15 April 2013

The Crazy Brown Gown

For ages I've wanted to copy this gown that's in the collection at the Newport Historical Society...

As some of you know, it's crazy because it front closing and it has robings. I was fortunate to obtain fabric that's a close match to the original--a dark brown silk/linen blend that has a great weight and nice sheen--and I was able to tag along during a research appointment to see it up close. A 2013 New Year's resolution was to recreate this gown as closely as possible and last week I finished--sort of. Here's how it came together...

Getting started was the same as any other English gown, though I made a new bodice pattern mimicking the "bib" shape from the front of the original.

Eventually it was all pleated, sewn and mostly constructed. (This process is much slower going now that my toddler has discovered the joys of climbing.)

As you can kind of see in the photo above, I goofed slightly on the center back pleats which I didn't realize until I was setting in the sleeves. The pleat on the left is slightly wider than the right pleat, which throws off the symmetry. Knowing that 18th century gowns were constructed without meticulously measuring pleats, and that there are a different number of skirt pleats on the opposite side of gowns, I'm trying to convince myself that this isn't an error.

I tried to use as many details from the original as I could:
1) There's no lapped seam on the sleeve...
2) ...but there's a lapped seam attaching the bodice to the center back panel.
3) The skirt pleats are quite wide, they're more like knife pleats and not the tiny, tight pleats I often associate with extant gowns.

Of course I ran into a few road blocks! I thought I had taken copious notes after viewing the original gown along with detailed research photos. However I asked myself many construction questions that I couldn't answer as thoroughly as I would like, i.e.: what's going on with those crazy robings?

I initially made them the same size as the robings from my red damask gown last summer, which were 2 inches wide, but that didn't work for this project. As you can see in the arrow above, it was too short. And when I compared it to the original, this version isn't wide enough. I remade them at 3 inches wide and 6 inches longer. When I sewed them, I made them as tubes with the right side out (not the kind you sew and reverse) with a lapped seam and I used a running stitch for the first time on an 18th century gown. 

View of the left robing attached to the top of the center back panel.

I attached the crazy robings as one piece with the shoulder strap. There's no lapped seam here on the original so I backstitched it on at 12 SPI to make sure it's (hopefully) strong enough and won't pop off.

I then tried it on to determine the right fit for closing the center front.

At this point in the fitting, the robings reminded me of leading strings from a child's gown as I had not yet tacked them to the shoulder straps. : )

I chalked the eyelet holes. I didn't think to count the number of eyelets on the original. I ended up with 15 on each side, which are about 1in apart.

To close the gown, I tea stained cotton tape.

 I used three tea bags and soaked it for 24 hours...

...which turned the tape a nice antique beige color. From there, I thought I was ready for Saturday's event: Battle Road. But I wasn't.

Image courtesy Kitty Calash.

The eyelet holes need to be stretched out to fit the cotton tape, which I didn't have the patience to do when running late and trying to get the family out the door. I resorted to China silk ribbon which, as we all know, isn't very strong or sturdy. As you can see in the photo above, the bodice puckered terribly. This may be a result of how I laced it--I zigzagged one long ribbon across rather than weaving two ribbons like an "X" from a pair of sneakers. I also think the bodice closing could benefit from something to give it extra strength, such as a few boning channels (like a child's back lacing gown) or a lining with a sturdier fabric.

Another "pucker up" photo.

For improvement:
  • I need to decide which method I'll use to fix the puckering. 
  • The original has fun cuffs, so I need to finish drafting my pattern and add that.
  • The original also has a linen ruffle along the front and sleeves, which I could add though I'm not sure I will.
  • I also need to find a system for being prepared when viewing an original gown. A comprehensive checklist or outline would work for this reminding me to look at details like how wide are the skirt panels, how many pleats are on each side, how do the robings attach, etc.

Overall I can't say that this is my favorite gown. I know it's a transitional style that dates to the mid 1770s (the NHS has dated it c1775) but I'd like to determine a more precise year so I know which events it is best suited for. Does anyone know of any extant gowns in museum collections or antique dealers' archives for comparison purposes?


  1. what a fascinating gown! i wish i had some answers for you, but i look forward to seeing what you discover :)

    1. Thanks! When, and if, I uncover more about this style gown I will share it. : )


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