Making an 1860s ballgown: plans and foundations

This project has been in my head for a while now. I first ran into a photo of the extant gown that inspired it last summer, so nearly a year ago. I found this photo of this 1860s ballgown held at the National Museum of Denmark:

Søgrøn selskabskjole, 1860'erne

Although the photos are blurry, there was something about it that grabbed me. I love the colour but also the simplicity of the design. There is no trim but the gathered tulle on the neckline. Though I absolutely love detail, I thought it might be interesting as well to make something where I can’t hide mistakes under trim. I really want to work on my fit and construction so I decided to tackle this.

I found the fabric for this dress back in December, when I visited New York and had the best time in the garment district. I don’t think any fabric shopping will ever compare to that. I found this lovely mint/light green satin for $5 a yard. FIVE DOLLARS. I could never find anything so affordable in London. Anyway, I got a bit confused. I was frazzled because there was so much fabric around and I was so excited and a bit overwhelmed by the shopping and the shop owners, so I didn’t buy enough. I originally asked for five yards, and then six when I remembered yards are different from meters but still… as I drafted the plans for this, it was just cutting it close and I still had to reduce the gloriously long skirt.

img_1099
It really didn’t photograph well.

The museum has a whole page on the original dress here. It had some useful information about materials and dimensions. I had found this page before buying the fabric, but when I actually sat down to plan this dress properly, I made the best discovery: on the bottom right corner of the page, tucked away, is a pdf of a pattern drafted from the original dress! SCORE.

My next hurdle was that I don’t speak Danish. Thankfully Instagram is amazing, so a huge shout out to lillea84 on IG, she kindly volunteered to translate it for me. These notes on the pattern were very helpful in understanding its construction.

I sketched out the project and set about making the foundation garments.

Some of them were already made. I used my Victorian corset, which I made quite a while back, using a pattern by Redthreaded. I already have a Victorian chemise, though I think it’s too big for this so I might make a new one with a lower neckline and no sleeves. But the big missing item was the crinoline. Although the dress is dated 1860s, I thought the crinoline definitely looked elliptical so I went for the Truly Victorian 1865 Elliptical cage pattern. I bought a kit from Vena Cava Design which included the pattern and everything I would need for it.

Though it ran a bit pricey, I calculated what the items would’ve cost if I bought them individually and this was a very good deal in the end. The pattern was fairly easy to follow, and the kit was wonderful. My only comments would be that I would’ve used a lighter weight cotton drill or something cheaper, because the twill provided was very good quality but also very heavy and for a cage that was already going to have 30 meters of steel on it, weight was a concern. Secondly, their buckle and waistband didn’t work for me. The cage was too heavy to be secured properly with the buckle they provided. I would’ve needed an extra hand. I ended up stabbing my finger on one of the teeth of the buckle and bleeding all over the cage. I switched out the buckle and used two sets of hooks and bars instead.

Because I followed the pattern, I didn’t actually take any construction photos, I didn’t think they would be very helpful? Feel free to tell me if you think otherwise.

Cage in construction.

Here are some photos of the foundation garments:

Here I was wearing with the tied drawstrings, but I think I’ll loosen them for a fuller shape. I’m also making an extra petticoat in case I want extra pouff (I probably will). And that is it for foundations and plans!

Update! I did make an extra petticoat. It is three tiered, the top layer is plain cotton and the bottom two are organdy. I measured around the crinoline so that I made sure each tier was bigger than the corresponding hoop, gathered the long edges down and sewed it together. Then I did up the back seam, leaving a seven inch gap so I could get into it. I turned the gap edges inwards, attached a waistband and ta-da, extra poufiness!

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