Thursday, March 17, 2011

1795 Bodice Designs: Wrap-Front and V Necklines

First rough-and-ready try-on. Eek!
Neckline correct for period but too high
for my taste. Needs proper
pressing. Armscye seam showing.
Flat silhouette; now I want it
less tailored. I obviously
don't have the right sash. Petticoat
issues galore.
I am dithering about my neckline and silhouette.

Well, isn't that an interesting way to start a post. It's true, so far as goes the 1795 morning ensemble I am putting together. This evening I tried on the pretty wrapfront dress I commissioned from Geneece Arnold last year, to see how it would look worn like "my" March 1795 Luxus fashion plate, the inspiration for the ensemble.

I knew that the Sense and Sensibility crossover dress pattern that Geneece had used as a basis for the dress was after dresses with a covered-up look, such as the half-robe in Janet Arnold's book, and that is what I wanted last year, that and a tailored effect for the late 1790s. Yet I wondered how it would do backed up a year or two.

Well, this is why one plans an ensemble months in advance, for the dress and its accessories need some tweaking to work for 1795.

I will show you the rest of the pictures in a separate post so that you can learn too. (Quick note: the dress was ordered unfinished, sans trims or hems, so it does look very plain.)

Meantime, let's look at bodice fit and neckline fit between about 1795-1800.

Bodice Fit and the "V" Neckline, 1795-1800

I am gathering my evidence from three basic sources, and admit up front that my sample is not large. Still, I looked at fashion plates, portrait miniatures, and one extant dress that's close in design and date to what I am after.

Fashion Plate Evidence

The evidence from fashion plates is as follows. In brief: The bodice line, which had emphasized a pigeon pouf in the early 1790s, usually with kerchief set into the neckline, could still be puffy in 1795, with quite a number of gathers, and a tendency to have bunching and edings at the neckline itself. Some dress bodices were beginning to show signs of being more fitted over the bust, though.
Gallery of Fashion, February 1795.

By the late 1790s and 1800, dress bodices tended to be quite fitted over the bust, for a bust-enhancing, smooth fit. Before you raise an eyebrow about modesty, recall that these days, plunging lines and sweater-tight fit are everywhere for daywear.

Sometimes the dress front was wrap-front style; those often had a frilled or other edging. Other times the gown is shown v-necked and apparently front closing, but with perhaps a placket, like some chemise dresses.

Here are examples of the puffier look, from fashion plates.

Here is a plate from Gallery of Fashion, February 1795.

The figure I am interested in is the one of the far left; Cathy Decker says she is wearing a dress of satin. See for more details. Note the puffiness of the bodice.
Gallery of Fashion, April 1795

Now look at April 1795. Here is where you really need the original text. Cathy Decker write that the figure on the left is wearing a striped dress, and she could be. However, the text Cathy quotes from the journal reads: "Petticoat of rich striped silk gauze. Polonoise [sic] of scarlet velver with Circassian sleeves, and full sleeves of striped silk gauze. Small muslin handkerchief within the belt. Gold chain round the neck. Pearl ear-rings. Ermine muff. White shoes." If the reporter says the model is wearing a petticoat, and by that they mean the exterior skirt worn with open robes for the past centuries, then she is not wearing a dress. The puffiness is probably that handkerchief tucked into her belt. Oh, the perils of fashion plates!

However, the figure on the right tells us something useful: "Hair dressed in ringlets. Bandeau and chiffonet of blue and white striped muslin. The bandeau crossed with pearls. One blue, and one blue and white striped ostrich feather on the left side. Chemise of spotted muslin with a narrow flounce, and a plaiting round the neck, headed with a blue riband; the sleeves tied in three parts with the same riband. Handkerchief within the chemise. Blue sash. Gold cross, necklace, and ear-rings. White shoes."

The writer says she's wearing a that means a whole dress. Note how gathered the bodice is, and the sleeves. Quite similar to my March 1795 Luxus plate costume inspiration.
Gallery of Fashion, May 1795

In May we have the best examples yet of a puffy effect, very close to "my" dress, although with perhaps more bust definition.

Here is the description of the leftmost figure: "The hair dressed in a high toupee; two ornaments of white satin in Vandyke scallops, the edges trimmed with silver spangles, placed in two parts of the toupee, and the hair betwixt combed into small curls; the hind hair in ringlets; three white ostrich feathers on the right side. Chemise of embroidered muslin; the collar and labels [lapels] of trimmed with lace; short full sleeves, tied in two parts with silver cords. Pink sash. Pearl ear-rings. Diamond necklace; and two small gold chains with a medallion round the neck. White satin shoes."

I love how the neckline has curve in it. The bustline is also quite defined, making me think that the stays beneath have cups.  Now note that the writer says the dress has a collar and lapels. This would certainly enhance the poufy look. Oh, for a better view.

The rightmost figure is identified as wearing a petticoat...the bodice is not described. "The hair in small curls, and the hind hair in ringlets. Turban of Italian gauze, spangled with silver. A wreath of small roses on the right side; a branch of oak leaves, made of green foil, across the turban, from the left side to the right, in the front. Three large white ostrich feathers in the front, placed one behind the other. Petticoat of white muslin embroidered in silver, trimmed at the bottom with a white satin riband. Lilac satin corset without points; long sleeves of white satin, with a narrow blonde plaited at the wrists; short upper sleeves of white satin, with full muslin tops, looped with a large pearl. Lilac-colored sash. Diamond ear-rings. Two strings of large pearls round the neck. Lilac-coloured shoes." One cannot know, then, whether the top of her ensemble is composed of handkerchief or bodice, which, by the way, has a straighter line.
Gallery of Fashion, May 1796

Later on, plates show the tighter outline. Here's a typical one, showing a dress to be worn to concert or opera, from May 1796. It's described as "The hair combed plain round the face. Chiffonet of silver muslin, the end trimmed with a silver fringe; the hind hair turned up in two loop; silver
Gallery of Fashion, September 1796
bandeau on the left side, and on the right a wreath of honeysuckle silver flowers. Three party-coloured green and white ostrich feathers in the front. Petticoat of white tiffany with a rich embroidered border; white satin body embroidered in silver round the neck. Robe of salmon- coloured tiffany; short sleeves épaulettes, cuffs, and binding of green satin. Full plaiting of broad blonde round the neck. Silk cord and tassels round the waist. Diamond ear-rings. White gloves and shoes."

Another dress, this one a morning style, from September 1796. It's described as "The toupee cut short and combed straight, plain chignon; cap of clear muslin, the cawl drawn behind into the form of a rose, trimmed with a double border of lace, broad green striped riband, forming a large bow in the front and behind; lappet of plaited muslin round the chin. Round gown of thick muslin, with a narrow plaiting of lace round the neck; narrow pink riband tied loosely round the neck. Sash of green striped riband. Cloak of thin muslin, trimmed with the same. Necklace of large beads. Yellow gloves and shoes."

What about the back of the dress? Images of the backs of necklines are not as common. Here is one, that due to the frill is likely a v-neckline in front. It's from Gallery of Fashion, morning dress, July 1796.

Gallery of Fashion, July 1796
Evidence from Portrait Miniatures and Paintings

The evidence from paintings from about 1794-1800 is murkier. First, the dating is trickier. Second, you have to account for a bit more artistic license, although portrait miniatures seem to go, usually, for an accurate depiction of the sitter. Third, what sitters decided was right for them to wear in a given year probably depended on a host of factors. I have taken a sample of portrait miniatures from teh Victoria and Albert Museum, only showing those where the neckline was clear.

Here is a pretty miniature of an unknown woman, dated 1795. for details, see

Do you see how there is a sort of collar going around her neck, a bunch of gathers that then travels down the neckline? Do you note the many gathers across the bodice, and how the bodice-line is fairly soft, and the wee bit of stand-up collar effect? To my eye, this dress is closest to the Tidens Toj dress.

Then a portrait, perhaps of a Mrs. Fane. She has a tight bodice but a high frill. For details see

Here is a portrait of an unknown woman, also dated 1795. Note that the fit is a little tight, but still gathered, and there is a definite bunching or even a lapel, with the frill, right at the neckline. For details, see

Now a later example, circa 1797, this time a painting...because I like it so well. This is Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford.

Here is a portrait miniature, circa 1800, from the V&A. There is still a good deal of fabric in this bodice, still the frilling, and a choker...all of which were popular in 1795, by the way, but the sitter's hair is piled high and more tightly, a later development. For more details, see

Another example from 1800, a Mrs Skottowe. Here, plenty of gathers, but bust enhancing. For details, see

Evidence from Extant Garments

Now for the extant dresses. Right now, I know of only one 1790s V-neck dress that we can really see the details on, the well-known white linen cambric bridal dress from the Tidens Toj collection in Denmark. For details, see

If we look carefully, we can see that the neckline, as it sits on the manniquin, does travel up the neckline some, creating a bit of a collar.

It's easier to see from the back:

Oddly, I cannot see evidence of how the collar was made in the PDF pattern that the collection so kindly provided with the dress. See From other pictures of the dress, offered by a friend and that I cannot post online, I know that the dress front is gathered to the shoulder line as well as to that bit of collar, and then falls to the floor, although it's confined by a drawstring at the waist.

What to Do with My Dress?

So at this point, what to do, to get that boufy front line that I so want?

Right now the bodice exterior layer is mounted to an underlayer, and underneath that is a wrap-and-pin underbodice. This construction is to control the pleating, sheerness, and fit.

Several options:

  1. Redo bodice front altogether. Go for the simplest of chemise dress construction: two loose outer front pieces, one per side, stroke-gathered at the shoulderline, that fall to the floor and are controlled by a drawstring at the waist, which a sash could hide. To create the boufy bunchiness at the neckline, take care to gather and pleat extra fabric at the neckline, and redo back neckline to add a small collar piece. Test for a lapel look. Create center-front placket in skirt. Lauren of American Duchess used a neckline to floor construction and a similar solution is documented in Everyday Dress of Rural America. Underneath I would retain the cross-over underbodice. With care, I can get that loose look of my fashion plate.
  2. Retain the loose front and underbodice per above, but wrap the loose front closed...a wrapfront style. No placket, therefore. Would result in a higher neckline.
  3. Mount the gathers to a topmost underbodice, and control them. Norah Waugh documents this in The cut of Women's Clothes, which is why Geneece and I went for this look when we designed the dress. Retain the underbodice. The mounting allows me to control where the gathers lie, and how those gathers sit as you move around. I can create collar effects and so on. Potential issue: will it look stiff?
The other burning question: can I get a boufy effect with some bust definition, but nothing skin-tight, with my busk-less stays?
Next time, we see how the dress does on the first try-on with stays, petticoat(s) and sash, and what big things I learned.

If I ever have the opportunity to take a coat of arms and a motto, it will be of a bowed head and the words, "In all humility". Not a bad motto generally, come to think of it.


Jean said...

Very informative post, Natalie. I'm amazed! You remind me of Vic at Jane Austen's World, coming up with such extraordinarily detailed information. I love it! And should I ever decide to make a Regency dress, I know where to turn!

MrsC said...

Hi Natalie, I'm trying to follow this and got a bit lost about what you're trying to do, a bit tired. But my observation would be that your dress is too broad in the shoulder- it doesn't have that very soft shoulder line that is apparent in all of the images. This may be the way the fabric is sitting though, sometimes ruched fronts slip outwards and judicious prick stitching can hold the gathers in where you want them to flow.
Ideas? To get the look you want - make an over bodice of something really soft and gather it just under the bust caught with a sash, one of your images had that. Then you can add extra fullness and bouffancy. Or just use a really gauzy something as a kerchief and cheat it. Very historically accurate! :)

ZipZipInkspot said...

Thank you, Jean! Am glad that I can add information that you can use down the road.

Mrs. C, you are right. Reading over the post this morning, I realize it's too long and muse-y.

Yes, the dress is way too broad in the shoulder. Part of it is an illusion -- the armscye seam allowance is showing.

Part of it is the actual dress design. There were dresses out there with a very covered-up look such that the V-neck is narrow. Nancy Bradfield has one in her book and Janet Arnold a half robe ditto. I should include a reference to those.

Anyhow, you are right on with your suggestion. I had thought of softening the gathers and narrowing the shoulders, and so had my friend Jenni, and now you suggest that too, so we have a quorum :}

The only thing is that I looked at the calendar and haven't time to remake the bodice, so am going to recut and redrape what's there.

And cheat it with a kerchief? You bet!!!

Very best indeed, and thanks for your frank assessment,


MrsC said...

Hi Natalie - don't take my confusion to heart - I am on the opposite side of the world and GMT is not agreeing with me, my body is trying to revert! :) When I am in Bath in a few days time I will peer closely at any wrap front dresses in the costume museum and report back. I doubt photos will be allowed :(
What I would do with this dress is the following (very likely what you intend to do, so add it to the quorum list if so!)
1. Slip stitch that scye seam allowance into the bodice as much as its curvature will allow
2. unpick anything you need to to release the neckline from the underlining, reposition wider and deeper, slash the underlining to the same depth and fold under and slipstitch it all back into place
3. Either before or after the previous, take a tuck in the shoulder seam and if poss convert to a dart in the lining and leave as a tuck in the bodice, If not, just dart both together and sew through. This will open up the bodice more and reduce the shoulder seam.
4. Finally, cover the whole thing with a gauze starched or silk organza kerchief, to give it that poufiness. It's hard to achieve it in anything else!
I reckon that tis will not take long to achieve and will mean you can revert the dress to its original style. Very historical, I believe :)
I too love how we can share ideas and get advice/ideas from others via the internet, and even in person. Since I met the Dreamstress we sew together a lot and it keeps us both sane to have another sewist of skill to bounce ideas off. It's heaven for me after 30 years of doing my own thing and rarely having anyone to talk to! :)

ZipZipInkspot said...

Dear Mrs. C,
Brilliant! I had thought of shaping the bodice just as you suggest, and hemming that armscye allowance back inside, but using tucks! Again, I say, brilliant!

It's just what I shall do. Only addition, adding a bit more voile to the fashion fabric, and hiding the little seam in a gather. That way I'll have more fluff to play with.

Indeed you are right, it is such a treat to have someone to share ideas with. Like you, I used to be on my own, and it could be so frustrating. Besides, it's more fun to share. You are lucky to have the Dreamstress nearby...she seems a neat person. Jenni Miller of Living with Jane lives near me, and we do the same; we met about a year and a half ago on the Sense and Sensibility board.

Very best, and thanks SO much again,


Lady D said...

That's scary. The first miniature....its looks like me without my glasses on. I know now what I shall do for a headdress.

ZipZip said...


Very best,