Sunday, 5 January 2014

Decoding Historical Clothing - Using patterned fabric to decipher the cut of a dress.


This article was initially inspired by studying the image of a particular dress which has been on my 'to do' list for a long time. The distinct striped fabric helped me to work out how I could make a reproduction.

 Dress Comtesse of Palfi,  Chateau Malmaison
Many of us who study and recreate historical clothing rely on the images provided by online collections and databases as we are unable to visit the collection in person.  However, if you look carefully at an image of a historical garment made from a striped or patterned fabric it can provide a lot of information and interesting clues about the cut as opposed to a garment made from a plain fabric.
Whilst my ideas may seem obvious to some I hope they will provide some useful tips for those studying historic fashion.




The cut of the 'Palfi' dress has always interested me. You can see how the stripes on the bodice match exactly those of the skirt. The direction of the silk on the sleeves is also interesting and shows a nice decorative contrast. The pleated detail on the bodice is very effective but has it been made from one piece pleated up or from strips made to imitate pleating? When you look at the proportion of the spacing on the fabric pattern perhaps using a continuous piece would be too bulky? Considering factors like these can perhaps help us to make more informed choices when we attempt a reproduction.

 The interruption of the striped pattern can reveal details of the cut when online photographs are not very clear. Zooming in on this example from the Kyoto collection shows a small inserted piece which would aid the drape of the skirt. It is a small detail but  from experience very effective when making a dress like this.

Screen shot, Kyoto Fashion Museum website.

 The back panel of the 1814 dress is cut on the cross grain of the fabric but this is unusual for the period. Was it decorative? To help the fit? Or was this the only piece left over after the rest of the dress was cut?

 V&A Collection c.1814

c.1827,  LACMA Collection

The 1827 LACMA collection dress is interesting because the pattern is not exactly matched on the centre front of the bodice even though this would have been quite noticeable. Was this due to lack of fabric? But on the other hand there are false tucks on the skirt made with fabric cut on the cross grain. This would have used up a large piece of fabric.


Studying the two striped dress bodices of the 1840s show the decorative use of fabric and a practical one too. Cutting the fabric on the cross grain in narrow sections helped the bodice fit tightly over the corset by adding stretch. The bold lines created by the stripes at this angle add a clever design detail and the waist appears thinner.

Bodice detail. Metropolitan Museum Collection.
 Kent State University Museum.



Striped sleeves can be very useful when looking for clues about the pattern. You can determine the angle of the bend of the sleeve  from the direction of the stripes. The Metropolitan Museum collections online has a high quality zoom in tool to help look at these details.

Bustle Dress Metropolitan Museum Collection


Sleeve Detail from the zoom in tool.





Walking Dress by Worth, Metropolitan Museum Collection.


The placement of the striped fabric on the Worth dress is clearly highly decorative rather than functional. The seam in the centre front panel of the skirt and the position of the grain are very different to conventional patterns of the period.  You can also see the striped pattern frames the edge of the bodice. The stripes give you a clear idea of the cut of the garment but the choice of the placement of the fabric is not necessarily based on the rules of pattern cutting on the correct grain.

This brief study did present more questions. Judging the difference between the decorative placing of patterned fabric, the necessity of using limited fabric to its best use and how this influences the cut of a historical garment. 

There are also technical factors to take into account such as the width of fabric when the garment was made. Fabrics such as silk and velvet were very narrow before the early 1900s. Some as narrow as 18 inches wide. This would have had more of an impact with patterned fabrics as they would have been less easy to pattern match and piece together.

Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.


One final detail which can be indicated by looking at patterned historical garments and even embroidered ones is remodelling and alteration. Most museums and collectors will indicate this in the item record but it is a good idea to bear this in mind if you plan to purchase an original garment as it can affect the value. Alterations could have been made close to when the garment was first constructed as fashion changed. The garment could also have been re-cut to fit another person as a hand- me- down. It is always useful to look at the embroidery pattern and see if it finishes abruptly or is not symmetrical.

I would like to make a suggestion for museums to add a close-up image of the fabric with a tape measure or ruler to show the scale of the patterned fabric. I believe this would really help anyone who does not have the opportunity to see the historical garment in person to gain a better understanding of its cut and construction.



Thanks to Abby and Janea from Colonial Williamsburg for their advice on 18th century cutting. I would also like to thank Caroline, Simon, Taylor, Irene, Angela, Karen, Jane, Nicole and Lorna for their insights on my Facebook page.

2 comments:

Laura Morrigan said...

Wow, what beautiful dresses, the fabrics are lovely! And what an interesting idea! I am definitely not up to that level of sewing at all, but it is so interesting to know this sort of thing! Thank you for sharing it!

Fichu1800 said...

Thank you Laura.