Tapestry Gown: Fabrics on Display

devonshire tapestry detailI was intrigued by the lustrous gowns displayed in tapestry, not only from the weaver’s perspective but also from the costumer’s perspective.  I started by choosing an era somewhat earlier than the Unicorn Tapestries (mid 1400’s), where fashion is shown quite resplendently in the “Devonshire Hunting Tapestries.”

In this period, the waist was high, with long, draping lines especially in vogue.  Pleats are caught up at the waist, a train extends out the back, and a lovely underskirt is shown when the front of the gown is “caught up” under the wearer’s arm.

For my music performance work, I like to wear gowns in the styles of the eras I’m representing to help facilitate the audience’s transportation through time to another way of knowing.  For this particular project, I was interested in creating a gown that would look as if it had walked out of a tapestry, hence its name of “the Tapestry Gown.”

gown with henin engravingPulling from a variety of visual resources, which can all be referenced in the bibliography page, I searched for ideas.  The elegance of lines, the variety of forms, and sumptuous colors, all make modern dress look rather boring!  Another aspect that struck me when researching the Tapestry Gown was considering how every thread in the fabrics was spun by hand, then woven by hand, then cut by hand, then sewn by hand.  The number of hours in any one dress must have been astronomical!  No wonder being able to afford a hem that drug on the ground (and therefore required someone to wash or brush it and periodic replacement) was an outright flaunting of that person’s wealth.

I, however, do not have such wealth to flaunt, so I gave myself the challenge of utilizing all repurposed fabrics for the project.  A set of damask curtains became the over-gown, a weave-patterned tablecloth the under-gown,tapestry gown sketch a velvet dress the collar and cuffs, and an upholstery swatch for the busk and belt.  Atop, a shortened hennin (made from remnants of the aforementioned fabrics plus a sheer shower curtain) offers an appropriate finish for that classic “C” curve in a courtly lady’s silhouette.

Here, my sketch illustrates the desired look of the finished gown.  Ever since I became interested in historic dress as a young teenager, it seemed that I was ahead of my time in pattern availability.  A few years after strenuous research and effort towards a particular recreation of an American Civil War era gown, patterns seemed to be available everywhere!  And so it was the same with this project.  Probably, in a few years, Simplicity will come out with a peculiarly similar design in commercial availability.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all!

Ah, but there’s nothing quite like the chase, and so it began.  Patterns for Theatrical Costumes by Katherine Strand Holkeboer proved a most useful resource for the project, which involved my first foray into drafting patterns.  This proved to be considerably more complex and detailed than I had first imagined!  paper pattern on dress formThis was especially so due to the great number of compound curves in the layout.  In the end, after drafting the design onto copious quantities of pink tissue paper (it’s what I had), I then finessed the curves and fit on a mannequin dress form.

Here you can see the busk, overlayed with the plunging V-neck collar, the half bodice, the inset sleeve, and the pleated skirt with its long train at the back.  The collar especially needed curvature adjustments for flow.  I wanted to be certain that I was making accurate cuts to the final fabrics–especially the velvet knit, which wriggles about like during cutting like a wayward sponge.  In the end, I had to tack that velvet firmly to the lining in order to quell its tempestuousness.  Good thing it was only collars and cuffs!

This style of gown was designed before the use of the corset–that most constricting undergarment.  It highlights the natural curvature of the breast and offers elegant, sweeping lines at the shoulders.  But that plunging neckline could be indecently revealing, so the stiffened gown bodice progress“busk” at the front is most necessary.  I may be mistaken, but it is my understanding that this is the first presentation of a stiffened front panel in lady’s fashionable dress.  The desire for a decorative, stiffened front would continue as the waistline dropped–causing the need for a firm foundation for tight tailoring.  But that discussion will be explored in another post.

The skirt for the gown is cut in two large panels and required creative seaming to accommodate because my fabric was neither as wide nor long as the pattern dictated.  It turns out that piecing was also necessary even for the wealthy in medieval and Renaissance times because fabrics were woven only so wide (sometimes as narrow as 22 inches), which I suspect is directly linked to the complexity of the pattern-work in the fabrics.  finished tapestry gownThe invention of the mechanized pattern detail of the Jacquard loom (see the post “High Warp Tapestry Looms” for a fuller description) would allow for much wider fabrics of the damask and brocade style, but this invention was hundreds of years off from the 15th Century.

Piecing aside, the draping did turn out quite elegant.  That copious skirt, along with the underskirt, helped me appreciate the speed I had developed over the years at hand hemming!  The combination of rich mayberry, deep blue, and gold accents really sets this gown into the realm of dress in tapestry.  The gold and soft pink jewelry I had shipped from India for playing Tuptim in “The King and I” paired very nicely as well, adding some sparkle–including an adornment on the front of the hennin where a decorative pull tab was often present.  These headdresses can be rather weighted towards the back and sometimes need a little help staying in place.

While not practical for outdoor strolling performances (due to the long hem and train), I’ve had some occasions for utilizing the Tapestry Gown.  One of these included a performance of the ballad “Willie O’ Winsbury” at the Northland Storytelling Network’s gown in performanceannual convention, where I was also presenting my graduate school practicum seminar on orality.

In this ballad, the king returns from imprisonment (likely after a crusade) to find his unmarried daughter pregnant.  After making her confess the name of her lover, a search is warranted for his arrest and death.  But upon being brought to the castle, the young man’s beauty surprises even the king, and marriage to the princess is proposed (with the added bait of a land grant).  Willie says he will gladly marry the princess (Janet) but has no interest in the king’s land, instead taking her back to his own large tracts.  I’ll include the lyrics in a subsequent post because they are both vivid and lilting in nature–a snapshot into the human condition.  Ladies, she lost her unicorn, but she kept her lover.