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.
I recently attended a Regency ball, which is usually my excuse to make something new and pretty to wear. However, as I’d just finished cleaning out my closet I couldn’t really justify making a brand-new gown (also, no time), so I decided to freshen up an old one– my ivory sheer ballgown, originally worn under a burgundy open robe made of a vintage dupatta.
I’d worn the burgundy open robe a few times already, but without it the ivory gown just seemed too plain. I dug through my stash and pulled out a vintage chiffon dupatta in forest green, leftover from when I was collecting fabric for my 1920s green evening dress.
To go with my 1840s day dress I knew I needed something to use as a head covering for Dickens Fair. Unfortunately, while the standard shape for an 1840s bonnet is really a “coal scuttle bonnet” with straight sides like this one:
… it was not possible to find one inexpensively on short notice. Further complicating the issue was the fact that I’d have to pack or ship the bonnet, which is a pain since bonnets are so bulky, so I couldn’t just make one at home and get it to California easily. What to do?
Let me just start by saying that Dickens Fair was tons of fun– I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve attended! As always, I think that being in costume contributes immeasurably to my enjoyment of events. Here’s me posing in a bookshop at the Fair:
I accessorized the dress with a shawl, pair of brown vintage gloves, and a bonnet (next post!).
To provide the necessary dome-shaped skirt silhouette, I wore the dress over a crinoline/hoop combination skirt from eBay— it came with three hoops and a layer of stiff nylon netting over them. While actual 1840s dresses would’ve had multiple petticoats to get the right shape, I figured that I could lighten the load by using small hoops (I tightened down the circumference of the hoops by simply pushing them in and taping the loose ends down) with the netting on top– that way I didn’t need all of the layers. I’d have made a cotton petticoat to go over it all if I’d had time, but it just didn’t happen. Besides, I think that the netting softened the outline of the hoops enough that extra petticoats weren’t really necessary.
After I finished the main dress, I decided to add some decorative touches in the form of an antique lace collar and cuffs. I bought mine as a set on eBay, and while they may not be strictly period-accurate– I think the set is probably from several decades after the 1840s, at the earliest– they’re lovely and work well with the dress.
One issue I had was that the lace was extremely yellowed from age– I knew I’d have to whiten it somehow. Soaking in a baking soda solution did nothing, as did Woolite, so I brought out the big guns and soaked it for an hour in an OxiClean bath. That did the trick! A quick press with a warm iron and it was ready to use.
After I finished my bodice, all that was left was the skirt! Laughing Moon 114 has a very basic skirt pattern– it’s just four panels of fabric, with a pocket option that I took full advantage of, hoping to minimize the things I’d have to carry at Dickens Fair. I drafted my own pocket pattern, though, since reviews concur that the drafted pocket is too deep to get your hands all the way into, which makes it less useful. I put it on the right front seam, which was a convenient location.
One thing I did was to cut my skirt slightly wider than the pattern– it was supposed to be three 44″ panels plus one more 13″ panel for a total of about 144″ once the seam allowances were accounted for. I thought a 13″ wide back panel sounded ridiculously narrow, but rather than risk going too wide for 1840s with four 44″ panels, I split the difference and made my fourth panel only about 30″ wide. Not sure if it really made much of a difference in fullness, but it turned out fine.
I chose to use the sleeves from View A of the Laughing Moon 114 pattern– short mancherons over tight, bias-cut long sleeves. While the pattern said that I wouldn’t need to line the mancherons, I didn’t like the look of them unlined– instead, I cut out identical pieces out of my fashion fabric and self-lined the mancherons before attaching them to the long, unlined sleeves.
I hand-basted the sleeves into the armscyes to make sure that all of the layers stayed where they were supposed to be, then machine-stitched over my basting. Then (important step) I clipped the curves on the armscye seams, allowing for more movement. The piping turned out looking great– such a nice tiny detail.