When I was in elementary school, there was a memorable occasion when the school hosted an exhibit of rare and exotic insects; they were displayed in glass cases in our cafeteria and each class of students got to go in and look at all of the interesting species. Personally, I was fascinated by the shiny/iridescent ones– the blue morpho butterflies and the gorgeously green beetles. I thought it would be so neat to have jewelry or something made out of them, but didn’t think it would actually be possible. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the beetle carapaces, at least, were historically used to decorate clothing!
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a gown decorated with beetle wings (not really the wings, but the wing casings) is the Lady Macbeth costume designed by Alice Comyns Carr and worn by actress Ellen Terry in 1888. It made such a splash that it was immortalized by John Singer Sargent the following year:
The original costume was recently restored by the Zenzie Tinker Conservation with funds donated to the National Trust, which means there are tons of closeup photos of the costume itself. It doesn’t look quite as fabulous as it does in the painting, or even as it looked over a hundred years ago, but then what does?
Anyway, the reason for all this background is that I’m going to make my own version of the Lady Macbeth dress for Costume College this year. (a friend of mine has dubbed it “the Scottish Bug Dress” and now I can’t stop thinking of it that way) The event theme is “What’s That Fabric?” and as the original dress was actually crocheted out of sparkling blue and green yarn, then decorated with beetlewings (both rather unconventional choices), I thought it would work perfectly. Add to that the fact that a group of us is getting together to wear dresses inspired by famous paintings, and it was obvious that this dress had to be made!
Edited to add: There’s a great article written by the lead conservator on the restoration process that has some wonderful details, here!
Since most of my Regency gowns were made for dance events or picnics, I’ve generally accessorized them with more formal items or bonnets. While these are appropriate for the occasion, I realize that I’ve been neglecting a standard piece of headwear for adult women– the cap.
Women (at least once married or deemed spinsters) would wear them pretty much all the time, whether alone (indoors) or under bonnets for outings. They could be made of plain or embroidered muslin, or even lace.
I thought that it might be nice to have one, either to cover up a not-so-historical hairstyle or just to add an extra touch of realism to an indoor outfit. The second cap pictured above is my favorite, with the embroidered net and delicate lace ruffles, so I started with that as my inspiration.
So this is my third year organizing a Historical Costumers’ Picnic, and in honor of the event I’m going to make something new to wear (as I do every year). Since I’ve got a bunch of other projects going on for Costume College I decided that this one should be relatively simple– no complicated fitting issues, no elaborate handmade trims or fastenings, no insane underpinnings. So the Victorian era was out, of course, as was the very early Edwardian period. I already had a 1920s summer dress from last year, so this time I opted to go a few years earlier, when the dresses were starting to get lighter, airier, and shorter (just hitting the ankle) but still had natural waistlines and relatively slim skirts. 1915 seemed about right from the fashion plates and extant gowns:
So here’s my sketch:
I can’t remember where I got the idea, but I’ve been wanting a Victorian tea gown for a while now. What’s a tea gown? It started off as a casual morning wrapper to be worn for informal at-home occasions, and then apparently got more stylized and formalized over time until it became a whole new mode of dress– still for wearing at home, but no longer something it was unacceptable to be seen in by visitors. Jennifer Rosbrugh has a nice history of them here, and The Dreamstress has another excellent explanation here.
Anyway, I loved the concept, and after a little bit more research I decided to base my own tea gown on Truly Victorian 432. It looks relatively straightforward, and has Watteau pleats in the back (shades of a robe a la francaise!) that I love the look of.
While I was in Los Angeles last year I saw some gorgeous embroidered fabric for $2.95/yard (!) that I just had to snap up– at the time I’d had a vague notion of making this project but wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do with it, so I got 8 yards of embroidered fabric, plus another two yards of coordinating sea-green dupioni and an extra yard of pinky-bronze taffeta to match the embroidered flowers. Plus several yards of coordinating trim, because it was on massive sale at $0.99/yard! I figured that would be enough for anything. Behold, my collection!
I’m fairly sure it’s all polyester/acetate, but it’s so darned beautiful and I’ll line it with cotton, at least, so that’s something, right?
Once the skirt was done, I got out my bodice pattern– Truly Victorian 442– and started cutting out a mockup. I cut size D for the front and size E for the back, per the measurements in the instructions, and stitched the pieces together as instructed. It went together pretty fast, all things considered– I’m particularly happy with how well the curved back seams match up and how easy they were to stitch… take note, Simplicity 4055!
I tried it on first over my dress form just to see if it was anywhere near the right size. The dress form is about right for my corseted measurements, anyway, since the corset doesn’t actually reduce my waistline so much as shape it more attractively. It looked reasonably close.
Then I actually tried it on myself, over the hoop skirt and skirt, to see how much work I had to do to get it to fit. The problem, of course, was that my husband isn’t so great at pinning fabric on me, so had a difficult time lining things up to see where the trouble spots were. Also, he’s reluctant to pin things too tightly, even though I pointed out that a bodice like this is supposed to be form-fitting. In the end, I determined that there weren’t any major problems with the pattern as drafted (at least none that couldn’t be fixed by a little tweaking at the side seams), and decided to leave the pattern unaltered.
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.
So remember last year when I was sewing my blue Regency dress, and I said that I already had a Regency ballgown that I’d intended to use for that dance event? Here’s the story: Back when I was in college, I was shopping at JC Penney’s when I came across these beautiful shower curtains that I immediately knew would make a perfect Regency gown. That’s right. Shower curtains = Regency gown. Sounds weird, but hear me out– they were made of ivory netting, embroidered all over with variegated pink roses and green vines, and they were so pretty and antique-y that I knew they’d work.
Of course, back then I didn’t have much experience sewing dresses from scratch, much less dealing with fiddly materials like embroidered net, so I found a seamstress online (Etsy was not a thing back then) and commissioned her to make me a gown based on a sketch I sent along with my fabrics. It turned out nicely, and I spent the next several weeks snipping out embroidered roses from the remaining fabric scraps and applique-ing them onto the gown with hand-embroidered vines to make it more embellished. The finished product was really beautiful. It always reminded me of Anne Shirley’s dress from Anne of the Island:
She had a particularly pretty gown on. Originally it had been only a simple little slip of cream silk with a chiffon overdress. But Phil had insisted on taking it home with her in the Christmas holidays and embroidering tiny rosebuds all over the chiffon. Phil’s fingers were deft, and the result was a dress which was the envy of every Redmond girl. Even Allie Boone, whose frocks came from Paris, was wont to look with longing eyes on that rosebud concoction as Anne trailed up the main staircase at Redmond in it.