18th Century Wardrobe Malfunctions and Other Experiments

Hi kids.  Welp, it’s been a very long time since I’ve been inspired to blog, so bear with me, this one is long.  Long, but FUN, right?  Recently I made 2 new 18th century gowns using a relatively new pattern, the Larkin and Smith English Gown.  I’ve had some success with the JP Ryan pattern in the past and I’ve taken a couple of workshops directly with Hallie Larkin to learn 18th-century sewing techniques and to obtain personalized bodice and sleeve patterns.  This clothes horse has many, many gowns (ok too many to count, actually) but the ones I like best always seem to be the ones made by other people.  I’m working on changing that.

My sewing skills have steadily improved, though I’d not yet call myself a true seamstress.  Hey, at least I no longer need hate what I make with my own two hands.  I started out using the JP Ryan pattern, which is based on an original gown on page 37 of Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1. For quite some time, that pattern was one of the few available, it was dated 1770-85, and was very popular.  The only problem with it, which of course I didn’t realize when first starting out, was that it is based on a high fashion silk gown.  So even if that style were available as early as 1770 (it is now thought that the date is closer to 1780) as a high fashion gown in Europe, it wouldn’t translate to a plain linen or wool gown worn in the colonies.  Unfortunately, that is what we all were making with the pattern.  One of the first things I did was convert a couple of gowns I made with either that pattern or my custom pattern, over to the open front, stomacher style. Read about one of them here.  See the other one below (trust me, the stomacher is there under that big handkerchief).IMG_3719However, I was beyond sad to think I couldn’t use the Ryan pattern anymore. I’m long-waisted with a large bust and hips, and wide shoulders, and for some reason, this pattern seems tailor-made for my particular figure.  Not use it anymore?  I wasn’t ready to give it up…more on that momentarily.  In the meantime, here’s the first Ryan gown with matching ruffled petticoat I made on the sewing machine (I KNOW, can you believe it?), from a printed cotton.  I actually took it all apart, reset the sleeves after cutting down the too large sleeve head, cut down the back of the neck and added a facing, and re-stitched by hand everything that would show, because I loved the gown and would not part with it. I wore it when L’Hermione sailed into Boston in 2014.IMG_4657Fast forward to this winter, and it was time to experiment.  Since I wasn’t certain of the exact size, and my weight tends to fluctuate sometimes, I ordered two different sizes of the Larkin and Smith gown pattern…one based on my large bust size, and the other with a smaller bust size (extrapolated based on my smaller waist size), assuming that a) sometimes I’m skinnier so the smaller size might fit, and b) sometimes I’m fat, but in sheer denial of that fact will tighten my stays and squeeze into a smaller gown, much like a sausage in a casing.  Either way, I couldn’t lose.  As it turns out, the sleeves from one and the bodice from the other are the best fit for me, and I often end up tracing and modifying patterns to suit me better.  Anyone who is familiar with the open front, stomacher style gown probably knows that the stomacher is pinned to the stays, and the gown then pinned to the stomacher with straight pins.  Simple, right?  Um no, at least not for me.  Also, it matters not whether the pins are inserted vertically or horizontally, although I’ve heard that horizontally works better for some people. Not for me, however.  The first time I tried this, it was with a silk gown made for me by the prominent seamstress, Sharon Burnston, proprietress of the Village Green Clothier.  I was with friends, trying to go out to dinner in Colonial Williamsburg, and pins were sliding up out of the silk and flying around all over the place.  I ended up frantically holding myself together and repinning things all night, driving my friends crazy instead of enjoying myself. The gown looks pretty I’ll grant you, but it isn’t quite fastened.   IMG_0445aThe next wardrobe malfunction happened with a wool gown I made at a workshop, appropriately called the “green gown of doom”.  It was discovered, after I’d made it as a center front closing gown, that stomacher gowns were more appropriate to the early to mid-1770’s in the New England colonies.  I dutifully cut the fronts off and made a stomacher and robings from extra fabric, complete with great blobbing back stitches and other novice mistakes too numerous to mention. My friend got engaged wearing it, so she now owns this gown and claims to love it.  I love her for pretending to overlook the mistakes.  In any event, I wore the gown to an event at the Saratoga battlefield in 2013.  The gown doesn’t look bad in action, especially if one doesn’t look too closely.  But, as you can doubtless tell in this photo, I was having a major wardrobe malfunction, that my friend Kitty thoughtfully documented. kirsten2aBy the end of the day, due to the issue being compounded by less than supportive stays (that have now been re-boned with synthetic baleen…ooh I may need to post about that later too), MY BOOB WAS OUT, although as I recall, it was the right one, as opposed to Miss Jackson’s left one.  Not to mention the general messy look of a gown coming unpinned.  Thank goodness for the handkerchief is all I can say.  So, you may well ask how does one keep one’s gown together?

I wasn’t sure, but I was going to experiment.  The first thing I did was make up the larger size (41″ bust) Larkin and Smith gown, to see whether or not it would fit.  You think I made a fitting muslin, right?  Wrong. I don’t need no stinkin’ fitting muslin. Reckless though it may be, I just went for it.  It fit pretty well, though I felt that the waistline was slightly low even on long-waisted me, and the shoulder straps were also too long because, well my head sits directly on my shoulders much like a football player, so all shoulder straps on all patterns are too long for me. I tried it on before making the necessary adjustments.  In the first pic, the low waistline and a bit of wrinkling are fairly noticeable.  I improved that by shortening the shoulder straps (sorry, I didn’t get a pic after the adjustment).  The back looks pretty good, and the sleeves fit nicely.

So, how to keep it closed?  Larkin and Smith added a paragraph in the latest edition of their pattern guide suggesting putting a strip of fabric with lacing holes on either side of the inside of the bodice. But I had the older version of the pattern that didn’t contain that suggestion, which did actually occur to me.  But lazy bones doesn’t want to make a bunch of lacing holes, does she? My creative (and lazy) solution was to put linen tape ties on either side of the bodice, and a long tie at the back of the waist to hold the gown together under the stomacher.  Works like a charm, I’m happy to report.  If you use this solution you have to take care to tie it just right…too tight and the sides will pull and wrinkle, too loose and the gown will look baggy.  It probably could stand a 4th tie lower down too.  Keep in mind that you still need to pin the gown per usual procedure. This is simply extra insurance against the dreaded malfunctions.IMG_6104.JPGFor the next experiment, I decided to make a gown with the smaller size (38″ bust) Larkin and Smith pattern.  Think I made a fitting muslin this time?  See above…I still don’t need no stinkin’ fitting muslin!  Seriously, I learn more effectively from having to make adjustments and find creative solutions to fitting issues, and I can’t always tell how something will hang from a fitting muslin of just the bodice, made of a different material than either the fashion fabric or the lining.  So most times, I just skip it.  I had some brown and gray linen in my stash and came across an extant open front striped linen gown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  as well as this image of La Recureuse by Andre Bouys from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. It’s from 1737 (and early for stripes going down the sleeve rather than around them!) but appears to show a striped gown in a similar colorway.  I copied the style of the gown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, although I made the stripes on the stomacher go straight up and down instead of on the diagonal.AndreBouysLaRecureuse1737The gown turned out surprisingly well considering that the linen was “wonky” and difficult to work with.  The stripes on the back look slightly wobbly to my eyes, but I was able to match the stripes effectively for the most part, and this was the first time I was able to set the sleeves without the assistance of either another person or a dress dummy, just by taking it on and off and adjusting the fit of the shoulder.  It was also the first time I was able to really get the pleats at the top of the sleeve where they belong instead of looking like a weird puffy thing at the back.  It was also the first time I didn’t end up with a lumpy mess hidden under the shoulder strap.  The fit of this gown was slightly better than the larger size, although the sleeves were almost but not quite too tight.  I like my sleeves tight, so that was fine, although next time I make this gown I will trace the sleeves from the larger size and the bodice from the smaller to make a custom pattern, adjusting the shoulder strap and armscye accordingly.  I also decided to try extending the front of the gown to get it to pin closed in the center, pinning the stomacher and robings over the top of the center front bodice closure.  This of course used some fabric that I could have used for something else, since I now only have enough to squeak out a petticoat with some small scraps remaining.  I might actually use some of those scraps to create patches on the gown, but I need some time to think strategically about how and where to do that. Since it will be a working class gown, I did decide to piece it in a few places, including on the robings since I only had short scraps left, near the shoulder straps because I made a mistake I had to fix creatively, and at the bottom of the back panel, which I somehow cut too short. What, measure twice, cut once? Nah.  That would be too easy.

Pleating the back panel was tricky…I did it thrice before I gave up and said: “good enough for a hacker.”



Yay, no bulky mess!

My method for extending the fronts was to trace a center front closing gown pattern I already had, and merge it with the L&S bodice pattern.  That worked pretty well, except that the shoulder straps were…you guessed it…too long and I had to get a little creative , folding and stitching it down to make it look pieced, once I put on my stays and tried it on.  I DID actually transfer this change to the bodice pattern I’d made, so theoretically it shouldn’t occur again.  But, for me anyway, these things are half the fun.  I was pretty pleased with it when it was finished.

IMG_6112My next experiment is going to be with the Ryan pattern, since I already know that it fits my figure quite well.  I found some cheap “what I thought was wool flannel but is probably actually cotton flannel” tartan fabric.  At least it’s a twill weave.tartan

Though the colorway is somewhat different, I’m going to copy the McTavish-Fraser wedding gown from 1785. Mum was with me when I bought the fabric, and she and some random lady convinced me that the brown would be lovely with my reddish hair and green eyes, so brown tartan it was.  Note in the photo below that whoever made the original gown didn’t bother to match the plaid! FrasertartandressinvernessInstead of using the separate back bodice pieces, I’m going to use my pleating template from the L&S pattern along with the front bodice pieces from JP Ryan to make an en fourreau gown.  I have not been able to find a photo of the back of this gown, so I am making an assumption that it has a pleated back, rather than separate back bodice pieces, although it certainly could have the later style back.  However, I feel that it will be far more versatile for my purposes to give it the en fourreau back. (Update: Oct. 2018.  The original gown definitely DOES have the pleated back, which recent research suggests should not be referred to as “en fourreau” as this wasn’t the period term.  The gown has its own blog here: www.isabellamctavishfraser.wordpress.com)


I have already re-drawn the sleeves to shorten the very top of the sleeve head (the original pattern piece makes a large pouf at the top back of the sleeve), and I will redraw the bottom of the front of the bodice to reflect the shape of the original gown instead of the squared off front that exists on the pattern piece. 20180306_072731

The original gown is center front closing, so that is how I will make it. I have enough fabric to make the airisaid, and a matching petticoat, as well as a stomacher, robings, and even cuffs to easily convert it from center front closing gown of 1785 to an open front gown more appropriate to the Jacobite period of the 1740’s.  20180308_111236In fact, many of my gowns have removable robings and cuffs so that I can adapt them to the time period for the particular event I’m attending.  I should add that this gown is a compromise fabric-wise (at this time I didn’t want to spend what would be required for real wool tartan in my family’s clan colors), so it will by nature be more of a “costume gown”, as I would have no reason to wear it for Revolutionary War era living history in the American colonies.  But, portraying a Scot with my maritime group, or wearing it to a Burns night?  Oh yes.

Update:  Here it is!



After that, I plan to break out the silk and make a copy of this gown in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, again using the Ryan pattern.  The only modifications I will make are to the back of the neck, the sleeve heads, and the shape of the bottom front of the bodice.  This gown was originally lavender, faded to pink, but I’ve had this shade of pink in my stash for quite some time now.pinklavendergown

Speaking of fabric stashes…I have a huge one and I may just need to start selling some of my older gowns and jackets.  So many gowns to make, so little time.  The problem is that I love them all too much to part with anything, and yet I keep adding to the collection.  Remember that clothes horse?




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