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Kyoto Costume Institute. Right: Robe a l'anglaise, 1790-95, England.

Kyoto Costume Institute. Right: Robe a l’anglaise, 1790-95, England. AC5065 85-3-1

(Part one of a series)
Or do you wear what you are?

Both statements seem true, but what I know is this: dressing for the October 5 event has me stymied.

I am stuck on fabric. Sharon Burnston’s advice last Saturday was very helpful: Think Ralph Earl. She’s right: Earl’s iconic images give you the shape and accessories of southeastern New England dress in the last decades of the 18th century.

The tricky part for me is that Earl’s portraits don’t show you the maid or the housekeeper.

The character I’m playing is interesting to me: she’s invisible but powerful, respectable but not refined, loyal but detached. We don’t need to get into my familiarity with any of these paradoxes, but this might be a comfortable discomfort. What could this have to do with fabric? A great deal, as it happens.


The first thing I thought I should do was to figure out the “when and why” of my character’s style choices. After talking with Sharon, I thought I understood our characters’ relationship better, and at the very least, what her character would expect of mine. And let me tell you, it is much harder to imagine being a naughty maid when you like and respect your mistress!

But I like my work to be playful: authenticity does not preclude wit, and in the late 18th century, I would argue that authenticity, at some levels, requires wit. So, how does one visually signal respect for one’s employer and playfulness?

Good lord, when is she going to talk about fabric? Right now, that’s when!

With fabric, and with style and fit, that’s how you can signal the respectful/playful combination.

And fabric is where I’ve been stuck. The gown in the photo (aside from some interesting odors and a few unidentifiable splotches) is made of a sober and suitable wool fabric. The sleeves are partially lined with an Indian block print fabric to provide a non-itchy surface and a little contrast. But I think the gown’s style is a little forward for my character as I understand her in relationship to Sharon’s character. It was also made short for working at the farm, and needs a pressing.

Potential yellow linen petticoat with potential block print cotton round gown.

Still, an earlier style in a solid light-weight wool feels a little too sober to me. It feels more like the Fortnightly Dances, and less like me or my character. A possible compromise? Style like Ralph Earl, fabric like the KCI gown.

Thanks to the Strategic Fabric Reserve, I have some black cotton block print yardage and in looking for that, I rediscovered the yellow linen.

BLOCK-PRINTED COTTON British, ca. 1780–90. Cora Ginsburg.

British, ca. 1780–90. Cora Ginsburg.

Why this particular fabric? Aside from my whimsy and the KCI inspiration, dark grounds come into fashion in the late 1780s, and as a servant, I will lag a bit, style-wise. Could I have a cheaper version of the fabric at left (a child’s dress, 1780-1790, at Cora Ginsburg)? Barbara Johnson’s book at the V&A contains samples of dark ground prints from 1787 on; they’re different the vine-like print at left, but floral prints on black or dark brown are popular in these last decades.

I’m not committed to the black ground gown for this event. I’ve ordered swatches of Burnley & Trowbridge’s new light-weight wools, and we’ll see. Color and hand could convince me, and I can always line the lower part of the sleeves with a cotton print.