Q: Why are Princess Seams Called Princess Seams?
—Emma Weber, Chelmsford, Essex, United Kingdom
A: Melissa Heischberg, an historical costume expert (Sempstress.org), traces this classic means of shaping back several centuries:
The “princess” of the princess seam, and earlier the princess dress, was Alexandra, Princess of Wales (1844– 1925). As the crinoline gave way to the bustle in the 1870s, the popular silhouette for women morphed from very wide all around with a small waist, to a longer and more fitted front with skirt fullness concentrated behind. Around 1880, Alexandra adopted a particularly form-fitting style that hugged the torso closely and continued seamlessly over the hips. The lack of a waistline seam was a key feature of this style. Ironically, dresses of this style were fitted with a series of vertical tucks, rather than the eponymous seam we are familiar with today.
Though the style was short-lived, it ended more than 500 years of skirts being cut separately from bodices and joined at or above the waist. Before the 1500s, long-line garments with vertical fitting seams and gores were common. The Flemish master Jean Fouquet’s Madonna and Child, circa 1455 (The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium), shows a fitted bodice with a seam that runs directly over the bust point and down into the skirts. Sadly, the waistline is not visible.
But can the painting be believed? Textiles from the 1400s were recovered from Lengberg Castle in Nikolsdorf, Austria, in 2008. Four items, described as bras, demonstrate shaping seams that run vertically over the bust point. It’s odd to see what we think of as a thoroughly modern seam in a painting from the middle of the 1400s, but no stranger than a bra from the same period with a similar seam.
It is interesting to note that Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion, Fourth Edition (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) defines the “princess style” as a pattern where shape is achieved by “continuous vertical panels . . . without waistline seam.” Th is definition easily includes the trend associated with Alexandra, as well as the seam shown in Fouquet’s painting. It does raise questions about dresses described as “princess line” that include a waist seamline. These days, we tend to call any bodice with vertical shaping seams a princess-style bodice, but historically, the style was characterized by the absence of a waistline seam.
This article was originally featured in the Q&A department of Threads #206 (Jan. 2020).
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