A New Gown at Michilimackinac

A dress, reddish-orange in color, held together with pins as it sits on a mannequin. When you come to Colonial Michilimackinac it is always easy to find staff dressed in historic clothing. This winter, the clothing collection has had a number of new pieces added. Each is carefully researched and recreated to represent the items worn by the colonial residents. One of the larger projects this year has been recreating a woman’s gown.

 18th century women’s dresses were remarkably consistent in the basic style and cut in North America and in Europe. Trimmings and fabrics varied, but the shape of the pattern pieces and the construction were very similar from gown to gown. The basic style consists of an “open robe” which is a dress that is meant to be worn over a separate skirt. The open robe gowns are cleverly constructed and take very little fabric compared to later styles of gowns. The bulk of the cost of a gown was in the fabric. It might only take a day to make a gown, but it might take months or longer to make and transport the fabric.

 Textiles were often re-used and remade into newer styles or new garments altogether. Clothing could be let out, taken in, re-trimmed, patched, cut down, made into a garment for a child, or completely unpicked to start over. Some items, such as ladies’ gowns, were constructed with future alterations in mind. Folds and pleats were used extensively to give the gowns shape and prevent unnecessary cutting into the valuable fabric. Even wealthier households were known to be thrifty with their fabric.

A reddish-orange dress being fitted on a staff member for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

The new gown being fitted for the historic interpreter who will wear it.

 There were many fabric options for ladies’ gowns. Silk has a lustrous finish and soft texture which made it a choice fabric. By the 1770s silk was worn by all people, not just the wealthy. Even the very poor were able to afford a silk neckerchief or a silk ribbon for their cap. In 1778 John Askin wrote to his trading partners in Detroit asking for a gift for his daughter: “I owe Kitty her wedding Gown, as there was nothing here fit for it. Please have one made for her in the French fashion of a light blue sattin”. Miss Askin’s bespoke silk gown would have been a special piece, but it wouldn’t have been that unusual at Michilimackinac where many people liked to dress well.

A staff member wearing a reddish-orange gown with a white apron standing in front of a black curtain.

The new gown being worn in public, as Devan, one of our historic interpreters presents an education outreach program.

 The most reliable and practical fabric to make a gown from was, and still is, wool. Wool gowns do not fade in the sun nearly as fast as cotton or linen. We especially love wool for our staff because it does not need to be ironed nearly as much as some of the other types of textiles. So, while our staff may want to wear silk, most of the gowns found in the Michilimackinac closet, including this new one, are made of wool. Lightweight wools are good for all seasons, keeping the wearer warm in the cold and cool in the heat.

 There is still a lot to do, but we are happy to have one project checked off the list. To support our programs and learn more about Michilimackinac’s history visit mackinacparks.com.

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