Today, the Duchesses are thrilled to have a visit from Georgian historical author, Isobel Carr. Isobel is a former Golden Heart® finalist and her soon-to-be released, Ripe for Seduction, earned a starred review from PW and 4-stars from RT BOOK REVIEWS!
Her grace, Duchess Isobel is an expert on historical clothing and she’s stopping by to inform us about that delightful subject, the lady’s dressing room, specifically the apron-front gown. I had the pleasure of being in one of Isobel’s historical clothing workshops last summer at the RWA conference and was delighted by the details she shared with us and the items of clothing she passed around for all to see.
I love talking historical clothing, especially when I can show people something they may never have seen before. When I went to my very first Romance Writer’s of America conference, I showed up to give my History of Underclothes workshop wearing my Regency apron-front gown. I had no idea that most of the people attending the workshop would never have seen one of these! I stepped to the front of the room and asked for someone to play lady’s maid and help me out of it. My volunteer went directly to my back and then stood there looking confused. I pulled out the pins that held the small apron flap up and there was a gasp from the audience. Several people actually just stood up and walked up to the front to get a better look. It was in that moment that I discovered that the things I take for granted as a re-enactor were novel to many writers who get their fashion history from very different sources.
Those of you who’ve seen me at my various workshops know exactly how these gowns work, those who haven’t are in for a treat as we look at the secrets of one of the most popular styles from the early Regency period. This style goes by lots of names: Apron-front, Drop-front, Placket-front, Stomacher-front. It’s all the same kind of dress, though. It was extremely popular from just before the turn of the century up through about 1812-1813. I would expect countrified (or poor) heroines to still be wearing it during at least the first half of the actual Regency, if not beyond (especially considering that the lower classes are still in 18th century fashions at the end of the Regency).
The style was extremely popular for day gowns, and most of the extant examples I’ve seen are made out of muslin or calico, with either tambour work (the muslin examples), or simple self-fabric trim (the calico examples). There are, however, examples of evening gowns made in this style in the collections of the Kyoto Costume Institute and the Victorian and Albert Museum.
Let’s walk you through how the dress went on. They are deceptively simple, though they look like an octopus:
- Slip it on over the head (stepping into something when wearing a shift and petticoat is a real pain).
- Put your arms into the sleeves (which, depending on how tight/long they are, might require help; mine do, especially to get them over the shoulder and to get the shift sleeves to not bunch up in the armpit).
- If it has ties attached to the back of the dress at the waist (some do, some don’t), pull them forward and tie them just under the breasts to help hold the dress in place.
- Take the side flaps of the bodice and cross them over the chest, pinning them (yes, with tiny straight pins) in place.
- Take the long ties that are attached to the front of the gown and wrap them around the back (all the extant examples I’ve seen have little belt loops on the back of the dress to help hold these in place). Bring them around and tie them off in front. Tuck the dangling ends down the front of the skirt, inside (I’m “assuming” these went inside as I don’t see them in paintings or fashion prints). [note: the pictures incorrectly show the ties in a bow at the back, this is a common problem with how these are displayed, as is having the ties dangle in front]
- Fold the bib up so it covers the chest and either pin it in place, hook it, or button it, depending on how the dress is made.
Once the gown is on and closed, it’s nearly impossible to tell that it’s not just a round gown, though now that you’re in on the secret of how these gowns work, you’ll be able to spot them should you ever be at a Jane Austen event.
For more clothing history, please visit my website:http://www.isobelcarr.com/history.html.