Sometimes you get to be part of a project so incredible that it just takes multiple blog posts to do it justice.
The Costumed Interpreter corps at Locust Grove is growing and growing, and this year we’re trying out something new. At the Historic Timeline Picnic each July, we will be presenting a reenactment outside of our normal 1816 scope–something really interesting that happened at Locust Grove that we wouldn’t usually get to show people. For the first year, we settled on Ann Croghan’s wedding to Thomas Jesup in 1822. Working outside of 1816 presents plenty of challenges, first and foremost, that people playing central roles need new clothing for the new time period, and have to be willing to spend time and money on an outfit that they may not get another chance to wear.
I was asked to play Ann back in January, and, being me, jumped at the chance to create a dress in a not-often-done period. And after several months of searching for a willing Jesup, guess who’s pretending to marry me in July? Brandon. Several people have threatened to become ordained ministers in order to turn our fake wedding into a real one in a romantic-comedy-like switch.
But back to the dress. Wedding dresses in the early nineteenth century weren’t the bedazzled evening gowns we often think of today, but they were special. White, while a common color, was not compulsory. I spent the first few months after being cast doing research and planning what I wanted my outfit to look like.
One of the most noticeable differences between 1816 and 1822 are the waistlines–in 1816, the empire waist had reached its highest point, which dropped rapidly over the next five years until it settled about halfway between the natural waist and the underbust. Skirts became more bell-shaped, and sleeves and hem decoration continued to grow. This is the transitional aesthetic between the Regency period and the Romantic. I looked at all sorts of dresses, but kept my biggest influences to actual wedding dresses and wedding fashion plates.
This dress was my single biggest influence, I took the hem decoration and bodice front directly from it. I did want to tweak the shape a bit, though, to really highlight the differences between strictly Regency fashion, and this transitional period. I added a waistband to emphasize the lower waistline, and widened the hem to be more bell-like. It’s very likely that the dress above would have a better shape if it had been displayed with a petticoat or two underneath, which Mrs. Hjort would have worn.
The only other thing about Mrs. Hjort’s wedding dress that I wanted to change was those sleeves. I mean come on. I like some froof, but those were a bit much. So I found this gorgeous sleeve detail from a different wedding dress to use, and then I stared at it really hard until I figured out how it was done.
To get the idea of what a full wedding ensemble might have looked like, I turned to fashion plates. These two from the Journals des Dames et des Modes were very helpful, the first is from 1820, the second from 1823. I would not normally use any resource from after 1822, but you can see that the basic ensemble doesn’t change much. I wish I could have found a wedding plate from 1822, but no luck there. These two plates are a great illustration of how quickly the hems were widening and waistlines dropping, because the two outfits are very similar except those minor changes in shape. The only other major difference is that the 1823 fashion called for long sleeves, and the 1820 for short. I wish I knew which was most fashionable in 1822, but I have seen extant examples with both. These plates were a bit of a sigh of relief, because they show that veils styled around elaborate hairstyles were the fashion which means I don’t have to build a new bonnet for the event!
So once I had all this research done, it was time to put it all together, and I came up with this sketch. I know it’s a bit hard to see, but you can get the basic idea.
To turn this vision into a reality, I started with my Sensibility Regency Dress Pattern (as I so often do), and then changed everything about it. I find that it’s easier to start with a jumping off pattern, even if almost nothing about the dress will remain the same. At least I know that pattern fits me.
Dropping the waistline was no big deal, I just needed to lengthen each piece following the shape of my body. The biggest alteration was in the bodice front. I had to turn the single-piece front that gathers into the waist into a three-piece front in order to create that lovely ruched and ruffled detail in the center. This involved making a mockup of the longer bodice, then putting it on, pinning and marking where the new seam would go, and removing the extra fabric that would have been gathered in. This picture shows what the shapes of the new pattern pieces would be.
The back also needed some tweaking. I wanted a flat back, not a gathered one like in Mrs. Hjort’s dress at the beginning of this post. I was able to look at pictures of the backs of several 1822 gowns and spencers, and the center back pieces were much narrower at the bottom than my pattern was, creating almost a V-shape from shoulder to center-back. I had to adjust the shapes of the back and side-back pieces in order to achieve this look, then make a new mockup to check the fit of all my new pattern pieces. Poor Brandon got to pin me in and help adjust the fit where I couldn’t reach, but I think he’s gotten over the trauma (I can be a bit particular about my sewing…). I didn’t take pictures of the skirt adjustments because frankly, adding extra width to a hem is not terribly exciting.
Construction on the dress has now begun, and more posts will follow soon! (Did I mention it’s all being done by hand?) Time to dive in to glorious period detail and hours and hours worth of pin-tucks.
P.S. Here’s a sneak peek of what’s to come–I have amazing friends!