Folded & Moulded

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Pleating and Draping in Fashion

Riding habit, Wolmerhausen, c.1880 - 1885

Riding habit, Wolmerhausen, c.1880 - 1885

Pleating and draping are fundamental aspects of dressmaking. Alongside cutting and stitching, they are part of an essential group of skills needed for the creation of fashionable dress. Without them our clothing would be both impractical and dull, yet in the hands of imaginative designers and makers pleating and drapery techniques hold boundless possibilities.

This exhibition seeks to examine some of those ideas. It explores the techniques themselves; demystifying the methods by which various pleated and draped effects are achieved. Explanatory diagrams and real examples for handling are found throughout the gallery, and of course the garments themselves offer the greatest understanding and appreciation of such methods of construction and decoration. These important pieces have all been drawn from the Olive Matthews Collection of dress which is housed at Chertsey Museum. They exhibit a wide variety of pleating and draping styles with examples spanning over 200 years of women’s fashion history.

Understanding the methods involved in making and embellishing the garments on display is only part of the story however. We can explore beyond the practicalities of construction. Garments which exhibit these particular techniques are often infused with social, cultural and economic meanings. In order to delve into such ideas further, carefully selected garments and accessories have been grouped thematically. The concepts of wealth and status, practicality, decorative appeal and historicism are all explored. Specific pieces have been selected for each group, but some items could easily fit into two or more sections. You may wish to think about whether you might have put garments into different categories as you move through the gallery. Beyond this thematic approach, the exhibition is also designed to be enjoyed as a whole; a gateway to a greater appreciation and awareness of the body-flattering and tactile nature of cloth. 

For Appearance’s Sake: Practical Pleating and Draping

Divided skirt, c.1910 - 1920

Divided skirt, c.1910 - 1920

Although this exhibition contains some incredibly lavish and extravagant garments, pleating and draping techniques were also harnessed for practical purposes. As women’s lives became more active during the late 19th century, they required functional clothing that made such activity easier, safer and more comfortable. Garments specifically designed for physical exercise became a normal part of the female wardrobe. However, this was still a society where women’s bodies, particularly their legs, were carefully hidden from public view. Pleating and drapery were therefore employed by designers and dressmakers in order to mediate between two, sometimes conflicting, concepts: those of physical freedom and social propriety. 

This brown divided skirt makes use of inverted pleats in its clever construction. Once opened and buttoned back, a modesty panel reveals that this is in fact a pair of culottes, designed for active pursuits such as cycling. If the wearer wanted to get off her bicycle and enter a different social environment, then the front panel could be re-buttoned and she would appear to be wearing a perfectly normal skirt. The pleats fulfil two functions. They produce the fullness required for ease of movement. They also incorporate the volume of fabric needed to create a convincing skirt. Such construction techniques allowed for both comfortable cycling and non-confrontational social interaction at a time when the idea of women in trousers was still frowned upon in most everyday situations.

Riding habits were worn by wealthy women from the 1500s onwards. Always slightly masculine in style, and usually made by men’s tailors, they incorporated a skirt rather than trousers or breeches. Until the early 1900s women of status were generally expected to ride side-saddle, in keeping with ideas of modesty and elegance. Riding habits were cut with a considerable amount of extra fabric on one side of the skirt. This would be draped over the horse as well as the legs and feet of the female rider. When she dismounted, it would be necessary for the wearer to hold this excess material over one arm, producing graceful, if cumbersome folds of fabric.

Wealth, Taste and Status

Ball gown, Pierre Balmain, c.1953

Ball gown, Pierre Balmain, c.1953

Clothing is crucial to the presentation of our public selves. When it comes to social position individuals have long used dress to impart coded messages, particularly when it comes to status and taste. Since wealth is regularly connected to social position, dress can be a very effective way of showing off how much money we have, or aspire to have.

Historically such ideas were actually written into law in cultures as far back as Ancient Rome. Medieval and Tudor monarchs also recognised the power and status-giving properties of opulent clothing. They produced sumptuary legislation which sought to dictate who was permitted to wear certain styles and colours of garment. Only higher levels of the nobility were allowed to wear some expensive textiles or trimmings such as cloth of gold or particular types of fur. The very existence of this legislation offers insight into the links between social standing and dress. It also suggests that some people must have attempted to subvert established clothing conventions in order to climb the social ladder.

Whether dictated by law or otherwise, if a person was able to afford to buy quantities of expensive material, they might wish to show it off in public. It is possible to find examples of garments which, for reasons of fashion, but also wealth projection, incorporate large amounts of fabric. In order to be able to do this, the dressmaker needed to find neat and beautiful construction methods. One of the most successful ways to incorporate quantities of cloth into a garment is to increase the area which it covers. Historically this has been done by adding artificial frames such as side hoops, false rumps, bustles or crinolines, or by extending the area behind the wearer in the form of a train. However, such volumes of fabric also need to be managed. Pleating and draping offer solutions by allowing material to be tailored to fit the body in stylish and flattering ways which follow the latest trends. They also allow for the creation of further opulence in the form of additional layering and trimming; giving an air of sumptuous luxury that only money can buy.    

Decorative Pleating and Draping

Dress, Ossie Clark, c.1973 - 1974

Dress, Ossie Clark, c.1973 - 1974

Pleating and draping can be highly decorative techniques. The texture, flow and movement they bring to a garment often enhance its aesthetic qualities. The items on display here include pieces which exhibit particularly attractive examples of pleating and draping. Some have practical purposes, but they also transcend the functional; allowing the designer to use his or her imagination to explore the possibilities of the cloth.

The fashions of the 1840s made particularly good use of pleating in various forms to create elegant lines and intricate surface decoration. The wide skirts of the era featured narrow cartridge pleating which was used to gauge large amounts of material to a small waistband without bulk. The technique causes the skirt to spring out attractively from the body and the pleats form a pleasing line of regular and tightly undulating folds along the waist seam. This period also frequently sees the inclusion of another pleating technique on bodices. Wide pleats are formed at shoulder level to create the effect of a stole or pelerine over the chest. These are sometimes twisted before being caught in and stitched together just below bust level; narrowing towards a point at the centre front. 

The chiffon gowns displayed incorporate bias cutting techniques. These create softly draped, undulating folds of material which can skim the body’s contours in a very flattering way. Bias cut draping harnesses gravity to achieve graceful movement and visual interest; blurring the distinctions between the clothes and the body. This is particularly relevant to the bright pink Ossie Clark gown, which features an exuberant spiral of ruffled fabric. This would have rippled constantly with the motion of the wearer.

Strong, bold layers of knife pleats are the main decorative feature in a striking and original coat by Issey Miyake. The design emphasises broad shoulders in the style of the 1980s, yet tapers to a narrow tulip-shaped skirt. The gathering of the pleats into loops at the waist adds further interest and texture; bringing a three-dimensional quality to the usually flat appearance of knife pleats. Miyake, famous for his tightly pleated garments, has created a refreshingly different piece of outerwear which perfectly embodies the concept of decorative pleating. 

Ancient Influences

Cream silk wedding dress, 1924

Cream silk wedding dress, 1924

The pleating and draping styles seen in the garments of this section have their roots in the clothing of the distant past. In particular it is possible to spot elements from the classical dress of Ancient Greece and Rome. Although these clothes do incorporate some stylistic details from their own and other historical periods, it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly which era of fashion they actually come from. The pieces have a timelessness about them which transcends the endless innovation and obsolescence of mainstream trends. The designers who created these garments were deliberately attempting to set their pieces apart. Such clothes have the power to bestow the attribute of good taste upon the wearer, as well as suggestions of wealth, nobility and even piety.

In harnessing ancient elements of this kind, dress designers are referencing and building upon a familiar visual language of ideas within our conscious and unconscious minds. Artists have depicted classical-style draperies in paintings and sculpture in an almost unchanged way for centuries. They feature in historical and mythological works and also regularly find their way into portraiture. Artfully draped and folded cloth lends the subject or sitter an air of importance; instantly associating them with concepts of freedom, culture and civilisation. These are values that, despite some historical evidence to the contrary, we have traditionally linked with Ancient Greece and Rome.

It is no surprise that garments infused with such powerful connotations should have made their way from the lofty spheres of paintings and sculpture into the real world. Our familiarity with endless depictions of such clothes means that a dress designer only has to hint at familiar references in order to create garments which evoke a classical air. In reality, in its simplest form, Ancient Greek dress consisted of three main garments; the chiton: a chemise-like shift made up of two rectangular pieces of material, the himation: a wide rectangular cloak, and the peplos: made from one large rectangular piece of cloth folded in half to form a cylinder and then folded a second time to create an over-fold. A narrow columnar silhouette, especially when achieved through pleating, is very evocative of the chiton. Sometimes simple draping without obvious tailoring is enough to suggest classical references associated with the peplos or himation. Above all, the careful manipulation of malleable cloth is at the heart of this enduring and powerful style.

Draping and the Bias Cut

Dress, Madame Grès, c.1945

Dress, Madame Grès, c.1945

The simple act of draping part of a bodice, a skirt or a shawl produces elegant swathes of fabric; often with dramatic, sculptural and flattering results. Historically the garments of Ancient Greece and Rome were created using this method in its simplest form, and throughout the history of fashion designers have periodically attempted to mimic this effect. The 1910s to the 1930s saw this approach taken to new heights and fascinating innovations in dressmaking resulted.

The traditional method of designing and making garments involves working from an original designer’s sketch and creating a pattern. This is done by modifying an existing ‘block’ pattern and cutting flat panels of fabric. These are then stitched together along seams, pleats and darts to create a finished piece of clothing. During the 1910s a new way of creating garments was developed which could be used alone or in tandem with more traditional pattern cutting techniques. Pioneered by fashion designers such as Madame Grès and Madeleine Vionnet, but also practiced by others, this method is called ‘draping’, ‘moulage’, ‘three dimensional cutting’ or ‘working on the stand’. It involves swathing fabric around a mannequin to see how the three-dimensional body shape, in tandem with gravity, works with the textile. The designer is then able to manipulate and pin the fabric to create the design. Once smoothed, twisted, cut and tacked to produce the required style and shape, the fabric is marked up. It can then be safely removed from the mannequin so that a toile, an early version of the finished garment, and pattern may be created from it for fitting and making. If producing a one-off design with the actual draped fabric, it can be made up into the final garment.  An intuitive method of working, this approach often results in very natural, sinuous designs.

Some designers start the design process on the stand and later add more conventional elements to achieve the desired look. Grès tended to manipulate or drape large pieces of silk jersey using many pleats with minimal seaming and cutting. She often mounted this outer fabric onto a corset-like under-bodice for support. Conversely, many of Vionnet’s garments used no structural underpinnings at all and very few fastenings. This allowed the natural body shape to be revealed, emphasising comfort and ease of movement. She perfected this approach by using bias cut fabric which lent itself beautifully to the draping method. Vionnet worked with half-sized mannequins using muslin to develop her complicated and technically challenging designs. These were then scaled up into full-sized garments, often made from flowing crêpe de Chine or silk satin.

Heat Set Pleats

Delphos gown, Mariano Fortuny, c.1920 - 1930

Delphos gown, Mariano Fortuny, c.1920 - 1930

Fabrics themselves can be treated in order to retain a pleated appearance without the need for stitching to keep them in place. When pleated fabric is used to create an entire piece of clothing, it produces a versatile garment which follows the contours of the body and echoes the dress of Ancient Greece. The process normally used to achieve such pleats is as follows:

A fabric which responds well to the pleating process is selected. Silk may be used but the thermoplastic qualities of man-made fibres such as polyester ensure the retention of pleats after washing or pressure from the body. A length of fabric is placed in between a mould made up of two sections of pleated cardboard. The two mould pieces match each other perfectly with the fabric sandwiched inside them. The mould is pushed together like a concertina and then rolled up inside a protective wrapper. This cylinder is then placed into a steam chamber and heated. Once the steaming is complete the rolled mould is taken out of the chamber and left to cool down. The cooled mould may then be unrolled and the pleated fabric found inside.

Mariano Fortuny was famous for his timelessly elegant pleated silk gowns. Though he patented the process in 1909, the details of Fortuny’s pleating methods are still a mystery. There has been speculation that the silk was pleated when it was wet and that stitches held the pleats in place during the heating process. We do know that heated horizontal tubes were also used to add undulation to the already pleated fabric.