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From open robe to round gown? Late 18th Century dress in transition. Part 1

Dear Readers,

We are about to embark on another adventure, this time examining a late 18th Century dress that appears to have been in the process of alteration, when it was stored away for around 220 years.

The dress, shown above, has no horrid different colour stitching, no Victorian amendments, no 'fancy dress' evidence. It has been frozen in time since the 1790's.

The gorgeous cream self-stripe silk has no splits or holes, and is covered in tiny, regular flowers, completely hand embroidered all over it. Again, see above for the face and underside views. There is one obvious, moderate stain [as you see] to the side skirt, and more subtle age staining, but I would say the fabric is in good condition for age. [strong and stable! So topical in this British election period!] I believe that the fabric probably dates to the circa 1780's, the tiny pattern being so typical of the late 18th Century.

I often wish I could travel back to the Georgian era and talk with the ladies who owned these dresses. Never more so than with this one. I would ask the owner her intentions and learn certainty from her reply. This isn't possible, so instead I am presenting an experienced theory, that this dress was being altered to keep up with fashion, from the original Open Robe, to a Round Gown.

For readers who are unfamiliar with 18th Century clothing, it was absolutely normal practice to alter dresses and other clothing, especially garments made of silk. Silk was extremely expensive, especially when embroidered such as this fabric. Everyday people could never afford to buy it. Such costly fabrics were only in the domain of the wealthy. Even then, it was never wasted, and would be re-used and re-made until it had no life left in it!

Linda Baumgarten, 'What Clothes Reveal' [see Links & Research for full reference] has a wonderful chapter called 'Tailoring Meaning' [Chapter 6] where she shows in great detail how garments were altered.

To explain my theory, I am most grateful to my great friend Kelly, who bought a circa 1780-90's open robe from me a few years ago, and has allowed me to use the close up photo's I took at the time. I shall call this Kelly's dress throughout.

Kelly's dress: An open robe 1780-90's.

Silk with embroidered flowers.

The rest of my gratitude goes to Nancy Bradfield [as always!] Her book 'Costume in Detail 1730-1930' [see L & R above for full reference], is so packed with detailed sketches that can explain far better than I, how gowns of the period should be constructed:

So, here we see an open robe, as illustrated in Bradfield. Only the sleeves are different than in Kelly's dress. Note the open skirt that needs a decorative petticoat below, so that the petticoat shows as a centre front panel when the dress is worn.

Open robe 1790-1800. Page 75, 1968

Now here, Bradfield sketches a round gown, circa 1780-94. This one was for a rather short and plump lady, but it is the detail we are interested in!

Note that the round gown has a very similar bodice to the open robe, but the skirt is closed. It has no front gap or space. A petticoat is no longer needed. The gown is worn with an 'apron front' skirt that sits over the bodice when the lady is dressed.

Round gown; Pages 73-74/1968.

Although both the open robe and the round gown were fashionable from 1780 onward, it was the round gown that endured through to the early 19th Century. The open robe was not seen after 1800.

The bodice:

The bodice of 'my' dress is completely lined, so that the lower front edges are enclosed, to be worn as in an open robe, with no skirt to the centre front.

It is very similar to Kelly's bodice, and to those shown by the Bradfield sketches.

Back bodice - MY dress

Back bodice - KELLY dress

The inside back of my dress - I love it! Fustian is the fabric of the centre back panel, and linen to the side panels. The sleeve linings are also linen.

Note the deeper back and shaping of the lower edge, with a v-shaped vent.

Note also, the stitching line where the skirt is attached on the other side, higher than the natural depth of the bodice.

The inside of Kelly's bodice. - all linen lined. Very similar, but with the curved shaping closer together.

Bradfield's sketch of the inside bodice is so useful when we seek confirmation we are correct in our research!

On this image of MY dress, we can see the furry texture of the fustian fabric, and the smooth section of pure linen [fustian was often used for a bit of extra warmth].

You can also see the Georgian stitches which are holding the skirt in place on the other side.

Here is the front of KELLY'S bodice. Very shallow, and the only fasten being a ribbon tie at the neck edge. The two front sections would probably have been pinned in place, meeting edge to edge at centre front.

Now see the difference with MY bodice - externally deeper and shaped to the lower edge, still fastening edge to edge at the centre front, probably with pins, but looking inside the centre front, the lining sits apart from the silk and has been hand sewn with eyelets for a corset fastening.

Bradfield shows a corset fastening on a 1780's dress [page 69/1968] and now look at our Bradfield round gown:

The front bodice is exactly the same as mine.

So, what needs to be sewn? WE have to go to Part 2 of this Blog, or my PC will expire from the excess use of images! See you there!

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