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Experiments in ca. 1800 petticoat making

A part of my Jane-Austen sewing-a-thon* I decided it was finally time I made a proper set of Regency petticoats, and stopped just using my 1910s petticoats, pulled up to the underbust and pinned in place!

The first dress that needed a petticoat was the ca. 1800 Madame Recamier gown.  It’s sheer, so it definitely needs a petticoat.  It’s also flat fronted, so the petticoat can’t have any front gathers, or it won’t sit smoothly over it.  The Madame Recamier gown is based on the ca 1800 bib-front dress in Janet Arnold, and the skirt panels are rectangles – no angles at all.

I went looking for extant examples, period mentions, and period images, and quickly ran into a problem.  There aren’t many of any of those.

There is this 1799 caricature, which mostly shows drawers worn without petticoats, though the woman having her stockings pinned up appears to be holding up a pink petticoat with no bodice, and the woman at the far right appears to be wearing a blue un-bodiced petticoat.  Neither tells us much about construction, and both are clearly gathered across the front.

This image from 1807 shows a dressmaker drafting a pattern which will become the lining of the dress.  My guess would be that the client is wearing her shift, stays and petticoat, and that is her dress which is discarded over the chair, but she may be being fitted over the dress, and in any case, the image doesn’t provide enough petticoat information to help me much:

The image in the 1811-18 editions of The Book of Trades shows a clearer view of stays, and what appears to be petticoat with a tucked hem under her stays, but could be a chemise, but which doesn’t provide much construction information in any case:

There is this 1813 fashion plate, which also either shows a long chemise, or a petticoat worn under her stays:

Stays, 1813

The lack of mention of a petticoat, when all other garments are listed, and the matching trim on chemise and hem, would indicate they were the same garment.  It probably looked a bit like this one, and won’t work for me, because the stays would show under the sheer gown.

This image seems to indicate that sometimes petticoats weren’t worn at all, though perhaps the subject matter was too distracting for strict accuracy of dress, as surely even a chemise would have to show somewhere if she was doing that with her skirt!

There is this bodiced petticoat, but it’s a bit late, and once again, has the problem of gathers:

There is this petticoat, which does have a flat front.  However, the lowered waistline and A-line skirt make me suspect a date much closer to 1820 than 1800:

There are a few extent petticoats like this one, that seem to be over-petticoats, intended to be seen, possibly as the outermost skirt layer, and worn over an under-layer of their own:

Regency petticoat on a waistband with arm straps

(the above image is via the Oregon Regency Society webpage, and appears in numerous other places, but I cannot find a citation of its original source anywhere).

And another one with elaborate hem embroidery that indicates that may have been intended to be seen:

These last three seem to form the primary basis for the kind of Regency petticoats that most reenactors make: either simple skirts gathered to straps, or to fitted or gathered bodices.

However, there is one other extent garment that is probably from the early 1800s (rather than the 1820s) that is definitely an under-petticoat, and this one intrigued me the most:

Not only does it have a flat front, which I need, but it appears to have very similar construction to a bib-front dress.  Since the other known petticoats have distinct similarities to the patterning and construction of dresses, it makes sense to me that a petticoat could also share a lot of construction ideas with a  bib front dress.

So, using Arnolds pattern and the petticoat above, I came up with a theoretical petticoat inspired by bib-front dress construction, but without a bodice.

Here is my rough pattern:

Regency wrap petticoat thedreamstress.com

It was partly based on the fact that I had half a sheet in just those dimensions in my stash!

Before hemming, and the straps and ties were put on:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

The back straps form loops that the front ties thread through, after wrapping around the front once:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

And the finished petticoat from the front:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

And the back:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

And the side:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

The front wraps round to the back (it doesn’t overlaps on me, by Isabelle is a bit smaller):

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

And then the ties wrap round the front, and to the back again, where they thread through the loops on the back piece:

And then tie:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

And then the back ties wrap round to the front and tie:

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

I’m calling this ‘plausible, but far from perfect’.  The overall pattern/construction is based on general principles seen in extent garments, but there is no extant bodice-less wrap petticoat of two rectangles of this era that I know of.  The petticoat works exactly as it should, but is fussy to get on and off (although, unlike a back-buttoning petticoat, it’s not too hard to do by yourself).

It was an interesting experiment, but I think my next Regency petticoat is going to be much more along the lines of what most reenactors make, and much less experimental!

I didn’t even realise it until I was most of the way through construction, but this is entirely of rectangles, so works for the April HSM Challenge #4: Circles, Squares, Rectangles.  I’m posting two days early, due to scheduling issues later this week:

What the item is: A theoretical petticoat based on bib front dress construction.

The Challenge: #4 Circles, Squares & Rectangles

Fabric/Materials: 1/2 of a twin sheet.

Pattern: My own

Year: 1800-05

Notions: cotton thread, cotton tape.

How historically accurate is it?  Purely theoretical, and I used a sewing machine for everything, because I just wanted to see how/if it would work.  50%

Hours to complete: Around 3

First worn: Not yet

A plausible but far from perfect Regency wrap petticoat, thedreamstress.com

* which has actually been cancelled, for reasons outside of my control – (much sadness, but it does give me more time for exciting Scroop things, so all is not lost)

9 Comments

  1. I would love to see pictures of the dress over it, since you mentioned the dress was sheer, I’m trying to imagine how you’ll make that work.

  2. I’m not a professional so maybe my opinion doesn’t count. (Or maybe it counts more since I am not.) Let’s not assume that just because we don’t have a record of something that some creative woman made in the past that it didn’t exist. Sewing and designing clothes is two parts: solving the problem of covering our nakedness, and being reasonably fashionable. I suspect that like today, most woman weren’t dressing as fashion plates. Seriously, how many regular women dress like Vogue models? I think your solution for a petticoat is exactly what someone in the early 1800’s might have come up with to solve the same problem.

    Since we don’t have a complete record of every single item that every woman wore in the past we can’t with certainty say that they did this or that, or they didn’t do this or that. I think your solution is genuinely wonderful, creative and a good use of available materials. That, in my opinion, is precisely how a woman would have handled the situation in 1800. Keep up the good work

    • I absolutely agree – we don’t know, so we go on what we do, and what seems plausible from that. That’s exactly my logic here.

      I do think it’s very important though, as costume historians, to be very honest about whether our sewing is based on exact period examples and writings, experimentation that has a basis in period examples, or just what everyone else is doing! I don’t always need to be accurate, but I do find it frustrating when other bloggers, or commercial patterns, don’t make it clear what of what they are doing is firmly based in extant evidence, and what is guesswork, or assumptions. So I’m trying to be very honest that this petticoat is hugely theoretical, so I don’t suddenly accidentally start a mania for wrapped petticoats which becomes a reenacting ‘thing’ that beginners assume is based on proper research!

      • And I’m glad you’re that honest! So many pepole just Google and copy something; I’ve observed, in my blog statistics, people coming to my total experiments from a Google search, and since then, I try to be much more conscienious in letting people know they’re experiments, because I had scary visions of droves of people trying to copy them. 😀

    • Elise says

      I came here to say something similar about solution-finding. Do you remember the 1910s rate the dress from…Minnesota?…where it appeared that a dressmaker was going for a swoop a la Worth, but didn’t know how those dresses looked in real life, so came up with a…less than beautiful..solution.

      That Rate the Dress sticks in my mind, because I couldn’t bring myself to rate something that was so obviously different not because of taste, but because of circumstance. Just the same way that I never call someone a “hick” or “redneck” (American slang for “country bumpkin” for international readers), because then it is a class issue, not a choice.

      So, could seamstresses and home-sewists have really known what petticoats looked like? Or was it like menstrual rags where women sort of whispered about them, everybody knew, but no one usually wrote about? That means that yes, there is an accepted petticoat from the period, but not one you can find.

      Or would the seamstress have looked at the plate, and came up with a solution, like that RTD seamstress did? And you did?

      So yes! I think you certainly should have channeled your inner historical seamstress and solved the problem. (We have an extant example of someone doing just that even a century later) At the same time, I applaud your honesty, which is just as important for historical record.

      Yay everyone!

  3. Other than that: I think this construction method you’ve arrived at independently is actually very similar to petticoats other people have arrived at independently from 18th century petticoats. Although that side of the thing is, I believe, petticoats intended to be worn under shortgowns (because that’s how I came across them).

    (I take it the event was cancelled for a lack of visitors? 🙁 )

  4. Thanks for sharing your research! I made a petticoat about a year ago, but didn’t do too much digging and just went with the ‘standard’ unbodiced petticoat type. It’s very nice to learn a little more about it!
    Also makes me wonder how common no petticoat vs. 1 vs. 2 petticoats would’ve been…

  5. Ingenious! Your petticoat does a wonderful job of creating that distinctive 1800s columnar shape. Sure it’s speculative, but it looks right and that’s a very important thing. In some contexts it’s the most important thing. I also think it makes a lot of sense to mirror the construction of the dress in the petticoat and wear a petticoat made only of rectangles under a skirt made only of rectangles. If you wore a gored petticoat you’d end up with a slightly different shape.

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