Larkin & Smith's Fashionable Gown

Monday, September 11, 2017

18th Century Robe a l'Anglaise worn retroussée, made from Larkin & Smith's Fashionable Gown. 

With my reenacting calendar filling up, my choices are the gold gown, the gold gown, and oh yeah, the gold gown. Which would be lovely with the changing leaves, but I'd like to have some other option in the reenacting wardrobe.

The Fabric:

I have trouble sleeping, and instead of reading or sewing, I scour pinterest and my favorite online fabric sellers. Let me tell you, insomnia is expensive. I saw Hancock of Paducah was having a sale on the last few yards of the Hamilton line from Windham Fabrics. I snagged nine yards at $5 a yard before it was sold out. I basically got a new dress for less than $50 bucks.

Dress with blue floral pattern on cream ground. Copperplate printed linen. Worn by Deborah Sampson (b. 1760-1827), possibly as her wedding dress. Historic New England.

The print immediately reminded of the chintz gown at Historic New England. My original plan was to make a round gown, but I didn't know how the closed front was going accommodate my effort to gain weight, and I like the flexibility a stomacher allows.

One thing that wasn't apparent in the swatches was the curvy vines that run lengthwise. It's a lovely design and wish I snagged some other "Hamilton" prints in hindsight. 

Because I really enjoyed the English Gown pattern from Larkin and Smith, I bought the Fashionable Gown pattern to try out. My friends tell me it's more appropriate for the 1780s, but they wear Chemises a la Reine on Wednesdays, so I think I can get away with it.

Accurate recreation of Sass & Silk making friends.

The Pattern:

Anyway, back to the pattern. I will admit, the English Gown pattern set some really high expectations for the rest of the Larkin and Smith patterns. I can say in hindsight, the pattern definitely delivers, but be prepared for some frustrating moments and have plenty of patience on hand. It is more advance than the English gown, and probably requires twice the amount of time since the finer details really make the dress. 

Again, the information is plentiful. You get a booklet with everything you need to know about construction. However, if you already made one of her patterns, such as the English Gown, a lot of information is things you already know. My friends say I need to be more confident in my sewing skills, and maybe they're right. 

The Mock-up:

First off, you really need a pair of 1780s stays for this gown. There is information on how to add padding to the bustline to imitate that 80s curviness for the mockup. I tried it, but it was really uncomfortable with my small frame. I'm into cool hacks, mixing my period wardrobe to make-do, but I think it's too much when you try to turn something into what it's not. Like fake cheese. 

However, this hiccup did answer a nagging question on why I see shoulder straps on some stays, but not others, and what's the big difference between a full-boned 1770s stays and a 80s half-boned pair. I get it. I finally get it. 

The pattern wants you to cut a front extension to give you that "zone front" look. It's interesting, and a good idea when you think of the technical reasons of why it was done, but I intended to cut it out as one piece. One less seam to handsew, I figure. Except it was too big. There really wasn't a need for me to have a front extension when I could pin the bodice front closed without it. I can't blame anyone for this. I'm pretty small at the moment, and until I can gain some weight, I'm stuck with everything being too big.

After some tweaking, I found a scant dart at the hip helped achieve the look and fit I wanted. It wasn't a horrible, time consuming fitting, so that's a plus. 

Redrawing the new pattern piece. I'm adding a little extra at the shoulder, and raising the neckline just a bit. I'm giving myself some room for mistakes until I can do a proper fitting with the right undergarments.

So. Many. Panels. As you cut your pieces, LABEL THEM. Don't wait until after you're done with cutting your pattern pieces to do so. You will not remember what panel is for the petticoat or the overskirt, especially since some pieces will be the same length and width, and if you're anything like me, you'd fudge a few inches here and there while measuring.  

This is the fun part, handsewing your bodice together. I have to say, the skirt and bodice sewn up nicely. Everything's running smoothly so far!

I did fail at trying to match some type of pattern on the bodice back. I should've matched the print down the center seam, instead of trying to get print to match on either side. It ended up being hidden by the pleats. Learn from my mistake. CENTER SEAM PEOPLE!

One, two, three! It's like a magic trick!

Part of the great thing about going to reenactments is meeting other seamstresses. At my first official event, I met this wonderful woman named Betsy who shared with me a link to Burnley & Trowbridge's youtube page, where they show you a cool trick on how to sew up sleeves. It's quick and easy, and once you learn their method, you'd never want to sew up a pair of sleeves any other way! Thanks Betsy!

This is where things slow down and the bottle of wine gets cracked open. Some might roll their eyes at me, but I've spent my whole life sewing from commercial patterns. I'm used to having things dumbed down, especially when it comes to pleat placement. 

To make things easier for myself, I measured my waist and marked my center front, pocket slit, and center back on a piece of tape, and then taped it to my quilting board. First thing I did was pleat, like normal, marking every inch and pinning the folds as I went. Then when I was done, I adjusted the pleats to fit within my tape guide. It worked easier than trying to divide the fabric equally, and I found the unequal pleating it didn't affect the appearance at all, as long as the outside pleating was.


Machine sewing the pleats! The modern horror! 

The gown calls for cuffs and box-pleated ruffled trim. After I cut all my strips and sewed running stitches through them all, I wake up one morning in crisis mode. I have never seen a chintz gown with self-fabric ruffles. There are a few exceptions, but as I scroll through my pins on pinterest, the examples are few and far in-between, and not in the same extent as what the gown calls for. 

First I thought that maybe prints were expensive, and maybe they kept the gowns plain because all that excess fabric for ruffles were wasteful. It made sense to me, especially if the print was imported. I asked my friend Dawn, a long time reenactor and human history book, and she said they weren't as expensive as I assumed they were.

Then after experimenting with the flounce on my petticoat, I realized why they didn't trim their gowns in self-fabric! You can't even see it! The ruffle just blends into the busy print. Now I realize why they trimmed their gowns in white ribbons, and wore gauzy fishus and ruffled sleeves! It helps break apart the busy print of the gown. 

Now I have all this trim, cut and pinked, sitting in my scrap pile. Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas?

Then, the day before my event, the going got really tough. Shoulder straps, why do you always suck? I tried to follow the instructions, but something wasn't clicking, and after a few hours, I decided to just follow my intuition and do it my way. Obviously, some of you probably have a better way of doing shoulder straps, but here's what I did differently.

First I sewed the lining to the sleeve cap. The lining band is sewn to the bodice front, just as directed in the informational packet. Here is where I verge from the directions. I didn't sew the lining to the back. I stopped about an inch from the sleeve seam. 

Then I sewed my fashion fabric band to the bodice front and back, almost like you would a strap on a modern dress. Then I folded over the excess on the sleeve side and sewed it down with an invisible hem stitch.

Now I sew the shoulder strap lining with whipstitches. If you see, I left a scant 1/4 edge of the fashion shoulder strap unsewn. There is a reason for this! 

You need that scant 1/4th edge to fold the neckline inward. You will leave all the edges raw, fold them back as if they were one piece, and whipstitch them to the lining. Your modern day mindset keeps telling you that this can't be the way to finish your neckline, but it is! 

My lining was tighter than my fashion fabric, creating a little bubbling from the excess ease, but it went away with a hot pressing of the iron. Try to keep both of them the same length to avoid this. 

After that, it was ALL DONE!

Gown took around two weeks to complete. I sewed a hour in the morning before work, and maybe two in the afternoon. Plus a whole three day weekend, where I really got a bulk of it done.

I didn't take any pictures of this step, but you add two tapes to the overskirt to create a polonaise...or a retroussee...? I'm still figuring out what makes a gown what. Please, let me know what exactly this is. Anyway, I went with that option because the gown needed some umph! and texture to break apart the print.

Eliza, from Silk & Sass, who's been a wonderful guide into 18th century fashion, who encourages me to SEW. ALL. THE. THINGS.  #goals

Final Thoughts: Recommended, for intermediate sewers. If you've only constructed one or two period gown by hand before, this might be the pattern beef up your skills, and add variety into your reenacting wardrobe. It's not a quick gown for beginners, and the finer details will take time. For the visually impaired, it can be hard to make out the details in the pictures because of the striped fabric. Will I make this gown again? Probably, but in silk or cotton stripe.

Accessories: Gauzy apron and fishu were lenders from Eliza. The shoes and shoe buckles are from American Duchess. Earrings from Dames a la Mode. Hair flower from Sophisticated Flowers. Stockings are from Colonial Williamsburg. Big hair by me.


  1. Beautiful gown. I've always loved that Deborah Sampson gown. The fabric you found works so well with this pattern!

    1. Thank you! It did work well, though I'd love to find a print on linen one day! Sigh. I'm glad windham fabrics came out with some prints, I just wish they were still in production so I can pick up more!

  2. Very pretty! I love a good chintz print gown. And your hair looks lovely too!

    I would probably call it just a quarter-back gown with the skirts looped up (though I'm happy to be corrected!)...the 18thc had so many variations, like "anglaise a la ...." it's hard to know exactly what's the correct term for things! A polonaise is really just the specific type of gown Eliza's wearing (with the flappy fronts...technical term, that), not necessarily the looped-up skirts. Though I do still hear a lot of costumers use that term, I *think* in period it was used to refer a gown (or jacket) with the loose fronts, not just the skirts.

    1. Thank you! Quartered back didn't even cross my mind! I'm happy to be corrected, especially when a gown can be one thing, and then also another, but then not when it's like this. You know what I mean. I'm coming from the 1940s reenacting world, so everything is new, and sometimes confusing. :D

  3. Very nice work
    I invite you on my blog of old magazines and old french sewing patterns

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