Growing up in the 90s, American Girl dolls were probably one of the most coveted toys for girls. My parents rarely denied us anything and we have been very fortunate my whole life--but for some unknown reason, my parents never budged on American Girl dolls. I envied all of my friends who had them and contented myself with poring over the beautiful catalogs. I did have a Bitty Baby doll (and lots of adorable oufits for her), also by the Pleasant Company, but she wasn't a historical doll, which I wanted so badly. Like many historical costumers and reenactors, I credit the American Girl line of historical dolls with encouraging my love of historical clothing and history in general.
Samantha was my favorite American Girl for a while, since we share a name and have brown hair and eyes. But Felicity eventually supplanted her. I mean, she has the best clothes! And a horse! It doesn't get much better than that. In 2013 for my 22nd birthday, my parents surprised me with Felicity and all of her outfits, which my mom had been collecting on Ebay. That was the inspiration I needed to finally make the best American Girl dress of all: Felicity's brilliant blue Christmas gown. This was also after my internship at the millinery shop, so I felt more confident in my 18th century mantuamaking skills.
So almost three years ago I began the hardest part of making my own version of Felicity's Christmas gown: sourcing the perfect color fabric. This went on for at least a year. I bought swatches from Thailand and India that took ages to arrive, and dragged my parents through the LA garment district when I came home to visit. Of course when you are looking for a very specific shade of fabric, you won't find it! At some point (I honestly can't remember how long it took me to find the fabric) I saw a post on the Renaissance Fabrics Facebook page that highlighted their "sapphire" blue silk taffeta and--bam--that was it! I will say that while it is not the same "flat" blue of the doll's polyester fabric, I think the color of this is perfect for reimagining the doll dress as an actual 18th century garment. It has much more depth to it, which I think is appropriate! It sort of changes color depending on if you are inside or outside and if you are in the sun or in the shade!
As for the design, I knew I wanted to make it as historically accurate to the early 1770s (1770-1775) as possible while being as true to the source material as possible. This proved to actually be quite difficult, since the doll dress draws on a few different decades in its design! So compromises were made. I also knew that I wanted to make a sack back gown because I had never made one before and it seemed appropriate for a dress as special as Felicity's Christmas gown. While Felicity as a nine year old girl would not have worn one, I didn't set out to make a historically accurate child's dress, as that would be rather strange on adult me! I have to say that I now LOVE sack back gowns and I want all of my new 18th century gowns to be sack backs! They are just the epitome of elegance...
1. Oh dear... The "pinner" cap... The thing about that style of cap is that it is woefully out of date for 1774. As in, a good 50 years out of date, as you can see from this example. However, there are frothy, silly, minimal-coverage caps in the early 70s that perch on top of the hair like this one. It's just nothing like the flat, lace pancake-on-your-head that they gave poor Felicity. So for wearing with my gown, I just used my silk gauze cap trimmed with the blue silk. I hope I can make an early-70s-specific pouf to wear with this in the future, perhaps for 12th Night!
2. In the book, the pearl that Felicity wears is one of her mother's earrings that her mother gives her right before the dance lesson at the Governor's Palace. Since I couldn't document an arrangement quite like Felicity's, I went with a more typical pearl necklace with a pearl drop in the center. I figured that grown-up Felicity could have had her mother's earring made into a necklace for her as a memento of the special evening. :) My necklace was made by K. Walters.
3. The lace stomacher, which I find more attractive than the pink ribbon stomacher, was a particularly difficult component to make appropriate for the 1770s... The doll stomacher is the blue "silk" with rows of white lace on top of it. In searching primary sources, I was able to find one example of a stomacher in a similar style...but it was from 1760! So, again, technically out of date for 1774. There's this fantastic portrait of Marie Antoinette, but I was unable to find a high enough resolution to see what the heck is going on with her stomacher! The closest I could get to a lace trimmed stomacher in the 1770s is this 1772 portrait which has puffs or pleats of lace on the stomacher. As I agonized over what style to go with, Nicole reminded me that I could make more than one stomacher! A Felicity-accurate stomacher and a historically accurate stomacher. So the current stomacher is the Felicity-accurate stomacher, and a purely historically-accurate stomacher will come in the future, probably like the 1772 portrait.
4. Many sack gowns from the 1770s have the flounces at the elbow with fine white ruffles underneath. But the doll dress has a gathered cuff. I toyed with the idea of doing the flounces because I was already deviating from the doll dress by doing a sack. However there were plenty of examples of sack gowns with gathered or pleated cuffs, so I began to reconsider. My only hesitation was that I couldn't nail down an exact date for the sack gowns with cuffs...until this 1775 portrait! Mrs. Izard is wearing a blue (!) sack gown with cuffs (!) surmounted by a box pleated row of trim. Perfect. :)
5. The doll dress has satin ribbon in knife pleats down either side of the "robings" and skirts. I think this was a choice made because of the small scale, since hemming a strip of fabric at that size would have been ridiculous! I decided to use self-fabric trim for my gown since that is extremely common on 18th century gowns. I was worried that plain pleated fabric trim on this gown would be kind of boring, so I began an arduous search for appropriate fringe trim that I could finish the edges of the fabric with. Yes, this was deviating from the doll dress but I really wanted some more visual interest to the gown. After many months of searching, I finally scored some vintage trim that I dyed to match the fabric. Another deviation from the doll dress was to put trim on the petticoat. It was just painfully boring without anything on it! And it seemed really strange to have absolutely nothing on the petticoat of a gown that was supposed to be for a special occasion.
Phew! That was a lot of writing! Now for the part I know you're actually interested in--the pictures! These were taken at the Governor's Palace at Colonial Williamsburg, exactly where Felicity would have worn her gown. Colonial Williamsburg had the brilliant idea to bring back the Felicity teas that they used to have in the 90s. I snapped up a ticket as soon as I could and I'm so glad I did. The tea was absoutely lovely and it was incredible to see how many little girls still love Felicity and American Girl dolls. The tea sold out so fast that they added three more seatings! I hope CW got the message that this is a popular (and profitable) event and will have more Felicity teas in the future. It was the perfect occasion to dress up and finally get proper pictures of a project that has taken me so long to work on and is so dear to my heart.
Love this project! I'm not a fan of slavish reproductions of things. I love seeing how people make things work for themselves. Beautiful fabric too, and I love that it's from Ren Fabrics!
I was just old enough to have missed the whole American Girl thing, though I read the books. As a mom now I wish they still had their strong historic focus.
I first heard of American Girl dolls from my LJ friends. I guess they weren't a big thing in Canada. They are so cool, though! And I love your Felicity gown! It's beautiful. And it's so fascinating to see all your research and the decision-making process.
Amazing job! My mom made me a (polyester Halloween) Felicity gown when I was about 8 or so. I still have it, even though it's very badly discolored at this point, the cheap fabric having turned mostly dull purple. I just can't bear to get rid of it! Yours is just magical.