My Blog » Some Notes About Extant Clothing

Some Notes About Extant Clothing

I wrote this quite a while ago but never got around to posting it. However, since it’s a new year and I’m working on some new projects, I felt it would be a good thing to remind myself of some important lessons and share what I learned. Also, I’m not purporting to be an expert in extant garments. These are just my broad observations, formed over a brief period of study. I took thousands of photos on my trip, not all of which I can share, but I wanted to include a few in this post.  All photos are shared with the permission of the Leicestershire Museums Collections Resource Center.

When I was visiting England in 2016, I was lucky enough to examine many extant 18th century and early 19th gowns in detail, not once but twice! First we spent an afternoon studying at the Bath Fashion Museum, and the next morning we got to see even more gowns at the Leicestershire Museums Collections Resource Center. This was my first time inspecting original garments in detail, in person. Seeing the interior of the garment, rather than just the whole on display, was an eye-opening experience. I learned so much in just a few short hours, not only specific details of a particular style of dress, but also general construction methods and attitudes toward garment making. It really changed my views on a lot of things and gave me a better understanding into the mindset of a 18th century seamstress.


A beautiful gown made from the most lovely light brocade with exquisite
First, 18th century fabrics were lighter and more delicate than I could imagine. Looking at a dress in a museum or in a book, what we would imagine as thick, heavy brocade on a franciase was actually a crisp and airy fabric. The ones we handled were almost like a tissue taffeta. And don’t get me started on how fine the muslins were! It gave me a better grasp on what to look for when shopping for projects.


A early 1800s gown made from a pre-embroidered fine muslin, with lace insersion and more embroidery details.

If it didn’t show, and sometimes even if it did, sloppy stitches were the norm. Yes, there were incredibly beautiful and detailed embellishments and embroideries, tiny and perfectly even backstitches, but they were mixed in with giant sloppy running stitches, whipstitches, and raw edges. Nine out of ten garments were sewn so sloppily that that I would be embarrassed to own them as my own handiwork. There were a couple of dresses where it was clear that the seamstress wanted a nicely finished dress, but for the most part, the main goal was to have a new gown, not produce a work of art. I know that I will still be as meticulous as I can with stitches and seam finishes with my future projects, but it's freeing to know I don’t have to be. It takes the pressure off when something doesn’t go quite right. I've included examples of two dresses in this post, but that is definitely not all of the garments that I saw finished in this sloppy manner.

The seamstress didn't even bother to finish any of the lining edges. Also, it's hard to see in the photo but they used the selvedge edge for the lining and outer fabric.
Along those same lines, symmetry in the garment was not a priority, especially when it came to sleeves. Sleeves on the same dress could have different numbers of pleats on each sleeve head or a giant seam allowance on one side and a tiny one on the other. The dresses and sleeves were obviously fitted to an individual body, and the dressmaker did what they needed to do to “make it work”.

My favorite part of this dress is that it had not only giant seam allowances on the front of the skirt, but also just one giant sleeve seam allowance.
A few other things jumped out at me while I was examining the garments. First, the use of the selvedge edge for lots of things, not only seams, but front skirt edges and even robings edges! I saw shaped hems and facings on a lot of the 18th century dresses. I usually skip these out of sheer laziness, but I think I will try to incorporate them into more gowns. Also, looking at the 1790s transitional gowns and early 1800s gowns, I noticed a lack of side seams. You see this pop up in lots of scaled patterns as well, but most every dress had a side piece that wrapped from the side back of the bodice around to the front.
I know I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to examine extant garments in person, but if you get the chance, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will completely change your perspective and you can learn so much from just a brief session. It’s a whole different experience to looking a garments online or in books. Seeing the three-dimensional garment really brings it to life!
Posted: 3/8/2019 10:23:16 AM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: travels
blog comments powered by Disqus