Part 1: Inspiration and Research
Part 2: Pattern, Mock Up and Underpinnings
Part 3: Construction.
Pattern and Mock-Up
The Isabella gown is an example of a robe a l’Anglaise, with a few particular quirks of construction. This style was popular and gradually evolved during the course of the eighteenth century. The back of the bodice is cut in one with the skirt and the excess fabric is pleated and sewn down. I have not made this type of gown before; I have made the separate bodice and skirt version, also known as an Italian Gown. Fortunately, the pattern and construction notes made by American Duchess give pattern shapes for recreating the gown and a diagram for the back pleating. The shapes are to aid in draping your own pattern on the body to fit yourself. The diagram below shows an example of the sort of pattern created to make this dress.
A few of the quirks of the Isabella gown
- Sleeves: it is interpreted that the original mantua-maker made the sleeve too tight after the first fitting and later cut the sleeve to allow Isabella MacTavish to be able to bend her arm.
- Cuffs: the pleated cuffs would have been unfashionable in c. 1785 when the gown was constructed and were probably added to hide the mistake with the sleeve.
- Skirt: the skirt construction is atypical. It was pleated, folded, whipped over the top and back-stitched to the bodice.
- Bodice: In the 1780s, as the stays became more rounded and curvy, the bodice fronts were often cut on the bias to reduce wrinkling (as you can see on the pattern in Janet Arnold). The Isabella gown has its the bodice cut on the straight of grain, probably to utilise the self-edge of the tartan. This creates some unflattering wrinkles but is just one of the quirks of the original.
- Lacing strips: other example of this type of robe a l’Anglaise with centre-front closing usually pin together at the front but the Isabella gown has lacing strips on the inside front. These were probably added to support the weight of the heavy tartan fabric.
There were some decisions to be made: whether to follow all the quirks of the original. Should I recreate the error in the sleeve? Should I cut the bodice on the straight of grain (like the original) or on the bias (to create a better fit over 1780s stays)? In the example of tartan gowns in the portraits below, one has the bodice fronts cut on the bias (Helen Murray of Ochtertyre), whilst the others are cut on the grain, so there are examples for both construction methods.
I dressed my mannequin in 1780s underpinnings which includes: a linen short-sleeved shift (1780-1810) based on an example in Costume Close-Up; a matelasse under-petticoat to give body to the skirts; my front- and back-opening boned stays; a pocket; and a false rump.
At first, I used my split rump, which I made for my Italian Gown following the instructions in The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking; however, I messaged Rebecca Olds (the lady behind the Isabella Project) and she informed me that the split rump is used for Italian Gowns; the deep ‘V’ of the Italian gown bodice rests between the pillows, but for a gown with the back cut in one with the skirt, “a little fullness” is required “across the back to support the weight of the fabric as it curves down”.
So: a false rump was quickly assembled! It only took a day by hand using the same sturdy linen I was using for the lining of the gown and some thick unbleached linen thread. I stuffed it will recycled wool. For ties, I used linen tape. Nice and plump — and ready for the next step!
There are almost no original skirt supports surviving from this period. I based the false rump on one of the rumps in the satirical print ‘The Bum Shop’ from 1785 and using this great research into recreating late eighteenth-century skirt supports by Kendra Van Cleave. As well as the split rumps, in the satirical print, there are examples of false rumps which are more crescent shaped with vertical quilting. In addition, the crescent also seems to come around to gives some fullness to the hips: for example, the lady on the furthest right. Some of the examples in the print have a underpetticoat attached, but reading Van Cleave’s research, I left it off because she reported it did not make much difference to the final silhouette. As far as a satirical print can be accurate, I took the brown and dark pink of the rumps to indicate linen, so felt my sturdy linen was an appropriate choice.
Next up: the construction!
Sources and References
- ‘The Isabella Mactavish Fraser Gown – Pattern & Construction’ [pdf] by American Duchess (2019). – A most excellent resouce availabe for free! Details the research, girdded pattern, materials and construction for the recreation of the dress for the Isabella Project.
- ‘The Isabella MacTavish Fraser Project: A research, re-creation and educational project in three stages‘ by Timesmith Dressmaking, who led the Isabella Project.
- ‘Sewing an 18th Century Gown – Recreating the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Dress’ by American Duchess. YouTube (2019).
- Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction c. 1660-1860 (Macmillan, 1977).
- Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox, The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking (Page Street Publishing, 2017).