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!