The costuming adventures of a lace-a-holic

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Technique Tuesday – Polonaise style front

The Robe a la Polonaise is probably one of the most debated styles in 18th century dress making. What makes a Polonaise, how do you define it? And how, then, would you sew it.

If you follow Kendra van Cleave and Brooke Wellborn in their article, partially published on Démodé Couture the Polonaise is not only defined by the looped up and poufed skirt, but by the front as well. I found a wealth of pictures, but no real tutorial how to make one, all they ever said was „draped based on“. I‘d like to fill in that gap, with one caveat though: I am reproducing this jacket with a sacque back and Polonaise front and: sometimes the photos are of the „do as I say, not as I did“-sort, no need for you to repeat my mistakes.

I started with the well-fitting bodice of my blue worsted gown cut with a compere front instead of the stomacher. For a „real“ Polonaise you should start with a Robe a‘l Anglaise where skirt and bodice are cut in one piece. I won‘t discuss the construction of the dress back here, as I draped my back a la Française, same as my museum example.

First thing you do is to cut the lining and outer fabric for the compere front bodice. Then you add a second layer of outer fabric, the same length as the back, whose shape follows the neckline, shoulder line armscye and side seam of the first layer:

In this example I marked the „proper line“ in green. This was my mistake number one: not to realize that the front indeed ends at the side seam of the bodice. The additional width doesn‘t have to be as much as you see here, 20 to 25 cm will do. In a classical polonaise that width is pleated into the side seam. In my case there is a lot of additional width pleated in the Anglaise-style skirt part of the historical jacket so I decided to take some of the width of the front panel.

In the next step you decide on the angle on which you want your Polonaise front to fall back. Fashion plates and extant gowns show a variety between „almost straight“ to „angled to the side seam“. I chose a moderate angle that works better with my rather busty shape. Too straight down looked boring, a steeper angle made me look uhmmm… let‘s say less than my best. I pressed and seamed that angle.

As I had finished my lining bodice complete with false front, I had to stab-stitch the polonaise front on. If I were doing it again, and I‘d recommend that for you, I‘d sew the side seam as well as the neckline with the underbodice fashion fabric flatlining the polonaise front fabric. Considering the silk charmeuse I had chosen for the false front this would have ended in a nightmare though.

When you are making a Polonaise dress, you pleat the remaining fabric into the side seam. For my little pet I used it to enhance the pleating at the back.

Here the finished pet without any decorations yet. It will get a lace tucker as well as a ton of frill made from grosgrain ribbon in the exact shade of the silk Charmeuse.

Undies first

As always in historical costuming, first things first: the underwear. There‘s nothing more gruesome as dresses that are supposed to be worn with stays or a corset bunching over a non-corseted belly… so, before the joy there‘s always the duty. A chemise, Diderot-ish stays, several under-petticoats, side-hoops or false rumps, all that needs to be fashioned.

Me in chemise and the stays, covered in some historically incredibly inaccurate but beautiful brocade 🙂

Sidehoops, a hip-roll and a bumpad, for different styles of gowns and different timespans in the 18th century.

The stays, by the way, are already the second attempt. The first one was: Hey, we‘ve got this wonderful pattern and it fits my measurements. I‘ll do a pair of stays sewed entirely by hand! Yay.

The joy ended rather abruptly when I put them on and discovered that the couldn‘t possibly fit anyone. I do have a supershort rump, in most patterns I have to shorten. But this? Aahhh, forget it. It was too short by at least four inches. I have an idea how to salvage the handsewn one, as it is made of much lighter fabric, still, right now it will have to go to the UFO-pile, as something‘s looming on the horizon: Costume College. And that means that whatever I want to be wearing then has absolute top priority. A second pair of 18th century stays doesn‘t.

The dress code thing

As I promised, here you are with the story why I, who wouldn‘t even wear skirts to my wedding, chose to create a female persona wearing 18th century dresses.

At the fair we met with a wonderful long-time costuming friend and with a wonderful new one. Both are very nice ladies and when we started talking about taking costumed strolls at the palace garden, the ladies started to chitter about making picnics and needleworking in public. I chittered as well, being an avid needleworker and loving to explain my craft. Then it dawned on me.

No 18th century gentleman would permit himself to publicly be seen with a knotting shuttle, creating buttons or sewing on some lace confection unless he was a professional in that craft. But then he wouldn‘t be invited to the palace gardens.

It took me a day or so to think of the role of the maid to Madame la Marquise, portrayed by my wife. My next though was that I wouldn‘t be happy with that. Me, who had spent hours and hours to hand-embroider my man‘s suit, in simple, little embellished clothing? Not a happy pairing, definitely not. While out on the internet in search of new knowledge and inspiration, I came across Colonial Williamsburg and their millinery shop.

A milliner, une Marchande de modes, that role suited me like no other, it would allow me to use all the various needlework techniques I knew, it would even require I trimmed my clothes to show off my craft. And considering the close relationship Marie Antoinette had to her Marchande de Modes, Madame Rose Bertin, it was plausible to have such a close relationship to Madame la Marquise that I could join the ladies on a picnic in the gardens,.

It didn‘t take long from there to creating the persona of Madame Juliette, Marchande de Modes at the ducal court of Ludwigsburg around 1770. I‘m still fleshing out the role with some background, but I already designed a trade card for her, based on extant samples from the 1770ies.

Madame, of course, has to be suitably dressed. Her very first gown will be an ensemble of blue and cream wool. Details to follow with my next blog.

Disclaimer: The persona is completely made up based on what is plausible, the address is pure fiction although a place by that name exists in modern-day Ludwigsburg.

Finding my costuming mojo again

I hadn‘t sewn anything in almost ten years when on August 26th, 2022 I saw a billboard advertising the „Venezianische Messe“ – a big bi-annual festival celebrating the carnival in Venice as well as the year 1768 in our almost-hometown of Ludwigsburg.

My first thought was „That‘s only two weeks away and… I have nothing to wear!“ – as sure as I had outgrown my wedding suit, I had outgrown all my old costumes, that was a no-brainer. I could have decided not to go, or to go as most people do without a costume, but no, the mojo was back and with a vengeance. I pondered over the weekend if there was any way to salvage one of the old suits (and didn’t see the obvious solution), then decided to hunt for a fabric that would enable me to do a sew-a-thon not requiring me to embroider the whole thing.

On monday my wife and I drove off to a big fabric shop and there she discovered it. Pure silk brocade in a graphical pattern acceptable for the late 18th century and at a bargain price at that. I bough ten meters of it, added some red acetate twill that wonderfully imitates silk faille and fit the color scheme and there I went.

I didn‘t manage to fully finish the suit, but I got it wearable for the weekend, including all the passementerie buttons, partially done by me, partially done by the best wife of them all. In the weeks to follow, I finished the suit with some soutache embroidery and felt that I didn‘t want to stop. In no time I bought the fabric for two more suits and then it happened,

For the first time in historical costuming I wanted to work on a female persona. But that is another story and will be told next time.

Welcome to my costuming blog

I started costuming long ago, during my last year at school when I wanted to do some LARP and dress cool for it. Originally I didn‘t care much for what fabrics I used, or what kind of embellishments. Then I started studying art history and realized that your run of the mill 70ies crochet lace looked simply stupid when trying for medieval impressions. That‘s when the whole thing started and I got into costuming for real.

As I am an avid needleworker, I learned to embroider and crochet before I even started school, I wanted to find out whichever embellishment technique was the most appropriate for the style I was aiming for and tried to learn it. Eventually, as I realized that many of the old lacemaking techniques were on the brink of going extinct, as the old ladies knowing how to do them didn‘t have anyone to teach. That‘s when I started collecting lacemaking techniques without thinking of the costumes they might be useful for. Originally this site, the Spitzenkiste (box of lace), was simply to collect my ventures into lace territory in the times when I wrote my little book about the tatted lace of Mlle. Riego. The header picture is a sample by the way. Many of the old pages will be moved over to WordPress in the next weeks, new content will be about the costumes I sew at the moment.

In case you‘re interested in the booklet: Viktorianisches Occhi

(the link leads to the Big A because I think that‘s easiest for international readers, it‘s not an affiliate link)