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:

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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.

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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!

Making a Jane Porter cosplay: plans and undergarments

With MCM London coming up in May, I’d been weighing up my options for cosplays for a few weeks now. I didn’t have anything particular in mind. Cosplaying Merida showed me that, at least for now, I could only really do brunette cosplays as I still haven’t figured out how wigs work. I only used a wig that one time, and yes it was cheap and not great and it squished my brains into oblivion so I’m not sure I’m ready to revisit wigs! So I made my little list of option and eventually decided on making a Jane Porter cosplay.

Jane is from Disney’s film Tarzan and she looks like this:

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However, though there are amazing cosplays of this costume, I was more interested in making a more detailed version. In my head and notes, I’ve been calling it ‘Victorian Jane’ – but this makes no sense, really, as there is little Victorian going on in my version. Dating Jane’s costume is hard; it makes little since. There is a bustle going on, but little else that falls within the stereotypical bustle era gowns. So I thought I’d make it clear to state that this was not, in any way, intended as a historically accurate version of Jane. This costume is for cosplay and I just wanted to have fun with it.

With that said, my main inspiration for this costume is this version by the amazing Designer Daddy (he is such a great inspiration in everything):

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Designer Daddy’s version, isn’t it gorgeous?

This was made for Jessica LG and you can see photos of it being worn there! So my ideas rotated around brocade fabric, lace everywhere and as many details as I could cram in. I made a sketch for this and went into planning and fabric shopping.

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My sketch! I’m terrible at drawing so please forgive.

Fabric shopping was a pain. I couldn’t find anything that I really liked. I didn’t want it to be too gold or it might not be recognisable, and I didn’t want it to be too yellow in case it looked tacky. And I also didn’t want it to be expensive. Eventually I settled on this home decor yellow brocade fabric I found, it was £6.99 p/meter and I bought six meters.

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My fabrics!

But before getting to work with that, I had to work on foundations! I definitely wanted to keep the bustle look from the film and add the cupcake-look from the version above. I didn’t want a bustle cage because I thought it might  be uncomfortable for a busy convention, so instead I made a bustle pad. I used this tutorial by the wonderful Izabella. I did pretty much just follow her instructions so not much to add!

To decide how big I wanted it to be, I simply took a tape measure and held it up to my mannequin’s butt and did a bit of guess work.

My nonsensical schematics
Gathered down the bigger panel
Pinned the two layers together along the sewing lines

After sewing along the gathered lines, you’re also meant to sew one of the shorter sides closed (the other is left open so you can stuff the thing). My suggestion would be to bind the already closed edges at this point if you’ve got a little uncooperative sewing machine like mine. I ended up having to sew the last edge shut and do the whole binding by hand because my machine would not sew the stuffed pad, couldn’t get a right angle between the foot and the machine arm. Or maybe use the bag method if you’re more comfortable with that.

And then I filled with polyester toy filling until I couldn’t cram any more in

Then I sewed together the open edge through which I had stuffed the pad, and then bound all the seams with bias binding. Then I gathered down a lace ruffle and sewed than on (by hand as well as my machine wouldn’t do anything to the stuffed pad). Then I added two ribbon ties and it was done.

The finished pad

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On to the petticoats. And here is where I messed up. While the original skirt could be achieved with a plain gored skirt, like the one in my 1871 Evening Dress but shorter, Designer Daddy’s looked a lot more voluminous and ‘cupcake-like’. I liked this idea. As I am a huge fangirl, I’ve watched some of his live streams on Facebook and realised some of his amazing skirts are achieved with circle skirts – so in my head I instantly assumed this was a circle skirt too. And of course, what would give more volume to a circle skirt? Circle skirt petticoats!

groan.

This was also around the time I had determined to try out organdie for petticoats, at the recommendation of Jennifer at Historical Sewing. While organdie is great and I am a huge fan now, IT IS A STUPID CHOICE FOR A CIRCLE SKIRT. I am an idiot. It doesn’t drape! And circle skirts do! This is entirely my mistake and I wish I hadn’t insisted on it and ended up cutting two circle skirts before giving up. But I did – so I was determined not to let it go to waste.

I used Angela Clayton’s circle skirt tutorial to draft my pattern.

Then I cut it out of organdie, it was positioned so it was a double layer.

The side seams were sewn up, leaving one with a six inch gap. These side seams used the fabric selvage, so I didn’t even have to finish them. Then I used a bit of ribbon as waistband, not sewing the two edges together like recommended. Instead, I simply turned the raw edge inward and sewed the edge down. Then I folded it, so that it created a channel for some more ribbon and it closes in a drawstring manner.

I decided to add a layer of tulle inbetween the circle petticoats in hopes it would help. I added a long two inch wide ruffle at the bottom edge and initially gathered down the top side to fit the waist, but I found this added too much volume on the front. It was about this moment I decided to get a full bustle look, keeping volume away from the front if I could. So instead, I added two darts to the front and pleated the excess at the back, over the bustle.

The silhouette looked like this at the moment:

I used an old circle skirt over it so I could see what the final skirt would look like

While it was getting there, it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. The organdie doesn’t fold well into the circle skirt shape, so it jolts out at awkward angles. Right about this time, I found this old instagram photo of Designer Daddy, which shows his petticoat:

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I was so mad! I over-complicated everything. I just needed to make ruffles! In an effort to salvage my petticoat trials, I decided to add flounces and ruffles to the tulle layer, in hopes that it would life the upper organdie petticoat into submission. And it worked! I added two plain cotton ruffles all the way around the bottom of the tulle petticoat, each 5” wide. Then I added one final 5” organdie ruffle on top of that. The silhouette
was much better and I was satisfied!

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With the bustle pad and the two petticoats, the undergarments were completed. As I said in the beginning, there’s nothing really historical about them! I learned a lot from this. I really enjoy building a silhouette and I feel like I learn a lot every time! The skirt is sufficiently poofy for me, while still keeping the flat front and the bustle-y back.

The next post will be about the bodice!

Holiday Haul!

This summer, I spent three weeks between Spain and Portugal. Since we were driving there, I had plans to take full advantage of being able to fill up a car rather than sticking to a suitcase weight limit. Every time I grumbled about the expensive prices of fabric in the UK, I got replies from friends and family defending it would be cheaper in the south, so I nurtured high expectations.

I was disappointed.

I saw plenty of beautiful fabrics, particularly in Alicante, Spain. But they weren’t affordable, to the point where in Lisbon, all I bought were remnants. Nevertheless, I’m happy with the fabrics I got from the Spain and the diversity of stuff.

First up are these remnants I bought in Lisbon, at a chain called Feira dos Tecidos, which has loads of shops up and down the country. The remnants were in pretty good condition and they are all at least a meter, I reckon. My favourite is the one at the bottom of this pile, which is a peach coloured shantung. I was kind of all over the oranges and the peaches, I don’t even know why.

At the same place, I bought this little remnant of this dark red sheer fabric with a really cool pattern on it. Next to it is a flimsy black organza (I think!) and some black suede. I got both of these from grandmother and they are short lengths too, but I thought they were cool.

Now, in Alicante I went to the most amazing shop. It’s called Julián López and it’s three floors of absolute wonderland. The bottom floor has all sorts of dressmaking fabrics. Literally, all sorts. The second floor had home furnishing and decorating fabric, and the third had all sorts of (very expensive) silks and a haberdashery. The shop in general was very expensive, but I was lucky enough to walk in during the big summer sale – they had stacks and stacks of discounted, amazing fabric at very affordable prices. I bought seven meters of this blue stripped fabric for 0.99€. It’s very soft, slightly sheer, a pale blue, and I have plans to make it into an 1871 evening gown. Pray for me. Then I found that little blue remnant in Lisbon, which has a nice pink effect in some of it. I thought it was magical so I snapped it up, though it’s just a little bit.

From the same shop in Alicante, I bought these beautiful three fabrics. The middle brocade is 1 meter, it cost 6€ a meter and its’s for the bodice. The white fabric was 4€ a meter, it’s also 1 meter long and it’s for flowy sleeves. And the beige fabric on the left is for the skirt. It was 3.99€ a meter and I got four or five meters. It’s got a really nice discreet pattern to it.

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For the skirt!

I also collected loads of lace! As I decided to do the 1871 evening gown, the design required a lot of lace, so I went into every haberdashery I saw. It was surprisingly hard to find lace – though my requirements were tough to meet. I needed wide white lace, not too floral (I’m picky), and at an affordable price. In Lisbon, I saw loads of amazing laces but I can’t afford to pay 20€ a meter. Instead, I found these beauties! The first two are ecru laces from Julián López. They were on sale and I got three meters of each. The blue lace I found for 2€ at Colombo, in Lisbon. The white lace was gorgeous and I wanted a lot of it, but they only had under two meters of it. I found it in a haberdashery in downtown Lisbon for under 2€ as well. The last lace I found in a haberdashery in my hometown in Portugal. It was super affordable, just over 2€ per meter, and it was what I wanted for the evening dress, so let’s hope it works!

I also bought beads! Beads are surprisingly expensive here in London, so when I saw these little fake pearls for 1€ a pack I bought five. The other glass beads are from Lisbon as well and they were around 1€ each as well. I think it’s always good to have some golden beads around and I liked the brass tones of these. The green ones are for a ball gown I’ve been dreaming up, but haven’t found the fabric for.

Now my grandmother had already given me some fabric scraps but she also had a huge stack of things she just wasn’t going to use. So I grabbed it! Not all of it, because even in a car I wouldn’t have had enough space. First up she gave me buttons. A lot of buttons.

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And more buttons. And still loads I didn’t picture!

But I also got a bunch of random trim! Things like this really nice purple velvet-y bias binding, pink satin bias binding, loads of different satin ribbons, lots of zippers and scroll trim.

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And that is it! I’m fairly happy with that, and considering I’m already working on my Art Nouveau Megara, my robe a l’anglaise and I have fabrics for two other complete dresses, I have a lot to keep busy with.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

The beginning

It has now been little over six months since I bought my sewing machine and I’ve fallen head first into a world I had never thought would have a place for me. My interest in sewing was a symptom of attending comic cons and envying costumes. From then, I made the resolution that a costume would be made — and since at the time I could not sew, my amazing grandmother came to the rescue and so Esmeralda was made (excuse my face, it daunts me too).

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Now I can’t take much credit for this. I chose the fabrics, helped with the design and made the corset, but that was about it. Again, amazing grandmother.

But it set me off and soon after, I realised I had to make more. So I did! I started with little crafts, a small pumpkin pin cushion, some stuffed hearts, and then fell into historic costumery. God knows how.

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But look how cute it is! I’ve lost so many needles in it

So then for May Comic Con I had my first big project! I decided to make a Merida cosplay. My greatest influence and help was Angela Clayton, over at Angela Clayton’s Costumery & Creations. Her blog posts on how she made hers guided me through this strange world of velvet and chiffon. And I ended up with this:

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I’ve deleted most of the WIP photos of this because I thought I’d never write about it. Oops! Well moving on, I’ve bought a bunch of commercial patterns. I thought these would be good for understanding how piece fit together and onto a person, which is what I’ve been mostly struggling with. Exhibit A, my university summer ball dress I made based on my own pattern:

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I mean, the lace sort of makes up for the fact that the bodice fits horribly. … right?

So on we go! So far I have made:

  • the 1630 stays from Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh
  • the 1776 stays from Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh
  • a Victorian corset, pattern by Redthreaded
  • one 18th century chemise
  • one 19th century chemise
  • one petticoat
  • one 18th century bum roll (it’s huge, like, what?)

What I should be working on soon:

  • 18th century stays
  • an 18th century ensemble, maybe a robe à l’anglaise, I’m not sure yet
  • and my big big project, my cosplay for the October Comic con, Art Nouveau Megara! This redesign is by the awesome artist Hannah Alexander (seriously, check her out, omg) and it looks like this:
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redesign by Hannah Alexander, link above

Amazing, right? So far, I have figured out how to make most of it. Painting the swirly things on the bottom of the skirt of the chiffon (the shiftiest of all shifty fabrics) is still a mystery. I have bought and received the chiffon (yay), I’ve ordered the dyes for it. I’ve bought the Worbla and actually made my armour pattern tonight! But guess what? I’m actually taking photos and documenting how this goes, so pray for me!