This, dear readers, is why my Robes & Robings project is going to be hopelessly late:
I’m not supposed to be taking commissions at the moment, as I’m working more than full-time between teaching at uni and teaching sewing, and trying to run the HSF and work on other projects. But when Rowena, who I’ve worked with before, contacted me to see if I would make her an 1840s inspired evening dress to wear at a parlour concert set in the 1840s, how could I resist?
I’m such a sucker for a pretty dress idea!
And Rowena is such a delight to work with, which made taking on a commission very easy. We only had a month and a bit to make the dress in, but luckily we were able to find a fantastic pure silk jacquard in Wellington, and once the right fabric was found, the project just sailed ahead.
Sea green was very fitting for this project, as the parlour concert’s programme included Haydn’s Lines from the Battle of the Nile, the Mermaid’s Song and the Sailor’s Song and finished with Steibelt’s Britannia: An Allegorical Overture (which is, by the way, quite possibly the most hilarious piece of classical music ever written).
All of the musical numbers featured dated from the turn-of-the-nineteenth century (Lines was commissioned, and first sung, by Lady Hamilton to commemorate Nelson’s victory), but Rowena requested an 1840s dress, because it would match the 1843 piano. The piano, an English square piano, has been in New Zealand since the 19th century, and it’s quite possible that it performed Haydn’s compositions when it was newly made.
I’m calling the dress 1840s inspired, rather than a reproduction, because we made some compromises because of time and budget constraints, and in order to make it more comfortable for Rowena to sing and move in. The pattern is reasonable accurate, but it is cut to be worn without a corset, and is quite lightly boned. It’s also almost entirely machine sewn, as I didn’t have time to hand-sew it. The cartridge pleats are worked by hand, as are the lacing holes, as metal eyelets (while they did exist in the 1840s) would never have been used on anything but undergarments.
Despite the anachronistic machine sewing, I tried to keep the construction as authentic as possible. Every seam, including the armhole, is piped in tiny piping, I paired the sea green brocade with a darker jade green silk for piping and trim.
The whole frock was an elaborate exercise in pattern matching, and extremely careful cutting. I got the entire dress out of 2.7m of the 145cm wide silk – every scrap that there was to be had in Wellington.
You may be wondering what exactly a parlor concert (or soiree) is? It’s just what it sounds like: a small, intimate concert held in the parlor of a private home.
This one was held in the home of the pianist, who has as many pianos (and piano variants such as harpsichords) as I have sewing machines, and a whole lounge set aside just to house them and hold soirees in. What delicious luxury! The house is amazing: full of old furniture and books, authentic to its Victorian roots while remaining both elegant and comfortable.
Parlor concerts are wonderful, because experiencing live classical music in such a small, intimate setting is a very different experience to a large concert hall. This one in particular felt as if I was attending a party in the 1840s where the musical celebrity guests did an impromptu performance. The performers mingled with the audience before and after the music, and the performance interacted with the audience in a way that just isn’t possible in a bigger setting. I love parlor concerts.
Also, I’m rather in love with Rowena in her frock. She just suits the period so perfectly!
So I haven’t finished a robe, but I’m still pleased with myself!