A year or two ago I happened across a post from someone who had found a vintage embroidered caftan at a secondhand store, and transformed it into a fabulous Edwardian-style dress! (Sadly, I can no longer find the post, but it was amazing) I think she basically just added a sash, and wore a lace guimpe under it– those two elements really changed the entire look, and I immediately started looking for a vintage caftan of my own to steal her idea.
Unfortunately, most of the vintage caftans I found were too tropical in style, and the embroidery was placed awkwardly for the look I was going for. Eventually, however, I found this new caftan— it’s got a vaguely nautical feel to it with the blue and white stripes, and the embroidery (while a bit modern in style) was still restrained enough to pass muster for what would be a pretty basic Edwardian-ish ensemble.
So ever since making my first Regency gown to attend a Regency dance weekend a few years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out how to convince my husband to come with me to one of these events. Turns out, I just had to ask him!
Of course, if he’s going to attend a Regency ball, he has to dress the part! While I’m not up to the task of making a tailcoat from scratch (I bought a modern tailcoat instead), I decided to make him a waistcoat– he’s so tall that standard length vests never seem to fit right, plus I wanted to have it go straight across like a real Regency waistcoat, rather than having pointed fronts.
Once the bodice was done, the skirt was relatively straightforward. 1830s skirts are just rectangles pleated to the bodice, so rather than follow the pattern I cut three lengths of fabric to use.
I added some non-historically-accurate pockets to the side seams– I do intend to carry a reticule with this dress, but pockets are nice for things you really don’t want to lose.
Because I had a center back seam I figured that I didn’t need to stitch in a separate placket– I just used an extra-wide seam allowance and folded it over to one side. Sadly, this did not end up working out, as once I’d pleated my skirt to my bodice and basted it in place, I realized that it was just too full– my fabric was 54″ wide, making for a 160″ skirt circumference. It looked more like an 1860s skirt than an 1830s skirt, so I cut out a section from the center back (12″ on each side) and re-stitched the center back seam. That required me to rip out my skirt pleats and start again, which was a pain. And I ended up doing it a third time once I tried it on and was dissatisfied with how I’d distributed the skirt fullness. And then a fourth time when I decided that my waistline was just 1/2″ too high, so I needed to re-set the skirt (and waist piping) entirely to bring it down just a bit. And then a FIFTH time when I realized that in order to balance the hemline properly I’d need to take it up from the waist due to the difference in length between front and back. (sigh)
Ah, gigantic sleeves– is there anything more iconic of the 1830s? I was very excited to get these onto my dress to get the real 1830s look. That being said, after reading a bunch of blogs about 1830s sleeves, I came to the conclusion that the sleeve pattern that came with the pattern wasn’t quite big enough. You heard me: not big enough.
So I’ve finally finished the evening iteration of my convertible gown, and I’m seriously in love with it. It’s so dark and elegant– what with the black-on-black textures of the fabric (moire! velvet! tulle!), the subtly glittery beading, and the velvet bows– and I’m *dying* to wear it somewhere!
Sadly, I may not have the opportunity to do so for a while, nor can I find any appropriately dramatic location for a photo shoot right now, so you’ll have to be satisfied with the picture on the dress form…
So one of the issues I noticed when I first tried on my black moiré skirt with a pair of heels was that it was too short.* I’d originally hemmed it to wear with flats and without tons of petticoats (for comfort), but for a glamorous evening gown I wanted to look tall and elegant, and that meant heels, plus a petticoat to fill out the skirt shape. All in all I needed almost another 3″ in length to make the skirt just brush the tops of my shoes.
*Note: This skirt pattern, Truly Victorian 297, is gorgeous but runs a little short in my opinion. I’m 5’6″ and in order to have the skirt long enough to wear with flats I only had 3/4″ left to turn over as a hem (1/4″ and then another 1/2″ for a finished edge). If I were making this again I would lengthen it, and I’d recommend the same to anyone over 5’6″, even if you’re going to wear flats.
When writing this post, I initially started writing about how a problem facing many historical costumers is carrying all of our bits and bobs when many dresses come without pockets, and how finding appropriately period purses can be difficult. And I was going to talk about how that’s what prompted me to want a chatelaine, which was basically a multi-tool for 19th century women… but then I had to admit to myself that my desire for a chatelaine really had nothing to do with needing to carry stuff with me, and everything to do with it just looking really cool.
So what is a chatelaine? Basically it’s a hook or pin that women would attach to their belt/waistband. It would have several chains hanging from it, and dangling from the chains would be an assortment of useful items– pencils, watches, perfume vials, buttonhooks, needle cases, notebooks, coin purses… basically anything a woman might want to have handy.
Of course, these items weren’t strictly utilitarian– many chatelaines were made of silver, gorgeously embellished, and just generally decorative. Here are some of my favorites, mostly from the 1880s-1890s:
So, with all of this beautiful inspiration, is it any wonder I wanted one for myself?
The problem, of course, is that antique chatelaines with any attachments at all tend to sell for no less than $200, and easily reaching $2,000 depending on condition and complexity. I wasn’t about to spend that much, so I had to improvise.
As you may recall, for me the costuming highlight of the past two years has been attending Costume College– not just for the opportunity to meet up with like-minded costumers and learn new things, but because it provides a venue/excuse for me to make and wear some fabulous costumes that would otherwise languish in my imagination. The Saturday night Gala, especially, is the pinnacle of the weekend costume-wise, and I’ve always had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to make and wear.
Not this year. The themes for 2020 have just been released– the Gala will be Titanic-themed– and I’m stuck. While I would have jumped at the chance back in high school when the Titanic movie first came out (and still think the costumes are lovely), in the intervening years it seems like everyone has already made their own versions of the costumes, so a reproduction of a movie outfit would be unoriginal at best. And while I could always just make something Edwardian in style and go with that, I just can’t seem to get excited about it without some kind of inspiration.
Looking back at my two previous Gala outfits (and many of my other favorite costumes), I tend towards very detailed reproductions of instantly recognizable but seldom-made gowns– heck, the Katniss dress was my first foray into blogging, and definitely fit the bill. I think that having a specific point of reference helps me stay on track in terms of figuring out what comes next in a complicated costume, and it’s nice to be able to feel that I’ve gotten things “right” at the end. On the other hand, I feel like I’d like to be able to break out of the box next year by making something original… I just don’t know if I like the Titanic theme enough to use it as my inspiration.
Complicating matters is the fact that I have a bunch of fabric in my stash that I really ought to get around to using, so I feel kind of compelled to at least try to make a Gala gown out of some of it… if only I could figure out exactly what I wanted to do with it!
So what say you, readers? Do I try to find some Edwardian inspiration to go with the Titanic theme after all? Do I dig into my stash (which really leans Victorian in terms of fabric) and try to be virtuous? Do I hold on and hope that a new film or TV series comes out with fabulous costumes I can reproduce in time for next year? Or do I sit here and waffle over what to do until it’s too late and I have to re-wear something from a previous Gala (not the worst fate in the world, but not nearly as much fun)?
Fabric: The original dress was made out of crocheted tinsel yarn, though I managed to find a decent approximation with what was listed as “crochet lace” (totally not crocheted, you can tell). In retrospect I think my fabric was just a bit heavy, but since my best alternative was much too light it was the best I could get. If you’re looking for something similar, you may want to try Aliexpress.com, where I saw some crochet lace with tiny sequins in it that might mimic the original tinsel better.
I lined the dress with cotton crinkle gauze because I wanted it to have some stretch to allow me to fit the bodice snugly without needing boning. It worked, but the gauze I used ended up feeling kind of thick overall– go for as light a gauze as you can, to avoid being too hot with all of the necessary layers.
Structure: Most of my decisions on structure were based on the desire to avoid the dress sagging/stretching downwards from the sheer weight of the skirt. The princess seams in the bodice were a good call, both to aid in shaping and minimize stretching, and they were hardly noticeable once the beetlewings were sewn on. I also definitely got it right with my idea for skirt structure– the extra support of the separate yoke really reassures me that this dress will not stretch out longer over time (like the My Fair Lady dress did), and on a similar note I’m glad that I underlined the crochet lace with tulle, which kept it from losing its shape as I sewed.
I will note that in the future I may opt to wear a corset under the dress for a properly hourglassy figure, even if Ellen Terry’s contemporaneous letters expressed joy about how she didn’t have to wear one under the dress onstage.
Beetlewings: All the write-ups of the original dress say that it used “1,000 beetlewings,” like that’s some sort of huge number. Don’t listen! I used more like 1700 and I could’ve added more to the skirt without it looking overdone. And since I’m fairly sure that the wings they used in the original dress were smaller than the ones I have now, I’m betting the original used at least that many as well. To save on cost, definitely buy them in bulk on Ebay from Thailand instead of trying to buy them in the U.S. And since you’ll have to drill extra holes in them yourself anyway and trim them to size, you may as well get them undrilled rather than spending the money on predrilled wings.
Sleeves: I know I got the sleeve shape right in terms of the elbow crook being at the underarm seam– it was clearly that way in the original– but honestly, I don’t like it. It makes the sleeves twist weirdly around your arms when you try to bend them, especially when you raise your arms in that iconic right-from-the-portrait pose, and it’s uncomfortable to wear. Really, the only way it works is when your arms are down by your sides. If I were doing this again I would move the curved seam to the top of the sleeve, relying on the crochet lace and beetlewings to disguise the seamline, historical accuracy be damned.
Trim: Despite my belated realization that I’d made my sleeve trim too wide and thereby messed up the proportions, I’m still at least 90% happy with it. If I could go back I might have purchased one more skein of gold cording to double up on the border lines (like in the original), but I don’t know if I’d have bothered to correct the trim width– couching that many gryphon motifs was difficult enough, I don’t even want to think about doing 30% more…
Belt: That being said, I do think I may redo the belt at some point. The links are just too big and they look costume-y, which I was trying to avoid (at least, as much as one can while wearing a giant wig and a dress sewn with shiny green beetlewings). And I’m considering getting some gold foil to glue over the links for a “real metal” look, rather than paint.
Wig: I’m definitely going to restyle the wig the next time I wear it– looking at the painting again, the gold ribbon was too wide and wasn’t wrapped as densely as it was in the picture. And I’ll probably get some diluted glue to smooth over the wig to avoid all the flyaways I ended up with by the end of the night. Or perhaps a bunch of hairnets?
Anyway, all in all this was a really fulfilling project– I was extremely happy with the final product and had a great time wearing it, and learned some new skills along the way!
So now that things have settled down a bit, I wanted to do a post about Costume College this year! As you may recall, I had a great time last year, so I’ve been excited to go back! You’ve already seen the making-of posts for the costumes I wore, and my favorite shots of the beetlewing gown, but here’s a summary of the rest of the weekend!
Before even arriving at the conference hotel, we stopped by the Fashion District to shop– and when I say “stopped by,” I mean “shopped for five hours straight.” I ended up with 17 yards of fabric, plus assorted other items, that (with luck) will be showing up in future posts!