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Stays from a pattern by the Mantua Maker

Stays from a pattern by the Mantua Maker

Inquiring readers, last week author Marjorie Gilbert kindly described how she created her empire gown. This week she continues the interview, describing how she made stays (corset) to wear underneath her dress.

Vic: You mentioned choosing a neutral color for under the muslin dress, since the fabric was thin and rather see-through. Didn’t the stays feel a bit bulky? How do the busks feel when you wear the stays? Do they restrict your movement in bending over? Why did you choose this pattern?

The busk is made up of two paint stirrers wrapped in bleached muslin

The busk is made up of two paint stirrers wrapped in bleached muslin

Marjorie: The stays don’t feel bulky at all, especially when they’re tightly laced. There’s only one busk that is made up of two Sherwin William paint stirrers wrapped tightly in muslin. This is because though the paint stirrers had the necessary 14 inches in length, they didn’t have the thickness or stiffness I needed. We saw a busk that Herman Melville brought back from his time spent on the whaling ship while visiting the Maine Maritime Museum. His was made of whalebone and was scrimshawed. Mine is more modest and cost $0.00. Because the busk is padded by the muslin and the busk pocket, it doesn’t feel bad at all. If anything, it encourages a more upright posture. It is a little more difficult to bend over.

I chose the pattern for the stays because Deb Salisbury, the Mantua Maker, recommended it. Because the gown I chose to make spanned the Empire and Directoire period, the stays that would have been worn with it would have been Regency rather than Georgian. Apparently, as Deb informed me, Georgian stays made one flatter, while the Regency stays encourage more north and south action, if you know what I mean.

Stays loosely laced

Stays loosely laced

Vic: An actress once said in an interview that when you put on an authentic costume with all the undergarments and accessories, you become a different person and that your actions become informed by the garment itself. Do you take on a different persona as well when you don your outfit?

Marjorie: I find that I walk more slowly and stand straighter when wearing the gown and the stays. I don’t necessarily feel like a different person because I wear the gown mainly to book signings where I am focused more on engaging all and sundry in conversation and trying to sell them in my book.

Vic: Delicately speaking, how difficult is it to, er, relieve oneself when one is so trussed up and when one has to deal with a train and all that fabric?

Marjorie: As to the necessities: I always empty my bladder before getting dressed in the stays and the gown. So far, I haven’t needed to use the necessities while wearing them.

Vic: Who acts as your ladies maid in tying up the laces and how long does it take you to get into the outfit?

Marjorie: My husband has that office.

Putting on the stays took a while because I had tried to use grommets for the eyelets instead of hand finishing them. While my husband tried to thread the lacing through the holes, grommets fell like rain, and we discovered that the length of lacing was too short. We had to start all over with another piece of string. (My lacing is a roll of cotton [?] string that was here when we moved into the house). Now that I hand finished all the eyelets and we know what length the lacing should be, the whole process should be far easier. The other portion that takes a while is craning my neck down so that I can pin up the bodice piece in such a way that the pins themselves aren’t visible. Very tricky. The day I wore the stays with a gown (for a book signing in Penn Yan New York) it took about twenty minutes to get ready, not including putting my hair in a bun. When I wore the gown without the stays, it took 15 minutes in all, including putting up my hair in a bun.

Passing the ties through the belt loop

Passing the ties through the belt loop

Vic: We know that the upper crust had help. How did the ordinary woman get in and out of her stays? Or was the wearing of stays and busks an aristocratic affectation? Did the lower classes simply contend themselves with wearing chemises?

Marjorie: I think that the lower classes had help also. Maids would help each other, a mother would help her daughter, and vise versa. The fashion rather required something like stays beneath it to help give the gown its shape. I found this google book resource that might help answer the question. There were some front lacing stays, but for the most part, the stays laced in the back. While it’s possible to put them on by yourself, it’s tricky.

Vic: Thank you, Marjorie, for your insightful interviews. You’ve given us much to think about.

Inquiring readers who would like to learn more about Marjorie’s gown and stays, and how the gown is put together can click on Marjorie’s sites below.

Marjorie Gilbert
author of THE RETURN, a historical novel set in Georgian England

Marjorie Gilbert fully dressed in her empire gown

Marjorie Gilbert fully dressed in her empire gown

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Gentle Readers,

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.

Pattern of gown

Pattern by Janet Arnold

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.

Marjorie Gilbert wears her bonnet; the gowns bodice is in teh background

Marjorie Gilbert wears her bonnet; the gown's bodice is under construction on the dress form in back.

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.

Front of the gown. Only a few minor adjustments still need to be made.

Front of the gown. Only a few minor adjustments still need to be made.

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.

Marjorie wearing the gown and accessories

Marjorie with her daughter

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

Marjorie Gilbert, author of THE RETURN, a historical novel set in Georgian England

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…

Other links:

Update: Click here for my interview with Marjorie about her regency stays.

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