18th Century · Art · Recreation

#TBF: Pretty in Pink

So, I said I was going to do some Throwback Thursday-posts, but yesterday was quite busy, with the opening of a new exhibition at work. That is why, this week, you are treated to a Throwback Friday instead!

In late January, I attended the Oslo Opera Ball with my good friend Torunn. It was a lovely experience, and one I would recommend (dancing! A large orchestra! Concerts! Sparkling wine! Lovely costumes!), but I needed an outfit, and for the first time in a while, I did not have to make something that fitted a specific time period or larp character…

The Love Birds by Joseph Caraud (French 1821-1905)

When I was new to larp and historical costuming (as in, brand spanking new), I found this painting, and fell in love with it. I’m not usually very pink as a person, but there is something about this painting that speaks to me. I decided that the time had finally come to make my own version of it.

I already had the materials. I had bought them when I first saw the painting. That means that I’d bought them when I was still on a student budget. Which, for me, usually means BEDLINENS.

“Milk sateng” bedlinens from Princess Norge
“Ciara sateng” bedlinens from Princess Norge

Don’t get me wrong, I love working with bedlinens. There is SO MUCH fabric in one duvet cover, and the quality is usually really good (after all, it’s made to be used and laundered multiple times)! I used two large, pink cotton satin duved covers and pillow cases, as well as one smaller, striped cotton satin one.

Now, when I fell in love with Caraud’s painting some years back, I was less aware of how contemporary fashion will always change the way artists depict old fashions, and while Caraud was born in 1821, when there were still people alive who remembered the wearing of grand Georgian gowns, he did most of his work between 1860 and 1900, when these garments were a strange and faint memory to most. He did like the 18th Century, most of his paintings seem to have been inspired by that period, but there are elements of the painting, such as the hairdo, the neckline, and the shape of the torso, that just scream 1890s evening wear to me. I therefore needed something more to base a sort-of-kind-of-reconstruction on.

Pink silk Robe àla Française from National Museums of Northern Ireland

I settled on this gown, from Northern Ireland, made from pink silk with self-fabric decoration and a buttoned up stomacher. The stomacher makes me think that the artist had seen this gown, or one very similar to it, himself. I used a mix of patterns and instructions from a variety of sources, but mainly Reconstructing History’s pattern RH821 and Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1.

I already had the underwear. I had a chemise, half-boned linen stays and a pair of small pocket hoops or panniers (those basket-like things that hang, one on each hip, making it look like you could birth triplets all at once and need to pass through every doorway sideways). However, I quickly realised something needed to be done with my fabric. It was nice, but waaaay to soft. The first thing I did, then, before lining the bodice or sewing the pieces together, was to iron fusable interlining to all pieces, including the big skirt pieces, to give the garment more hold and body. Took forever, but was definitely worth it!

The flatlined pieces pinned together on my dressform. Notice how much nicer the fabric falls than the un-lined piece that lays crumpled on the floor to the left!
For some reason, the back piece is a lot longer than the front skirt pieces…
One of the first things I did, was to pleat and sew down the back pleats. I wasn’t happy with the stitching on top, however, and later unpicked and re-did them.

I sewed the dress together first, and fiddled a little with the pleats on the sides of the skirt to make them look nice. Reconstructing History suggested pleating all the way around, but seeing as neither the painting nor the extant dress had pleats at the front of the gown, I tried to gather them all over the hips.

With the bodice sewn up, the skirts pinned to the back, and a possible opening pinned in place. This is with my stays and panniers. I’m not sure the lady in the painting is actually wearing panniers, but like I said, that painting was made over 100 years after these went out of fashion. The extant dress looks as if it has been worn with small hoops, like mine.

After fiddling with the skirts and sewing the garment up, I added sleeves. They are elbow-length, like the portrait and the extant gown.

The bodice is lined with white cotton, and the front opening is stiffened with synthetic whalebone. Here worn with my white linen petticoat.

These dresses have an opening up the back on the inside, “behind” the big back pleats so to say. This makes the width of the bodice somewhat adjustable, and is usually closed with either ties or lacing. I opted for ties.

The ties on the inside of an extant 1770s gown, courtesy of anticstore.co.uk
Back with redone and improved back dart seams

When my gown was one garment, rather than a number of pieces, I turned my attention to what should happen underneath it. As you might have noticed, it’s still a bit drafty… Gowns like these are almost like a weird jacket, you put it on like a coat, and lace it shut or pin it to your stays. As I wanted to try fastening my gown exclusively with pins, I had no lacing holes to sew, and could move on to what should go under the front opening of the bodice and skirt.

In the painting, as well as on the extant garment, the petticoat (so called, even if it is visible) and the stomacher (a triangular piece that goes underneath the front opening of the bodice, making it look as if I have a shirt or bodice on underneath) are made from the same pink fabric, so I decided to do the same. However, I really want to use this dress again later, maybe for a larp or another historical event, and I like to be able to mix and match and change up my outfits a bit. Seeing as petticoats with different fabrics in the front and back was not uncommon (usually a cheaper fabric in the back, where it wouldn’t be seen), I decided to make the back of the petticoat out of my striped cotton satin, and to make the stomacher two-sided, with pink ribbon and button decorations on one side, and stripes on the other.

The dress with the petticoat under, and a piece of pink fabric that will be made into the stomacher

I made the stomacher by lining the striped satin with cotton canvas, and making boning channels. I then stitched the pink fabric to it around the edges, right sides together, leaving the top open, turned and pressed. I inserted the boning (synthetic whalebone), folded the raw edges in and topstitched in place. I then decorated the pink side with some velvet ribbons I had laying around (… I actually have a lot of that around the house. If you have a good idea as to what I can make with 25 m of pink velvet ribbon, give me a shout!), as well as some buttons, and topped it all off with a neat little row of lace at the top, to make it look as if I have a very ruffled, lacy chemise underneath, that is juuuust peaking out over the top.

The gown with the stomacher underneath, before I attached the lace on top and the little black, velvet ribbon bow that you can see on the stomacher and sleeves in the painting

At this point in the process, I always lose my momentum and motivation. It just doesn’t look as good as I wanted it to, I am beginning to feel sick when I see the colour pink, the stomacher should have been wider… I find that the best way to combat the feeling of inadequacy and dissatisfaction is to go away from the project for a little while, watch a movie, read a book, do something else – and then, when you get back to it, start doing decorations. And so I did. And it worked!

I needed to decorate the gown, it looked way too simple and uncluttered. This is the 18th Century, Goddammit! No Scandinavian Minimalism here!

I decided to go for pleated decorations around the opening of my gown, as it was in the painting. Gathered or ruffled trim seems to have been more common in the period, but I have seen pleated trim too…

… such as on this 1750s gown. Photo courtesy of whitakerauction.smugmug.com

The way I chose to do it, was by fork. That’s right. Fork pleating. I’d read about it, and I wanted to try it. I used this youtube tutorial, and experimented a bit, and I’m very pleased with the result!

(Fun fact: This is the first time I’ve used the vintage silver pickle fork I have inherited from my great aunt. The size was perfect!)

After cutting, pleating and sewing together many many meters of trim, I pinned it to my gown, and graded it so that the trim on the skirts was wider than on the bodice, as it is in both the extant gown and the painting.

The gown with most of the trim pinned in place, as well as the silk chiffon flounces at the sleeves
The gown with all trim sewn on, as well as the lace and the bow on the stomacher

I had originally bought some pretty, almost see-through white silk chiffon for the flounces at the sleeves. However, I soon realized that it would not work, it was too soft and drapey, and layering them only weighted them down and made them even less fluffy. I replaced them with some made from thin cotton gauze, which worked really well! I also added a small pink flounce, and the black velvet ribbon bows.

And here are the images from the ball! Complete with mask, hair and all. All of these were taken by Torunn.

I was really pleased with how this dress worked out. It was also a really comfortable thing to wear. I put it on around 17:00, and was home and undressed by approximately 1:30 in the morning. By then my feet were a little sore, but apart from that, I was completely comfortable. The stays make moving and dancing easy, the dress was short enough to allow me to dance and walk and ascend staircases without any hassle, and the sleeves gave room for movement. The petticoat was tied on, but the stomacher was pinned to my stays, and the gown pinned to the stomacher, which worked a treat. I did not prick myself (or others), and they took the strain of the dress like champs!

I wore the dress with my Klaveness Eli bunad shoes (the closest I have to actual 18th Century shoes), a Barcelonian fan given to me by a friend several years ago, and a scull mask from 4everstore.

Next week, I will share my adventures into Edwardian underpinnings… but for now; sew straight seams, and be kind to others!

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