Charlotte Corday 18th Century (ish) Dress Recreation – Part 1

Hello!

So my summer vacation is over, and I’m officially in the midst of my Junior year of high school. I’m freaking out a little (a lot). I think this project is my subconscious trying to get Sophomore year summer back.

So how does this project connect to Sophomore year? More on that in the next section.

Right now, I am issuing a desperate plea to anyone and everyone with historical costuming experience in this time period to read to the bottom of this post and give me feedback on the conclusions I’ve drawn and answers to the questions I still have. I really need your help with this project because it’s very out of my comfort zone and I’m on the fence about how I want to go about it

Historical Background

Basically, last year in Ap European History (AP euro), I learned a lot about the French Revolution, and, in the process, I watched this video from AP Euro Student Savior Tom Richey. It’s part 5 of a seriously helpful lecture series looking at women’s roles and feminism during the French Revolution, specifically focusing on Charlotte Corday. She murdered Marat, evil newspaper man who published lists of “anti-revolutionaries”, sending his fanatics after them and indirectly committing mass murder (tl;dr: horrible guy). At first, Marat was the hero and Corday was the (summarily executed) villain, as illustrated in The Death of Marat, a painting by Jacques-Louis David from 1793 (the year of Marat’s death). (He’s all Christ-figure-y and in-the-light, = hero, etc)

death of marat

But then, decades later, during the Second Empire (when the French Revolutionaries were seen as crazed fanatics), Paul Jacques Aime Baudry painted Charlotte Corday, portraying the same scene but with Corday as the heroine.

charlotte corday

Basically, I’m fascinated by this painting. I love the history behind it (not all the killing, but the way history’s opinion of something can change), I love how useful it was during AP euro, and I LOVE THAT DRESS.


Fangirling About the Dress

I want to MAKE that dress. So yeah, my next project is going to be making Charlotte Corday’s dress.

Disclaimer: I love the dress, the way history changes, and a little bit of the applicable-ness of stopping violent and hateful political propaganda during times of political extremism not the fact that Corday is a murderer. Okay? (Even though she probably saved thousands of lives) I’m recreating the dress and  the painting, not the murder/assassination part. Okay? Please don’t be weirded out by this project. I love/am recreating THE DRESS. 

charlotte corday - dress

So, with that cleared up, why do I love this dress so much?

For one thing, all the stripes. I mean, we all know I love playing with stripes (exhibit A), and this dress does it all. Although I’m pretty sure the stripes bend in some unrealistic ways (those sleeves? and the stripes totally change direction at the waist center front), most of the playing with stripes is pretty doable.

Also, recreating this dress is going to be an interesting exercise in historical costuming, something I find fascinating but haven’t ever really done. I get freaked out by the amazing people who spend all their time researching silhouettes and techniques and then put them together in freakily accurate historical costumes. But it is something I’m interested in, and this project seems like a nice starting point.


The Dress Broken-Down

Disclaimer #2: I’m no historical costumer. All of these observations are based on my limited knowledge of accurate sources and historical silhouettes.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time breaking the dress down into its elements and trying to match them to historical examples. It started out rough, but I feel like my luck got better as the googling continued. By the end, I was actually having a lot of fun.

First, for reference, I made a sketch of what I interpreted the lines of the bodice to be from the painting.

charlotte corday bodice sketch

So when I first started researching for this dress, I assumed it was some form of a robe à l’anglaise from the 1780s, mostly because I was distracted by the similarities between the dress in the painting and this dress at the Met (which seems to be a favorite of historical re-enactors). It has the same side triangle things (professionally called a “zone front”).

met dress - Charlotte Corday dress | Strings Attached

So I was stuck in the 1780s (instead of the 1790s) for the next few hours of google searching. In that time, I found this example, again from the Met, of a robe à la française which has similar buttons to those in the painting.

robe a la francaise

But I was having trouble finding historical/time-period correct examples for the long sleeves, the collar (outlined in yellow below), or the specific lines of the bodice. The side front seam (in orange) in particular has been really bothering me.

So at this point, I figured I should maybe look for actual 1790s dresses instead of 1780s (lol, it really took too long for me to get here).

Looking at examples and explanations (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*) of 1790s fashion, I found this Redingote from 1790. It’s remarkably perfect.

redingote 1790

It has a collar (though a much larger one), buttons down the front, skirt with a similar amount of poof to the dress in the painting, though the shape of the front is different.

redingnote back view - corday
also, look at the crazy back detailing!

Further redingnote searches yielded this red and white jacket from basically the perfect time and place. (c. 1790, France). Pic from Kyoto Costume Institute

red jacket 1790 - charlotte corday

Again, this jacket has the collar I was looking for (but much larger), is striped, has buttons (though placed differently), and long sleeves. I found the long sleeves!!

Back in the 1780s, also at the KCI, I found another robe a l’anglaise, with long sleeves, a zone front, buttons, and a similar skirt. So apparently long sleeves did exist in the 1780s.

1780 robe a l'anglaise - corday

I also found this Portrait of a Young Woman Holding Two Roses by Agustín Esteve y Marqués, ca. 1790, which has similar use of stripes.

1790 young woman - corday


Question Time

So I still don’t have a great match for Corday’s dress, but I have lots of the bits and pieces. I still have questions though…

  • What’s up with the side  front seam on the front of the bodice?
  • Why are the 1780s and 1790s so (seemingly) blended in the dress and what are the redingnote elements doing in it?
  • How much should the skirt poof? And how should it be supported?
  • Why does Corday’s figure in the painting lack the classic flat front from the 1780s-1790s (again, part of that seems to come again from the weird side seam)? Should I be looking for more a transition corset in the pre-Regency time period, or play up the 1780s elements and go with a corset from that time period?

On the corset note, I drew another sketch, modifying the side front seam to fit the conical silhouette, but leave the changing directions of the stripes.

charlotte corday bodice sketch

  • And the most important question: Because of the historical fusion/weirdness/confusion and my lack of proper knowledge, should I focus on recreating the dress from the painting perfectly or focus on making a historically correct version of the painting’s dress? And what does historical accuracy even mean? 1780s? 1790s? *please get me more examples*

Basically, I really need your help, historical costumers! Do you see the same historical elements that I do? Am I missing something entirely (please tell me)? Have you seen examples of the things I haven’t? What are your thoughts on the sleeves, the collar, and the shape of the bodice?

I really need your advice. I’m lost in a sea of historical fashion that I don’t really understand.  Please tell me what you’re thinking about this project (even if your thoughts are that it’s a little weird that my next big project is impersonating a murderer). Are there any references or books that you think would be invaluable for this project?

Thanks for reading through my obsessive dissection of this painting! And thanks, in advance, for all your comments 🙂

–Samantha


10 thoughts on “Charlotte Corday 18th Century (ish) Dress Recreation – Part 1

  1. I, too, am a history buff, especially when it comes down to the French Revolution. I love that you are taking inspiration for your dress from the painting… it’s absolutely gorgeous! Just last month I made my own robe à la française but it was by no means historically accurate. I pulled my inspiration from Claire’s wedding dress from the Outlander series but in deep, navy blue with white and silver brocade for the stomacher and petticoat.

    To get the structure/support under your dress, I would suggest using a bumroll or a pannier.

    I can’t wait to see how your dress turns out!

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  2. The painting you’re looking at was made in the late 19th century. The artist created an 18th century-ish dress with some 19th century elements on a late 19th century torso shape, merging two time periods. So for HA purposes, don’t try to interpret the torso shape or seam lines of the painting unless you see them in an original, unaltered 18th century example. I wouldn’t do a transitional stay either; they don’t appear to have been worn with gowns made with a natural waistline. It’s like applying a fashion from the year 2019 to clothes for 2015 – it just wouldn’t have been worn in 2015, and we have no idea what’s next in fashion so we can’t anticipate it. 🙂 For more HA, I’d do a 1780s-90s stay with a conical torso/wide bust shape, copy an extant 1790s gown, skirt pouf and all (look up fashion plates from the time, lots survive from France), and reproduce those awesome stripes from the painting so you get the same effect.
    … and BTW, I LOVE this idea! I can’t wait to see what you come up with. I made a redingote from that 1790 LACMA example, and it’s my favorite outfit ever – SO MUCH FUN to wear.

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    1. Thanks so much Amanda! That mix of 19th and 18th century fashion was really bothering me so I’m glad you saw it too! I do like the idea of taking the steps from the painting and putting them on a 1790s gown; that’s what I’ll probably end up doing 🙂 thanks for your comment

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  3. I’ll throw in my two cents… you love the dress in the painting, and it is your muse so to speak. I think it is more interesting to try to copy the dress it the painting, historical inaccuracies and all, than to change it just for HA’s sake. No matter what you do though I’m sure its going to be awesome!

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  4. Amanda hit it square on and I agree with what she said. The painting was done in 1860 – nearly 100 years after the event – and reflects the social preferences and sentiments of the times. (Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings of biblical events that were clearly set in Italian landscapes, not the Middle East.) The challenge is to decide where you want to be on the historically-accurate versus romantic-portrayal line. You could re-create the dress in the painting as closely as possible, but the historical accuracy will be off. Or you could use similar fabric and re-create a dress based on a painting, fashion plate or an extant garment from 1793. Then you’d stray from the image in the painting.

    Having said that, it all depends on what YOU want from making the dress, where you plan on wearing it, and whether comments from costuming purists bother you. Do take time pouring through French fashion plates from 1793 and thereabouts. I think you’ll be surprised how close to the painting you’ll be able to get and still be able to honor historical accuracy. Pinterest is loaded with photos of extant garments from the time. If it helps, I have two Pinterest boards loaded with photos. One is Late Georgian/Regency (https://www.pinterest.com/VictorianDaze/georgian-regency-and-a-little-bit-beyond/) and one is general 18th century (https://www.pinterest.com/VictorianDaze/18th-century-the-lovelies-and-the-everyday/).

    And don’t forget – start with the undergarments, since nothing will look good or hang correctly without the right stuff underneath. There’s lots of info about stays, petticoats, stockings and chemises available on the web and on Pinterest.

    No matter what you decide, I know it’s going to look great and I can hardly wait to see what you decide to do. Maybe this will inspire me to finally get a Late Georgian dress finished for myself. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment! It’s so helpful! I’ll definitely check out your pinterest boards! I’ve been doing more research on the 1790s and I’m still so conflicted on whether I want the dress in the painting or a HA dress. I think I’m leaning toward a more HA dress though so those resources are going to be a big help!

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