Hello hello, and welcome to my post-Costume College report! I haven’t sewn much this year (by my standards), and in the run-up to CoCo I was feeling the pressure to create something new – a showstopper for gala night, but also something that I could really flex my skills with. The kicker: it had to be finished in less than six weeks.
But let me back up a bit, first. I actually started planning a CoCo outfit many months ago:
I wanted a gorgeous 1870s dinner dress, somewhat along the lines of this ensemble from the KSUM. I purchased some luxurious satin in silver and navy blue and got right to work, only to quickly become extremely dissatisfied with my progress and the result. The underskirt sat on my dressform for a few months before I gave in and trashed it, as the fabric was all wrong (too heavy), and I had lost the motivation.
But I had already made the undergarments, and somewhere in that panicked mix of months I had wound up with 9 very cheap yards of a gold poly peau de soie. I had also saved a really cute evening gown fashion plate to my Pinterest board around the same time, with the distant hope that I might someday get around to making it….and well, now was the time.
It was simple enough in construction (oh, the hubris) that I thought I’d be able to get it done in time – basic shapes, some ruffles, limited trim, you know the drill. What really attracted me were three things:
- The color contrast. Not only did I spend a good chunk of last year conserving an 1850s gown of the same colors, but I had recently seen @janefoxcostumes’ new yellow and black Natural Form gown in person, and was absolutely in love with it. Thanks, Britney! You are partially to blame for this, hah;
- The clean lines (aside from the apron of ruffles) – I could tell how to create it without too much fuss;
- The very short waist and round bust of early 1870s silhouettes. It had been a while since I got to pattern around cleavage, and I wanted to air it out! This would be a good challenge to see whether I could nail that very particular silhouette.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let’s go over the undergarments, real quick…
I made a petticoat and a crinolette suitable to the period with help of Prior Attire’s book. Unfortunately, it was an extremely frustrating process, and due to the seeming rarity of people who have either used those patterns or made early 70s crinolettes themselves, I wasn’t able to get outside help. (Pattern pieces weren’t lining up or working out – that sort of thing.) My poor crinolette ended up a bit more patchwork than I had anticipated, and the finished upper bustle tends to push beyond the seams meant to hold it in place. But I got it working in the end, and these were the final products:
(The crinolette, which ended up oddly short, is missing its middle bone in this photo.)
As usual, I used 1/4″ steel hoop boning, and it worked great. As you may imagine, the full crinolette did not fit in my suitcase even when collapsed – I ended up removing the lowest two tiers and re-inserting them in the hotel room! I also quite literally pushed back on the misbehaving upper bustle by shoving a great old bum pad underneath it. Sigh.
So – on to the actual gown. I like to tackle easy things first, so I whipped up the underskirt using Black Snail Patterns’ 1870s underskirt, found both here and here. (They’re the same pattern; the difference in era lies in how you pleat the fabric at the waist.) It was almost not large enough for the crinolette, which measures about 100″ at the hem! But I had used the Truly Victorian 1870s underskirt pattern for that ill-fated dinner dress previously, and knew that it was even smaller. So on I went. Almost every piece of this gown is flatlined to a stiff blue cotton, which required careful hand-basting on every individual piece. I ended up sitting on the floor blazing through the large skirt pieces, so this is the only image I have, and of course it doesn’t even show my stitching. Sigh.
I serged everything after I flatlined it – you can already tell from the poly satin and the blue cotton that I’m not entirely accurate here. But I was aiming for accuracy in other areas of construction that were more important to me (like the bodice), and working on the assumption that I will one day sell this to someone who won’t particularly want to pay for raw seams.
I cartridge pleated the back of the skirt (by eye – I like to live dangerously) and seamed it all together and on to a waistband. This project was already going leagues better than the dinner dress! I was enjoying working with the creamy yellow satin (bought here) and the light, stiff cotton (an ebay purchase years ago). The satin had some stretch, but flatlining it eliminated that issue.
Once that was done, I started on the bodice with the help of @ashleyyea. I used TV 442, the 1860s bodice, and pretty much chopped it into unrecognizability! I lowered the bustline to about an inch above my corset (a mistake, as you will see later) and we chopped it off in a straight line about an inch below the waist, ostensibly so that my skirt could go over it and it wouldn’t gap. (Also a mistake – it added too much bulk, and I had to shorten the bodice later to wear it over the skirt. Ah, well, it was a good thought!)
I went back to the apron and bustle once I got back home. For the former, I mocked up the shape and then created a flat base piece upon which to stack the ruffles. There was a lot of anxiety at this point about lengths and proportions – you’ll notice the lady in the fashion plate is about 75% legs, and also that I am very much not. I was hoping to get the lowest ruffle to ever-so-slightly cover the top bit of large underskirt ruffle, and ended up having to make that lowest apron ruffle several inches longer than its compatriots in order to reach. Oops.
The bustle was easier to construct, but significantly more frustrating in design. I’ve not yet gotten the hang of knowing what bits need to be pleated where to get it to hang right, and ended up tacking in two large pleats at the sides. (This was changed later, once I saw how it was working with the side pieces.) But the biggest issue was that I realized how unbalanced the whole thing was.
Giant ruffles in the front, reaching quite low, and then a simple, high little butt of fabric in the back? Ew. Thanks, fashion plate! I decided to fight with the proportions later – possibly some sort of extra bustle decoration – and continued with the bodice.
As usual, everything was carefully flatlined and then seamed together. I then took a cue from extants and encased my boning before herringboning it to the seams, and hiding the ends in the piping overlap. I piped the top and bottom seams, as seen in extants, and then used very tiny cable ties at the back eyelets in order to mimic the beautiful narrow whalebone look of that 1850s bodice I mentioned…
I attempted my tiniest eyelets yet on this baby – I wanted to make my historical forebears proud. I’m pretty happy with how they came out, but there’s always room for improvement. I used pearl cotton thread (I’ll never forget my first historical costuming mentor Old England Grown New mentioning that offhand – what a tip!!); unlike floss, it’s twisted, and makes for much easier, cleaner stitching. The result….
After I figured out the bodice fit and basic construction, I whipped up a pair of straps. They received eyelets at the ends because they attach like stays do – I had trouble with my rainbow dress strap lengths last year, and thought that I might as well do this because you can’t see the attachment point in the fashion plate anyway.
Aaaand then I had to make life harder for myself and hand-braid a lacing cord. (Nothing else was the right color!) I needed to be able to get in and out of this back-lacing bodice on my own, which meant being able to leave the lace in while the bodice was wide enough to shimmy in and out of.
Which necessitated approximately 12 feet of braid. I do not recommend this experience.
On to the next topic! I pulled out the twenty-some yards of velvet that I had ordered from AdelineMercantile on Etsy (her Swiss Velvet ribbon; it’s absolutely gorgeous, and it doesn’t fray or feel plasticky like the Jo-Ann’s velvet ribbon does).
I ordered several widths, according to what I saw on the fashion plate – 3″ for the skirt ruffle, 2″ for the bodice and side pieces, 1.5″ for the belt, and about 15 yards of 1/8″ for borders on everything. (My poor hands.)
I had some brief difficulty deciding whether to stay true to the fashion plate and create a straight line of velvet across the chest, or to conform to the slight curvature I had given my bodice in order to contain my chest properly. The curvature won out, and I’m very glad it did. Straight looked ridiculous!
I applied the 3″ and 1/8″ sections to the skirt ruffle around the same time as I was doing the bodice since I wanted to get the biggest chunks out of the way. Of course, that necessitated actually finishing the ruffle, so…here you go.
(I took no pictures between these stages. Oops.)
I was quite worried that with the shortness of the crinolette, the ruffle would fall inward a bit, so the ruffle was also flatlined with cotton for body. It ended up being the heaviest part of the ensemble.
Anyway, I stitched the velvet to the bodice, and then – after another try on – realized I was having some spillage issues. (No pictures – it wasn’t graphic, just embarrassing. Hah.) So I manufactured a cute little retaining wall out of a yard of antique bobbinet.
Much like this one from the Met, at left.
I pleated its lower edge to a 1/4″ linen tape and then threaded a thread through the top to pull it in and conform to my chest. I ended up with a serviceable little lace bit that I thought looked quite handsome!
I also figured out what I wanted to do with the rosettes at her bust – I made a trip to Michael’s and picked up some florals, which I then massacred and stitched onto a fancy little velvet mishmash. (Cut velvet into strips – stitch ends together so it makes a circle – find halves and stitch them to each other – and then place 5-6 versions of this onto each other evenly and stitch together.) I made them detachable from the straps with little lingerie clips.
I’d also put the lace onto the bodice at this point.
I mocked up the side pieces and the fancy bustle belt after that – with less than a week until CoCo at this point, I was feeling the crunch! They go under the apron and up for a few inches, at which point I tacked them down. More velvet was applied. One of the side pieces is permanently stitched in, but I had to make the other one removable so I could actually get the whole layer on and off, since the apron and bustle are stitched together. I ended up with a rather demonic assortment of snaps – don’t ask. I’d reeeaaally like to know how the artist thought that was going to work…
I had been dreading the bustle belt (basque belt?) since I needed to design it myself. It had to balance out the horrid fluffy apron, but it also needed to look really cute! I took cues from extant dresses and eventually came up with this:
Yeah, sorry, I wasn’t taking a lot of progress pictures at this point! It’s a pleated half-circle-ish-shape under a bow with two sets of tails. Each piece is bag-lined instead of flat-lined, but very carefully so that there was more yellow than black lining . I wanted the back to look very finished, if something was to flip while I moved. They all got the 1/8″ velvet handstitching treatment along with the lace, also handstitched.
I had a problem come up in the middle of all this, though – I ran out of lace. I had five yards of the cute little scalloped stuff, and I was only missing about 2″ to complete the bustle. I repositioned and thought, “Hey, it might not even matter,” but boredom got the better of me and I wandered off into the kitchen to see if I could dye a substitute polyester lace with tea.
It was a polar white, but otherwise not a terrible match. Surprisingly, it worked brilliantly, and with minimal effort. I heated up a couple bags of black British tea in a tiny boiling pot, dipped the lace in for an extremely brief amount of time, and then immersed it in a little bath of ice water and vinegar to rinse and set.
I had about a day and a half left to finish at this point, and was finally feeling pretty good about the whole thing. (Not discussed: the two hours of painful alterations to the bodice once I realized that the waist was too thick…) All I had left were the accessories, hairstyle, and a last line of 1/8″ velvet all around the skirt ruffle (approx. 110″).
So of course I attacked the accessories first. I whipped up a hairpiece with my leftover velvet (that’s a lie, I ran out and had to go to Jo-Ann’s and make do with their stock, it was horrible) and newly dyed lace. And a few more flowers.
I stitched the rest of my lace to each side of my yard of velvet and then cut it into thirds. With each piece, I turned over the edges by about 1.5″ and then gathered them by hand. Once stacked, they created an interesting floral…thing. Hey, it worked. I stitched the white roses on top after that, and whipped the whole thing onto a tortoiseshell comb.
My test of the hair involved braiding a hunk of kanekalon in the dirtiest blonde I could find and just arranging the whole thing on top of my head. (This stuff. I used the silver last year, since my hair was still pretty white, but I’ve let it grow in since.) It’s an extremely low maintenance 1870s style.
What I ended up doing for the gala was the braid paired with an additional set of wefts that I had boiled on curlers (with @orisencosplay‘s help!); I put a braid loop around the top of my head and then another loop down the back, and the curls got tucked around under the bottom of the lower loop. It ended up looking gorgeous from the back, probably because my roommates got in there and fixed it for me. Thanks, guys – you’re all the real MVP.
The finishing touches were the gloves and jewelry. I acquired a new pair of short white gloves sometime this year thanks to my lovely mother, who keeps an eye out for me at antique stores even though she has little idea of what to look for. A+. I re-used the bracelet I wore for the red velvet extravaganza, mostly because I never wear bracelets in real life and it never occurred to me to find another. And lastly, even though I also do not ever wear necklaces in real life and the fashion plate does not sport one, I added a pearl necklace because I felt that my bosom just looked too bare without!
If you’ve been keeping track – I sewed on that last bit of velvet in the hotel room. I’d given it up as a loss, but my roommates were just so productive…
I had an absolutely lovely time at the gala, and the crunch on this gown was 100% worth it. Unlike my other ensembles, I am actually quite pleased with my work on this, especially in the fitting, and I have no gripes, regrets, or planned alterations.
Now, where to wear this again…?
(Thank you to the official studio photographers for those last two; I’m not sure what company they were with!)
PS: If you haven’t figured it out by now, this was not intended to be a bee, a Hufflepuff, OR a sunflower, but my attempts at dissuading fellow gala-goers were fruitless. Fortunately, I found it hilarious.