Thursday, October 25, 2012

Stays and the chemise gown

One of the things that was so scandalous about the chemise gown when it first debuted was that it required shockingly little in the way of underwear. Descriptions of lightly boned stays and pink or blue silk petticoats are plentiful in relation to the chemise gown. Comparing these light weight undergarments to the more sturdy and stiffly structured stays, bumrolls, panniers, and petticoats of the period, it must have seemed as though women were running around half naked when they adopted the fashion of the chemise a la reine.

But what did these scanty undies actually look like? As luck would have it, the Manchester Gallery has two pairs of stays that are contemporary to the chemise gown, and I was able to study them closely.

Both stays belong to the same acquisition lot, and are similar enough in size and construction to indicate that they probably were worm by the same woman. The top photo shows the more heavily boned of the pair. It is made from a pale pink linen, and is very stiff. A few stitches had popped on the lining, allowing me to see that the stiff material was likely a coarse woven linen buckram. Just thinking about hand stitching all those boning channels through that stuff made me want to lay down.

The stays in the second photo are less rigid, having about half the overall boning in them as the pink pair. The outer fabric is a cream silk satin, and it does not appear that the same kind of stiff buckram was used in this pair, as was in the pink stays. Both stays, however, have the same partial lacing down the center front (functional), a thick band of baleen that shaped the front of the stays into a pronounced curve, and a sturdy baleen strip acting like a busk down the center front.

Two curious things had me scratching my head, though. First, both sets of stays had these wide twill tape straps applied from the base of the armscyes and stitched to the front of the armscyes about 3" or so. At the opposite end of the straps were 5-6 worked eyelets. The straps appeared to coordinate with the position of small loops stitched to the back of the stays, as though they were intended to pass through the loops and be secured somehow.

I thought at first that this must be some later alteration for mounting the stays on a mannequin, but the more I examined the straps, the more it looked like they were added as an element of functionality when being worn. Could it have been a DIY job of the woman who wore these originally, to help the stays stay in place while she wore them? There was no indication of built in straps having been removed... The stays looked as though both were intended to be strapless.

The other oddity was what appeared to be two rust spots in the exact same position on either side of the center front on the pink stays.

In all honesty, they looked to me like blood stains. I could find no indication of iron metal being used in this corset, but truly, it was hard to tell without taking apart the stays. On the left hand side of the stays, the stain looked as thought it was eating through the fabric from the outside in, and on the back of the stays, there were no corresponding stains to suggest that the anything had pierced the wearer's body. Perhaps the stains were left from some other thing, like iron hooks used to secure a pannier (a technique that was used in Victorian times, but which I have no evidence to support being used in the 1780s).

At any rate, these stays are good examples of they type of stay worn beneath the chemise gown. Not something we would consider "scanty" but when compared to earlier stays, they do appear a great deal less heavy duty.

And speaking of earlier stays, look what was on display in the 17th century gallery:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My one on one with the Manchester chemise a la reine

So, today started off lazily and the quickly spun into high gear. I had a hard time sleeping last night (jet lag sucks for a reason) so I ended up hitting the alarm a few times and dozing off. No problem to sleep in a little, seeing as how my hotel is right across the street from the Manchester Art Gallery. It would be all of a thirty second walk to get there, after all. So, by the time I got out of bed and dressed, and did my 30 second walk across the street to the front door of the Gallery, I was feeling pretty smug about myself and how lucky I was to find a hotel SO CLOSE so as to make this research trip ridiculously convenient. I rang the bell, as I was instructed, and was admitted.  However, upon introducing myself to the reception staff, they seemed completely surprised I was there at all.  Huh, I thought to myself, this is odd.

It got odder.  I asked for Dr. Lambert, but was met with blank stares.  Curator at the Gallery of Costume? Ring a bell? That's when the young man at the reception desk suddenly came to life. "Oh!" he said, picking up the phone and punching in a series of numbers. "You want to go to Platt Hall!"

Apparently, in my haste, I neglected to observe that the costume collection is housed at a separate facility some three or so miles from the Art Gallery proper. Epic fail, Sarah! The reception guy got Platt Hall on the phone and related the message that I was at the Art Gallery, and then suggested it would be about a 15 to 20 minute bus ride toward the university. Or, you know, I could just hail a taxi... Which, as luck would have it, had drove up just as I was walking out the door.  Hopped into the aggressively scented cab, handed the address to the driver, and I was off! Only ended up being about 30 min late and £10 poorer all told, but my professional dignity was salvaged  as the staff at Platt Hall were very understanding and we all had a laugh.

I was shown to the gallery room which houses about a dozen 18th and early 19th century costumes but I barely noticed anything else in the room because... there she was.  Right there in front.

I squeed. So much for professional dignity.

I was unsure if I'd be allowed into the display case since Dr. Lambert was busy attending to donors (who, understandably, are far more important than hanging out with me) but his assistant, Adam, lead me through a back passage way cluttered with the typical assortment of odds and ends that you see stashed behind the scenes at every museum, and suddenly, there I was, face to fabric with the only extant chemise a la reine from this early in the 1780s.

One of the first things that struck me was that the fabric was actually patterned. That had never been mentioned in any of the descriptions I had read of it. Nor had there been any mention of the narrow cotton fringe that had been applied around the hem and up the center front to the waist.

According to the museum, the style of embroidery is called "chikan" and it looks to me like a very fine tambour stitch, though I admittedly haven't researched it to see if there is any similarities. The chevron motif is all over the body of the dress, however, the sleeves and the flounce around the neck are undecorated. In fact, the sleeve material is possibly the same as the gown, except for unembroidered. However, the flounce is a looser weave muslin than either the body of the gown or the sleeve fabric. It had a similar effect of cheese cloth, whereas the gown and sleeves were woven finely with a tighter weave. All of it is definitely cotton fiber, which answers my question as to whether or not this was a linen muslin. Nope, definitely cotton, and most likely of Indian origin.

That's all I'm going to post for now... Admittedly, I am trying to strike a balance between giving all of my information up immediately (because I'm a huge fan of instant gratification) and drawing this out slowly and deliberately. Part of the reasoning is that I don't want to spoil my thesis... Hopefully, you will all get to enjoy the entire package once the thesis is written and available for download!

Coming up, I have some thoughts on the type of undergarments worn with the chemise gown, including more pictures from the Costume Gallery!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The time is almost nigh...

Well, it's T-Minus 53 hours until I get on that plane and head for the UK.  Excited? You bet!  Terrified?  Oh, totally.  I'm heading off for the first leg of my trip all by myself, and I am reasonably certain I will avoid disaster ably enough, but it's always a little daunting to get from Point A to Point B in a foreign country.  Even if the country is England and I've traveled alone there many times.  Traveling solo is awesome, but it's still a little scary for someone like me who tends to prefer safety in numbers.

First stop is Manchester, where the bulk of what this trip is really about will take place.  I have my appointment set up and ready to go with the curators at the Manchester Galleries, and there is a decent chance I may get to look at a few other things while I'm there, aside from the chemise gown.  Specifically, I want to analyze one of the stays they have in their collection that is contemporary to the chemise gown.  Based on the description, I'm hoping its one of the lightly boned stays that were supposedly worn beneath the chemise a la reine, but we shall see. 

My reading has fallen behind, sadly, owing to a number of distractions in the last month or so.  I'm hoping to get caught up somewhat on the flight, having perfected the art of skimming pretty well.  I cannot wait for the day to come where I can once again read for pleasure, not just info.  :P

Anyway, there is so much to get done in the next two days, and as usual, I am having a hard time focusing on it all.  All of my lists have sub-lists!  And it still feels like I'm going to forget something vital! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Two interesting videos worth watching...

I just found this video linked to on The Royal Corospondent.  It's a video from 2007 of Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore To The Revolution, giving a lecture at the University of Michigan on the topic of Marie Antoinette's "sartorial semiotics."  In other words, the significance of the fashion that Marie Antoinette used to create a political identity.  It's a really good overview of her book, distilled into 50 minutes or so of discourse, with questions at the end (though, spoiler alert: She sadly does not give us the Lacanian analysis of the pouf hairstyle). I also came across another interesting vlog that Dr. Weber recorded talking about the comparisons between pre-Revolution France and modern American fashion:
If haven't already bought the book Queen of Fashion, I just so happen to have a brand new hard copy version for sale on  It's a fantastic book, very readable, and a very different take on Marie Antoinette.

Friday, July 27, 2012

It begins!

Chemise a la reine, Manchester Galleries
I have just received the green light from Dr. Lambert at the Manchester Galleries to have special access their chemise gown during the gallery's closed hours.  Unfortunately, they cannot unmount the gown for me to study flat, so I will be conducting my research while it is dressed on the mannequin, but I'm not in the least bit bothered by that.  Just getting up close to the gown will tell me so much about how it was made, how the fabric behaves, how it was constructed, etc.

The plane tickets to England have also been booked, and I'm in the process of figuring out transportation and accommodations. There's also a number of other research trips I plan on making while in the UK, including the MEDATS conference at the British Museum, the focus of which will be the newly discovered 15th century linen "bras" from Germany. Gotta keep up to date on all the latest pre-1800 research out there!

To say that I'm excited is an understatement.  I am RIDICULOUSLY excited!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Grand Plan

Jens Juel, Augusta Louise zu Stolberg, 1780.
Since I'm just getting started on this blog, I thought I should spend some time detailing what it is, exactly, that I'm hoping to accomplish with this project.

There's the simple answer: Finish my master's! ;)

And then there's the more nuanced answer: I'd like to eventually publish my research and study of the Manchester gown, along with a scale pattern and construction notes, a'la Janet Arnold's seminal Patterns of Fashion books. Ok, maybe not on that scale, per se, but along those lines.

Why, do you ask? Well, it hasn't been done yet!  There's a lot of academic research floating around in the ether that deals with aspects of this particular garment, but much of the research is based entirely on twentieth century sources that are pulling from Victorian filtering of eighteenth century history.  As I get further into detailing my research here, you should come to understand the monumental undertaking this has become.  What started out as a whim on my part, to understand how these so-called scandalous gowns were constructed, and what made them so dang scandalous in the first place, has turned into a twisting, weaving, convoluted and highly fascinating journey through gender politics, race politics, political politics, and the economics of late eighteenth century France.  And hardly anyone has really stopped to tie all of these disparate concepts together to make sense of one particular garment... A garment that, as we shall come to see, changed so much about what was considered appropriate for women to wear, and created a legacy which still influences fashion today.

Mission Statement - the purpose of this blog

Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, "Marie Antoinette en gaulle", 1783.
 Private Collection.

So much about the chemise a la reine is speculative and shrouded in the mythos of Marie Antoinette. And unlike the thousands of other extant 18th century garments in museum and private collections, there are only two extant chemise gowns that are currently in known museum collections. This is an exceptionally rare garment, and except for one brief study done on the gown housed at the Manchester Galleries by Nora Waugh, no one has actually researched or documented either dress in full.
In the research I've done so far, I've realized that there is so much confusion regarding this style of gown, so much of it tied to Marie Antoinette (where the name "chemise a la reine" comes from), but that very little of that information is based on the historical record. It was a notorious dress in its day, but no one has ever addressed the question of WHY other than "well, Marie Antoinette wore it! And she was notorious!" What I've discovered so far is that there's way, way more to it than just "Marie Antoinette."
I have been given permission by Dr. Miles Lambert of the Manchester Gallery in England to study the extant chemise gown in their collection.  However, travel is expensive, and travel for research purposes is no different.  So, I turn to you, Internet Friends, to help achieve the goal of flying from my home in California, to the city of Manchester, UK, to study this unique garment in person in the Fall of 2012.  The money raised will go to paying travel costs, and any remainder will be applied toward publishing my findings in 2013.  I want to make this valuable information available to the general public, in particular students of historic clothing and costume, and it all begins here!  
Your help is greatly appreciated!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Hello and welcome to Sarah Lorraine's spin-off blog pertaining solely to researching the chemise a la reine!

Things are in the process of getting started right now, so I apologize for the lack of content at the moment...

First post coming up will be an overview of the research and my mission statement about this project and what it means for YOU!

Stay tuned!