Project Overview (long version)
a look at 18th century garments and their construction
Introduction/Statement of Intent
In recent years, the study of women’s involvement in early modern economic practices within the fields of production, retail, and consumption has seen a flurry of activity. In no quarter is this more evident than that of clothing and fashion. It is with aspects of this recent work in mind that this dynamic exhibition is proposed with the intention of bringing these forms new life and understanding.
Research in recent decades has confronted long-held assumptions regarding the role(s) of women and the garment trades in all three areas mentioned above (production, retail, and consumption), and shown them to be inaccurate. The common belief was that women’s contribution amounted to relatively little, and that they were largely inactive in both work and consumption outside the home. However, the work of scholars such as Anne Buck, Judith Coffin, Clare Crowston, Madeleine Ginsburg, Beverly Lemire, Ann Smart Martin, and Amanda Vickery to name but a few, have proven such stereotypes false. Female involvement, participation, even agency were, in fact, considerable. Legions of women were employed in myriad tasks relating to garment and accessory making and trimming. Large numbers were involved in selling clothing, either new or old – or both simultaneously. Furthermore, women everywhere were deeply involved in making consumer choices both for themselves and their families at all levels up and down the social ladder.
The reasons and intentions of this exhibit are manifold. Firstly, it is to educate visitors about accurate modes of dress and particularly construction in this pivotal period along with influences on style, social and stylistic repercussions, and meanings behind all these. There is additionally a strong intent to illuminate the female presence in this sphere of both production and consumption. Secondly, an important goal is to create a ‘blockbuster’ exhibit for the Human Ecology building and department with the aim of garnering significant attention and publicity for the department, and get people into the building. Thirdly, the particular nature of the exhibit is meant to showcase and demonstrate the unique value and possibilities of using accurate reproductions for educative purposes in a museum/collections setting. A primary characteristic of this, which the exhibition will demonstrate is how much more handling and manipulation of garments is possible than with real artefacts. This last objective is intended carry beyond the exhibition for future applications in classrooms.
The focus of this exhibit will centre on the likely clothing choices of a mid-18th century English or French woman of means (either upper bourgeois or gentry), and the construction of such garments. Displays will consist of reproduction clothing pieces that have been constructed entirely by hand (as in no use of sewing machines) and with other traditional methods, materials and equipment that are representative of both the period (c. 1750-1770), and particular social status indicated. The intention is to produce pieces that could have been products of a contemporary workshop and are thus the ‘next-best’ to the real thing. This specific period of the 18th century was chosen because the styles in vogue at this point are those with which most people identify the century as a whole. Additionally, this point in time represents the intersection of a wide range of styles that were contiguously in fashion. Some of these were rising to prominence while others were waning, but all were present in overlapping relationships, and therefore may have been simultaneously present in one person’s wardrobe.
It is the intention of this exhibit, however, to tell a deeper story of this genre of clothing than to simply display ‘pretty costumes’. The period is undoubtedly an attractive one as far as elite clothing is concerned, which, it is hoped, will prove a draw for many visitors. However, much recent research is engaged in exploration of what lay behind this clothing, and particularly the women most likely responsible for its construction, and how it was consumed. Significant attention will therefore be given to this body of research which may challenge some preconceived notions visitors may not have previously been aware of holding. How this may be achieved will be explored further in the next section of this proposal. Although the research is by no means conclusive at this point, some is very strongly suggestive, and at the very least thought provoking. It is hoped that some of the many questions raised by scholars may also be conveyed in some manner by the exhibition.
An important reason behind this project is also to obtain some understanding of the experience(s) of contemporary women involved in the needle trades. We, today, are so far removed from anything of the kind. Without such kinds of experiences shared between people of today and people of the past, it is that much more difficult to gain understandings into their lives and attitudes. It is furthermore the intention that this modern experience be shared with others as an additional component of this exhibition. It is acknowledged that this project cannot nor will not attempt to re-create a needle trade worker’s life in detail. It is believed, however, that much valuable insight may still be gained from the endeavour particularly related to perceptions of time, physical effects on the body, relationships between the worker and the work.
The ambitious nature of the proposed project and exhibition is acknowledged. However, small dreams can only produce small results without the potential for anything greater. This project as a whole will address several needs and uses simultaneously, as already mentioned. Further, the garments made for and displayed in the exhibition will remain in the Human Ecology clothing and textiles collection to supplement an underrepresented period of fashion history therein.
What will it Look Like?
The exhibit is to be divided into three areas, which correspond to the main categories of clothing still in use today: undergarments, outer garments, and outdoor garments. Each of these will be represented by one example of each garment or style. For the sake of simplicity and logistics, seasons of the year have not been considered. The current working plan is to arrange these areas as follows: undergarments and outerwear will be set up in the main gallery space, with outdoor wear displayed in portable cases running down the adjacent hallway. The grouping visitors first see will be the under garments, followed by outer garments, and finally the outdoor ones. This creates a smooth flow from one level or layer of clothing to the next in order of dressing.
Mannequins for the exhibit would ideally be equipped with both heads and arms so as to give an overall indication of a real body as opposed to a more abstract form. Another particular reason for the heads is so that suggestions of popular contemporary hairstyles may be created to contribute to a feeling of context. Garments will be mounted as complete ensembles, not component parts. This goes for the undergarments as well which will therefore require only one mannequin. For the sake of feasibility, additional underpinnings will not be constructed for the outer or outdoor garments. Instead, the mannequins will be built up underneath to create the appropriate silhouettes.
A contemporary interior atmosphere will be created within the main gallery space, also for the purpose of providing context. However, the goal is not to create a life-sized dollhouse, nor undermine the authenticity the garments will strive for. Stylised suggestions will be employed instead. These may take the form of individual panels printed with contemporary wall-covering designs, lighting levels to approximate candlelight, imagery of other relevant material culture.
A dynamic element of change will constitute the distinctive feature of the exhibit throughout its course. Each week or two all of the garments displayed will be taken off the mannequins, turned inside out, and remounted. Then after the same period of time again, they will be turned back right side out. It is from this idea that the exhibit takes its name “Inside Out”. The intention is to provide greater understanding to visitors of these garments’ construction, and give more of an idea about just what goes into the process. This ability to manipulate the garments over and over again also serves to demonstrate an important advantage of the reproductions. Most museum exhibitions show only the exteriors of garments, leaving the interiors a mystery. The particular nature of these garments coupled with the idea for this exhibit allows visitors to penetrate that mystery. It is also hoped that providing something new to see will encourage visitors to make repeat visits. In addition to this, specific programming will be planned to further attract visitors, which will be discussed in more detail below.
The information displayed with the garments will also be changed accordingly. While the pieces are right side out the label copy will concentrate on informing visitors of the type of person these garments would have belonged to, and what their relationship to clothing and the world would have been. Information about women’s increasing role in personal and household consumption during the course of the 18th century, and the impact of this on society and economics as a whole will also be included. Anecdotes and specific examples will be used whenever possible and appropriate will be used to emphasize individual experiences as opposed to just impersonal statistics. While the pieces are inside out the label copy will concentrate on construction techniques and process. The information boards during this time would also examine the types of people who would be responsible for bringing these garments into being, and what their relationships to clothing and the world at large would have been. Due to the general invisibility of groups of female workers, let alone individuals, suitable personal accounts may not be as available for this portion of the exhibit. However, the story of these women and the changes experienced by this sector if the workforce during the 18th century, along with their causes and effects will be told as best as is able.
A fourth section of the exhibition will tell the story of this reproduction project. A journal or log will be kept throughout the construction process of the garments on display. The purpose of this is to concurrently record such observations as: the amount of time both individual pieces and the wardrobe as a whole require to make up; mental and physical effects of the experience; problems and challenges encountered throughout the process. Accompanying photos will be regularly taken during this time as well. The interactive display unit will be employed for this purpose. This unit consists of an upper section like a glass case, and three banks of pull-out drawers. In the upper section will be displayed excerpts from the journal with related photos chronicling the process. In one set of drawers will be displayed tools used in the cut and construction of the garments with information about their use and how they were obtained. Another set of drawers will house samples of textiles and other materials used. Accompanying information will explain how these were used, obtained, in what ways they may differ from original materials, and how these differences were resolved to maintain the historical integrity of the reproductions. Another set of drawers will display samples of types of seams and stitches used, along with other methods of construction. Visual and written information relating to the research used to make the garments will be included as well.
Since the dynamic nature of the exhibit will not be enough on its own to warrant ‘blockbuster’ status, accompanying programming will also be planned. Potential activities may include both presentation-style and interactive types.
Interactive opportunities for visitors may include experiences of trying on and wearing some of the garments. Several characteristics of contemporary clothing lend themselves particularly to this idea. There was, in fact, a fairly common construction practice in the 18th century that enabled some adjustment of garment size to accommodate change of size in the wearer. This will be applied to the appropriate garments during the construction period. Corsets are also fairly adaptable, and a few extra may be constructed (though perhaps not to the same degree of detail as the one on display) to allow a larger number of people to participate in the experience. Skirts and petticoats were done up with ties, which may also allow for many different sizes of participants. Demonstrations and/or workshops of period garment construction techniques are another suggestion. Through these, visitors/participants may gain a more in-depth and hands-on understanding of the process of contemporary garment construction and sewing. The product of such an activity ought to be something visitors can take away with them as a keepsake from the exhibition and experience. Ideally, the product would furthermore be something that may be either of use, or at least worthy of display in one’s home afterwards.
There are many possibilities for presentation style programs. Each of the themes presented in the exhibit could be easily expanded to give greater depths of understanding than the size of the exhibit itself would allow. These would likely take the form of power point presentations held in either the sewing lab (on the same floor of the exhibition) or in one of the seminar rooms on the third floor of the Human Ecology building. Specific ideas for talks may include: female consumption patterns and changes over the course of the 18th century; female participation in the garment trades; a historical survey of 18th century costume; the seamstresses’ guild of old regime Paris. There is also an intention of keeping a journal or log throughout the construction process of the garments on display. The purpose of this is to concurrently record such observations as: the amount of time both individual pieces and the wardrobe as a whole require to make up; mental and physical effects of the experience; problems and challenges encountered throughout the process. Accompanying photos will be taken throughout as well. It is thought that this component may also be used to form the base of a talk on the experience of putting this wardrobe and exhibition together.
Finally, it is intended that some form of internet application be implemented, attached to the clothing and textile’s website. This would likely include the journal and photos, photos of the exhibition with the garments in both states of mounting, information from the research conducted for the project, and links to other museum collections and online scholarly publications. Links to other, popular sites that meet a scholarly standard may also be included. The primary intention with this online application is to provide and engaging, yet scholarly, online resource for students and anyone else interested in the clothing of this period. It is further hoped that this will merely constitute a beginning, and that the idea may be taken up by others and expanded upon over time.
Section 1: Undergarments
- Long chemise
- Panniers/Pocket hoops
- Embroidered pockets
This section is the foundation layer of both the exhibition and the garments shown therein. Also referred to as underpinnings, these garments visually describe the fashionable silhouette of this period and how it was attained. They also serve to help illustrate socio-cultural practices particularly relating to contemporary ideas of beauty and gender constructs. That women required assistance to put on these garments also provides valuable visual and tangible information relating to social status and class distinctions.
Furthermore, these particular garments also provide an opportunity to discuss gender divisions of labour as regards their construction and how these changed throughout the 18th century. For example, although the majority of women’s clothing at the time quickly came under the domain of female needleworkers corsets were still primarily made by men.
- Corset/Stays, chemise, panniers
This image provides a good idea of how this ensemble will look. The garments made for the exhibition will be mounted much in the manner seen here. The structure of the panniers prevent them being mounted on the mannequin inside out during that portion of the exhibition. Whether to remount them the right way, or set them down nearby to show the insides is yet to be determined.
- Embroidered pockets
The tie pockets will not be displayed attached in the manner they would have been worn since that would conceal them. They will, however, be displayed nearby, with some form of indication given as to how these would have been worn and accessed by the wearer.
Section 2: Outer Garments
- Sack back dress (robe a la francaise)
- English mantua (robe a l’Anglaise)
- Quilted petticoat
- Pet en l’air
- Embroidered apron
These garments represent the most familiar type of fashionable female appearance in this period. These articles constitute the especial ‘show-pieces’ of the exhibit. The pieces will be combined to create five complete outfits. The robe a la francaise and pet en l’air may be constructed according to certain contemporary methods as would allow adjustments in size as part of the programming mentioned above. The other garments may be also be constructed by such methods as to allow a limited amount of ease.
- Sack backs – showing both front and back
Ideally, mannequins of this manner (with heads and arms/hands) would be used for the exhibit. The gowns could therefore be mounted similarly to what is seen here. Only one robe a la francaise will be made, however, and hopefully displayed so as to show both front and back.
- Mantua (front)
- Mantua (back)
The actual garment constructed for the exhibition will have a stomacher at the front instead of being closed in order to allow some ease and adjustment of fit. This garment will, like the robe a la francaise, be displayed so as to show as much of both front and back as possible.
- Pet en l’air (jacket)
- Quilted petticoat
The pet en l’air and quilted petticoat would be displayed as one ensemble. Further research is required at this point to determine whether they would be of matching fabrics, or co-ordinating.
Section 3: Outdoor Garments
- Riding habit
- Calabash Bonnet
The calabash bonnet, cloak, muff, and gloves/mittens will be displayed all together in one display case. The bonnet, cloak and muff will be mounted on a mannequin that has been shaped to provide the appropriate silhouette – as if the under and outer garments on display were underneath it. A mannequin with a head would be particularly important for mounting the bonnet as its shape was specifically designed for wearing over the large and elaborate hairstyles popular during the period represented. The gloves/mittens would likely be displayed next to the ensemble, perhaps on a plinth. Images of the cloak, muff, and gloves/mittens have not been included as their styles are yet to be further researched and determined.
- Riding Habit
The riding habit actually bridges the two sections of outer and outdoor garments. However, since its specific purpose is an outdoor use it was chosen for this category. The ensemble will hopefully include an appropriate hat, as demonstrated above. The ensemble will be mounted in a display case of its own.
- Calabash bonnet
As the image above demonstrates, a head and contemporary hairstyle is needed underneath the bonnet in order to provide proper visual understanding of the piece.