Mary Bennet Regency Dress, Part I: Inspiration, Design, and Fabric

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This past year at Costume College 2018 I had a great time in costume, not only at the evening events but also during the day, when I wore my green 1920s dress and my pink cotton Regency dress. They were both cool and reasonably comfortable, which is definitely something I’m going for in future daytime outfits. I also had the vague idea that I’d like to start wearing more outfits that lent themselves to interesting poses or props, the better to take fun pictures with people (so many of mine are boring!). It’s no wonder, then, that in the middle of a random conversation about costumes and period-looking eyeglasses that I was struck with an inspiration for a fun daytime outfit– Mary Bennet, the third Bennet sister in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

marybennet2-1Image result for mary bennet piano

Mary’s primary defining characteristics in the book are being plain (compared to her prettier sisters), moralistic, and terrible at singing/playing the piano. Her father teases her by calling her “a young lady of great reflection,” and she is described as having “a pedantic air and conceited manner.” She frequently “makes extracts” from books she has read, and tends to offer them at inopportune moments. In the movies she is often depicted as wearing spectacles and extremely drab clothing, and in fanfiction she frequently reads from Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, though in the actual text there is no mention of spectacles and Fordyce appears only once, as read by Mr. Collins.

I decided that Mary would make for a fun character to play– I’d be able to stare disapprovingly over my spectacles at people and quote ridiculous lines from Fordyce, and best of all I’d be able to wear comfortable Regency garb all day! Unfortunately, all of my Regency gowns are a bit too colorful to suit my idea of Mary, so I had to make a new one.

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Regency Rosebud Ballgown (Revamp)

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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.

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Burgundy Regency Dress

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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!

Regency Rose Reticule

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Once I had my clothes set for the Regency event, I wanted a reticule (small purse) to carry things in, so as not to spoil the effect with a modern bag. I decided to make mine out of an ivory velveteen remnant from my Velvet Pumpkin project, and lined it with a scrap of sage green faux dupioni I picked up for a dollar at the fabric store. I figured that the ivory-and-sage color combination was sufficiently neutral that it would work with either one of my outfits without being too matchy-matchy.

After some internet browsing, which indicated that many reticules were covered in elaborate floral embroidery, I decided to decorate it with the ribbon flowers left over from my daughter’s flower-embellished holiday dress— they looked vaguely period and it was a good excuse to use them up. I placed them on the fabric, but they looked kind of bare.

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I needed some form of leaf or vine to connect them, so I decided to use some sheer sage-green ribbon (purchased as an option for the Birthday Princess Dress but never used), which I sewed on using a couching technique.

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Blue Regency Day Dress, Part IV: Pleated Trim

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When designing this dress in my head I knew I wouldn’t be content to just let it be plain and unadorned– there would have to be some detailing somewhere. Review of fashion plates and images of antique gowns indicated that elaborate detailing around the hem was more prevalent during the 1815-1820 period, which was a little later than I was going for (waistlines were also starting to get lower, which did not fit my main dress pattern), but I figured it was close enough. I looked around for some ideas for trimming, and came across this fantastic page explaining how to hand-sew various types of pleated and gathered trim.

The trims on the page probably aren’t quite period-accurate, but since I knew that similar trim was used pre-Regency in the 1700s, and since fancy trims of all kinds were popular during the later Regency period, I felt safe using it on my dress.

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Blue Regency Day Dress, Part III: Construction and Pattern Review

So I had my pattern pieces, I had my dyed fabric– I was ready to start gown construction! It started off easy, but then (as it always seems to do) got complicated. Remember, this is Simplicity 4055, based on Sensibility.com’s Regency Gown pattern.**

I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of dress construction, but I will note a few issues I had with this pattern:

  • Like I said earlier, I added an extra curve to the bottom of the front bodice piece to adjust it from an A-cup measurement to a C-cup. I also moved the shoulder seam back and angled it for a more period look, and moved the shoulder straps in towards the center by about 1/2″.
  • I really hated easing the curved back bodice seams together– things just wouldn’t match up properly– and since the finished piece was flat (as opposed to being shaped by the curves), I can only conclude that the curved seams are decorative only. That being said, I see plenty of Regency gowns with straight back seams, which I may do from now on to avoid the irritation.

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Regency Spencer (Cheating)

Skipping ahead a bit (I haven’t gotten around to uploading the photos of the dress by itself), here’s my attempt at period outerwear!

When I realized that due to my Regency event being in April it was likely to be pretty chilly outside, I decided to make a spencer (short jacket) to wear over my day dress. Of course, if there’s one thing I detest in sewing it’s making collars, and I didn’t have the energy to get a pattern and sew a whole jacket from scratch– so instead I went searching for a modern jacket I could convert into a spencer. I was looking for puffed sleeves, a small collar (regular jacket lapels are too big), and some shaping seams to keep it from looking too bulky.

I did a lot of searching online for “military” and “Victorian” jackets (they were the best keywords for the style I was looking for) and ended up finding a khaki-colored canvas jacket that appeared to meet most of my requirements on eBay. It was a size XL in juniors’ sizes, which meant that it ought to fit all right, and it had some nice pleating and piping details that I thought would look good on the finished spencer.

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