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Late 1830’s to Early 1840’s Ball Gowns

The idea for this project was to construct two beautiful ballgowns quite differently, while still having them look good together. Since the idea was to have the dresses look nice together, I decided to combine both of these dresses into one blog post.

 I started by making my own, the old gold colored one, on a whim between projects. I had bought the fabric a while ago because it was on sale for only $10 a meter! From the moment I saw it I thought ‘1840s’. It sat around for a month or two until I had time to make it.  I was originally just going to base it on the 1839-45 dress in Janet Arnold’s ‘Patterns of Fashion 1’, just to sort of ‘get it done’, though inspiration struck me otherwise. I had instead looked to various museum dresses and fashion plates. I wanted sleeves with the fullness moved down, as it started to be in the late 1830s. I had seen this look before countless times. I thought that this design would be a hit or miss, but in the end I’m pleased with the way the design turned out. The skirt features knife pleats in the front and cartridge pleats are in the back, it is connected to the bodice with secret hand stitches over the piped bottom edge of the bodice. The peacock feather I got years ago at a petting zoo as a kid, I liked the way the colors contrasted with the silk, so I decided to incorporate it because I knew that they were used in this era. The white feathers are ostrich feathers that I simply picked up at my local fabric store, thinking that just the peacock feather would look too empty. The decorative buttons on my sleeves and the front of my bodice I also picked up at my local fabric store, they are imitation oyster shell and brass.

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The dark rose pink dress I made for my sister. It features a real hand made lace bertha dating back to the 1800’s, though the exact year was not stated. I would assume it dates back anywhere from the 1830’s to the late 1860’s because that is when evening necklines lowered over the shoulders and any other shape of neckline would not quite work with the shape of the bertha. The double puff sleeves were inspired by a few fashion plates I saw from this era when trying to decide on the sleeve design. The skirt is double box pleated all around and connected to a waist band. The waist band connects to the bodice with four large hooks on the bodice and eyes on the skirt. At this time period most skirts were still sewn onto the bodice and the detachable skirt was just starting to become popular. I decided to make it detachable in case I wanted to attach a different style of bodice one day. The dark blue bow and choker are velvet fabric and ribbon which I happened to find in the exact same color. The broaches on the bow and choker are actually a set of earrings I had laying around. For the earring on the choker I used wire cutters to cut of the sharp tip of the earring after the backing so that it does not stab into her neck. I then used a strong glue to keep the earring and backing together so that it doesn’t fall of the choker. I also used a little glue on the backing of the earring on the bow to ensure that it does not fall off.

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Both of the dresses I pattern drafted myself to our measurements. The bodices are both flat lined in a strong white cotton of medium thickness. I left the inside boning channels exposed so that the bodices are more easily adjustable, as was most commonly done in this era. My gold skirt is also flat lined due to the thinness of the silk. My sisters skirt has a regular lining because her silk is stronger. Flat steel boning in the bodice keeps it smooth and rigid, as well as the flat steel boned corsets we are wearing underneath. Crinoline cages were not worn until 1856, so starched corded petticoats are mostly what gives the skirts volume, along with regular petticoats.

All in all I am thrilled with how these dresses turned out. I find that they complement each other well, without looking like they were made to match, as was intended. They will actually be used for a personal music video I am working on, along with many other of my creations, which is why i was so concerned about them looking naturally well together. Mission accomplished I believe!



How I Got Interested in Historical Costume Building

It was a little over a year ago, in grade 12, that I first got interested in sewing historical clothing, starting with this pretty, pink, birthday cake of a ball gown.

Prior to this, I had only sewn a couple very simple things. It was in grade 10 that I first started learning to sew, when there were a few articles of clothing that I wanted, I didn’t take it seriously at all, not even finishing most of what i had started. Then in grade 11, I began doing high school at home, online, due to fatigue from persisting anemia, which made keeping up in school very difficult. Online school gave me a little more spare time to get interested in sewing. I made a few simple costumes and dresses, I drafted most of my patterns, but it was just a fun hobby  that I didn’t take it too seriously.

Until grade 12, when i got better at doing school online, and my health began to improve. I can’t quite recall why I decided to challenge myself to make an 1860’s Victorian ballgown specifically. Perhaps a few photos I saw or movies I watched inspired me to make something from the victorian era. I could have started smaller, with a day or work dress, but I suppose I didn’t see my sewing level as a limitation and I learned as I went.

I bought the Truly Victorian “1860s Ballgown Bodice” (TV442) and the “1860s Ballgown Skirt” (TV240)17006141_1358500537547179_928376712_n

Before I started I made a hoop skirt with guidance from this article:

Though not an accurate steel victorian hoop skirt, i didn’t care, I wanted to save money on the hoopskirt and jump straight into the dress; no corset, chemise, drawers, or petticoats either! (face palm)

It took a few trips to my local fabric store until I finally found fabrics I liked. The label didn’t say what the fabric was, only that it was a jacquard print. But hey, they were  in the discount section for only $4.00 a meter! and they matched my nail polish that day! so I knew it was meant to be. Though a lucky find for a good deal,  I didn’t have much money at the time, and remember having some anxiety with all the purchases I’d been making. I thought I might not manage to make the gown, or that I’d lose interest too soon before it was finished.

Even so, I persisted, first starting with these rough drafts:

Then i was eager to start the actual dress. I kept my finger nails painted the same colours as the dress during most of the process of building it, for some superstitious reason i guess….

It wasn’t an easy process, and because i had no sewing studio, let alone a corner as i do now, it was such a pain getting out all my supplies, and the sewing machine, to sew on the kitchen table every time. Many nights my family had to eat dinner on the couch…. oops.

In terms of the building process though, I had my challenges, and many questions, it was a learning process and took time. Fortunately my friend google and my stitch ripper were always there to help!

After about 3 months, it was done. I’m happy with the outcome, not only because I like how it looks in its pretty, girly Victorian elegance. It made me a stronger sewer, I learned the most I’d ever had on this project than all my previous simple fun projects combined. Building this taught me that with hard work, time, inspiration, and motivation you can really exceed what seems to be your limit.

I also learned so much about 1860s clothing doing research for this dress. I even read up on other aspects of fashion from the 1860s, and other time periods surrounding it, simply because i found it very interesting.

The dress definitely isn’t perfect, the hook and eye closure doesn’t lay as flat as it should at the back, the bertha doesn’t lay smoothly, and the bodice could overall be fitted a little better. But now it’s been a little over a year since i made this dress, and I’ve learned all the solutions to these problems. I know how to make a neat hook and eye closure, a smooth bertha collar, and now that I draft my own Victorian patterns, I get a nice custom fit. So making these mistakes really wasn’t so bad as i learned from them, too. And besides, I still have extra fabric if i want to make a new bodice for it in the future.

All in all, The best thing about making this dress is that it has lead me to know where my interests lie, and paved the way for a wondrous frilly filled, fun future.

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