1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part I: Fabric and Design

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.”

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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.

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Belle Epoque Wisteria Gown, Part V: Petticoats

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To really get the elegant silhouette of an 1890s ballgown I needed a good petticoat to go under the skirt. Just like the skirt, it would be relatively narrow at the top with a really wide hem for maximum swishiness. I made it out of 5 yards of white polyester taffeta.

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Belle Epoque Wisteria Gown, Part I: The Design

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The period spanning the late 1890s and early 1900s has always been my favorite when it comes to evening wear. You’ve got the slim waist, slightly fitted hips, and the elegant swoosh to the bottom of the skirt, which all combine for a breathtaking silhouette. Plus, you’ve got gorgeous fabrics and trimming, which can run the gamut from embroidery to lace to faux flowers to beading… the possibilities are endless. Which is why, when I heard about a Victorian-themed dance weekend in my area, I knew I’d have to make something for it.

I browsed through Pinterest looking for inspiration, concluding (as I’d always known I would) that the spectacular gowns by Charles Frederick Worth were what I’d eventually end up mimicking. Just look at the gorgeousness!

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After I’d finished drooling, I decided that I’d want to do some kind of embroidered embellishment to go down the front of the entire gown, much like the butterflies you see above. And because I always have to make things difficult for myself, I eschewed the idea of embroidered roses (which I could’ve done using pre-made appliques) and decided on wisteria. I was really inspired by this Japanese fabric:

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So, the gown will be purple, with trailing wisteria blossoms and leaves, possibly some flowing water lines at the hem. Simple, right? Famous last words…