Take Two Gowns: Mid 18th Century Features
Images of sketches above and below from Nancy Bradfield 'Costume in Detail: 1730 to 1930'. George G Harrap &Co Ltd. 1968 Pages 17/18.
I have bought a dress. An 18th Century dress. The ideal dress to compare with this beauty sketched by Bradfield from the Snowshill Manor Collection.
The robe sketched here is made of figured silk. Mine is plain silk. But they have something in common; the colour of each dress is Georgian yellow. There is no other yellow like Georgian yellow. It is shocking in it's individualism. Just like pure sunshine. This is the first reason that I bought the dress, and it is the first similarity to the one in the Snowshill Collection.
There are, however, many other features that are just the same and perfect for comparison between the two.
Back to the beginning ..... Georgian yellow.
Some years ago I examined this absolute darling of an 18th Century dress for a little child. I fell in love with it immediately, because in addition to the tiny form of it, that yellow silk was breathtaking. Sadly I cannot remember who bought it but I know I felt completely reassured that it was going to a good home. I have since lost the photographs, so this tiny picture is all I have left of it.
From then on, Georgian yellow has been my most sought after colour.
A few years later, I found more 'Georgian yellow, again for a child. This tiny quilted jacket, again one of my favourites of all time:
It looks far paler than the gown, but it is the same yellow in natural light.
This glorious fabric from an 18th Century dress has the same yellow silk ground.
It seems that this yellow was very fashionable indeed around the middle of the Century.
Time went by, and I never found a ladies dress of the same colour, so when this one came up, I just had to have it!
And here is the second reason I had to have it:
Just look at these sleeve trimmings, with attached ruffles - Oh My!
In fashion from the mid 1740's to the mid 1770's, one can see why - they are just charming.
To begin comparing the Snowshill dress with mine, lets examine the back bodice first. Both are identical. The double pleats each side of the centre back are sewn down with tiny stitches to the waist, which is where the stitching ends, and the pleats are allowed to hang loose, along with the rest of the lovely skirt pleats.
Bradfield describes the Snowshill dress as having a join at the base of the waist pleating, [probably piecing], mine has a horizontal seam running all around the upper skirt, which is more likely to accommodate the narrow fabric.
Most unusual, neither dress has pocket slits. I have never seen this before and thought that all gowns had pocket slits in the 18th Century. We learn new things all the time!
Now, the next similarity is difficult to explain. Remember that my dress had been altered somehow at the bodice front. The linen linings are the same as the Snowhill dress in that the bodice back, fronts, and sleeves are all lined. However, I could see that the front linings to my dress seemed to have been narrowed at the front edges.
I think I understand why now. The Snowshill dress has front linings that are not fixed to the main fabric at centre front edgings. This is because the dress has hidden eyelet panels for lacings. Whilst the lining would be completely hidden, the lacings would thread over the top of the stomacher, which would be worn in the space between the robings.
I think that at some point, the lining lacing panels to this dress have been removed.
This makes no difference to the outer gown, but it does make the inner gown appear a little unfinished.
Below is the centre back lining; I do love these details!
The two dresses are not entirely alike. Bradfield shows that the Snowshill gown has just the same pleating as mine, except for at each side waist. The Snowshill gown has an inverted pleat inserted amongst the regular pleating at each side. Mine does not. The pleating on my gown has regular pleats all the way around the waist.
Bradfield mentions that at this point in the 18th Century, a new style of smaller hoop was worn below the skirt. The inverted pleats at each side of the Snowshill dress clearly indicate that a wide hoop would be worn below it [making that signature shape of a very wide skirt, which looks extremely narrow when viewed sideways. Whether my regular pleats signify the new, smaller hoop, or whether it would be worn with no hoop at all is unknown to me so far. I have placed a small hoop under the skirt of this dress and the pleats still fall neatly. [Hoop is not included with the dress for sale].
The second difference between the dresses is that Bradfield's dress has a completely unlined skirt. Mine is also unlined now, but there remains a line of hand stitching around 14" from the hem [with associated small splitting] that I think indicates that there was once a deep hem lining of very delicate silk. I have seen this many times before.
Bradfield tells us that dresses of the 1750's were rarely lined at the skirt, but does show, a few pages on, a dress with lined skirt of the same approximate time. So I do not feel that the lining of the skirt is a major indicator either way in this comparison. It looks as if the hem of my dress has been taken down at some time, which could be why the lining was removed. We may never know. And, on that note .....
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Best collection in the World?
How many of my readers own Linda Baumgarten's book: 'What Clothes Reveal', Published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press?
I have the opportunity here to shout about it from the rooftops! You see, this Foundation is unique and Baumgarten's book is unique in catering exactly for people like me.
I love textiles and costume from the past. But I equally love social history. In examining pieces like this gown, I can integrate my two interests in studying history through the examination of the textile artefact.
Many museums and collections seek the perfect piece of costume in it's entirely unaltered state. The reason for this is obvious. When we only have artwork to guide us, we need to have a true, original piece to see exactly what the 'standard' piece looked like in the particular era. Once the original is known to exist, then we can see if other pieces have been altered.
The Colonial Williamsburg Collection is different. It celebrates pieces that have been altered & changed through time, because it tells us so much about the lives of the people who owned that piece, who saved it, who altered it and why. Through this Collection and this book, our imaginations can take us back in time!
I strongly recommend you read the final two chapters of the book:
* 'Tailoring Meaning - Alterations in Eighteenth Century Clothing' Page 182.
* ' Conclusion - Listening to Clothes' Page 208.
Baumgarten describes so beautifully how fabric was dismantled, cleaned, patched, altered within every social class in the USA and Britain. With her clarity, any changes to our 18th Century dress become fascinating rather than irritating. I do draw the line at machine stitching though! But even that must have signified such an exciting new innovation to all seamstresses beyond the 1850's. There is, I believe, a reason behind everything we see.
In the preface of the book we find the statement that says it all:
'Clothing provides a remarkable picture of the daily lives, beliefs, expectations and hopes of those who lived in the past'
As always, thank you so much for reading!