I sat down a few weeks ago and signed up for several events this summer, including Costume College (CA) and Corsets & Cravats (SC). I’ll be making something for the latter later, but I managed to snag a Fantasy Tea ticket for CoCo and thus have been planning an outfit.
The theme is Victorian fancy dress (more specifically, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee costume ball, which took place in 1897). I spent a while looking through galleries of fancy dress designs (and the excellent Fancy Dresses Described, an 1896 publication). I’m still not quite over my 1894 dress, so I looked for earlier designs and eventually landed upon this image from 1872, at right:
While the feather duster costume is pretty hilarious, I rather like that the rainbow dress comes with its own clouds and rain! It also appears to be fairly simple to construct, which is great for me – I already have too many dresses to make this summer.
I did some preliminary research just to confirm the shortened hems, and found this 1890s dress from the Manchester City Galleries, below:
I didn’t want this to become an all-consuming project that I would stress over, so I started off easy by buying some cheaper poly matte satins in the right colors, as well as the Truly Victorian 1860s ballgown bodice. (I had quite a bit of trouble with the ‘custom’ bodice sizing last time, so I think that I may simply cut a straight size for this and see how it does.) I also made a sketch to determine proportions and measurements (i.e. apron should be ~knee length; stripes should end up ~1.5″ wide…)
The original design probably was meant to be made in silk duchesse satin, but for a low budget, this works fine! It’s just a bit lighter.
I draped the apron front first, as I hadn’t received my fabric yet. It took a few tries, since I hadn’t taken into account that the fabric needed to go all the way around to almost center back, instead of just halfway to the sides. (First attempt at left…)
I ended up with the arrangement below, and now I’m just waiting on the fabric. I bought grey-to-blue gradient tulle for the ‘clouds’, but if it ends up looking bad then I’ll switch back to silver satin. (Or maybe satin with an overlay of tulle? I would have liked ombre chiffon – which I actually own two yards of in the perfect colors! – but I couldn’t find any online, and mine is up in Providence instead of here with me.)
I think I’m going to leave the tails as is, and they’ll provide a little bit more ‘oomph’ to the bustle. (And then I can put it on a ribbon and just tie it around my waist under the bodice. Probably not period, but hey, neither is polyester.)
Ordinarily, I would have bought or referenced a pattern for the base skirt, as by 1870, skirts had become gored or shaped at the front. But upon a closer look at the design, I realized that the horizontal stripes necessitated a completely rectangular pattern (at least from the hem up).
This meant sewing it as one big rectangle and then leveling it off at the waist in the same way as an 18th century petticoat. I hopped back onto Pinterest to see if I could confirm this with any extant striped garments, and found the 1875 pink dress at left, which seemed to confirm this hypothesis (i.e., the stripes don’t meet at angled seams, but continue unbroken all the way around the side).
So I measured off from the top of the crinoline down to about shin length, deciding that the absolute longest it should be was 35″. I cut out two strips from selvedge to selvedge out of each fabric (amounting to about 120″ in each strip) and serged everything before sewing it all together (and ironing between each strip). The eight strips (including one in silver at the bottom) amounted to about 12″, so I cut out two big silver rectangles, 25″ x 60″ each, to sew on top to finish out the full length.
Unsurprisingly, it was too long! I went ahead and figured out the pleating anyway. I shifted most of the fabric to the back, as fitting for 1870s skirts, with large box pleats at CF & CB and the rest in knife pleats toward the side waists.
Once pleated flat to the waist, I put it on the dressform over all the support undergarments and pulled the sides and front up until it seemed level. I pinned, cut, and sewed, and then put it back on the form: nope, too long in front still. I re-pinned the pleats lower (image at right; you can see the shaped back waist edge now) and took about 3″ more off the front. It’s still not perfect, but it’s pretty close.
And then my shoes arrived! I scored a vintage pair of purple satin Bonwit Teller heels, and after some research I think they’re late 60s or early 70s. Good condition and only a little tight at the toe (and a little pointy for this era, but darn close otherwise)! They match the dress perfectly. I’ll suffer for my art.
I mounted the skirt to a waistband and sewed in the closures; the last step for this will be to face the hem. I’m thinking about weighting it, at least at the front, because the stripes ended up giving the satin quite a bit of body. That’s fine at the back (really, it’s not bad all around), but it would be nice to have a bit more flatness at the front.
Anyway, I tried my apron toile back on over it at this step, and it covers my stripes in the same proportion as the original design image, so I think I did pretty well!
Back to all silver: Bodice toile! I was right – cutting out a straight size (E) in Truly Victorian works far better for me than the “measurement by measurement” method that they tout. I’ve heard good things about it from others, but for some reason it just doesn’t work for me. Anyway, this fit almost perfectly from the get-go.
Something that really bothered me about my 1885 gown was that the front of the bodice is quite U or V shaped instead of concave, which the TV patterns seem to encourage. I’m planning to take even more off of this one when I sew it, but you can see the difference in the picture on the left. (Left side is the original pattern shape; right side is a more accurate shape for the era.) I’m also taking a bunch off of the straps, as the rainbow design looks very off-shoulder. There will be sleeves and a bertha eventually though, so I’m not super concerned.
I chose not to flatline the silver satin, which…might have been a bad idea, but we’ll see where it goes. I added the sleeves and lining, pleating towards the back at the armscye and towards the front at the cuff – that should give the center puff a bit more structure.
I ended up sewing the lining and fashion fabric together the modern way at the bottom, because I really really wanted the point to turn out properly this time. I always have trouble turning under sharp points, and it was easier this way. It’s not period (and I can’t put piping in it, this way) but by golly it worked.
Finally! The shape of my dreams. (The top and sides of the lining are stitched in the proper way, and look better for it.)
At this point, I can see the difference that the lack of flatlining makes, but it’s not too tragic. This whole dress is really a ‘just for fun’ project, so in light of that – I think it’s going rather well.
I have to bind the sleeves soon, but the next step will be to hand-sew the eyelets. I’m contemplating making them rainbow…
Okay, I lied. I picked up the bertha instead. I had hoped to do the pleating in bias strips, as shown nicely by Koshka the Cat, but…it didn’t work too well. My main issue is that this isn’t a classic 50s/60s pleated bertha, but instead one with much wider stripes. The design only uses three colors on the front, so I had to cut my strips about 3″ wide (not including the turnover), and even on the bias it just wasn’t working.
I probably could have made it work with some effort (in retrospect, I think I should have simply made smaller strips and added in the rest of the colors – having only green/yellow/pink loses some of the rainbow concept, and I think the design may have been limited by its tiny space…my repro lost something along the way).
I ended up patterning out the shapes instead by cutting apart the original piece. (You can see how I altered it from the original TV pattern by lowering the neckline towards the sleeve.) This ended up working well.
For the lining piece, I cut out the same shape in silver, but also cut out some interfacing and fused it on. The satin’s quite wiggly, so hopefully this will stabilize it a bit.
<< a few days later… >>
I caved. The bertha came out cleanly, but it really lost something when I decided to stick to the three colors, so I sat down and remade it with everything but the dark green.
I cut bias strips, folded them in half lengthwise, sewed the pairs at a V angle to accommodate the center front, and then stitched them down starting with the blue. (And I bias taped off the interfaced lining for cleanliness.) It looks 100% better!
I wasn’t paying enough attention to the spacing at the shoulder ends, so the final widths turned out different, but I’ll add a little decoration there to cover it up. I’ll do better next time!
I made some more silver bias tape for the bottom edges, and turned them under as small as possible. Repeat x2 for the back…
Whew. So much more satisfying!
I received my apron fabric in the mail and tested it out today… (This is draped haphazardly just to see what the transparency will look like.)
I’m not 100% sure that I want to use this still; the drawing is just silver, after all. But I feel like my silver poly is a bit flat, and could benefit from an ombre stormcloud apron. Maybe. (I asked for the version without the pearls, but it took so long to arrive that I’m stuck with this now.)
I’ll cut both out and see where it goes.
In other news, I did find an extant 1871 gown with a bertha and a pointed bodice, which makes me feel better. (Most early 1870s bodices are short-waisted with a flat waistline, and berthas were primarily popular in the 1840s-50s; they’re quite rare on 70s gowns. In retrospect, I think I made my gown bodice too long, but in the design it does go past the waist, so…? Who knows. Maybe it’s wonky because it’s fancy dress. Maybe the Germans didn’t like flat bodices. Could be any number of things. It’s the little things that are bothering me at this point; the design doesn’t have any lace at the sleeves, or trim on the apron, which are pretty much essential to the actual dresses. But I don’t want to make it up and do it badly! What a condundrum. (For now, I’m simply leaving everything plain.)
I put everything aside for a week or two in order to finish my June projects and then came back to the apron with fresh eyes. Or newly confused eyes. The more I try to figure out how this can be done accurately, the more I realize how weird this design is. If anyone can link me to an image of a separate front-apron and how it fastens, I’d be grateful! As it is, I went modern, neatly trimming the excess and binding it off with bias tape. I recall treating the apron and underskirt as one for my 1894 dress, but was that really the case in the 70s and 80s too?? Anyway.
I forgot about my tulle at this point. Unbelievable. I think the plain silver is a bit boring, but I will be adding the ‘raindrops’ before the end, so that should spruce it up a bit. Still not sure if the beads will get sewn to the apron or to hang from the bodice, though.
I finally remembered my tulle, just in time to realize that I totally did not have enough silver fabric for the back bustle. I also have no idea what that draping is on the design, so I threw it all on the skirt and pinned it up. Y/y? n? I’ll work on it. (I do like this fabric at back, though!)
My next step was to get the bodice wearable. I finally sealed off the sleeves with some bias tape (after adding a 2″ strip to lengthen the lining and thus the entire sleeve), and then started the eyelets. I’ve been unable to find a gown where the eyelet colors vary, but at this point I’m running with the theme. I had to go to the store and find a few more in-between colors, but I’m pretty satisfied with the result. I have to keep in mind that the top half is going to be covered with bertha anyway, sigh.
I picked everything back up the next day and started easy – spent an hour hemming the apron, and then grabbed some linen and whipped up a really simple petticoat. It works perfectly to disguise the hoop wires, and is just a few inches shorter than the skirt.
I went back to the bustle and arranged it to somewhat look like a butterfly bow, I guess? The design image really just looks like a pile of fabric, so I have to admit that I gave up a little. I’ve decided that this dress is “1870s does fake 1870s”. In that vein, I sewed the bustle onto a strip of heavy interfacing covered in satin and then gave it ribbons so that I can just tie it on.
SO. It was getting late by this point, and I wanted to try everything on. (Forgive the chemise.) It just fits – I think I may have to make a new corset for this that I can lace tighter, or maybe wear my 1880s one.
Things I’m unhappy with:
- tightness (mixed with no flatlining, the bodice has wrinkles, ugh)
- — the bodice also collapses a bit on side back, probably due to the bulk of the various skirt bits. Ugh.
- strap looseness?? might just be how I cut them
- I was trying to be so precise about fit, and I forgot that the chest didn’t need to be quite as perfectly tight as the waist. It makes it look a bit flat, sadly. Fortunately:
I haven’t done any finishing on the bertha yet, so once that’s on, it will not only spice up the bodice but also cover that flatness! Bless.
…I am so bad at turning a perfectly fitted toile into a perfectly fitted bodice. Next time ??? ?
Anyway. I finished off the bertha edges with more silver bias tape, and then stitched it all together and tacked the pieces to the bodice. They should help keep the shoulders up a bit!
The shoulder areas are a little bit uneven. I had originally planned to straight up cover them – possibly with fabric raindrops or clouds – but they actually look pretty neat as is, so I’m leaving them for now.
It looks so cheerful now! I love the side view – so graceful!
The last touches involved several hours of beading and trim-making. I found some thin silver chain, but no jump rings thin and large enough to fit through my beads, so I had to make my own jump ring twists with wire. Took forever! I arranged them in staggered fashion falling from the edge of the bodice, and then stitched the topmost loops to the inner edge.
The last step was to handsew some clear glass raindrops to the edge of the apron. The drops all over the apron and bustle in the original design are quite elongated, and I wish I could have found matching beads, but those that matched were the hand-blown glass types that were several dollars per bead. Too cost prohibitive!
The last pieces of the ensemble are the headband, fan, and jewelry, which I got some help with. I mixed colors in fabric paint and acrylics to be as close as possible to the satin – these were taken in bad lighting, but hopefully you get the idea! The sun will be dangling from a clear string under the rainbow (and the rainbow needs to get some wire support and be glued to the clips).
Final dress, and detail shot:
Overall, this took about 40 hours and $90 in materials. I went as cheap as I could for less stress, and I think it turned out really nicely! I can’t wait to debut it at the Fantasy Tea.