Marjorie Gilbert, author of The Return, made an empire gown from a Janet Arnold pattern and featured it on her website. She graciously answered some of my questions about the process of its creation. Below sits the interview.
Vic: Marjorie, did you purchase a pattern for the gown and is this your first one? Where will you wear it, and did you make it for a purpose? What material is the gown made of? Is this the first empire gown you have ever attempted? What accessories will you use with the gown?
Marjorie: The pattern I used was a drawing on graph paper in Janet Arnold’s Book, Patterns of Fashion, Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction, c 1660 – 1860. I went that route because I liked how the bodice piece looked smooth and ungathered, even though it’s actually gathered in two places along the top. Since I had already made a Spencer from Janet Arnold’s book, as well as an evening gown that’s circa 1940 from another one of her books, I thought it’d be a piece of cake.
It was not a piece of cake.
I made the pattern myself from the book. You can see some of the patterns in these two links to my site: Click here and here. The latter picture shows three different patterns pieces for the center back, which were the three different versions of the gown. The center back pattern piece of the back which is on the left is what was illustrated in the book–which was obviously for a shorter and smaller woman (something I didn’t take into account, even though the gown was described as being circa 1798 – 1805). Because of the project, I learned about scaling up pattern pieces, the importance of mock-ups (This image shows the mock-up in white and blue fabric of the back seams, which was then translated into the finished fabric in the lower left), and draping. As an English major who did spend a lot of time in costume shops, but received no formal training, it was a very challenging project.
The gown is made of bleached muslin. The skirt back, which forms the train, is one piece of fabric that’s 58 inches wide 58 inches long. The original bolt of fabric was about 5 feet tall on its roll. I used white cotton for the bodice piece with an ivory, jacquard floral pattern.
This is the first period Empire gown I’ve made myself. I did make one out of crushed velvet from a dress I saw in a catalogue, but that was more of an evening gown.
As for accessories, I wear a locket on a gold chain that contains a lock of my husband’s hair, period-ish earrings, black half boots (for comfort and durability–even though the paten for elastic wasn’t filed until the 1830’s), and long white gloves. A friend made me the bonnet, which is actually Regency, but I’ll wear it anyway. I also made a set of stays from a pattern by the Mantua Maker . When I have the time, I’ll make a chemise and petticoat as well, probably from this site. Right now, I just use two slips: one half slip that reaches to my ankles, and a full slip that I’ve altered so it’s not so form-fitting at the top. The full slip plays the role of the chemise, and goes beneath the stays.
I wear the gown to book signings, and everywhere else that I can think of, though the train makes walking and turning quickly a liability–not to mention the risk of others who might trod on it as well. I have also worn it to my writers group, since two of the members of my group weren’t able to travel to a book signing I had at Borders in South Portland, Maine. As most of my books seem to be set in the early 1800’s, I’ll be set for a while. When I move on into the later part of the century, I’ll have to make another gown, probably also from Janet Arnold’s book. I made the gown because I love the period, and I love period clothing. In the 1980’s, I worked as a costumer’s apprentice at the Theatre at Monmouth, the Shakespearian theatre of Maine, and learned a great deal from the wonderful costume designer, Hillary Derby. She also showed me Janet Arnold’s book.
I hope that answers your questions. As someone else has expressed an interest in my describing getting dressed in the gown, from the stays up, I’ll be adding that to the website, hopefully during next weekend
PS. You can find information about Janet Arnold by reading a review of the book I used for the project here. Janet Arnold died in 1998. I’m very sorry I never got the chance to tell her what influence she had on my life…
- Janet Arnold Obituary: Includes extensive biography
- Janet Arnold’s Polonaise Gown at Katherine’s Dress site
- The Little White Regency Dress
- Link on this site to another contemporary version of a beautiful Regency gown
Update: Click here for my interview with Marjorie about her regency stays.