Historical Sew Fortnightly

The Historical Sew Fortnightly: The ‘Something Simple’ challenge

To ease into the  Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge for 2013 there is a bonus challenge due on the 31st: ‘Something Simple‘.

I thought it would be nice to give us something a bit easier to start with, and I think it’s good to remember that not every important historical garment is massively elaborate and over-the-top.

Throughout history people have depended on simple, workable garments – the historical equivalent of our T-shirts.  There are lots of periods when even the very rich wore mix-and-match separates that were (relatively) washable and easy to make.  One of the things about Princess Alexandra that particularly impressed Queen Victoria when they met was her frugality in dress – Queen Victoria commended her for wearing the same jacket with multiple skirts, and thought it demonstrated a praiseworth restraint and sensibility in dress and character.

I was hoping to do a whole post of simple historical inspiration, but the problem with simple, easy to wear, easy to make garments is that not many of them have lasted to come down to us.  We tend to wear T-shirts until they are unwearable, and carefully preserve our fanciest garments, like wedding dresses, for posterity.

In my mind there are three ways to interpret ‘Something Simple’;

  1. Make a type of historical garment that you are really comfortable sewing up.  I can whip up a full 1850s cartridge pleated skirt or a 1930s day dress in a couple of hours, whereas an equally easy (technically) 18th century chemise takes me a little longer, just because of practice.
  2. Make something that really is simple in design and techniques, like a Roman pallas (it’s just a hemmed rectangle), or a fichu (a hemmed triangle), or an apron.
  3.  Make something that is a wardrobe basic for your favourite period, like  the aforementioned 1850s cartridge pleated skirt or 18th century chemise.

If you are stuck there have been some fantastic suggestions on the Facebook page, and here are a few inspiration pieces:

First, the aforementioned pallas and stola:

Venus in a pallas and stola, Pompeii

Venus in a pallas and stola, Pompeii

Second, I am obsessed with the sheer fichu (I’m sure there is a proper Renaissance name for it) that Ghirlandaio’s blonde is wearing.  I want to make the whole outfit, but I’m wear just the fichu over a modern strapless cocktail dress because I love it that much.

Portrait of a Woman, Domenico Ghirlandaio, probably 1480s

Portrait of a Woman, Domenico Ghirlandaio, probably 1480s

Another obsession?  These pockets.  All you need is some fabulous 18th century appropriate fabric, and a few hours:

Pocket, printed cotton & linen, 18th c, American, MFA Boston, 48

A little more complicated, but so eminently practical, a mid 19th century chemise:

This ‘teens evening dress didn’t get the highest Rate the Dress rating, but that had a lot to do with the fabric.  In a different fabric, it would be a stunning and easy dress:

Speaking of stunning, I adore Natalia Goncharova as a fashion and textile designer, and her dresses really rely on simple cut (a basic tube with shirred shoulders) and fabulous fabric – so very easy to imitate.

Evening dress of multi-coloured silk and velvet applique on red silk. Designed by Natalia Goncharova for Maison Myrbor, Paris, about 1923, V&A

Evening dress of multi-coloured silk and velvet applique on red silk. Designed by Natalia Goncharova for Maison Myrbor, Paris, about 1923, V&A


  1. Oh heck, I LOVE that Natalia Goncharova dress to distraction! But it is the embellishment I love, not the style, which would not become me at all. Food for thought for a future project, however…

  2. You are getting me inspired. My recent craving to sew myself some summer dresses didn’t link at all when I read your proposal for a historical sewing fest. But I could make myself a Greek Peplos – (maybe stitched up the side for modern sensitivity) or have another go at a simple true tee shirt style plain smock as worn under Tudor kirtles (my old ones don’t fit any more) but what really gets my juices flowing is the potential for easy self-expression in that Natalia Goncharova dress. Still, I need time and I don’t have it right now.

  3. That fichu-ish thing is amazing! Would really lend interest to a modern cocktail dress–love the idea! The lady gets bonus accessories points for the droolworthy coral necklace, too.

  4. I love the idea of this challenge! I’m terrible at keeping up so I’m not even trying, but I can’t wait to see everyone else’s work!

    I would call the fichu thing a partlet, I think.

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