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An altered 18th Century dress: Let's explore!

18th Century gowns are quite rare, so those of you who have never examined one may enjoy this short analysis.

I am selling this dress as it is, for renovation, so you can also read here to see the full condition and what needs to be done to bring it back to [almost] the 18th Century!

If no-one wants her as she is, she will sadly be dismantled to sell for the wonderful silk fabric. The flowers are in pairs, quite unusual, and the colours are gorgeous - blues, reds, a delightful apricot & creams, all on a primrose yellow fabric.

The lace flounce at the neck and cuffs appears to be Brussels applique of the 19th Century, and will have been added when the Victorians started to play with it, probably for fancy dress [scowl!]

I will check with the Lace Mentor, but if I am correct, the lace has a value of it's own. Brussels lace is very sought after.

Lets start with the skirt -Easy!

Although the skirt has been given 'Victorian glamour', it will be really quite easy to get it back to close to the original.

Firstly, the seams are almost all original, sewn in the small running stitch correct for the circa 1780's. The pocket slits have been closed and will be easy to open on each side seam.

The Victorians then decided to add vertical gathering stitches to make the polonaise appear even more gathered! The gathering stitches are hand made and will be so easy to remove completely. An 18th Century polonaise only ever gathered with tape ties inside,

The tape ties are good replacements for the original, but they have been manipulated in the most ridiculous way! They have been 'fixed' with hand stitching to the interior hem of the skirt so that it is impossible to adjust the length of the skirt. The ties would never reach the hem in the 1770-80 period. Original tape ties would usually be three maximum, and they would be tied to rings, sewn to the inside of the skirt, at regular spaces, so that the lady chose how long or short her skirts would fall. We do have rings on this dress, which could be used for this purpose.

Then even more ridiculous, the tape has been used to form a channel for the entire hemline of the skirt, so that the hem is gathered horizontally all the way around. Bah humbug! So simple to pull it out and press the hem flat again.

The original skirt would have had a very fine and deep silk lining hem, perhaps 8-10" deep, so you could add this if you wished to be completely correct.

There is a reasonably modest area of shattering to one area of the skirt - getting rid of all these fixed gathers will help to preserve the silk far better than as it is now. This type of shattering can only be protected by adding extremely fine muslin with hand stitches to the underside.

And that is all for the skirt! Easy!

Now for the bodice ...

Starting with the exterior bodice back, the seams and shaping are correct for the original gown, which is very good news. But internally, instead of the lightweight linen lining of the 18th Century, there is a cotton lining, with bones added by the Victorians. Hidden within the lining are two centre back bones that would be correct for the 18th Century, so you can leave these in place.

The exterior back is also especially nice as the original 18th Century dress maker matched the floral patterns very well.

Given that the lining is very well made and fitted, you may want to leave this just as it is. But there is machine stitching here, so a purist will want to remove it completely and re-line.

The straps over the shoulders are also as they should be, so no problems there. [There is a little piecing, quite commonly found on 18th Century gowns.]

On to the sleeves. Despite being re-hemmed at the cuffs, the shape of the sleeves is still as it should be, especially the curved cuffs. The sleeves are lined in a muslin, which you may wish to leave alone to protect the fabric. But there is certainly some running stitch work required to the sleeve seams!

In the image above, you can see my pencil pointing to plain yellow fabric. This is early 20th Century and has been used as an insertion to make the sleeves wider, so that someone can wear it. Not only has this fabric shattered, but it is not at all nice and needs to be completely removed. Then, use simple running stitches to re-close the original sleeve seams to take them back to the original width.

The silk at the underarms does also have some shattering but not too much. Again, use fine muslin to support it from underneath. If you can do a simple bit of light darning, all the better.Do use matching thread! You would be amazed at the number of good seamstresses who use the wrong colour thread and spoil their work!

The front of the bodice should be very smooth as an 18th original, and those front bones do detract from the somewhat. See photo below of a dress of the same period that I examined some time ago,

It is the front edges, however, that really require some thought. A polonaise of the 1770-1780 period often had front edges that closed together. Often, there is no trace of fastenings and we presume that pins were used. However, from the 1775 - 1780 period, there was a brief fashion for front lacings. The lacing would be threaded through immaculate tiny hand stitched eyes on each side of the bodice front.

With this bodice, the Victorian added very well sewn hidden hooks and eyes to make this a 'closed' front fastening. However, our early 20th Century friends decided they wanted a laced front. [Oh dear!] So, they added metal rings through which to thread a cord to lace it up. This may have been to make it suitable for someone larger to wear [which ties in with the extended sleeve widths]. These rings need to go [easy] and could be used for the ties within the skirt.

To cover the gap showing through the lacings, they added the horrid yellow fabric used at the sleeves, which has virtually disappeared now, thank goodness, and behind it a piece of muslin that can simply be removed [it could be useful for underpinning any areas of shattering at the underarms.]

Finally, the waist. First, the Victorian have changed both the centre back and centre front elongations into points, because these pointed waists were very popular during several decades of the 19th Century. However, in the 18th Century, these points would have been far softer, and sometimes flat, horizontally. To achieve something like this, one would turn up the ends of the points with a small hem, as shown on the original 18th Century dress below. The new version would not be as deep, but would at least give an impression.

Last of all, the bodice and skirt have been separated, but exquisitely done. Very simple to re-attach them, with no raw edges to concern you, and the ability to take the start of the skirt further back as shown above.

Quite a project, but a very enjoyable one, and you have fragments of spare fabric inside the skirt waist to even patch small area's if you want to go that far.

Thank you so much for reading!

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