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Favourite Costume Makes

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Melody Grove, Mark Rylance and Sam Crane in ‘Farinelli and The King’, designed by Jonathan Fensom. Photographed by Alastair Muir.

A Cream Embroidered Dress from ‘Farinelli and the King’.

By Jane Gonin.

My name is Jane Gonin and I have a been a freelance lady’s costume cutter and maker since 1992.

Since that time, I have worked on some wonderful productions with exciting costumes to create for great designers and talented actors to wear.

‘Farinelli and the King’ was one of those. The production and costumes originally started life in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, part of the Globe Theatre in London. The show then went into the Duke of York’s theatre in London’s West End and then between November 2017 to March 2018 it had been on stage at the Belasco Theatre in New York. In May 2018, the costumes were nominated in the best costume design category at the Tony Awards in New York.

The dress pictured in the photograph above, worn by Ms Melody Grove, (playing Queen Isabella), is one of the costumes that I have made.

The dress is based on a 1740 mantua style called a robe a l’Anglaise. Traditionally a dress of this style would have been worn over side paniers or bucket hoops. The designer, Jonathan Fensom, chose to use a bum roll to support the pleats as the dress is worn in a casual setting when the King, Queen and the court are enjoying the garden at the royal country residence.

However, the other foundation garments were based on traditional garments, cut and sewn by me. Creating these undergarments is always a fascinating and enjoyable stage because they determine the shape of the top dress and are also designed to manipulate the wearer’s figure into the fashionable style of the day. Women of the 1740’s would have worn these restrictive garments from a very early age so would be much more used to the conducting day to day living. Actors will often rehearse in the modern corset and petticoats to get used to how they can or should move. Their bodies can adjust very quickly and find that even after a week their waists have gone down in size from being laced in.

From historical references I adapted patterns from the 1740’s to shape the modern female figure in a comfortable way.

The garment closest to the skin is the chemise and in this case was made from linen. This fabric easily absorbed the wearer’s sweat and could also be easily cleaned. It is also soft and very comfortable to wear.

In the 1740’s the corset was referred to as a pair of stays. These would be the next garment to go on and were restrictive round the waist, but a support for the woman’s bust. They could be tightly laced together at the back or at the front with cord or ribbon. Often, they were laced in both places to allow for regular changes in shape or difficult figures. They were made in a stiff linen or canvas and could be covered by an outer layer of beautiful fabric, such as silk damask, or different coloured embroidery stitches by hand in floral designs.

The stays for ‘Queen Isabella’ were made in a cotton fabric called corset coutil which is stiff and to stiffen it further we used steel bones. In 1740 whalebone would have been used. Bones were also used in the stomacher, a front panel in the bodice which could also be highly decorated with embroidery, jewels for the evening or in the case of this dress, bows grading in size from top to bottom.

To support the shape of the skirt I made a bum roll from a cotton calico and kapot, which is a cotton stuffing material. A quilted petticoat is worn over this. In the 1740’s the quilted patterns of flowers, leaves, scrolls curves were hand sewn in one colour thread only. I used a pre-quilted embroidery anglaise fabric.

I then made an over skirt in cream silk grosgrain. The mantua dress was the final layer, made from an embroidered linen.

The feature of the dress that I love the most is the back. Although it is quite complicated to cut and construct, it is a very flattering outline for a woman. In this case it helps to emphasize the small waist.

It comprises of a series of pleats shaped and stitched down from the neck and shoulders to the waist at the back and sides. The pleats then gradually curve below the waist at the centre back. This back panel is cut all in one with the skirt panel and the fullness from the pleats on the bodice are left unstitched for 2.5” below the waist, forming the fullness of the skirt. The remaining skirt panels which are cut straight are flat pleated then attracted to the bodice at a shaped waist seam.

My admiration of this style was such that I incorporated it as part of a wedding dress ensemble, (see below). I created an over dress in gold silk organza devore and used the back shaping from a robe a l’Anglaise dress for the back shaping. This proved very effective and the dress got lots of compliments.

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