Making an 1871 Evening Dress: the photos

This dress was made based on an extant 1871 evening dress at the Fashion Museum Bath. There’s a picture of it in my first post. You can find the Making of posts herehere and here.

I really enjoyed the process of making this. It involved making a bustle cage, which was a first. I wore it over my Victorian corset, the bustle cage and two early bustle petticoats. The dress is made up of a bodice, a skirt and an overskirt. Like at the time, the bodice remains separate from the skirt. Since I have some leftover fabric, it might be nice to try an make a day bodice for this project at some point in the future! In the end, I had a lot of fun and I’m happy with a lot of the elements.

Thanks for reading!

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Making an 1871 Evening Dress: the sleeves and details

Once the skirts were done, I moved on to the sleeves. The sleeves were rather simple. As the bodice fell just off the shoulder, they didn’t need to fit in the same manner as normal sleeves. So to draft these, I simply drew an almost oval shape, longer than the armhole size so I could gather it down to make nice puffy sleeves.

I cut out two of them and then two long rectangles to make little cuffs. I made the cuffs in the same manner as usual, by interfacing it and then ironing the edges inwards like with a waistband. But this time, I added a piece of plastic boning to make them nice and round. I gathered the lower and bottom edges of the upper sleeve and then attached the bottom edge to the cuff, by slotting it into the middle of the cuff.
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I sewed this by hand, so that there was no visible top stitching. They looked pretty adorable at this stage.

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Then I attached them to the bodice with a double threaded back stitch, for sturdiness. Then I covered this seam with bias tape (as I’d ran out of lace tape by this point, oops!).

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Sleeves were attached and I moved on to decorating the collar, as I wanted some hand-stitching. I wish I’d decided to do this before attaching it, as it would have been much easier, but alas. I ordered some sequins online and decided to attach them around the collar, to cover the awkward bias that was bothering me.

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The last element for the bodice were the two little bows that are perched just over the shoulder on the original dress. I’d never made fabric bows before and two tiny ones took me a shameful amount of time. Like, I am literally ashamed. I turned all the edges inwards by hand, because I didn’t want top stitching, so this was what set me back. I cut some rectangles, two different sets, one set larger than the other. One rectangle for the main body, one for the tails. All the edges were turned inwards by hand and then the middles were gathered down.

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The gathering stitches

After they were gathered, I tacked the two together and cut one long strip from the same fabric, about one inch wide, which I used to tie over the middle. Then I added sequins over the edges of this strip. Yes, they took forever, but they looked adorable so I forgave them.

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I attached them to the bodice with some strong stitches. And with this done, the bodice was complete! The insides were a bit rough still, but I’m waiting for more lace tape to arrive so I can clean them up properly.

The last step was the trim made of the same fabric for the skirt. It would decorate the overskirt and also hide the side closure. For this, I cut some long strips of the fabric, and pleated them.

This was quite easy to do, because the stripes were good guidelines. Then I tacked them down very carefully on both edges, trying to keep my stitches as discreet as possible.

After that, I pinned them to the overskirt and sewed them down in the same way with the tacking stitches.

I was pretty happy with everything at this point, but too lazy to lace up the bodice on the dressform so instead here’s a 19th century crop top:

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Last thing to do was to hem the skirt. I decided to use crinoline tape (also called horsehair tape) for this. It was quite hard to find in the shops at a reasonable price and wide enough, so I bought it online. It ended up being 13 cms wide. I lined it up with the edge of the right side of the skirt and sewed it down with a half an inch seam allowance, on the right side.

Then I turned it over to the wrong side and smoothed it over, making sure it was pulled tight, and pinned it in place. Then I used a herringbone stitch to secure it.

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I also made a little placket from the fabric to cover the cut edges of the tape where they met, as they were quite rough.

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And it was done! I learned a lot from this project. I liked all the decorating, but I also learned I have to take more time to sort out the fit, instead of getting excited and moving ahead. I still have some fabric left over so I think maybe a day bodice to pair with this might be fun to make sometime in the future. I don’t have edited pictures of this dress yet, so here’s a little sneak peek:

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Flawless photography by Raquel Gaspar

Making an 1871 Evening Dress: the Skirt and Overskirt

After the struggles with the bodice, I approached the skirts with a bit more care. I had a look at patterns for skirts of the time, and decided to go with a panelled skirt. Thankfully the striped fabric I bought was wide enough to cut the skirt panels with the stripes. I hadn’t done a panelled skirt yet, I’ve only done rectangular skirts which are very easy. I made one petticoat once using a commercial pattern that was made up of panels. Keeping that in mind, I went about measuring everything (twice) and drafted up the skirt. I simply drew it directly on the fabric and cut out the pieces, each individually, and making sure that the sloped seams would match. The back also had to dip towards a small train. There was a front panel cut on the fold, two side fronts, two side backs and one extra wide back panel to fit over the generous bustle.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos of pretty much everything! (eck!) I cut out all the panels and made a waistband. I decided to leave a slit between the side front and side back panels on the left side. It couldn’t be on the back as usual because it had to fit nicely over the bustle back – and the side bit would be covered by the overskirt so it would be okay. I sewed up all the seams together with french seams for neatness (to compensate for the messiness of the bodice I guess).

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They are a bit tedious, but they do work well. The only thing that annoyed me was that because the fabric is quite strange, it didn’t take well to being ironed. So after I sewed the second seam, it wouldn’t iron properly so it doesn’t look very flat. But oh well! I also only then decided to interface the top portion of the skirt, to support the pleats better. I wish I’d done it before sewing, as it was hard to interface the sloped waist line. I left a six inch gap on the left side seam, to get in and out. I turned these edges inwards by band, and then I fit into the waistband.

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The waistband was my desired width and my waist measurement plus seam allowances. I interfaced it, then ironed the long edges 1/2” inwards and then ironed it in half. Then I sewed the edges, right side to right side, and turned it the right way out.

I pleated the back to fit into the waistband, and then sewed over the waistband, the half that would be hidden by machine and the other half by hand. I added a hook and bar, and a snap and it was done. I really like the way it fits and falls.

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The overskirt worked very similarly, but is made only of two panels, the front and the back. It slopes backwards as well, so that it is longer in the back. The front panel fits snuggly on to the skirt, and is curved in the centre, while the back was very wide so it could be pleated over the bustle.

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The overskirt’s back panel

So I only had two seams to sew. I sewed the back to the front at the side seams, and left a six inch gap on the right side seam. This would be covered with self made trim. I pleated the top and fit a waistband the same way. I added a hook and eye (I’m terrible at positioning these right) and snaps so that the slit closed. I then hemmed the edges and gathered and sewed lace to it, the same way I did to the collar on the bodice.

I didn’t take any photos of the skirts at this point, as I was motoring onwards towards the self-made trim, which will be my next post!