1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part I: Fabric and Design

I never intended to make an 1860s ballgown– despite my Dickens Fair adventure into the 1840s for a casual daytime dress, the ruffled berthas that appeared on virtually all of the 1860s ballgowns just didn’t appeal to my sense of aesthetics. So imagine my surprise when I came across a fabric lot on eBay and immediately thought “this would look fabulous as an 1860s ballgown.”  And then it was just a short step from “AN 1860s ballgown” to “MY 1860s ballgown.”


The fabric is ivory embroidered with blue flowers* and wheat-colored leaves (label says it’s a rayon-acetate blend). It actually came in a set of four panels, each 48″ wide and 3.5 yards long, and cost me $50 including shipping– meaning that I got 14 yards of fabric for under $3/yard! Score! Especially since the still-affixed tag had each panel priced at $80 on sale!

Interestingly, the fabric is shiny on one side and matte– almost dupioni-ish– on the other, and the embroidery is on the matte side. I didn’t realize this at first, but I think I like it this way– too much shine (however much it would’ve been loved historically) just reads as “cheap” in modern times.

The panels were originally intended to be curtains, so the embroidered design is set up to hang at the base of each curtain, making for a total of about 172″ of embroidery across the four panels (accounting for the blank borders on the edges). As soon as I saw it I could envision that embroidery around the hem of a full skirt, and I knew that the remaining length of each panel would be plenty for constructing a ballgown bodice with all the trimmings.

And look, there are even period examples of vaguely similar embellishment around a skirt:



I admit that I bought this fabric more than two years ago and am only just now getting around to using it– I kept meaning to make this dress for one occasion or another, but life interfered and so I kept putting it off. Anyway, I’m doing it now and that’s what matters!

I decided to use Truly Victorian 442 for the bodice, which appears to be a popular pattern. Despite my earlier dislike of berthas, I concluded that having one was a necessary part of the overall aesthetic. The skirt will just be a wide tube, knife-pleated down to a waistband. So here’s my design:


I’m really not doing much in the way of embellishment, letting the fabric design really shine through. I’ll probably be able to use the base ivory fabric for bertha ruffles, etc., but I’ll need to find some blue taffeta to make bows to coordinate with the embroidered flowers, and possibly some narrow gold trim to set off the gold-ish colored leaves. Maybe I’ll make some more fake flowers out of blue ribbon or fabric to put in my hair, and/or at the center of the bertha. Thoughts?

*Question: What kind of flowers do you think these look like, anyway? The star-shaped ones are pretty unrealistic, but the bunches look as if they could be mostly based on something in real life…


3 thoughts on “1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part I: Fabric and Design

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