Cinderella had it made when it came to preparing for a ball. Her fairy godmother shows up and POOF, she is ready to go.
We live in a day and age that we take for granted that we can go to a store and purchase ready made clothes to wear. Most of us do not have anything custom made for us, unless we sew and make our own clothes. You can go to the store or even shop on line, and rarely think twice about having something altered to fit us better. This is the opposite of what it was like to purchase clothes in Jane Austen’s time.
As I am getting ready to attend the JASNA’s AGM in October, I tried to decide what I would do for a proper gown to wear to the ball on Saturday night of the event. If my mom was still living in Utah, I would have turned to her for assistance, but she is in Washington, and it is hard to do the work on the gown over the phone.
My next alternative was to turn to my dear friend, adopted mother, and editor, Pat Weston. In her younger years, Pat was a costume creator for several groups in California and she still does a lot of sewing. And now I am getting a taste of what ladies in the 1800’s must have gone through.
The first step was to decide on a style. We looked at photos of gowns and patterns that Pat had. This would be equivalent to Elizabeth Bennet looking at fashion plates. We found a design which would be fitting for my… large… body (which is also strangely proportioned, having a very short torso). Ok, ok, I am obese, and not all styles would be flattering on me.
Then came the process of finding the fabric. It takes a lot more fabric to make a gown from the era than clothing we wear today. We went to a place that is pretty much like a warehouse of fabric, such as what would have happened in the era. The place we went also carries wider fabrics, which was helpful.
After the purchase of the fabric, we went to Pat’s house, where she took measurements. As we decided to take parts from 2 different gowns, Pat had to make a paper pattern to the proper size.
Pat then cut out the lining. I then had to go for a fitting. She made certain that the lining was the proper size and any changes that would be needed were noted.
Before leaving my fitting, I picked out ribbon which would be used for the gown. Yes, Elizabeth Ann West, I got to pick out ribbon for my ball gown. Made me giggle at doing such a thing.
Pat commented to another friend of ours, Sharon, that her hands can’t do the fine work such as sewing on seed pearls or fine embroidery, as was done on gowns from the period. Both Pat and Sharon are in their 70’s, by the way. Sharon does a lot of stitchwork, as she hand stitches quilts, and is very fast and good at the work. Sharon volunteered to do the fine detail work on my gown.
At the moment, Pat has cut out the main fabric and is in the process of sewing everything together. I will have to have at least one more fitting, perhaps two more. Then Sharon will work on the fine detail work.
In the end, I will have a one of a kind gown, made to fit me, to wear to the ball. The entire process has been interesting, and makes me understand what Jane Austen would have gone through to have a gown made. It has given me a greater appreciation and understanding to how much work seamstresses had to do, and realize just how under appreciated and under paid they were during the 1800’s.
Once the gown is finished, I will post photos of me wearing it. Being a jewelry maker, I have taken vintage costume jewelry pieces and custom made me some pieces to wear. The only problems I still have are: 1) my hair is too short to put up in a proper style from the period, and 2) Darcy’s tux does not fit well over his service dog vest. I need to work on his outfit a little more. Perhaps a simple cravat will make all the difference (haha).
Looking forward to meeting many of you at the AGM.