1780s Chemise Gown

So, I really seem to be a lot about the 4th quarter of the 18th century these days – and there’s more to come!

Back in the spring I crossed another style off the wishlist: a 1780s Chemise gown (aka Chemise a la Reine, Robe en Chemise, etc):

In preparation I created a Pinterest board for Chemise Gowns (because naturally). As I gathered images I was really quite surprised at the amount of variety in the forms these gowns took, there were so many options for all the different elements! Check out my Pinterest board and you’ll see what I mean!

I ended up being particularly inspired by a few specific ones:

Marie Antoinette in a chemise a la reine

(of course, the one that started it all ^)

Portrait of Marie-Françoise Dumesnil by Marie-Victoire Lemoine, late 18th century

chemise à la reine brodée, 1785-89, musée de la toile de Jouy

A very beautiful chemise de la reine

As you may be able to tell I was really into the more fluffy varieties for this project :o)

In an attempt to make things easier on myself I started with the Laughing Moon Chemise Gown pattern:

LM133 - 1790-1800 Ladies Robe en Chemise with Optional Train, Puffed and Long…

However, in looking through both the pattern pieces and instructions I realized I wanted to change a number of things resulting in my over-engineering of things  *sigh*:

  • I wasn’t keen on the back closure but didn’t want a front closure either (which I actually probably should have gone with but oh well) so modified it to slip over the head with drawstrings at the front neckline and front waist
  • I did some franken-patterning of the bodice back + side pieces to eliminate a seam in the gathered section of the bodice back
  • But I wanted the skirt fuller than the bodice – I wasn’t too sure about a really full/very gathered bodice on me – so kept the waistline seam and gathered the skirt somewhat to the front bodice and then added the drawstring to it – see what I mean about over-engineering?
  • I did like the more fitted/stable bodice back idea so kept the bodice lining but mounted the gown to it only at the back – in a very similar manner to my DAR gown
  • I really liked the look of multiple puffs on the sleeves in my inspiration images so needed to modify the pattern and construction for that – including needing to add-on a piece to make the sleeve cuff  because the sleeve pattern as-is isn’t long enough for one – which resulted in more over-engineering on my part during construction in ways I would not do again!
  • the sewing instructions for the pattern are completely modern and geared towards using a sewing machine so I basically ignored them and made the gown according to what I know of 18th century sewing techniques, although I can’t be sure just how HA my approach is, never having studied a chemise gown in person, let alone one in this particular style

So, here’s how I put my Chemise gown together, I don’t necessarily recommend copying all of these construction methods, lol:

As per usual with 18th century clothing I started with the bodice lining:

I lengthened the bodice lining and outer fabric pattern pieces by about 2″ as the dress as drafted is meant to be made with a waistband, making the actual bodice pieces pretty short.

I deviated from the original pattern from the get-go by cutting the back on the fold rather than the front.

I used lapped seams for the bodice linings, as is typical of much 18th century construction.

I finished the centre front and front neckline edges at this time, folding under 1/4″ twice and hem stitching. I did this because the fronts of the bodice lining are separate from the outer layer of the dress. The bottom edge of the bodice lining front would also be finished in the same way but I decided to wait until I had sewn the waist seam of the gown first.

Here is me changing the bodice back pattern piece(s). You can see the original bodice back pattern piece here, which I cut on the fold. If you look closely, you can see that I folded back part of the bodice side piece, corresponding with where the gathering of the back ends as marked by the small dot at the lower right-hand corner of the piece. The original pattern has a contour seam attaching the back and side pieces together and then gathering across that seam. I wanted a cleaner look and construction approach and thought it more logical to place the seam where the gathering would stop. This is also more consistent with what I’ve seen of late 18th/early 19th century cut and construction methods. I hope that makes sense.

So this was my new side piece:

I took part of the side away and added to the back, as shown above, and added a little to the side from the front so that the side piece is a flat, ungathered space directly under the arms. Now, I had actually originally started cutting this out before making the pattern changes (fortunately I have a lot of this white cotton voile!) so in the picture below what you’re seeing is the original side piece on the left and the new side piece I created on the right:

I decided to work the outer layer of the gown roughly back to front but started with pinning the side pieces onto the lining to act as sort of my control areas.

To create the gathers along both the front and back neckline edges I chose to use drawstrings so that was my first task with the bodice back piece:

I intended to tack the gathered up back neckline to the neckline of the lining, so that’s why I didn’t bother clean finishing the inside edge.

I matched the corners of the bodice and lining necklines and then pulled up the drawstring to fit.

I matched the centre back points of both outer fabric and lining and pinned them together at the waist edge:

Now, unfortunately, it appears my photographing gets spotty from here on. So hopefully I can describe clearly enough. I next gathered the waist edge of the bodice back piece to fit the lining and did the same with the shoulder edges; I basted each of these to the lining to hold them in place. I unpinned the back edges of the side pieces and lay the side edges of the back pieces underneath and topstitched with spaced backstitches:

Next it was on to the front bodice pieces. Again, I started with the neckline drawstring:

However, since I planned the front neckline to remain separate from the lining I made a clean-finished drawstring casing by double folding the fabric edge. I also left an opening at the centre front through which to pull the drawstring:

I aligned the side edges of the front pieces and stitched them down onto the side pieces with the same lapped and top stitched seam I used at the side back. This was stitched through all layers but from this point forward the outer fabric is free from the lining:

I then gathered the shoulder edges to the lining in the same manner as on the back:

And so here is how the whole thing looked so far

Now I could finally start on the skirt!

I made the skirt from 3 full-width panels of my fabric, which was about 60″ wide – I wanted a pretty floofy skirt! Lol.

However, this is one of the areas where I really made things complicated for myself and had to do some slight tricky (for me) math.

What made it complicated was that I wanted the skirt fullness evenly distributed around the waist but the front would be on a drawstring with the bodice front while the back would be permanently stitched down in gathers. Add to this that the bodice front fullness would be less than that of the skirt, meaning the skirt front had to be slightly gathered before sewing it to the bodice and adding the drawstring and you’ve got a (probably needlessly) complicated set of requirements to accommodate!

I don’t have any in-process pics of this part; I think I was so focused on the math that I forgot everything else! However, I don’t know that I’d recommend this approach to anyone else, I think I really went overboard with the over-engineering at this point! (until it came to the sleeves, that is!)

But here’s what the waist seam looks like inside the front:

Inside the back:

And at the side:

At this point I mounted the lining layer of the shoulder straps to the interior of the bodice:

And did a try-on as I was feeling unsure about the whole thing – it really looked just like a big sack.

But I loved it so far! Once the waist drawstring is pulled up and a sash tied on the silhouette is great! I have to admit, though, I kind of really like the short-sleeve impression that my shift sleeves poking out create, too bad that’s not an actual historical style option, lol.

So next it was onto the sleeves. I decided to go with the full, poofy style of sleeve but had reservations about them, too. I feared they would be just too much but felt they would be most comfortable to wear in warmer weather as opposed to lined, fitted sleeves (I have since encountered another version of this dress with unlined fitted sleeves that was a bit of an epiphany for me – I’m totally willing to push HA boundary if I ever make another chemise gown!).

The full sleeve pattern piece is designed to be gathered only at the shoulder and the wrist while I wanted a line of gathering also around the upper arm/bicep. I decided to take my chances and cut out the sleeve as-is but discovered that adding that additional row of gathering and pouffing makes the sleeve too short. Of course, I didn’t discover this until I had already started actual sewing work – I think I had applied the upper drawstring casing – and not wanting to start all over I decided to made a sleeve extension/cuff thingy. The idea was to make that join the lower drawstring and gathering line. and cover the seam with the drawstring casing:

Here’s a more overall shot of the drawstring casings:

I first sewed down the outer layer of the shoulder strap:

Then set-in the sleeve all the way around with backstitch, having gathered the sleeve head to fit:

The neckline ruffle is a straight piece of fabric that’s rolled-hemmed along one edge:

and pressed under and whip-gathered along the other edge, and basted around the neckline of the gown:

I’ve actually had occasion to wear my chemise 4 times since I made it. So that’s three times in 5 months, probably the most frequent wearing of any costume/historical make to date!

The first time was at a Georgian-themed afternoon party in May. We were supposed to have picnicked on the grounds of a historical house but got rained out. Luckily the event was saved by the use of an event room in one of the attendee’s building.

I didn’t really think to get any proper photos at the time, I was too busy having fun, but here is what I did get:

All the chemise gown ladies together:

(fyi, it was non-alcoholic cider in our glasses)

The second wearing was at Costume College in late July, as I posted recently:

The third time was to The Lady Detalle’s lovely birthday party in early September:

Gloria (of In the Long Run Designs) was kind enough to take some really lovely shots of my gown:

Since finishing the gown in May I’d been toying with the idea of adding a deep ruffle around the hem for #moarfluff and finally decided to go ahead with idea for the party:

There ended up being almost as much fabric in that ruffle as in the whole skirt of the gown!

The fourth wearing was to another photoshoot in mid-September. This was a much bigger group shoot than the one at the portrait gallery. There’s a group here in DC that brings cosplayers and photographers together for a photoshoot each month. For September the theme was fantasy and/or historical so I joined in:

by Dan Arango

photo by The Fan’s POV (I think)

I am now wondering if the hemline ruffle is too much. What do you think?

Also, around this time I started thinking about trying a new wig colour shade – which you’ll see in my next post!

12 thoughts on “1780s Chemise Gown

  1. It’s lovely! As always, thanks for all the insights into the construction! I like it both with the hem ruffle and without, don’t think you can have too many ruffles though ;).

    I also thought that you might actually be a good person to ask. I bought a satin/chiffon striped silk a little while back, thinking that it would be perfect for a chemise style gown (In pictures it reminded me of this gown in particular https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/31666003602698144/). However, when I got it I found it is very drapey, and soft. It’s stunning, but that made me doubt if a chemise gown would be the best use of it What was your experience with making this, would you say a very flowy fabric world work for the style, or is thin but crisp better? (I wouldn’t do the ruffles in any case by the way, as I don’t have enough fabric for that, but it does need puffy sleeves, of course).

    If the answer is too long and complicated feel free to ignore the question of course! But thought it woulnd’t hurt to ask :).

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    • Thank you!

      I’ve never seen fabrics from this period that are quite like chiffon; they always have a little more body than chiffon does, even when they are impossibly light and sheer. The gown in the painting you shared is probably closer to organza or organdy than chiffon but I think you could still make your fabric work for a really lovely chemise gown. There would just be a couple of considerations if you wanted a similar look. You’d want lots of volume in your under petticoats and you would probably want at least 2 of them. And to make the sleeves puffy you might want to underline them with silk organza. You could also try facing the hem of the gown with silk organza to add some body there. I don’t think I’d advise underlining the whole skirt with organza, the chiffon might droop over it, if that makes sense. I hope that helped and good luck with your gown, I’ll be looking forward to seeing it when you do make it!

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  2. What a fab article! I stand in amazement over the amount of your hand sewing and how tidy it is–you must have either the patience of a Saint, or very nimble fingers! I learn something new every time I read one of your pieces and so love your sense of humour about yourself. Refreshing and fun—like your gowns! Keep at it, and love the gown both with and without the flounce! Sharon

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