Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, April 17, 2009

Guest Author Marjorie Gilbert on The Making of an Empire Gown

Today on History Undressed, we have a special guest author, Marjorie Gilbert who is going to take us through the making of an empire gown!

Without further ado...

Because I am a fan of Jane Austen, I thought I would be a fun project to make an Empire gown using Janet Arnold’s book Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen's Dresses and Their Construction, C. 1660 – 1860. I had already made a Spenser from the book that was from the same era, so I thought the project would be fairly easy.

Here’s picture of the gown as it appears in the book:

Here’s the pattern: a line drawing on graph paper in which every square equals an inch.
For some reason the words, circa 1798 to 1805, did not have the proper resonance they should have. The first time I made the gown, I followed the pattern exactly, making the pattern pieces that same size as drawn. And, when I tried on the bodice, I found that it was far too small. In fact, I could not move my arms, rather like the Randy in the Christmas Story.

I had to make the bodice bigger. But here’s the thing: I’m not a trained costumer, and I’ve never sized up patterns for myself. I’ve only worked with patterns someone else has kindly sized for me, like the nice people at Simplicity, McCalls, or Folkwear. This was challenging, to say the least.

My second go-round was better, in that the bodice was bigger. However, the bodice didn’t fit properly and concealed rather revealed. Well, half concealed and half revealed—in any case it was embarrassing.

Here’s the three stages of the patterns. As you can see, the bodice back grows larger and larger along the bottom of the picture.

The third time around I decided to take no chances, and made a mock-up of the back, sizing up the pattern each time until I got it right.
Once I got that down, I began putting together the bodice.
I added the sleeves,

and added the skirt.

One of the big issues was trying to choose the fabric for the bodice. In the book, the fabric is described as having purple fluer de lise on a white ground. The closest I could find was slate flowers on an off-white ground. I tried to disguise the off-whiteness by edging the bodice piece with blue edging. That backfired. The fact that I misread the pattern and made the edging an inch wide did not help either. I managed to create something that resembled the black bars one sees on COPS when someone has forgotten his or her clothing. Dramatic? Yes. Period? Well...
Oh, yeah. I made two of them because, well, I plead the fifth.

My second choice was far better: an off-white jacquard pattern on a white ground.

The final result, three tries later? Well, judge for yourself…

My next project? Make a chemise and petticoat to go along with the Regency stays I made to go with the dress…but not yet…

Marjorie Gilbert is author of The Return, a novel set in Georgian England.
Check out her website at www.marjoriegilbert.net.


Molly said...

I am impressed! A few conferences ago (RWA), someone did a workshop and I was amazed to see ho complex these seemingly simple dresses are. On thing that was stressed in connection with the fit, especially in the bodice, was the use of stays. I always thought these dresses would be like the empire waists we wore in the '60's. You know. Just pull 'em over your head. Uh-Uh. There was a reason people had sisters and maids! The writer giving the workshop said she would get annoyed reading Regencies where the hero practically undresses the heroine on the balcony and then they dress and go back to the ballroom like nothing happened. As she said, it just ain't that easy to get into one of these things!

Sarah Simas said...

Lovely dress, Marjorie! I can't sew a lick and have huge amounts of repect for those that can. I thought the gown turned out beautifully.

Your post was very insightful. I would not have guessed the pattern would be such as it was. Your ability to understand and make it work for you is proof of your talent.

Renee Knowles said...

Wow, Marjorie! This is fascinating. You put a lot of work and effort into your gown. And the result is fabulous! I am not very domestic, I'm afraid, so I won't be making any gowns, but it's very cool learning about all that goes into it.

Thanks for sharing your info!


Pat McDermott said...

What an intricate undertaking, Marjorie! And such lovely results! Thank you, Eliza, for bringing us this very impressive article.

Marjorie Gilbert said...

Thank you for your comments! The gown was a fun project, and I think it will take me far less time should I ever consider doing something like it again.

Putting on stays *is* rather a process. I've read about looping the laces over a newel post and tightening them by walking away from it, but find having my husband help me much better. There were period front-lacing stays, but of course my aren't.

I'm actually tackling another period project that will be far simpler (knock on wood) than the gown: a 1950s poodle skirt for an upcoming dance recital. My tap class is dancing to Mr Sandman. Thank goodness the nice people at McCall's have done a perfectly good pattern that's been already sized I can use...

Thank you again for your comments! Happy spring!

From Maine, where the snow is practically gone,

Teresa Reasor said...

My grandmother used to work in a dress factory. She would see a dress in a story window, go home and make a pattern out of a paper bag or a newspaper and cut everything out and make the dress. I believe she would have fit right into the Regency period.

I did not inherit any of her tallent as far as that goes.

I admired your determination in getting the dress made and it looked very fetching.
Teresa Reasor

Regencyresearcher said...

I once made an Empire style dress but had to modify it for a person who lived alone. The bodice was not easy to make. There was only one piece in the skirt and about ten in the bodice.
The people of that period did not seem to need ease in garments. I can't imagine how they moved their arms.
You are really to be commended.

Amy E. Nichols said...

This dress is beautiful. Great work and thanks for sharing. I can definitely use this information.