Student Project

Examining the Chintz Gown of the 1790’s

A Chintz Gown in the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection

Chintz gown

The chintz gown contained in the Smith collection is a shining example of an early to mid 1790s gown, representing a transitional period between the more structured eighteenth century and the new, somewhat looser-fitted styles of the early nineteenth century.  This gown is an excellent representative example of transitional style and exhibits many style characteristics consistent with other contemporary garments. In my study of this gown, I carefully examined the garment and attempted to recreate it using skills and knowledge I gained during my 2016 summer internship. This report consists of my observations on the gown’s construction and style, and my process of recreation, as well as information regarding the style and textiles of the garment.

Construction

The construction of this gown reflects a typical method of construction used by mantuamakers in the eighteenth century. The checked lining of this gown is pieced, and features different seam lines that that of the back of the dress constructed in the fashion fabric. While the outside of the dress shows a seam in the center back, the center back piece of the lining is a single piece without a seam down the center. Two different checked fabrics are used in the construction of the lining, while the outer layer of the gown is constructed with only six bodice pieces in total: The center back pieces, the side back/front pieces, and the shoulder straps. The side back pieces are large, and extend around the side of the gown to comprise the front of the bodice. The shoulder straps of the gown connect both the neckline and armscye.  This gown has long sleeves, constructed from two pattern pieces with a slit from the wrist to allow the wearer ease of movement. The shape of the sleeves is curved to accommodate the bend of the elbow. The sleeves are attached to the lower armscye of both the lining and the fashion fabric using a small backstitch for strength. The shoulder of the sleeve is encased between the lining and the outer fabric, with the fashion fabric shoulder strap applied on top using a prickstitch. The prickstitch is commonly seen on the bodices of eighteenth century garments, and is a sort of modified backstitch applied to a folded edge laid over a raw edge in which smaller, widely spaced stitches appear on the exterior of the garment. The edges of the neckline and bottom front of the bodice are finished using a modified whipstitch that has the appearance of a prickstitch, creating a clean, joined edge with the fashion and lining fabrics. The hems of the sleeves are finished in a similar manner.

The full, pleated skirt of this gown is constructed from panels of fabric measuring 26 inches wide. The skirt panels are seamed with a large running stitch selvedge edge to selvedge edge, indicating an original fabric width of 26 inches. The front edge of the skirt is free from the bodice and gathered with a drawstring. To create the casing, the skirt has been graded, folder over and a channel stitched with a running stitch. The seams connecting the free front panel of the skirt to the panels attached to the bodice are sewn leaving a 16.25 inch slit, which is finished with a running stitch. These slits would have helped in the ease of putting the gown on, and would have also allowed the wearer to access her pockets, which were worn separately under the gown. The skirt is slightly longer in the back than it is in the front, giving the gown a small train. The bottom hem of the skirt is faced with a brown and white printed fabric. This facing measures 1.75 inches, and is applied to the entire hem of the skirt using a small running stitch. The skirt is pleated to fit the bodice, with the attached edge of the skirt ending about half way down the curved bottom edge of the bodice front. The pleats are half an inch deep, and the fabric is pleated towards the center back, meeting with an inverted box pleat. The skirt is attached using a backstitch. The white overcasting stitching is not original to the gown, and the edge was originally left raw.

There is some evidence that this gown has been altered. An extra tab of lined fashion fabric (as seen in Figure 1) at the bottom edge of the bodice has been folded into the waist seam, perhaps indicating a different waistline when initially made. An alteration would indicate that this garment was made in an earlier fashion and then later changed to suit a different, more fashionable style.

The Recreation Process

Using techniques learned from Sarah Woodward, Journerywoman Milliner and Mantuamaker, and Janea Whitacre, Master Milliner and Mantuamaker, during my internship at Colonial Williamsburg’s Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop, I attempted to recreate the process of fitting and cutting the bodice. Their instruction is the source of my technical knowledge of the practice of mantuamaking. Photos of my process can be seen in Figure 2. My aim in this exercise was to gain a better understanding of how this gown was put together, and to assess the ease and likelihood of the suspected alteration. For the lining to be fit to the outside of the gown, the fashion fabric was used to drape and cut the bodice on the body of the original owner.  I began with two large rectangles of fabric sewn together with a straight seam. I used a simple running stitch with a backstitch added every two stitches for strength. I then centered this seam with the middle of my model’s back and pinned it in place to the stays. Stays are an important part of the mantua-making process, as most eighteenth century garments rely on the stiff boning for structure and smoothness of fit. After the back was centered, I established the placement of the fabric over the front of the bodice. Because the gown consists of only one piece stretching from center front to side back, the correct grain line in the front must be established before the side back seams can be pinned. The fabric in the front of the bodice is placed at a slight bias in order to smoothly wrap around the conical shape created by the stays. The fabric can be pinned into the structure of the stays to hold it in place.

My next step was to establish the curvature of the side back pieces. This was done by created a folded edge on a new piece of fabric and manipulating and pinning it in place until the desired curvature was achieved.  After the side back seams were established, I began to smooth the fabric towards the front of the stays on either side, snipping excess as needed to reduce wrinkling. At this point, I established and cut the lower armscye, and began to draw on a potential waistline with a pencil. The waistline of this gown would have sat the natural waist of the wearer while wearing stays. When cutting the waistline, I left half an inch of excess fabric, which in a finished gown would have later been used in the waist seam and finishing, and cut the waistline to mimic the slightly pointed shape seen in the excess tab in the original gown. Once the desired smoothness was achieved, I cut the neckline and the pointed front of the bodice, again leaving half an inch of extra fabric for finishing. After the neckline and waistline were established, I placed and cut the shoulder straps.

For my prototype, I stitched the pieced together as the outer portion of the gown was. It is likely that most of the outer portion was completed before laying in the lining, as the reverse side of the prickstitching used to attach the side backs is not visible from the interior of the gown. This technique was used to attach the side back pieces to the back pieces, after which I trimmed excess fabric from the seam allowances. I attached the shoulder straps to my prototype with a prickstitch as well. In the making of a full gown, the shoulder straps are often the last piece applied, covering the seam of the sleeve to the lining shoulder strap.

From this experience, my observations regarding the order of cutting and construction were confirmed. Once the outer shell of the garment was completed, pieces of lining fabric could be laid and stitched to fit. The lining could not have been constructed without the outer bodice. I cannot confirm that the actual draping of this garment was done with the fashion fabric, rather than another cheaper fabric that could be used as a pattern from which to cut the fashion fabric. I ascertained that the alteration from a curved waistline in the back to a straight one would have been relatively simple to execute. To make this alteration, the waist seam would simply be released and reattached using the new waistline. Such a simple alteration seems a cheap way to update an old gown to suit changing styles.

Fashion and Style

The style of this gown is consistent with that of the early 1790s. Long sleeves, like the ones on this gown, can be seen in portraiture of the era, as well as in other extant garments. The portrait shown in Figure 3 shows a woman wearing a gown of similar style, with a closely fitted bodice, long sleeves and a wide, open neckline. There are multiple examples that closely resemble this gown that support its placement in the early 1790s. A gown in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Figure 4), altered in the late 1780s, shows a similar bodice construction and long sleeves, as well as a large-scale floral textile. A nearly identical gown to the one in the Smith collection (Figure 5), sold by Vintagetextile.com, is made of a similar dark ground floral fabric, and exhibits similar bodice construction (Figure 6). The seller dates this gown from 1789-97. The similarity of this gown to the example in the V&A is notable, and when compared to these two examples, the Smith gown can firmly be dated in the early 1790s.

The style of the early 1790s saw a change from the styles of the 1780s. An English print from 1790 (Figure 7) shows a marked difference from another print dated to 1785 (Figure 8). The garments shown in the c. 1790 print have less volume in the skirts than those shown in the 1785 print. The 1785 skirts exhibit a slightly more rounded, bell-like shape, while the 1790 skirts are more voluminous in the back with smoother, more closely fitted fronts. This style change is reflected in the Smith gown, as the front skirt panel is made of far less fabric than the pleated back, and the drawstring could be manipulated to lie smoothly. Additionally, the skirts in the 1790 print are slightly trained, like the Smith gown. The gowns worn by the women in both of these prints have long sleeves, demonstrating the popularity of this style from the 1780s extending into the 1790s.

 

Textiles

The fabric of this gown is a cotton floral print consisted of a dark purple-brown ground with flowers and designs in imitation of ikat. The small groupings of abstract shapes that accompany the flowers are sometimes referred to in the period as “clouds”. The designs are block printed, rather than painted. The black outlines of the designs were laid down first, with other colored blocks applied in sequence.

Floral printed fabrics were often referred to in the eighteenth century in inventories and advertisements as chintz and calicoe. The term calicoe could refer to a cotton cloth of a variety of grades imported from Calcutta in India. These fabrics were often produced both in India and in England and the Netherlands, and it is often difficult to distinguish origin. In the case of English printed cottons produced from 1774 to 1811, three blue threads woven into the selvedge indicate British origin. There are no blue threads present in the selvedges of the Smith gown, pointing to an Indian or Dutch origin of the textile. Chintz also refers to a printed or painted cotton fabric that may of may be coated with a glaze. Chintz was also produced in India and in Europe, and a large variety of both calicoes and chintzes were available in America. It is nearly impossible to determine whether the fabric of this dress was originally sold as calico or chintz. The fabric of this gown bears no evidence of a glaze, but it is possible that any original glaze may have been lost in past washing.

The fabric used in the facing of the hem is also likely of English origin. The pattern is executed in black dye, and was like produced using a copper plate engraving, rather than a block print or resist dying method. Copper plate prints like that seen on the hem of the Smith gown often appear clearer and sharper than patterns produced through other methods.

The dark ground of this fabric was popular from the 1780s into the first decade of the nineteenth century. Dark ground chintzes and calicoes are seen in extant garments and advertisements earlier in the eighteenth century, but seem to be more common in the later decades. Chintzes and calicoes with dark grounds are common in advertisements. Bolts of dark chintz cloth can be seen in the open storeroom depicted in Ralph Earl’s 1789 portrait of Elijah Boardman (Figure 9), a prosperous merchant with a shop in Milford, Connecticut.  I have selected three advertisements from Connecticut River Valley Newspaper that show fabrics that would have been similar to that of the Smith gown for sale (Figures 10-12).

The checked linen fabric that lines this gown has often been associated with the Connecticut River Valley, where it was popular for men’s work shirts. However, the presence of this textile cannot serve as a definite indicator of a place of production, as similar linen checks were available throughout Europe and the English colonies. The checked fabric itself, like all other textiles available to the early American consumer, was imported from England. Checked fabrics were largely manufactured in Manchester, England. A Manchester fabric merchant’s swatch book housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Figure 11) shows a variety of checked fabrics.

Conclusions

Observing, recreating and researching this gown was a valuable and enriching experience. When studied as a whole, this gown is an excellent primary source through which fashion, methods of production and the history of textiles can be studied. This dress, though in general keeping with contemporary style, is by no means heavily decorated. The fabric itself, though attractive, does not convey the same sense of luxury as more expensive silks and more finely wrought hand-painted cottons. It represents an important and underrepresented type of garment; that of the middling-class woman.

Figure  SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 2: The mantuamaking process. Photo by author, thanks to Jesse Azevedo ’18 for modeling

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Figure 3: Anonymous, Mother and Child in White, c. 1790, oil on canvas,  351/4 x 27 1/16 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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Figure 4: Victoria & Albert T.230-1927

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Figure 5: Vintage Textile lot #2226

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Figure 6: Detail of Vintage Textile lot #2226

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Figure 7: Anonymous, published by Robert Sayer 1790. The Lewis Walpole Library 790.04.10.01

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Figure 8: Anonymous, published by Robert Sayer, 1785.  Lewis Walpole Library 785.00.00.19+

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Figure 9: Detail from: Ralph Earl, Elijah Boardman, 1789, oil on canvas, 83 x 51 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Figure 10: Connecticut Gazette, published as THE CONNECTICUT GAZETTE; AND THE UNIVERSAL INTELLIGENCER. (New London, Connecticut) • 12-14-1781 • Page 3

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Figure 11: Connecticut Journal, published as The CONNECTICUT JOURNAL. (New Haven, Connecticut) • 08-06-1783 • Page 3

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Figure 12: Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Massachusetts) • 06-25-1794 • Page 8

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Figure 13: Metropolitan Museum of Art 156.4 T31

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