Its time for me to make myself a new gown for 18th century living history (which is to say, for work).* My old one is developing a “well loved” look (and smell), and besides, I think I’ve earned it, as this gown is a good four years old.
The plan is to make a Robe a l’Anglaise – the workhorse of Anglo-American fashion for the bulk of the 18th-century. This fashion derives from the loosely-pleated, turn-of-the-century Mantua, and retains that garment’s initial concept: the fit is created by pleating the material around the body; the structure comes from the undergarments – stays and petticoats – worn beneath.
By the 1770’s, the main variant on this style (which closes over a triangular panel known as a “stomacher”) is shockingly common among most classes of women. It is also surprisingly consistent – though materials vary, and gowns survive for women of disparate body types, the basic gown remains the same. The contrarian in me insists this cannot be so. To this end, I have been looking into The Details, in an attempt to understand exactly how wide the gown-gamut runs. I’m not going to tell you what I discovered, however, because the most interesting discovery was completely antithetical to my original research question.
My biggest impression from looking into this topic was that the construction of the robe a l’Anglaise remained notably uniform. Though high fashion went through innumerable changes in the long 18th-century, there is surprising consistency in this one style of gown throughout the five middle decades, from the 1720’s through the 1770’s. Take these two gowns, dated 1725 and 1770-75 respectively:
Though slight additional differences become apparent on the fronts, the backs of these gowns are alike in almost every detail.**
I find this remarkable, not because I cannot imagine the fashion enduring, but because I struggle to think of the construction not evolving. As a skilled maker myself, I am always striving to improve how something is done, or even just to change it to make my life more interesting. Gown- or Mantua-making was a trade, passed down through apprenticeship. Each mistress of the trade passed down her knowledge by way of experiential learning. At 7 years per apprenticeship, this style endured for over 9 generations of tradeswomen, and through those many generations, few artisans saw fit to change or improve the method.
I struggle to wrap my head around this consistency, found in gowns made by diverse women over multiple generations and continents. Perhaps my modern education has taught me to place too much faith in book learning, and because of this I discredit the ability of an apprenticeship system to pass down utterly consistent instruction. Possibly I place too much value on creativity, to the detriment of tradition. Certainly I take away from this little thought experiment a new respect for the craftswomen who built these garments. I also have new respect for the enduring style they perpetuated, and the construction methods they used. It it hard to doubt something which required next-to-no improvement for half a century.
*I believe in being specific, especially when it comes to history, so: this gown will be used for low- and middle-class civilian and army wife impressions in the 1770’s (and maybe 1760’s), New England and New York.
**I’m happy to quibble about this in the comments, if you like. I certainly see differences. It is just that I am more surprised by the similarities.