Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1780s gown & petticoat




updated November 5, 2007

updated April 26, 2009

updated April 18, 2009

updated April 21, 2009

Planning: What Am I Doing?

It is, in a way, ridiculous to start a new diary when I have so many loose ends in the old ones. But if I work on clearing them up first, I won't get anything posted about this project. And I think it's worth posting.

I love 18th-century clothing, but I haven't had an event for which to make any of it since moving to Asheville. Suddenly, that's changed. I have two events coming up, one an outdoor, afternoon event and the other a ball. They are VERY SOON, so I only have time to make one costume. And I am limited mostly by the fabric at hand.

I have some very beautiful yellow silk damask with a pink, green, and blue floral brocaded into it at intervals. (Click on the image at right for a closeup.) I bought this on eBay awhile back, unable to resist such a great 18th-century-appropriate fabric at a good price. It was made up into a simple curtain panel, so after taking out the crummy machine hemming on all four sides and burn-testing it to make sure of the content (all silk, as promised!), I could see exactly what I had to work with.

When I bought it I thought there would only be enough material for a caracao or jacket, but now, after poring over Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660-1860 and Linda Baumgarten's Costume Close-Up, I was really pleased to realize that I could squeeeeeeze a 1780s gown out of it, the kind with the bodice closed at the front but the skirt open. These were worn with both matching and contrasting petticoats, as were the caracaos, so I just needed a coordinating silk.

Here's my plan:

This type of gown can be worn plain, or with the skirt bustled up into a polonaise. I love flexibility, and who doesn't love a polonaise? They're so cute! So mine will have hidden tapes inside the skirt for this purpose.

Now, I fully realize that this style of gown was a day gown, not the sort of thing worn to balls. But as I said, I only have time for the one outfit, I don't expect to get a lot of use out of a ballgown, and this event is not going to be, erm, the apogee of period-correctness. I can live with wearing this at the wrong time of day. But I am going to make the garments as right as they possibly can be in themselves.

Which leads to the main reason for this dress diary. I was really surprised, when I settled down to make my costume, at how difficult it was to figure out exactly what to do. There was plenty of rough "here's how to make an 18th-century petticoat" stuff on the web, but none of it discussed much about period fabric widths, exactly how the hems should be sewn, etc.

Costume Close-Up gives a lot of this type of detail, as to a lesser extent do Patterns of Fashion and Nancy Bradford's Costume in Detail, but it's very specific to the individual pieces described and the information is difficult to compile. I still had to guess at a couple of things, and other things turned out to be pretty standard from one extant garment to another but nobody was making that clear. (Perhaps if I had Fitting & Proper? I've never seen a copy.)

In short, I hope these pages will provide something of a blueprint on how to create a quite period-accurate silk gown and petticoat for the 1780s (and most of it would apply to the 1770s and even earlier). Where I diverge from real accuracy, I will explain my reasons so you can make your own decisions.


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Copyright 2007 by Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.