Before I start with the story of how I got there, I want to talk about what I am actually doing.
The concept of a court gown seems so easy to define – until you ask “which court”. Mine is obviously inspired by a painting of a British princess of the 1720s, so the answer should be pretty obvious.
The court gown that people do think of when they actually bother to think about it all, is the court gowns that still exist in their complete form – the three in from the Swedish Royal Armoury. They are not merely court gowns – each is by all definitions of the term a “grand habit de cour”, the court gown as worn by the French court.
The French Court was very wasteful when it came to fashion. There is a reason why no other French court gown has survived in its entirety – it was absolutely unthinkable to wear one twice. Madame de Polignac had to stay away from a wedding once because she couldn’t afford to wear a new grand habit.
That also meant that they were not meant to last. The description of their decorations in the later 18th Century sound more like still life paintings (even fake vegetables decorated those big skirts) than textiles and were thus pretty fragile. The Swedish gowns come from an early era were the fabric was the eye-catcher and decorations were not much of an afterthought.
The court gown in France consisted of three main parts: the boned bodice, the petticot and the train. It was pretty mandatory to wear them with double-sided sleeve ruffles, the palatine (the lace/silk gaze around the top of the bodice) and high heeled mules. The width and shape of the petticoat varied, depending on the fashion. From 1730 onwards though, the petticoat was pretty big.
I will be honest about my gown – I have fabric for a petticoat (not a super-wide one, mind you) but I don’t have fabric for the train. And to be even more honest – I have no interest in recreating a train.
Pattern-wise, a train for a Grand Habit is the second most simple 18th Century garment you can make. (#1 is a fichu.)
Even a shift is more difficult. I feel not challenged by making a train, yet I would feel very challenged wearing one. And – lucky me – my inspirational dress has no train.
And also…. lucky me, I have finished what makes the grand habit so little fun, pattern-wise…
So here is what has happened since I started putting the boned pieces together…
I made 32 eyelets, pinned on the shoulder straps and then tried it on.
It fit, so I sewed down the seam allowances, so they don’t rebel and ruin the shape of the garment from inside.
What you can see in the second picture, is what is really fascinating and complicated about this bodice: the boned shoulders straps make this whole thing like a piece of architecture. Suddenly there is so much internal pressure on the bodice that its front is elevated by 6-7 inches instead of staying flat when you put the back together.
So from thereon on, you always have to work with the dynamic. It’s weird.
Then I started on my fashion fabric. Marked it, cut it out, put it together, and sewed down the seam allowances. I didn’t try to match the fabric. I only took care that the front had a somewhat… kind of… symmetrical and nice part of the pattern and cut the back edge to edge. Everything else was cut with the least amount of fabric waste.
Everything though was cut on the straight grain except for the sleeves and shoulder straps which were supposed cut on the cross grain. (The same is true for the boned bodice fabric and the lining.) One of those low-res internet pattern indicated that this might be important. I can’t tell you if it is.
I did cut the sleeves on the straight grain since I altered the pattern to resemble a pair of sleeves on a different bodice (with straight grain sleeves).
Then I covered he tabs in the fashion fabric. I didn’t use tape to bind them before or after because it wasn’t done in some of the Swedish court dresses that were my reference. I also got rid of the two tabs at the front of the bodice. I had realized by then that they served no practical function. They are supposed to be decorative but I wasn’t feeling them.
Then I covered my boned bodice with my fashion fabric bodice – which was unhemmed at this point (aside from the center back), just as at least two of the Swedish bodices are. I left the center back open (otherwise the lacing wouldn’t be able function).
Then I lined the bodice. This step was necessary since my fabric is fairly thick, so turning it over twice was not practical. Since my fabric also frays, its edge had to be protected. Hence the lining. With a different fabric, one that allows better edge protection, and a different take on the busk and the interlining, lining is not actually necessary.
Then I tried to try it on.
The problem was that I could not raise my arms higher than 55 degrees. In the photos you see the actual maximum angle. More is not possible. (In a way I think this is the actual learning moment with this historical gown. That it was literally constructed to inhibit very basic movement.)
This made lacing myself into this thing difficult. I settled for “it’s unfinished anyway, and I can feel that it will fit, so I’ll stop now”.
Then I did the sleeves. I altered the pattern that I had; guessed what width I would need and then guesstimated the position of the sleeves. Inserted them, sewed them on and ended up with this: