Throwback Thursday: Janet Arnold Patterns of Fashion

As I look through my portfolio and writing from university I am drawn to my work for the Janet Arnold Pattern's of Fashion competition that I became a finalist in in 2012. This project started off as an intimidating challenge, but surprisingly, I managed to finish and I learnt so much as a result of taking part. The following is part of my findings and evaluation from taking part in this project:

'My chosen Janet Arnold costume is the c.1837-41 Brown Silk Morning Dress from Gloucester Folk Museum. I chose this costume as I felt that reproducing it would be a challenge for me, as although the design and construction seemed quite straight forward, yet beautiful; the entire dress and its decoration is hand sewn. Hand sewing is not my strongest skill, but I wished to change this. Until now, I have also never made a costume from the Nineteenth Century; therefore I feel that I have also gained more contextual knowledge through my research into an era and a style of dress that was completely new to me.

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting and handling the original costume at Gloucester Folk Museum as this allowed me to explore how the dress was constructed, and what colour and weight fabrics were used. These visits were crucial to my understanding of the garment as the Janet Arnold book did not have very much information regarding the construction of the garment or the fabrics and components used. As I have not really used very much hand sewing before I had to research and sample the stitches and techniques that were used, including: slipstitching, shirring/gathering, piping, boning channels, over sewing/overcastting, covered buttons, run and felled seams, bias bound edges and facings, hand worked bars, herringboning, running, and back stitching. I undertook research into sourcing similar weights and coloured silks, but due to financial reasons I chose to reproduce this garment in a lightweight Calico with a Cotton Sateen lining/backing; as they were the cheaper alternatives and they handled in a similar way to the original garment’s Silk, Glazed Cotton and Calico fabrics.

These visits also helped me to understand a little about who made my dress, as the stitching was irregular and not of the highest quality. From this I can see that the person that made this dress, like me, was not the best at hand sewing. This inspired me to research into the person that donated, made and wore this dress so as to understand why, when and how this dress was worn. I found out that this dress along with a few other later Nineteenth Century garments, were donated to the museum by a Soppronia Holborow Copner in 1937; but that was all the information that the museum had. Through further research into this woman and her immediate family found in census’ and public archive records, I was able to guess at what kind of social background they came from and how this related to the costume and its history.

Soppronia’s father was a plumber, meaning the family were probably middle working class, and the whole family lived in districts of Gloucester until at least 1881. Soppronia died in Liverpool after she had joined her brother Thomas, and his wife Maude, to live with them as the spinster sister. Looking at the dress’ style and Soppronia’s date of birth, I believe the dress would have originally belonged to her mother Mary and was passed down to Soppronia. Because the dress is silk and would have been a more fashionable style around the date of Mary’s marriage to Daniel in 1846, and there being little evidence of alterations or wear and tear on the dress, I believe that this dress could have been the one she got married in and then only worn for special occasions.

As part of my research I looked at other examples of dresses from the 1830s and 1840s, specifically looking at examples of similar techniques or fabrics in these dresses. I learnt that this chosen costume would have been considered fashionable and typical of the time due to similarities in cut and decoration between this one and original 1830s and 1840s garments in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection and the St Fagans costume collection.

I also used other forms of primary research such as, fashion plates, paintings from the Victoria & Albert Museum, The National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Wales; as well as written information about dresses from the early to mid 1800s to support my work as it helped to broaden my understanding of the time. This along with the research into the women that originally wore this dress has enabled me to develop a greater understanding of my chosen dress and its role.

Truthfully, the production of this costume has been the biggest challenge I have faced in terms of sewing; however I feel that through persisting with this dress I have been able to learn about and dramatically improve my hand sewing techniques. Although I have at times, not enjoyed the production of the garment as much as I had hoped; I understand that this itself has taught me the skill of perseverance and it has widened my personal range and level of sewing skill. This has been an interesting yet testing project, but ultimately it has inspired me to further my research skills within historical dress and costume by undertaking a MA in Fashion/Costume History in the next couple of years.'

Almost 5 years on, I am still wanting to pursue my love of fashion history through a Masters...but alas the real world of rent and finding jobs has taken over for the current time. Ill get there one day!

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