A mental meh and a very-end-of-the-18th-century muslin gown

1795-1800 muslin dress

I was really excited about my trip to Australia, and an opportunity/excuse to make a new ca. 1800 dress.

I’ve done very little historical sewing since last Costume College, and I’m definitely missing it.  Regency has been on my sewing wishlist for quite a while.  I had a length of muslin I found at an op-shop that was just asking to be a simple almost-white dress.

Should be perfect!

1795-1800 muslin dress

Unfortunately I’m pretty meh about the result.

I’m not sure if it’s really the dress, or simply in my brain.

I’m currently going through a really hard patch as a costumer and historical sewer.  Mentally, I need a certain amount of time to focus on a project in order to really do a good job.  And I also need to keep in practice in order to not only to keep growing as a historical sewer, but to just stay at the levels of sewing that I’ve achieved in the past.

And for the last few years I just haven’t managed to make that time.  Between starting Scroop Patterns, teaching sewing, buying+painting+repairing a house, blogging*, running the Historical Sew Monthly, and some big personal life stuff, I’ve had little space for large-scale historical costuming.  There have been no more Ninons.

(*And you’ll probably have noticed that I haven’t been nearly as prolific at blogging as I was in the past…)

I’ve made a lot of great little things for the HSM, and my stocking and chemise stash is in pretty good shape, but full outfits?  Impressive dresses?  It doesn’t feel like it.

Emotionally I’m finding it really hard.  I see all these other costumers making all this amazing stuff, and the few bigger things I’ve managed to make I feel like I need to totally take-apart and re-make to get them to where I want them to be.  On a logical level, I know I’ve been doing an impressive amount of things over the last couple of years – they just haven’t been costumes.  But emotionally my brain beats me up for not making as much as I think I should be able to, and not making them as well as I know I can.

I’ve been making some pretty big life changes that will hopefully give me a bit more time for costuming (though on a pragmatic level, I will be spending most of the extra time on Scroop), so that’s something to look forward to.

For now, I’m just trying to decide if I like this gown as it is, or if its another thing that’s going on the re-make pile.  Or if I should just leave be and turn my energy to the next thing, even if I’m not happy with the dress as it is.

1795-1800 muslin dress

I’m not even sure why I’m so un-thrilled with this dress.  I gave myself enough time to make it (just), and managed to make and finish it pretty much as I’d intended and hoped.  The long seams are machine sewn, and everything else is hand-done and finished.

1795-1800 muslin dress

I didn’t get the back neckline quite right, which is causing some slight rippling along the neck seam.  However, it’s easily fixable with a little more pressing and some stabilising stitching.

I also need to tweak the fit of the sleeves a tiny bit, but that is also easily fixable, and something I expected: I put the sleeves in without time to check their fit, and planned on adjusting them as needed.

1795-1800 muslin dress

I’m not entirely convinced by the bulk of back gathers.

My base patterns was the silk 1795-1800 round gown from the Daughters of the American Revolution  An Agreeable Tyrant catalogue.  I made almost no adjustments to the bodice (I graded it up less than a size).  When it came to the skirt, I used the pattern piece sizes, tweaked slightly to best fit my fabric, but I completely ignored the skirt pleating of the original.  I just made the front fullness match that of the bodice, and gathered all the rest to match the triangle of the back bodice, inspired by portraits like this.

It’s fun, but it’s a LOT of gathers in one place.

1795-1800 muslin dress

Maybe my ambivalence is that the dress, while lovely, isn’t exciting or memorable.

1795-1800 muslin dress

Or maybe it’s that, as I was making it, I had a design epiphany. I was checking the fit of the bodice and realised the muslin is so sheer that it looked beautiful on its own over my skin.  It would look beautiful as something like the dress in  Lefèvre’s Portrait of a Woman Holding a Pencil:

Portrait of a Woman Holding a Pencil and a Drawing Book Robert-Jacques Lefèvre (France, 1755-1830) France, circa 1808, LACMA, M.73.91

Portrait of a Woman Holding a Pencil and a Drawing Book, Robert-Jacques Lefèvre (France, 1755-1830) France, circa 1808, LACMA, M.73.91

I didn’t have the time to re-make the dress to fit my new idea – and I wasn’t even sure it would work.  It would have required turning it into a wrap-front dress (because there would be no way to get in and out of it otherwise), completely unpicking the skirt, and re-adjusting the fullness to accomodate the wrap.

I might still do it, but I certainly couldn’t in the last day before I headed of to Sydney – so I finished it as it was, and I don’t love it.  Or at least I don’t love at this exact moment.

1795-1800 muslin dress

It is however, done, and making a thing is pretty exciting.

AND it qualifies for the June Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge: Rebellion & Counter Culture.

HSM #6 2018: Rebellion & Counter Culture

While simple cotton classically-inspired dresses were the predominant fashion of the last years of the 18th century, and the first years of the 19th, they were both a sartorial rebellion against the lavish silk gowns that were associated with the ancien regime, and later, against Napoleon’s attempts to support the French silk industry by dictating that silk dresses must be worn at court.

In Europe at least, they were most strongly linked with fashionable women who challenged societal standards, from Madame Recamier, to Lady Hamilton.

Because I was making my dress to be worn at a Regency era house in Australia, I tried to find a more local inspiration for it.  I found a basis in a woman who was associated with a more political rebellion: Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur, who was responsible for instigating Australia’s Rum Rebellion.

While John was a bit of a loose canon and perpetual rebel, Elizabeth was so kind and charming and tactful that she was accepted everywhere, even when her husband was technically a criminal in exile. Elizabeth was the first soldier’s wife to arrive in the infant Sydney, and ran her husband’s farms on the (numerous) occasions he had to flee Australia because of legal troubles.

Her ability to retain respect, and remain in control in spite of adversity, could be considered a counter-rebellion: using tact and helpfulness to change a situation, instead of the open rebellion her husband favoured. I felt this modest version of a ca. 1800 frock was both suited to the New South Wales climate, and to descriptions of Elizabeth as quietly elegant in her dress.

1795-1800 muslin dress

Just the facts ma’am:

Material: 3.3m of cotton mull, 1m of linen

Pattern: primarily based on the late 1790s bib-front gown in An Agreeable Tyrant, with the quirks from altering the dress from an older style removed, the front adapted to be a round-gown instead of a bib-front, and the back pleats changed to gathers.

Year: ca. 1800  (keeping in mind that Australia would have been slightly behind the times in terms of fashion)

Notions: cotton thread, cotton tapes

How historically accurate is it? I machine sewed the long skirt seams, and made my best guess as to how a round-gown would be adapted from the pattern. My armscye seam finishes are based on Modern Mantua Maker’s 1800s gown which she made based on one of the Agreeable Tyrant dresses – her research is impeccable, so I trust her when she says this is an accurate finish, but I did not do the research myself, and have never seen the technique on an extant garment. Because I can’t verify all my techniques, I’d say 70%

Hours to complete: 20-30

First worn: Sat 26 June, to give a talk about the Indian influence on Western fashion for the National Trust of NSW, and then for a photoshoot at Old Government House, Parramatta. Elizabeth Macarthur almost certainly visited OGH, and was friends with Elizabeth Macquarie, the Governor’s wife, despite their husband’s mutual enmity.

Total cost: I found the mull at an op-shop for $4 (!!!), and the linen was also an op-shop purchase, so the whole thing cost less than $10.

1795-1800 muslin dress





  1. Helen says

    When Your blog came up and I saw your photo, my immediate reaction was “oh, she is so beautiful!”. That impression held up through the entire entry. While you may have some qualms and quibbles about fit or construction, I think this is one of those ‘greater than the sum of it’s parts’ dresses. For me, it creates a sense of almost ethereal serenity and timeless beauty that lets your loveliness shine through in an effortless and natural manner.

    • Oh wow, that’s really flattering! Thank you so much! That does make me feel much better about the dress 🙂

  2. Natalie Ramirez says

    I’ve really missed your historical work. Mostly because I never have time to make anything of my own so I live vicariously through others. I think this dress is lovely! I’d say your ambivalence is because, as you said, the dress isn’t “special”. Try not to be so hard on yourself. I do love the idea of changing it to look like the portrait. No matter what, thanks for always being a huge inspiration to me.

    • I’ve missed my historical work too. I also need to slow down enough that I can photograph and blog about it as I work on it! I’m very flattered that I’m an inspiration to you, because your work is so gorgeous <3

  3. The dress is beautiful, you talk a bit about re-doing it, I don’t think you should, as it is very pretty and simple. Which means it is versatile. I also like when you post historical garments you made, even if I tis a simple fichu.

    • Thank you! I’ll mull (haha) over re-making this one. I’m glad even the really simple stuff is appreciated – they are the things I found most mysterious when I started out, and wished people blogged about, even though they aren’t as exciting.

  4. pinterest.compinterest.compinterest.comI think you just need an open robe or sleeveless spencer to top it off. A plain white gown like this is just a blank canvas filled with innumerable possibilities! All you have now is a base layer that you’ll be able to do almost anything with so, much like making undergarments, it seems plain and boring for now.

    Here are some boards that might give a little inspiration!

    • Lynne McDonald says

      I was thinking along these lines, too, Evie. The gown is not an end in itself – there are so many possibilities to give it zing. It is a plain gown, which is what it was meant to be. And given your ideas for slight tweaks, very nice, too!

    • I wanted it to be a base layer, but there are so many portraits of this era that show just the white dress, and I really love simplicity, so I wanted to be able to love wearing it that way too! So I’ll be definitely making all the over-bits, but I want to get this to a place where I’m totally happy with it 🙂

  5. Margaret says

    I would face that decline with some narrow tail tape to tame it. I think your dress is lovely, the perfect foil for a beautiful shawl. A classic!

  6. Margaret says

    Silly autocorrect, should be neckline, not decline!

  7. Deanna says

    Your dress is lovely and you look lovely in it. I do understand your current dissatisfaction with it. I would suggest letting the idea of re-working it into your new design vision “marinate”, so to speak. A little time away from it might let the negative feelings dissipate, and then you can make a more objective decision of whether to change it, and perhaps tackle the changes with more enthusiasm.

    I hope your big life changes allow you to spend more of your time doing what you really wish.

    • Thank you, excellent advice! I’ve got a talk coming up in August where I’ll have a model wear this, so maybe that will change how I feel about it 🙂

  8. Jeanette says

    It’s perfect! As we grow, so do our expectations of ourselves. Be gentle on yourself.. Have fun. Love and hugs!

  9. I feel ya. It feels like I can either engage in the business of creativity, or I can create but I don’t have room for both. I haven’t made a quilt in over five years and my garment output is almost non existent. All my sewing time goes into costumes which while fun, are a means to an end and not the pleasure of creating that a quilt or a really well considered garment would be. Teaching mad skills yesterday and talking about how to use the various techniques made my palms itch to make something beautiful with lots of time vested into it and lovely finish.
    One day…

    • Awww, hugs. Do we need to collaborate on something really big and perfect together again? Just to make us both feel better? 😉

  10. I actually really really like this dress. I like the back gathers as they are in all their splendour and the way the dress has a slim front and side silhouette. It has a very understated elegance, which I find very appealing. Very classic. Maybe if you pair it with a bright coloured shawl, you might feel better about it? It looks splendid with that contrast in front of the paisley wallhanging. Or maybe a necklace to go with it?
    I do understand your feeling though, when you finish something and the love just isn’t there. I hope your plans for your future turn out the way you wish!

    • Thank you so much! I can totally agree with you on the appeal with where it is now, but having worn it, it feels so close, but not quite right. 🙂

      I did have a shawl with me, but it was too warm during the photoshoot.

  11. The dress is lovely and a perfect blank slate for any number of different accessories. Might you be investing this simple dress with some of your feelings about life in general and your sense that you should be taking on more complex projects?
    Perhaps this versatile little white dress may serve as a type of palette cleanser or springboard for a new project.

    • Thank you!

      I’m sure that my general wish that I had more time to costume is colouring my feelings about it a bit – or at least making my expectations a lot higher. I’m able to get so little done I want the stuff I get done to be perfect. And that’s not realistic :-/

  12. If you'(postage was free)re interested in another opinion….

    I think the dress is great. But it’s not the type of dress that would be exciting alone. As some of the other commenters have said, it needs some exciting accesssories to spice it up and compliment it. A bold spencer. A brighter turban. A sash. Perhaps a Kashmir shawl. Possibly jewelry also–a coral (or faux coral) necklace to harmonize with the earrings you wore for the photo shoot? The advantage of this approach is it may open up shorter projects that will help hold your interest.

    Good luck with climbing out of your costuming slump. My Hedeby bag was the first project I found the interest to make in quite a while, so I am sympathetic to your situation.

    • Thank you. I do appreciate another opinion, but I really like simplicity, so I wanted this to be perfect as it is. But I definitely intended to make things to go over it! And I had a necklace to wear with it – I just forgot to bring it on the day. :-/

      And yay for getting out of your slump! And hopefully I’ll love the next thing…

  13. Maybe a spencer short or long would transform this pretty white dressing and make it special for you. There has been some really good use of sari silk for regency period on the internet lately.
    Yesterday I finished a project I was very stuck on for a year and I feel so much more positive, interested in the next project and less hard on myself….all the best

  14. Ooops! Please excuse the “postage was free” typo in my comment–something on my clipboard got pasted in by accident.

  15. Kelley Christopher-Gaston says

    I like this dress on you as well! The creamy color of the fabric looks good with your coloring. I too have had sewing projects I finish only to be frustrated with the end results. I usually put it away for a while then go back to it with less stressed out eyes and attitude. The last one I did that with was a 1940’s evening dress that I later found out EVERYONE had issues with that pattern. I re-worked it and looks pretty good on, if I do say so myself. YOUR’S looks lovely just as it is.

  16. I’m sorry for the meh, we’ve all been there. The dress is absolutely lovely, I love Regency done well, it’s personally my favorite period. A friend found that she was very meh about Regency until she made styles that suited her personal taste: darker colors, more structured men’s influence in riding habits and traveling wear. I think your dress is so well done but Im hearing what you’re saying about the back pleat concentration: maybe it will grow on you or maybe you’ll like it more if you move a bit more to the sides? I’d suggest letting it marinate like that other poster said, and see how you feel about changing it at a future point. No matter any of our opinion, it’s your gown, so you should be happy with it in the end. It’s so easy to feel like we should be doing more but I’ve definitely found it’s a balance: if I blog more, I lose sewing time, when my Etsy shop is busy or I’m inspired to work on new jewelry designs, I have less time and energy for creative sewing. When my day job is really busy, sewing and creative production go WAY down. My husband is being very understanding currently as I marathon sew for CoCo this year: will miss seeing you this year but you have some great stuff going on this year so that is good! Life is a series of choices, I found that there is an opportunity cost of doing anything that means something else can’t be done. It’s ok to make changes, change course and change course again: life’s a journey, and worth living and enjoying: hang in there, hon!! ❤️

  17. Ruts suck and I hope you get out of it soon. I mainly wanted to say that the second to last photo must be one of my favourites of you, you look stunning, I love the elegant simple dress with the busy dark colored background and something about it just sings!

  18. It looks lovely to me but I do know that feeling. I hope, though, that you can be kind to yourself and not beat yourself up over lack of time. I hit some hard limits of time myself about five years ago and it sucks having to prioritize so carefully and limit yourself so firmly in what you take on. I hope you can rebalance life/career/house to a point where you have a little more space for what feeds your soul, but in the meantime it’s not a competition and even if it were, you’re miles ahead in a ton of areas. Hang in there.

  19. It looks really lovely on you. It’s such a nice colour for you and very elegant, and it’s a dress that shows off the wearer because it is so simple. But I think I know what you’re saying; you put a lot into it and now you’re finding it doesn’t quite wow you the way you’d hoped. It happens with some projects and it’s really disappointing when it does.

  20. To add my opinion to others’, I think the dress is lovely. Yes, it can be a blank canvas for other additions like a spencer, shawl, overgown etc, as others have mentioned. I also think it looks terrific as it is. To me, it looks like clothes, not a costume. While it may not be what you were hoping to achieve, if a re-make will make it better for you, then a re-make is what it needs.

    Boo for costuming slumps. If only we had 83 hours in a day… 🙂

    On another note, my BFF had her 10th wedding anniversary at Old Parliament House (in the function area out the back), but we didn’t get to see the inside, unfortunately. I will have to add to my ‘to do’ list next time I’m in Parramatta.

  21. Anna says

    Up til very recently I’ve been super “meh” about Regency and the ‘little white gown’ in particular. But it’s growing on me for its simplicity and I actually now really like all the period portraits of women in just their lovely white gowns with very little extra adornment. I think I’m to the point where making something ‘special’ and ‘opulent’ has just become a silly never-ending race, because bigger and more noteworthy/fantastical outfits are being put out all the time by amazingly creative people so there’s no point in going big just for the sake of going big. Taking joy in the simple and ordinary and typical for the period is its own reward. You certainly look fresh and lovely! I think it highlights *you* as a person rather than “BAM! look at this amazing dress in your face.”

  22. Beautiful! I find that my “instant” reactions frequently result in good ideas (not always, but often enough). The second I saw the full-length front image, I thought “it needs a sash”. Regency dresses like this could have a pastel silky sash–the picture I saw was of a pale blue sash on a gown just like yours, but with your red/coral shoes and earrings, I think a pale pink or peach might be just the thing!

  23. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    It’s a well-made everyday round gown of simple materials … Rousseau would approve of the fashionable simplicity.

    It’s not “meh” … it’s what any upper class woman of the era would wear to stroll in her country manor’s gardens if there were no guests, do the accounts, supervise the staff, play at being milkmaid, etc.

  24. Kate says

    As a resident of the Macarthur district, I applaud you choosing Elizabeth Macarthur as your inspiration. There are actually quite a few women in Australia’s history who had twits for husbands but who themselves have gone down in history as being quite excellent.

    I hear you on the slump. Life issues have brought my creative time and inclination down to zero over the past year. I’m now trying to claw my way back to where I was before things went all catawumpus.

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