Monday, August 23, 2021

Renovating the 1795 Cream Silk Open Robe Ensemble for the Jane Austen Ball

My, aren't we fine, although blown about and rained upon by a storm getting to the ball.
The altered open robe and petticoat as worn to this year's Jane Austen 
Festival ball. That's Polly with me: we had
Such fun

Eleven years ago this summer, almost to the week, the costume I am most proud of -- self drafted, hand sewn and hand-embroidered -- left my hands and needle, was packed in a dress bag, driven to Louisville, and worn at the Jane Austen Ball. For several years after, I wore the circa 1795 cream open robe for different events and with different petticoats and accessories. I felt as elegant in it as in anything I've ever worn for any reason.

In 2019, when I thought to try on the robe, not only were the heavily boned stays to go under it unbearably tight, but it got stuck on my shoulders, half on, half off, and it took an awful deal of wriggling to work my way out. Phoo...phoooeeey, as Pogo would say. 

The pretty kitty in the GIF managed their extrication more elegantly than I did.

Well, here it is 2021 and the robe was still sausage-tight despite a few pounds gone. Walk away from my favorite outfit? No, no no. Time to enlarge it, much as people back in the day would have*. Here then is the tale of alterations.

* For example, see "The Multiple Lives of Clothes: Alteration and Reuse of Women’s Eighteenth-Century Apparel in England" by Carolyn Dowdell. PhD thesis, Queen's University, 2015.

Enlarging the Body of the Bodice, Part 1

This process suffered an initial hitch although the results ended up well. At first all that seemed needed was adding a narrow panel of fabric under the armscye, adding width where I was thicker than 10 years ago. So I disassembled one side of the dress, removing the sleeve and the front piece. 

Why just one side? So that

  • I could look at the hand stitches used originally, and replicate them -- each section is sewn using the seam and stitch best meant for the purpose, mostly lapped seams and spaced backstitch. Boy, did this reduce thinking and worrying time.
  • I could see exactly how much fabric was added and test the fit a little compared to the original. That plan worked just barely well enough.

I took as exact a pattern of the front piece as I could by laying it onto a large piece of newsprint and tracing around it, and worked out a little additional pattern piece to go next to the front piece under the armpit. Here it is, below.

The fabric for the additions was furnished from my old silk curtains, which had been saved for recycling into costumes, and which are made of the same silk shantung as the original dress, plus leftover linen from "cabbage" retained from past projects. I cut the lining and fashion fabric for the new little side piece, and closely prick-stitched it on as a lapped seam, the lap facing the back of the bodice. Here it is in process.

After pinning the front to the new panel, it became clear I had made a the armscye was out of position. much for a fast alteration. Had I just inserted a triangular piece with the width at the bottom and the point at the top, the alteration might have worked, but if you widen the top, of course that shifts the entire front and side of the gown. Plus, the fronts still didn't overlap for pinning like they were supposed to, so each side needed to be wider. Again, phooey.

There was nothing for it but to add a new bodice front piece with extra width, a corrected armscye curve given the new underarm piece, and proper fit with the bodice shoulder strap. That meant drawing a new front pattern piece using the pattern piece I had just drawn. You can see the pattern below. If you look carefully you can see that I tried to mark everything so as not to forget to create enough seam allowances, etc. I added a little extra fabric at the center front just in case it was needed. If you look at the original front piece lying above the pattern, you can see that in the original robe, I had cut the front too deep and had had to fold it over. Not this time around...

New front pattern piece with all of its markings.
Boy, are they hard to see in the photo. However, seam allowances have
been added all the way around. I've guessed at the center front seam
by sketching a dotted line from top to bottom: you can make that
out, at least, in the photo.

Next was cutting the fashion fabric and lining, basting them with red thread, and pinning them to the original garment to test the effect, per the below picture.

By the way, to preserve the existing pleats in the gown skirts, in case I needed them, I basted them in place with red thread. 

The new front piece, both lining and fashion fabric, basted together 
and pinned to the rest of the robe to test it.

Here I am testing the shoulder strap for fit by pinning everything. There's more basting...

Because kitty helpers must be recognized, here is Nutmeg napping while I am at work. Can you spot her? She tired of trying to get at the fabric. And say, isn't that the 1890s petticoat on the dressform, waiting to be finished? Yes. And it's still waiting.

I checked the nature and stitches used in the seams in the part of the robe that was still not taken apart, and copied them on the new front piece. The new bodice front piece is lapped to the new little side piece with another lapped seam: the front piece overlaps the new side piece, just as the new side piece overlaps the existing side-back piece. The front center edge was left raw until the time should come to try the gown on and fix where I wanted the closure to be. The bottom hem was left unsewn too, so I could adjust it when fitting the bodice.


Then it was time for the first sleeve. Adding a strip to the existing sleeve would have been ugly, although I could have done it, of course. Instead, because I had plenty of silk and linen, I made a new sleeve altogether. The robe's original sleeve was taken apart, laid flat on the silk, and an extra half inch or so was measured on each side of the long seam, plus another half inch for seam allowance: I drew tiny dots on the linen to mark the new cutting line. A little tiny bit was added to the armscye so the sleeve wouldn't be so all-fired sausage-tight, too. Normally I'd have cut the linen first, but I had more silk than linen. In addition, I decided to cut both new sleeves at once.

In the picture below, I have laid the new sleeve pieces on the what's left of the linen lining fabric to see if there is enough room in the fabric to cut the sleeves on the straight of grain without piecing...and there was enough.

The sleeve lining and fashion fabric were basted together and treated as one, slipped into the armscye, and the bottom half closely backstitched. Since the shoulder strap didn't need any fooling with, I had already attached the lining part of it to the front and back of the bodice. All that was left was to spaced-backstitch the rest of the sleeve to it, easing to top in carefully. The sleeves are tight enough that no pleating of the top of the sleeve was necessary, just gentle easing of the little bit of excess. 

Spaced-backstitching the sleeve into place.

Then I smoothed the outer fabric of the shoulder strap, which hadn't been stitched yet, on top of its lining, covering the sleeve stitching, and prick-stitched it down.

By the way, all the basting was going to use a lot of thread, so wherever possible, when I pulled out the basting, it was set aside for reuse. Here's one such set of threads ready to go. No point in wasting it.

What next? Making a new front, wee side piece and sleeve for the other side of the robe. This went quickly.

At this point the gown was slipped over my adjustable dress form, which fits no one well, to test the look, and I briefly slipped the new half of the bodice on over myself, in stays, to make sure the sleeve fit neatly, which it did. Phew.

Try-on and Completing the Sewing

Now to fit the altered gown closely. On went the necessary base to the dress, the recently enlarged stays.

Next came the bodice. I pulled the front pieces into position, smoothed them, and lapped one front piece over the other to the degree I wanted. In this case, I left plenty of extra on both left and right sides in case I gained weight. That's a delight with many 18th century gowns: since they're pinned closed, you can adjust where you pin rather than have to reset buttons or hooks and bars.

I also checked the bodice bottom to make sure that the hem ran straight to the sides, and didn't dip or angle; the position was pinned.

Once fitted to taste, off came the robe. The edges in front and bottom being turned in already, they were prick-stitched to finish them.

Re-attaching the Robe Skirts

Then I reattached the gown skirts. They needed re-pleating. You've seen that process many times for 18th century skirts, most likely, and all that needs saying is that the pleats were whip-stitched onto the bodice. That way if I add a little pad at the back, then the skirts of the gown can hinge outwards nicely.

The back of the gown narrowly pleated and whipped to the finished bodice bottom.

Re-attaching Lace Trim

After that, re-attaching the original lace. I can easily detach it for use in other garments. I had some more of the lace, which dates from the 1920s or 1930s and was recovered from a cutter slip over a decade ago, and so this go-round I doubled the collar lace. It makes for a much richer effect.

Figure numbers 97 and 98 in Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion (Bunka Gakuen library) show two ways in which lace can be applied: slightly ruched and tacked down to the outside of the dress through the center of the lace, and pleated and tacked inside the dress. 

Because my lace was edging style, with one decorative edge, I chose the latter option. The lace was very lightly pleated at intervals and then tacked, just inside the edge of the neckline. Because one row of lace was longer than the other, the shorter row went on first, centered at the back of the neckline; the second went over it.

Gallery of Fashion concert dress

The lace, tacked on

There, you can see the doubled lace better. 

Here's the dress from the back. It has yet to have the lace re-added to the sleeves and oh yes, to be pressed. Still, the silk does look luxurious in the way it puddles and trails. That's one of the things that's so appealing to me about it.


Worn to a Ball

And so I wore the dress to the ball-on-a-boat; my friend Polly and I attended together. For the event, I wore the gown with the silk voile petticoat I had embroidered with goldwork. The hair up in a chignon, I bound an ice blue long silk sash around it, pulled out a lock of hair in front and draped it, and added several short black vintage ostrich plumes. 

My hair had more loft before we left the hotel; you'll learn why in a moment. I have an aversion to looking at or fussing with my outfit or hair while out and about in normal life. That's probably not the attitude to carry to a ball, but there you go. It was only after looking at these photos after the fact that it became clear just how out of order I appeared. Had it been 1795, there might have been pointed comments and raised eyebrows.

Wrapping a vintage silk taffeta sash in the hair and draping a lock of hair over it.
Arrr, the wind blew the lace around.

The planned cut steel earrings would have rusted, so I wore the pearl earrings I wear daily. No necklace this time: it would have been appropriate but I preferred a quieter look than was ultra-fashionable. New red American Duchess Dunmore shoes on the feet; a tad too early, but I couldn't find ultra-pointed, high-vamped shoes with the right tiny heel.

What a wonder, the ball. We had a lovely time. Lively English country dancing, a fortune teller, wine, scrumptious desserts, and to watch the wide, wide Ohio slide past as evening descended.  I didn't dance, sadly. Perhaps next time.

Of course, it rained. It started with roiling dirty dark brown clouds on our way to the boat and a wind that threatened to blow our gowns around our waists and our feathers into the river, and then it thundered and started spitting great drops as we raced up the gangplank onto the boat. After that, for good measure it poured a while and left puddles on the decks, covered though they were. Gathering up the yards and yards of gown skirt over my arm, not realizing I had trailed it in the water already, lace blown by a naughty breeze, bodice gapping slightly, we had a moment for an as-is plein air portrait. It feels very realistic to me, rather as if I was gathering up skirts, not entirely successfully, in an attempt to remain dry on a boat on the Thames on a rainy evening. Only this was a boat on another river, on another continent, in another century.

Happy but attempting to remain dry
on the second deck

A little bit like this painting from a slightly later period, only my feet are primly together, while the painting's heroine might be taking a dance pose. So the general effect when you draw your skirts up in the wet is rather accurate. Sure wish I knew what this painting was called, and where it comes from...if you know, please tell me.

Here's Polly in portrait mode, too.

I've never been on a paddle-wheeler before and it was delightful in every respect. Here below, the paddle in motion: have just learned how to turn videos into GIFs and it's fun!

Now it's evening over a month later. My mother's Missy kitty is asleep beside me as this post is finished at long last. My husband and sons went to a family wedding in Nashville last weekend, and I couldn't go because of the immunocompromise issue. For safety, have come to visit my mother, a mile away from home, for 5 days and until a COVID test shows them in the clear, on the advice of the transplant clinic. It's lovely and quiet and so nice to be with mom. I'm bringing meals to my family and before heading out we did all the laundry and made sure the house was fresh. Still, I miss my family so...

Missy kitty napping in my mother's den. She's mostly Maine Coon, has
short little legs, big soft paws, an awesome amount of fur,
and a sweet, calm and affectionate nature.
Her fur curls on her tummy!


The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

An event on a riverboat sounds like a fabulous adventure! Congratulations on being able to resize such a wonderful dress so you can wear it again! The train is magnificent!


ZipZip said...

Thank you, Quinn! It's a joy to wear, unless you are hurrying, in which case you hold your train and whatever else you are carrying. It's too long to go into the pockets.

Highly recommend a riverboat ride. They are really something.

Very best,


angela said...

Great job re-working your open robe! Looks like a fabulous event! Just getting started on my regency sewing journey..

ZipZip said...

Dear Angela,
Thanks so very much. It was actually an enjoyable project and it's so good to have a gown I can wear again.

Very best to you on your Regency sewing projects. They are really satisfying to make, great fun to wear...and you can alter them at will :)