Costumes · Uncategorized

American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking – Book Review

I work in book publishing so it only seems fitting that I finally combine my love of books and sewing with a book review! Unless you’re new to historical costuming, you’ve likely already heard of American Duchess, the historical reproduction shoe company and popular blog founded by Lauren Stowell that, with the addition of partner historian Abby Cox, has been expanded in recent years  to include sewing patterns through Simplicity Patterns and a sister company Royal Vintage, which features shoes from the 1920’s to the 1950’s for retro fashionistas. Now, they’ve added a book to their list of accomplishments: The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: How to Hand Sew Georgian Gowns and Wear Them with Style.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and it was certainly the case with American Duchess. They filled a void by providing period-accurate, affordable shoes to costumers and re-enactors stuck with the large investment of time and money waiting on a custom pair of shoes. Lauren and Abby’s combined expertise and background in 18th century dress, illustration, and design make them ideal authors to once again fill a gap in the costuming world, namely “I have a dress pattern and historically accurate fabric. Now what?” Or rather, how would a mantua-maker in the 1700’s have sewn this gown?

The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking focuses on four iconic gowns of the Georgian era:

  1. The English Gown (1740’s)
  2. The Sacque Gown (1760’s – 1770’s)
  3. The Italian Gown (1770’s – 1790’s)
  4. The Round Gown (1790’s)

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If you go to their Facebook page they’ve done live sessions on each of these dresses leading up to the release.

Each chapter concludes with “How to Get Dressed and Wear Your ____ Gown” with step-by-step photos to show the proper order, with tips on how to pin your stomacher or adjust your back ties. Plus you’ll find tons of millinery and accessories to complete the look, including: aprons, caps, hats, mitts, and a fur muff that’s very appealing for our current weather!

Interior detail
Interior sample – Showing how to drape the Sacque.

However, what this guide does not include are patterns—only gridded layouts for the linings. All of these gowns require draping (and likely mockups), just as they would have been created by a mantua-maker in that time. They address this issue at the very beginning, and I agree with their decision because Lauren and Abby have crafted a comprehensive guide that bridges the gap between existing costume bibles with layouts of extant garments and a finished, authentic gown. There are plenty of commercial paper patterns already on the market, including the American Duchess x Simplicity patterns, JP Ryan, Reconstructing History, etc. Their newest release Simplicity 8578 is actually the Sacque Gown or Robe a la Française shown in the book.

The introduction breaks down the various kinds of stitches used in this era, and how they were used in dressmaking. I was really looking forward to learning about the quirky mantua-maker’s seam, but I have a hard time following stitch illustrations. I would have loved step-by-step photos instead, but I’m sure it will come together once I practice. Also, as the focus is “dressmaking” there are no undergarments included, and you’re expected to have the proper stays and shift for the decade you’re recreating. You’ll be fitting and draping over your stays, and admittedly some stages do seem like they’d be very tricky without a partner. One of the best resources is the illustrated fit troubleshooting guide that shows the many traps of the sleevil, among other mishaps.

From a publishing perspective, I’m very impressed with the quality of the book at this price point. The special binding lays flat, which is very helpful when directions carry over to the next page. It’s full-color with loads and loads of beautiful photography. However, the cover’s white text on the white gown is a little hard to read. It’s absolutely packed with historical notes, tricks of the trade, and fun side bars like “Ode to Wool.” If you are merely curious about 18th century fashion or looking build a Georgian wardrobe, you will want to have this at your side.

No patterns? Hand-sewing? Yes, I’ll admit it sounds rather intimidating, but you’ll be in good hands. If you start with the simple under-petticoat, which essentially a pleated, tie-waist skirt, and continue to the petticoat I think you’ll be in a good place to start on the gown. (And yes, this is what I’m telling myself as encouragement!) If you’d like more guidance then you should look into the classes coordinated with Jennifer Rosbrugh of HistoricalSewing.com that are in the works. Not everyone is lucky enough to be take a workshop with Burnley & Trowbridge or know someone with experience in historical costuming, and I know I’ll be consulting The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking again and again.

TL;DR

Who is it for? Intermediate sewist with a desire to follow historical dressmaking techniques to create four authentic Georgian outfits from head to toe.

What does it include? EVERYTHING! Seriously—this is a comprehensive handbook to sewing historically accurate ensembles enlivened with the warmth of Abby and Lauren throughout.

 

Cox, Abby and Lauren Stowell. The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: How to Hand Sew Georgian Gowns and Wear Them with Style. Page Street Publishing Co., 2017.

*Disclaimer- I purchased my copy and am not affiliated with Page Street Publishing or American Duchess. Photos by little-red-squirrel.com, do not publish without permission.

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