Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fitting Regency Gowns

So, rather than bombard you by constantly talking about how amazing Your Wardrobe Unlock'd and Foundations Revealed are and how it would be a travesty to lose their database, I'm going to show you. I've written a number of articles for them including a how-to on 18th century hoops, undergarments of the Regency period, how to solve fitting problems with Regency gowns, and this next month a how-to on making Edwardian bathing boots. I'll be honest, the writers of the articles do get paid ($100), and that does help incline me to write for them. But, the things I write (and others as well) are far above and beyond in time and money compared to regular blog posts. You all know what sorts of things I regular put up, but if you haven't subscribed to those sites, you don't know what articles you're missing out on.

After six months the writers are allowed to post their articles publicly. It may seem surprising that the articles aren't all over the internet for free then. At least when it comes to my decision not to release them later, it's specifically to support the site. And even if the articles were out there, it'd take an awful lot of searching to find them all! But, this one time, I'm going against that plan specifically to support the site. They lost a lot of subscribers recently due to a change in payment systems and are set to shut down if they don't get them back. So, in hopes that you'll agree that having a site full of hundreds of articles like this is worth the $19.97 a month for access to BOTH sites (half that if you're a student, senior, or registered disabled) I'm putting up the first half of one of my most in-depth and popular articles. I'll post the second half later, but it's too long to do in one post- if you want to read it all now you know what to do!


The most difficult part of any garment construction is perfecting the fit.  Even in Regency period gowns, with their simple and geometric shapes pulled in by drawstrings, there are many issues that commonly appear.  Women have lost the understructure of the Georgian period, which allowed for a flat cone to smooth the fabric over, instead dealing with complex curves.  While there is, of course, a wide variety of styles and body shapes that affect this fit, we’ll try to address some of the common issues.

First, we take a look at portraits of the period.  Some artists are kind enough to put in a great deal of detail when it comes to wrinkles, folds, and seams.  Occasionally, we find what we might even term “mistakes” with fitting.
The portrait of Martha Arbeneva is a good example of a turn of the century style gown, circa 1798 (1).  Particularly note how the neckline crosses, how the gathers fall, and where the shoulder seam is placed.

Comtesse Regnault is also from the turn of the century, 1799, but is wearing quite a different style (2).  The neckline shape is important in this portrait, especially showing where the gathers and fullness are.

Charlotte Ulrike Rosencrantz brings us up to 1805 (3).  Her bodice is much more smoothly fitted, with only a slight gathering in the center front.  Her gown skirt has slight pulling towards the back, but there appears to be a seam or a small pleat on the very side to help keep this from being too severe.  You can also see how her long sleeves are not fitted too snug.

Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, 1809, has a more narrow point to her rounded neckline (4).  Notice how the sheer gathers are not pulled tight to the bust, but almost droop.

Caroline Murat is a fine example of how a heavier fabric gown (in this case I would say a satin) should fit, circa 1812 (5).  Her gown is also to the edge of her shoulder, necessitating a perfect fit to keep them from falling off.

The portrait of Madame de Staël, also 1812, appears to show a gown without a waist seam, using a belt to hold it in (6).  The gathering in around the neckline also continues all the way over the shoulder.

Marguerite-Charlotte David, 1813, has a very simple straight front (7).  The top appears to have a drawstring, which pulls the neckline in just enough to prevent gaping.  The bodice is not heavily gathered, but is not tightly fitted either.  There do not appear to be shoulder straps either, despite the fact that her neckline looks decidedly narrower than Caroline Murat’s.

Anna-Maria Magnan’s portrait, 1814, is a wonderful example of a flat-fit, covering bodice (8).  The stripes indicate that there is no gathering or darting under the bust to fit the curves.  Instead, we see a slightly puckering under the arm, similar to where darts might be place on modern garments.


Vogelstein’s Junge Dame, from 1816, gives us a rare glimpse of the back of her gown (9).  This side view shows how the tilt of the waistline raises towards the back.

Boilly’s Portrait of a Lady is from 1820, but shows a similar gathered front to many of our earlier portraits (10).  Although, her shoulders are set much wider, the neckline is where the armscye sat a few years before.


Next, there are the fitting issues that commonly arise.  Fit can be affected by a number of things including fabric, undergarments, construction techniques, and the shape/pattern used.  For this article, we’ll focus on the shapes and patterns. 
Even if working from a general pattern, always make a mock-up first.  Keep in mind that your mock-up fabric may differ in weight or stretch (i.e. if using muslin, but making a silk gown, know the silk won’t give as much).

Bodice issues:
Gaping neckline or Wrinkles under the arm. 
Everyone has a different shape of shoulder, our two models are perfect examples of that.  Karen has sloped shoulders and is more likely to have problems with wrinkles under the arm.  Gwendolyn has square shoulders and is more likely to deal with gaping of the neckline.  This doesn’t mean the problem is exclusive to either, however. 

In image 11 we can see how much gaping there is on the neckline of Karen’s bodice.  This has nothing to do with her shoulders.  

We can attempt to fix it by pulling the excess into the waistline (12), but the gathers are not flattering, and the neckline is still loose.  

Image 13 shows how the bodice should fit, close to the bust along the front, with gathers that continue over the bust line, like the portrait of Martha Arbeneva above.  

The difference is the grain line (14).  The gaping bodice is cut with the straight of grain parallel to the center front line of the body, while the fitting bodice is cut with the neckline on grain.

Image 15 shows a simple bodice on Karen with wrinkles under the arm.  We saw in the portrait of Anna Maria Magnan that this is sometimes acceptable, particularly because her bodice covers up to the neckline and has no fitting under the bust.  However, it can easily be fixed in a bodice style that uses gathers or darts under the bust or has a shoulder strap.  

In Karen’s case, the shoulder strap can be very simply adjusted to remove the excess fabric (16).  

Karen has sloped shoulders, so curving the shoulder outward will fix the problem (17).

Gwendolyn can have similar issues as well.  With a bodice shape such as Anna Maria Magnan’s, there is an option of keeping the wrinkle under the arm or using a dart or gathering to take out the fullness (18 & 19).

A common problem in open neck bodices is gaping around the neckline.  This is often caused by the shape and angle of the shoulder strap.  Gwendolyn’s square shoulders need a very straight strap, unlike Karen who had wrinkles under the arm with that shape of strap.  In image 20, the neckline is not an uneven shape, her right side is gaping out almost an inch.  

You can see the minor difference in the pattern which affects this (21).


Darts/Gathers in wrong place
Darts, if the wrong size or shape can give the illusion of a very strangely shaped bust. Too short, and the bodice will look saggy. Too long, and the bust will be flattened. Too much fabric taken in and you’ll have the 1950s cone shape. Not enough and the underbust will be loose or the bustline will be too small. Simply, do these on the body, an easy adjustment to a mock-up even without a fitting partner.


Gathers are very easy to adjust back and forth as well.  If they are to provide fullness to curve over the bust, make sure to spread them out properly (22).  

If placed too close to center it becomes too snug around the outside bust, even beginning to make horizontal wrinkles across it (23).  And it also seemed to have more of a tendency to gap.


To come: gathered neckline pulling, wrong waistline angle or gaping under bust, sleeve issues of shallow top, narrow top, restricted movement, and skirt issues of pulling across the front. I then break down the gowns I've made and how they do and don't fit right.

2 comments:

Julie Rockhold said...

awesome information. Very well written. I don't belong to either of those groups and need too....just another thing to put on my list.

Anonymous said...

Extremely clear. Not only succinctly written but well illustrated too. An excellent reference for anyone moving from 3rdQ 18th c. sewing to the regency period.