Janet Arnold was a British clothing historian and costume expert who lived and studied in the 20th century. And in my opinion, she was a flat-out genius.
In researching historical details for my Georgian romance, I am studying Book 1 of Janet’s “Patterns of Fashion” series, Englishwomen’s Dresses And Their Construction, circa 1660-1860. She spent untold hours examining actual clothing, depictions in artwork, and even correspondence to determine how various items of clothing were made. No detail was too small for her to record. Since I love learning the details of life in earlier times, I found it all fascinating. Here are some of my favorite bits:
In the 1600s and 1700s, the length of fabric was measured in “ells.” However, there were French ells and English ells. And there were French inches and English inches. One English ell was about 45 English inches long, while one French ell was approximately 43 French inches long. A French ell (43 French inches) was roughly 46 ½ English inches. Any English person using French directions to create a dress must have had a very difficult time of it!
Sizing a Dress
It all started with a woman’s measurements. Since the trades people often had little education and no paper patterns, they needed a simple way to know how to size and layout the components of a dress. For many, it all started with a simple strip of paper. The dressmaker put 16 notches down the length of a strip of paper. Each notch was a specific measurement, from the depth of the neckline to the length from waist to ground, and even the width of fabric needed for the pleats over the hoops.
Creating a Masterpiece
A dressmaker needed few tools to work. In addition to the strip of measurements, she only needed a pair of scissors, needles, a thimble, thread, and an iron. With this and several ells of fabric, she could create enduring beauty.
To me, there are two key lessons from all of this. The first is a reminder of how skilled the dressmakers (and other crafts people) were hundreds of years ago. Everything they knew, every design they conceived, was born and lived in their memories. In the days before readily-available paper, there was no other way to retain the knowledge.
And the second lesson, is a reminder that yes, Janet Arnold is a treasure to anyone who wants to understand the nuts and bolts (or the needles and thread?) of how people made their clothing in times past. I am so grateful there are people like her willing to spend the hours needed to preserve such knowledge for the rest of us.
Check back with my blog in the future. I will periodically share other favorite research books or bits of fascinating historical trivia from my research.
I write historical fiction, and I invite you to share the journey to published author with me.