Within an hours’ drive from where I live is a notable fortress that once was a strategic part to the history of Midwestern America. Fort Ste. Anne de Chartres still stands today – albeit partially demolished by time, weather, and the nearby water of the Mississippi River when it floods (almost yearly) – with some portions rebuilt since the 1930s. However, the magazine house for the gunpowder is original and claims to be the oldest building in all of Illinois State, dating to 1750. The current limestone fort, built in 1753, was preceded by three wooden ones, the first of which was erected in 1720. The fort was considered the French seat of government in the Upper Louisiana Territory until being occupied by the British in 1765. It was meant to control “the Illinois country” – the area that supplied vital foodstuffs and supplies down the river to Louisiana. The great George Rogers Clark claimed the fort in 1779 for American Independence as part of the “Illinois Campaign”.
The array of buildings on the grounds help a visitor mentally picture the days, over 300 years ago, when Fort de Chartres was in its heyday, filled with soldiers, provisions, important townsfolk, and more…it is really wonderful! The many events, fairs, and the historic annual “Rendezvous” also help fill in for the imagination. I have posted about this Rendezvous before (2015, 2016, and 2017). We missed a couple years and then the Pandemic had the Rendezvous cancelled for a few more, so we were more than ready to go back to it when the event finally returned in 2021! This post shows how I made sure to go all out in grand style for enjoying the Rendezvous again. My ‘new’ historical outfit for that year comes into play as a proper follow up to my previous post, (see it here) where I mentioned our visit to the “Global Threads” exhibit. I can now properly dive into the historical significance of Chintz fabric, showcase how it was used and worn in the 18th century, and finally enjoy writing on how I finished this project which had been over 20 years in the making!
FABRIC: all fabrics are 100% cotton
PATTERN: The underskirt was from a J.P. Ryan Co. pattern for a Pet-en-l’air or Robe a la Francaise ensemble while the outer gown was previously made (more on that later) – I merely had to fit and finish it
NOTIONS NEEDED: Lots of thread and hook and eyes
TIME TO COMPLETE: The underskirt took me about 5 hours to make in June of 2021. Fixing the gown took me another few hours.
THE INSIDES: left raw
TOTAL COST: The skirt material (a sari) cost me $30 (from “Antique Art of India” shop here on Ebay) while the gown was bought for me by my parents many years ago so it is as good as free to me
First of all, before I dive into explaining how this outfit came to be a reality, let me explain what kind of gown I am wearing, and later on I’ll explain who would have worn it back then, and the importance of it being made of chintz fabric. The printed overdress I am wearing has a French term – Robe à l’Anglaise (English Nightgown) – often simply called an English gown. This was an extremely common and universally accepted way of dressing in the first three quarters of the 18th century, besides being a ladies’ most versatile piece of clothing. The style details changed slightly circa 1775 into what is known as an “Italian Gown”. While both fall under the term “Robe à l’Anglaise” and both have an open front to the skirt (showing the underskirt), the main differences between the two styles are in the cut of the back bodice and front closing. An English gown features a tight, fitted “enfourreau” back, which has a series of vertical pleats, stitched down flat, which bring in the excess fabric to fit the wearer. The pleats of an English back are one-piece with the skirt fabric, making for a necessary excess of a very large cut of fabric…part of the reason this gown was seen as something so posh for the times! An Italian back has a defined waist seam, panels to fit the back rather than pleats, and more variants of front closings that do not need a stomacher inset. There are good overall comparisons between the two here on American Duchess’ blog and on this Google Arts and Culture collage.
There is much more to explain here, but for simplicity’s sake I have shortened the details just to show that my own gown of is actually blend of the English and Italian “Robe à l’Anglaise”. My gown has the pleated back like the English style, but with a waist seam that cuts through the pleats, and a front center closing with simple, unembellished sleeves of Italian style. I suppose this places my ‘look’ firmly between 1775 and 1780. In my mental fantastical explanation, I’d like to think of my reenactment story as being a woman who desperately wanted to be seen as fashion forward. However, not having a new pattern, limited fabric, or exact details of an Italian gown to work with, she may have come up with a cobbled upgrade to her English gown. My outfit passes as an English gown, and since the location I was visiting – Fort De Chartres – is French taken over by the British, it made less sense to be wearing an Italian styled Anglaise. Let me clarify, this blend of the two is not something I have found an extant garment example for as of yet. Thus, before I get judged for not being truly ‘historical’ with a historical dress, this was not entirely of my doing.
You see, unlike most of what I post on my blog, I didn’t start from scratch with this gown. Even though I have invested plenty of effort to make it my own, this gown is not my work to begin with. This came into my hands with the main body, lining, and all the major seams sewn already by an acquaintance. She sold it to me 25 years back on the cheap (basically covering the cost of materials). My parents were more than happy to help that a small business and encourage me in my re-enacting passion at the same time, so they bought this for me when I was a young teen. I soon realized that as much as I loved the print and the styling of the gown, it was a problem that I didn’t feel informed enough to know how to fit and finish it to a proper historical appearance…until a few years ago! All these years of holding onto it, dreaming of how to revive it from in its sad unfinished state, has been validated!
An English gown has a structured, unique shape unalike anything I have done in historical costuming. My previous 18th century clothing was more casual and working class and so this silhouette was a different look I had to get used to. Accentuating my booty and flattening out my chest does not make natural sense to me so it’s a style I enjoy for the sake of history or mere oddity! After the learning curve of it all, actually acquiring all of the proper undergarments were the real intimidating and time consuming factor. For many years I hoped to sew all the under layers needed, but there are only so many years to wait on that plan before realizing I would be over my head. Besides, after so many years waiting to wear this, I felt I would just count myself lucky to finish up the ensemble!
I had bought myself some American Duchess “Kensington” heels and made a quick fichu (chest modesty piece, see this post for a clarification) from lightweight cotton scraps in my stash, so my accessories were on hand. Then, I already had the under drawers (for my legs) and lightly boned stays (bought from a seller at the Chartres Rendezvous when I was a teen). I love the fact that my stays are also in a chintz print! I spent a bare minimum on the bum roll from a seller on Ebay who used the “Frances Rump” design from The Dreamstress’ Scroop Patterns together with a pillowcase to refashion a test sample bum roll. It is not perfect, but it is cute, well made, and completely effective…besides saving me the time and extra money trying to sew it myself (which I doubted I could do). The chemise was handmade to order from a seller on Etsy, and it is in the softest cotton imaginable, but it also has proper underarm Gussets, drawstring neck, and flat felled seams. For $100, I had all the undergarments I needed, and nothing but the lack of an underskirt (petticoat) was holding me back from a wearable English gown.
This kind of gown can either have a matching or contrasting underskirt – there was no way to match here but I didn’t want to go for a plain solid either. The Indian sari I used for the underskirt is a reference to the Indian chintz of my outer robe. It is weightless Indian cotton in a unique color that presents as a warm nut brown but listed as “Henna Green”. There is metallic gold pin striping through the short width of the sari and bright magenta stitching in both the border edging and the end “pallu” panel. Being a cotton, it is not as formal as a silk sari and so was slightly shorter in its length, being under 6 yards. I only needed 3 yards for the skirt which left me with just enough to sew something else interesting (to be posted next).
The cotton sari is semi-sheer and so in lieu of a separate petticoat I decided to underline the skirt with a brown broadcloth. This step gives the underskirt more structure and thereby I can easily get dressed in one step by having two skirts in one. I further streamlined the underskirt pattern to have only one seam on the right side. I only have one pocket and so the one placket opening on the right side seam accommodates my lack of having a pocket pair. (Pockets back then were something that was tied on separately at the waist to hang at hip level under your clothing layers…see this blog post for more of an explanation!)
The fact my gown has some unseen historical inaccuracies helped me feel more comfortable about adding some hidden modern features on the way to completion. In the end, I just need to be happy enough with what I will be wearing to actually enjoy the reenacting. Historical dressing is complex enough – as long I learn from the process, and find out the olden ways of construction, then I can opt out but feel satisfied that any inaccuracy I do is a choice but not from a lack of knowledge. I found these posts on the blog “Tea in a Teacup” so very helpful and clear in explaining all the steps to all the layers needed for an authentic English gown.
The width of the sari and the broadcloth I was using was both 45” width, and so with a wide waistband and a deep hem the skirt was done with barely any cutting or further measuring needed…super simple! The pattern instructions were basic but after doing some of my own research to find out what other historical costumers have done, it eventually made sense. I ‘cheated’ and ended up just having a hook closure at the waist rather than running a twill tape tie through the waist casing. Ties have the habit of coming undone while on me, and when there are so many layers to wear as in the 18th century, I don’t want the worry of losing my underpinnings. I was just happy to have successfully made something so new to me but also effectively finish it at the same time. Overall it looks just how I hoped it would and pairs with the brown of my gown’s chintz print perfectly. It is fancy without being over-the-top. The cotton keeps this set cool and comfortable, and the sari lends itself to my love of the Indian culture and heritage arts.
Middle class women aspired to wear chintz in the 18th century. A cotton chintz dress would have been the height of fashionable luxury, especially in a “Robe à l’Anglaise” style. Chintz back then was designed as wide yardage so it could be used as home furnishing or for clothing…and maybe both if you were well off enough! Cotton chintz was for the Western and American market since it was often made in a way that to copied the expensive woven silks of Europe. It was a fabric that was regarded as a desirable exotic import, yet it also washed easily, kept its colors, and was relatively attainable. Through the East India Trading Company, the British and French both built trading posts along India’s southeastern coast to compete for the finest chintz fabric in the newest prints. Chintz was the core item of trade between the 1580s and 1830s. In fact, by the late 17th century, European companies imported roughly 700,000 pieces of Indian cotton chintz, with each being 50 feet or 15 meters long (this info from the “Global Threads: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz” exhibit). The rising demand for cultivating the cotton necessary for chintz – the importing of which doubled in number by the end of the 18th century – is sadly inexorably tied to the increase of slave labor in many of the satellite territories that both Britain and France colonized. The growing demand also gave rise to look-alikes, and in order to protect their domestic makers Britain partially banned Indian chintz for 75 years in the 18th century, while France fully banned it between 1686 and 1759.
I quickly clarified what chintz is in my previous post (here). Basically, chintz originated in present day Hyderabad. India. It is a textile that has its print applied through mordants, resists, or dyes and hand produced by either wooden blocks or through the more complex process of kalamkari (bamboo pens). Makers in India were highly skilled and previously made chintz for local use as a visual means to designate status, class, or location of living for the wearer. Chintz producers switched gears into coming up with intricate prints and rich colors that would appease the world market once the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama successfully reached India in 1498 and ignited a demand for chintz. The common trademark for chintz was a trailing or freeform floral design that was in a color against a light, plain background – much like my own gown! There were the duskier chintzes, too, like what was used for my boned stays, but a dark background often designates that it came through Dutch traders.
Most of the old chintzes were also “glazed”, which used to be a rice powder, to add stiffness but also add a luxurious shine that enhanced the luxurious appeal of the fabric. Glazed cotton has a rigid structure that crinkles like a brand new shantung or starched linen, making it mimic silk in the minds of 18th century consumers. It gives those classic stiff folds that look especially nice when all the yards of fabric which go into a gown get hiked up in the style “a la Polonaise”…but that is different kind of garment (French for a “Polish Style” gown). For a Robe a l’Anglaise to have its skirts hiked up, it is called “Retroussée” (yes, another French word – this means scrunching the tip of your nose up). The back skirt is crinkled up like vertical blinds from the inside with twill tape or ribbon but the stiff cotton makes the fabric puff out. There are different ways to create this effect but I went with little rings that were sewn to the inside for two ribbons hanging from the waist to attach to. Women were existing in public circles and dressing in their fine clothes outside of courtly circles like never before and the dirty, muddy, and wet streets made the “Retroussée” style practical as well as fashionable. You can then wear your skirts down to fully show off your lovely dress fabric unhampered by creases. This was really important for me to have as an option since my chintz is a glorious border print!
My hat is of course the crowning glory to my fancy hair. This hat was one of the first things I bought as a pre-teen wanting to get into costuming…I’ve apparently always had a weakness for pretty headgear. This is a bergère hat, which Wikipedia says “is a flat-brimmed straw hat with a shallow crown, usually trimmed with ribbon and flowers. It could be worn in various ways with the brim folded back or turned up or down at whim. It is also sometimes called a milkmaid hat, but is French for shepherdess.” The Dreamstress (posted here) says that bergère hats first appeared in the 1730s, and were popular in various forms throughout the 18th century due to the pastoralism fad of the era.
I love them because they stay on well, don’t smash my elaborate hairstyle (because it took so much time, too many pins, and lots of tutorials to do), and also shields most of my face from the sun. I originally had an old French lace doily tacked to the flipped up back brim together with some paper flowers, but it now struck me as tacky (what was I thinking?). I revamped the hat by taking those trimmings off and adding satin ribbon in the crown’s crease instead. Several years back I did a similar historical ribbon revamp on my other bergère (posted here). I think the pink ribbon is such a pretty pairing for the brown tones in my chintz.
I hope you enjoyed this dive into the past with me and vicariously lived the excitement and struggle of my making of this complex sewing project. We also went through so many French words, too, I feel like I gave a language learning course. I ultimately hope this post demonstrates the value of persevering in your dreams and never giving up on what you are capable of achieving. After tasting such success, I now have plans to upgrade my 18th century wardrobe to sew my own super posh “Pet-en-l’air” gown (a pleated ‘sack back’ robe) in some silk taffeta I found for a few dollars. Maybe I should just try out the Scroop “Amalia Jacket” pattern that I recently bought – I do have some lovely cranberry striped cotton ticking I have been saving for it. I need to make sure I have a block of time to dedicate to those ideas before I pick them up. Thus, for now I am merely looking forward to wearing my English gown once again…because I feel like an 18th century princess when I’m in it! I love to swish my skirts, hear the crinkle of the cotton, and bounce my false rump! 18th century clothing may be weird and complicated, but ultimately I have found an outfit from the era that I absolutely want to bother to get myself into. Pick up that crazy project you’ve been wanting to do for years…see how it paid off for me?!