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.
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.
Unlike my last two 1920s dresses, I decided that I wanted to make this one with just a tiny bit more shaping than the standard “cut two rectangles and sew up the sides” that I’d been using before. I’d never really drafted my own pattern before for something like this, so I did a little reading and got started!
I started by digging out the mockup I’d made for my white embroidered dress— it was actually in reasonably good shape, so I laid it out on a roll of paper and drew out the basic rectangle pattern to begin. I cut it out of an old sheet, stitched together the shoulder and side seams, and tried it on. Not particularly flattering.
I decided that if I was going to omit the kimono sleeves from the original, I would need to narrow the torso around the bust and shoulders for a better fit– my hips are just too big to cut a straight rectangle and expect it to fit all the way up and down. After some experiments with pintucks (more on that in the next post), I ended up cutting a slightly trapezoidal shift dress, which fit a bit better but still pulled oddly at the sides and gaped at the armholes.
Based on a very useful tutorial I proceeded to pinch out a dart in the armhole, then rotate it around to the side seam. Cutting a final mockup, I was at last happy with the fit– somehow the added shaping at the bust helped the whole thing hang properly, so it was straight up and down both front and back, with no weird pulling at my backside or hips.
I transferred the new pattern to fresh paper so I would have it for future dresses.
Once that was set, I cut out my green striped fabric. And it was there that I made my first mistake. Or rather, my second, but I didn’t realize that until later.
I read somewhere that the embassy ballgown in My Fair Lady was actually an antique gown that was modified for the movie– given that, I assume that the overgown is made of silk tulle or something similar that was in more common use back in the early 1910s. However, there was just no way I could afford to work with something that pricey, so not being overburdened with the need for historical accuracy I decided to go with plain old nylon English net. It’s basically a step up from regular tulle– I discovered the name of the fabric during my jaunt to NYC’s Garment District and it helped immensely in my search, since before that I’d been calling it “soft netting” and kept getting directed to either the crappy tulle bolts or to the stretchy power mesh stuff. I picked up four yards of it in ivory (and immediately second-guessed myself, wondering if I should’ve chosen white instead, but whatever).
When I first started draping the net over my dress form to get the shape of the gown, I just gathered a bunch of it in the center front– however, it immediately became apparent that this would not provide the correct shape– far too poofy, not nearly enough elegant drape. I switched over to the idea of a circular skirt– when the center section draped down from a single point (or really a few closely-spaced points) to a full hem, it looked much better.
Once I’d finished the bodice (the most complicated part, obviously), I added a 1″ waistband– something I don’t usually do, but I thought it would help add some definition to the shape of the dress and would provide a convenient spot for adding trim later. I basically just cut out three 3″ wide strips of fabric (to provide plenty of seam allowance on both sides with room to trim)– one sheer, two cotton, and flatlined the sheer strip with one of the cotton strips.
I pinned the bottom edge of the bodice to the flatlined strip and basted it together. Then I pinned the remaining cotton strip to the inside of the bodice (to use for interior finishing later), and stitched all layers together at once.
When I was first designing this gown I thought that I’d basically construct it the same way I did my drawstring Regency sari dress— widening the front and back of the bodice and adding a drawstring around the neckline to create soft gathers across the bust and allow for sizing in the back. However, the more I looked at the photos of the drawstring dress, the more I felt that I wanted tinier, denser gathers and a more squared-off neckline. In order to get those I’d need to do two things– gather the sheer layer separately from the lining to keep the gathered fabric as thin (and therefore compressible) as possible, and have the gathered section itself be separate from the rest of the bodice to avoid affecting the shape of the neckline.
Complicating matters was the fact that the sheer layer was– well, sheer. That meant many of my interior seams would be visible from the outside, which is always something I try to avoid. After several attempts to figure out the order in which I would stitch together the various pieces of each layer to minimize visible seams, I came up with the following system:
With a Dickens-themed holiday ball coming up in December, I decided to make a new dress for the occasion– a Regency dress, partly because the event specified that Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (from A Christmas Carol) would be in attendance and the Regency period would be correct for the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party portrayed in the book, and partly because Regency gowns are just so much easier to sew than any other period.
For fabric, I decided to go with a vintage embroidered silk sari– it was originally a medium coral color, but I planned to use Crimson iDye to deepen the shade to a nice deep red. I really liked the subtle tone-on-tone effect of the embroidery. It reminded me of the dresses made of Kashmiri shawls back in the Regency period, and I hoped the dye would leave the different shades intact.
Unfortunately, I made a rookie mistake in dyeing my sari– I followed the instructions on the package rather than using my own common sense. So when the instructions said to allow the fabric to agitate in the washing machine with the dye for an extra-long cycle to allow the color to set properly, what I should have done was stop and think to myself, “this is vintage silk with delicate embroidery. I should probably just let the fabric soak in a perfectly still washing machine instead of messing it up and whirling it around and generally risking disaster.”
So which option did I choose? Yup. Disaster.
Not only did the dye not darken the color of the sari much at all, but the agitation completely ruined the embroidery– all of the thread basically unravelled and formed a giant tangle, which had to be cut away to even let me unwind the fabric from its tight, wadded-up ball. Totally unsalvageable.
The only reason I’m not devastated by all this is that the dye clearly didn’t work and wouldn’t have worked even if I’d soaked the fabric carefully– I didn’t like the original color of the sari and wouldn’t have wanted to wear it as-is, so I didn’t really lose anything in my attempt to improve it. I suppose in a perfect world I could’ve overdyed it again with the perfect blend of brown and red, but it probably would’ve taken forever to get it right in any case. So I’m going to cut my losses and try something different for the Dickens Ball.
If only I had any idea of what that would be…