style with a separate, pointed-in-back- bodice, a low neckline in front, and a high neckline in back. Here’s what it originally looked like, in our former house, on Lena. What? See her leaning? Lena.
Now, many of you will say that it wasn’t bad, it’s fine, leave it alone, etc. Perhaps it wasn’t bad. But I’ve studied and learned a lot more since then, and this style was loosely based on a gown in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1, Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction, 1660-1860, page 40. The date in the book says c. 1775-1785, but the general consensus now is that this is a high-fashion style, usually done in silk, possibly with self-fabric trim, and probably would not have been made in this type of fabric initially and almost certainly would not have had a separate, seamed bodice back. More on that coming up…
The background of the fabric itself is perhaps a bit too green, as green was difficult to achieve in the 18th-century before the invention of synthetic dyes. It was definitely possible, especially on silk and wool (there is an especially lovely shade of emerald damask that was popular), but was usually achieved with blue overdyed with yellow or vice versa, simply because there were few if any, natural dye materials that yielded green directly. So it would have been uncommon as the background color on a cotton print, and I have yet to find an extant block printed gown with a green ground. Doesn’t mean there isn’t one, I just haven’t seen it yet. I’ve found some references to green linen, but we don’t really know whether they meant green the color or “green” as in untreated fabric. However, the shade of green on this fabric is close enough to brown to be acceptable, the block print itself is a good one, and I really couldn’t fathom just throwing it out.
I also know what you’re thinking…that you’ve seen block printed gowns in this center front closing style all over the internet, in museums, on Pinterest, etc. Yes, yes you have. Indeed, a reference to a gown in a similar print and style can be found in Sharon Ann Burnston’s, Fitting and Proper, 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. A color print showing the gown is found on the cover.
The extant gown is browner in color, tan really, but there are other extant printed cotton gowns with a dark or brown ground with the center front closure in museum collections. There are also references to dark ground chintzes or “calicoes” taken by runaways in Don N. Hagist’s., Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls, Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers, 1770-1783, as well as in many local newspaper advertisements from merchants and sellers of fabric. We’ve all seen photos of the actual gowns on museum websites. Here’s the difference: the gown in Fitting and Proper on pages 4-6 is dated c. 1740-60, but altered in the late 1770s or early 1780s. In fact, Ms. Burnston’s second edition states “…I am left to conclude that the edge-to-edge CF closure on this gown is not an original detail, this gown would have had robings. Its present appearance is almost certainly the result of a later alteration c. 1775-80, even though there are no signs of the telltale creases in the bodice front which usually indicate the former presence of robings.” To paraphrase Ms. Burnston, all of the other stylistic elements of the gown (including the cuffs) suggest the earlier date, and it was extremely common to alter gowns to suit the current fashion.
Based upon this information, I decided to alter this gown in reverse. Problem #1 was that the bodice was separate from the skirts rather than cut in one piece, and I was racking my brain to figure out how, without another large panel of left-over fabric, to put the gown back to an en-fourreau style. When a friend said to me “it really can’t be done”, I remained undeterred. Having seen a gown in the collection of the Newport Historical Society that was completely pieced, I decided that was my solution. I cut off the point at the bottom of the bodice, pieced and pleated the back upper bodice, pieced that onto a longer piece for the middle back of the skirt, and re-pleated the back in the en-fourreau style. The piecing is visible upon close inspection, but from a distance, when wearing with an apron over it, etc., it is much less noticeable, especially after it was steam pressed. Just so you can all see what I did, here is the mess close up…
Even before I pieced and re-pleated the back, I had cut down the back of the neckline (which is just pinned in the photo below and doesn’t quite look neat yet), so that would be fine as it was, and I set about figuring out what I wanted to do with the front of the bodice. Note the difference in the back pleating from the photos below to the photo above. The bodice originally had seams, not pleating.
For the front, I initially considered cutting the fronts away, using those pieces to create a stomacher, adding robings and being done with it. But, what if I had an event set at a later date and I still wanted to wear it as a center front closing gown? Hmm what to do, what to do? I had a couple of almost long-enough pieces I could fold to use as robings (I ended up piecing those robings near the shoulders to make them longer), but had only limited scraps of fabric other than that. So I took out my stomacher template, arranged and pinned the scraps onto it, and decided that it would indeed look cool to have a pieced stomacher that I could pin over what was already there. Again, the piecing is visible if looking closely (the guys will get slapped if they try that trick in person), but once steam pressed it would hardly be noticeable. I elected to baste the robings just to the shoulder strap pieces rather than attaching them all the way down, pinned the stomacher and robings over the closed center front, and presto, I had a convertible gown with removable robings that I could wear either way, depending on the year in which an event was set! I also re-set the sleeves to adjust the seam allowances, because they always seemed just a little too short.
The next problem I encountered were two large borders at and near the bottom of the skirt. When I made the gown, the bedspread fabric had a double border. Since I didn’t know yet that gowns typically did not have borders, I simply incorporated it. When I cut those off, naturally it made the skirt much too short, even for a “work gown”. In order to fix it, I had to piece the bottom using multiple small pieces. I figured it wouldn’t really show much once the gown was finished. Even in the photo it only shows in certain places, and once steam pressed, it was fine.
Once finished, I was very pleased with the result. Please excuse the “exposure”, but I wanted to show the actual neckline once I tried it on. The skirts could stand to come further to the front, but for now I didn’t want to fiddle with re-pleating it. A few pounds off and it will become less noticeable. It’s not looking too promising, but if I can find large enough scraps I will put together some cuffs, like the gown in Fitting and Proper, which will also help to extend the sleeves a little as well.
The final Before and After. And yes, before you all ask, that bright green linen petticoat has been taken out of service. I loved it, but bright green dye on linen? Nope. Some of you will also wonder if I feel compromised that the gown has been pieced so extensively, without much attempt to match the pattern. The answer is no, I don’t. I’m actually glad to have a pieced and altered gown, as this was fairly common during the period. There are many instances of extant gowns that were altered from the stomacher/robing style to the center front closing style popular in the 1780s, so I’m also glad that I’ve altered this one to easily convert from one style to the other. I’ve also seen, as mentioned above, an extensively pieced gown in the collection of the Newport Historical Society, and can cite that as documentation for piecing on a gown. All in all, I’m happy with the final result.