This exhibition is part of a larger project merging practice with traditional scholarship in researching dress history. Traditional literary scholarship is combined with object-based research (eaxmining he “real thing”) and engagement with actual processes in order to gain deeper understanding of the social history of clothing.
The garments exhibited are reproductions of museum artefacts. These are largely drawn from the Museum of Londong in England, but also the Fashion Museum at Bath, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Museums of Scotland, the collection at Berrington Hall, and the Royal Ontario Museum.
The purpose of theses reproductions is to explore and demonstrate techniques of pre-industrial garment construction. The garments reflect likely clothing choices of a middle class Englishwoman during the period 1750-1770. This particular time span was chosen because the popular styles could be seen together in one wardrobe at any point in this twenty-year period. The style and material choices are meant to replicate middle class tastes during the eighteenth century as this was the largest and fastest growing consumer demographic.
Thus, representative styles and qualities of clothing from such a person’s wardrobe are displayed in order to demonstrate the variety of methods and skills used by eighteenth century seamstresses (known then as mantua makers). These garments were, therefore, constructed by hand using period techniques, appropriate materials, and even within certain environmental conditions such as sewing only by daylight and candlelight.
Undergarments provided the foundation layer for eighteenth century clothing, creating the fashionable silhouette of the time. As such they were, particularly for fashionable women, an absolutely indispensable necessity.
The shift (or chemise) performed the dual function of providing a hygienic barrier between the skin and other garments while softly protecting the wearer’s sking from potential abrasion from other undergarments and the outer clothing.
Shifts were primarily made of linen in this period, which was durable, washable, absorbent, and comfortable against the skin. Because they were frequently laundered seam were sewn with very small, tight stitches and all raw edges turned under and sewn.
Although the stitches themselves (running and slip stitches) are simple to execute, with an average of 18-20 stitches per inch and 1/16″ – 1/8″ seam allowances these garments were laborious and required both a fine hand and keen eyesight – a luxury in itself at a time before the wide dissemination of eyeglasses.
Shift, 18th century
Reproduction compiled from Northwest Territory Alliance Patternmaster printed tutorial
Fine bleached linen, fine linen thread
Shifts were the ubiquitous clothing item for men and women from at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. The mid-eighteenth century woman’s shift was typically knee-length with full, elbow-length sleeves and a wide neckline. Both the sleeves and neckline would be gathered up to the desired fit by a drawstring.
Stays could be called the “armature” of women’s eighteenth century fashion. They turned a woman’s upper torso into something rigid like a mannequin on which to drape and display her clothing.
All women wore stays, even the very poor; it was considered indecent not to do so. Like with much of clothing and fashion in the period the quality of materials and workmanship delineated social status.
Stays were time consuming and physically demanding garments to produce. Many were fully boned like this example and required many boning channels all worked with small backstitches through three layers of fabric: one layer of outer fabric and two layers of linen canvas. Each section of the stays was worked individually and boned, then sewn together with small, tight whipstitches. Leather is used to bind the upper and lower edges to keep the bones from penetrating to the outside, and used to cover the unsightly seam lines joining the sections. The binding is also sewn with backstitch, which requires either significant strength or additional tools.
Although it is believed stays were made primarily by men, a record from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey provides an example of one Eleanor Newport who identifies herself as a staymaker. It appears that some women were willing to take on this arduous task.
Reproduced from Collection of Colonial Williamsburg example
Wool, coarse linen, bleached linen, reed, leather, linen thread, silk thread
Women of all social levels wore stays. The quality of materials and workmanship, and whether the stays were new or second-hand determined the social status of the consumer. This example seems likely for a middleclass woman being of fine wool satin (better than linen, but not so fine as silk) with leather binding.
The hoop petticoat is the other main shaping element to the architecture of fashionable dress. This apparatus was not so widespread amongst classes as stays and denoted a level of status and fashionability. Hoops were instrumental in achieving the correct and stylish silhouette associated with much of the eighteenth century.
Made of serviceable linen the hoop petticoat was sewn with a combination of running and slipstitches. To prevent the cane hoops from penetrating through the petticoat fabric they were encased in strips of linen and sewn directly to the inside of the garment.
Hoop petticoats did not experience the same level of stress that stays did, nor the frequent laundering of shifts. Hoops were, therefore, comparatively less labour intensive and more roughly constructed with raw edges of fabric frequently left exposed inside the garment.
Hoop Petticoat, 1740-1770
Reproduced from Scottish National Collection example
Bleached linen, linen tape, reed, linen thread
The hoop petticoat created the lower half of the popular mid-eighteenth century silhouette characterized by skirts that were wide at the sides and comparatively flat from front to back.
JACKET & PETTICOAT ENSEMBLES
Jackets were popular clothing items for informal events and day-to-day activities. If made new they provided a less expensive, but still fashionable, alternative to a full gown. One could thus have several jackets in different fabrics to “mix and match” for the cost of a single dress. The growing popularity of cotton, less costly than silk, wool or linen, greatly facilitated this to an increasing degree over the course of the century.
Jackets were also frequently made-up from an older gown as a means of conserving and extending the life of costly fabric. This was practiced by people of all social levels and often occurred more frequently than commissions for new garments. Indeed, it is argued that altering, remaking, and mending of clothing formed the largest part of a seamstress’ or tailor’s workload.
The pet en l’air is reproduced from an artefact showing significant alteration as having originally been a sack dress. The printed cotton (calico) jacket is reproduced from a seemingly unaltered jacket.
Quilted petticoats were both functional and decorative. Filled with wool batting and lined with woven wool fabric they provided significant warmth. Stitched with designs made from popular motifs they were also attractive, fashionable garments.
Such garments comprised a significant branch of the ready-made clothing trade because they required little to no custom fitting on the client. In the workshop the layers of the petticoat were laid and stretched together in a frame, then quilted by several women at a time using small running stitches at 10-20 stitches per inch. The quilted design of the example here consists of approximately 24,000 stitches.
Once the quilting was completed the length was made into a garment by seaming up the centre back, pleating the upper edge into a waistband, and hemming the lower edge with binding.
Pet en l’air, mid-18th century
Reproduced from Museum of London and Patterns of Fashion examples
Museum of London Accession #A12414
Silk taffeta, bleached linen, silk thread, linen thread, linen tape
The pet en l’air was a shortened version of the sack dress style seen to the left. Like the jacket to the immediate left, this garment was a less formal style than a full-length gown.
Quilted Petticoat, c. 1750-1775
Reproduced from Colonial Williamsburg and Museum of London examples
Colonial Williamsburg Accession #1985-118; Museum of London Accession #47.44/11
Silk satin, wool batting, plainweave wool, silk thread, wool tape
This was another common item of clothing for women of all social levels. Class difference was, again, indicated through the materials used and the level of workmanship. This particular example was likely common for a woman of some means and higher being made of silk and quilted in a decorative pattern.
Printed Cotton Jacket & Petticoat, mid-18th century
Reproduced from Patterns of Fashion and Museum of London examples
Museum of London Accession #35.449
Reproduction printed cotton, bleached linen, silk thread, linen thread, wool tape, linen tape, silk ribbon
Such ensembles as this were a popular choice for informal and everyday wear, worn in and out of the house. This example is significant for being made of printed cotton (chintz/calico) since this textile became increasingly popular and fashionable over the course of the eighteenth century.
SEWING FOR WOMEN
Women’s clothing was subject to much more and frequent altering and remodelling than those of their male counterparts. This may be reflected in the construction and seaming techniques used to produce them. The seams of men’s clothes were primarily sewn with backstitch, which is a strong stitch difficult and time consuming to rip out. Women’s clothes on the other hand were sewn with the kinds of stitches and seams that would facilitate easy disassembling while keeping the garment sturdy in its present incarnation.
The process of making women’s clothes could involve considerable interaction between mantua maker and client since gowns were at least partially draped and fully fitted onto the client herself, over her undergarments. First, the linen lining was made up and fitted, and then the dress draped and and mounted onto it. Sleeves were sewn at the underarm with backstitch (for strength at a stress point) prior to the fitting, then pleated and tacked down over the shoulder directly on the client.
The principle seaming technique used on women’s garments was the lapped seam. This consisted of folding under the seam allowance of one piece, laying it over the other and sewing through the layers with a running stitch that was short and unobtrusive on the outside of the garment and long on the underside.
Other sewing techniques used extensively in women’s garments are running stitches for long dress and skirt seams, and slip stitches for bodice construction. Both of these stitches are relatively quick to execute and rip out again.
The particular method of sewing the seams of the dress through the lining is impossible to replicate with a sewing machine, and can only be achieved with hand sewing. There is a level of fabric manipulation possible with hands that machines do not afford.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
The greatest expense in purchasing new clothes in the eighteenth century lay in the fabric. Labour was very cheap in comparison to the cost of cloth. Fabric was also very narrow, averaging only 18-20 inches in width (modern standards are 45-60 inches in width). Fabric was, therefore, cut as economically as possible.
As a result of these two conditions it was necessary to piece together lengths of fabric for skirts and small pieces of material to corners of garment pieces. Because of the disparity between the cost of fabric and labour it was less costly to have a seamstress spend the time on this extra sewing rather than waste any material.
This dress style derives its name from the billowing fabric at the back, which falls in double box pleats from the shoulders. The tight fit of the bodice at the front is achieved with the bodice lining, which is fitted all around the upper torso. Frequently, the centre back of the bodice lining was left open with eyelets worked in the edges and was laced up to attain the desired fit. This construction technique allowed some flexibility for different wearers, or perhaps pregnancy.
The robings (fabric bands on the front edges of the bodice) are cut in one with the bodice. To create the effect, these are pleated and folded down so as to look like separately applied pieces.
Sack Dress, c. 1750-1770
Reproduced from Museum of London and Patterns of Fashion examples
Silk taffeta, bleached linen, silk thread, linen thread, wool tape, linen tape
The sack dress, or robe a la francaise, was an import to England from France where it was the ubiquitous style for women’s dresses. As France was the arbiter of European fashion in the eighteenth century, it became popular in England as well and is looked upon as the dominant silhouette for much of the century, c. 1730-1780.
The back of the mantua is cut all in one with no waistline seam and snugly pleated to the back. This technique is known as ‘en fourreau’. The skirt of the mantua was pieced to the dress back and then pleated up into the waistline of the bodice, which starts at the side back.
Reproduced from Berrington Hall example (formerly Snowshill collection)
Accession #SNO 7
Silk taffeta, bleached linen, silk thread, linen thread, linen tape
The mantua is widely considered as distinctly English and is the most common style found in English collections of surviving garments from this period.
The mantua lent itself to both formal and informal uses. The example shown here, however, made from silk and for a middleclass woman would have been most appropriate as formal attire.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the mantua became popular in France where it was known as the robe a l’anglaise.
In the eighteenth century there were no zippers, Velcro, or even snaps. How then were women’s garments fastened?
Petticoats were most often tied at the sides with the extending ends of waist bindings:
Some bodices were laced or buttoned up the front like the cotton jacket to the left and the riding jacket to the right.
However, the most common method was pinning. The triangular forepart of the bodice (stomacher) was pinned to the front of the stays, then the front edges of the dress or jacket bodice pinned over top of that. The pins went through only the upper layer of fabric on the stays, and the quantity of boning kept the wearer’s skin from harm underneath.
Riding habits were styled after men’s fashionable jackets and waistcoats. They are generally thought, therefore, to have remained the preserve of male tailors. However, there are a number of examples that have been constructed using the same lapped techniques as for women’s clothes, which are not seen on men’s. This is highly sugestive that women also made riding habits for other women. The example reprodced is speculated as being one such. It seems logical too for a middle class woman to commission as seamstress or tailoress since her labour would be less costly than a male tailor’s.
Although this example uses basically the same techniques as other garments the riding jacket’s construction differed from other women’s clothes in two significant ways. Firstly, the jacket is not mounted and seamed directly to the lining. The two layers are made separately then sewn together around the edges. Secondly, the interior of the riding jacket is more cleanly finished than that of other garments.
The riding jacket also includes a feature not seen on any of the other garments displayed here: hand worked buttonholes. These are made using the buttonhole stitch, which is like a form of knottin. There are twenty-five buttonholes worked on this riding jacket.
The method of making the buttonholes is peculiar and suggestive. They are made in the fabric of the jacket before the lining is set in. The lining is then slit behind the buttonhole and tacked down. It seems likely this is to facilitate removal of the lining should it need to be replaced.
Riding Habit, c. 1730-1760
Reproduced from Museum of London example
Worsted wool, silk pile velvet with cotton backing, silk/wool blend, bleached linen, linen canvas, silk thread, silk buttonhole twist, wooden button forms.
Inspired by fashionable make dress, riding habits were slower to change in style than other women’s fashionable dress, thus the possible thirty-year span for this example. This example includes a false waistcoat front that is sewn into the sides seams of the lining.
Such ensembles were worn for more than just riding. These habits were populare walking and travelling clothes, and could be worn for informal visits. This type of outfit may even be the pre-cursor of the woma’s suit.
This section of the exhibit shows some of what went into the project.
This reproduction project is part of a much larger whole that is my MA work and eventual thesis. My research began, and continues, with exploring both primary and secondary literary sources.
The next part was object-based research, most of which took place over summer 2008 in England. I spent 3-5 days per week over the months of July and August in the Museum of London’s costume stores examining extant garments one after another. I spent an average of 1 hour with each garment taking notes according to a template I drew up for myself and shooting an average of 10-12 photographs of construction details of each artefact.
The third component is this reproduction project, which represents experiential research and data collection. In addition to reproducing garments I also replicated certain aspects of an early modern seamstress’ working experience. The garments are made from historically appropriate materials, and constructed using equally appropriate techniques and processes.
Beyond this, all the work was executed by either natural or candlelight in order to get some idea of a pre-electricity experience of time and working conditions.
I also wore an outfit (basically) appropriate for a modestly successful seamstress of the time. While planning the project, I realized that being “corseted” would be important to the experience as nearly all women of the period wore stays under their clothing. I also happened to have a costume/reproduction dress on hand that I had made several years ago. The pattern for this dress was taken from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, and so derives from an actual artefact garment. I also wore two cotton petticoats, a neckerchief, stockings, and a pair of period inspired shoes.
I worked 10-12 hrs/day, 3 or 4 days/week for 5 months sitting on an uncushioned wooden kitchen chair. I also refrained from bathing on my sewing days in order to heighten the corporeal experience. I kept a journal of the process along with thoughts, impressions, and questions that arose from the experience.
Work Ensemble: corset, dress, petticoats
Dress and outer petticoat reproduced from Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold
This is the ensemble I wore while sewing the reproductions. The corset was particularly necessary to experience posture, movement, and fatigue similar to an eighteenth century needlewoman.
Although the hard wooden kitchen chair I sat on was uncomfortable, the straight-backed posture created by the corset made sitting on furniture like a sofa much more uncomfortable.
The corset also made bending at the waist very difficult. This meant that whenever I dropped something on the floor I had to first stand up, then lower my body as a whole to pick it up. I was unable to bend and reach down for what I had dropped.
Finally, the corset had the unexpected result of making me frequently very warm. This may have been accentuated by the petticoats, but was primarily located in the upper torso region. Sunny days were particularly intense.