Even if you haven’t studied early 19th century history, you have certainly heard of Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France from 1804 until 1814 and the builder of a new nation after the French Revolution. Josephine was his beloved wife.
Recently I was honored to be commissioned to make clothing for the Empress herself.
Actually, of course, I was not sewing for Josephine, but for a lovely modern woman who would portray her. Victoria Reibel is an interpreter and actress at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Kelly Moore, the Museum’s Outreach Liaison, contacted Lavender’s Green for a proposal on what she should wear for the program.
Before I design a gown, I like to understand the context: where will it be worn, for what audience, and to tell what story? Josephine’s public performance would portray her a few evenings before Napoleon’s and her own coronation in 1804. This interpretation was not to be a formal speech, but an “evening in the parlor” situation. Josephine would talk to the audience about her life, her relationship with Napoleon, and the impending coronation.
Many of the contemporary portraits of Josephine display her creamy skin and lovely figure. She was pictured in the fashionable thin white cotton gowns of the Empire period, a style that she wore extremely well. Most of the paintings suggest that she wore very little under the gowns, and certainly no heavy stays! However, since the Museum would be introducing Josephine to an audience of 21st century people, including children, we preferred not to display all her “charms.” Instead, we discussed what sort of underpinnings would provide our Josephine with a period-correct shape without detracting from her sheer gown.
A fashionable silhouette begins with the right underpinnings. For Victoria, who already had Josephine’s tall, slender build, we chose short stays. My research showed me images of the types of stays that were worn; I adapted a pattern to suit our Josephine and give her the low neckline and snug fit she would need for her performance. To wear next to her skin, under the stays, I made a thin cotton shift with a distinctive neckline. Some period examples have this “slashed” feature; the flap could be lowered over the top of the stays to hide rough edges and any fastenings. I hand-hemmed the stays so there would be no distraction from modern finishes to spoil the illusion of 1804.
The dress we designed for Josephine would be sheer cotton voile, trimmed with faux-gold crocheted lace to hint at the opulence of the original. She would wear it over a more opaque white cotton sleeveless underdress, giving her an air of mystery while maintaining some modesty.
The clothing was shipped well in advance of the program, so that Victoria would have time to try on the garments and become accustomed to moving easily in them. The Museum staff did note that the back of the gown was very tight and pulled a bit as she moved; there was still time to make the needed alterations for a perfect fit. Finally, the ensemble was complete!
When the program was ready, American audiences were able to “meet” one of the most famous women in European history, portrayed by a skilled interpreter, on a stage set by thorough Museum staffers, and clothed in replica garments from Lavender’s Green Historic Clothing.
What a collaboration!
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