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Sarah Lorraine

1780 Gown with Vandyked Collar

Original gown inspiration. Photo from the Manchester Galleries Website

Since purchasing Patterns of Fashion 1660-1860 mumbelty years ago, I have been in love with this gown and wanted to make a copy for myself for years. The intimidation factor of the vandyked collar was pretty high, however... Binding all those tiny dags by hand? Scary! However, when I finally sat down with the book and decided I was going to make the dress for the anual Société des Lumières picnic at Mountain View Cemetary, with only a week until the event, I had to question my sanity.

(I do a lot of questioning of my sanity when it comes to costuming.)

The pattern was draped on my trusty dress form in a medium weight linen using the diagram in PoF as a guideline for seam placement. This is my preferred method when it comes to using period patterns for my own costumes, as it allows me to create a custom fitting garment without having to scale anything up. I followed the style lines in the diagram and created a bodice that fit me surprisingly well.

After getting the pattern squared away, I decided I couldn't just sew this on the machine... Oh no, I had to hand sew it. This turned out to be no big deal in the end- It took me about 6 hours of sewing to complete the bodice, facing each piece with linen by turning under the raw edges and using a spaced back stitch to secure the layers together. Then I whipstitched the pieces edge to edge, which is more or less the same method demonstrated by Laura Mellin, here. This creates a very streamlined, close fitting garment in the end.

The skirt is constructed the same way as outlined in the book... It is a drop front skirt, which means that the front pannels are split from about mid-thigh to the waist, which allows it to be "dropped" in the front. Clever, huh? The front pannels tie around the waist, under the bodice front, while the rest of the skirt is attached from side waist to side waist around the back. There's just a little bit of overlap that covers the split in the side seams of the skirt, concealing the fact that they are not atached to one another.

For the sleeves and the vandyked collar, I used the old cheat method for scaling up patterns: I scanned the diagram from PoF and printed it out onto a transparency film. Using my handy overhead projector ($10 at a local State Government clearance warehouse), I fiddled with the projection until it roughly matched a 1"x1" grid. Then I traced the pattern for the collar and the sleeve onto newsprint. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, as they say. The collar did not need any modifications, but the sleeves were too tight for my arms, so I graded them up about 2" width-wise, and that was just perfect for my arms. Everything else stayed the same, including the funny little dart in the arms, meant for shaping the sleeve to the elbow. I have to admit that at this point I was worried that the sleeves wouldn't fit the funky looking armscye in the bodice, which was squared off at the back shoulders in such a way that it looked as though it was going to be hard to fit properly. To my surprise, however, the sleeve matched the shape of the armscye perfectly. Never underestimate those 18th century tailors!

The vandyked collar was indeed a pain to bind, but I soldiered through it and managed to get it bound while watching several episodes of Jonathan Creek in succession over the course of 2 nights. Once the vandyked edges were bound in black bias tape, I added a row of black velvet ribbon ruching to the neckline, a drawstring as per the original for fitting the collar to the shoulders, and tacked it to the bodice. Then, the only thing left to do was the hem, which was bound in 1" wide black velvet ribbon, folded over the edge of the hem. All in all, the dress was actually not that complicated!

By the Thursday before the Saturday event, the entire dress was assembled, hemmed, bound and ready to wear. The only thing left was the lacing strips on the front of the bodice, which after a long, stressful day at work, I decided to leave off for the time being. I'll be attaching them before the dress is worn again at Costume College next month.

A word about my hair: Since people invariably are intregued by period hair styles, I thought I'd mention that yes, that is all my real hair you see in the photos. I have long hair, reaching past my shoulder blades (as you can see the ponytail in the "behind" shot above), so the way I achieved the "hedgehog" was to start with dry hair. I sectioned each piece and coated it with a strong hold gel, because my hair is fine and prone to losing a curl if given half a chance. Then I wrapped each section around individual hot roller curlers, letting it cool for about an hour before removing. I left a switch in the back at the nape of my neck uncurled. After removing the rollers, I then proceeded to rat the ever loving #$!%& out of my hair, arranging the entire rat's nest into more or less the right shape with the use of a million bobby pins. A liberal application of Aquanet followed by more teasing and arranging, and I was good to go. I actually stopped by Trader Joes wearing my normal clothes with my hair done up like this and caused some poor guy to drop a thing of pasta when he caught sight of me. Heh. Of course, I found during the course of the day that my hair was not holding its shape, and had started to droop down at the sides.

After all was said and done, I was left with an epic snarl on my head, which I later found out should have been dealt with by standing under a hot shower for a few minutes then applying a liberal application of a heavy conditioner to remove all the styling product and allow for the snarls to slip out easier with combing. Of course I found this out after I had removed a significant portion of my hair while attempting to comb it out dry. Life's ongoing lessons...

Pictures courtesy of Kendra Van Cleave & Trystan L. Bass

(July 2008)

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