Friday, February 10, 2012

Using period prints and paintings for inspiration

If you want to recreate a historic garment nothing beats having an original to study. There are a number of books, museums, historical societies, and online galleries that allow us to view these beautiful creations. (I've posted a few in my resources and inspiration page) If you're lucky you may even know someone who has a private collection they are willing to share. Or maybe you own a few antique or vintage pieces of your own. Great! However, in some cases these options may not be available or meet your specific needs. So what do you do? Take a look at period prints and paintings of course!

Prints and painting are great source of information as well as inspiration for your historic costuming needs. But do keep in mind that just because an artist painted something does not mean it was accurate or commonly worn in a particular period of time. One such example is Mrs. Thomas Gage (Margaret Kemble) by John Singleton Copley. Mrs. Gage wears a Turkish-style costume, an exotic sort of dress that would not have been worn for every day common dress in the American colonies.

Two online sources that I have found to be very helpful in researching 18th century clothing are the Fitzwilliam Museum and this Catalogue of 18th-Century British Mezzotint Satires As with most prints and painting, satirical prints must be taken with a grain of salt.

Below are two examples of historic costumes I’ve made using an 18th century print and painting as inspiration. At some point I’ll post a separate blog for each of these projects.

Blue and white linen cross-barred gown.
My gown was based on the print "Native Meltons" by British printmaker Richard Houston. In this particular project I purchased the fabric long before I discovered Houston's print. When I found the fabric I knew it needed to become a gown but was afraid of cutting the fabric until I had a better idea of how an 18th century gown should be constructed. So it went into “the stash.” I'm glad I waited because I had just enough for the gown and matching stomacher.
Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo taken at Colonial Williamsburg last spring. I'm wearing a silk bonnet but often wear this gown with a black straw hat similar to the one in the print above.
Ivory silk polonaise with blue and white bows
“The Music Party” by Louis Rolland Trinquesse, 1774 is one of my favorite 18th century paintings. There are lots of great little details that are not really visible unless you can see the painting up close. If you have a chance, take a look at the book French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century by Philip Conisbee. The painting is featured on the cover. When I received a copy as a birthday present I realized I needed to rethink my trim. On close inspection of the painting you can see a very delicate fringe, and a short, transparent ruffle around the outside of the gown's skirt, the bottom of the sleeves, and around the neckline. The front of the gown is not visible but I decided to go with a stomacher front. The painting is dated 1774 and closed front gowns don't really start to show up until the later 1770s. Because I was pressed for time the stomacher I made looks crappy (to me anyway). I'll eventually make a compere, or false front stomacher as they seem to be pretty common on gowns of this time period. Plus it's a lot easier to pull on a gown and button the stomacher than it is to pin the stomacher to your stays and then the gown over top. Good thing this gown is still a work in progress! The ivory silk and the blue and white stripe silk used for this gown came from Renaissance Fabrics.
“The Music Party” by Louis Rolland Trinquesse, 1774
Photo taken at Colonial Williamsburg last spring. The gown still needs the trim added to the stomacher, petticoat and skirt fronts. Also needs the blue and white bows.

Another resource that I think is under utilized in the costuming world are historical newspaper databases. While it's helpful to have both an image AND a description when recreating something, I think it takes away some of the challenge too. After all, doing the research, even if it means extensive research in some cases, is part of the fun in reproducing a period garment. Isn't it? I think so anyway. :) 

The New-York Gazette August 29,1748


  1. I love that cross-barred dress! Re-enactors are almost too cautious about using stripes and checks (and rightly so until you know what you're getting into with them!), but that means we don't get to see enough of them recreated and worn at events, and they're so fun and unique! Yours is really striking and I can't believe how perfectly it matches the print! :-)

  2. Hi Rebecca,
    Like most re-enactors I stayed with the "safer" solids and stripes for a long time. This gown was a lot of fun to put together and has become one of my favorites to wear at events.


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