Originally I’d planned on making the gown from scratch using some Truly Victorian patterns, but when I realized that the event was only a month away I nixed that idea as too difficult. Instead, as I’ve so often done before, I turned to eBay to locate an appropriate pre-existing dress that I could modify. Or rather, dresses (plural) because unless I found an absolutely perfect gown I was going to need some serious extra fabric to make the design work.
Luckily, I hit the jackpot with two identical dusty lilac gowns that had most of the required elements: boned bodice with center-pointed waist, faux two-piece design so I could completely separate the bodice from the skirt, and lots and lots of skirt fabric to work with. The spaghetti straps were a problem, but I figured that I could add shoulder straps and raise the back of the dress to an appropriate height, and rely on neckline decoration to disguise the joins.
The first thing I did to each dress was to separate the bodice from the skirt– I ripped out the back zippers and then cut through the lining layer to leave about 2″ of extra length to the bodice lining (just in case). Then I cut the satin skirts off at the waist.
The skirts were a reasonably full A-line, which was actually pretty close to what I wanted for my final product, so all I really needed to do was to add some extra fullness to the back. I would have liked to do a half-circle for the back of the skirt, but the existing seams would have made that awkward so I contented myself with adding in extra skirt panels, cutting each panel down to a more tapered triangle to really get that narrow-hip-wide-hem silhouette. I basically just sewed the fabric from both skirts together to make one mega-skirt. Most of the examples of existing gowns I’ve seen have completely smooth backs, but a few had some pleating so I used that to fit the waistline. The waistband closes with a large hook and eye fastening, with small snaps to close the gap at the placket.
Next I put one satin bodice onto my dress form and draped a mockup of shoulder straps and a new, higher back piece out of scrap cotton.
Once I had the correct shapes I cut them from the second satin bodice, which was already lined and interlined, so I didn’t have to do much to it besides sew it together and topstitch the edges to keep them flat.
I wasn’t able to line the shaping seams up properly between the top and bottom pieces, but I’m hoping that if I add enough embellishment at the shoulder/neckline it won’t be noticeable. I stitched the new pieces to the original bodice, machine-sewing the outside layer and hand-stitching the insides.
I also added boning to some of the bodice seams to add structure, hand-stitching the casings to the inside lining. I was able to use some spiral steel bones I harvested from an old corset years ago– hooray for being a packrat!
Finally, I followed this tutorial to insert a row of hook and eye tape (colored purple with Dye-Na-Flow to make it less noticeable) for the bodice closure– more authentic than a zipper, and definitely easier than sewing them each individually! The dye didn’t take evenly– very blotchy, probably because the cotton tape wrinkled as it dried– but the tape is on the inside of the bodice in any event, so it won’t show much at all. The hooks and eyes are a real pain to fasten– no wonder they needed maids to help them get dressed– but they look good and feel secure.
And here we are– the basic dress! Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, but wait until I get started on the embellishment!