I've recently completed (temporarily...more below) an 18th century short gown for myself, not that I'm in love with these types of garments, but because necessity will soon beckon at a forthcoming Burnley and Trowbridge workshop. Once I knew of my need for one, I started researching the possibilities. When I visited the Colonial Williamsburg milliner shop last year, I saw a short gown in progress laying on the table. While I was looking at this sewing project in process, I was in a bit of a quandry, trying to decide whether I should purchase a pattern or not. I liked the idea of saving money on a pattern, since historical patterns are expensive. However the shape left my mind in a muddle. At that moment a guest started talking to me, discovered the reason for my perplexity, and proceeded to strongly encourage me sew a shortgown without a pattern. She promised me it would be quite simple. She picked up the short gown on the counter and explained what it looked like when it was cut out and how it was sewn together. I furiously scribbled notes and took photographs (I thought I took photographs, I can't find them now).
Eventually the time came to make a final decision. I reviewed my notes from the milliner shop and despaired. Although I had the basic information, I wasn't sure that I could duplicate the proper shape. Then I got the idea to research Costume Close-Up, a CW publication by Linda Baumgarten. There was an extant short gown with the layout of a pattern that seemed clear enough for me to model one of my own.
Instead of drafting the pattern from the book, because it was based on an extant short gown for a young girl, I cut the fabric of my short gown by eye because the design looked so simple. First I made a muslin. Laying out the fabric, I looked at the basic shape of the pattern in Costume Close-Up, approximated the shape by measuring myself and pinned the approximate cutting line. (I used descriptions of the wear of a short gown in What Clothes Reveal, another CW book by Linda Baumgarten.) After cutting it out I tried on the muslin and saw that it was a bit too tight in the bust. I estimated how much wider I should cut it to allow for more ease and added that to the width of the muslin.
Then I cut out the actual fashion fabric. Short gowns seem to be humble little jackets, typically worn without stays. They were often worn by working class women for ease of movement while doing household chores and such. A gentry woman might wear one in the privacy of her home to remain cooler in the hot summer months or for comfort. Short gowns were understandably comfortable during pregnancy, even though I've heard that even stays could by worn during pregnancy. I had a huge problem with morning sickness with my pregnancies, for the entire pregnancy, so I'm sure I would have been quite grateful for short gowns back then.
Not being a fan of humble types of clothing, I yearned to make this as cute as possible. I considered my fabric options. A solid linen or cotton could work, even the right sort of polka dot, which I had been previously leaning towards. (The short gown the milliner was making was a lavendar with white polka dots, historically documented!) Alas I forgot to look for a proper polka dot fabric, it was late, I was home, I was tired, I wanted to proceed. I looked at my 18th century fabric stash and realized I had a cute and cheerful blue on white print that I had purchased in the CW historic area about a year ago, at Mary Dickenson. I had only purchased 3 yards of the 45" fabric, which didn't seem to be enough to make anything substantial. Thus the destiny of this fabric became a short gown.
I only used 2 yards of the fabric. (What to do with the leftover 1 yard?) Differing from the short jacket in Costume Close-Up, this one does not have ties. I made this with only one piece of fabric cut to the proper shape. All I had to sew were the side seams that joined as one with the underpart of the sleeve. Then I rolled under the edges all around and up the center front. The Costume Close-Up version also has a cuff which I did not add.
For now I wanted to keep this simple and basic, and let the cheerful color of the floral print and the lovely swoop and grace of the skirts be the charm in the short gown.
The reason for my desire in simplicity is because I am extremely busy homeschooling, studying, researching, planning, and teaching. This year I have the newly added duty of driving my daughter to and from college over an hour a day. Also I have a huge sewing pile for those few spare moments to sew...
Eventually I'd like to add cuffs to the sleeves, as shown in Costume Close-Up, which will be the only added fabric pieces.
Also I'd like to add a drawstring to the neckline, which according to Costume Close-Up, is dated for the extant shortgown from 1770-1780. There is another drawstring in the extant short gown, in the back at the waistline which I will not add. That was most likely an updated feature in the Regency Era, most likely to make the "old-fashioned" short gown more fashionable to the early 19th century. However I might make another short gown with that addition if I ever get to take early 19th century sewing classes with the mantua maker!
Historically short gowns were secured at the top with one pin and secured in the middle by wearing an apron. Eventually an updated look wlll come together. Stay tuned!