‘1 Nightgown new made’: A Practical Investigation of Eighteenth-Century Clothing Alteration PART 2 (of 3)

This is the second of three posts on a recent “alteration reproduction” project I completed for exhibition at this year’s CSA Symposium in Williamsburg back in March. If you’re just joining, you can check-out Part 1 here to see what this is all about!

For quick reference, this is the gown I altered:

This post details:

Phase 2: Alteration Process

(aka – the really scary part!) I drafted a projected list of steps to complete the task:

Projected Steps

  1. unpick neckline trim
  2. remove sleeve cuffs
  3. unpick robings and back neck yoke
  4. unpick sleeve heads
  5. unpick skirt
  6. unpick back bodice pleats
  7. narrow back bodice pleats
  8. unfold robings
  9. make new bodice fronts
  10. make shoulder straps
  11. re-mount sleeve heads; stitch down sleeve cap pleats (?)
  12. re-sew/finish neckline
  13. re-pleat skirt
  14. add ties to skirt interior
  15. re-mount skirt to bodice
  16. make sleeve extensions
  17. mount and trim sleeve extensions
  18. re-trim bodice

I was on a tight schedule to get this project done in time for the symposium (as I also had a paper to write to present) so within 2 days of taking photos of the 1760s version of the gown I had to start cutting, un-picking and altering. It took a bit of nerve-stealing but I managed it!

As I progressed through the work I re-ordered and modified the list of steps to reflect the actual work and their order:

Actual Steps

  1. Unpick the neckline trim

2. Remove the falling cuffs from the sleeves.

3. Unpick the robings, back neck yoke and sleeve heads (all goes together).

4. Unfold the robings.

5. Unpick the back bodice pleats.

Note that I left the centre back seam intact, for the moment at least. Also that the fabric remained anchored to the lining at the side back seams.

6. Alter the centre back bodice seam.

I had hoped to be able to just re-position the ‘en fourreau’ bodice pleats but it looks like I made them too deep – possibly deeper than they would have been in the period – and so there was just too much fabric in the bodice back and some of it had to come out in order to achieve narrower back pleats.

7. Narrow the back bodice pleats.

Note how this change now creates a space between the ‘en fourreau’ pleating and the beginning of the skirt pleating. So, presumably, re-arranging the skirt pleats as part of these kinds of alterations may have been a matter of necessity as well as fashion-related. It appears that ‘en fourreau’ pleats were almost, if not actually always used to “hide” the junction where the skirt started being pleated into the bodice. Thus, a space between the two, as resulting from narrowing the back ‘en fourreau’ pleats would necessitate re-working the back waistline and skirt pleating. This led directly to the next steps:

8. Unpick the skirt.

9. Cut into the back waist.

10. Re-pleat the skirt.

11. Re-mount the skirt to the bodice.

12. Re-sew the lining inside the waist.

I failed to get a picture of this but the bottom edge of the bodice lining was turned back under and stitched back onto the pleated skirt to clean-finish the bodice interior.

13. Make new bodice fronts – silk layer.

Full disclosure: I don’t know how historically accurate it may be to have drawn/chalked the lines of the new bodice front but that was the most expedient and accurate method for me to use. My guess is that this part of the process, at least, would have needed to be done on the wearer’s body so as to get the correct lines and fit.

Similarly to the bodice back pleats I believe my 21st century sewing mindset led me to put a little too much fabric into my folded robings, probably more than would have been allotted historically, so I ended up with plenty of fabric to make my new bodice fronts. A bodice with less fabric in the robings or applied (rather than cut-in-one and folded) robings accounts for the frequency of piecing I observed on extant altered bodice fronts.

Note that I used the cut-out gap in the robings at the front of the shoulder as my line to cut across and where the shoulder strap would start.

14. Make new bodice fronts – lining layer.

The was done by piecing a chunk of linen to the lining front edges and then just cutting around the re-shaped silk layer.

Again, I am uncertain of the historical accuracy of figuring out the new bodice fronts in the silk first and then just copying those lines for the lining as typical dressmaking in the period tended to have the bodice lining made up first and used for fitting with the fashion fabric layer mounted onto it. For this alteration process I considered doing the lining first but thought it would be cumbersome to have to work around the unfolded silk layer and have it flapping about while I was trying to do this.

15. Re-sew/finish the bodice front edges.

Note that the crease marks in the front left over from the robings is similar to the extant example I showed in the first post for this project.

16. Re-mount the sleeve heads and stitch down pleats.

17. Make and mount new silk shoulder straps.

These were made from some of the leftover robing fabric in keeping with the use of such scraps on extant examples.

18. Stitch down the sleeve head pleats.

I observed several types of sleeve alteration for this period among the extant example I examined. Overall, the fashion was for narrower, closer fitting sleeves as well as longer. However, this was by no means universally followed and many sleeves were barely modified at all. I chose not to narrow the sleeve but rather employ a curious technique I saw on gowns in a few different collections that did help create the impression of a smoother sleeve head – another element of changing sleeve styles late in the century. I stitched down the sleeve head pleats:

Re-mount the back neck yoke.

19. Make sleeve extensions.

20. Trim and mount the sleeve extensions.

I made new trimmings of scraps leftover from the original making of the gown & petticoat.

A view of the sleeve interior with the extensions added (also after I’d added sleeve ruffles for the “fashion” photos). The uppermost line of pink thread stitching attaches the new cuff to the original sleeve.

21. Add ties to the skirt interior.

A very common addition I noticed in extant gowns were the addition of ties or loops and buttons to the skirt so it could be pulled up “rétroussé” or “a la polonaise” as it’s more commonly known. Funnily enough, this seemingly minor alteration has significantly contributed to the misnomer of many Nightgowns/Anglaises or “Italian” gowns as polonaises, which are actually quite a different animal altogether.

This completes the particular alteration process I undertook. Please feel free to ask any questions about my process and I’ll do my best to answer!

Next up: the reveal of the altered, now c.1780 dress with my thoughts and findings on the project as a whole!

3 thoughts on “‘1 Nightgown new made’: A Practical Investigation of Eighteenth-Century Clothing Alteration PART 2 (of 3)

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