Empire Ensemble

May 31st, 2011

Just in time for our Neoclassical Memorial Day Picnic, I finished my Empire ensemble. It consisted of:

  • a stomacher front dress (built onto what was originally intended to be a separate bodiced petticoat);
  • a tiny lace shawl, strategically designed to preserve my modesty;
  • and a gypsy bonnet, complete with veil (a handy safeguard in case my shawl slipped; at least I wouldn’t be recognized).

Empire Back

As you may be able to tell from the back, with it’s tiny, raised bodice panel and slight train, it’s a very early Regency style (copied mostly from Janet Arnold). But because I based the scandalous neckline on a French portrait, I am calling the dress Empire instead. As you may recall from earlier posts, I initially thought the dress in the painting must close in the back, so I proceeded accordingly. As I worked through the fittings, and just couldn’t make the back behave no matter how I tried, I began to look for examples of back-closing dresses from this period. And I failed to find a single one that matched.

Then, I looked again at the painting, and again. And what do you think? It turns out the painting was a stomacher front as well! So I re-cut the back, removed most of the front, and cut a new front bodice piece to add to the apron part of the skirt. Because of the last minute change in plans, there are some definite irregularities in the dress construction. Most are invisible from the outside, but you can tell when you open it up. Ah well. I’ll do better next time.

Empire Front

Somehow this photograph avoids being terribly indecent, perhaps because it was taken indoors. But I kept my shawl draped around my neck and hanging down the front while I was out and about. Can you see the similarity to my inspiration painting? While it’s not an exact copy, I believe I captured the essentials. It was particularly exciting to see how Janet Arnold’s pattern created the exact lines seen in the portrait. I live for those little correspondences, when two disparate sources suddenly combine and magnify!

Alas, I fear I am now hooked on Regency. New dresses are already being planned…

Underbust Update

May 16th, 2011

I’m pleased to report some modest progress on my picnic ensemble, despite a busy weekend at work and a persistent headache. So far, I’ve been focused on building a viable under-structure for the bodice of my Empire frock. You’ll notice that I am now calling it Empire, as opposed to Regency, since the dress is taking on more and more of a French influence.

I have to admit I wasn’t too sure that this would work, even after making a quick version in muslin. But the linen under-bodice is really quite remarkable in the amount of support it offers — more than enough to dispense entirely with any thought of additional undergarments. It’s copied from the lining of Janet Arnold’s stomacher-front 1798-1805 morning dress, illustrated and diagrammed on pages 48 & 49 in Patterns of Fashion I.

I cheated and used the copier at work to enlarge the pattern. And, remarkably, had to make very few adjustments to make it fit like a glove: I added an inch to each side of the shoulder strap (I need to add length between the shoulder and bust points on most modern patterns as well) and it looks like I’ll be taking three inches out of the front of the bust (the original dress seems to have belonged to a very well-endowed lady).

Empire Lining

Here is my version in progress, including pins marking the center front on my own modest bosom. The original lining in Arnold’s book was pinned closed(!) but I plan to make lacing eyelets as I don’t trust straight pins to hold firmly, or to refrain from stabbing me at an awkward moment. I’m also going to add a long cotton petticoat, possibly with a few tucks at the bottom, to make this a true bodiced-petticoat. The dress will be made separately since it needs to open at the back, while the bust support relies on front closure to achieve its desired effect.

In case you are curious, I’m sewing by hand, so far at least, and finishing by overcasting the seams and hemming the edges. A cursory search turned up no directions for assembling a frock from this period and I’ve never seen an extant example up close, so I am going with the directions from the Workwoman’s Guide, published about 30 years later. Because I was too lazy to go to the laundromat and wash something from my stash of linen, I cut out the bodice from an old linen tea cloth that I purchased at our museum’s stoop sale last Saturday. Lastly, I apologize in advance for the lack of a live-model in this and following “in-progress” pictures. I am not photographing this stage of fitting for obvious reasons.