Recreating an Antique Paris Gown

Vintage garments are our windows to the past. In them we can discover the techniques of early designers and dressmakers. Since I value each garment as an original source for research, I am reluctant to do anything to an original vintage garment that would destroy that information. However, some time ago I had a client approach me with an intriguing project: could I replicate a Paris original, circa 1912, salvaging the primary elements that made it a true work of art?

The original Paris gown with modern silk for the replica
The original Paris gown with modern silk for the replica

 

The dress was beautiful! The skirt had been draped cleverly in a novel style, and several sections of the gown were embroidered with metallic threads. There was a heavy, luxurious silk tassel at the front of the skirt. With all the draping and embellishment, it was clearly of the era. The shape of the skirt was slim, yet there was a graceful train. There was a high waist to the bodice, but a structured lining beneath it all. The most significant design detail was the square neckline in front, with a rich vestee of metallic lace, and a corresponding vee shaped section at the back closure. We have seen this line in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, and of course, in the elegant dinner gowns in films like “Titanic” and shows like “Downtown Abbey.”

The original Paris gown
The original Paris gown

However, this particular garment was damaged beyond any change of wearing or even exhibiting it. The bodice had worn away on the shoulders. Sections of it were in shreds, probably due to the weight and roughness of the beautiful metallic embroideries. Sometime in the past, someone had cut away a section of the skirt, probably to use the rich embroideries as a home décor item. The skirt was ruined. And finally, the client wanted to wear it but couldn’t in its current condition. It was a size too small.

IMG_3447 The tops of the sleeves had worn away.

The silk in the bodice was shattered.
The silk in the bodice was shattered.

I agreed to take on the challenge. Along the way I documented the original gown as well as I could so that I would have a record of the 1912 Paris couture techniques that were used in the original. Here is what I recorded.

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The hand embroidered trim continued into the lower back sections. I thought of those early Parisiennes, spending their days under skylights in ateliers to create this gown.

 

 

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The front of the gown, with its intricate draping and ornate tassel, was one of its most beautiful features.
The inside of the bodice showed 19th century contstruction and boning.
The inside of the bodice showed 19th century construction and boning.

 

The shoudler straps had been attached by hand, using whip stitches... probably after a fitting.
The shoulder straps had been attached by hand, using whip stitches… probably after a fitting.

 

Close=up of strap interior
Close-up of strap interior

 

The inside of the sleeve shows the layers of fabric and the method of slip stitching them together.
The inside of the sleeve shows the layers of fabric and the method of slip stitching them together.

 

The outside layers of the bodice were constructed over the boned foundation, giving the appearance of a soft kimono sleeve over the lace insert.
The outside layers of the bodice were constructed over the boned foundation, giving the appearance of a soft kimono sleeve over the lace insert.

 

Under the arm, a gusset gave additional wearing ease.
Under the arm, a gusset gave additional wearing ease.

In my next post, I will share the step by step process of recreating the 1912 gown, using new materials where necessary and the original luxurious fabric where possible.

Comfort and Style at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

Skilled interpreters at historic places consider their audience, the setting and the story they are about to share. The historic replica clothing they wear should be chosen for authenticity and appropriateness. At a site that is open throughout the summer season, the interpreters’ clothing is generally lightweight and appropriate to the weather. But many seasonal parks open in late spring and stay open into fall. This is the “shoulder season,” a time when mornings can be chilly and cold rain can challenge the interpreter and the audience.

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse (Mackinac Island Images)

Recently I worked on a project with Craig Wilson, the Museum Historian at Mackinac State Parks in northern  Michigan. You may have heard of Mackinac Island; it’s a place where automobiles were banned almost as soon as they were invented. There are still no automobiles on the island today. People get around on foot, on bicycles, or by horse-drawn conveyances. You may have seen bits of Mackinac Island, including the historic Grand Hotel, if you watched the romantic film “Somewhere in Time.” Mackinac City is on the mainland, one of six local park sites.

Mackinac Island, Michigan in summer
Mackinac Island, Michigan in summer (Mackinac Island Images)

In the wintertime the region is cold and covered with snow. But starting in early May, the summer visitors begin to arrive. Mackinac State Park welcomes them with historic sites from several eras, including the 1889 lighthouse.

Mackinac State Park Lighthouse

Here’s what their website tells us about the history:
“A point in the storm and a guiding beacon since 1889, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse helped passing ships navigate through the treacherous waters of the Straits of Mackinac. There’s just as much to see from the top of the tower as inside the original buildings. Authentically restored quarters and exhibits, including the original lens and an audiovisual program, Shipwrecks of the Straits, make this “Castle of the Straits” a true gem of the Great Lakes.

The lighthouse is located in Mackinaw City, Michigan. It is closed in the winter and will reopen May 5, 2014.”

Problems in clothing the interpreters

Craig Wilson wanted to provide something that was both warm and authentic for the primary interpreter during the cool spring and fall days. The women interpretive guides usually wear skirts and shirtwaists from the era of 1910 to 1915, mostly in neutral summer colors. Some days, those cotton blouses just aren’t enough protection! Lavender’s Green worked with Craig to research and create a jacket that was both warm and authentic.

Designing the jacket

Fashions were changing rapidly during the ‘teens, the time represented at the lighthouse. A review of fashion plates and photos shows a wide range of styles that might have been worn in the big cities and by the wealthy vacationers at Mackinac Island.

October 1916 Russell's Standard Fashions, publ. by Dover Press
October 1916 Russell’s Standard Fashions, reprint published by Dover Press

 

Dorothy Minto, photographed in 1912 by Bassino
Dorothy Minto, photographed in 1912 by Bassino

However, a lighthouse keeper was not among the well-to-do classes, and the lighthouse keeper’s wife or daughter would probably not wear a high-fashion suit on her daily rounds. Instead, we looked to examples provided in contemporary paintings. These were scenes from everyday life, and they helped us to see what a woman might have thrown over her clothes in her home or garden.

Amer Edmund Tarbell (American painter, 1862-1938)  Josephine Knitting
Josephine Knitting by Amer Edmund Tarbell (American painter, 1862 – 1938) shows a simple separates look for at-home wear.
Another classic jacket is pictured in the 1915 painting, Portrait of E N Glebova by Russian painter Pavel Filonov.
Another classic jacket is pictured in the 1915 painting, Portrait of E N Glebova by Russian painter Pavel Filonov.
A slightly later painting, The Garden Bench, painted in 1920 by American Rae Sloan Bredin, shows a similar jacket in a summer setting.
A slightly later painting, The Garden Bench, painted in 1920 by American Rae Sloan Bredin, shows a similar jacket in a summer setting.

We chose this basic style, with a high waisted belt and some flare over the hips, as a typical style of the time. We had measurements for Helen, one of the long-term interpretive staffers. I started with a pattern from Folkwear Patterns, which is now out of print. Folkwear’s “Equestriennes Riding Habit,” (copyright 1994) was a copy of a three-piece 1920 linen riding habit, unlined. I began with that jacket, simplified the pockets, and added a silk lining.

Fabric and color choices

Craig wanted the new jacket to be a dark color that would coordinate with the existing wardrobe at the park. Skirts in the collection were tan, black and other neutral shades. I selected a nautical blue wool flannel based on its warmth and the beautiful color. I was able to discover a 1907 painting that showed that exact shade being worn in a casual, watery summertime setting.

Lady Rowing a Boat by Lilla Cabot Perry (American 1848 - 1933)
Lady Rowing a Boat by Lilla Cabot Perry (American 1848 – 1933)

The wool jacket is lined in white china silk, similar to what you might find in a vintage garment, and a useful extra layer against the Lake Michigan wind.

blue 1913 jacket 008 blue 1913 jacket cropped

The finished jacket

Senior Lighthouse Interpreter Helen wearing the jacket
Senior Lighthouse Interpreter Helen wearing the jacket

While it may not be high fashion for 1915, the new jacket is certainly an authentic and practical addition to the lighthouse interpreters’ wardrobes.