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Getting Dressed with Ann Wass

Don't delay - grab your space at JASP today. There are still a few budget-friendly dorm accommodations available, and first-time JASPers can use discount code FIRSTJASP2023 for a 20% reduction on registration as a welcome from JASP.


This year, JASP has a very special sewing workshop. In keeping with our focus on Jane Austen's juvenilia and childhood, participants in this year's workshop will make a doll that will wear historical clothing. We caught up with workshop leader Ann Wass to discuss fashion, history, and everything in between.

What was your first historical garment?

Oh, my! When I was in high school over 50 years ago, there was a parade in St. Louis to celebrate the opening of the Spanish Pavilion. Our French teacher recruited costumed students to walk along the sidelines. I made a poor rendition of a French Empire costume using a bedsheet, a curtain, and some scrap fabric. I only got serious about Federal/Regency/Empire costume research and making in the mid-1990s.


What was it like to work at Riversdale?

Here I am in the Riversdale Grand Salon at the 2021 virtual Twelfth Night Ball.

Riversdale is a historic house museum in Riverdale Park, MD, that is largely interpreted in the Federal era. I got to do lots of different kinds of programs and exhibits and research a wide variety of topics. (However, I also had to deal with a lot of administrative paperwork.) I worked closely with our curator to interpret decorative arts of the era. Other topics I researched in depth included the lives of the labor force, enslaved and free, who lived there; the War of 1812; the American Civil War; and women’s history, including the story of Hattie Caraway (D-AR), the first woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right, who owned the house in the 1930s. I was able to bring costume history into programs, room vignettes, and exhibits from time to time.

You have also written about fashion across cultures during the Federalist time period. What drew you to the subject matter?

Fashion plate, Journal des Dames et des Modes, August 20, 1817 (author's collection)

I believe a better way to phrase this is that I have researched the relationship between women’s fashions in Federal America and those in the United Kingdom and France. A few of the elite, such as Dolley Madison, could get clothing directly from Europe. American shops advertised British and French goods for sale. And women in France and the UK sent fashion engravings cut from periodicals to friends and family in the US. By the late 1810s, subscription libraries in US cities carried the magazines themselves and I’m sure women eagerly perused them.

How would Austen have dressed as a young girl and a teen?

As a girl, Austen would have worn a frock, an ankle length dress that usually opened all the way up the back. Girls were often portrayed in white muslin, a fine cotton fabric, not to be confused with what we today call by that name. These were often accessorized with wide colored sashes, as is Miss Willoughby’s (below left), and, if the fabric was sheer, a colored underdress. However, it is likely that girls wore colored or printed linen or cotton or even wool for everyday. While the dress style changed a bit as Jane entered her teen years, she and her sister Cassandra might still be seen in muslin, like the Wood daughters (below right).

Women, too, adopted white muslin. From Queen Marie Antoinette to the Duchess of Devonshire, the fashion spread. The Lady’s Magazine wrote in 1789, “All the sex now—from fifteen to fifty upwards (I should rather say downwards) appear in their white muslin frocks with broad sashes.” White gowns would become a fashion staple for both girls and women through the early years of the 19th century.

George Romney, Miss Juliana Willoughby, 1781-83. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Francis Wheatley, Mary Margaret (Pearce) Wood and Two of her Daughters,1787. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.  [Both paintings, open access]



What is your current/most recent project?

Recreated calico frock based on the Forman diary, Nov. 4, 1828, “cut out Henny’s [Henrietta Sewall, age 8] calico frock.”

Coincidentally, it also focuses on children’s clothing. Martha Ogle Forman, mistress of the Rose Hill Plantation in northern Maryland, kept a diary for three decades. It includes many entries relating to the clothing the enslaved workers made and wore. I have been researching these for the past couple of years and am currently concentrating on the clothing of the children. There is a scarcity of visual sources, so I am supplementing documentary sources with re-creations of garments based on descriptions in diary entries. I will be presenting this research at the Costume Society of America’s annual symposium in May.

What can we expect from your workshop?

Deerfield Doll—Courtesy Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum

Participants will make a cloth doll I designed. Extant examples are scarce, but I have seen photographs of two from the US in the early 19th century, one at the Memorial Hall Museum of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, MA, and one at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in DC. Neither of these has legs—the first one ends at the waist, while the second has a tubular body.

My doll is 10 inches tall, about the size of the Deerfield one, and has a skirt-shaped lower body.

Provided materials will include the pattern, unbleached cotton fabric and cotton stuffing, and cotton yarn for hair. There should be time to make substantial progress assembling the body. Also included will be a pattern and fabric to make a white Austen era gown for the doll to wear.

One final question! If we wanted your autograph on a book you contributed to, which book should we order ahead of time? 

I contributed to two on the list offered by Jane Austen Books.

One is An Agreeable Tyrant: Fashion After the Revolution, edited by curator Alden O’Brien. This is the catalog of an exhibit mounted at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in 2018 and is chock full of photos, scaled patterns, and informative essays, including one I wrote.

I also wrote the first half of Clothing Through American History: The Federal Era through Antebellum, 1786-1860. My half is a free-standing treatment of the Federal Era, 1786-1820.


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