Given my love of historical costuming, I often bemoan the fact that despite growing up in Northern California, which appears in retrospect to have been a Mecca of costuming resources and events, the only thing I took advantage of at the time was attending the Northern California Renaissance Faire (which was admittedly awesome). Now I’m in Massachusetts, where costuming events are less abundant and fabric stores are harder to get to. But as luck would have it, I’m going home for Christmas this year and I’ll be in the area for the last day of the San Francisco Dickens Fair!
As soon as I made plans to go, I knew I’d need a dress– nothing too complicated, and hopefully something that could be shoved into a suitcase without taking up too much space or sustaining lasting damage. Unfortunately, the event’s stated period (1842-1863) is smack dab in the middle of a gap in my costuming portfolio– I have nothing between 1815 and 1890. So I have to make something new.
Let’s just say it did not start off well.
I swear, this post took forever to write because every time I thought I had finalized my pattern/fabric choices, something happened to mess it up and I had to go back and update. Anyway, read on for the saga of “the Dickens Fair dress of indecision”…
This is the lace that started it all. Really, I had a totally different idea for my next afternoon-tea outfit– it was going to be a tiered white cotton Edwardian dress with embroidered navy trim– and then I saw this lace on Etsy and immediately knew I wanted to go in another direction.
Anyway, the Etsy seller also had a coordinating narrower lace, plus an even narrower one that looked like it was somewhat similar, so I bought some of all three. I’ll use the widest stuff sparingly, since it’s the most expensive– mostly for the lace collar and the decoration across the front of the bodice. The medium width will be used on the dress cuffs and also on the collar, and I’ll use the narrowest stuff to trim the cuffs of the undersleeves.
After finishing the body of the dress, I still had to decide on the floral embellishments at the hip and shoulder. My Etsy ribbon-flower appliques did indeed arrive in time, but they were kind of boring-looking– too pale, not enough color to them. Besides which, when I pinned them to the dress they looked a little off– too fancy compared to the simple fabric.
I decided to go in a different direction, making ribbon flowers out of ombre-dyed taffeta ribbon. And because I can never take the easy route to things like this, I decided to dye my own ivory ribbon rather than buy it pre-colored.
So while I was working out the bodice block pattern for my green 1920s dress, I did some experimenting to determine whether I wanted to do a pintucked detail at the shoulders. I thought that the tucks might be a good way to narrow the shoulders while still allowing more space through the torso and around the hips, so I gave it a try on an early mockup made of a blue cotton sheet, figuring I could always cut it narrower if it didn’t work out.
I started out by cutting my torso piece as a rectangle instead of a trapezoid– the difference meant that each piece (front and back) was about 4″ wider at the top than it had to be. To take in the extra width I stitched in four 1/4″ tucks on either side of the neckline before stitching together the shoulder seams, grading the tucks so they were longest towards the center and shortest towards the armholes. They actually looked pretty decent once the shoulder and side seams were done, and they did provide a little shaping in the shoulders that let the dress hang nicely without needing an underarm dart.
In fact, despite the fact that I eventually decided not to do pintucks on the green dress, I liked the effect so much that I decided I might as well complete the mockup, so as to have another option to wear to future events.
Going off momentarily in a different direction, I also started on a 1920s-style day dress for yet another vintage-themed event I’m attending this month…
I admit it– I’ve never really been a fan of the standard 1920s silhouette. It basically makes everyone look shapeless and dumpy– I mean, if even the ladies of Downton Abbey look like they’re wearing gussied-up hospital gowns, what chance do the rest of us have? But when I got the chance to attend a 1920s lawn party I figured I may as well give the look a shot– after all, the columnar silhouette was popular for years, it couldn’t be all bad!
I even had the beginnings of a day dress in my fabric stash already– some vintage pre-embroidered white cotton that had originally been set up to make a Victorian or Edwardian blouse out of. I couldn’t be sure of the precise time period, but the padded satin stitch embroidery just screamed “turn of the century” to me. I found it on eBay and bought it for a song, and it was just long enough to make a knee-length dress out of! (photo darkened so you can see the embroidery pattern)
I decided against using the embroidered neckline as an actual neckline– it was too wide and drew too much attention to the bust– so I turned the whole thing upside down and decided to use it as a hem decoration. There were also some smaller areas of embroidery that I could use to decorate other parts of the dress. I sketched out my basic design, planning on using a variation of the One-Hour Dress I’d seen online.
I bought some vintage insertion trim to add some interest to the body of the dress– it has an area of central embroidery and cutwork, with entredeux on either side. What is entredeux, you may ask? It’s basically an embroidered ladder-like trim, often inserted between fabrics to make a decorative line of openwork. It helps make the embroidered insertion look more deliberate, in my opinion, and less as if it was just pieced in.
So, let’s see how it works out!
I admit it, I’ve been bitten by the Regency costuming bug. It’s just such an easy period to sew for, and there actually seem to be enough places to wear the results, that I can’t help myself. For my excuse to make this one I told myself that I was planning a costumed picnic for this summer, and that I would need something new either to wear myself or lend to someone else for the event. Makes sense, right?
Anyway, I considered breaking up this post into several installments, as I have with other dressmaking projects, but honestly the dress went together in a single weekend– it was that easy– so it hardly seemed fair to make you all wait for longer than that to see how it turned out! I’ll just put in headings for organization…
Part of this project is driven by fabric– I found a lovely vintage cotton sari on eBay that I was dying to use, especially once I diagrammed out how I could make best use of the border print. Sari fabric is actually a very period fabric for Regency dresses, as the British colonies in India were regularly supplying it for use in England.
The sari itself is extremely thin and delicate– it looks like a cotton gauze, and it’s so light and airy that it’s basically transparent. I hand-washed it so it wouldn’t get messed up in our washing machine, and let it air-dry in the sun before ironing it to get it ready for use.
It has a wide border down one side and a narrow border down the other, with a double-wide border on one end (the “pallu”).
You didn’t expect me to go to a Regency dance event without a friend, did you? And of course, she wanted to go in costume as well! (or rather, I strongly encouraged her to do so and volunteered to help make it so she had no excuse to refuse) While I was putting together my blue Regency dress I was also helping her put together her burgundy dress, which was only slightly different structurally from mine.
She used a twin-sized burgundy sheet set for her outer fabric, which provided plenty of yardage for the dress with some to spare. The lining was made of a white cotton sheet that I found at Goodwill. To make the design a little more interesting we gathered the front of the bodice, by the simple expedient of making the center bodice section wider and then gathering it to fit the original-sized lining. I think it turned out well.
Once it was put together we decided it needed a little trim, so I found a length of cream-colored sheer pleated trim (leftover from the Great Hat Project) and whip-stitched it to the inside of the neckline. You can’t really see it in this photo, since she’s got a scarf tucked into her neckline to serve as a fichu.
I also got some 1 1/2″ black velvet ribbon and stitched it to the waist seam. The placement was a little tricky, because placing it under the bust really diminished the effect of the Empire waist, making it look lower than it was. But trying to sew it above the waist seam just looked funny. In the end I centered it on the seam in front, but brought it all the way up to sit on top of the seam in back. Of course, it’ll be impossible to machine-wash the dress now that it’s got delicate velvet ribbon on it, but that’s the price you pay for beauty…
A few mistakes, of course: the “blind hem” was a little more obvious than I’d have liked due to my thread being just a shade too light to fade into the background. The neckline wasn’t perfectly fitted, so I had to hand-tack it in a few places to get it to lie properly across the chest. In retrospect I should’ve lined the bodice in burgundy rather than in white, because the lining peeked over the top of the neckline despite my efforts at topstitching. I will note that unlike my blue dress (which I actually sewed after finishing this one), the back of the skirt didn’t puff out weirdly because we’d added extra fullness to the back when cutting out the panel. The curve was still technically there, but the added fabric made it disappear into the pleats so it wasn’t noticeable at all.
We also hemmed up a black velvet jacket to make her a spencer (it fit perfectly and didn’t need any other alteration), and did a really basic modification on a straw hat to make a bonnet! Overall I really like the effect, and my friend looked fabulous!