The Ladies' Tea Guild

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Historical Sew Monthly -- Procrastination (how appropriate!): A pre-Gold Rush California day dress

Version 1.0 of the California day dress ca. 1838.
The Challenge: Procrastination (January 2016), Out of Your Comfort Zone (June 2015), and Stashbusting (March 2015).  I didn't realize it until last month, but I neglected to publish the blog post in 2015 for the Out Of My Comfort Zone and Stashbusting Challenges, which were part of the original reason for this dress being made!  7 months is quite a procrastination, although I still don't consider this dress finished ...

California history, especially domestic history, has been a major passion and research topic for me for the past 15 years or so.  Part of my research has involved re-creating typical daily outfits for California women, from the early Spanish settlement period in the late 18th century, to the early 19th century Rancho period on the eve of the Gold Rush.  Unfortunately, comparatively little of the European, English, and North American fashion information from that time is widely applicable to California during the same period, due to the distance – both physical and cultural – between the people of California and those in the rest of the Western world before the Gold Rush. 

_Mexicains_ by Emile Louis Vernier, ca. 1850.
 New York Public Library Digital Collection.
Beginning in the 1760s, Spain established frontier settlements in California, but all contact with Spain ceased between 1810 and 1824 during the Mexican War for Independence; when the fighting ended, California's settlers benefited from the free trade that resulted.  Trade with England and the United States enabled the people, now calling themselves Californios, to enjoy many of the products and luxuries that had long been available to more settled parts of the former Spanish empire, with closer ties to Europe.  Even now, however, shipments did not usually include fashion magazines or any ready-made articles of women's attire, unless specifically mail-ordered.  Almost no non-Hispanic women arrived in California to influence the local fashions during this time.

California woman at Monterey State Historic Park.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
As a result, the Californios developed their own style of clothing, adapting European fashion elements to the climate, their way of life, and the supplies available to them.  Non-Hispanic visitors before the Gold Rush recorded their impressions of the residents' appearance through sketches and accounts in journals and letters, as compared with the women they knew back home, but certain details don't match what can be seen in the (comparatively few) contemporary images.  It is, therefore difficult to translate the information in these sketches and descriptions into accurate representations of the styles worn during the pre-Gold Rush period. 

The most detailed documentary description of Californio women's dress from the era comes from Richard Henry Dana's autobiographical novel Two Years Before The Mast, about a merchant voyage he took to California in 1834; he says of the crowds who boarded his trading ship:

portrait of Rosario Estudillo Aguirre,
artist unknown, ca. 1845.
“The women wore gowns of various texture,— silks, crape, calicoes, &c.,—made after the European style, except that the sleeves were short, leaving the arm bare, and that they were loose about the waist, corsets not being in use. They wore shoes of kid or satin, sashes or belts of bright colors, and almost always a necklace and ear-rings. Bonnets they had none. ... They wear their hair (which is almost invariably black, or a very dark brown) long in their necks, sometimes loose, and sometimes in long braids; though the married women often do it up on a high comb. Their only protection against the sun and weather is a large mantle which they put over their heads, drawing it close round their faces ... When in the house, or sitting out in front of it, which they often do in fine weather, they usually wear a small scarf or neckerchief of a rich pattern. A band, also, about the top of the head, with a cross, star, or other ornament in front, is common."

The comment, "corsets not being in use," led many distinguished historians to take Dana at his word, and declare that corsets or stays of any kind were not known in California before the Gold Rush, an event which attracted non-Hispanic men and (corset-wearing) women to the area, and changed the local custom.  I now believe that this assumption is incorrect, and that, while they likely went without corsets some of the time, Californio women must have worn a kind of stays under their more European-styled gowns. 

Theodore Gentilz Fandango, 1850. Daughters of the
Republic of Texas. 
Just before the Gold Rush, some Californio women appeared in fairly detailed portraits, as well as group pictures showing events like fiestas, and these images show the ladies wearing smoothly dart-fitted bodices to their gowns, and looking neatly and decently-dressed.  There are also a few illustrations, from the mid 1840s, of women in Texas and northern Mexico wearing very similar styles, which give additional views of the garments.  To my eyes, it is obvious that they are wearing some kind of support under their dresses, even if it's not a tightly-laced, heavily-boned, long-waisted corset as worn in Anglo communities.  And it is these ladies, in their recognizably European-influenced fashions, that (except for the brightly-colored sashes that he describes) most closely fit the description of the women who visited Dana's ship in Monterey in Two Years Before the Mast

_Maria de Jesus Estudillo Davis_, by
Leonardo Barbiere, c. 1847, Bancroft Library. 
The Californio portraits also show adult women wearing gowns with wide curved or boat necklines, and elbow-length, straight, fitted sleeves.  These fashion elements were ordinarily seen on children and young girls in the United States, England, and continental Europe, during the 1830s, but it's possible that they were adopted by grown women in response to California's Mediterranean climate, and I decided to make them part of my dress. I also decided to use a center front-opening on the bodice, even though the back-opening bodice was usual elsewhere, because while many Californio women wore, in their portraits, shawls or scarves that hide much of the front of their bodices, there is one portrait, of Maria de Jesus Estudillo Davis, from 1847, that shows her in a dart-fitted maroon silk dress, trimmed with white thread lace, and she has a gold chain with one end hanging from what appears to be the center front opening of her bodice, with the other end (probably with a watch) tucked into a small pocket in her skirt just below the waistline.  Therefore it appears that at least some women in California made their bodices front closing, although back-closing bodices are seen on other women, like the family of Governor Pio Pico, in a photo from 1850. Also, despite Señora Davis' portrait, mentioned above, the use of black lace, rather than white lace, seems to have been more popular with Californio women, so that's what I decided to use on my dress. 

portrait of Governor Pio Pico, his wife, and two nieces,
ca. 1850, San Diego Historical Society.
This dress represents the evolution of my understanding of women's clothing in California before the Gold Rush.  I used the late 1840s Round Gown pattern from Laughing Moon, and adapted it to an 1830s look with instructions from The Workwoman's Guide, by lowering the neckline, shortening and tightening the sleeves, and re-positioning the bodice darts.  I made the bodice about 5 inches bigger than I usually make my Victorian bodices, because I originally intended to wear this dress without a corset underneath, and my figure is soft enough to compress several inches smaller at the waist, with ease.

Unknown California woman, ca. 1850.
Oakland Museum of California.
I also cut the center front waistline curve at a shallower angle, to make for a shorter 1830s-style waistline,which also makes the waist look slightly wider, an illusion I noticed in some of the portraits.  I saw instructions in the Workwoman's Guide to edge each bodice seam in piping, so I edged the front opening, armscye seams, the edges of the sleeves, the bottom edge of the bodice, and the side and side-back seams, as well as the wide neckline, with self-fabric piping.  The bodice fastens with hook-and-eye tape, and the skirt is cartridge-pleated to the piped waist edge of the bodice.

At first, the dress was too loose to be comfortable, but the experience showed me something: even after I had taken the bodice in (with safety pins on the inside), enough to fit smoothly, without any support underneath, I was not only uncomfortable, but I didn't look like the Californio women in the period images who were wearing similar style gowns!  I wore it a second time for a photo shoot featuring 1830s Romantic Hair styles, for an article by Lynn McMasters on Your Wardrobe Unlock'd; because I wore my corset that time, we pinned an extra dart in the back (with safety pins) so that it wouldn't look so shlumpy in the photos.  Then, the dress hung in my closet for 6 months before being re-worked. 

me in the GBACG fashion
show. photo: Jesie Von
For version 2.0, I took the bodice off the skirt, and re-did the bodice darts, adding one  up the center back, and an extra one on each side of the front, to take it in enough that I could wear my corset loosely-laced, or even not wear a corset at all, if I wanted, but keep it snug enough to hold in my flesh and smooth it out.   With the addition of a corded, bodiced petticoat underneath, it will be closer to the look from the original images. Then, I put the piping back on and re-did the cartridge pleating, and even managed to add a flounce of black thread lace to the neckline and the bottom of the sleeves, in time for the next event, which was a fashion show for the Greater Bay Area Costumers' Guild.

As for the fabric, I had some cotton calico with a paisley-type print in the stash for several years; I don't even remember where I got it.  It is different from all the other fabrics in my stash because it has a significant amount of yellowish brown in the background of the print, and I never wear yellow because my skin has a yellowish tint.  Somehow this fabric caught my eye, and I bought it, thinking it looked vaguely 1830s, but sat in the stash because I didn't exactly know what to make with it.  Recently, in looking at antique dresses in museum collections online (my 1840s Fashion board on Pinterest), I started seeing dresses from the 1820s through 1840s made of cotton calico prints in similar colorways, with yellow and teal and brown and white, and in similar floral and feathery paisley-type patterns.  In researching California women's fashion, I read that all the printed calicoes and silks that were available in the United States and England, became available in California after 1825, and that women in California and other parts of the former Spanish empire are recorded as wearing "light printed calicoes" as well as the dark solid colored silks shown in the few painted portraits from the period. 

me in GBACG fashion show.
Photo: Jacqueline Palacios.
I wore it with a black velvet ribbon tied around my head at the forehead, and my hair twisted into a coil at the back, with a wooden comb and short black lace veil hanging down to my shoulders at the back.  I also had a crucifix on a black ribbon around my neck, and white stockings with black flat shoes. Acccessorized with a black fan, of course!

I never did get the bodiced petticoat made, or even patterned, and I don't like the hook-and-eye tape fastening up the bodice, so there is still more work to do on this dress.  But I'd say that version 2.0 is a good step up towards version 3.0, when the dress will hopefully be finished!  But, who knows when ...

Fabric: cotton print and poly/cotton thread.

Pattern: adapted from Laughing Moon's Round Gown pattern and using information from The Workwoman's Guide

Year: 1840-ish, as worn in pre-Gold Rush California

Notions: hook and eye tape, black thread lace, cotton cord (inside the self-fabric piping).

How historically accurate is it? Fabric is modern, but in similar print and colorway to period cotton calico prints, combination machine and hand-made, pattern altered according to illustrations and Workwoman's Guide instructions, so about 75%.

Hours to complete: Lost count.  Spread out over 8 days, and a few late nights.

First worn: June 14, 2015 for an event with my costume guild. Version 2.0 worn in a fashion show for my costume guild on January 16, 2016. 

Total cost: all materials from my stash, and bought years ago, but the fabric was probably at least $14 per yard, and I had at least 4 yards of it, so with the hook & eye tape, lace and thread, at least $70 in materials. 

Alta California Clothing group on Facebook 
"California as I Saw It" from the Library of Congress 
Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast, at Project Gutenberg 
de Bafarás, Joachin Antonio, Origen, costumbres, y estado presente de mexicanos y phillpinos (1763).
Rickman, David. "Into History" 
Sutter's Fort Clothing, 1840s (student handout) 
The Workwoman's Guide, 1838 from the Internet Archive 
"The Clothing of a Californio Don" by Andrew M. Crockett 
"Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California" by Guadalupe Vallejo, Century Magazine, December 1890. 

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)