Recreating a Paris Gown, Part Three: The New Gown

As a historical dressmaker, I love a challenge! So, it was with great interest that I began creating a new evening gown for my client based on the key elements of her Paris original. I began with the bodice lining. I used a fine white silk, similar to the original lining fabric. The seam lines were copied from the original, but using the client’s measurements for the new gown. Like the dressmakers and modistes of 100 years ago, I used boning in the seams and at the center front to keep the dress from shifting or rolling up while it’s being worn.

1912 silk gown project 001 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

Once I knew that the lining would fit correctly, it was time apply the next layer: the underskirt. I used white silk here, as well, since the original gown had a silk underskirt. The shape of the skirt followed the 1912 lines: smooth over the front, with the extra fullness pleated into the center back.

 

1912 silk gown project 010 (2)The underskirt was sewn to the lining by hand, just as we found in the original. This gives the sewist more control over placement, a flatter seam, and a safe way to sew past the metal boning, which was already in place in those seam lines.

The next step was to drape the bodice sections. We had chosen silk charmeuse in a glorious coral color, similar to the 1912 fabric, but without the soft crinkled texture. Given our time and budget constraints, we had also decided not to copy the hand embroidered sections on the bodice. We created a draped bodice with the kimono sleeves, but without the gusset detail or embroidery. 1912 silk gown project 014 (2)

 

1912 silk gown project 015 process

The original skirt had been made in sections; so was ours. This section would have the embroidered antique bands attached along the curved edges.

1912 silk gown project 016Like the original, this skirt layer was open in the back. The overskirt drape would cover the selvedge edges.

1912 silk gown project 019 full lengthThe draped section had to be exactly long enough to carry the antique bands. In addition, it needed to gracefully span the gap between the center back and center front openings. I experimented with the placement to find the “just right” proportions.

1912 silk gown project 020 full lengthThe original underskirt facing was long gone, possibly removed by a previous owner for an art or home decorating project. Rather than try to recreate it, we chose to cover the underskirt section with matching silk charmeuse. This would also be sewn in place by hand.

1912 silk gown project 024Now we had the basic gown made up in new fabric. It was time to incorporate the antique sections that we had been able to save.

1912 silk gown project 015I had sewn the embroidered bands onto the main skirt by hand before pinning it to the form. I gained a deep appreciation for the detailed artistic embroidery that those long-ago modistes had done!

1912 silk gown project 017The overskirt drapery was mounted to the lining slightly above the natural waist. The sash would cover the last of the lining and all the hand stitched sections.

1912 silk gown project 018Here I have recreated the draping of the original skirt layers. The top layer would be tacked in strategic areas as the original was, but for the most part, the draped skirt stays in place because of its weight and the clever design.

1912 silk gown project final 007

 

1912 silk gown project final 008

1912 silk gown project final 010

1912 silk gown project final 011It is rare to be able to examine a Paris designer gown like this one; it is even more unusual to be asked to take it apart! Normally, I would prefer to keep the entire original intact for future study. In this case, though, with the original starting to break apart and some of it already removed, it had already lost much of its value as an antique. I am glad that I was able to document its deconstruction and the reconstruction, and that I could share it with you.

Recreating a Paris Gown, Part Two: deconstructing an antique Paris gown

Paris was an exciting place for the fashion industry at the beginning of the century. The House of Worth in the late 19th century had created an image of luxury, style and exquisite needlework for wealthy customers not just from France, but from the Continent, England and the United States. The industry included not just employees, but contract seamstresses, embroiders, and finishers in little ateliers throughout the fashion district. Some of these capable women went on to create their own reputations and their own clientele.

 

Inside the bodice is a customized stay tape at the waist.
Inside the bodice is a customized stay tape at the waist.

Inside the gown that I was to reconstruct was this label, which led me to discover one of these innovative fashion houses: Callot Soeurs. You can find out more about them at these links:

http://www.fashionintime.org/callot-sisters-history-fashion/

http://www.victoriana.com/GazetteduBonTon/designerdresses.html

 

Here is an image of another of Callot Soeurs gown. (Source unknown)
Here is an image of another of Callot Soeurs gown. (Source unknown)
Photo of embroiderers from Les Creatuers des Mode, 1910; I do not know if these women were working on gowns for the Callot sisters, but it is possible! Many of these ateliers were on the upper floors of buildings so that they could take advantage of natural daylight from the skylights overhead.
Photo of embroiderers from Les Creatuers des Mode, 1910; I do not know if these women were working on gowns for the Callot sisters, but it is possible! Many of these ateliers were on the upper floors of buildings so that they could take advantage of natural daylight from the skylights overhead.

 

Beautiful embroidery, damaged fabric
Beautiful embroidery, damaged fabric

The Callot sisters were known for the use of gold and silver lame and poly-colored embroideries… On this antique bodice the metallic threads have torn the silk fabric. But the wealthy patrons never expected the gowns to last 100 years, so it didn’t matter to them that the metallic threads might damage the silk. These gowns were expected to be ephemeral things, worn only once or twice in the presence of a circle of friends, then packed away, possibly to be brought out again on a voyage or at a resort. The styles changed so quickly in this era that by the next year the lady would order another gown featuring some new and novel design.

The silk embroideries have lasted, so we are able to re-use these lovely pieces.

Silk embroidery on the original gown, shown against the skirt lining. Inside the elaborate darpery I found a straiht pin, left there by a long-ago seamstress in Paris.
Silk embroidery on the original gown, shown against the skirt lining. Inside the elaborate drapery I found a straight pin, left there by a long-ago seamstress in Paris.

One of the typical features in many of these late Edwardian gowns is the insert at the front of the bodice. These vestees are often the most distinctive and artistic section of the gown, repeating and embellishing the overall theme. On this gown, the silk backing the vestee has been shattered and broken apart, but the metallic lace was intact.

I carefully removed the intact embroidered bands, revealing the original vestee.
I carefully removed the intact embroidered bands, revealing the original vestee.

 

The silk organza backing was shattered.
The silk organza backing was shattered.

The “S-curve” silhouette is another trademark of the Edwardian era. You might look at those early photos and wonder how they puffed their chests out like that! This glimpse of the supporting ruffles may answer the question. These ruffles were made of substantial silk satin, gathered to the lining and allowed to support the outer fabric. You can see from the photo that the edges were pinked, not hemmed, and that this section of the dress is still like new after 100 years.

The original ruffles supported the "S-curve" shape.
The original ruffles supported the “S-curve” shape.
The bodice lining, fromthe inside, reveals much about couture construction techniques.
The bodice lining, from the inside, reveals much about couture construction techniques.

I was reminded of a different approach to garment construction as I studied the lining of this gown. If you look closely at the photo, you will notice that the shoulder strap section is sewn by hand to the body of the lining. The edges were hand hemmed first, and then the entire section was whip stitched along the connecting edges. Our modern method would be to machine these pieces together along a standard seams line, but this couture method gives the designer much more control over the final fit.

I have sometimes read ladies’ complaints about the endless time spent in fittings at the dressmaker’s in journals and letters of earlier times. As we examine the careful attention to a perfect fit, starting with that innermost layer, we can see why the fittings were necessary. This also helps me to understand some of the exorbitant expense of a designer gown. This dress was not pre-cut with dozens of other dresses and then sewn together by machine in an assembly line! This couture gown was created, customized and crafted for only one client. Of course she (or her husband) would pay for that sort of detail!

An underarm gusset was added for better fit and then embroidered to blend into the overall design.
An underarm gusset was added for better fit and then embroidered to blend into the overall design.

Note the underarm gusset… Madeleine Vionnet originally worked at the Callot Soeurs house, where this gown was made – imagine her learning to work with this element here, to be carried on later in her revolutionary bias cut gowns?

It’s a strange sensation to disassemble a piece of history. My usual inclination would be to preserve it. But, the client wanted to wear the gown, not merely look at it, and it was not wearable in its present state. It would be too small to fit her, and there would have been the constant threat of further damage. Plus, of course, a large part of this gown had already been removed from the skirt. We can only imagine how grand that section must have been!

I was privileged to be able to take my time in the process and to take clear photos every step of the way. As I worked, I learned.

 

Next post: the new gown

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.

IMG_3461

IMG_3463
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.

 

 

IMG_3477
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.

Dressing the Empress

Portrait of Josephine by Francis Gerard 1801
Portrait of Josephine by Francis Gerard 1801

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.

 

 

Josephine Bonaparte 1812
Josephine Bonaparte 1812

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.

 

stays 1810 Costume Parisienne
Short stays from Costume Parisienne 1810

 

From an 1824 reprint of an 1811 engraving
From an 1824 reprint of an 1811 engraving

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.

 

 

Josephine clothing 001
Josephine clothing 005Josephine clothing 008

 

 

 

 

 

 

Josephine clothing 011Josephine clothing 018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Museum photographer Reggie Davis captured this image of “Josephine” to use in publicity for the program.
Museum photographer Reggie Davis captured this image of “Josephine” to use in publicity for the program.

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.

Photo courtesy of the Frazier Museum
Photo courtesy of the Frazier Museum
Josephine interp 2
Photo courtesy of the Frazier Museum
Josephine interp 3
Photo courtesy of the Frazier Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a collaboration!