Shelly King, Storyteller
“This is SO much more than making a pattern! I’m inspired to seek out more performance opportunities, & I’m writing new pieces with different characters, to take full advantage of my beautiful ensemble.”
At the start, Shelly asked for a “rural woman 1790-1810, Kentucky”. The original character portrayal is her own relative, Hannah Boone who was the wife of Daniel Boone. Hannah was left for years on end to take care of children while Daniel was out “doing his thing”. After his death, she remarried a somewhat prominent man of the community & moved to town.
This 1790 portrayal had some challenges because the year 1790 sits on the crux of the Georgian/Colonial/Regency fashion eras. Each of those are REALLY different in philosophy, concept, & construction, so Shelly had to make key decisions based on character rather than strictly fashion trends.
Hannah Boone lived her adult life through the American Revolutionary War. She might have lived near enough to battles, or at least known about them secondhand. She would have been affected by the change in the availability of goods & services, & she most likely had to “make do” for many years on her own. She was apparently a strong woman physically & of character: at the time of depiction, Hannah is in her late 50’s, which was considered elderly in that time where 65 years was a typical lifespan.
Shelly decided her character would have “hung on” to her past a bit for emotional comfort & to be practical & financially restrained. She would have re-used fabrics or clothing & especially undergarments because the new United States was in recovery. As a caring woman, she most likely would have given fabric or clothing, food or service to the cause, leaving her with little to start with at the time we pick up her story.
Hannah had just remarried & moved from a log cabin in the woods to town, & would want to be considered fashionable in her new life. This change in status & attitude would affect garment decisions because in that era, things like types & color of fabrics, number of petticoats, & length of skirts were indicators of class & wealth.
Shelly made many key choices based on these concepts: to keep Hannah’s fashion a bit out of fashion, comfortable, & simple. She decided to add small & inexpensive fun & flounces using color, accessories, & fabrics to a basic, multi-functional, practical, & somewhat tailored ensemble.
- Revolutionary War “officially” ended in 1783
- Sewing machine invented and available for mass production
- Only “natural” fabrics: cotton (lawn, Indian print/calicoes, muslin, wool, flax (linen), silk were possible
- start of European industrial revolution – mass production, improvement of spinning and weaving methods
- many imports and much trade made for availability
- invention of cotton gin
- women, even country women did not make their own clothes. They had a tailor in town, or a traveling tailor (by different names). They might repair their petticoat or make a man’s shirt
- tailoring business was all men who had shops in town and lived upstairs until later when women figured out they could make money at it and started tailoring for others out of their homes
- They’d send for things via letter, and the next person coming from town would bring the item out.
- Influence of war and politics in Europe influenced American fashion. France started most trends; in this era, it was Marie Antoinette who was out of favor with everyone, so she retired to a country estate. She developed the “gaulle”, which was basically a sheet draped and belted. This led to a more casual style, although the gaulle was considered too indecent and never made it big in the courts..
- but Marie’s attention to the simplicity and ease of country living led to French fashions such as bringing sheep to the city so women could dress as shepherdesses and pretend to be herding.
- the peasant clothes of England merged with the Antoinette style, and the practicality of it because they could actually move around and climb into carriages and work at a job brought the rise of these less ornamented styles.
- skirts went shorter so women could move in the muck. They wore under and over skirts, so the overskirt could be lifted up out of harm’s way.
- There was a new culture of more cleansiness, and clothes (and people) were washing more often and with harsher soaps. The harsh soaps damaged fabrics, so the style evolved so only whites were exposed to damage regularly. These were cheaper fabrics and could easily be washed.
- Pockets, bigger aprons, and protective hair coverings such as mobcaps became logical for elite women as well as working women, so every social strata wore the basics, but varied in individuality.
- This was a time of the rise of individual expression, which would lead directly after 1800 into the Regency style (after the king who had to have a Regent in power) – which would be the Greek Goddess looking almost naked look.
- Because this “peasant style” prior to the Regency (it doesn’t really have a name) had everyone wearing close to the same thing, the variations became in accessorizing.
- The time prior to 1790 had huge hairstyles that had garish ornamentation such as ships and hair piled 36″ high. This time period saw hair and ornamentation go WIDE instead – with curls on the side, floppy big wide hats, and huge bows.
- Hair was allowed to be natural, maybe cut on the sides with curling papers used for curls around the face – which is a rare time in history for women to do so. It was left long in the back (not cut in the back), although in the Regency period, some women did cut all their hair short in the Greek Style and wore golden bands and such. Cutting the hair did not become popular anywhere in the world until the 1900’s.
- The political world combined with a new ability to travel, trade, and communicate with other countries allowed not only the exchange of information of styles – incorporating Egyptian or other country accessories, colors, patterns, etc. – but also created a fierce rivalry between countries for the sale of goods. Cotton in particular dropped in price because India and England had flooded the market. Cotton was a fabric of choice world wide, because of low cost, availability, new printing methods (stripes, patterns, Indian prints, etc.) and because it was easy to sew and easy to clean. It was also comfortable in warm climates, but in cooler regions, it led to the development of multiple layers of fabrics with coats, jackets, cloaks, and over dresses; styles that lasted over many fashion style changes.
- “The little red cloak” is one fashion item that traveled almost 100 years, and is referenced in literature from “Little Red Riding Hood”, to references in American art and stories.
- at the earlier end of 1790, women were coming off many years of wearing tight corseets, stomachers, and fancy times. They were headed towards “simpler times of individuality”, but were not quite there yet: there were rules.
- Women still had to be covered to the ankles, and they wore dresses. In this period, however, the women’s full figure and sensuality was celebrated with focus on the breasts. Styles of the entire period and into Regency, STARTED with the breast fully exposed either through fabric or peeking out, and then women added more and more creative pieces depending on how retiring they were. Younger women were more apt to flaunt it all, and older women to add things to “cover up”.
- This led to development of larger “fichus”, scarf like coverings predominantly in the finer linens and woolens depending on season and location, that could cover all or part of the neck and decolletage. These could wrap around the waist, or be worn like a shawl.
- “Tuckers” were horizontal pieces of lace or fabric worn to cover the bosom division (note here, in the upcoming Regency period, some would not wear corsets/stays at all, but would use a forerunner of the bra, which was a breast seperater made of metal).
- Awareness of sexuality and expression also demanded a large derriere, so while most women didn’t need them, many did continue to add small bustles in back to make the appearance of a derriere larger.
- They didn’t particularly care if the waist was tiny, although some did continue to cinch in the waist using stays – softer versions of their predecessors (and later relatives that would contort the female body significantly in the end of the 1800’s), which did not have boning, but were more of a support for the breasts and back.
- Stays, which were adjusted through lacing in the back, and put on through clips in the front, were excellent back braces for women doing heavy lifting
- There were many and varied lengths of sleeves, bodices, and petticoats than previous decades. In general, sleeves were elbow length and had added frills for individual expression. Skirts and aprons were shorter, and the dress overall less full, without the pleats and gathers and added features.
- Many women did dress up with trains and fabric coming off the shoulder into a train such as they did in the Courts of Europe, but mostly trains were used for only dress up, and reemerged later in the Regency era.
- Shoes were pumps with 1″ curved heals, and the top open; toes somewhat pointed and curving upwards. For riding or work, an ankle high boot with laces was used.
- Riding habits were closer to what men wore, but still were dresses, although with less fabric, and included the short jackets, or capes, cloaks, and manteaus of the men’s wardrobe.
- Accessories were abundant; most women had only a basic chemise, 2 petticoats, stays, a couple pairs of stockings, a couple pairs of gloves, and only a few dresses. Wealthier women focused on buying a wide range of cloaks, coats, and shawls instead of changing the dress. They would accessorize with buckles and bows to make the clothing look different for different occasions.
- Gloves were always worn unless working or dining, and stockings were of white or black knotted or silk, worn with a garter above the knee.
- Older women wore deeper colors; mauve, black, and some of the new dyes of the era that had been developed or imported, while young maidens enjoyed pastels in greens, yellows, and patterns.
- All women enjoyed lace and ruffles; ribbons and bows on their inner and outer wear, with their overcoats, scarves, and shawls of the best materials possible, yet less extravagant and even more durable and practical.
- In private and in leisure, there were garments similar to the “gaulle” of Marie Antoinette, but history speaks very little of this. Most of fashion history focuses on court trends and politics.
- The best way to determine American fashion history is through paintings and descriptive writing. In the book “The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1940” by Jack Larkin, he describes the day to day people of this era as “A busy, bustling, industrious population”.
- With this industry in mind, fashion for the era’s women is mostly practical, durable, washable, and similar, with individualism expressed through color, pattern, and accessory.
Research done on the Hannah Boone 1790 character included decisions as to what would be available, possible, & desired by the character. Because this was a transitional time between 3 fashion eras, we had to narrow down the selection to either elements from some or all, or to eliminate & focus on one. Shelly decided to focus on the earlier period as it would have been modified by an older woman who was adapting what she already knew to be as fashionable as possible without being too daring with the new (rather bare & abbreviated) styles of the next era.
The first decisions were to decide which type of typical garment would be depicted. At this time there was the basic “sacque” robe (dress), which had been expanded by the English & the French into the various “Robe a l’anglaise””a la francaise”, “a la turque”, etc.
Based on historical research, we selected the “Robe a l’anglaise” (above)
The “Robe a l’anglaise” branched into several types of garments which look quite a bit alike to the untrained eye. The differences were largely due to sleeve type, length, shoulder & sleeve construction, method of piecing bodice & skirt (or keeping it in one piece such as the earlier “sacques”), pleating method, height of waist, how pointed rounded or straight the bodice front & back are, & the construction of back & front bodice seams (whether they have side back seams, etc.). Discussion on this is in the two fashion era sections 1761-1778 & 1779-1793. Picture above is a “Robe a l’anglaise” & a “Levite” version.
It seemed likely our character would have liked the simplest form, & the earlier version of “l’anglaise”, the “Round Gown”. This was a somewhat tailored version with a slightly high waistline (to hide tummy bulges from having many children).
Skirt lengths, while typically used to show status, took a hike in the early 1790’s for fashion. We decided to depict a Round Robe with ankle length, hidden stomacher, 3/4 sleeve, ruffled low bodice, 2 piece yet attached bodice/skirt, multiple under petticoats, standard cone stays, open robe (front), & to elaborate with accessories.
Choosing a slightly earlier version of stays, we had to decide between the fully boned reed & half boned whale/reed version of this transition. We decided to try both. The chemise of the era was shorter to accommodate the shorter length. While understructures were going out of style quickly, this character would have wanted to hang on to some of her past. The half-moon “rump” or “rump pad” replaced her more round-the-body “farthingale type” pad she would have worn, or that high fashion would have still been wearing small panniers.
Having the underlying structure, basic silhouette, & type of gown selected, we went hunting for accessories. Shelly decided if she wore a huge mobcap, like the women of the era, she wouldn’t have to show her hair. In Shelly’s case it saved her from having to buy a wig (for historical women, it saved them from having to wash their hair).
Shelly also fell in love with an embroidered fichu, so we made her one. Her “every day” fichu would be plain and tailored, but she would have one so the ensemble could be used for “dress up” too.
Further inspiration for accessories, tailoring, cut, & jewelry were found in historical samples. We liked the big silk bows & crossover fichu options to change attitude or character.
When all was complete, our character would have a silhouette much like this, but with the later shorter robe.
The Hannah Boone character would wear this:
Chemise and stays under an OPEN ROBE with covered bodice having adorned edge with brief stomacher and two choices for buffon, or alternately, a lace tucker to fully cover décolletage. Jacket attaches to the outer skirt and has two color choices for wide silk sash at waist tied in back.
Includes a slight rump under a flounced and pleated outerwear petticoat, over which the cardaco jacket of the robe has sleeves which are past the elbows and include frills. Pockets may be worn.
Additional accessories include a mobcap with giant bow to match sash, winter woven full buffon, woven shawl, and apron. Full brimmed & flat crowned straw hat with bow and ribbon, shoes, stockings, garters, miniature buffon pin, placement pins, hat pins, & underarm pads by customer.
- Reed-boned Stays
- Half Moon Rump Pad
- Inner Petticoat
- Outer Petticoat
- Open Robe with piping & ruffles & 3/4 sleeves ruffled; front center pin closure; just below ankle length
- Silk sash (2)
- Fichu (1 embroidered; 1 plain)
- Silk pin on bow
- Large 1790 type (pleated front) mobcap with silk bow
- Flat-brimmed straw hat with simple silk ribbon
- Woven wool wrap-around shoulder shawl
black leather period shoes with 1″ heel
Beginning with the undergarments, we developed our own patterns from historical written instructions. This period being without sewing machine, all pieces were sewn by hand except the long seams which carried no stress.
Each design began with sketches for customer approval. We were lucky to find re-enactors who had built similar undergarments, so Shelly could see the silhouette we were aiming for on a modern body.
LAYOUT & COLOR
Next came the concept sketches based on the research done, with suggestions for fabric, details, & colors for this specific character. You can see the discussion as to types of accessories & details that would be used. (Eventually the apron idea would be discarded in favor of additional options for fichus).
The final selection worked as an actual “pattern” from which to build. The center front closure idea was eventually abandoned in favor of the more era-specific overlapping pinned bodice, but otherwise, the project was built very closely to the proposal & sketches.
During the process, fabric selection was considered. The final choice was a period accurate plain linen in teal blue. The color was a very careful consideration. Because of limited access to fabrics following the war, the uniqueness of a fabric would indicate status. The teal blue was somewhat rare and valuable for the middle classes, but not that easy to obtain. The most common stays color for lower and middle classes was pink with brown lining. We chose to keep the stays more common, because this is where we decided the character would have been most practical. We believe she would have splurged on her hat, lace, or jewelry, but not on her stays.
This project includes two petticoats; inner & outer. In this era a “petticoat” was an outer garment, & almost always white so that it could be easily cleaned. It was worn slightly longer and under the outer robe to project the more expensive fabric of the robe from wear, tear, & mud.
Shelly’s inner petticoat is for warmth & modesty, as no modern underwear is under there other than the stays & chemise. Women of the era would add wool or quilting for warm & to protect from occasional “updraft” that might be too revealing. Ours is the same, of a plain muslin & simple design. It is tied with a waistband string.
This inner petticoat is being used to keep the heavier fabric of the robe away from the knees to make it easier for Shelly to walk. For this reason, it has a huge 8x width self-fabric ruffle, and note: ruffles were tucked, not gathered by hand. What appears to be very simple & easy design, is actually one of the most difficult projects in this ensemble.
The outer petticoat is decorative, and features 4 x 3/4″ tucks so the length can be adjusted up or down as fashion dictates. This feature is actually consistent with the late 1800’s, but it is necessary for performers who need to get the most use for their money. We added embroidered eyelet ruffles in to the bottom. The outer petticoat has a waistband which overlaps to accommodate different tightness in lacing the stays, because both petticoats are worn over the stays.
The outer petticoat is kept bright and clean; made of premium bleached and somewhat heavy weight muslin, it can be heard when a woman moves.
We build from “The Bum Up”. 1790 starts with no modern undergarments, & a chemise. It is of simple bleached muslin with all hand construction, French seams, underarm gussets, & an inside tie. A special feature of this era is to have your initials & date cross-stitched at the side seam so your housekeeper knows whose it is, and which is its wash day.
Because we had many choices crossing over eras, we decided on a slightly shortened version of the 1780’s stays, so it could be used to depict characters as far back as 1770 and ahead into 1810. These were both made of linen with machine stitching in 100% cotton thread.
This was a custom design based on historical patterns & garments. There was a choice of the earlier 4 pieced version (front, back, each side made separately, each boned top to bottom, & then whipped together at the seams), or the 6 piece version (angle pieced crossing over the front & sides and then boned). We chose the more difficult & later 6 piece version.
It included a 2″x 10″ straight wooden busk (because we shortened it overall) down the center, and our own stomacher.
The stays are designed to create the cone-shaped illusion required of the period, and to force the wearer into straight posture. It’s most important criteria is to have cross-boning to keep the breasts from spilling over. This affected the hole placement which would normally be offset for period-correct spiral lacing, so when these stays are laced, they are intentionally offset top and bottom.
Having both front & back lacing since Shelly doesn’t have a maid to help her, there were 45 hand-whipped eyelets made of silk twist (button hole weight) thread.
We designed custom straps that could be used or not with real silk bows. The straps are worn as an option because later styles have wider front openings of the bodice, & they might show if Shelly wants to have another character in the regency era.
There are no patterns at all for “Corks”,”Rumps”,”Rump Pads”, etc. There are few (if any) photos or extant garments. The only way to build these is from descriptions, and that is what we did. Working from Shelly’s measurements & the desired size & projection, we built a stuffed “half moon” crescent of muslin that looked much like the guts of a modern day stadium cushion.
Using only 100% cotton batting, it was carefully placed inside to get the desired shape. An outer decorative shell with tape ties was added. We embroidered this to match embroidery on other garments in a tiny flower quilted pattern. Only the woman knows how lovely she is on the inside.
The robe (gown) is a basic Round Robe with a higher than natural waistline. It is built of a 7.1 (heavy) weight muslin of period accuracy. The bodice and sleeves are fully lined with 100% cotton sateen which breathes nicely & is light and slippery.
While normally the sleeve ruffs would be pinned on and not sewn in, we sewed them in because this garment would not get enough wear to merit the removeable method. The entire neckline and sleeves are piped in self fabric, and the lace is an embroidered eyelet lace. Admittedly, the eyelet is machine made & the fabric includes some polyester as 100% cotton eyelet lace is cost prohibitive for this project.
The robe is of 2 parts, with the bodice being constructed first and then having the skirt handstitched on using box pleats for the large “over the rump” area, and flat pleats in front. The overall visual achievement is for a smoothe flat front and large rump back with the bosoms fully exposed and almost overflowing the bodice.
Shelly choose to cover the bodice for modesty of her character, & has a choice of fichus to either tuck inside her stays or wear outside like a shawl.
The skirt is large and flowing and just above the ground as is appropriate to the character’s class.
Back construction is to be noted, as that is a key to different era construction. This era has fitted back side seams which we modified to fit the modern body which almost always has a larger waist and longer back length. For this we added a gusset in center back.
The other modification made is to add a twill tape at the inside waistline to bring the lower back tight above the derriere. This is historically correct though a bit ahead of our character, as a woman of 1790 would have added the tape 5-6 years later to adjust to the newer styles.
Otherwise, the pattern follows historical examples exactly in method & construction.
Shelly will be doing a full photo session with details of her undergarments & accessories. You can find Shelly in her costume at California & Wyoming storytelling festivals, singing in variety shows, & giving historical interpretations such as the “Jumping Frog” for elementary school children. In the planning stages is an interpretive “Revolutionary War Striptease” for women’s history groups.
One of the things that gives us great joy is that “aha” moment when our customer FEELS like their character, & starts to move & act differently. To get a few publicity shots for an upcoming audition, we met at the Cody library on a 20 degree day.
You can see even with her modern ski boots, when Shelly puts on her “Hannah Hat” and becomes the “Giant Marshmellow Woman” as she calls herself in full costume, she takes on a whole different personna.