Monday, June 27, 2011

The Newbie's Guide to 18th Century Ladies' Ensembles

A caricature comparison of French fashion, ca. 1794
When talking to friends who are new to fashion sewing or historical costuming, or even a customer who likes a particular aspect of a certain fashion era and not another, it can be frustrating on both ends trying to convey information pertinent to costume design and construction when one party knows the fashion lingo and the other doesn't. When discussing women's dresses of the 18th century, the many styles and variations can get confusing, especially since these differences can be very subtle. However, to assist those individuals who can't make heads or tails between a robe à l'anglaise and a robe à la polonaise, I have fashioned a "beginner's guide" (a pictorial reference) to basic 18th century gown styles. Please note that I have not presented an exhaustive representation of the many gown types and their variations, but just the basics with their characteristic details. It's a good start for any Newbie - :)

Robe à l'Anglaise (English Dress)
 The robe à l'anglaise is generally constructed of cotton or silk in a muted color, often plain, but sometimes in a brocade or with a minimal print; in any case, the gown is more conservative in its decoration than the robe à la francaise or robe à la polonaise. The noted characteristics of this gown are its tight fitted and closed bodice (which is laced, hooked, or pinned shut), long full skirt (no shoes, ankles, or stockings visible), and several box pleats that are stitched flat to the back of the bodice from the neck to the small of the back. Sleeves vary in design and length, ranging from a long and fitted sleeve to an elbow-length puff, lace, or cuff sleeve. A fichu (a light shaw-like covering) is often worn around the neck.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à l'Anglaise, ca. 1770 (front)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à l'Anglaise, ca. 1770 (back)

Robe à la Francaise (French Dress)
Also known as a Watteau, waterfall, sack back, or sacque, this gown was originally worn as a form of "undress" and neither the back nor the front of the bodice was fitted, but rather loose (see robe volant). By the 1770s, once the gown became a popular addition in the court lady's wardrobe, the front of the bodice was redesigned to be tight fitted and laced in the back behind the pleats. The remarkable characteristic of this gown are the highly structured box pleats, which are attached to the neck of the bodice and flow delicately down the back of the gown into a short train. This style was often decorated lavishly with puffs, bows, lace, ribbons, cording, etc.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Française, ca. 1775 (back)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Française, ca. 1775 (front)

 Robe à la Polonaise (Polish Dress) 
Polish peasants were the design inspiration for this style of dress when it was introduced to the French court in the mid-1700s. The design of this dress was to imitate (or parody) the peasant woman, whose skirts were hiked above her ankles with ties while working. The gown is noted for its tight fitted and closed bodice (typically hooked or buttoned down the center front, rather than pinned or laced at the sides to a stomacher, like the robe à la francaise), ankle-length under-skirt that exposes the shoes and stockings, and an over-skirt that is cutaway to the sides of bodice and typically hitched-up with ribbon or cord. 

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Polonaise, ca. 1775 (back)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Polonaise, ca. 1775 (front)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Polonaise, ca. 1780 (back)

Chemise à la Reine (The Queen's Shirt)
Initially called a Gaulle (a name most likely taken from the Gaul people who occupied the geographical area of France in antiquity), the chemise à la reine was a style of dress that originated in England. Marie Antoinette introduced the gown to the French court in the late 1770s. The queen had always struggled with the restricting nature of the corset and the bulkiness of French fashion, and sought a more natural and less restrictive form of dress. The chemise à la reine is generally characterized by its one-piece design, light and sheer cotton or silk construction, low ruffled neck, and heavy flouncing at the edge of the gown. These gowns were usually white (although very light silver-gray, blue, or yellow were also known) and tied at the waist with a wide ribbon or cloth sash. 

Source: - Chemise à la Reine reproduction

Artist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun - Marie Antoinette (The Muslin Portrait), 1783

 Robe Volante (Flying Dress) 
Introduced to the French court in the 1720s, and predecessor to the robe à la francaise, the robe volante is noted for its soft pleats or gathers that flow from the front and back of the neck of the bodice to the hem of the skirt. Worn over a chemise, corset, and panniers. 

Source: Kyoto Costume Institute - Robe Volante, ca. 1720 (side)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe Volante, ca. 1730 (front)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe Volante, ca. 1730 (side)

Chemise à l'Anglaise (English Shirt)
Due to the ban on silks and satins during the French Revolution (and the growing disdain for the court's excesses and lavishness), the chemise à l'anglaise became the mode of fashion in the 1790s. Similar in structure to the chemise à la reine, the chemise à l'anglaise is a one-piece ensemble, constructed of sheer cotton or linen, and tied just under the breast (rather than at the waist) by a satin sash. These gowns were generally white or ivory in color and typically kept basic, rarely ornamented with any form of decoration, except in the case of evening or wedding gowns.  

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise, ca. 1799

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise (pair), ca. 1795

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise, ca. 1799

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise, ca. 1800

*For more information and an excellent pictorial presentation of the styles discussed here, please visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kyoto Costume Institute's on-line costume collections.

Happy sewing! :)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Claddagh (Tonia's Barfday!)

The Brewery King - Brewery District, Columbus, Ohio

Tonia (the barfday girl!) and Shawn
A Gallway Hooker (that's actually the name of my dessert! )
Me, Tonia, Lauren (our server), and PJ
Cassi (our little French mime) by the Eiffel Tower

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (without internet service, anyway)

Intermittent internet. It's not good. And, you never really know how addicted you are to the internet (obsessively checking email, Facebook, Blogspot, Google news, etc.) until it's taken away from you - or worse, it's tauntingly and teasingly intermittent. Apparently, I was not the only customer to have the same issue, considering customer service told me that my area was experiencing a large volume of repair requests and it took them four days to get a technician out to my house. What was the issue? Water. The connections were replaced and now I am good to go, free to feed my obsessive compulsive need to surf the net and check my email at least a hundred dozen times a day - lol! ;)

In my internet down time, I did manage to get to the hardware store and pick out a new paint color (a medium tone purple-grey called "twighlight evening") and light sheers for the pumpkin puke room - I will be starting on the room next week. 

I finished my Regency jumper for the Regency picnic in September. What I like best about this gown is my fabric choice - it's so bold. Funny to say that the older I get, the bolder I am becoming in my pattern and color choices. When I was younger, I was so color and pattern shy - black, blue, or white was always safe for me. I think with age we grow more confident in our choices, or maybe we just don't care anymore - lol! Whatever the case, I am pleased with the color and pattern which I have chosen for this little gown. 

On the other hand, after proclaiming my growing confidence in fabric color and pattern selection, I'm a bit worried about my current fabric choice for a late Victorian ensemble I will be constructing soon for a trip to the Old West Festival in southern Ohio in October. I love the fabric, but I am afraid it may look garish in volume (I will be using this for the jacket and over-skirt). Yes, it looks a little like pillow ticking, but it's a heavy satin. My youngest daughter seems to think that my fabric choice is fabulous and encourages me to forge ahead. That is indeed my course of action, to use the fabirc despite my second geussing - :) 

Courage! And, happy sewing!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pumpkin Puke & Other Interior Disasters

Our youngest daughter has always inherited the smallest bedroom - the plight of being born second, I guess - lol! Our oldest daughter has always had the privilege of "first choice" wherever we have lived, and as expected, she has chosen the largest bedroom second to our own. When the oldest moved out a few months back, the youngest quickly apprehended her older sister's room, and that left me with a disaster - well, two disasters - to redesign. Both of my daughter's rooms are a hot mess after years of countless posters and pictures being nailed, taped, and gummed to the walls, scuff marks all over the red oak floors, and Lord only knows how hard-tack candy got stuck to the closet floor. With that said, my first home project this summer is my youngest's old bedroom - or, as my husband disdainfully calls it, the pumpkin puke room. When we bought our beautiful historical home seven years ago, the room was painted a powder blue. Maria wanted it green, so I painted it green. Then she wanted it orange, so I painted it orange. Now, it is my room and it will be restored it former anti-teenager glory! Whoohoo! And then, I get to tackle the dark brown walls of my oldest daughter's old room (she had dark walls so that all her awesome movie posters would stand out) - that's going to be a priming and painting nightmare, but at least I won't feel like I'm walking into a dungeon once it's redone (and the angels sing, "Hal-le-lu-jah!")...

 On the sewing front, I have finished Maria's dress. It's so sweet and fresh (just like her) - she's going to look darling! Now I need to get my new Regency gown constructed. I am making myself a jumper this time around and I have chosen a black cotton fabric with a very large floral print. I know it sounds unusual, but I love it and I think the box-pleating in combination with the large print will create a very interesting design element to the gown, so here's to a little experimentation! I need to make a new Regency corset, too. I am not pleased with last year's corset. I made it well and it was comfortable, but I need more structural support - I'm not a size 8 anymore (that was 20 years ago! Yikes!). To achieve the proper Regency silhouette, I need a bit more help! lol! Further, I'm not going to construct the thing from duck like I did last year - I'm going to use a few good layers of linen - it's a friendlier fabric. I imagine I'll begin work on my Regency garments this evening - :)

In the meantime, off I go to Home Depot where thousands of paint samples await my scrutiny! Hehe...

(For more pictures of Maria's finished gown, please visit the Dressmaker's Album)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You've Been "Toiled"!

Paltrow - Emma (1996)
Pardon the very grainy picture to the right. I had to pull Emma (1996) from our movie library and scroll through footage to take a picture of this gown (which only makes a 30-second appearance near the end of the movie!) - the gown my youngest daughter wants me to model her gown after for the Regency Picnic in September. Thank heaven for historical dramas - they are great costume reference material and they make my job as a tailor a little easier when trying to discover what a customer might want, like my judicious (and sometimes finicky) 17-year old daughter - lol! I did Google the gown and tried to find a better quality photo to no avail; anyway, my Maria wants her gown to look like this (or something like it) - a very sweet, comfortable, and machine washable choice.

Marie's basic over-dress
I started on the over-dress a couple days ago - except for the ribbon and rose trim, it is complete, leaving me with the under-dress to construct. The bodice portion was the only part of the over-dress that I made a pattern for, which I created by using the pin and dart method directly on Maria rather than a dummy. She was not a happy puppy - it's summer vacation and I woke her up just a little after 8 AM to be "toiled" - hehe! I know I'm a bad mama, but if I waited for her to wake up (all the way up), it'd be dinner time before she was fitted! lol! While constructing the bodice, I initially added some green ribbon at the base as a way to tie the gown shut and to add a little of decoration. The bodice looked puckered and wonky when the ribbon was tied (frankly, the ribbon was too wide), so I removed it. When the basic over-gown was complete, I tried just a heavy eye and hook at the base of the bodice and it worked beautifully - sometimes simple is best.

Okay - back to work! Stitch, stitch!  

Blessings and happy sewing!

(For more pictures of Maria's gown in progress, please visit the Dressmaker's Album)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Devil & Mother Nature

Although I still have the beret to make, my Celtic dress is complete! I used Simplicity pattern 0663 (as you know), and as I have mentioned, I had to take in the bodice by 4 sizes - wow! Tonia told me that even after she took the bodice in several sizes, her dress (taken from the same pattern) is still not as fitted as it should be; she told me she’s either going to take it in further or make another dress completely. I admit that I have never encountered a pattern that is so grossly missized - lol! Anyway, I like my finished dress; it’s cute and simple (did you notice I altered the neck line to the shirt?) and I'm looking forward to strapping myself in it for Tonia's birthday dinner in a couple weeks! In the meantime, I have quite a list of sewing projects lined up - what to do, what to do (eenie, meenie, miny, mo...)!

Do you know it was 95 degrees today - in early June! Oh.My.Scorching.Hell! What is wrong with this picture - for months (up until two weeks ago), we Ohioans have suffered temperatures way below average, torrential rains, and mass flooding. It has been so bad that the farmers are just now starting to plant their crops! Now, the Devil has taken up residency in the Buckeye State and brought all of Hades with him (*fans self*) - lol! Ugh, I detest this oppressive heat and I hate watering my garden with city water – oh, the irony of it all! Chlorine and fluoride do awful things to veggie plants - come on Mother Nature, wakey, wakey! The sun is just blazing without a cloud in the sky and my poor plants are wilting something sick. Okay, so my strawberries are doing well - lol! 

Happy sewing (and stay cool)!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Katharine At Kent

Kent State Museum
The Kent State Museum was our destination yesterday - me, Tonia, PJ, Marie, and Kate packed up a picnic lunch and our cameras, and headed the 150 miles north to Akron, Ohio for a day of historical costume admiration, education, and inspiration. When you have good company in tow, it's amazing how quick a 3-hour trip can whiz by! Hehe - it could have been a 2-1/2 hour trip, but two women I know (*uh hem* - Tonia and PJ) had to do a bit of impulsive shopping at Wally World in Mansfield - like the Walmart in Columbus doesn't carry the same stuff?  I knew it though - letting them enter a store together is an erroneous affair, indeed - lol!

Recent museum acquisition - c. 1912
But, my concern over the Walmart shopping visit was legitimate. I thought we'd need a good bit of time to get through all the clothing exhibits - the museum was closing in a few hours and we ladies were barely half way there! I said to Tonia, when we were planning the trip, "I imagine it will take us about 2-1/2 to 3 hours to make it through the galleries." Well, an hour later -! Despite the small size of the exhibits, the collections that were featured were stunning. And better yet, unlike any other fashion exhibit I have visited over the years, this exhibit was open - no glass, no ropes, no encasements - I could literately get within millimeters of a garment and inspect its stitching and construction. So, so close to touching, without touching, of course (that's a big no no)! Also, how the garments were presented for viewing was very balanced and accessible - for most of the pieces, I could examine them from almost every angle. These different viewing points really accentuated the aesthetics of each garment and it allowed me a greater opportunity to appreciate the designer's work. I was impressed by the whole experience (and so were the girls) - so much so, that we are going to pay another visit to the museum in late September when their Civil War exhibit opens on the 30th! 

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - Hepburn
For me, the most affecting of the exhibits was the Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen in the Broadbent Gallery on the second floor. You know, I have tried to imagine what Hepburn must of looked like in real life (since I never had the privilege of knowing her), how tall she was, how she was built, maybe the color of her hair, etc. In other words, I have tried to imagine her as a real person. My impressions of her have been formed and fashioned mostly in black and white and by the giant images of her on the silver screen - whatever I have come to imagine or know about Katharine Hepburn is superficial at best and based solely on her acting career and Hollywood persona. So, to see her clothing (especially those pieces that she wore in the movies I love, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy) is to see some permanent impression of her, even though it's just a glimpse of her ghost (she really wore these - these were her things).

Adam's Rib - Hepburn
Of course, her costumes are magnificent, but so was Hepburn! At 5'7", she was a very, very slim woman. I am going to guess that her waist measurement was 20" and her dress size about a 0-2? Seriously. No wonder Hepburn always looked wispy and light on the screen. PJ and I were looking hard at both the black evening gown and the ivory night gown she wore in Adam's Rib - we kept circling and circling these dresses with our mouths gaped open like idiots astounded by the absolute tininess of Hepburn's waist - even Vivian Leigh would have been pea green with envy - lol! But one thing is for sure about Katharine - she loved her khaki trousers (as PJ pointed out)! For me, Hepburn's love for breeches is one thing that set her apart from other old Hollywood actresses - I have always been intrigued by her fashion choices and find it curious that no other actress in her generation followed her example - no matter and no loss to posterity, here! Hepburn was a woman of her own making and I greatly appreciate her practical fashion sense as well as her willful character and infatuation for life. Her legendary status is well earned. 

Hepburn loved her khakis!
The Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen costume exhibit continues through to September 4, 2011. Regular admission is $5 (special admission rates for seniors and students are available) - for more information, please follow my Window Shopping link to the right of the page to access the Kent State Museum web page. 

In the meantime, happy sewing! :)

(For more pictures of the Katharine Hepburn exhibit at the Kent State Museum, as well as pictures of the Vincent Quevedo exhibit, please view my Dressmaker's Album)