With baited breath I waited in the queue alongside my peers chattering excitedly, today would be the day we would discern what the next four months of our life would be dedicated to. For better or for worse the threads of our fates have been assembled and one by one plucked to appear before the lecturer who held the ends. When it came for me to learn my fate I was able to sigh in relief, I recognized this image! Anyone who has researched the Regency period would know what the costume from La Belle Assemblée’s 1818 issue looked like.
And yet even as I found myself relaxing into the embrace of familiarity I was not so unmannerly as to recognize that the task that lay before me would be long and daunting. But we were no longer first years and the road we must travel is unforgiving and yet so very rewarding. We were no longer children making toiles, this time we had to make the entire piece. Just looking at my costume I started to feel overwhelmed by the details.
I decided that the only way to defeat my apprehension would be to divide the work, break it down into pieces and work through it one at a time. The first thing I did was to draw a sketch of my costume, front and back. Armed with this I went fabric shopping. A very expensive amount of time later I returned with a plan. Since the embroidery makes up for a good half of the dress it would need to be completed first.
The most important part about this dress is the story behind the embroidery around the edge of the skirt. According to the 1818 description it is a “Ceres frock, with a very broad border of wheat ears in straw, worked on tulle. . .” In an earlier post I wrote about the making of the stays for this dress I briefly discussed the Early 19th century’s return to the Classical World. Ceres was worshipped as the Goddess of agriculture, grain, and the protector of fertility. It would only make sense that the dress for November 1818 would be dedicated to the Goddess of the Agriculture in thanks for a good harvest.
The first point of action was to draw up a pattern and to create a sample to present to my tutors for approval. After presenting my plan to hand embroider seven metres of English Net (and receiving quite a few stares of disbelief in return) I was given the all clear signal and began in earnest to embroider.
I worked out the technical bits so that I could try to plan ahead for any outcome. I divided my seven metres of net and came up with room for ten equal patterns. Each design would require thirty two leaves so I would need a total of three-hunred and twenty leaves. To save myself time I bought a trim and cut out each leaf I would need.
I decided that a gold cord and a cream cord would serve best as the vines.
With that plan I began to stitch.
In the beginning one half of the design took me nearly two hours because I had not yet worked out the way I would go about attaching everything. I was slow and afraid of the net and afraid of the gold metallic thread.
The more I worked at it the more I picked up a method. To start with I pinned the smaller vines which were doubled (one gold, one cream) on and stitched them. I then took the longer cords which were tripled (one gold, one cream, one gold) and stitched them on. To save time I would then attach the leaves before removing the frame to the other side of the design.
I was now able to do one entire design in 146 minutes ( 2 hours and 26 minutes including finger and snack breaks). Once the embroidery was complete I used a small stitch to attach the edges together leaving an opening down the back for the fastening of the gown.
After the embroidery was complete the next step would be to attach the lace at the hem. I spent days combing the markets and fabric shops of London looking for the perfect trim. The one I finally fell in love with continued the wheat pattern from my embroidery.
By far this was the most difficult part. I needed to attach seven metres of lace to seven metres of easily torn English Net. Setting my machine to .5 I proceeded with great caution. Eventually I was able to backstitch and snip the threads. I now had an embroidered overdress.
The next step would be to find the pattern I wanted to make up the dress which proved nearly impossible. In the end it was a combination of my studies of extant pieces, Janet Arnold, Jean Hunnisett, and Norah Waugh. Once the toile was complete I moved on to cutting into the silk dupioni I chose for my top fabric.
Once happy with the fit I dismantled the entire dress and stitched it properly. Now that the dress was complete I put it aside to focus on the next stop: The turban.
The only millinery project I have ever worked on was creating a drawn bonnet last year for a project so I was very apprehensive about how to start this project. I made a base out of buckram and used an antique silk scarf to cover the base.
In order for the turban to match what I eventually do to the hem of the dress I attached swarovski crystals and freshwater pearls in a random pattern.
I made a small tube and wrapped it with a ribbon to match the one worn in the picture. To finish the turban I attached an antique Edwardian ostrich feather.
I decided to attach a small hanging jewel to the turban based on this extant piece that recently came up for Auction in France.
My hair colour no longer matches the colour of the fashion plate to make up for that I attached small curls of hair to the inside base of the turban. I also created small earrings that match the ones worn in the design.
With the kind advice of Natalie Garbett I discovered Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion: 1795-1815. Suddenly the Henrietta Ruff was not such a terrible foe! I started off by following the extant example and creating a wire frame.
I then handstitched a row of lace to the frame and covered that with a second layer on each side. I stitched the points together to make sure they would stand out.
I used a small gathering stitch to make sure the bottom would hold. During the frame process I made five loops out of the wire to attach the collar to the dress.
I cut five ribbons of equal length and stitched them to the inside of the bodice.I then pulled them through the loops of the collar, tied them into a small bow, and tucked the edges in.
The collar is now firmly attached to the dress.
To finish the dress I decorated the hem and the bodice with small swarovski crystals and fresh water pearls in order to catch the stage lights.
I mentioned previously that the turban had to have curls attached as my hair was no longer the same colour as the design! I embroidered and hand stitched a reticule to go along with the dress as a lady would need a proper place to store her small items.
And what of the ladies shoes? I couldn’t find any that I felt would match my design so I created my own. Using a pattern I created from an extant pair of unmade Regency shoes I own. They were very straightforward. I created the base and the outside from deer hide courtesy of Tandy Leather Factory and used leftover silk to line the inside.
I purchased a pair of kidskin gloves elbow length opera gloves, an antique pashmina, and as a final touch a small antique spangled fan. The only thing left was the show!
I would like to thank the ladies I wrote asking for assistance during the course of this project. Instead of a single reply answering one question I found myself taken underwing and generously offered an interminable amount of patience, support, and advice. Without your kind words of wisdom I fear I would never have made it through this project with my sanity intact.
I have learnt so much during this project about myself and what I am capable of creating. I realize that I have a long way to go before I can name myself a mistress of my craft and yet every journey must have a beginning.