A Style Needing No Improvement

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.

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Grunge: The current state of my [past] wardrobe.
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.

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Mantua, Late 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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:

 

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Gown, 1725
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Gown, 1770-75

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.

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12 thoughts on “A Style Needing No Improvement

  1. Apologies for blatant plugging… but Kochan & Phillips historic textiles have just produced some single coloured Camblet stuffs… might be of interest to you as an 18th C working class type textile suitable for making gowns of this type.

    It’s a ribbed worsted which seems to have been made as a cheaper alternative to ribbed silks.

    It’s not on the website yet but if you get in touch they can send you more information.

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    1. Hello Batley,

      I look forward to having a look at the new K&P camlet. I’ll be curious to see what kind of hand it has. This particular project is already underway (in a hideous light-weight pink worsted which gives me no end of amusement). Pictures likely forthcoming.

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  2. Looking forward to seeing your blog develop. If I’m not mistaken I may have seen you in a video or two? I remember thinking that your job looked incredibly interesting so I’m glad to see you are giving us all a glimpse into your world!

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  3. I wish that back was still The Thing. It’s the most attractive style on more body types ( like, all) than anything before or since. Those pleats are things of beauty.

    Will you use the Larkin and Smith pattern for your new one?

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    1. Hello Colleen,

      It is indeed a beautiful line, though I am not sure it would be quite so becoming without the stays and petticoats to support it. Frankly, I am happy to sacrifice the beauty of some styles for the convenience of not tripping as I walk up stairs, and not having to struggle to put my shoes on after my stays. There is a reason this fashion endured for fifty years, and not 250, and part of it is that our society has evolved, and we no longer expect women to weigh themselves down quite so heavily with the thick fabric of patriarchy. But I digress into the dark waters of pissy feminist ranting. Back to your comment: No, I will not use the Larkin and Smith pattern. It irks me to use other people’s patterns. And I’d like it to have a few different details, and slightly longer lines than I feel that pattern produces.

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  4. The craft of the mantua maker is one that unfortunately is not as easily studied as that of the tailor, but there are some references that I have found to some of the trade craft used by mantua makers. Some of the techniques used to make a gown are using a pair of stays, an old gown, taking the measure, and yes, even patterns. What I have not yet found are references to draping or more correctly stated, cutting on the body. It would be helpful if we could add to our knowledge of this blurry topic, with any references you have to that particular technique? I am adding links to those references that I have found that deal with fitting and making English gowns. Unfortunately there are not as many as we would like, but there are some. http://thegoldenscissors.blogspot.com/2015/10/trade-craft-mantua-maker-taking-measure.html
    http://thegoldenscissors.blogspot.com/2015/11/trade-craft-mantua-maker-more.html
    http://thegoldenscissors.blogspot.com/2015/10/trade-craft-mantua-maker.html

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  5. I appreciate the lived-in look of your “old” outfit. With constant exposure to wood smoke and ash, general lack of paving, and the vehicle “emissions” of the time, clothes likely became much more filthy than they do in these antiseptic times. Laundry day was something to be avoided (speaking as someone who has had to wash a week ‘s worth of clothes by hand on more than one occasion- with access to unlimited hot water). Sometimes reenactors’ clothes look as if they had just stepped out of a tailor’s or mantua-makers’, which isn’t really accurate. I wear my axle grease stains with pride, and treasure every view of a patched or otherwise repaired piece of clothing I see at a event.

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  6. The thought that first popped into my mind is: “Hey, the same thing is true of handmade Scottish kilts!”

    Comparing a kilt sewn in 1930 and 2016 shows no difference in method of construction, style, and fabric. Kilt-making is also an apprentice-trained activity. Kilts have evolved, but that evolution has been deliberately retarded around the stage reached at 1900.

    What doesn’t make sense is why a particular style of dress would do the same.

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