One Dress Two Weddings: An 18th Century Gown Remade in the 1840s

Recycling Grandma’s Old Dress

There’s a large debate in the vintage community about whether we should wear vintage clothing or save it. It’s a tricky question.  What most people consider vintage clothing– clothing 80-20 years old– was usually mass produced. It’s fun to wear older clothing because it’s made differently and fits differently than modern mass produced clothing– so many different shapes, colors, and fabrics to explore! Even hand-sewn items are abundant because of population boom, especially after WWII, so there were more people to clothe and printed patterns became cheap and easier to use.

Wedding gowns are a favorite vintage item because they are often worn for only a day, then carefully preserved and passed down to the next generation. Little girls dream of one day wearing mommy’s or grandma’s dress to their wedding, and dresses from the 1930s to even the 1980s (yes, big, poofy sleeves coated in plastic pearls are coming back into vogue) are being re-worn by this generation’s brides or updated to suit modern tastes by shortening skirts, removing sleeves, or adding trims. Altering a wedding dress to suit changing fashion norms and different body types is a common practice that has been going on for ages.

For previous generations, however, vintage clothing wasn’t mass produced. For our grandmothers and even our mothers, vintage clothing stretched back into the era of home sewing. Go back even further and everything was not only home-made but hand-stitched as well. The investment of time, labor, and materials was much greater, and dresses were picked apart and re-fashioned much more frequently to squeeze every last iota of usefulness out of the fabric. In the 1840s and 50s, 18th century inspired fabric designs were all the rage and women began turning to their grandmothers’  old-fashioned, outdated 18th century gowns into then-modern designs.

Take, for example, this gown for Augusta Auctions:

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It’s made of airy muslin decorated with small sprigs of flowers and trimmed with an elaborate hand-painted border:

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They list it as a 1795 Wedding Gown, but just looking at it tells you that something is off. The fabric is right, as is the petticoat-overdress styling, but everything else is off. Perhaps it’s just the lack of panniers or a bum roll to support the trailing overdress? While the mannequin isn’t helping matters, it’s the pleated trimming at the bust, redone sleeves, back-closure, and waistline that are 100% 19th century.

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The biggest giveaway that this dress is a remodel is the bodice. Indeed, it seams as though the Victorian seamstress might have turned the bodice backward! Everything about it screams late 1830s/early 1840s– from the wide, shallow neckline to the back closure (only children’s gowns in the 18th century closed in the back. Women’s 18th century gowns closed in front). It’s hard to tell what the original gown my have looked like, but while it looks closer to a Robe à l’Anglaise now, judging by the large amount of fabric that went into the remodel, it’s possible it was a Robe à la Polonaise with the overskirt let down.

Robe à l’Anglaise with Train, circa 1784-87

Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1780

The sheer amount of fabric that went into the remodel could also mean it was a Robe à la Française, but I’ve never seen a Robe à la Française made of muslin. In addition, if the 1795 date is indeed the originating date of the dress, the française-style back was pretty much out of fashion. My bet is that Grandmother wore a lovely trained Anglaise to her wedding in the 1780s-90s and her granddaughter wanted to wear it to her own wedding (remember, this dress was only about 50 years old when it was remade, the modern equivalent of remodeling a 1960s dress). Whatever its original form, this dress underwent a massive remodel sometime between 1838 and 1842. I have an 1840s fashion plate that’s a little later in date than this remodel appears to be, but it’s nonetheless similar. It shows the same style of bodice, and conveniently located next to it is another ball gown with an overskirt:

You’ll notice that the necklines in the fashion plate are much lower than on the Augusta Auction gown. The lady who remodeled the dress likely did so for her own nuptials since a low neckline would be considered very  immodest for a church wedding. The sleeves of the dress and likely much of the fabric used to raise the neckline and make the pleated trim came from the petticoat. That would also explain the excessive staining on the overskirt of the dress. Luxurious trains never go out of style, so once the fullness of the petticoat had been lessened and rounded out, the overskirt was re-fashioned into an opulent bridal train.

There are other dresses like this one that were made of 18th century fabric in the mid-19th century. Even Elizabethan and Stuart-era garments were not immune to the Victorians’ romantic obsession with ancestral fashion.  It was a common practice, much like wearing vintage or sewing with antique textiles today. Every generation looks back and laughs at how ridiculous their parents and grandparents dress, but they also admire them as well. 19th century fashion writers are constantly complaining about the poor quality of their current fabric selection compared to the rich, sturdy fabrics of their predecessors  (Doesn’t that sound familiar?). Just as costumers and vintage-wearers today turn to antique collars, yardage, and trims to get the look just right, so did our ancestors.

For some, it’s a crime to destroy rare and precious garments in this way because it means there will be fewer preserved for future generations. Others believe that garments are made to be used and enjoyed. Others, like myself, sit in the middle ground. There is a time to trash, a time to transform, and a time to treasure and it’s highly subjective. While it’s sad that we will never know what the 18th century incarnation of this gown looked like, it has a fascinating history that makes it unique among dresses. There are quite a few well-preserved 18th and 19th century dresses in museum collections around the world, but pieces like this are much more unusual!

My Collection, Inside Out: The 1874 Kate Pendergast Dress

Turning Coats and Staring at the Seams

The interiors of antique garments are somewhat of a mystery, yet the hidden innards of a piece are the secret behind its good looks. For the majority of the population (including me, often times), antique garment construction is an alien science.  Museums and auction houses take many beautiful pictures of the outside of garments, but there is nary a shot of the lining. No matter how enchanting the outside, the real magic is found on the inside.

I own a tiny, personal collection of antique and vintage garments dating from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century. They’ve opened up a whole new world to explore when it comes to understanding shape, fabric, and sewing techniques. I am by no means an expert on sewing, but being able to examine the inner workings of a dress is an enormous help in understanding the hows and whys of historical silhouettes.

Here, for example, is my New Year’s project, the Kate Pendergast Dress. This post is going to be a doozy because we’ve got a whole dress (bodice/skirt combo) to cover!

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The Kate Pendergast Dress, circa 1874

Measurements:
Bust: 32.5 inches
Waist: 26 inches

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Back of the Kate Pendergast Dress, circa 1874

This dress is made for tan silk as the main color. The brown is only slightly faded on the bodice, but is otherwise in immaculate condition!Fashion details (the stuff outside) include dark brown silk buttons, a lace collar and cuffs, and a slight “peplum” that flares out to cover the top of the skirt. The sleeves are classic mid-Victorian and cut with a slight curve (similar to an 18th century men’s waistcoat).

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This is about as close as I could get to an accurate color portrayal. My camera drowned a while ago and has never been the same since. So the wild variance in color is due to the fact that I am using a zombie camera to take pictures…  

Disclaimer!
I do not have an 1870s bustle, so this dress is displayed over an improvised device made from a broomstick skirt and a 1970s couch pillow embroidered with frolicking kittens. The dress should flare more at the hem and is missing it signature element: the overskirt bustle. So, bear that in mind when checking out the shape.

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The lace collar, like most, is only basted in place so it could be changed or washed.

Detail of the collar showing the pin-holes left behind from using a brooch to close the top of the bodice. Almost all Victorian ladies owned at least one small throat pin. (Here is a photograph of Princess Maria Antonietta modeling such a pin on her 1870s bodice.)
Since I took these pictures, I have repaired the broken, missing top button and sewn it back in place!

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Side view: Kate Pendergast Dress, circa 1874

The dress is missing its overskirt. Since it is missing it’s overskirt, the skirt’s glazed cotton lining is revealed before even turning it inside out. It was quite common to save precious, expensive fashion fabric by leaving plain the portion of the underskirt usually covered by the bustle. I am currently working on finding a suitable silk or silk-like fabric in the right shade of brown to replace the MIA overskirt.

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Gotta love $1.50 lace bargains!

However, I was fortunate enough to find some passable matching lace which, after a light dye bath, I can add to the edges of the (theoretical) overskirt to tie the look together!

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Cotton Tape Label reading “Kate Pendergast 1874”

When I purchased this dress off of eBay, besides missing the overskirt, it was listed with minimal details and a note that it was “possibly 1880s” in style. I was so excited when I finally received it and discovered that the inside is labeled with the name Kate Pendergast and dated 1874! I do not know if this label is referring to the original owner or if it is a “stage label” for a theatrical production (it’s not unusual to find period pieces that have been used later for plays). I like to think that it is the former. This dress is very much 1870s in style: the underskirt still has lots of volume, the bodice shape is rounded with a short waist and the sleeves are shaped, but not tightly fitted. Before I show you more of the inside, here’s a brief comparison between fashions in 1874 and ten years later in 1884:

June fashions by The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, circa 1874

This fashion plate is from the same year as the Kate dress! Notice how “fluffy” everything is. 1870s dresses fit more loosely, echoing the idea that they were once crinoline skirts that were gathered up at the back instead of poofed out all the way. They usually involve only 2 or 3 colors/patterns maximum. Fashion advice columns and magazines of the day frowned on the use of too many variances in color and texture, but encouraged ladies to use self and contrasted fabrics in a plethora of ingenious ways. If you love to color-coordinate, the 1870s is your era! Notice the rounded-yet-triangular shape of the waist and how it sits right in the middle of the torso, near most folks’ natural waists. The Kate dress would look very similar in shape to these idealized dresses if it still had its flouncy overskirt (I’m working on it, promise!).

Dinner Dresses, circa 1883-86

Shoot forward ten years, and you encounter the bustle again, but this time the emphasis is less on color and more on structure and texture. Trim explodes everywhere and color combinations, while not fully incongruous, are not as matchy-matchy as the 1870s. Instead of using the same fabrics to trim self-trim, fashionable ladies would use an material that coordinated with their color scheme. Asymmetry came into play as well, while 1870s gowns were usually more symmetrical. The biggest difference is fit. Notice how much tighter fitting the 1880s dress is. The smallest part of the waist is just above the hips instead of in the center of the torso. High, stiffened collars replaced the looser ruffle collars of the decade before. Instead of beginning at the direct back of the dress like a gathered train, the bustle in 1884 was specifically shaped into a shelf-like construction. Many 1870s gowns were actually re-fashioned into the newer shape since the yardage was already there. Because of this, it’s such a treat to find an 1870s gown in this condition without any major alterations!

Anyway, back to 1874 and its construction secrets!

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Inside out: the front of the 1874 Kate Pendergast Dress

This shot shows the entire dress turned inside out. The whole piece is lined in that ubiquitous brown glazed cotton except for the bodice torso, which is made from solid brown broadcloth. The selvedge edges of the silk fashion fabric are turned inside. The bottom edge is faux-piped.

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Inside front of the 1874 Dress Bodice

Notice the how little boning there is in this bodice compared to the 1890s red bodice. There are very few bones in this piece: only 4 total on the front, none on the back. The front is held tightly against the body by a panel of five hooks and eyes. This set-up allows for a little wiggle room when it comes to fitting the dress. It wouldn’t be too hard to add an extra half-inch or take it in a smidge without disrupting the outside too much. I love this closure because it is much easier to make and hook close than later full-length lining panels that became popular in the 1880s.

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Inside back of the Kate Pendergast Dress, circa 1874

Here is the back of the dress, showing off the sheer amount of polished cotton that went into making this dress. It takes yards and yards of fabric to make a skirt like this. Making one out of all silk would be very expensive indeed! Instead, Victorian ladies saved money by using polished cotton, a cheap, sturdy alternative. Sadly, the chemical treatments on this glazed, polished cotton only made it sturdy for a while, but now the fabric has become very brittle and shreds similarly to weighted silk. Polished cotton, while common, wasn’t the only material available for lining. If you want to make a Victorian reproduction dress, I recommend forgoing the polished cotton and using broadcloth instead.

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Inside left of the 1874 skirt

The skirt has a length of elastic wrapped around the back half in order to control the volume of the skirt and keep it from moving forward. It’s brittle and stretched out now, but it once would have helped further form the poof from underneath.

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Along the back of the dress are six rings (one is missing). Those mysterious brass rings help hold and form the overskirt into the flouncy bustle shape and keep it from sliding around unattractively. Without them, the overskirt would just float over the underskirt, twisting, deflating, and generally being more of a nuisance than just a bustle alone. These rings were just method to help form the bustle. Other methods include using tapes or attaching it directly to the underskirt. You can see Jennifer Rosbrugh make a tape-gathered bustle in this fabulous YouTube video:

Besides the bustle rings, you can see that the bodice is  hand sewn except for the major shaping seams. All the finishing and most of the hem work was done by hand. Also, notice the remains of a black waistband tape on the bodice. When it was whole, it would have fit around the waist like a belt, but inside the dress rather than outside. The waistband tape kept the bodice from riding up.

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The skirt closes in front, not in the rear. The dress has been let out slightly–almost invisibly–about one inch. The place this is most visible is the skirt. The button has been moved and an extra piece of cloth indelicately added to take the circumference from 24.5 inches to 25.5 inches. The button has also been replaced with a much later plastic button from the 1930s or 1940s. This button threw me for a loop because I am unsure if the alterations are period and someone just lost the original button, or if this dress was used as a costume and had to be let out to fit the wearer.

The skirt has another handy addition besides a confusing plastic button: a pocket!

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A very deep pocket: 12 inches! I could smuggle a bottle of wine in that thing…

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The surprise pocket yielded another surprise: the missing top button! This button is original, not a later addition. A very thoughtful person stashed the wayward button after the back had fallen apart.

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The button’s back fabric shank had rotted out, so I replaced it by attaching a small piece of linen with some fabric-safe adhesive and sewed the button back into place.

For more information on the actual sewing techniques and practical applications for Historical costuming, I highly recommend visiting

Historical Sewing: 19th Century Costuming by Jennifer Rosbrugh

Her blog is full of Victorian sewing techniques, pattern advice, fitting tips, and historical fashion in general.

I have a few more Inside Outs planed for the future, including a Gibson Girl business suit, so check back in the near future!

Other Inside Out Posts

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1890s Red Silk Bodice