May 29, 2015

Short Gown Studies I

This summer, in addition to working as a full-time historical interpreter at the Genesee Country Museum, I will be sewing as much as possible and documenting my progress before joining the conservatory program in the spring.  I plan to make the most of this unique opportunity and to continue practicing the skills that I learned through my internship, while adding to my historical wardrobe.  The first project I plan to take on is a short gown study!  Throughout the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the working class dress of the early 19th century.  Thus, tonight I present the first of four - 1800s, 1810s & two 1830s - short gown studies!

But, first, what is a "short gown?"  

The term “short gown” refers to an informal, “T” shaped garment that was popular from the third quarter of the 18th century until well into the early 19th century.  Commonly worn by every-day, working women, but also described in runaway indentured servant and slave advertisements, these garments were designed to be simple and utilitarian in purpose.  

Made from sturdy cottons, linen, wool, and even “linsey-woolsey” or occasionally silk, they were cut from one piece of fabric, often with the long or short sleeves cut as one with the body.  Lined or unlined, piecing was common, as was plain, vertical-striped or printed fabrics.  Fitting was achieved through pleats or drawstrings, leaving ample space for the more strenuous labor, as well as fashion.

In fact, despite the relatively simple and common construction of these working class garments, a fair amount of variation existed as wearers considered and followed the fashionable trends.  Short gowns of the 18th century often lacked drawstrings, rather relying upon pleats in the back (and sometimes in the front) for better fit and straight pins along the long, front opening for closure.  Three-quarter length sleeves were also popular.  Changes to the early 19th century styles manifested most noticeably in the shorter, raised waistlines, as was fashionable throughout the Regency period.  Likewise, drawstrings, with tape ties directly under the bust and perhaps along the neckline, as well as longer sleeve lengths became more common.

Now that you've read a brief history on the short gown, let's take a look at my newly refashioned 1800s short gown.  Some of you may recognize the piece from my earlier post, and, for a long time, its period incorrectness had bothered me as it was, originally, entirely machine stitched.  It took until two weeks ago to fix, when I finally gathered up the will and courage to unpick every seam and restitch the garment completely by hand!  

However, I am so happy that I did, even though it seemed quite tedious at times (I like to take teeny-tiny stitches)!  Now, it is not only more period accurate, but, as I discovered this year, hand-stitching makes for a much nicer finish.

"T" shaped short gown.

Drawstrings at the neckline and high waist provide shaping and act as closures.

All drawn up!

To update the look, I added a 2" facing from a reproduction cotton print to the hem and sleeves.  Also, I replace the poly-cotton ties with 100% cotton twill tapes.  

Close up of the hem & sleeve facings.  To smoothly ease in the facing around the curved hem, I tucked tiny pleats as necessary.

Inside view of back drawstring & hem facing detail.

Plus, it fits in with May's challenge #5 of the Historical Sew Monthly, hosted by the Dreamstress!  (I seem to be on an every other month streak.)  Not only does it satisfy the theme of practicality as a working class garment (aka the "jeans-and-T-Shirt" of the 1800s); but, I like to think that the frugality of refashioning, much like our fashion-forward ancestors did to keep up with the current trends, is very practical. 

Front view over a linen petticoat with a patchwork pocket peeking out!

Back view with the sleeves turned up.

The Challenge:  #5 Practicality - Create the jeans-and-T-Shirt-get-the-house-clean-and-garden-sorted outfit of your chosen period.

Fabric:  Two reproduction cotton prints appropriate for 1800.  

Pattern:  GCV&M's short gown pattern with alterations.  Copied directly from an original 1800-1810 short gown (2003.188) in Susan Greene Collection, I highly recommend the pattern!

Year:  1800s.  

Notions:  Matching thread, cotton twill tape

How historically accurate is it?  Definitely plausible - the shape looks right, as do the materials.  Completely hand-stitched.  So, how about 95% accuracy? 

Take a look at this extant short gown from Augusta Auctions: 

Printed short gown c.1800
Brooklyn Museum, Augusta Auctions, lot 222

Also, my inspiration for the sleeve facings came from Whitaker Auctions:

Sleeve detail of printed cotton work dress c.1820
Whitaker Auctions, lot 694

For more extant short gowns, take a look at my pinterest board!

Hours to complete:  Didn't keep track, worked on throughout the course of the past two weeks.  

First worn:  Not yet, though, I am sure it will come in handy this season!

Total cost:  Not counting the cost of the original fabric, I would say $3 for the quarter yard of fabric used for the facing.  

Thanks for reading!

Ready for work with sleeves rolled up & half apron!

Recommended Links for Further Research:


  1. This is lovely - the contrast hem facings add a lot of interest to an otherwise simple garment. Looking forward to see how all your remaining short gowns turn out! Working women's clothing is so interesting, and the reproduction of it brings history alive in a unique way.

    1. Thank you so much, Abigael! I totally agree with you - the fashions of the working class are fascinating! And, from working at a living history museum, I've really noticed that the public response to its representation has been favorable :)

  2. It was lovely meeting you last weekend and pawing at the impressive woven goods in the tailor shop while it rained outside! I think a short gown and accompanying wardrobe is definitely going to be my next big sewing project. Now to just drop by GCV and pick up the pattern. Hopefully they have the larger size in stock!

    1. Hello Rin! What a pleasant surprise it is to hear from you - I know we only met briefly there during that impressive downpour. Anyways, it was such a pleasure to meet you!!

      Good luck with your short gown and Regency wardrobe endeavors! (I do hope you'll share pictures for all of us to drool over :) GCV's pattern is simple & straightforward, and I totally recommend it. Hope to see you again soon at the museum!

  3. It was lovely meeting you last weekend and pawing at the impressive woven goods in the tailor shop while it rained outside! I think a short gown and accompanying wardrobe is definitely going to be my next big sewing project. Now to just drop by GCV and pick up the pattern. Hopefully they have the larger size in stock!

  4. I was wondering if it would be possible to see the pictures from this post? they seem to be gone.