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….
Just to recap: I started the project in Spring 2014. Back then I figured out the pattern (scaling up Janet Arnold, fiddling with the pattern via a pet en l’air) and fiddled endlessly with a picture of the original in Photoshop to see which color would be the nicest. (The original yellow was beautiful on a blank dummy but would have turned me into Jaundiced Mary.)
I loved the greens but couldn’t find silk in those particular colors (and had no interest in experimenting with dyes.) I was lukewarm on the pinks (and ice cold on a virtual rainbow of not pictured colors) and was tired of working with red. So I settled on light blue.
After working a lot of other projects (including the trial Francaise aka the pet en l’air) I started on the gown in early September 2015. 2-3 weeks later I was finished with the basic gown. It took me another two months to finish trimming it.
For my trim I would draw a scallop pattern onto my fabric with trick marker, then cut along that pattern with a small scalloped pair of pinking scissors and sealed the edge with fray check. I had to do this for roughly 100 feet of fabric edge. To avoid damage to my hands, I did only cut a maximum of 8 feet a day. Anymore and I would have been out of commision for days.
I started with the sleeve ruffles because in my estimation they were the trickiest part. And if I was to fail with this project I wanted to know this as early as possible.
After cutting out some very huge ruffles, I pleated them into the correct shape.
Then I sewed down the pleats and then sewed all three ruffle tiers to the sleeves.
Then I prepared the pleated thing over the ruffles. The terrible thing about that trim is that it is very uneven in the original. So while I had the wonderful job to copy someone else’s randomness.
This proved to be a bit of a theme, because all the trim was slightly random and uneven. I could not stay true to my gown by being exact with my trim. I also couldn’t just wing it. I had to look and look and look to figure out the exact sort of randomness I was facing.
The next step were the trim along the manteau and the robings. Cutting those took about two weeks.
Unlike the sleeve ruffles, I had to pleat on the robe itself. Not only because I think that this was done with the original but also because it was the only way I could reliable copying that randomness in the right place.
This, too, took a while.
The next step was a fun one. The stomacher trim of my inspiration gown was full of slightly unusal and improvised trim. So in order to copy it and be as correct as possible, I actually did this:
After shaping all the flowers/clovers/random things, I applied the trim and my deathhead buttons (not pictured) to the stomacher:
Then I took a break, build my pannier and then got started on the petticoat:
I went with a width of 4 yards, which was a tad too generous, especially since the front had to be somewhat flat.
Then I cut scalloped trim once again and applied it to the petticoat:
At first I was tempted to leave it at one ruffle at the bottom but my original has three tiers, so after doing all this other stuff (random-not-random pleating! tiny deathhead buttons! weird clover trim!) there was no chance at all that I would give into temptation.
The last but not quite final step was the desperate attempt to iron and flatten down the pleats, so they would get the flattened look of the original. This was made more problematic by the fact that I have no interest in damaging the fabric, so I can’t iron this simply at the highest setting and pray that it will work.
But to be fair, I am fairly certain that the flattened look of the original is due to its age and not part of the original design. (And this isn’t sour grapes, because obviously that it’s the one thing that I absolutely failed to copy.)
But I know that if you pleat the trim the way it was pleated and your silk is crisp and new, it retains a certain fluffiness. And it’s exactly the sort of fluffiness that reads to me actually very “18th century”.
To get rid off that fluffiness I could either iron it down until I damaged the silk or I can wait until the silk loses its crispness (could take some serious time if I left the gown alone). I had a multitude of ways of trying to speed up the process artificially the silk (cleaning, washing, pressing, watering), but after 120 pure working hours on that gown, I refuse to experiment with it.
Finally I made some engageantes out of white embroidered cotton voile just so I could pose for a direct comparison picture.