Commercial Colonial Undergarments: Supporting a Slightly-More-Historical Simplicity 3723 – Part 3

18th Century Sewing Adventure #2 – Part 3

Undergarments and Accessories

In my latest project, I attempted to turn the less-than-flattering Simplicity 3723 pattern into something more obviously 18th century. By following the pattern directions (for the most part), you get this:

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It’s not terrible, but…well…okay, so it is terrible.

The silhouette is too round and the front molds around the breasts, fitting more like a mid-20th century dress than a mid-18th century dress. Ideally, the dress should be flared out at the hips and the bodice should be a smooth cone shape (thanks to the lady’s stays):

“A lady showing a bracelet miniature to her suitor” by Jean-François De Troy circa 1734 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

I was aiming for a middle-class maid’s look for the 1740s, when panniers were in full swing. So to turn my gown into something presentable, I needed to get rid of the rounded skirt and smooth out my girlies. An 18th century woman would have worn a pair of custom-fitted stays, usually made of cane or whalebone sandwiched between layers of fabric. In the 18th century, the fashionable silhouette was a coned-shaped torso with ample cleavage. There were many styles of stays throughout the 18th century– some were one piece, some were two, some had stomachers–but they all achieved a triangular look:

Stays with Stomacher (reproduction), circa 1750

Mid-18th Century Taffeta Stays by the Staymaker

I do not own 18th century stays, at least not any that are finished. I have started many a pair, but I am not apt at fitting and I’ve pretty much abandoned the project after ruining two pairs and gaining 15 pounds. Not all of us can be stay makers or afford to invest in a pair, especially if you only costume occasionally, but there is a pragmatic solution in a surprising place.

Cheap corsets are the bane of many a professional costumer or corsettiere, but they offer a surprising benefit to casual costumers. Cost effective and easy to find, lower-end corsets often do not have the sumptuous curves of a Victorian or vintage-inspired corset. This is frustrating if you want an hourglass shape, but for 18th century costuming, a straightened silhouette is encouraged. The stiff foundation is what’s most important and the smoothed rather than enhanced bust is a plus. I bought an inexpensive, all purpose, steel-boned corset from eBay which has become my go-to for costuming (for everyday wear, however, I recommend a more sturdy corset):

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It has 20 steel bones and can reduce my waist  3 or 4 inches, but for my Simplicity 3723 project, I laced it so that it only reduced my waist one inch (from 29″ to 28″). This particular style of corset (and many others like it) does not take a naturally large breast-to-waist ratio into account, so if you are top heavy like I am, the corset does an excellent job of flattening my front and giving me some stunning cleavage. The tubular shape of many low-to-mid range corsets is just fine for 18th century costuming. I’d advise getting a corset with plastic bones, however. Stick to one with steel boning, even if it’s only 10 or 12 bones. You do not have to lace tightly at all! In fact, unless you are making a huge fancy court gown, 18th century stays were worn for shaping and support, not drastic reductions.

A corset alone, however, is not enough to achieve the flouncy look of the mid-18th century. I need some hips, and at 35 measly inches, my tiny natural one fall far too short of glory.

Cane and Ribbon Pannier, late 18th century

Panniers and bum-rolls were widely used to fluff up a woman’s curves. Some panniers were more like squared walls than curves and could be made from a variety materials including metal, cane, or stuffed pillows. The higher up in society you were, the more extravagant the width of your pannier! I wasn’t going for a court gown, so I took American Duchess’s handy pannier guide into account and made myself some cheap-o pannier pillows out of leftover flannel and some bias tape.

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Boom! Hips, baby!

These panniers are rather small compared to court panniers, but it would be unseemly for a lady’s maid to outdo her mistress’s bodacious hips, so my little bump-outs are just dandy. I read somewhere that these comparatively small hip pads were called considerations (i.e. I considered wearing panniers, but then…) and were proper for morning wear. But since I can’t find the source, don’t quote me on it. Anyways, panniers alone, especially cane ones, would show through the gown rather inelegantly, so wearing at least one petticoat helps soften the lines. I used my favorite old standby, a thrifted button-front skirt from Goodwill:

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This skirt was probably the most useful thing I’ve even found at a charity shop. It looks great with modern clothes, dressed up to look vintage, or used under my costumes as fluff. In this case, a longer petticoat would have yielded a better shape at the bottom of the skirt, but being what it is, this old skirt does admirably!

As soon as that was done: voila! Instant improvement:

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Silhouette is the most important feature of historical costuming. Even with the craziest, most inaccurate fabrics, a properly (or semi-properly) supported silhouette can make a dress look 100% improved!

With the silhouette fixed, the dress part of this experiment is complete! However, I may cheap out on method and material, but I at least attempting a full outfit. A finished dress is fabulous, but without at least some accessorizing, even the grandest dress is incomplete. There are a few basic necessities like shoes, hair, and make-up which cannot be ignored. One of the biggest components to a complete toilet is a lady’s shoes:

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These are my American Duchess Pompadours (version 1.0) that I dyed and decorated. They are the biggest costume splurge I have ever made, but they look so swanky, even the miser in me considers them well worth the money! Another reason why shoes are important: your hemline. These shoes add a full two and a half inches to my height. The first time I sewed the hem of the Simplicity 3723 dress, I completely forgot to take this added height into account and made the hem too short! I had to let it out and re-hem the whole thing, a step I could have avoided if I’d just remembered the heels.

Accompanying my Pompadours are my bright red knit stockings, which are O Basics in “Rust,” from the addictive website, Sock Dreams. If you could tear your eyes away from my magnificent hips, you can see the entirety of my stockings in the picture of my panniers. The socks reach over the knee and are quite warm– a boon in the winter, but right now in the summer heat, they can be a little trying. I have another version of these stockings in rayon and flax, which I absolutely adore as well. I highly recommend these over-the-knee socks, and at $7, they’re a great buy! They have stretch and stay up well on their own, but you can wear garters over them easily. I’d be wearing my ten-minute garters, if they weren’t packed away for moving.

Another essential outfit component is hair. I’m terrible at hair. Curling, braiding, ribbons, nets, clips, extension, and all that jazz have never worked for me. I can do most of it on someone else, but on me? Forget it. I was going to try something more elaborate this time around, but I got frustrated and ended up enlisting my sister to give me a simple bun. It’s not flamboyant, but it gets the job done and is quite fitting for a lady’s maid.

To dress it up, I wanted a little coif like this:

“Laundress” by Henry Robert Morland

But Amelia found this adorable vintage baby’s bonnet in the box of linens and–surprise!– it fit my bun perfectly.

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With my adorably bonnet-ed hair finished enough to be passable, I decided that I needed to properly tart myself up, 18th-century style. A good lady should be pale, but with cheerfully pink cheeks and lips. So I powdered my face lightly and used a freshly sliced beet as a kissing companion to give myself a naturally unnatural rosy glow:

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This photo was taken at the end of the day, after I’d taken all the other photos, hence the un-bonnet-ed, messy bun. I literally sliced the root-end off a beet and applied it directly to my face. It’s a red beet and has surprisingly little sugar in it despite its sweet taste, so it is not sticky. It is a semi-permanent stain. It will last very well, especially on your lips, even if you nibble on a snack or talk way too much too loudly.

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And…done! At least done enough to be presentable. The only other accessories I used were my sleeve ruffles and a strand of faux pearls I borrowed from Amelia for a few pictures. I’d like an apron and a better fichu; my current fichu is too long to tuck nicely, especially since this dress’s neckline is too high. There are so many other accessories to add to an 18th century gown: hats, chatelaines, wallets, brooches, chokers, earrings, face patches, wigs, fans…the list goes on!

You can read more about my Simplicity 3723 project in these posts:

— Commercial Colonial: Part 1—

— Commercial Colonial: Part 2—

Commercial Colonial Results: A Slightly-More-Historical Simplicity 3723 – Part 2

18th Century Sewing Adventure #2 – Part 2

So, as you may or may not recall, I not-so-recently embarked on a sewing adventure: turning Simplicity 3723 into something more historically accurate.

Here is the dress as of two weeks ago:

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Circa July 29th, 2013

It looks pretty much like the pattern envelope says it should, but it is hardly 18th century in appearance, aside from the “stomacher” and too-long-for-comfort sleeves. I made a few modifications, but otherwise, it was a generic “historical” gown with no real time period or purpose. It still needed a few little touches to make it less mundane and more like a magnificent mid-18th century gown–well, as magnificent as a mid-century gown can get on a peasant’s budget!
I was aiming to re-create this sketch I had done of a middle-class lady’s maid:

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I normally don’t like pink, but coral has really gained my respect recently…

Since I had reached the end of the pattern directions, everything from here on out was created using a highly-complex process known as “mad libbing,” otherwise known as “making things up as you go along.”

Two very obvious things were missing from Simplicity 3723: the fold-over robings down the front of the gown that, on a real 18th century gown, would hide the stomacher pins and function as a decorative edge. I sewed two long belts of fabric and attached them at the shoulder seams, tacking them down the length of the front with fell stitching. What a difference they made, too!

Here is the gown now:

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What you can see: an improved Simplicity 3723
What you can’t see: the 101°F heat

Simplicity 3723 out of the envelope has a few functionality problems, including being a tad too wide in the shoulders and long in the waist. The biggest offender, however, was the much-detested zipper in the back (I wasn’t surprised to get backlash on that one; I just wasn’t expecting it to be so intense. Whoa!). Originally, I planned to cover the zipper with a draped, triangular piece of fabric that snapped on to mimic a Robe à l’Anglaise’s enfourreau back:

Robe à l’Anglaise back, circa 1770-75

But then I discovered that I had more pink fabric left over than originally thought from all my other additions, so I threw modesty to the wind and went for something more dramatic: faux Robe à la Française! So fancy…

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I draped the pleats about 6 times on my wonky dress form before I was mostly satisfied. The pink dollar-per-yard-faux-linen-whatever was way too wrinkly, yet it didn’t keep my pleats well at all. Thank heavens I used it all up! I only have one little 12″ by 14″ piece left, just enough to make a matching purse. That stuff is the devil…

The sack-back was more in keeping with the earlier look I was going for, about 1740, like this gown:

Robe à la Française, circa 1740
My gown is nowhere near this fancy. I have fly-fringe and other trims around, but after tacking them onto my dress, it just looked fussy and didn’t match the rough-quality fabric. So I’m waiting for another opportunity to use it on a finer gown.

I used two giant, heavy-duty snaps to attach the panel so I can zip myself up and attach the sack-back without help.

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A horrid picture, but it’s murderously difficult taking a photo like this…

Another addition was my engageantes, a.k.a. sleeve ruffles!

The original pattern called for fabric-matched ruffles to be sewn onto the sleeves, but those was too wide and ungainly, so I scrapped them and made some separate ruffles of my own from wide cotton lace, completing my dress and HSF Challenge #15 simultaneously! I love it when something multitasks for me.

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HSF Facts:
18th century Engageantes (sleeve ruffles)
Fabric: Technically, none
Pattern:Based off of the measurements of ruffles from various museum, but no real pattern
Notions: Cotton lace, poly-cotton thread
Historical accuracy: 90% Proper engageantes would be silk, but I’m poor.
Time to complete: 1 hour
Total cost: $10 for two yards of lace

I tapered them so that they have a long and short side. Tapering your engageantes lets them hang nicely rather than puffing out awkwardly:

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Mmmm….draping!

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The gown in review

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Resting your elbows on your panniers is uncouth, but my face says it all: Manners be damned! It is much too hot to be wearing fake linen…

Pattern: Simplicity 3723 with modifications

Modifications:

Smaller, contrasting front skirt panel
Extended back darts
Finished skirt side panels
Bound, free-floating stomacher edges
Front robings
Shortened sleeves
Separate sleeve ruffles
Snap-on “Watteau(ish) Pleats”
Plastic bone to the stomacher for rigidity

Materials:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
GIANT size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
Thread – $1.55
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Total: $33.71

Time – Who knows? 40 hours total? I didn’t keep track, but I worked on and off on it for about 3 weeks after work.

Despite making all these changes and having issues with the fitting, Simplicity 3723 is not a horrible pattern, but there are better patterns out there. I recommend this pattern to people who like to play around or need multiple gowns for theatrical productions. It could really be a show-stopper with the right styling! It is hardy and has survived lots of yanking, finagling, abuse, and wear from being pulled on and off. It is an excellent stage gown, but it’s probably not going to be well-received at reenactments or other historical events (be prepared for farb-shaming if you do wear it). However, I am very pleased with it. It looks good and feels right, aside from being too long in the waist– a common problem for short-waisted moi!

My fabric choice was not ideal because that pink stuff…ick! No matter how I ironed, spritzed, or steamed it, there were always weird wrinkles that just would not hang out! Laying it down for even a moment would cause new ones to form. With a better-quality fabric (in a cute print!), my dress would look really nice. The cut of the gown straight from the envelope reminds me of Laura Ashley gowns from the late 1960s and 70s:

Laura Ashley cotton sateen print dress, circa 1971

The calico print looks very fetching and with a split-front and a bumroll, that Laura Ashley dress would look 18th century worthy. I really love the floral decorator fabric I found at Hobby Lobby. A gown made of that would look fantastic–sadly the fabric isn’t available anymore and at $22 a yard, would be much too expensive for my budget anyhow. But a girl can scheme…er…dream!

Remember my lament that the stomacher was too high to display luscious 18th century cleavage?

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Boobs, baby!

The major thing that’s making this gown work is the styling and undergarments. More on that later!

— Commercial Colonial: Part 1—

Commercial Colonial: Making a Slightly-More-Historical Rococo Gown out of Simplicity 3723 – Part 1

18th Century Sewing Adventure #2 – Part 1

(I enjoy historical costuming, but be warned: I’m no stickler for historical construction techniques! If you are looking for more accurate methods for 18th century gowns, I recommend this pictorial guide or one of the many other beautiful creations in the blogs listed in my blogroll.)

I’ve never sewn anything Rococo before. I usually stick to thrifting and heavy modifications to existing clothing for most of my costumes, but mid-18th century lady’s clothes are a little tricky.

Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1775

Because of the unique fit of 18th century gowns, it’s hard to get the right look without sewing your own from a well-documented historical pattern. I wanted to make a mid-18th century gown, but I have neither the skill nor resources to make a historically-accurate recreation at the moment. Instead, I decided to go for a Rococo creation more accessible to the common costume crafter, a.k.a. Simplicity 3723:

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View “D” is totally happening….minus that wild rose print…

Why 3723? Well, it was on sale at Hobby Lobby for 99 cents, that’s why.

This pattern is trying be historical (Andrea Schewe actually designs some really nice historical patterns), but it falls short of glory– I’d give this pattern a D+ in history class.
It’s truly a theatrical pattern meant to convey stereotypical historical flavor blended with modern comfort. We used View A for a production of The Miracle Worker in high school and it worked beautifully for quick costume changes thanks to the zipper in the back and the one-piece construction.

However, the qualities that make 3723 perfect for theater are what condemn it for historical inaccuracy. But there is hope!

I like to make something historical-looking from modern items, so I decided that this pattern was perfect for a “How to Tweak a Modern Pattern to Make it Look More Historical” project! I will follow the majority of pattern instructions, but make tweaks both small and large to make it appear more like a historical garment.

I decided to go for a house-maid look: a mix of rich and economic fabrics as well as styles, just like a thrifty maid would cobble together from a mistress’s cast-offs.

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I used Photoshop to add color to see how the dress might look upon completion.

I posted this sketch earlier. It had been languishing on a small corner of my sketch book forever, and I noticed that it could work with Simplicity 3723’s construction, plus a few modifications, of course. For example, the Simplicity pattern’s skirt design was too round and full, creating a cone-shape rather than a pannier shape. The pattern’s sleeves are a little long, and the giant fabric ruffle is ungainly. I would need to tweak these things to make the pattern a tad more “acceptable.”

Here’s where I’m at as of now:

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Front: Looks pretty much like the front of the pattern envelope. It may not be done, but I can still be proud it’s wearable! I opted to leave the sleeve flounce off and eventually trim the sleeves with lace. You can tell the sleeves are still too long to be flattering…and that’s AFTER I shorted them a whole inch!

I chose a mix of fabrics so the stomacher, over-dress, and petticoat would look like individual pieces even though they are sewn together as one dress.  The dress is actually fitted over a pair of pseudo-stays (in reality, it’s a corset. I can’t really call a steel-boned corset “stays” with good conscience), but I opted to take some photos to show how the dress hangs on the body as it is displayed on the cover models: no underpinnings except a bra and panties! Scandalous!

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Ah, yes, that zipper…

This is only my second commercial pattern-sewing experience, the first being my 1713 gentleman’s coat for Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #1. Most of my sewing experience is mending or modifying garments, not starting from scratch. Thanks to my irrational fear of the sewing machine, I hand sewed the entire dress except the giant seams in the skirt hem, back, and front edges. I love hand sewing, but those long seams are no picnic!

I’ve completed the dress as far as the pattern directions are concerned, but I’m currently only at the half-way point in the whole project. Even though it looks fairly similar to the envelope, I made a few modifications to the pattern to make it look more like a true 18th century dress:

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Instead of sewing the skirt onto the bottom of the stomacher piece, I opted to bind the bottom and leave it free-floating to enhance the illusion that the dress is made up of more than one part. I bound the top of the petticoat panel with bias tape and stitched in the ditch to attach it to the bodice seams. The stomacher is made from vintage wool crewel-work embroidery on a cotton/linen blend, mimicking the floral embroidered stomachers of the early 18th century.

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I also bound the top of the stomacher to match the bottom. I also plan to edge it with some cotton lace as well.

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Ignore that stray weft thread. It has since been snipped!

I finished the front of the skirt side panels. The “petticoat” panel is merely basted in, so I could actually remove it and wear the dress over a separate, true petticoat. I had only a half-yard of the floral decorator fabric, which is half the width specified by the pattern for a front panel. The thinner panel actually works much better than the full panel would have! A full, pleated panel would make the silhouette too round.

Every fabric used so far has come from my stash. I rarely buy fabrics with a particular project in mind, but I do meticulously catalog prices and yardage thanks to the miser genes passed down through my mother’s side of the family (we’re all teachers, antique lovers, and tight-fisted!):

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever was $1 a yard at Walmart
1/2 yard printed floral “petticoat” snatched up as a remnant from Hobby Lobby for $10.64
A crewel embroidery “stomacher” was a freebie included in a package of other sample fabrics

The bodice and sleeves are flat-lined in cotton sheeting from my old college dorm dressings.

I ran into a few fit problems with this pattern. The shoulders are very wide even for 17-inch shouldered me, so I extended the darts up the entire length of the back, solving some of the problem:

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This photo was taken on my dress form, which is shaped like no human I’ve ever known.

I opted to retain the zipper just for the practice. I’ve never sewn a zipper this long before and I am unabashedly pleased that it turned out decently. You could choose to cut the bodice back as one piece, sewing hooks and eyes along one of the stomacher seams to create a front closure instead of using a zipper, but if you like the functionality of a zipper for comfort or theater use, I have a sneaky plan to help hide it!

The fit of this dress straight from the envelope is ridiculously frumpy. I wish I had set the stomacher lower for more of that infamous 18th century cleavage, but with my pseudo-stays, the girls are much perkier. In fact, the addition of (mostly) correct undergarments does wonders for this dress! But for now, I leave you with my anachronistic self perched on a rock in my “pirate wench” pose.

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Toenail polish is sooooo 18th century!

So far, not bad, but I will admit to almost completely decimating my Paypal account for some quality trims.

Next up: How to make this pattern less terrible!

— Commercial Colonial: Part 2—