1830s gown of semi-sheer cerulean cotton with satin stripes

(Updated May 1, 2011)

(Note: the first portion of this post is identical to the project introduction post for the 1837-1839 fashion plate ensemble, but this post continues and goes into more detail, complete with sources and links.)

Back during my first semester at Hampshire, in fall 2009, I went on a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village, and while dawdling in the clothing exhibit, I rather fell in love with the late 1830s styles displayed in the fashion plates on the walls. It’s a very interesting transitional style, without the absurdly enormous sleeves of earlier 1830s fashion, or the stiff gothic lines of the 1840s. Waistlines were briefly hovering around the natural waist, and sleeve shapes were neither huge nor tight, with an interesting variety in shapes and details.

I parlayed my fascination with late 1830s fashion into an independent study in spring 2010, and really dove into the period. I had never studied the romantic period in particular, but I had a substantial background in mid-19th century clothing (specifically 1860s), which gave me somewhere to start. There are two interesting technological differences that make studying and reproducing clothing of the 1830s more difficult than clothing of the 1860s: the lack of photography, which leaves a significant gap in the materials to study, and the lack of sewing machines, which renders a great deal of hand-sewing necessary for true authenticity. For the independent study, I hand-stitched all of the pieces I made. For the 1830s pieces that I am making now, in the portion of my Div III that is a continuation of that project, I am fully hand-stitching three pieces–the shift, the stays, and the bonnet–and using a combination of machine-stitching and hand-stitching on the other pieces. On the gown, all visible stitches will be done by hand. But for the sake of time, I’m using the machine for portions of the project.

My big goal with this project is to be able to wear a full ensemble of 1830s clothing to Commencement (otherwise known as graduation) on May 21st. I’ll need a gown and a bonnet, a chemisette to full in the neckline of the gown, a pair of gloves (I have some I can use), some sort of shoes (I plan to buy a simple pair of ballet flats), and stockings (I have some that will work) – and those are just the parts that show! Under all that, I’ll need a shift, probably a pair of drawers, a set of stays, a corded petticoat to create base fluff, another petticoat for additional fluff, a bodiced petticoat to cover all the other layers tidily since my gown fabric is semi-sheer, and probably the ruffled bustle from the independent study, so as to achieve the proper silhouette.  I’ll most likely use the pockets from my independent study as well. I probably won’t worry about making cuffs just yet. All told, there is still much to do, but it’s coming along. The most alarming part is that I have not yet been able to dye the fabric for my gown.

From a February 1838 Fashion Plate in Godey's Lady's Book

The gown at left is the one I originally chose as my inspiration piece, during the independent study. I love the crossover bodice style, especially with the stripes cut on the bias. I also love the bias stripes on the skirt ruffle, set against the vertical stripes of the skirt. However, I’ve never been entirely enamored of the sleeves, I don’t like how the ruffle is set to leave a gap of plain skirt at the hem, and I find myself getting distracted by the astonishingly hideous headdress whenever I look at the picture. So, at this point, I’m not planning to do an exact copy of the fashion plate, but rather to combine elements of several fashion plates, along with details from extant gowns, to create a just-right late 1830s gown style for me.

The bodice for my gown will be cut like the February 1838 fashion plate at left, which seems to have been a popular style. The Workwoman’s Guide even has instructions for the style. I may have to adapt the bodice design slightly, because I think that with my rather well-endowed figure, I’ll probably need darts at the waistline to control the fullness of the fabric needed to go around my bosom, even with the stretch of the bias cut. Fortunately, I’ve seen various examples of just such a bodice style, including the left figure in the following fashion plate at right. I’m also partial to the sleeve shape in the following fashion plate – but not the precise way that the fullness is fixed down at the top. I think I’d rather use little controlled pleats than bands with buttons.

Pretty Gowns from an April 1840 Fashion Plate in Godey's Lady's Book

I’m also rather partial to the plethora of ruffles at the hem. I might do that, but I think more likely I’ll just do one ruffle, only set so that it goes all the way to the hem, or possibly two ruffles, the lower one deeper than the upper, as in the pink dress in the fashion plate below at left.  The fabric I’m using for the gown would most likely be termed a muslin in 19th century terminology. It’s a smooth, long-staple cotton fabric that is semi-sheer, but with opaque stripes of satin-weave, which have a bit of openwork stitching along either side of each stripe. It’s absolutely beautiful, and perfect for the period. I bought it at Delectable Mountain Cloth in Brattleboro, Vermont – a wonderful little shop that’s well worth an excursion. I believe that the owner said that my fabric was of Italisn manufacture. The only difficulty is that solid white dresses, especially in cotton, do not seem to have been very common by the late 1830s. I am solving this problem with a few bottles of cerulean blue dye, and the help of a friend who has a lot of experience dyeing cotton.

I think that my bonnet will probably give a similar impression to those in the plate above at right – large but not too terribly ridiculous, and really rather pretty, in that slightly silly way. A chemisette will definitely be needed in order to keep things suitably modest, and by the same token, I’ll also need a bodiced petticoat like this extant one to provide a tidy, opaque underlay for the somewhat see-through dress. I just hope I can find the time and the patience to sew enough cords into my corded petticoat, and then track down down enough starch, in order to achieve satisfactory fluffiness. I’m also concerned that a mere three petticoats (over a long chemise, with a ruffled bustle) might not really be enough fluff, but for the time being, I’ll just have to live with whatever level of fluff those combined garments can achieve.

A figure from a November 1838 Fashion Plate in Godey's Lady's Book

Having gone through every source of information on late 1830s (and even early 1840s) gowns that I could find, both in print and online (plus my examination in person of gowns in the collection at Old Sturbridge Village), I found that bias cut bodices appeared to be typical, and that crossover style bodices could be cut with or without darts. Intriguingly, I discovered that while hem flounces (one, two, or more) were almost universal on gowns in fashion plates of the late 1830s, I have been able to find very few extant gowns of this period with any kind of flounce. Even on very high fashion, extravagant gowns, the flouncing is rarely present. Nevertheless, it can be documented in some extant gowns, so I feel safe including flouncing on my gown. Which is good, because I’m quite enraptured with the look of the bias stripes on a flounce or two, against the vertical stripes of the skirt – with diagonal stripes on the bodice, and all-over-the-place stripes on the sleeves! And self-bias piping everywhere! Fortunately for the eyesight of everyone who will ever see my reproduction gown, my stripes are a woven variation rather than a strong color difference. It is my hope that blinding effects will be minimal.

In order to systematically research and document each aspect of this gown, and each type of reference, I have organized my sources into a variety of specific features. Some sources appear more than once.

Pattern diagrams and schematic drawings of late 1830s gowns:

En romantisk ungpigekjole at Tidens Tøj, a museum site, which has photographs of an extant probably mid 1830s gown, along with text, and a PDF of a graphed pattern diagram of the gown. Tragically, all of this is in Danish, and I have no idea what it says.

Brylluppets skikke – bryllupskrans” also at at Tidens Tøj, a museum site, which has photographs of an extant late 1830s formal gown, along with text, and a PDF of a graphed pattern diagram of the gown, which appears to be dated 1837. I suspect it might be identified as a wedding dress. But again, all of this is tragically in Danish.

Lady, A (Anonymous). The Workwoman’s Guide: A Guide to 19th Century Decorative Arts, Fashion and Practical Crafts (A Facsimile Reproduction of the Original 1838 Edition). Guilford, Connecticut: Opus Publications with Old Sturbridge Village, 1986.

  • In the section on “Gowns,” which begins on page 106 and is pictured on plate 14, there are two relevant styles:
  • “A wrap high dress,” discussed on page 110 and depicted on plate 14, figure 15
  • “A high body, to open in front,” discussed on page 111 and depicted on plate 14, figure 18
  • See below for more information on this resource.

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction c. 1660-1860. New York: Drama Book Specialists/Publishers, 1978.

  • “A dinner dress c1830-36,” in the Northampton Museum, on pages 60, 62, and 63.
  • “A morning dress c1837-41,” in the Gloucester Museum, on pages 64 and 65.
  • “A day dress c1839-45,” in the Gallery of English Costume, on pages 64 and 66.
  • None of these have the crossover front I’m looking for, but they’re all useful references anyway, thanks to Janet Arnold’s impeccable attention to detail.

Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1968.

  • Diagram XLI: “Day dress c. 1834. Privately owned
  • Diagram XLII: “Day dress c. 1837. Museum of Costume, Bath
  • Diagram XLIII (above): “Bodice c. 1839. Central School of Art and Design, London
  • “Nineteenth-century Tailors’ and Dressmakers’ Patterns” – on page 193, there are reprinted original 1834 pattern diagrams from the Petit Courier des Dames (a magazine) for “Bodice, Sleeve, Cape and Corset.”
  • Unfortunately, none of these are in the crossover style or anything much like it.

Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930. Hollywood: Costume & Fashion Press, 2009.

  • Styles of the late 1830s are pictured in schematic drawings, with detailed notes, on pages 163-172, including one crossover-style bodice on pages 169-170.

Hunnisett, Jean. Period Costumes for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1800-1909. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988.

  • This is a generalized, simplified, theatrical costuming resource. It can help to fill in the blanks, but it is not a creation of pristine historical accuracy (and is not intended to be).
  • “Part Three: Period Patterns — 1826-1838” on pages 49-84, in particular:
  • “Pattern sheet 7: bodices” on page 53, though none are crossover
  • “Pattern sheet 9: sleeves” on page 57

Early daguerreotypes (1839 and 1840s) picturing late 1830s styles:

Severa, Joan L. My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2005.

  • On page 8, with accompanying text on page 9, there is a daguerreotype, dated “ca. 1842,” of a young woman in a style quite close to that of the late 1830s. Even though the type of gown is quite different from mine, it is an excellent point of reference, and the detail of the sleeves in particular is exquisite.

Construction information for gowns of the late 1830s or a nearby era:

Lady, A (Anonymous). The Workwoman’s Guide: A Guide to 19th Century Decorative Arts, Fashion and Practical Crafts (A Facsimile Reproduction of the Original 1838 Edition). Guilford, Connecticut: Opus Publications with Old Sturbridge Village, 1986.

  • The section on “Gowns” has information about ladies’ gowns on pages 106-113, and images on plate 14 (which falls just prior to the section in the OSV reprint of the book). The section is quite brief, and rather vague, but explains why at the opening:
  • “Gowns being a part of dress much influenced by the fashion or custom of the day, will not be fully entered on in this work, as it would be impossible to give the variety of form and size which is seen in them, and equally impossible, were such a selection attempted, to please all tastes, or suit all figures: a few simple patterns for those kinds which are independent of fashion, and especially for those worn by servants, and persons engaged in laborious employments, with a very few other plain ones, will alone come within the limits of this work.” (page 106) [Note that all of that was one sentence.]
  • This book actually dates from the late 1830s, so in that respect, it is an excellent resource, but it is also difficult to understand and difficult to use, and as noted, the section on gowns is quite limited. However, combined with other sources, it becomes somewhat more comprehensible.

Grimble, Frances, Edited, Translated, and with Additional Material by. The Lady’s Stratagem: A Repository of 1820s Directions for the Toilet, Mantua-Making, Stay-Making, Millinery & Etiquette. San Francisco: Lavolta Press, 2009.

  • “Chapter XV. The Art of the Mantua-maker or Cutter of Gowns” on pages 305-407.
  • This book is primarily from/about the 1820s, so it would be somewhat out of date for late 1830s fashions, but much of the information is still relevant.

Clark, Elizabeth Stewart. The Dressmaker’s Guide; 1840-1860. 2nd edition, Revised & Expanded. Idaho Falls, Idaho: Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company, 2009.

  • “Stocking a Workbox” on pages 69-73
  • “Stitch & Technique Library” on pages 78-102
  • “Chapter 8: Bodices: Draping & Patterns” on pages 195-247
  • “Chapter 9: Bodice Construction Details” on pages 249-264
  • “Chapter 10: Skirt Techniques” on pages 265-275
  • This book is intended for the period 1840-1865, so it slightly post-dates what I am working on, but much of the information is still helpful, especially since this revised and expanded edition offers substantial coverage of the 1840s, which has a great deal in common with the late 1830s, in terms of fashion and construction.

Crossover (surplice) style bodices, with or without darts:

Olian, JoAnne, Ed. 80 Godey’s Full-Color Fashion Plates: 1838-1880. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1998.

  • “Plate 2. February 1838 and July 1838” – figure B (the first image shown above) – a striped gown, no darts. On page vi, quoting from the original issue of Godey’s, the figure is described thus: “Morning dress of Jaconet muslin. Tight sleeves with a single puff above the elbow; lace ruffle at wrist. The skirt has a deep flounce. Plain body crossed in front, showing a cambric handkerchief, with a lace frill.”
  • “Plate 4. April 1840.” – figure B (the left figure in the second image shown above) – three darts on each side. On page vi, quoting from the original issue of Godey’s, the figure is described thus: “Changeable silk dress. Tight corsage crossed in front. Bishop sleeves with four bands at the top, each trimmed with a button; the skirt is trimmed with five narrow flounces. Straw hat.”

Blum, Stella, Edited and with an Introduction by. Fashions and Costumes from Godey’s Lady’s Book; Including 8 Plates in Full Color. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,  1985.

  • On page 3, figure A, from a May 1838 fashion plate in Godey’s Lady’s Book, with accompanying text: “Robe of summer material; hat of leghorn straw.” No hem flounce this time.

Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930. Hollywood: Costume & Fashion Press, 2009.

  • Styles of the late 1830s are pictured in schematic drawings, with detailed notes, on pages 163-172, including one crossover-style bodice on pages 169-170. It does not have darts, nor a hem flounce.

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2009.

  • Photographed extant “Day dress of silk lined with linen and glazed cotton” on pages 174-175, lower right of each page, dated “1838-40,” accession number T.51-2002. Made of solid-colored silk satin; very deep V crossover neckline, left over right, with functional closure and stitched pleating; no darts; round waist; directionally knife-pleated skirt with section in front left plain, lopsided possibly due to odd closure; no hem flounce.

Non-crossover bias-cut bodices, other than off-the-shoulder styles:

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2009.

Large sleeves with fullness controlled at the tops with pleats/gathers:

Fukai, Akiko, Ed. Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century (The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute). 2006 edition published by Barnes & Noble by arrangement. Köln: Taschen, 2006.

  • Photograph of extant sheer or semi-sheer gown on page 195, dated “c. 1837,” with this caption: “White plain-weave cotton with woven plaid pattern; lead-pattern embroidery; gigot sleeves; gathered to shoulder at upper sleeve. Inv. AC2231 79-10-4

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2009.

  • Photographed extant “Dress of printed cotton lined with cotton” on pages 104-105, dated “1838-40,” accession number T.75-1947. Made of floral printed cotton with a wide, rounded neckline; piped center front opening, piped neckline edge, etc.; diagonal pleating across front; single dart at either side; even shirring at tops of sleeves to control fullness; round waist; gauged skirt; no hem flounce.
  • Photographed extant “Day dress of challis printed with flowers and lined with glazed cotton and linen” on pages 192-193, dated “1837-40,” accession number T.184-1931. Made of floral printed wool challis with a wide, scooped neckline; ruching around bodice near neckline; contrast piping at center front seam, sides, cuffs, etc; single dart or shaping seam at either side; soft pleating held with bands at tops of sleeves to control fullness, fullness at wrists simply gathered into cuffs at back of wrists; round waist; skirt has wide directional knife pleats with section of gauging in back; no hem flounce.

Skirts with one or more flounces at the hem (especially extant):

Woman’s Day Dress” of cotton muslin with a printed check design on a woven zig-zag pattern, dated “1837-41” with the note that it was “perhaps altered in the 1850s,” at the Bowes Museum in the United Kingdom, accession number 1998.10.1/CST.3.196. There are three even hem flounces, of a style popular in late 1830s fashion plates, on the dress, but they appear somewhat skewed due to the way the dress is displayed (it needs more petticoats).

Gowns of this general style, in muslin or other lightweight cottons:

Brown cotton print dress, dated “1837-39,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 2009.300.915.

Resources containing multiple extant high-fashion gowns from the late 1830s, with absolutely no incidence of flounces:

Fukai, Akiko, Ed. Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century (The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute). 2006 edition published by Barnes & Noble by arrangement. Köln: Taschen, 2006.

Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930. Hollywood: Costume & Fashion Press, 2009.

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2009.

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