I get asked about the guards on German dresses with a fair amount of regularity. I distinctly remember the good gentle at Gulf Wars who saw me from a distance in a German dress with a double guards at the bottom and yelled out, “Love your dress! How did you do your guards?”
First, what are guards? Guards are the strips of fabric seen at the edges of a dress, including the neckline, the bodice, and the hem. They aren’t necessarily placed right at the edge, but they do run parallel to the edge. Typically guards are a contrasting color. Sometimes guards are more expensive fabrics, such as damasks and cloths of gold, and in this case they serve a more decorative purpose. We also see guards that are made of less expensive fabrics, usually at the very bottom of a hem, and these serve to protect the gown from weather, dirt, and the ground.
I should note that “guard” is a modern term. German tailors in the 16th century would probably have called this verpräm or verprämt, which I’m finding difficult to translate — possibly “suture” or “barricade.” I found the use of verpräm on page 36 of the Leonfeldner Schnittbuch, a 1590 tailor’s book.
But, back to the questions — how do I cut out dress guards? Are they straight or shaped?
The answer lies in the shape of your base fabric. If it is curved, cut your guards to shape. If it is straight or mostly straight, cut your guards straight.
But, one might ask, would cutting to shape be terribly wasteful? Our ancestors were very economical with fabric and surely would have cut their fabric straight, would they not?
You have only to try to attach a straight guard to a curve to understand that is just doesn’t work, wasteful or not. You’ll get wrinkles, puckering, and pulling on your dress if you try. (A very slight curve can be done with straight fabric cut on the bias, however.) And cutting to shape doesn’t have to be wasteful if you separate your curves into sections. For example, let’s look at the Queen Mary of Habsburg dress in the Hungarian National Museum, the only extant woman’s dress from the region and time period (1475-1500). Here are two good photos by Taryn East of the guarding at the curved neckline of Mary’s gown:
You can clearly see a seam just below the shoulder in the photo above. From the seam down to the waist, the fabric’s grain is parallel with the guard’s edges, meaning it was cut straight.
In the photo above, you can see the the fabric’s grain does not follow the curve, meaning it was cut to shape.
So Mary’s guards were cut in three sections: two straight sections (along the opening of her bodice) and one curved section (along the neckline from shoulder to shoulder). That’s not really so much wasted fabric when we look at it like this.
If you’re wondering how the guard is attached at the neckline/bodice edge, here’s a close-up photo:
You can clearly see the threads at the edge that hold down the guard edge. It looks like a widely spaced overcast stitch to me. This is done after attaching the guard at the neckline edge (sew right side of guard to wrong side of fabric, clip the curves, flip the guard out to the right side, fold the guard edge under, and sew down). I plan to do a tutorial showing how this is done.
There’s much more we could talk about when it comes to guards, such as backing a lightweight guard material with a heavier material, including a non-stretchy cord at the neckline under the guard when your gown has some stretch, whether or not to put guards on top of the skirt fabric at the hemline, whether to cut on the bias or not. But these can wait for another day. Ask me if you want to know! 🙂