An Introduction to 1850’s-1860’s Working Gowns Sewing Course

Ok.  This lesson title isn’t exactly meant to create something fancy out of work clothes.  But I also strongly feel that there needs to be some context and background into creating any historical garment.  And while it is often more exciting and fun to learn and create those extravagant evening gowns of the 19th century, they are not always practical for those getting involved in living history.  Women, except for those of the upper crust, worked.  And they worked hard.  Another reason why there are so few original “work gowns” are because, just like today’s leggings, they were common, worn to threads, and wasn’t exactly an item that you wanted to keep for generations.  And I actually think that makes them even more interesting.

When I began sewing, I began with Regency era first…as that is, in many ways, the easiest decade to create.  After I felt comfortable with that era, the very next gown I made was a simple 1860’s day/working gown.  Because despite the amount of yardage needed, these gowns are not that complicated to make.  And now 15 years on the other side of that first gown, I have made over a hundred of just working style gowns.

But before we start learning how to make one, lets take a look a closer look at what a working gown is.  A working gown, which can also be called a laundress, simply is a gown that allows you the flexibility and ability to complete often labor intensive activities.  Usually made of cotton, linen, wool, or some sort of blend, these gowns are simple in design, feature parts that allow for greater body and arm movement, and are usually worn just with petticoats (although this gown we will be making can be worn with a hoop.)  They can be either one piece or two piece gowns with either short (less common) or bishop style (very common) sleeves.  The appeal of the bishop is they can be rolled up for warmer days as well as left down for cooler days.  All my work gowns I create (including this one) has bishop sleeves.  Even if I’m wearing it in summer.  Simply because it seems rather wasteful to create a gown meant for work that can just be worn one time of the year.  However, if you would like a short sleeve gown, send me an email, and I will be happy to help you create the pattern!  Now, on to the examples!

This gown is such a find, as it is an original and really shows the simplistic style of an 1860’s work gown.  This particular gown opens in the front as it is one piece.  Another interesting feature of this gown is that it is slightly longer and fuller in the back suggesting that this gown may have been worn over a hoop as a day gown.

Lavender Cotton Dress c. 1860, From the Irma G Bowen Clothing Collection  University of New Hampshire

This photograph is another example of a simple style gown.  This one also appears to be one piece or a blouse tucked into a skirt with a high waistband.  The sleeves are a more fitted coat style and as a result would not have been adjustable in length.  Even though many women wore their “best gowns” for photographs, I feel this young lady didn’t have many options due to the small amount of fabric in the skirt portion. Leading me again to feel that this gown was meant for a variety of purposes.

Photograph of a young girl c. 1860.  Source unknown

This next image, mostly like of a freed African American women given the date and location of Maryland (which was a border state during the Civil War post Emancipation Proclamation) is another amazing example of a work gown.  This one interests me as it is possible the sleeves have removable under sleeves.  This is a fantastic option as then one can wear whatever sleeve length is best for the weather.

This in another fabulous example of not only a work dress (showing rolled up bishop sleeves) but also a work apron.  If you are looking to recreate a complete working ensemble…right here people! 🙂

Photograph of Working Woman c. mid to late 1860’s Source Unknown

The following photographs just highlight again various types, styles, and patterns of working gowns.

Laundress pictured with a newer style of a crank washing machine.  c. 1860’s 

Photograph of Women (and a young man) doing laundry.  C. late 1850’s Source Unknown

Inspired to create your own working gown???  Excellent!  Then let’s get started!  Click HERE to begin the Working Gown course.

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