And we are finally at the reason I started a 1790s project in the first place! (Also, this post has literally been in draft since February. Which is also when I had a baby, which explains everything).
I went looking to see if I could find anything remotely similar (because I do love a challenge of trying to find historically adequate 18th century fabrics) and came across this one:
My mother in law got me some for Christmas in 2020, and this outfit started coming together in my head.
First, let’s go over the ways that this is not a historically accurate chine/warp print fabric:
- The way the fabric is made. This fabric is a regular satin (or taffeta? It seems to be somewhere in the middle. Not totally a plain weave, but not quite as smooth as a satin. The weft threads go over ~2 warp threads, rather than a single one for a plain weave). The patterned parts are made like a regular jacquard, except the pattern purposely skips over a thread here and there to make the edges look blurry. This is not the same way a warp print was made historically (which was way more labor intensive). But it’s a clever way to fake it!
- The scale of the fabric. Those patterned stripe sections are around 6 inches wide, and the purple sections around 8″. It’s clear this is meant to be an upholstery fabric, rather than a garment fabric (compare to the much narrower stripes in the Met open robe, where they alternate ~1″ sections of pattern and plain). This meant I had to be a lot more wasteful with fabric in trying to place stripes where I wanted them or pattern matching, compared to a very fabric-frugal18th century seamstresses mantua maker. I could have used significantly less fabric if I didn’t go for symmetry, but that would have been way less attractive.
For the pattern, I did want it to be a little more earlier-in-the-decade-shaped so I made a new pattern piece by slapping some see-through packing material that acts remarkably like swedish tracing paper over the round gown on my dress form.
A mockup as always, because when you are working with the most expensive fabric you own, you double check the fit:
With that, onto construction! Tldr; it’s basically the same as my round gown, except even easier because it doesn’t have a front to fit, just a band under the bust.
A billion photos ahead!
I did a test run of pleating with muslin to get to something I approximately liked and to get a sense of how much fabric I needed, then went with the real thing.
Turns out there is a reason these extant gowns always place fabric at an angle at center back – if you pleated a straight rectangle, you would need to waste so much more fabric to get the pleats to go low enough as you travel away from center back. Turn your fabric on an angle, and the extra length is just there! Makes sense for a time when fabric is the most expensive part of a gown.
This is the basis of all 18th century garments – as long as your lining fits, you can do whatever you want with the outer fabric (and they did indeed do whatever they wanted, especially during a particularly transitional fashion time like this).
I ended up doing fewer pleats than this test in order to show off the patterned part of the fabric, which didn’t look as good hiding in the pleats. I even used two pieces of fabric here, you just can’t tell because the seam is hidden under the pleats
The side piece got a piece of fabric with the pattern once again. The seam allowance is folded under on both sides and topstitched down.
From what I can tell of museum pictures, it doesn’t look like open robe trains at the time actually had a lining or facing. But mine definitely got a facing at the bottom where it touched the ground, because I’m not dragging $$$ silk on the ground kthx! This is actually some purple polyester satin in a similar shade to the purple in the dress dress that I got for dirt cheap in the Costume College bargain basement years ago.
Top of the train is pleated up and sandwiched between the lining and fashion fabric of the bodice
Raw edge of the lining is turned under and the pleats are whipped to it
Same happens on the outside
Spot the problem?
Then figuring out the strap and sleeve pattern! Aka the absolute worst part. Open robes can have any number of sleeve variations; no sleeves, short, medium, long. I decided to go with the most difficult version and go with a full length long sleeve which buttoned at the wrist.
I put the robe on over the round gown to figure out where I needed to add a bit more to my sleeve pattern, because the open robe had the earlier shape of having a very square corner where the strap hits the back.
I stuck pins in the round gown to mark where the open robe hit and transferred that amount to the round gown sleeve pattern.
I’ll be honest, I could not even begin to explain the frankenpatterning that went on below. It was a combination of my open robe sleeve plus the shapes from a Janet Arnold gown while trying to match it to my measurements.
This went through several iterations and mockups.
This pattern below is a fairly common shape for an 18th century sleeve, although it looks bizarre to the modern eye. Modern sleeves are often one piece, maybe with a dart at the elbow for a bit of curve. This results in a sleeve which is straight/unwrinkled when the arm is straight down at your side, but will obviously wrinkle up when you bend your arm. Whereas an 18th century sleeve is curved, such that the fabric is unwrinkled when your arm is slightly bent. I have no idea why this is the case.
It somewhat resembles a modern two piece sleeve (generally seen only in coats), except the tops are stuck together and you do the equivalent of a giant dart at the bottom. It’s pretty cool I think!
And now a nifty way of putting together an 18th century sleeve with no raw edges. Pin the edges together, wrong sides together. But leave out *one* of the fashion fabrics edges. Sew up that seam. Then the fashion fabric that got left out has the seam allowance folded under, and whipped over the top of the seam you just did, to enclose the raw seam inside the sleeve.
Then the part I was dreading the most – handsewn buttonholes. Look, by this point I had literally handsewn everything else in the outfit, it would be silly to pull out the machine for buttonholes now. I practiced with a scrap end of green silk buttonhole twist, and things were looking decent (if not perfect) by the time I did buttonhole test #3 in ivory.
A nifty thing I picked up from Janet Arnold – the buttonholes are angled so that they are sewn on the straight grain. If you sewed the buttonholes parallel to the opening (like a normal buttonhole), they would end up on the bias, which would be a wibbly mess to sew. Sewing them at this angle makes them more stable, and is also a super cool looking design feature.
Then some tedious button covering using whatever scraps I had left. I used the instructions from this Youtube video.
Set the sleeves like any 18th century sleeve. The bottom is sewed on right sides together, the top is tacked onto the shoulder lining. Stick some fashion fabric over the top, folding under all the edge and hand sew that on.
After trying it on over the round gown, the difference in weights on the gown vs the open robe made the round gown poke out from the bottom of the train when walking which was not attractive.
So I ended up making the train SUPER EXTRA and pieced on an 8 inch extension. Which was teeedious (unpicking the hem, sewing this piece on, cutting another lining piece for the extension, and re-hemming all the sides).
To finish it off, I added a narrow gimp trim from Palladia Passementerie around every edge and the cuffs. Matching purples is difficult on the internet, and this is way more blue/purple compared to my red/purple fabric, but pretty sure 18th century folks did not have the same color matching sensibilities as us so I YOLOd and went with it.
And a couple of photos of the finally finished robe!
Ok, since this post is already internet-breakingly long and full of photos, actual photos of me wearing it are gonna have to wait until next time! (whenever that may be. Time is a fake human construct anyways).