Category Archives: 1830s rectangle-cut shift of white cotton

1830s rectangle-cut shift of white cotton

Inspiration: The basic shift in The Workwoman’s Guide and an early 19th century shift at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, accession number 99.664.51
Pattern: Drafted almost verbatim from the directions in the WWG in the largest size, but with slight alterations, to give it the right fit and proportions on my frame and to get it closer to the sleeve style of the MFA shift, which seems common, based on my research.
Fabric: 36″ wide white cotton utility muslin from JoAnn’s, cut narrower in order to follow the WWG drafting instructions as closely as possible
Thread: Plain cotton thread in white
Construction: Entirely hand-sewn
Seam finishes: Most seams have the seam allowances folded in against one another and overcast, but the two long side seams are finished with a run-and-fell seam.
Fun fact: When I finished sewing this, it was late at night…and I proceeded to put on my very comfy-looking shift and give it a test drive: I slept in it. It was indeed very comfy! And none of the seams bothered me at all.
Current Status: Finished! At some point, I may choose to add narrow sleeve ruffles like on the MFA inspiration shift and some others, but that’s just a possibility for the future. For the moment, it is DONE! Pictures soon.

I drafted this using the instructions in The Workwoman’s Guide, published 1838, for the “largest size” (of four), but I changed a couple of dimensions slightly in order to get the right fit and proportions on my frame, and to make it look like the inspiration shift in the MFA collection. As an exercise in taking the period approach, I kept all the measurements in nails rather than converting to similar measurements in inches. A nail is 2 ¼ inches; it’s also 1/16th of a yard.

I lengthened the front and back each 2 nails, or 4 ½ inches, (ergo, I lengthened the entire body piece by four nails), because the extant shifts I could find images of, and period illustrations of women with shifts on seemed to imply that shifts were quite long – at least mid-calf – in this period, and I’m quite tall for any time period, at 5’9″, and curvy, so that leads to additional take-up of length, especially under stays. Plus, I figured I could always cut off excess length or do a larger hem if needed, but it would be very unfortunate if my shift ended up too short.

I also changed the sleeve and sleeve gusset proportions slightly. I lengthened and widened the sleeve itself, to make it hit just above my elbow, and to make sure that there was some ease around my both-muscular-and-plump upper arms. I also made the gusset smaller, because none of the originals I could find images of seemed to have such large gussets and I didn’t need all that space. And, again, to make it look more like my inspiration image from the MFA, and other similar shifts that seem to represent common styles.

I’ll add more detail about the drafting and construction of this shift later, as well as images. For the moment, here are some resources…

A resource available both online and in print:

Also available, digitally and free of cost, via Google Books. The section on drafting this style of shift is on pages 46-47, with images on plate 6. Note that in the print version, that plate falls between the two text pages.

Print resources:

This book includes a slightly earlier shift, circa 1780-1810, that is quite similar in construction to many 1830s period shifts. The book includes written details about the shift as well as photographs, schematic drawings, and a pattern diagram. It was a helpful reference for figuring out what the WWG was referring to, and guessing how to go about construction.

There is a photograph of an extant chemise, circa 1825, with a ruffled neck edge, on page 129. This may be the same chemise shown on a model in Fabric of Society, because the same bodiced petticoat is in the photograph with this shift.

Extant garments on mannequins: a “chemise” dated 1820s can be seen on a mannequin who is also wearing stays and drawers, with puffed sleeves and ruffles around the neckline and sleeve bands, which reaches just below the knee on the mannequin, on page 200; on another mannequin, peeking out from under a “corset,” sleeve puffs, and corded petticoat, all dated 1830s, another “chemise” can be just seen, with a ruffle at the neckline and straight, slim sleeves that probably reach to just above the elbow and are finished with ruffles, on page 201.

There is some information about shifts of a similar but different style on pages 369 and 370. Additionally, the information on different “Common Stitches and Seams” was quite helpful, see pages 305-314.

An 1835 shift with a different type of construction is depicted on pages 12-13, with text, line drawings, and a detail photograph. The same shift is depicted, on a mannequin with other garments, in Four Hundred Years of Fashion, and can also be viewed on the V&A website.

Image 75, a photograph of a mannequin in 1830s underclothing, on page 35, with further information on page 143 about each individual garment: shift, circa 1835 (T.386-1960); drawers, circa 1834 (T.102-1931); corset, circa 1835 (T.3-1929). The same shift is pictured on page 12 of Underwear: Fashion in Detail, and can be viewed on the V&A website.

There is some discussion of the surviving collection of 1820s underclothing marked “Fanny Jarvis” on page 67, and a photograph of a model actually wearing a full complement of these antique undergarments, on page 68. Additionally, there is a full-color image of the four-part lithograph The Stages of the Toilette, circa 1830, on page 68. From the photograph of extant garments, the length of the shift cannot be determined, because the model is wearing other garments, including a bodiced petticoat, over the shift, but the sleeves reach to just above the elbow, and are relatively slim, cut straight. The shift in the lithograph is very long, reaching to at least mid-calf, and has full, puffed sleeves.

Online resources:

  • My inspiration shift at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, accession number 99.664.51. It has the basic cutting pattern, with straight sleeves and small-to-medium sleeve gussets, and no neckline ruffle, though it does have small sleeve ruffles, which I may add to my shift at some point.
  • A post on the mid-19th century authentic sewing forum, The Sewing Academy, in which user Beth Chamberlain posted an image of the above shift, on which she had helpfully drawn in the construction lines of the long triangles of fabric which are essentially swung from the sides at the top to the sides at the bottom in construction.
  • Another early 19th century shift at the MFA (accession number 52.1777), this one with a neckline ruffle and sleeve ruffles of a finer fabric than the body of the shift. It has straight sleeves, but they are gathered somewhat at the top of the shoulder.
  • The 1835 shift in the V&A Collection (accession number T.386-1960) that is constructed along different lines, with puffed sleeves and shoulder straps. This is the same shift that was mentioned above, as it was depicted in both Four Hundred Years of Fashion and Underwear: Fashion in Detail.

Intro: 1837-1839 fashion plate ensemble

(Updated May 2, 2011.)

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 center.  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 Godey's Lady's Book Fashion Plate

Here is the full list of garments involved in this ensemble:

For details and resources, click on individual garment links to go to the introductory base posts for those garments.