The Elizabeth Simcoe Project

The research, design and inspiration behind this recreated 1790s portrait.



2/28/20223 min read

Summer 2021.

I finished reading a copy of Elizabeth Simcoe's diary and wanted to create a project that highlighted her historical achievements and just her in general. It turned into a four-part video series on my YouTube channel (links below) available for your viewing pleasure. If you would prefer to read about the project instead, then read on.

The original portrait (left) was painted by Mary Anne Burges and is one of two known portraits of Elizabeth. This portrait, done in the miniature style was completed upon her return to England from Canada. Elizabeth Simcoe was the wife of John Graves Simcoe, who has his own storied past, but in the Canadian context, was the Governor of Upper Canada in the late 18th century. She spent six years in Upper Canada between 1791 and 1796, keeping with her a diary and a plethora of sketches depicting her travels. If you would like to see more of her art, the Archives of Ontario created a digital exhibit featuring her art organized by location (check it out here).

Creating her outfit based on this portrait took a lot of educated guesses. While beautiful, we don't see much below the waistline so determining the rest of the outfit relied heavily on contextual research of the clothing in the late 18th-century.

Elizabeth Simoe. Watercolour by Mary Anne Burges, 1799.

I stumbled upon this dress on the online collections database at the Victoria and Albert Museum and thought it represented a general style for this time period. I used this example as inspiration for my dress. The final dress was made from a blue cotton/linen blend fabric. I used this pattern as a base and modified the bib and bottom hem. The bib is slightly wider than the original pattern to allow for more aesthetic gathers, while the bottom has some pintucks. Instead of short sleeves, I used a sleeve pattern from an 18th-century jacket (another project I'm working on). These sleeves are elbow length and have matching pintucks.

Next was trying to tackle her accessories. Neck adornments in the 1890s up to the 1820s came in a wide array of designs. By looking at the portrait I gathered two things. The first was that she had a drapey white fabric known as a fichu and the second was that there was something else filling in her neckline. From the high collar around her neck, I made the choice to create a collared chemisette. In my research, I haven't yet come across another fichu-and-chemisette styling combo before, but when it came together it looked spot on. I already had a triangular fichu which I used. For the chemisette, I used the pattern from the American Duchess Guide to 18th-Century Dressmaking. The National Trust has an example from 1800 in their online collections. The small blue bow indicated to me that she had a sash, which I recreated using a length of dark blue ribbon.

For her head dressings, I searched and searched for a cap pattern that would work, but evetually settled on drafting an original pattern inspired by portraiture from the early 1800s as well as the cap patterns in the Workingwomans Guide (a handy book from 1846 on all manner of dressmaking). The result was a frothy and perky linen cap tied to my head with a removable ribbon. Finally, her iconic hat with the high crown and sloping brim. Thankfully, there are many millinery patterns available for purchase, and this particular one was made with the Ophelia Bonnet Pattern, with slight modifications on the brim for more fullness.

I had the shoes custom-made by a very talented shoemaker in Ottawa, Hubley Leatherworks. They were made based on the Latchet Shoe, a slow-heeled, flat, tie-up shoe popular in this time period. They are made from leather but have a rubber bottom for better traction in inclement weather.

The final result is what I would call out of a portrait. The photoshoot resulted in some curious conversations with fellow trail users, slightly sore feet for me, but most certainly an updated look on Elizabeth's classic portrait. If you would like to check out the video series, you can find the first part here.

The Recreated Outfit. May 2021.