How do you convince an audience that you really are wearing clothing designed and made for an 18th century woman? Here's a quick essential guide from our archive by Hallie Larkin.
The safest choice is a taffeta, or shot (changeable) silk, or silk (duchesse) satin. Keep in mind that color and weight are important. Stay away from neon colors, or taffetas that are too light. If you can see your hand through the fabric, it is not a good choice. If it is too heavy and stiff and won’t take a pleat, then it is also not a good choice. Expect to pay $15-$25 per yard for a decent taffeta; I shop the remnant tables and can often pick up good silk on sale for $10.
The next safest choice is a taffeta stripe. Home decor departments have lots of stripes, but here is where we have to be careful, and really consider the type of gown planned. Wide stripes work well with sacques, and can be neatly arranged to fall in a pleasing manner down the back, drawing the eye perfectly down to the floor.
However... those same broad stripes can turn into a mess on an English gown, as the pleats are fighting the stripes all the way down the back! In my gown classes I encourage a beginner to work with a solid fabric; making your first English gown is challenge enough without having to deal with pleating the stripes.
The tapering pleats on the back of this original silk gown (below) look lovely. However, achieving that effect with a striped pattern is not an easy technique. It can be very frustrating to a new 18th century seamstress, causing hours of angst! Remember, your back is the center of attention!
In addition to extant garments, 18th century portraits are an excellent resource when shopping for your fabrics. Finding a portrait is so easy with all of the images we have available today. Here a few portraits that I have used as inspiration and documentation of fabrics. Add a small printout of your favorites to your swatch book!
(You ARE making a swatch book, right? Be the Barbara Johnson of the future; her swatch book is an invaluable resource for 18th century fabrics!)
This portrait of Mrs. Turner is attributed to J. S. Copley, c 1767. Her gown is a simple blue, white and yellow stripe. While you might not find the exact same width, colors or arrangement of stripes, you can certainly find an approximation.
This rosy pink silk gown worn by Mrs. Dorothy Quincy, also by Mr. Copley, can also easily be located in modern fabrics. While not exactly the same color, we are on the right track with this fabric.
Mrs. Winthrop, also by Copley, was a very established and well-to-do member of Greater Boston society. Her gown appears to be a deep blue satin. This is another very obtainable fabric. When planning a historical replication, using portraits such as these is an invaluable aid to getting it right the first time. Don’t make things up! The work is already done by the wonderful artists of the 18th century.
Silk duchesse satins are usually more expensive than silk taffeta, but worth the price for a spectacular gown. Shine and clarity of color in this portrait of Mrs. Cumming point out immediately the advantages of this fabric, and silk satin is often overlooked as a fabric selection by costumers.
This traveling ensemble worn by Mrs. Mary Fox would be easily made up in an inexpensive medium grey taffeta. Our shopping choices for wide ribbons are limited, so use striped fabric instead. It is that kind of detail that can turn an inexpensive taffeta into a spectacular reproduction.
Patterned and brocaded silks such as that worn by Mrs. Winslow (below) are expensive. Expect to pay $30-$100 per yard for these fabrics. Here is where you need to be especially careful, as a single gown can cost over $500 in fabric alone.
Fabrics with floral bouquets or flower and stripe combinations are excellent choices for formal sacques. Good 18th century designs are often found in less expensive silk/cotton blend fabrics - just be careful that the fabric is not too heavy. Swatches from online vendors are a must when choosing these expensive fabrics.
Hallie's complete article, including an online and offline shopping guide, a pictorial tour of original 18th century brocades, and how to shop for something modern that will get you as close to them as possible, is free for Members.
About the Author: Hallie Larkin
Hallie is a historical costumer and owner of the 18th Century Sutlery At the Sign of the Golden Scissors. Her work is based on personal observation and study of original 18th century artifacts.
Hallie lives in Swansea, Massachusestts, USA. She is a former President of the Costume Society of America, Northeastern Region (I), and President of Southcoast Historical Associates 501C(3). She is also a founding member of the Ladies of Refined Taste, a group of dedicated re-enactors who sponsor the "Hive", an ongoing series of workshops and lectures at the Minuteman National Park, Lexington, Massachusetts.