Friday, November 3, 2017

The 1885 V&A Dress: Construction

This was a very fun, relatively quick dress to put together. I challenged myself to complete it as quickly as possible, without sacrificing trying to be as period correct as possible, to my current knowledge of the period. This meant not overthinking, over-measuring, over-pinning, over-seam-finishing... And guess what? It looked just fine!

It was actually quite difficult trying to remember how 1880's gown construction went, since I've spent the last couple years in the early 1900's. Inadvertently, I think the inside might be kind of a Victorian/Edwardian mashup, so if something looks weird in there, sorry! I wasn't double checking every technique.

The skirt started as Truly Victorian's Four Gore underskirt, and the bodice as Truly Victorian's Cuirass Bodice. I draped and altered from there to match the original as close as I could, with the amount of yardage I had. I didn't have quite enough fabric, so I had to get crafty. One great way to conserve fabric was using plain muslin for parts of the underskirt that wouldn't show. Another way was to make very shallow pleats in the ruffles.

A great time saver here was to eyeball the pleats instead of measuring. I just pinched the fabric into small pleats and pinned them to my ironing board. I set the pleats by spraying them with water, mixed with a little vinegar, pressed them with a hot iron (no steam), then let the fabric cool completely before moving on to the next section. The pleats held wonderfully. Very crisp!

To construct the pleated strips, I hemmed one edge and left the other unfinished. After pleating, I ran the unfinished edge through the machine, about 3/8th of an inch from the edge. After this stitching, I folded and pressed the edge to the wrong side 1/2". This stitching held the pleats in place so I could arrange the strips on the skirt. The strips were positioned, pinned, and then I machine sewed them directly onto the skirt, which is what looks like was done on the original. 

Below: another time saver. For the second row of pleating, at the back of the skirt, I used the selvedge  edge.

The apron and back panel were draped and hemmed and attached to the waistband. The "polonaise" poufs in the back drapery are tacked to the underskirt. Once all the layers were attached, I held them in place with french tacks. They are so handy! They keep everything in place, but still allow movement. 

To save time on the waistband (and save fabric), I just used twill tape. The placket is on the left side-back seam. Since the weight of the skirt, and all the drapery kept the placket in place, I only put hooks and eyes on the waistband. There are also hooks/eyes at the back to connect the bodice and skirt.

On the right side-back seam, I put a pocket. I love pockets! If a dress can accommodate a pocket, I will put a pocket. Aside from all the other awesome reasons to have a pocket, it means you don't need to make a purse! Win. 

Aside from pockets, two other things that make life so much easier are hanging loops and a center front indicator, which is traditionally done with red cross stitches. The hanging loops are super easy to attach. I use twill tape, as I have seen in originals, like this turn of the century dress I shared recently (I know it's later example!). I just sew them on right along the waistband stitching line. They're almost flat when your dressed, and work so much better than trying to hang the weight of a skirt from a clamp hanger. 

As for the CF mark, it makes it so much easier to get into asymmetrical or complex skirts. Just slide the X's to the front and no more guessing if everything is straight! You don't even need a mirror!

The skirt's hem was faced with a strip of cotton, all machine sewed on, and then the edge was sandwiched in a fold of twill tape. None of this was pinned first. Gasp!

I really lucked out when I hit this step. I had yards of bias facing left over from my skirt I wore for Goldfield Days this year. Actually enough for two skirts. So much faster than making it! Granted, if I had made it, I probably would have chosen any color but white. Sorry about the state of the skirt, by the way. I took the pictures after the event. Dirt road. 

With the time I saved speeding through the skirt, I was left with plenty of time to address the bodice. I've made this pattern before, but that was years ago, so I started completely fresh. I've learned so much more about fitting bodices since then. This time, I trusted the pattern, and the darts turned out perfect. Where I did do a lot of altering was the shoulders and neck. I took up masses there, moved the shoulder seam to the rear, took in the CB by the neck, and actually remembered to cut the neckline so that the front ended up nice and round, and not in a V. Yay!

Obviously, the bottom of the bodice was changed, to match the original. I also changed the collar, both because of all the neck alterations, and to make it taller. I didn't add anything to stiffen it.

The sleeves ended up being total win! So much range of motion! I didn't end up using the sleeve from the pattern, but used the sleeve from Truly Victorian's 1880's Yoked Blouse, taking it in along the arm for a tighter fit. I had just used it to make my mom's tennis dress (more on that to come), and liked it better. 

I constructed most of the bodice, including the closures, before the final fitting, by leaving the side seams for (almost) last. When I went to do the hidden hooks and eyes, I had planned to sew them in early on, so the fronts could be completed around them. I forgot and sewed in the darts. Oops. 

But never fear - there is always a solution! 

I slipped a ruler in, between the fashion fabric and the seam allowances. I was then able to stitch on the hooks without worrying about catching the front fabric. 

For time, I pinked the seam allowances. I feel like I remember seeing this done in a bodice from this period, but I can't remember where. I used prussian tape, from Richard the Thread, for the bone casing. The boning is German plastic. The waist tape is petersham.

Some final details I added were padding, underarm shields, and collar and cuffs. All of these were just tacked in. 

For me, the padding was so necessary! Filling out the hollow above the bust is so important to the silhouette. It doesn't take very much padding. For me, I used two graduated layers of wool quilt batting, slipped into muslin "pillowcases," and pressed with the iron so they weren't too puffy. I tacked them to the lining.

The white linen collar and cuffs were made up fully, stitched all the way around (to make them easier to launder), and tacked into the sleeves and neckline.

The most frivolous addition was the arm shields. I saw them in an original bodice I have, and have seen numerous ads for them in period magazines. Did I need them? No. But they're such a weird little detail that no one puts in anymore. 

And gosh, they are so easy! Just a circle of fabric, with the edges pinked. I used muslin. Then it's tacked into the armscye. And on a hot day... Who wants to ruin a lovely dress? I live in a very hot climate. This can, like, be an issue! But I must admit, it was mostly just the fashion history nerd in me that wanted them :)

Woo I wasn't expecting that to end up so long. I guess I had more notes about the construction than I thought! Next up, short ones about the corset and bonnet. Cheers!


  1. A great dress story. Natalie

  2. Excellent! It was like reading a great novel, it left you wanting MORE. Now, out to the sewing room for my next outfit!

  3. Nice to see it looks as good on the inside as the outside!

  4. I've seen pinked edges on the seams too. They really look nicely finished. Love all your pleated rows!
    I used disposable underarm shields, just for convenience.

    1. Thanks! I came across a picture of pinked seams in an early 1900's Worth bodice today. They're so much easier and quicker than overcasting or binding!