White Cotton 1797 Gown

Ok, this post is a long one, but I hope you’ll think it a good one.

I’m using this as my (slightly belated) entry for the HSM ’16 (Historical Sew Monthly) January challenge: procrastination. Doesn’t it just figure I’m a little late with it o_O

I started this dress for last year’s challenge: out of your comfort zone, back in……May? April? Something like that. Considering I was feverishly working on finishing my PhD thesis at that time I wasn’t about to take on a whole new branch of sewing/needlework for this challenge. Instead I decided to take on one historical sewing technique that had long fascinated me but I’d been unsure of trying for some reason. The technique is a particular way of seaming bodices in the late 18th century. It consists of finishing the separate pieces of the bodice with their linings and then sewing them together with a very scant seam allowance (you’ll see what I mean in a moment).

The style of the dress is from (goddess) Norah Waugh’s Cut of Women’s Clothes, the 1797 open gown:

I used the pattern largely as-is, adjusting just a little for size and making it a drop-front round gown as opposed to an open one (I didn’t have enough fabric for an open gown + matching petti and wanted something all white). I don’t know exactly how the extant gown from which the pattern was taken was sewn. I chose to use the method I did based off a very similar dress at the Museum of London I examined that used this seaming technique.

Like I said, it starts with lining the individual bodice pieces and clean finishing them:




The clean-finished bodice edges were then stitched together with a closely-spaced running stitch (backstitch and herringbone stitch were also used in the period, I think) taking up a seam allowance of 1/8″ or less:

2016-02-01 13.39.41

For comparison purposes, here’s an example of an extant dress seen the same way:


Manchester Galleries, Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall Acc# 1974.27

My seams are not quite as close to the edges as they ideally would be, but for a first try I’m pretty happy with how they turned out.

2015-12-19 21.07.07

As far as all that went things were good! The procastination came with working on the crossover fronts. The way Norah Waugh’s sketch looked to me, the fronts were meant to be slightly gathered along most theirbottom edges. However, when I tried that the result was not. good. Without gathering along the neckline, it created a weird rippling neckline edge. I tried gathering up the neckline as well by threading a cord through the hem edge, but that justmade the whole front look super dowdy. I camcto the conclusion that Waugh had drafted the piece incorrectly, that it should have had a curved bottm edge so that it could gather and the neckline would be fitted. Unfortunatle, this mean I needed new fronts, and because I had accidentally cut out 2 of each of the original front pieces I had no extra fabric except scraps. This is when the procrastination set in. I just could. not. be bothered to deal with it then, especially with all being hand sewn, and with both my thesis and our impending move to the US on my plate – I needed my sewing at that time to be relaxing, not frustrating. I put it away but allowed my subconcious to continue pondering the problem.

Fast forward to November/December and I finally started feeling willing to tackle this little beast again. I decided to take 2 of my fronts and graft a curved piece onto each trying to sew as unnoticeable a seam as possible. It wasn’t an ideal result. And gathering the bottom across its length was still looking weird to me somehow. Crestfallen, and feeling out of options because there was just no more fabric for this I decided to play with two of the first fronts again. And I figured it out!2016-02-01 13.55.28 Waugh’s pattern piece wasn’t wrong, her sketch was just misleading! The bottom edge of the fronts was only meant to be gathered up a little beneath the bust, to create the fitting over it. Duh. I felt dumb, but really relieved – it turned out to be such a blessing in disguise that I had cut 2 additional fronts way back at the beginning! Hallelujah, my dress was saved!

I went right on ahead with finishing constructing the bodice. The sleeves were another slight challenge, but a few tucks in the fronts near the bottom edge gave them some shaping they were lacking, and is a perfectly period technique. I should have used the sleeve lining piece rather than the sleeve piece from Waugh’s pattern. If I do this one again I will.

The sleeves were sewn to the bodice before the cross-over fronts were added, as they were meant to be applied over top of everything – as far as I could tell. This is also how the Museum of London dress I was referencing for construction was put together

2015-12-19 21.05.44

The skirt was just two lengths of the fabric stitched along the selvedges for the side seams, leaving an opening at the top for the front drape. Although I made mine a round gown I followed the pattern’s diagram for pleating the back, I think it’s quite a smart look!

I made a few new undergarments to wear with this, partially because the only petticoat I had was a quick & dirty make from a dark ivory old bedsheet remnant that would have looked quite bad under the sheer white dress, and partially to add extra fullness to the back of the skirt a la late 1790s silhouettes:

1796 Journal des Luxus und der Moden1796 Journal des Luxus und der Moden:

1796 Journal des Luxus und der Moden

I made a petticoat just with shoulder straps:

Then a bodiced one:

2016-02-05 10.25.01

(I like how the stitching turned out looking on the bodiced petti)

To put underneath it all I experimented a little and made a bustle pad that ties onto the back of my stays:

It works a treat to fill-in the small of my back and add just that little bit of volume…..unfortunately it’s REALLY HOT.

So, now here’s everything put together……the setting isn’t *quite* correct, but you work with what you have, right? And at least the new loveseat is *slightly* plausible! Ha!

White 1797 gown (1)

White 1797 gown (2)



The jewellery is a necklace and earring set from Dames a la Mode and the shoes are a pair of Pemberlies from American Duchess.


Here’s a sort of close-up of the back skirt pleating. It’s stacked box pleats that meet at the bodice back seams.

Clearly, I need some Neo-Classical décor for the mantle.


Just lounging around….you know, as one does.


Why yes, Madame Recamier IS a friend of mine…….why do you ask?


And finally…….Just the Facts Ma’am:

The Challenge: Procrastination

Material: Cotton and linen (for the bodice lining)

Pattern: 1797 open gown in Cut of Women’s Clothes by Norah Waugh

Year: 1797

Notions: thread (silk for most of it, linen thread for the bodice lining), shell buttons, cotton tape for ties

How historically accurate is it? 95-99%

Hours to complete: Who knows!?

First worn: To a Twelfth Night Ball in early January (with an open robe overtop – post to come!)

Total cost: Hmmm…..everything was from stash….I’ll guesstimate the total was around $30 Canadian

10 thoughts on “White Cotton 1797 Gown

  1. Very well done – it looks absolutely lovely on you and I see no problems with the fit. I’ve been eyeing this gown for some time and perhaps your success will inspire me to give it a try. Thanks for a great post, too. I appreciate seeing the “how to” behind the scenes.


  2. It is always amazing that a difficulty will be challenging, unsolvable, utterly inscrutable – and then it resolves itself in such swiftness, it’s like a box of marbles fell off a table and rolled themselves into a perfect pyramid. Never would have seen it coming and in such a hurry.
    And such a lovely result to land on your loveseat. If you hadn’t covered the loveseat, this never would have happened.


  3. Oh, well done! I had seen some stuff on that construction technique, it looks pretty interesting. Though not terribly forgiving of fitting as you go! 😉

    I love the overall look—so period. Makes me want to dig out the white muslin I was waffling over last fall. Maybe come spring, if I can get over this 1880s thing. 😉


  4. Love this gown!. I am about to embark on my own white muslin round gown!. Question about the fullness of the skirt.: What width was the fabric that you used just two drops for the skirt?. Thanks!. I love your blog.


    • Hi there, this dress is based off of a pattern in the Norah Waugh book “The Cut of Women’s Clothes”. It’s in the 18th century section of cutting diagrams – it’s a scaled down pattern taken from an original garment in a museum. The stays pattern came from another book, Jill Salen’s “Corsets” book with photographs and patterns also taken from original garments in museums and private collections. For things like petticoats, those are just made from panels of fabric gathered up and attached to waistbands or a little sleeveless bodice. A helpful resource may be the new American Duchess book on 18th century sewing as it includes pieces for a late century ensemble not so very different from mine.


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