CSI: Georgian Gown

17 October 2012

I’m up to my EARS in writing and editing right now (as well as sneaky breaks to read the latest Agatha Raisin novel!) so haven’t had enough spare time to write some new blog posts. I know, I know. I suck and am rubbish.

HOWEVER, instead, I thought I’d share a golden oldie with you today to make up for the general lack of posts lately!

I was lucky enough to spend a few hours in the vast collections (I think they said they have 80,000 pieces in their archives) of the Fashion Museum in Bath last Spring. It almost went all wrong when it turned out that they had forgotten to put my appointment in their diary but all’s well that ends well and actually it worked out very well for me as I had to come back when everyone else booked in had finished and so had it all to myself.

I joked beforehand that it was going to be like CSI: Georgian Dress and it really was a bit like that as I donned special cotton gloves and set to work peeling back different layers of the dresses and poking my fingers into the pockets and sleeves! It was amazing seeing the hook and eye arrangements that they used to do up the bodices, the neat seam work and even the staining beneath the armpits which serves as a reminder that these are the real deal and not just mere costumes!

I came away with almost three hundred photos but will try and restrain myself a bit with this post!

Dress One: a floral printed muslin from 1793-97.

This dress has a bodice fastened with hooks and eyes and a full, open skirt. It really is lovely – very floaty and romantic with a pretty floral print. You can really imagine Marianne Dashwood in this one!

Dress Two: Possibly French silk dress, 1755-1760.

I don’t think the photographs have adequately captured the soft blue of this dress.

Dress Three: English, silk, 1752-55.

This gown was truly astonishing – the embroidery glittered and glowed as though it was brand new and it had the most amazing dramatic rustle to it. Just look at the shimmering, shiny needlework!

Dress Four: English, silk, 1770-73.

I loved this dress – it was so flouncy and romantic.

Dress Five: French, sacque gown, 1760-63.

They were really keen on combinations of pink and green during the eighteenth century – a colour combination that seems to have vanished from fashion, alas. The bodice of this dress was interesting as it has two layers.

Actually seeing these dresses in the flesh was just amazing – I’ve seen countless eighteenth century gowns on display and in portraits but nothing can prepare you for the actual feel of the fabric or the sound that it makes – these dresses really rustled. It’s incredible too to see how much work went into each one – the amount of sewing involved was extraordinary.

Dress six:

Unknown origin (looks English to me), robe volante from 1730-39.

I’ve posted quite a few photographs of the skirt just so you can all see the quality of the hand embroidered decoration. It really is amazing – I can’t imagine how many hours of work went into making this. It really does make you think about the amount of work that went into these dresses and how expensive they must have been. Also, these dresses were clearly worn by women of means but could a girl who was handy with her needle have made something comparable? I checked the seams on each dress and they were all neat with small stitches – it made me wonder about who had made the dresses and if they were professional seamstresses or the wearer herself.


The holes are for pockets.

Dress Seven:

English gown and petticoat, 1760-1770.

This dress looked really unassuming until I got up close and realised that the silk had a soft gold glow that would have looked amazing in candlelight. There was also an astonishing amount of fabric in the skirt, which had a bell shape and slight train that curved away from a shorter petticoat in the same material.

This dress has pockets as well!

A CSI shot of me rather excitedly putting my hand in an eighteenth century pocket!

Dress Eight:

Muslin dress, 1813-20.

This is a later dress but I asked to see a couple of muslin gowns too as I thought you would all be interested in seeing how they were put together. This dress was so beautiful but really worryingly see through! You forget this about muslin when you see them in period dramas and stuff, but you would definitely have to wear a petticoat (damped or otherwise) beneath this dress!

Dress nine:

Muslin dress with silk detail edging to the sleeves, 1816-20.

Dress ten:

Patterned muslin dress, 1815-20.

This is the sort of thing that a Heyer heroine would have worn. It is such a pretty, flounced dress with an interesting strap detailing at the wrists.

I really hope that you all enjoyed looking at my photographs! I’d really recommend that anyone who writes historical fiction tries to do something like this as it really makes you think about how people of the time would have moved and how restricted they really were by the clothes that they wore. I also now know a lot about dresses would have done up – the eighteenth century gowns went on like coats with the bodice fastening at the front thanks to a hook and eye arrangement and the skirt attached with an opening at the front, where the petticoat would have been visible.

The muslin gowns were particularly interesting as they are more transparent than I expected and also the fabric is really ungiving so they weren’t as comfy as you might think.

The other really obvious thing is how small they all were – both in terms of height but also overall size. All of the dresses were clearly worn by dinky little ladies, although it was common (thanks to the expense of fabric and dresses in general) for clothes to be taken up and cut down several times in their lifespan.

All photographs were taken by myself, with permission from the Fashion Museum in Bath. Many thanks to Elaine, the Collections Assistant for arranging this and for all of her help and enthusiasm on the day. I’ll definitely be back at some point to look at something else! There was an amazing wine coloured 1880s evening dress on the table behind me, so I may have to come back and have a closer look!

All photographs by me, but many thanks to the Fashion Museum, Bath.

The original posts are here and here.

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