Sunday, November 18, 2012

An 1880's Outing

1880's Wool Dress, photos by Lisa Coffey.

Pouf! A new dress!

I haven't posted anything about the progress of this new dress because I had to make it so darn fast. Last month we (as in the civilian ladies of the Southern Nevada Living History Association) decided to do a bustle era outing, which coincided with an SNLHA "timeline" event at the Old Mormon Fort, which is an event where one can portray any era they wish. Very fun.

So anyway, we all decided on bustle era. I had nothing but the bustle itself, which I ordered long ago from Period Corsets, so I ordered patterns and went through the stash and decided on this great "leather brown" wool I had originally pegged for a riding habit. I think it worked awesome for this, though.

I was inspired by the tailor dresses of the later 80's, with their plain, almost austere design and asymmetrical elements. I imagined this dress to be maybe a walking or traveling dress, with it's simple design and sensible fabric. I am totally in love! I'm not really inclined to frills...

I didn't get to start on the outfit right away, unfortunately, since I had to finish up my civil war bits for the Spring Mountain Ranch reenactment at the end of last month. When that was all over, I started on this.

I used Truly Victorian patterns as my base and then modified and embellished from there. Specifically, TV261-R, TV382 and TV460. I wore the Period Corsets' bustle underneath, topped with their bustle pad for extra oomph and then their bustle petticoat. I ordered these all long ago, thinking I would need them one day. I was right! 

I wore my 1860's corset since I didn't have time to make a new one. The hat is from Mrs. Parker's Millinery and Mercantile. The little pettipoint purse, I picked up at a vintage clothing store here in Las Vegas years ago, and the fan is an antique from Spain that my Grandmother picked up on her travels. I should have taken a photo with it open. It has the most beautiful hand painted florals on the front and a faint watercolor painted scene river scene on the reverse. The hankie is another Nevada find - Boudler City. The gloves were an etsy find and, magically, they were never worn - dead stock I guess, complete with tags! And they fit perfectly! Yay!


The fan was very handy. It was sunny and quite warm for November.

So on to my favorite part of this dress, the construction. I love love loved putting this dress together. I used Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques and Couture Sewing Techniques as my bibles. The Victorian Dressmaking book is actually written in 1904, but a lot of the techniques used go further back, so it is a great resource. I also found a beautiful 1880's complete gown on ebay that I bought and used for reference. I will have to devote a whole post to that another day. Gorgeous!

The dress is all wool flatlined with polished cotton. The hem of the underskirt has a ten inch bias crinoline facing, covered with the polished cotton, and tacked to the lining of the skirt. This really helps the skirt drape nicely and not collapse around the leg. It also keeps it away from your feet. There are lead drapery weights at the side seams about ten inches up. You want them up from the hem so they weigh down the skirt but don't get kicked around when you walk. The hem also has brown wool tape to protect it.

The lead weights are neatly enclosed in the mitered corners.

The waist closure.

The hem facing,  minus the hem tape. I pulled it off before taking the
pic, unfortunately. I want to reattach it more neatly - it was another last
minute addition. You can also see a weight in this pic: the little square
below the selvedge, where the facing meets the lining.

The asymmetrical drapery is attached to the underskirt at the waist, as is a small loose, smocked panel on the left side, which helps cover the closure. The hem of the drapery is lined with double folded bias organdy and it has lead weights in the points, to keep the drapery hanging properly. The drapery is not lined. The hem is slipstitched. The gathered side, on the right, also has a lead weight. The skirt closes with large hook eyes.

The bodice is boned in all the seams and front darts, the bone casing attached to the selvedges with catch stitches. The wrist openings are faced with the polished cotton and the sleeve caps are lined with bias organdy to keep their pouffy shape. The sleeve caps are also set with sleeve heads, which give extra shape and stability to where the sleeve meets the shoulder. The hem of the bodice is faced with bias self fabric (the wool). The center front is faced with wool and cotton and the buttons work. At the waist there is silk petersham waist tape and a hook eye. On the front, the pleated panels are mounted on cotton and slipstitched to the front of the bodice.

The bodice, inside out.

Wrist facing.

Sleeve heads, set in. 

You can see the waist tape attached at the center back.

If I had had time, I would have finished the selvedges with a hand stitched overcast or seam binding. Considering I was still sewing on buttons an hour before I got dressed, something had to be sacrificed. I think I will go back and do this, though, because to me, the inside of a garment is often more interesting than the outside. I'm also thinking of adding a little padding to the chest so it's more full over the top of the bust.

All in all, it was a fascinating construction process. It's probably the most technically involved project I have endeavored. I really wanted to make clothing, instead of a "costume." I wish I had more time to really do it up properly, but I can always go back and improve. Now I really want to learn tailoring!

Have a lovely weekend, all! Xx, C.


  1. Lovely!!! I'll try attempt that style by the end of spring.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your gorgeous new dress, especially the bits about what fabrics and materials you used to interface and weight. I am going to have to lay hands on that Victorian sewing techniques book, I think :-)

    1. Thanks! And that book is amazing! I got it at the American History Museum in DC. It is soooo interesting to read. And there's lots of pictures, too.

  3. Lovely, Caroline! Thanks for sharing pictures of it inside and out. I especially like the pleats down the front of the bodice.

    It's a great color of wool and looks like a nice weight as well. Victorian tailoring is quite fun and interesting to do, so I hope you'll do more! Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques is a fabulous book!

    Best, Quinn

    1. Thank you! I am totally in love with learning about tailoring techniques now. Even my husband's suits - I'm like inspecting the seams and oohing and ahhing.

      The wool was a great find. I read the term "leather colored brown" in a 19th century fashion plate book and it stuck with me. I love how they describe colors.

  4. I was sent here to take a look at your asymmetrical overskirt since I've been making the same pattern for my 1886 mourning gown. I had a heck of a time figuring out how to do all the different pleating and draping on it, and after 4 days of ripping and resewing, I wrangled it into *something* and named it The Black Bitch. But looking at yours I see the side seams are better attached than mine, although that could be your own alterations as you mentioned, but it has a much smoother look than mine. I guess another day of wrangeling is due here.
    Your entire outfit came out beautiful.

    1. Haha the bitch from hell. Yes, I've been there. Grrr!

      Well, I too had problems with the drapery. I made the underskirt, then got the drapery pattern and read it and went, huh what huh? Then on like the 4th time rereading the instructions I realized the underskirt was supposed to be made WITH the drapery incorporated, not as a separate layer, like the overskirts they have patterns for.

      Since I made the drapery as a separate layer, I tried as much as I could to go with the pattern's instructions for the pleats, but I had to monkey a little to get the side pleats to lay properly, and line up with each other. I think I completely disregarded the pleat instructions for the back side and just draped pleats over the bustle on my dress form.

      I hope that helps a little. If you have any other questions please feel free to ask!

  5. Well, I am astonished! (Well, maybe not). Your work keeps getting better and better. How wonderful to see the structure within. It makes all the difference, doesn't it!
    Bravo, and carry on!

  6. You did not mention anything about the smocking on the foundation skirt? Can we see more pictures of that? Also, on the pleating for the bodice. How did you compensateand/or incorporate for the extra fabric? I have been wanting to try some bodice pleating, but nothing I have talks about how to achieve that. Great inspiration on your gown!

    1. Hi! Well, I have a secret to share _ the smocking is not really true smocking. It's actually rows of spaced gathers, each one offset from the above row, to give the appearance of smocking. I chose to do that, instead of true smocking, so I could drape the width of the smocked piece on the skirt. I wasn't sure how wide I wanted it.

      As for the pleating on the bodice, the pleated fabric is mounted on a flat cotton panel, which was then mounted onto the front bodice pieces, before the front pieces were attached at the shoulder or finished at the hem. This way the pleats don't interfere with cutting the pattern pieces and they are removable for other future looks. You would just undo the shoulder seams and the hem and remove the pleating and restitch.

      I hope that answered some of your questions! Someday I will post more photos. I am planning on going back, opening up a few seams and tweaking here and there. Then I will get to take some better construction photos.