For Costume College I got tickets to the Fantasy Tea, and the theme this year is “Victorian Fancy Dress.” The thing is, I had a hard time reconciling the idea of fancy dress– which was popular for evening balls in the Victorian era and involved some seriously involved costumes– with an afternoon tea, which implies “prim and proper” attire. I couldn’t figure out how to make a Victorian-style fancy dress outfit that was still appropriate for daytime and teatime, not to mention the fact that I didn’t think I could handle yet another elaborate outfit made from scratch (or pack it in my limited luggage)
And then it came to me– I didn’t have to do Victorian at all! Instead, I decided to embrace the “afternoon tea” theme and go with a 1950s-style skirt suit, gussying it up to be appropriate for a fancy-dress event. After some brainstorming I chose to focus my costume on these lovely dragonfly hairclips– I’d had my eye on them for ages on eBay, but hadn’t had any excuse at all for purchasing them. I bought four.
Once the tea gown was wearable, I added a few extra bits and bobs.
First, covered buttons. I bought several sizes, since I didn’t know which would look best on the finished gown, and ended up using sizes 45, 36, and 30 on the top, and sizes 60, 45, and another 45 on the bottom, all covered in turquoise dupioni. (I tried using 60, 45, and 36 on the bottom but it just didn’t look right) I stitched them not only to the lapels themselves but also to the gown fabric behind them, so they kept the lapels from flipping forward. I will note that I bent the wire shanks slightly so the buttons would stay flatter against the fabric.
I also added two size 24 buttons to the cuff of each sleeve, and let me tell you, covering buttons that small is kind of a pain. Quick tip: don’t try cutting out circles to the correct size and maneuvering them into the mold– instead, cut out larger pieces of fabric, push them into the mold with the button-top, and then trim around them.
Once the gown was structurally complete, I had to finish the edges. I first cut out a standing collar from turquoise dupioni– the original collar went all the way around to close at center front, but I wanted to keep the lace ruffle visible at the neckline so I shortened it to more of a 3/4 collar that stopped at the front edges of the lapels.
The original instructions called for me to attach the facings first, then the collar, so I cut out facings from more turquoise dupioni and stitched it around the front opening of the gown. The problem, however, was that the lined Watteau pleats were so thick at the back of the neck (10 layers in the pleats alone at center back!) that once the facings were added it was almost impossible to turn the seam allowance to the inside. I could manage it, but it made an uncomfortable and unsightly ridge that dug into my neck.
Instead, I decided to change things a bit and sandwich the seam allowance of the Watteau pleats inside the collar rather than turning it over. The seam allowance can lie flat (pointing upwards) instead of being folded downwards, making it much more comfortable at the nape of the neck. I will note that I only did this along the center back section, where the pleats were– once I hit the shoulder seams I transitioned back to the regular method. I stitched the facing on after the collar was attached, so the facing would lie flat on the inside rather than flipping up like the seam allowance.
After stitching together the body of the tea gown, it was time for the center panel. I cut my center panel lining out of my favorite ivory cotton sateen (I bought 12 yards of it a while back and it’s perfect for this kind of thing). It was actually cut in two pieces with an extremely large seam allowance in the center, just in case I need to let the gown out in the future. I hemmed the top and bottom edges with a narrow hem.
I cut the bodice and skirt sections of lace separately, figuring that I’d want a lot more fullness in the skirt. Then I ran a line of hand-stitched gathering stitches along the top and bottom of the bodice section, then at the top of the skirt section. I laid the panels wrong side up over the cotton lining, set my hems so the border matched up at the bottom and top, then drew the gathering threads up until they matched the dimensions of the lining at the neck and waist. I hand-basted the top and bottom lace pieces together through the gathers at the waistline, then trimmed the excess.
(I know I took a break on this one for a bit, but I needed to finish my picnic dress for an early June event, so it took priority…)
Anyway, once I had my altered pattern established for the tea gown, it was time to get to the sewing!
Looking at my fabric, I was relieved that the embroidery was basically omnidirectional, which meant that I didn’t have to be too careful about placing my pattern pieces when determining how to cut them out, as long as they were on-grain. But first I cut each piece out of plain white cotton sateen for lining (I used a queen-sized sheet set). I cut the lining first because it was 1) more expendable, being plain cotton, and 2) easier to draw on, which was important because I didn’t actually cut out the paper pattern pieces (instead poking holes in the paper with a pencil and making dots to connect on the fabric). Then I used the cotton pieces as pattern pieces when cutting out my fashion fabric. Sorry, no photos, I detest the cutting-out process so I try to get it over with as quickly as possible…
After basting all of the lining and outer pieces together for the body (which took forever, also a pain) I stitched my main seams, binding the edges of the seam allowances with Hug Snug seam binding to keep them neat on the inside (well, *neater*– my binding technique still needs work), and sewed in my darts.
I will note that I added pockets to the side seams of the gown– I’m not sure if keeping things in them might ruin the nice smooth line over the hips, but I’d like to keep my options open. I made them out of white cotton, with 2″ wide strips of fashion fabric at the tops so they wouldn’t show much if the slits pulled open a bit. Here’s the inside and outside:
So the outfit is finished at last! Here I’m wearing it over a modern sleeveless cotton blouse that passes as a corset cover, and an antique Edwardian petticoat. (I’d planned to wear a corset but ditched it at the last minute because I thought it would be uncomfortable to wear while sitting on the ground) I accessorized with my Edwardian pumps, my bow-bedecked hat, and a paper parasol. Here are some shots of the full outfit!
Channeling my inner Lady Mary… I’m totally judging whatever it is I’m looking at off in the distance.
With the family, including my little girl in her white eyelet dress!
As I’ve said before, I always do appreciate when a dress turns out exactly as I’d pictured it. It doesn’t always turn out that way, which is sometimes a good thing, but there’s just something so satisfying about comparing the sketch to the real thing and seeing it come to life.
Every now and then I feel the need to rope my family into my historical costuming hobby… but it’s easier said than done. Men’s outfits are relatively straightforward, but getting a 6-year-old to dress up in something she doesn’t want to wear can be tough– and even if you can manage it, watching her go through her day blithely unaware of the various grass stains and other horrors she’s inflicting on your carefully-chosen outfit is just painful. For that reason, I’ve refrained from ever trying to put my daughter in any genuine antiques, or even things that I’ve made with complicated techniques or particularly nice fabrics. I just know she’ll spoil them and I don’t want to spend my day worrying about it instead of enjoying the event.
But what to do when you’re just dying to attend something as a family, in full get-up? You improvise.
Since I spent some time making a light and airy Edwardian picnic dress for myself, I figured that something similar was in order for the kid. While I’d love to make her a dress laden with hand-embroidery and antique insertion lace, as I mentioned before it’s just not in the cards right now– luckily, many extant dresses rely heavily on pre-embroidered fabric for decoration, which is still widely available, so I decided to go that route.