It has been a while since I’ve posted (thanks, finals and graduation and summer procrastination), but I have a large project to share. I’ve been sharing pictures and peeks on my Instagram, but not here. For my senior prom, I decided to make an 18th century gown, but I realized that I didn’t have time to make something completely new, so I did as a mantua-maker and decided to remake my old pink silk gown. My main inspiration from this project came from Lauren of American Duchess, who remade an English gown into an Italian gown for Costume College, and from Carolyn of The Modern Mantua-Maker, who also remade an English gown into an Italian gown to back up her doctoral research into 18th century dress remodeling (she also gave an interview about her research with the ladies of American Duchess on their podcast; I highly recommend listening!).
In addition to the historical costumers mentioned above, I also got inspiration from the Pinterest board I created for this project. Creating and editing this board helped me narrow down the year of my remake to 1783/’84. Having a specific year in mind when starting a new project is very helpful for nailing down details – for example, I was inspired by a 1784 portrait of Luise Auguste von Augustenburg to add puffed trim to the neckline ruffle.
My other source of inspiration for the trimming was the 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette with a rose by Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.
My Pinterest board also served as inspiration for my hair styling et cetera, and for the cap that I’d one day like to make to go with this dress, to more firmly ground it in the year 1783 and to make this dress better for day wear.
Anyway, on to the actual construction of the dress.
Before cutting apart my old dress, I decided to get a head start on roll hemming the ruffle for the petticoat, which was a good idea – if I remember correctly, my ruffle was 18 inches wide by 4.5 yards long, meaning that I roll hemmed about 10 yards of silk gauze. After congratulating myself and resting my hands, I folded the ruffle and put it away until I had a petticoat on which to put it.
Next came the fun part: cutting apart the old gown! I did this carefully, preserving the sleeves and unpicking one by one my stitches holding down the pleats at the back of the gown.
Somehow, the above photo is one of the only photos I have from the unpicking process. While deconstructing the old gown, I tried to reserve my pleated silk gauze trimming for the remake, but I realized that when I made the original gown, I didn’t know how to properly roll hem, so those scraps of silk gauze have been tucked away to be reused at a later date when I can redo their hems.
My next step was recutting the back bodice from the existing back bodice. However, when doing this, I made a mistake and didn’t include enough seam allowance, so the seam allowance on the fashion fabric of the back of my dress is really tiny, as are my stitches – I don’t want it to fray! The lining of the back of the bodice was cut from fresh linen, as the back lining of my old gown was not really suitable for my new gown, especially with a back point as dramatic as mine.
The back of the bodice was constructed with an English stitch per the American Duchess Guide, and it has two boning channels at the center back to keep the back point of the bodice stiff.
Next, I cut out the new bodice fronts and their linings. The bodice fronts on my old gown were too small, so I cut these pieces from some of the silk that I had left over from making the first gown, and the lining from fresh linen. I’m glad that I had so much fabric left over from the first time making this dress; it’s a good reminder to get an extra yard when possible. You never know when it will come in handy!
The bodice front lining was felled to the back lining, and then the bodice front was attached overtop, also with felling stitches.
Next, I finished the bodice all the way around the bottom edge and front edges with small stitches. I had to be especially careful around the back of the bodice because of my tiny seam allowance.
As you can see in the photo above, I cut one bodice front slightly wider than the other – this was to ensure that when I pinned the dress closed over my stays, the overlap would be even.
My next step was to cut out and attach the “zone front” of the bodice. This portion of the bodice functions mostly as an overlay, so it was unlined. Once I cut out the zone fronts, I hemmed the front edge, held them in place with basting stitches, and felled them to the side seams. The bottom edges of the zone fronts were folded under and basted in place.
Next, I added shoulder straps and fitted the sleeves (which remained unchanged from the old version of this gown). The fashion fabric for the shoulder straps was cut from one of the bodice front pieces from the old gown.
I then finished the neckline of the bodice with small running stitches, treating the zone front and the main part of the bodice as one. The of the back of the neckline was later bound with a scrap of silk.
I decided to trim the bodice before it became too cumbersome to handle with the skirts attached. Around the neckline, I gathered down some delicate lace from PenelopeTextiles on Etsy, and then I added a double-ruffle of roll hemmed silk gauze as a tucker.
I also added moire ribbon in light green to the neckline. Each puff of ribbon was gathered down and then attached.
Next, I trimmed the sleeves. First, I shortened them a few inches, which seemed to be more in line with the portraits I’d looked at for inspiration. Then, I roll hemmed and gathered some silk gauze around each cuff. I attached some of the lace left over from the neckline to the edge of each cuff, and then I finished it off with a small green bow.
At this point, I had already made the petticoat, but for the cohesiveness of this post, it makes more sense to discuss its construction now. I cut the petticoat from the few yards of silk I had remaining from when I made the first gown. The petticoat was constructed in the usual way which Lauren of American Duchess details here. However, before pleating the petticoat to the linen tape waistband, I added the gauze ruffle.
Attaching the ruffle was far more work and far more time-consuming than I had originally expected. First, I gathered my large roll-hemmed rectangle to a length of linen tape the length of the petticoat’s hem. I attached the ruffle with varying linen thread, pink silk thread, and white silk thread, because I had expected to cover the top of the ruffle with puffed trim (which I may still do).
Next, I stitched the linen tape with the ruffle to my petticoat. This will make it easier to remove if I ever want to use the ruffle to trim a different petticoat.
I realized as I was attaching the ruffle that it was about two inches too short. I suppose that I could have placed the ruffle so that the gap was at the back of the petticoat, but then the seam in the middle of the ruffle would have been visible at the center front of the petticoat, so I decided instead to take in the petticoat side seam.
After that was resolved, the petticoat was pleated to a linen tape waistband over my skirt supports to ensure that the hem was level, and the petticoat was thus completed.
Now, back to the main gown – all that it needed at this point was a skirt. The skirts from the first iteration of this gown were still operational, so I ended up just re-pleating them to fit the bodice of the new gown. I put the bodice and petticoat on my dress form and pinned the skirts in place so that the hem was level, after which the skirts were attached with whip stitches.
I had to do a little fiddling to hide the lining at the tip of the bodice back, but once that was accomplished, the bodice looked quite cleanly finished from the outside. The tops of the skirts are raw on the inside of the gown, but that is also seen on extant gowns, so I’m not going to worry too much about it.
Once the skirts were attached, I sewed in some ties so that I could pull up the skirts à la retrousée. With that completed, the gown was done, and just in time!
After consulting with some friends, I determined that I would not wear a cap. Instead, I used pomatum, powder, fake flowers, and ribbons to emulate the hairstyles I’d seen in portraits on my Pinterest board. In hindsight, I should have gone for a bigger hairstyle, but I can do that next time I wear this gown. I accessorized my gown with earrings, a locket, a bow at the center front, and a corsage (this was my prom dress, after all!).
Now for the photographs!
While there are a few things I’d like to change (adding puffed trim around the petticoat ruffle and possibly the cuffs to match the neckline, attaching a panel at the center front to make it fit a little bit better), all things considered, I am positively thrilled with how this dress turned out. I got to learn about remaking 18th century gowns in newer styles, just like the mantua-makers of the 18th century, I breathed new life into an old favorite gown, and I got to wear a dress that I loved to my senior prom. If you are considering remaking an old gown or suit, I highly recommend going for it!
Thank you for reading! Hopefully, I’ll be better at updating this blog in the coming months.