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Construction of a Romantic Era gown

Some time ago I 'visited' the website of the expert Meg Andrews [] and saw that she had sold three pairs of 1830's printed fabric lower sleeves for children. To say that I was green with envy is an understatement! So you can imagine how excited I was to find this dress of the same period, with it's own detachable sleeves. OH MY!

There is something about sleeves through the 18th and 19th Century that is very special. They say so much about the restrictions placed on women. It really didn't matter if you couldn't lift your arms or stretch out in any direction. All that mattered was that she appeared decorative. And the late 1820's to early 1830's 'Romantic Era' illustrates this fact better than at any other time. The sheer discomfort must have been unbearable.

I may well write a blog showing sleeves I have examined over time - if I can find the photographs!

So, here we have a classic dress dating from 1829-1833. Absolutely classic. It has so many features worth examining, so we can do this together in this article. The main interest is in the construction of it. Who thought of these styles that required internal tapes and gauze to drape everything in the correct place? It is almost as if someone drew a design and said: 'I want this shape of dress, and no matter how difficult it is to construct it, I will not accept anything else!'

Starting with the fabric, just look at this jazzy print! Amazing! My camera fades it somewhat but it is so bright and vivid! Most of these printed gowns were made of cotton. Import taxes on cottons had been lowered by this time, and Britain was awash with cottons of all types. In addition, new printing methods allowed complex designs to be printed with relative ease. However, I do not believe that this dress is pure cotton. I think it may be a cotton & wool mix, but extremely lightweight. If not it will be a cotton silk mix. It is beautifully soft with a fine drape.

Let us now look at the stunning, tiny details, most of which would not show at any time when being worn. So much attention to the most minute aspects of the construction. First of all, everything used to decorate the gown is in exactly the same shade of deep blue. So we can be sure that they are all original.

Each lower sleeve is fastened at the wrist with a tiny, tiny button & loop of deep blue silk [one loop broken & easy to stitch back on]. Charming!

We have all seen piping on antique dresses, but the piping on this gown is exceptionally fine. Tiny and fabulously stitched, even though some of it is hidden from view.

Impossible to photograph clearly, the upper sleeve, as large as a dinner plate, is edged with early black lace, even though no-one could possibly see it except for the lady herself! Here you see the upper arm opening from a Birds Eye view. Note the piping as well.

The pockets are extraordinary. I have never seen anything like them before. Previous to this time, we usually see pocket slits; for the lady wore a pair of hidden pockets below her gown, reachable by the slits in the skirt of the gown. Here we have two slits as well, but bought forward to the front of the skirt, each one treated to decorative cording which look like corset ties, and work down to the base of the pocket, where we find a delightful very fine silk cord tassel. The silk is so fine here that the ends of each tassel are uneven and need a slight haircut!

Looking inside the skirt, the pockets are as impractical as the whole dress! Two tiny rectangles of the same blue silk, as delicate as can be. Nothing at all like the sturdy internal skirt pockets we find in the later, Victorian gown.

The skirt is fully lined in glazed cotton, in excellent original condition.

Now to those sleeves! Quite incredible! The upper sleeves as you may have seen in the photograph above, are lined in gauze to strengthen, and then have a short linen internal strap to ensure they do not droop, and to manage the vast amount of fabric in the huge puffs. I was discussing them with a knowledgeable friend this week and we both agree that she would surely have worn sleeve puffs as well, underneath, as part of her underwear. Straps everywhere, then!

The lower sleeves are being examined for my first time. They would have been gently attached to the main gown when required, the piped edges of the upper and lower sleeves being sewn together, presumably with the lace trim still showing externally. Again, the lower sleeves are lined in glazed cotton.

The upper edge of the sleeve is deeply and tightly pleated, almost like a smocked panel of 1" deep.

We then have a further gathering line below, to create a second puff effect, at the upper arm:

All of this fabric, so very wide, is NOT cut on the cross, we can see this by the straightness of the pattern of the fabric, yet it decreases and curves down to the narrowest of wrists! Do get out your Janet Arnold and Norah Waugh books, ladies and gents! This is a masterpiece of shaping!

The lower sleeves alone measure 20.5" along the curve of the inside sleeve. This is added to the depth of the top puffs. The standard length of a Victorian inside sleeve is 18". So these sleeves are extremely long.

Back we come to the quality & softness of the fabric, so that it would have gently laid in folds at the lower arm, something like this:

The lower sleeves have some gentle fading here and there, but are otherwise in excellent condition.

To the waistband. Fully lined in linen, we can see the original narrow ties that would fasten to the back waist along with two large hooks and eyes, still present. But I am so, so confused about the two deep linen straps that are also sewn to the waistband.

At first, I was convinced that they would be shoulder straps, similar to the strapping we find on crinoline cages. I presumed they would somehow support the heavy weight of the sleeves. But they do not stretch to the shoulders! If anyone can tell me what they are for, I would be so grateful. Driving me to distraction!

Can you see the little blue silk rectangles at the underarms? Again, I think they are original and seem to be underarm protection! There is a similar little square at the back waist fasten, to shield the hooks and eyes from creating damage. So many tiny details.

The bodice lining is a sign of 'things to come' in construction, but still with 1820's detail. The front bodice is linen lined, and all sound. But the back linings are very delicate silk, over which are two linen sections, that fasten at centre back. So the Regency inner sections still exist, if somewhat adapted.

So, there we have it. A rare and wonderfully constructed dress, showing all the features of the period. Whilst it is tiny, I am sure it is for a woman.

The chest measures just 29", the waist 25" and the back length 45.5". So petite, and packed with interest!

If you would like me to send you a full condition report, please contact me via the website. I consider the damage to be minor, but you will want to know the details if considering buying her.

Image of a slightly later printed gown, c1835. [central dress of printed cotton] Note how short the dresses were at the time, and how the focus of the sleeves is already moving lower. By the 1840's, shoulders were back to a normal size.

Photograph reference: Kyoto Costume Institute. 'Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century. Volume 1' Pages 188-9. 2005. Taschen Publishers. 'Day dress, c1835' in centre.

Thank you for reading!

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