Thursday, January 20, 2011

1790s Clothing

This is an email I sent earlier today to several fellow 18th century writers. Because I'm so immersed in the subject this week, I'm posting it here too (Pardon the references to personal trials and tribulations. I usually try to reserve them for Facebook. ). 

I'm feeling too ill today after back-to-back bugs (taking care of a hubby home-stranded by sickness in the brief interlude between them! Oh,what a month it's been) to do more than a little scene plotting today, the first day I might have written undisturbed since Jan 7th, had I not come down with the second bug yesterday. I'm here though, propped up on medication. This is the most sickly winter for our household that I can remember for many a year.

But enough of that, back to writing! Since my upcoming chapter will contain more references to dressmaking than any I've previously written, I've been immersing myself in 1790s fashion, fabrics, patterns and sewing (via Tidings from the 18th Century, by Beth Gilgun), while resting comfortably in my recliner near the warm and cozy stove. Gilgun has a lot of great leads in her end of chapter references, and I'm off to follow a few. But first....

The early to mid 1790s were such a transitional decade. Not quite Rev War fashion, but not yet quite the Jane Austin Empire waist fashion either. My specific year is 1796, so I'm going with the the round gown with its lengthening sleeves as the established fashion, and the chemise dress with its thinner fabric, gathered neck, and wide bright sash as the most fashionable thing to be had for a middle class young lady. Perhaps they've heard about or seen the Empire waist gowns with their sheer fabrics and short puffed sleeves, and wonder would they ever be daring enough to wear such a thing, much less during a New England winter, just drawing to a close in my chapter.

Apparently some did just that. There was "quite an uproar from the pulpits and in the press over the scantiness of the Empire style. Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College, [penned in a 1811 pamphlet,] "A young lady dressed a' la Greque (or Grecian style, meant to emulate Grecian statuary) in a New England winter violates alike good sense, correct taste, sound morals, and the duty of self-preservation." From Tidings from the 18th Century, by Beth Gilgun.

The 1790s are a bit later a time period than most of you are writing, but if any of you have a good reference for this time period in regards to fashion (particularly New England/Boston), I'd appreciate a mention. I've just tracked down Janet Arnold's Patterns of History (1660-1860). It's always a joy to find our library carries a research book, and they do have this one. Another I will track down is Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes, 1770-1870, by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt.

Anyone read either of those? Do you have another indispensable resources for the period to share? I'd love to add to my resource collection!


  1. First off, sorry your household is ailing. At least you can be grateful that you are not ailing in the 18th century. I'm reading a historical and they've just come through an influenza epic and I'm still shuddering. :-)

    I love reading about you historical writers and research. As a reader, I really appreciate the effort you go into bringing an era to life in every way possible. My mind is full of snippets of information that I have gleaned from reading historical fiction since I was a child. It's the only way history sticks in my fantastical brain. :-)

    I work part time in a college library and we have a nice collection of History of fashion books since we have Fashion Design in the curriculum. I love looking over those. I don't often write historical, but when I do, I get the wording right just from the captions!

    We also have books with historical newspaper advertisements since we have an advertising course as well. I often marvel at how those Victorians were brazen enough to place full-page ads for corsets in the newspaper! LOL. Great for getting the pricing right.

    But for actually making a garment -- I'd go to the theatrical staging section of the library. We also have some great books in that section that show in detail exactly how a garment was constructed -- and then how you can do it in modern times.

    Happy snoozing by the fire!

  2. I hope you and your's are fit and well soon. I look forward to future posts.
    Regards, Le Loup.

  3. Kav, I AM so very grateful to be living in this century, where I only have to go to the medicine cabinet to make my symptoms bearable.

    It's amazing sometimes how much research goes into adding a few details into a scene. A phrase about a gown, a word or two about someone's garment as they move through a scene, some character's appraisal of another's apparel in comparison to her own. Behind that can be a pile of books on historic fashions, and hours of reading.

    I can't think of a better place than a library to work!

  4. "A young lady dressed a' la Greque (or Grecian style, meant to emulate Grecian statuary) in a New England winter violates alike good sense, correct taste, sound morals, and the duty of self-preservation."

    The self-preservation remark made me laugh. I guess things haven't changed much because the latest fashion these days seems to be for high schools girls to dress in summerwear in the depths of winter. They wear shorts, and short skirts, to school, with bare legs and even sandals, when the temps are below freezing. It's insane.

    Sorry to hear you've been ill. I just got over something myself; down for a week, and then it took several more days to find my energy and appetite again.

  5. Beth, The more things change the more they stay the same. I think every generation has had some finger-shaking to do at the next generation's clothing choices. Scandalous! :)

    This month has been a bit frustrating as far as not getting done the writing/plotting that I mean to, but I still have a week and a bit to catch up. Hope we both stay well the rest of the winter!