A lot of people (like me) love to throw the term around but it’s seriously ill-defined, so let me explain to you what makes it so special that buying it new starts in the three figures a yard.
Okay, fun fact: I have done a lot of stuff recently that I didn’t document making all that well.
These three things are really special though because it’s basically three times of “that pattern wasn’t quite right.”
The Ikea Swallowtail Jacket
I made this with an Ikea Ljusöga pillowcase based on the Swallowtail Jacket at Colonial Williamsburg, using the pattern from Costume Close-Up. It was supposed to be a quick and dirty project. Which became kind of funny when I realized that I had made this one for +6′ tall person and had to alter everything to fit my smaller frame.
One key element was that I wanted the lacing in the front and I wanted that lacing to be functional. But I didn’t wanted the functional lacing to go through the fashion fabric. So I put the lacing holes into an extra linen strip directly under the open sides of the front. That means though that I have to pin the fashion fabric to the strip after lacing, otherwise the lacing holes would show because the fashion fabric layer just doesn’t lay flat.
The stomacher is lined in red, which means I can turn it around, change the lacing to a white silk and get a whole new look. (I have not done this, despite wearing the jacket at one event twice.)
I also made a red petticoat that was supposed to allow some rough handling. It did handle mud okay. But it doesn’t dry very quickly which is not good.
A Riding Habit (ugh)
I basically went for the first worsted wool fabric that looked okay-ish and that was a mistake. I ended up with a really heavy fabric whose feel I didn’t like.
So when I messed up the pattern and ended up missing about 4 inches at my waist, I made the choice (wrong one, obviously) to not undo that and add another fabric piece at the side sesams but rather leaving it open, only held together in the middle of the chest area. (I wanted to be done with that jacket. (Again: mistake.) This meant that I had to make a vest and shirt for sure (instead of cheating), line the jacket’s lapels in light blue silk and alter it further and further.
So this is my vest and shirt on my dummy double (without the buttons and the buttonholes):
And these are these things worn by me:
And I love them.
Unfortunately, this is the riding habit itself:
And I hate it.
It makes my waist look as large as my boobs which is actually ridiculous, it sits awkwardly on my hips, the sleeves look like they will tear themselves out of their armholes when I actually wear it and it weighs 5+ pounds. (Not awesome if you’re travelling.)
I actually stuffed it in the bottom of my closet. (Anyone wants an ugly, heavy riding habit?)
Ironically I was actually assured that this worsted wool fabric will last forever. The worsted news.
A hand-printed cotton Anglaise
I also made a Robe à l’Anglaise out of handprinted Indian cotton (which used plant-based dyes) which is so historically correct that I felt I should have worn a sign that said as much along with it.
The funny thing about this dress was finished so quickly that I failed to document much of the process.
The thing was that the cotton was very thin, so I lined the entire robe. (Linen in the bodice, thin cotton for the rest.)
I added the elbow sleeve thingies because I made the sleeves a bit too short. Unfortunately I was so out of fabric that it was all pieced. (That’s why the petticoat is a cheat petticoat that only used the fabric where it showed.) To cover up the pieced-ness of the elbow things I added a bit of ruffle which was even more pieced.
Me wearing it (I fixed the small gap since then.)
I started looking at a lot of caps and my favorite was the combination of silk lampas and gold lace. I have found none of these in aristocratic portraits of adult women, so this cap is fabulously unsuited to go with, like, 95 percent of my 18th century wardrobe. But the heart wants what it wants, right?
The pattern was an alteration of a Duran Textiles cap pattern that I further altered on the cap itself after the one corner looked way too harsh.
I flatlined the three pieces individually with a firm cotton (I had ran out of linen):
And then I sewed everything together with small backstitches. For some reason this took me 3 hours. (Addmittedly, I watched tv while doing this which never helps.)
Then I applied the vintage gold lace by sewing both the inner and outer edge of the lace to the cap.
And that was it:
And to give you an idea of its dimensions; that’s what it looks like when it’s worn:
For some reason I really love 18th century regional caps. More than I actually love the white linen/cotton/silk caps. I blame childhood trauma caused by a truly ugly costume cap my sister owned but that’s a different story.
Those 18th regional caps are usually made of very nice material: silk lampas, silk damask, silk velvet, embroidered silk, silk with lace… you see where this goes. Apparently the laws on who was allowed to wear what material was really lax when it came to head coverings. And those caps didn’t really need a lot of fabric.
Since I have never done one of these, I didn’t wanted to start making one out of silk lampas, so I made one out of plain silk. This was obviously inspired by this particular painting:
My interpretation of that painting is that she is wearing a white cap under her silk cap instead of merely attaching the lace to silk cap. This would allow her to clean one and not the other.
I used the pattern from Duran Textiles. I lined the back of cap with heavy cotton. I interlined the cap brim with a heavy cotton and then lined it in linen. Then I attached the brim to the back:
I decided to distribute the pleats more even around the brim instead of pleating it solely at the back.
Then I carefully attached a piece of antique Valenciennes lace I had in my stash over the brim. The piece had exactly the length that was needed. I didn’t have to hide or stretch or cut anything. The thing about Valenciennes lace is that it’s only type of lace where 19th and 18th century styles are pretty hard to distinguish so it looks pretty accurate although my guess is that’s late 19th century Valenciennes.
Under that cap I put a white cotton/linen cap.
It was a fun project, so I already gathered the materials for my next cap project:
I finished the court gown. And yes, I ended up adding a small train.I was out of my original fabric (which I knew from the very beginning) so I just used a gold-colored silk taffeta. I kept it short so it could be actually worn in public without causing accidents, leaving it to drag on the ground a little (it was lined) but not by much. So in the end, it did end up being a grand habit de cour.
I finished this last December but things happened, so I’ll have to try to remember what I did there.
My inspiration came from one particular jacket – which was featured in the Revolution in Fashion 1715 – 1815 exhibition and catalogue and has since then been sold to a Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin.
The fun fact about the Revolution in Fashion exhibition catalogue is that 98 percent of the 18th century part of Kyoto Costume Institute’s Fashion book is that exhibition catalogue minus all the stuff that came from a private Swiss collector. Who sold his collection in the mid-oughts to that Berlin museum which explains the wandering jacket. Once you know that you begin to see how awkwardly cropped some of the images in Fashion are.
This jacket is not particular original though, similar museum’s pieces are a dime a dozen which is why Janet Arnold has pretty much a ready-made pattern for this jacket. The only difference between Arnold and this jacket is actually the button placement.
The inspiration jacket is made out of silk lampas which I didn’t have in small amounts at the time. I looked and looked – and funnily enough I kept looking even after I started the jacket, which netted me my court gown project – and then decided to use the leftover fabric from the blue Francaise.
I approached this jacket with some sort of “let’s not spend too much time on this” mindset, which became a bit of a joke once I moved on to the stomacher.
This jacket required interlining and it really made a difference. Janet Arnold asked for felt but I used a thin but really stiff cotton fabric. It worked out quite well.
So when I thought I was finished with the jacket, I was kind of in doubt about the stomacher. I thought about doing a lampas stomacher or some sort of lacing but basically I always ended up with the idea that the only correct choice would be an embroidered one.
I decided to embroider it blue silk on blue silk – which was technically possible but for which I could not find any period example for a stomacher. White on white existed, silver/gold on colored solid ground existed, color on white existed but if blue on blue did exist, it has left no trace. (EDIT: Blue silk embroidery on blue silk did exist around 1750.) To be fair, if I had to redo it, I would do it in silver. Oh, well.
The stitches are chain stitches for the outlines of the flowers and the vines, and satin stitches for everything else. Two of the big flowers are padedd though and the third one uses short satin stitches. Also obvious: overreliance on trick marker.
The basic pattern comes from 18th Century Embroidery Techniques by Gail Marsh and the idea to use large satin stitches for the top and bottom flower I took from existing embroidered waistcoats.
When I was finished with the stomacher I realized that I didn’t have a fitting petticoat, so I made one as well. I also embroidered the buttons with little flowers. A painful process – not because of the embroidery – but because the “getting the embroidered fabric pieces centered on the button” part.
Finally, I failed to take decent pictures of me wearing that dress.
The gown that inspired me, is described by its museum as “the apogee of the form [of the robe à la française].”
That description alone made this gown such an ambitious project. It intimidated me and it still does. But it also challenged me. I am doing a court gown out of lampas silk for the same reason – if I spend so much time on a project… why not go all out?
So how was it made….
The sleeves of the robe de cour are kinda same-y everywhere and yet not. Basically, it’s layers of pleated white ruffles, some of go upwards and some go downwards. There is logic to this madness but it’s not entirely uniform. I based my sleeves on Janet Arnold’s pattern and went with the material of that gown’s sleeves – which is silk gauze.
I considered using lace. But there is not a lot of lace that is authentic to use – in fact, authentic lace tends to be of the period. And I have some issues with using things that are of the period for reenacting the period. Especially, if it requires those things’s alteration and possible destruction. I mean some 18th century stuff is pretty indestructible. Textiles – especially fragile lace – is not.
But silk gauze was easy to get a hold of and it is 100 percent authentic and can easily be replaced if it gets damaged. Of course, as always, I abused my fray check to keep the edges from unravelling.
The base on which I mounted the silk gauze is a golden silk taffeta that matches the color of the gown. It became fairly invisible though after all the pleats were attached.
The palatine – the neckline ruffle – was more of the same, except here my base was the bodice itself.
Then I got started on the petticoat. The funny thing is that I realized that none of my existing petticoat supports had any chance of not collapsing under the weight of the fabric. So the actual first step was building panniers. This was boring to make, so I didn’t even take pictures.
Then I started on the petticoat for real.
The petticoat I ended up with was some kind of a cross between Arnold’s pattern and my British princess painting. It’s wider than the British princess (because it turned out that I had just that much fabric.) but much narrower and with more pleats than Arnolds.
After finishing the skirt, I added hem protection because I know this fabric. In direct contact with the ground it will not do well.
Then I tried it on:
And came to realize that it was missing a few essential features that I didn’t thought would matter. Like that string at bottom of the bodice or some decoration. Or a ladies maid who would help me closing it completely in the back. (Which I didn’t manage there.) Can’t do anything about the latter but the former I started working on.
It’s hard to read because stitching at this size is not easy but they say: “Deux estions et n’avions qu’ung cuer.” Which is a verse by Francois Villon, a French poet and ne’er-do-well from the 15th Century, and translates roughly as “we were two but with one heart” which for a pair of garters has an entirely different meaning.
The embroidery is chain stitching for the outlines, satin stitches on the leaves and backstitching on the writing. The fabric is silk taffeta, the thread buttonhole silk and the ribbon is silk too. Only the backing (not pictured) to give the main part some additional stability is a ribbon out of cotton.
The background fabric is a my court gown petticoat which I am currently wrestling with. I am not sure it is that difficult because I am afraid of wasting/ruining my fabric or if it’s just the usual “I am nearly finished, so why actually finish” fatigue. (I mean I am one sleeve decoration away from finishing a cotton robe anglaise, so there is that.)
Very late into doing the grand habit de cour, I figured out how to access Janet Arnold’s article on Princess Sophia Magdalena’s wedding dress from 1766, as published in Costume, the journal of the Costume Society, Issue #1 (1967), p.17-21.
I had no idea what I would find in these five pages, maybe some blahblah, maybe that one bare-bones semi-informative cutting diagram that still hangs around somewhere on the internet, maybe some line drawing.
Instead I got this:
Page 17 was a brief description of the dress, page 18 was a line drawing of the bodice with emphasis on the interior (this is the only part of this article that actually can be found on the internet), page 19 is a line drawing of the front and back of the complete dress and pages 20-21 are a cutting and boning diagram of all layers (bodice/petticoat/train) and the gauze sleeves and neckline gauze (palatine).
The only thing that was missing unfortunately was the hooped petticoat (the Livrustkammaren has one, but apparently for a different robe de cour). So if you want to do a robe de cour and need a pattern… well, you can try to find an old copy of this issue of Costume (apparently there was a re-issue) or you can become a member of the Costume Society and grab a digital copy of any of their journal’s back issues.
(Which by the way have other nice patterns, like Janet Arnold’s pattern for the 1660s gown in Bath’s fashion museum or some really intriguing original non-Norah Waugh boning layouts for 18th Century stays in one of their 2000s issues.)
So what does this mean for my robe? Well, first of all my boning layout is pretty good. The major differences are that the boning layer and the fashion layer are not identically cut and that there are more additional bones in the tabs (
I don’t know how that works actually – I couldn’t have fit more in mine. Edit: the bones are split vertically in the tabs. Reading is always key.) And that on the back of the shoulder straps there are a few horizontal bones. Also the fabric is finely corded white silk. Which mine isn’t.
Things that I got right: I have 5mm wide bones, Arnold says the bones in the bodice are 3/16 inches wide which translates to 4.7625mm which is extremely close. 0.24mm is so small that I cannot actually find a good comparison, even the thickness of your fingernail is likely to be greater.
My boning layout in general is pretty on actually. Adding the fashion fabric tabs independently of the main part of the fashion fabric is correct. Adding interlining is good (although I could have added more.) Sewing down the seams is also correct.
All in all, there is no major snafu.
So what does this mean for the rest of the gown?