Making an 18th Century Floral Round Gown

Today I’m writing about another casual late 18th century dress. And I’m happy to say, this piece turned out much, much better than the poorly thought out purple linen dress that I talked about yesterday.

For this dress I managed to resolve all the fit issues with my pattern. I drafted a new, much more appropriate sleeve pattern. And my skirt was constructed properly. It took a little longer to make than the previous dress, but the end result is so much better.  I’ve included comparison photos at the end so you can see what a difference a bit more time invested makes!

This dress was intended to be a remake of the purple linen dress, but once I started looking for more references I decided to make a round gown instead of a skirt and bodice.

Round gowns were very popular in the second half of the 18th century. You can see a rather glamorous example here, and a more casual style here. But my main form of inspiration was this piece – I really liked the boxier neckline, and appreciated the interior photos.

The fabric for this is a Moda quilting cotton, in a floral print. I was attracted to it based on the colors – I love how purple, pink, green, and yellow have all been entwined so effortlessly. It’s a little busy…but busy prints weren’t uncommon in the 18th century.

I also bought two and  half yards of a wool that matches perfectly. So eventually this costume will get a coordinating coat.

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Just as a note, this is how the fabric looks in person. The worn photos of this dress do not do it justice since they were taken in really poor artificial lighting. It shines in the sunlight and I can’t wait to get outdoor photos of it – but the snow we have needs to melt first!

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I used my pattern from the linen dress as a base, but I raised the neckline significantly and made a few other changes. The first mock up was not great. But I made a some adjustments, and a second mockup, which was much more successful.

The only part I couldn’t get right is the back point. I’m convinced it’s impossible to properly fit this part on your own body. It’s tricky to fit it on a dress form, when you can see everything clearly. When it comes to it fitting YOU it’s a matter of luck, unless you have a helper. This lead to a lot of frustration but I eventually got something passable.

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Once I was happy with my mock up I cut out the lining.

I had been intending to follow some techniques from The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking*, since the Italian gown is somewhat similar to this piece and I’m so interested in trying the hand sewn methods…but I got too impatient. And I really liked the construction method for the linen dress. So I did this by machine instead.

But I will hand sew an 18th century dress someday soon!

Here is the front panel. I cut it from linen, then folded the front edges inward by one and three quarters of an inch. I sewed a quarter inch away from the folded edge and inserted a piece of plastic boning. Then I sewed eyelets right next to that.

This is the closure method used on this dress. I thought I would give it a try since I would rather sew eyelets than hooks and bars!

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I cut and sewed the rest of the lining together. I also sewed the seam allowance down to create boning channels, then added eight pieces of quarter inch plastic boning to the back and sides.

Then it was tried it on. I was focusing so much on the waist and bust that I didn’t realize the straps were too wide (or that it was gaping on the inner edge of the shoulder). But the waist and bust did fit pretty nicely!

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Or at least it did from the front. Once again, the waist at the back was too big. This made my waist look larger from the side than my bust.

How do you fit this on yourself? Someone please tell me! I tried doing it on my dress form but my back slope is different.

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I settled on adding a few darts to the back. This improved it a lot, but it still wasn’t perfect.

I also lowered the neckline slightly. I regret doing this – the half inch made all the difference, and the finished neckline is very low. I don’t dislike it, it’s just very different than what I had planned.

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I evened up the darts and sewed them by machine. I also altered my base pattern so the reduction from the darts is incorporated in the seams. This way there won’t be darts on the top layer of fabric.

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I didn’t take a lot of photos of this process, but the next step was cutting out the back panels. I got into crazy perfectionist mode with the center back pieces, and tried to get the  flowers to match up. This is impossible since the pieces are curved, but I did my best!

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The rest was constructed normally. The only difference between it and the lining (aside from boning and eyelets) is that I only folded the front edge inward by an inch and a half. This way it extends slightly beyond the lining.

The layers were pinned together with the right sides facing each other.

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Then I sewed around the edges with a half inch seam allowance. The only edges I left open were the tops of the straps, and the front edges.

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Then I sewed around all the edges by hand. Once again I left my stitches pretty large since I wanted them to be visible. This time I also sewed down the center back.

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I also did the shoulder seam up by hand. But after a fitting I finally caught the gaping on the inner edge. So this seam was ripped out, and re sewn wider so there was less volume on the inner edge. red (23 of 52)

Instead of sewing against the center front edges (which would prevent me from lacing it closed) , I sewed alongside the outer edge of the eyelets. red (24 of 52)

Now for sleeves! My firs pattern had a lot of guesswork in it, and was SO far off. I don’t know if you can see all the pins in this, but they were plentiful.

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My second sleeve pattern was much better in terms of shape. It was just a little large, so I removed a quarter inch from the seams and it was perfect!

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It this point I also noticed how wide the strap was. So I undid all the stitching and removed almost half an inch of material. I turned the remaining material inward by a half inch, then topstitched around the edge to secure it.

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The sleeves were made from a layer of cotton and lining, sewn together by machine at the hem. When they were turned the right way out I bound the top edge with lace binding and topstitched across the hem by hand.

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The sleeves were sewn on by hand, using whip stitches. Then I tacked the seam allowance to the lining for a cleaner finish.

After a final fitting I noticed the back gaped a little, so I sewed two darts parallel to the back seam. These look pretty ugly from the inside but are barely noticeable from the exterior.

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Now for the skirt! I adjusted my dress form to my height, then measured from the waist to the floor at the center back while the appropriate foundations were in place. Then I added two inches, allowing for a hem and seam allowance.

I cut four pieces of material that were this length (around 52″, I believe) and sewed them together selvedge to selvedge. I left the top 18″ of one seam open, on the side front panel.

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Then I sewed in a modesty panel into this seam. I folded the edge on the other side inward, and topstitched everything in place. This will serve as the closure – note how I put it at the front this time, not the back?

Also I left 18″ open, as opposed to the usual 10-12″ because I knew I would be cutting several inches off the top.

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Now I hemmed the skirt. I folded the bottom edge inward by a half inch, then inward again by an inch and a half. This was sewn with a cross stitch.

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Since the top edge was straight, it was very easy for me to mark the pleats across the back three panels. I marked and pinned all the pleats on one half, then pinned it to my dress form.

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While it was on the form I adjusted the skirt until the hem was positioned how I wanted it. I used pins running horizontally to mark where I wanted the top trimmed down to. I ended up making a pattern for this, to used as a guide later on, but I didn’t get a photo of it.

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This test also made me realize the pleats needed to be deeper – the waistline was several inches too big.

Here it is pleated down properly. Note how the top edge is level? That is what you want!

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I used my pattern and chalk to mark the waistline onto the fabric. I sewed across this line, and stitched another line three quarters of an inch below that.

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Here it is after being trimmed down.

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I cut almost five inches off the front panel, then gathered it down to ten inches.

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I trimmed the allowance down to a half inch, then backed the top edge with ribbon.

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The skirt was pinned to the bodice. The pleated portion will be sewn to the bodice, the gathered portion is left free.

I secured the pleated parts in place with whip stitches.

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I notched the curved edges and pinned the seam allowance to the interior of the skirt. This was also whip stitched down.

For the seam allowance at the front, I whip stitched it to the lining. This isn’t historically correct, but I didn’t want the excess volume it would provide at the sides if I whip stitched it to the skirt.

This edge was left raw, as was common in the 18th century.

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The gathered portion was left raw as well.

I sewed a hook onto the end of the ribbon, and a loop into the interior of the bodice to serve as a closure. Here you can see it done up, the bodice simply laces overtop.

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This is the back – once again, this is the color of the material. It’s represented far more accurately here than in the worn photos, which is such a shame. But I will photograph it properly soon!

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Can we all appreciate how even the pleats are on the interior? Especially compared to the linen skirt…

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Speaking of comparing this to the linen dress, how about some side by side comparisons?

I think the most dramatic is the profile. Even though I’m still not 100% happy with the fit of the back at the waist, it is SO much better! Look at the sharp curve down the back. And how it sits flat across the bust. A drastic improvement!

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Here the difference in sleeves is clearer – the shoulder has a much nicer slope, and the sleeves are a lot tighter. Even though the sleeves are tighter, I actually have a lot more mobility because the armscye was smaller.

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And from the front – no pooling of fabric around the neckline, or rippling across the bodice. The sleeves have way fewer wrinkles as well, and a much slimmer more flattering silhouette!

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And here is a mirror shot, that also shows the improved fit – especially in the sleeves and bust!

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And here are some full body shots.

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Overall I think this is a HUGE improvement. I’m a lot happier with the fit of this, it’s more comfortable than the previous dress, and easier to get into!

Fittings are such an important part of historical costumes. Not necessarily a fun part, since you have to get your foundations on and off a bunch of times, but it makes a big difference in the end result. I think the comparison shots in this post are proof of that.

To finish this off I wanted to share some pictures of the shoes I got to go with this. During the American Duchess sale over Thanksgiving I picked up a pair of the Kensington shoes in the color Oxblood*.

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I bought the Fraser’s in black* back in October (review here), but wanted shoes in that would be more appropriate for the second half of the 18th century. I knew I would be buying these at some point during 2018, and I decided it was better to get them while they came with free buckles.

I like the red because it will go with black based, or white based projects. I also have a red robe a la turque these will compliment, and of course they go with this piece nicely as well. The red is darker than I had expected, but I like that. It makes them more versatile. red (13 of 52)

At first I thought these ran large, and considered returning them. But I think it’s just the leather lining that threw me off, since they are stiffer than the linen lined Fraser’s they don’t “hug” the foot as much at first. After adding buckles they fit me perfectly.

I really like the leather lining compared to linen – no frayed edges! But I did find this made the buckles more difficult to put in.

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I bought the clear charlotte buckles which are so, so pretty. I love them. But I wish the short spikes were longer. These pop out every time I unbuckle the shoe, even after notching the holes so they would sit deeper in them.

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It’s not a huge deal since I can actually slip the shoes on and off without undoing them (they are a little wide on me, and this doesn’t seem to stretch the tops). But it was a pain when trying to get them on the first time. Hopefully the holes will stretch and this will cease to be an issue.

Overall, I’m really happy with these! They are so pretty and the fit of them is really nice now that the buckles are in. As always they are very comfortable and I look forward to wearing them. But I need to get some leather protectant for them first!

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I did want to mention: If you are a large footed gal and trying to decide between these and the Fraser’s (and aren’t too concerned about the periods they represent) I think the Fraser’s are a bit more flattering on the foot. The pointed tongue and higher heel definitely make the foot look more steamlined and smaller. Not that these are unflattering I just prefer the shape of the Fraser.

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And that covers everything! Now to make a matching coat so I can get some proper pictures of this!

Thanks for reading!

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17 thoughts on “Making an 18th Century Floral Round Gown

  1. PsychicSewerKathleen says:

    So beautiful Angela! It was amazing to see the difference between the 2 re fit – and your shoes! Just perfect – I look forward to seeing your coat in the future with this dress and shoes (and no doubt a hat!).

  2. Beth Duffus says:

    You are an excellent seamstress Angela. Your technique is just splendid and I imagine you could have a fine career in costume design in theatre or television. As for self-fitting? It’s a pain – as you’ve discovered. You’re working with a set of slopers, right? I have never made historical garments but the principles of dart manipulation and pattern adaptation must be the same. As a cheat, you could use a garment that already fits you perfectly, including armholes and sleeves, and copy the pattern to use as your base block to adapt for all other garments. I hope this helps and I look forward to seeing your future projects.

    • Angela Clayton says:

      Thank you! I’ve definitely done that with some patterns (if it works, it gets altered slightly and used for anything similar). Unfortunately the area I struggle the most with is where the waist slopes over the skirt foundations, which vary in side and shape dramatically depending on the period.

  3. graciesews says:

    This is so pretty! I’m very excited to see the matching coat.

    I’m by no means an expert but to give an (perhaps uncalled for, apologies) answer to your inquiry about fitting this on yourself, I’ve found that curving the sides of the back panel and omitting boning all together (or at least at the sides) helps make the back more fitted.

    Thank you for a wonderful blog post!

    • Angela Clayton says:

      I’ll keep than in mind, thanks! I tried a few variations of curved seams and nothing seemed (heh) quite right. I also assumed boning would help the fit but I’ll try playing around without it too.

  4. Jess says:

    As far as making a more tailored fit goes- have you tried making a duct tape dummy of your torso? You would then have a perfect replica of your own bodily proportions to fit your costumes on. Might be worth a shot if you haven’t looked into it before.

  5. Mariela Elmore says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share the time consuming details of your wonderful project. Sewing requires patience and time. It does not matter if you are sewing costumes like yours or a simple dress. Getting the best fit possible isl time consuming especially when you have a narrow lower back and a swayback (in my opinion) like you. I have a narrow upper to mid lower back and a swayback. Fitting the back is a major challenges when you are working by yourself. The comparison between the two dresses is proof that taking the time and having the patience to work out fitting issues is worth the effort.
    Another great dress!

  6. Tiana says:

    Beautiful work! The difference between the two gowns is huge when you put them side by side. Also, I’m in love with the fabric you chose and can’t wait to see more photos!

  7. StudentSeamstress says:

    Thanks for sharing! And I’m so glad you include information about your projects when things don’t go so well – the comparison of the two projects and the results was really interesting. I think the second project is smashing. Love the pleats!!!

  8. Rachel Ash says:

    I have been reading your blog for a while and it has been an inspiration to me as I learn to sew for myself and my son (who tends toward period anime cosplay).

    This is off-topic, but I just saw that you have a pattern out for McCall’s and wanted to say congratulations! I have really enjoyed watching your talent and skill evolve and am really happy to see that talent and skill recognized in the professional world!

  9. samantha says:

    Lovely dress! Thank you for sharing your fitting process; I’ll definitely be coming back to this page when I’m making my next gown. Just a note: the term “round gown” refers to a gown with no shaping at the waist seam, simply a straight line around the body. The much-debated term “fourreau” or “frock” is used for a 18th century dress with a shaped waist that has a complete skirt, as opposed to an open robe that requires a petticoat to fill in the front. The frock can have a pieced back like yours, or a pleated english back.

  10. Hannah Baum says:

    I like the dress a lot, and I can’t wait to see the matching coat! It’s super cool to see the dramatic improvement that a little extra time makes, and I’m impressed that you didn’t get discouraged when you encountered problems.

    As for fitting the back: there’s a part in the American Duchess book that discuses sewing in a waist tape, (not unlike those of 18th century petticoats), to the inside of the bodice in order to keep the back flush against the body. Maybe that could help?

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