The following post was written about three years ago for the online magazine ‘Your Wardrobe Unlock’d’. It is part of a two-part series detailing the construction of a late C18th silk gown.
Examining extant gowns of the eighteenth century can throw up a variety of differing construction techniques. With little to reference other than word of mouth or exclusively external views in prints from pocket books and fashion plates, the provincial seamstress or dressmaker would have nothing to regulate her techniques other than tradition and experience. Volumes like Diderot’s 1769 Encyclopedie of trades and the fashion dolls from France could provide the most regulation, however these do not seem to have prevented a myriad of small variations from occurring. However of one thing we can be certain, eighteenth century construction is entirely different to that used today, or even a hundred years later. Furthermore it is necessarily to use these construction techniques to make many of the pattern shapes work, and impossible to achieve even an authentic looking finish without understanding the contemporary construction.
In this series of articles, I will be taking you step by step through the construction of a gown and petticoat dating from between c.1770 and c.1785. It is heavily based on a gown in the Snowshill Collection, and this is where the main bodice construction technique has come from. This article will focus solely on the bodice of the gown, and the next will focus on the petticoat, skirt and trimmings, allowing us to take a very detailed look at each element of the overall outfit. The specific purpose of the gown I am constructing is to form part of a thesis on the dissemination of fashion during this period, and so this dress reflects the very best sort of gown which a lady of ‘polite society’ in the late eighteenth century may have worn. However this technique is the one which appears to be most commonly used, or a variation thereof, and is, I believe, one of the most hard wearing and sound ways of constructing an eighteenth century bodice.
The basic principle of this method is that the lining is constructed first as a base, and the dress fabric mounted on top. This places the majority of the strain on the lining and not the dress fabric seams. It also means that an accurate fit can be achieved using the linen, before the dress fabric is even cut.
Alternative methods include creating each piece of the bodice separately and then stitching them together using a whipping stitch, or even on occasion a backstitch stitch through all the layers. There are also examples of the dress fabric being sewn together first, and the lining then being mounted inside this.
There are some elements which seem to remain constant however. For example, necklines always appear to be turned in and whipped together, rather than hemmed over. Sleeves also seem to follow the same general pattern, with the lining and dress fabric being constructed separately and the cuff hem turned in and whipped before sewing it into the gown in one.
A step by step guide
- Before we reach the first stages of construction, we must first consider fabrics and patterns. The former I discussed last month in my article on fabrics c. 1770-1789. For this project I decided on a yellow, white and green striped silk taffeta, which closely matches that seen on the gown on p.79 in the KCI’s ‘Fashion’. The pattern is based on various extant examples, but owes much to the gown on p.40 of Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion. It is the construction techniques used for this gown that I will also be following. The gown is lined with linen, and this is the first part to be cut out.
- The first stage of the sewing is to stitch the lining together, right sides together, down all the long seams. To do this, use a small, neat and even backstitch, half an inch from the edge. Do not stitch the shoulder straps on at this stage. Do not trim the seam allowance.
- As the lining is the layer on which the main fabric of the dress is mounted, it is essential that this layer is fitted properly. Even if a toile has been made before hand, try this on over your stays at this stage. Unlike a lot of fitting, these bodices of gowns of this date do not in fact fit smooth to the form all the time. Many paintings and fashion plates in fact show distinct wrinkling at the fronts of gowns, as the centre fronts were not boned, and the waists not shortened. Remember at this stage that a drawstring will be placed around the neck edge, which will take in any seemingly extra fabric around the neckline.
- The next stage is to insert the boning. The original contained whalebone, but plastic whalebone or steals work as a modern substitute. These are placed into the seams. The centre back seam is opened up and a bone placed in between the fabric and the seam allowance, one either side. The other seams are turned towards the front and a single bone placed in each seam.
- Cut and finish the bones so they are 3/4” shorter than the seam at either end. Sew them into the seams in the linen using a simple running stitch all the way along and across the end.
- Next, cut the silk bodice pieces. If there is a pattern or a stripe, make sure the cut compliments this.
- Backstitch the centre back seam only, right sides together. Once sewn, place this over the lining, wrong sides together, and firmly baste into place.
- Take the side back in the dress fabric and place this over the corresponding section of lining. Baste this along the top, bottom and the front side. Fold in the 1/4” seam allowance along the back edge.
- Using a neat running stitch in a silk thread (or linen if using a linen or wool fabric) top stitch the piece in place along the back edge, about 1/8” in from the edge.
- Do the same with the opposite side back. Make sure again that any patterns match on both sides.
- Again, use the same technique to attach the front pieces. Remember to baste all the way around the front.
- It is at this point that the shoulder straps are attached. Sew the linen strip only, and only sew it to the lining piece, using a small neat backstitch.
- Next, cut out the sleeves. In the eighteenth century these are cut across the fabric. In this case, it therefore means that the stripes go around the sleeve instead of down it.
- Inserting the sleeves is tricky. First, the sleeve is sewn into a tube and finished at the cuff. The bottom half of the sleeve is then sewn into the armhole as normal. The top half of the sleeve is laide over the lining shoulder strap and tacked down. The fabric shoulder strap is then sewn on top.
- Turn in the centre front edges of the gown by half an inch. Continue this all the way around the neckline of the bodice. Make sire that the lining is turned in slightly more than the dress fabric in order that it does not show over the finished edge.
- Make sure that the pattern matches down the centre front, as this will fasten edge to edge when completed.
- Whip stitch all the way up the centre front, around the neckline and down the centre front on the other side. However leave a half inch gap at the top of both centre fronts. This is for the drawstring at the centre neckline. Make sure the stitches are small and neat, and do not come down into the bodice too far. They should be near to invisible when the bodice is finished.
- Next, use a running stitch to create a channel from the shoulder strap seam to the centre front. Thread a silk cord or thin silk ribbon through this channel and secure it in place.
- Finally, the bottom edge needs to be finished off. The finished skirt edge will be whipped to this. To do this, turn under the edges 1/2”, as in step 15. In making a polonaise style dress, as this will be, it is also necessary to attach the cords at this stage. These are inserted between fabric and lining, and the whole thing is whipped together, as in step 17. Your bodice is now complete.
Other construction possibilities
©Copyright Hereford Museum
This gown from the collection at Hereford Museum demonstrates an alternative construction technique. Here, the individual pieces of the bodice have been made up and boned separately before being sewn together. In my opinion this technique is a far weaker one, and you can even make out where the seam is coming apart at the top of the centre back. This, however, is only the technique for the back seams. It is also possible to see that the side seams appear to have been sewn using the same technique as described above. It is also possible to make put that the raw edges around the sleeve seams have not been finished in any way, not even overcast.
This result could also be achieved as it has on the Northern Costume Society’s ‘Dress for Revolution’ (http://www.nsct.org.uk/patterns.html). Here, the fabric seam allowances are turned in, then the seam sewn through all the layers, right sides together, about 1/8” back from the folded edge. The linen lining is then attached by turning under the seam allowance and whipping it over the top.
Any of these methods can be used to create an authentic late eighteenth century bodice. As can be seen with the Hereford Museum example, it is even possible to use multiple methods for the different seams. In the next part of this series we will go on to look at how to make the petticoat and skirt to go with the bodice, as well as how to trim all the items to create the finished outfit.
My next post will explore how to make the skirt of this dress.
This post was originally an article on Your Wardrobe Unlock’d.
Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion: Englishwomen’s Dresses and their Construction c.1660 – 1860 (London, 1984).
Bradfield, Nancy, Costume in Detail (Barming, 1968).
Hart, Avril and North, Susan, Historical Fashion in Detail: The 17th and 18th Centuries (London, 1998).
Waugh, Norah, The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 (London, 1968).