Ever since the first time I saw a portrait of Queen Louise of Prussia, Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1797-1810), consort to King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia, I’ve wanted to recreate the gown she was painted wearing. (For more information about Queen Louise and her role during the European Napoleonic wars, click here.)
It’s a style that she seemed to favor—or that was favored for her by the painters—in several or her portraits. In the portrait, date 1794, It’s painted as diaphanous, floating, and apparently sheer; probably intended to resemble cotton mull or silk gauze. She wears it over an opaque undergown or slip. Luckily, the German historical pattern company Nehelenia makes a pattern for this gown.
Here’s the company’s pattern description: “Based on contemporary portraits of Queen Luise of Prussia and extant garments of her time we created a pattern paying tribute to the good taste of a german fashion icon. The high waisted dress features an overlapping front with ruched inset and a wide skirt reminiscent of the fashionable styles of late 18th / early 19th C. Europe.”
I had to wait to find the perfect fabric, but eventually I came across something absolutely gorgeous—although not 100% historically accurate in its composition—at New York Elegant in NYC. I snapped up 6 yards of this cotton-Lurex cross-woven voile. The warp threads are all cotton, but every other weft thread is a fine Lurex thread, which gives it an opalescent effect. It makes the fabric shimmer like moonlight on snow.
I didn’t take any photos of the gown’s construction, but it’s really straightforward. The sizing seems spot-on. The only fit change I made was to raise the bodice’s neckline just a bit—about ½ inch—to get a tad more coverage over my full bust. The pattern called for a fully lined bodice, but I wanted it to be sheer, so I just made a double-folded finish at the neck edge. It also called for hooks and eyes or buttons at the back opening, but it’s really impossible—at least for me—to work buttons or hooks and eyes that high in the middle of my back. My arms just don’t bend that way. So instead, I created a neckline casing from the seam allowance from the back shoulder seam to the center back opening, and a waistline casing by binding the waist seam allowance. It works like a charm. I just keep the neckline drawstring tied, since there’s plenty of room to get the dress over my head through the neck opening without untying it. The center back edges I finished by sewing a rolled hem before sewing the neck edge.
The pattern also didn’t include much in the way of gathering over the skirt front or back, and I really wanted to create the effect of a fluted Greek column with more gathering. So I added a total of 8 inches of width to the skirt front (just by shifting the pattern 4 inches from the fabric fold line when cutting), and a total of 10 inches to the center back. This gave just enough to create beautiful vertical folds across the front and back, which I gathered to match the bodice edges. It’s so elegant and moves so gracefully.
The only machine-sewn seams in the gown are the two skirt side seams, which I French seamed. The rest is hand-sewn. The only thing I’m not entirely happy with is the setting of the sleeves. The pattern didn’t have markings for where to gather or pleat the sleeve heads into the armscyes, so I had to guess. The placement isn’t ideal, but it’s not obviously bad and it doesn’t create any fit problems.
The fabric wasn’t the easiest to sew, because of the Lurex threads—which are flat, unlike the cotton threads, which are round. The needles kept running into the Lurex and those threads didn’t readily move aside.
I just love the overall effect. The pattern is excellent. The changes I made weren’t because of any fault in the drafting, just to create a slightly different effect than the pattern maker intended. I wore it over top a white silk/cotton sleeveless undergown (or bodiced petticoat; I tend to call them undergowns if I mean them to show through the overgown) that also has a sheen to it. I paired it with a ‘parure’ (a jewelry set): bracelets and necklace of lapis and carnelian beads with centers of turquoise scarabs, an enamel scarab brooch, and lapis and turquoise earrings. The turban is a silk gauze paisley scarf with tasseled ends that I found at TJ Maxx, and the shoes are spotted calf hair MIA Sweetness.
Historical Sew Monthly details:
The Challenge: #24, All that Glitters (completed December 2014)
Item: A shimmering, sheer Neoclassical-style gown after portraits of Queen Louise of Prussia
Fabric: Iridescent/opalescent white cotton/Lurex voile
Pattern: Nehelenia E403, Queen Luise’s Gown
Notions: thread, narrow satin ribbon for closures
How historically accurate is it? I’m going to give a score of about 85% for the accuracy of the gown style, type of fabric, and the closure and construction methods; deducting some percentage points for the inaccuracy of the actual fabric fiber, because it’s a blend of cotton and Lurex (it’s fabulous, actually: the loose-woven warp is all cotton, and every other weft thread is a fine iridescent Lurex thread). I know that some shimmering materials were available in period, but I don’t think any of them were necessarily sheer, and they certainly were not made with Lurex. The pattern was created based on gowns depicted in several contemporary portraits of Queen Louise of Prussia, painted from 1794-1799. This style of gown was also depicted in portraits of other women up to about 1803. The construction and finishing is accurate to the period and I’m going to say about 95 percent hand sewn. Only the two skirt side seams, which I French seamed, were done by machine.
Hours to complete: Estimate about 8 hours
First worn: Jane Austen Birthday Tea & Card Party on December 7, 2014 and January 2 for photos
Total cost: about $77 for 4 ½ yards of the fabric; notions from stash. Expensive fabric, but I fell in love with it at first sight about 1 year ago and just had to have it.
Comments: I love how this gown turned out. It’s worn overtop an under-gown of silk/cotton satin that I made for an earlier ballgown. It’s just so elegant. I made some changes from the pattern to make it look more accurate to the portraits. It didn’t have much gathering built into it, and I wanted to achieve the “fluted column” look with the skirt, so I added about 8 inches total more gathering ease to the center front skirt and about 10 inches total additional gathering ease to the back. The pattern also called for a button or hook/eye placket closure at center back, but my arms don’t bend that way; so I substituted a drawstring at the neckline—anchored to the shoulder seams—and one at the waistline, all around the waist to snug it in properly. The center back is just a slit opening, finished according to the period accurate techniques. The pattern also called for lining in the bodice, but I omitted that to maintain the sheerness. And also omitted the pattern’s neckline insert, since it’s worn with an under-gown.