A Pink Linen Shortgown,
last third of the eighteenth century
The back of the shortgown, showing its T-shape,
front, back, and sleeves cut entirely from one length of cloth.
Typically described as a T-shaped garment because its sleeves are cut as one with the body and it has no shoulder seams, the shortgown (or short gown, both spellings seem to have been used in the period, though whether they refer to the same garment remains unclear) was presumably worn as informal or working wear. It features a shaped neckline and was often (though not always) semi-fitted by means of pleats in back (and sometimes in front as well); drawstrings at the neckline and/or waist have also been found. Extant examples tend to fall between low-hip to mid-thigh length, and the waist height and length of the sleeves fluctuate depending on the general part of the period (generally, a higher waist and longer sleeves points to a later date). They can be either lined or unlined. There has been some considerable debate amongst scholars, researchers, and re-enactors regarding how common and widespread the shortgown was in the second half of the eighteenth century. Some argue that it might have been a regional garment (mid-Atlantic and/or Quaker), while others point to the difficulty of pinning down written references in which "short gown" could mean anything from the T-shaped item above to a jacket or caraco-type piece that is more nearly and more simply a shorter version of a gown. Because no surviving period image exists which positively identifies or describes a depicted garment as a "shortgown," the term has become the "modern" name used to distinguish a garment with these specific characteristics. Whether we've matched the correct name with the garment remains to seen as research continues to delve into this enduring mystery!
Back of the shortgown
The pattern: Because shortgowns are pretty consistent in shape, cut, and construction, it was very easy to adapt a single pattern and give it some variation based off of other examples. I scaled up one of the patterns in Fitting and Proper and slightly altered the front neckline (I prefer it slightly more square, though rounded is perfectly accurate as well) and changed the pleating pattern in back. I also lengthened it from the hip-length of the original to the mid-thigh length of the shortgown patterned in Costume Close-up (again, that's a change dictated by nothing more than personal choice).
General references on this type of garment and its history:
- Baumgarten, Linda and John Waston. Costume Close-up: Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750-1790. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999, pp. 43-46.
- Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986, pp. 30-32.
- Burnston, Sharon Ann. Fitting and Proper: 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Texarcana: Scurlock Publishing Co., pp. 20-25.
- Felshin, Sue. "Of Gowns, Jackets, "Shortgowns, and Bedgowns: What Should I Really Be Wearing?" BAR Courier Jan/Feb 2001; reprinted here at 18th Century New England Life.
- Hersh, Tandy and Charles. Cloth and Costume 1750 to 1800. Carlisle: Cumberland County Historical Society, pp. 142-4.
- Kidwell, Claudia. "Short Gowns." Dress Vol. 4, 1978, pp. 30-65.
- McConnon, Rhonda. "The Shortgown and Bedgown." Online. http://www.18cnewenglandlife.org/short_gown.htm
For additional resources and patterns, see our earlier post on shortgowns.
Construction details: As always, this garment is entirely constructed by hand. It is by far one of the easiest and quickest projects I've ever done, from drafting to completion. First, I scaled up the pattern of the second shortgown in Fitting and Proper. Then I lengthened the pattern several inches so that I would fall at my mid-thigh, and cut it out. The next step was to sew the side seams, which closes both the sleeve and body seams because of the way the garment is structured. Because I was doing an unlined example, like the first short gown in Fitting and Proper, I used flat-felled seams to prevent the edges from raveling, with is consistent with that example.
The side seam, which extends from the end of the sleeve to
the bottom hem of the shortgown.
Now that the garment had some kind of shape, I put it on my dressform (which I don't like using for draping purposes because my stays won't fit on it, but Ashley wasn't around to be my body double!) and fiddled with the back pleats until I got a look I liked. In the two examples in Fitting and Proper, the back pleats are more or less parallel to the center back; they run vertically from neckline to waistline. I tried this pleating pattern, but wasn't quite happy with the boxy look it gave when I tried it on over my stays. To give it the illusion that the waist is smaller, I angled the pleats slightly, in exactly the same way I would do an English back gown. The pleats were then top-stitched down using a spaced backstitch.
Detail of the back with the tapered pleats.
Detail of the bottom of the pleats. The center back pleat is the
deepest, in keeping with the pleating patterns of en fourreau gowns.
Because the pleats end exactly at waist level, they release quite gracefully
into the "skirt" when an apron is tied around the waist.
Lastly, I turned all of the edges under and whipped them down. In the unlined short gown in Fitting and Proper, a facing strip is used to conceal the top of the pleats in the back; I opted not to use one because my fabric folded under quite easily, even with the pleats.
This means that the ENTIRE garment it made out of one length of fabric, uncut and unpieced. Many extant examples are pieced to lengthen the sleeves (and sometimes to widen the "skirt"), but because my linen was 54", it provided plenty of room to make the shortgown in a single piece of fabric.
The unlined interior of the shortgown, with the back
pleating fully visible. All seams are felled to finish them.
For additional photos, check out the flickr album for this project.
The Fabric: A dusty pinkish/coralish linen, dyed by me (that in itself was an adventure!). Shortgowns in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were made of linen, cotton, fustian, linsey, or wool. Stripes and prints are seen on extant examples.
Finishing the Look: Though an informal and relatively unfitted garment, a shortgown should still be worn over stays (and, of course, a shift!) and petticoat, and its neckline can be filled in with a kerchief. Some surviving examples are secured in front (neck and/or waistline) with ties, but the majority seem to have been closed with pins and were then further secured with an apron.
The shortgown "in action," properly accessorized with a kerchief and
apron. No, I'm not wearing stays, but that's because this was obviously
an exceptional situation (i.e. the stays workshop!).
Photo by Angela Burnley, linked from the Burnley and Trowbridge facebook page.
PS - I'm thinking of doing a detailed step-by-step tutorial (with lots of step-by-step photos again, of course!) on making a shortgown without a pattern, but want to be sure there is sufficient interest before I take the time to do another example and write it all up. If this is something you would be interested in reading, please leave a comment or drop us an email to let us know!