I got to see this beautiful 18th century extant (surviving original for those unfamiliar with the term) dress up close this week –albeit in a glass case– at Rockford Plantation. It is of brocaded Spitalfields silk from London, and is believed to have belonged to Katherine Hand (General Edward Hand’s wife). It is possible that the dress was given to Katherine by Martha Washington but that is not known for certain.
It seems likely that it would have been out of style by the time Katherine got it but you can imagine the scenario. An older woman has this beautiful dress that she can’t wear anymore so she passes it on to a younger woman with several daughters in hopes they can use it.
This style of dress is called a Robe à l’Anglaise or English gown (I prefer the french term as it sounds more chic). This dress would have been worn with a shift or chemise and then stays ( which is a corset but they were called stays then). It is a ‘robe’ which closes in the front (with hooks and eyes) but is open over the skirt. The back of the bodice comes to a point and is sewn into the skirt. The petticoat underneath is separate and could be of matching fabric as shown here or something else as shown in these examples: 1784 Dress (Robe à l’Anglaise) Met Museum | Robe à l’anglaise, 1770-73 From the Chertsey Museum. Sleeve ruffles could be added or left off as shown here.
Look at that hand stitching! No modern sewing machines when this beauty was made. It’s pretty amazing to think about all the work that went into a dress like this.
The attention to detail is remarkable. Look how the flower placement on the sleeve matches so well to the dress.
Notice how low the front neckline is. This is pre-Victorian and lower necklines were in. You could wear a fichu with it as shown here or opt to leave it off and show off some jewelry (among other things).
As we were looking at the dress my 12 yr. old daughter asked if this was the style of dress I was making for her next. I said “You bet I am!”.