Here’s a good question (I love questions): how do you choose which [historic example] to make?
The answer, as almost always: Research.
I start with a date. For Battle Road, the dress must be typical of New England in April, 1775 and appropriate for my impression or persona. As I imagine my character from the past, she’s in her 40s, from the upstart town of Providence, married to a tradesman or craftsman. She has one child, and I haven’t thought about whether or not it’s one only or one surviving—too busy chasing the One Child Who Eats Like Ten.
Living in a port city means my character—we’ll call her Kitty—has access to new goods and ideas, a town where you can buy almost anything, but where staymakers are less common than in Newport. It’s less refined than Newport, brassier, but competitive and striving and with plenty of money in some hands. Providence is where the Gaspee affair was plotted; in 1790, residents from around the world are recorded here—men from Java, living in Providence—it’s polyglot, mercantile, striving.
Given that Kitty is of the middling sort in a town, she can wear linen and wool and camblet and even some silk. Her clothes will be fashionable but not high style, “a thought behind the current moment,” as Lord Peter says of someone’s hat. What’s the purpose of this brown gown? Everyday wear, that, with accessories, can be dressed up, or dressed down. Eventually, who knows, I might manage a crewel work stomacher and nice linen cuff-ruffles for my shift, though a filthy apron, burned skirt, and a striped rough linen petticoat are more likely…
Making an everyday dress means not copying the silk dress from Williamsburg, and honestly, I couldn’t wear that wedding cake frosting on my chest, nor what Mrs. Otis has on her stomacher. How about that lovely Norwich wool gown? Well…almost. But I can’t sew that well, and haven’t got fabric that lovely, couldn’t afford it now, wouldn’t have had it then. I have brown wool. Have I seen Mrs. John Brown dressed like one of Copley’s women? Perhaps (if you take Copley as evidence, which you must do carefully.) Have I looked at the lovely brown silk satin and thought, I could do that. Possibly.
What we do know is that in New England, gowns are found more often than any other kind of garment (i.e. short gowns or jackets or riding habits). We know that wool is common, but that linen is found in towns and cities, wool more often in the country, and that the pretty, but expensive, cotton prints are popular. Open robes are more common earlier, and “hatchet” cuffs (pleated tubes) predominate. The style is worn by Copley’s women and Sandby’s girls, and it’s seen in images from 1760 on. That means it’s a good choice for a base style for any class level.
Here’s my process, more or less:
Determine the date, that sets the style.
1775 means stomacher front gown.
Determine the character, that sets the fabric and trims.
Kitty’s New England middling, so she’ll have a wool gown with robings but not trims, a plain stomacher, cuffs and not ruffles, and a matching petticoat.
Determine the event, that sets the accessories.
Battle Road is a hard one for me: as a woman, I shouldn’t be there, and as a Rhode Islander, I really shouldn’t be there. (RI militia were stopped at the border by the governor to prevent them joining Massachusetts men after news of the events at Lexington and Concord reached Rhode Island. They did get there eventually and participated in the siege of Boston, but you see what I mean…) So I have to construct a story for how to dress, and the best I can manage is going out, either to a shop or to pay a casual call on family. So what I plan is a matching petticoat, white neck handkerchief, clean check apron, and bonnet over a clean white cap. (This emphasis on clean should remind me to wash and iron a thing or two.)
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. For now, anyway, till I get a better idea.