Dressing Henrietta Howard

Published : 03 Aug 2016

The latest costume has been made for those playing Henrietta Howard in her later years – late 1790’s. Henrietta was a stylish lady and the Diggers interpretation group asked for a design that would reflect this. Kate, sewing circle volunteer, explains more...

The dress has been a challenge for us in several ways.  Firstly, design. The style of top here is called a ‘pet-en-l’air’ and is a shortened version of a popular garment at the time – the sack back dress. The skirt is straight forward and is simply gathered onto a band.

One of Henrietta's gowns produced by the sewing volunteers
One of Henrietta's gowns produced by the sewing volunteers
One of Henrietta's gowns produced by the sewing volunteers

The pattern

With previous costumes we have adapted various patterns, but for this costume we used a pattern from one of Janet‘s books. The author studied actual garments and drew patterns from them, which means that the designs and the sewing techniques are much more authentic. There was a certain amount of trial and error as we had to size up the designs from diagrams in the book to life size! 

Watteau pleats

The pet-en-l’air is an elegant affair, the most striking feature being the numerous layered pleats which hang loosely from the shoulders. These are sometimes called ‘Watteau pleats’ as the French painter had a fascination for them and they can often be seen in his paintings. They are still used today by some designers – wedding dress designs by Vivienne Westwood show the impact they can provide. The other interesting design feature can’t be immediately seen; the lining is constructed using an ingenious but simple lacing device down the back so that the size of the garment can be adjusted. For this reason, the garment was often chosen during pregnancy.

The fabric

Finding suitable fabric was also a challenge but in the end we struck lucky and came upon a beautiful piece of embroidered taffeta – the end of the roll, so vastly reduced! The fabric is striped with rows of embroidered flowers on a primrose yellow background, interspersed with rows of gathered ribbon. The contrasting silk taffeta skirt (also a sale bargain) has a tiny motif embroidered on it.


On the subject of sewing techniques, we have obviously used modern methods where possible, both for speed and to make a more robust garment, but there is a lot of hand sewing on parts of the garment that can be seen. Perhaps that accounts for how long it took us to make the costume!

Enjoy the exhibition, running until the end of October.

The costume for Sir Henry Hobart alongside his portrait

Threads of time 

Have you ever wondered who makes the beautiful costumes the diggers wear or how the cushion covers get upholstered? Meet our volunteer sewing ladies.