While our mantua-making friends from the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg spend their working days recreating clothes from the 1770s, on their own time they turn their accomplished scholarship and seamstress-skills to other time periods as well. They've shared their work with us before, including this gorgeous white muslin gown with the purple silk turban c. 1800.
The clothes shown here are also from around 1800, but represent everyday wear, a kind of fashion-conscious working clothes. Think sensible Elinor Dashwood, out to get things done. The jacket (also called a short gown) is cut from printed cotton fabric. A drawstring adds shaping under the bust, and helps create the newly-stylish high-waisted silhouette.
The back of the jacket, right, has a small pleat for ease. The linear pattern of the cotton is carefully matched to make a flattering V shape that emphasises the high waist.
But that same silhouette created a challenge with the linen petticoat (skirt). Separates are hardly a modern invention. Jackets and petticoats had been the mainstays of English women's clothing for generations, with the petticoat gathered and tied to sit at the natural waist. The new fashion for a raised waist, however, meant the petticoat had no place to settle securely.
Ingenuity prevailed, and now woven shoulder straps (acting like suspenders) held the petticoat comfortably in place, lower left, over the woman's shift and corset and beneath her jacket. The side slits made the petticoat adjustable both for ease of movement and to adjust to match a woman's changing figure. If she still chose to wear a now-old-fashioned pocket around her waist, she'd have convenient access to that through the slits as well. This petticoat is a replica of one in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society, but similar petticoats would have been worn by both English and American women.
The white muslin cap would have worn to protect the hair and to cover it modestly, again continuing the style for women to cover their heads that had lasted for hundreds of years. But the small, neat caps and coifs of the past were giving way to the extravagant, ruffled excess of the early 19th c., with puffed crowns and trailing lappets, and more to do with fashion than modesty.
Many thanks to apprentice mantua-maker Sarah Woodyard for once again being our ever-patient model. Photographs by Susan Holloway Scott.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.