So one of the issues I noticed when I first tried on my black moiré skirt with a pair of heels was that it was too short.* I’d originally hemmed it to wear with flats and without tons of petticoats (for comfort), but for a glamorous evening gown I wanted to look tall and elegant, and that meant heels, plus a petticoat to fill out the skirt shape. All in all I needed almost another 3″ in length to make the skirt just brush the tops of my shoes.
*Note: This skirt pattern, Truly Victorian 297, is gorgeous but runs a little short in my opinion. I’m 5’6″ and in order to have the skirt long enough to wear with flats I only had 3/4″ left to turn over as a hem (1/4″ and then another 1/2″ for a finished edge). If I were making this again I would lengthen it, and I’d recommend the same to anyone over 5’6″, even if you’re going to wear flats.
Until recently I’d never much cared for the 1830s in terms of fashion– the giant sleeves were off-puttingly wide (unlike 1890s sleeves, which somehow seemed more normal, perhaps because they were higher on the shoulder?) the ankle-length skirts looked awkward, and the giant bonnets were insane. No, I thought, the doll-like silhouette was not for me. But while at Costume College last summer I attended a really fun class on crazy 1830s hair, and then I saw a bunch of attendees walking around in smashing 1830s day dresses, and before I knew it I was hooked!
I picked up Truly Victorian 455, the Romantic Era dress pattern, and started browsing through Pinterest for fabric ideas.
I’ll admit now that although I’m posting about this nearly last, it was actually the first thing I worked on– it just took forever to finalize because 1) I was extremely indecisive about the design, and 2) That indecision forced me to place several separate orders for the various widths of ribbon, which took a while to arrive. But I finally figured out what I wanted to do, AND managed to get it done, so here goes!
As you recall, the plan was to stitch lengths of black velvet ribbon down the front of my skirt, with small gaps in the stitching to allow for attachment of ribbon bows when a dressier look was called for.
The first thing I did was go searching for velvet ribbon in various widths– I wanted the bows to be graduated in size, which meant I needed at least four different sizes to work with. After a bit of experimenting with ribbon I had in my stash I determined that the smallest bows would be made of 1.5″ ribbon, so that was a good starting point. I ended up doing my bows out of 1.5″, 2″, 3″, and 4″ ribbon. I also bought some 1″ with my initial order just in case I needed it (spoiler: I did not).
To make the evening bodice for this outfit, I could’ve bought a whole new pattern but decided (after some conversation with Heather from Truly Victorian at Costume College last year) to modify my Truly Victorian 442 ballgown bodice, which is dated to 1860. I’d used it for my embroidered ballgown before and knew that it fit me well through the torso, so it was a good starting point.
I wanted to lengthen the bodice slightly at the sides to flare out just a bit over the hip, and also change the neckline to bring it up onto the shoulder, because I’d read that an on-shoulder neckline was correct for the period.
I had a whole post written out about how I adjusted the off-shoulder neckline to be on-shoulder instead, then cut out a squared-off neckline to complement the puffed sleeves I had planned– I even made the whole bodice and bound off the neckline, basted in the sleeves, and took pictures for this post!
And then I saw a fashion plate from 1899 with an off-shoulder neckline and instantly started picturing how my gown would look better with a wider shoulder to make my waist look smaller in comparison. I spent an afternoon trying to convince myself that my (already finished) bodice was just fine, but eventually I caved and decided to fix it. In other words, to undo almost all of my pattern modification and hard work. (sigh)
So remember how for Costume College 2019 I made an 1898 black moiré skirt to wear as part of a Haunted Mansion ensemble? And how I got tons of extra fabric to work with based on the cut of the pattern pieces and a lucky break in my online order? Well, I couldn’t let all that go to waste, so I decided to use it to make some coordinating pieces– first, a formal evening ensemble.
The skirt will be the base, of course, and I’m making a ballgown bodice to go with it. I wanted to make sure that the skirt was both fancy enough to be part of a fabulous evening gown and plain enough to be part of a day outfit; I toyed with the idea of detachable flounces or snap-on appliques before the idea hit me– bows.
Velvet bows, to be exact– bows that can be fitted with small snap-on straps (like lingerie stays in the shoulders of vintage dresses) that slip behind gaps in the stitching of a line of plain velvet ribbon. Without the bows, the skirt will have simple rows of black ribbon down the front, but with the bows it will be dressier and tie in (no pun intended) to the bodice decoration.
I’ve decided to keep the gown completely black and accent the bodice with some black point d’ espirit netting, more velvet ribbon, and some black beaded appliques. This way I’ll be able to wear it with my gigantic rhinestone choker from the My Fair Lady costume and really make things sparkle in contrast.
Rather than buy an entirely new bodice pattern I’m going to adapt the neckline of my Truly Victorian 442 bodice pattern to make it suitable for a later period– it fit me so perfectly it seems a shame not to take advantage of that. I’ll pull up the shoulders and revise the shape of the waistline, which shouldn’t be too difficult, and replace the back lacing with hooks and eyes.
Later on I’m hoping I can make a daytime bodice with leg-of-mutton sleeves, but that’ll depend on whether I have enough leftover moiré. Wish me luck!
When writing this post, I initially started writing about how a problem facing many historical costumers is carrying all of our bits and bobs when many dresses come without pockets, and how finding appropriately period purses can be difficult. And I was going to talk about how that’s what prompted me to want a chatelaine, which was basically a multi-tool for 19th century women… but then I had to admit to myself that my desire for a chatelaine really had nothing to do with needing to carry stuff with me, and everything to do with it just looking really cool.
So what is a chatelaine? Basically it’s a hook or pin that women would attach to their belt/waistband. It would have several chains hanging from it, and dangling from the chains would be an assortment of useful items– pencils, watches, perfume vials, buttonhooks, needle cases, notebooks, coin purses… basically anything a woman might want to have handy.
Of course, these items weren’t strictly utilitarian– many chatelaines were made of silver, gorgeously embellished, and just generally decorative. Here are some of my favorites, mostly from the 1880s-1890s:
So, with all of this beautiful inspiration, is it any wonder I wanted one for myself?
The problem, of course, is that antique chatelaines with any attachments at all tend to sell for no less than $200, and easily reaching $2,000 depending on condition and complexity. I wasn’t about to spend that much, so I had to improvise.
Okay, this isn’t an “I made this” post so much as an “I found this” post. It’s about eyeglasses. That is, reasonably historical-looking eyeglasses for those of us who are visually challenged but don’t want to wear contacts all the time. If you’re looking for an inexpensive source for glasses that look pretty decent for dates after 1800 or so, try these:
I found them at Zenni Optical, and after a lot of comparison shopping at similar discount-glasses sites I determined that they were the best-priced pair I could find. The basic prescription glasses, with standard coatings and thickness, cost me under $12 (plus another $5 in shipping). They come in gold and silver, as well as a few less historical-looking colors.
I also picked up this pair (which I don’t like as much on my face because they’re kind of big, but which would still work). They were only $3 more and also come in other colors.
(I will note that both of these pairs have plastic nosepads, which are not historically accurate, but in general this is about as close as you’re going to get without actually seeking out reproduction frames.)
Get some the next time you feel the urge to stare disapprovingly over your spectacles at someone!
As you may recall, for me the costuming highlight of the past two years has been attending Costume College– not just for the opportunity to meet up with like-minded costumers and learn new things, but because it provides a venue/excuse for me to make and wear some fabulous costumes that would otherwise languish in my imagination. The Saturday night Gala, especially, is the pinnacle of the weekend costume-wise, and I’ve always had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to make and wear.
Not this year. The themes for 2020 have just been released– the Gala will be Titanic-themed– and I’m stuck. While I would have jumped at the chance back in high school when the Titanic movie first came out (and still think the costumes are lovely), in the intervening years it seems like everyone has already made their own versions of the costumes, so a reproduction of a movie outfit would be unoriginal at best. And while I could always just make something Edwardian in style and go with that, I just can’t seem to get excited about it without some kind of inspiration.
Looking back at my two previous Gala outfits (and many of my other favorite costumes), I tend towards very detailed reproductions of instantly recognizable but seldom-made gowns– heck, the Katniss dress was my first foray into blogging, and definitely fit the bill. I think that having a specific point of reference helps me stay on track in terms of figuring out what comes next in a complicated costume, and it’s nice to be able to feel that I’ve gotten things “right” at the end. On the other hand, I feel like I’d like to be able to break out of the box next year by making something original… I just don’t know if I like the Titanic theme enough to use it as my inspiration.
Complicating matters is the fact that I have a bunch of fabric in my stash that I really ought to get around to using, so I feel kind of compelled to at least try to make a Gala gown out of some of it… if only I could figure out exactly what I wanted to do with it!
So what say you, readers? Do I try to find some Edwardian inspiration to go with the Titanic theme after all? Do I dig into my stash (which really leans Victorian in terms of fabric) and try to be virtuous? Do I hold on and hope that a new film or TV series comes out with fabulous costumes I can reproduce in time for next year? Or do I sit here and waffle over what to do until it’s too late and I have to re-wear something from a previous Gala (not the worst fate in the world, but not nearly as much fun)?
Fabric: The original dress was made out of crocheted tinsel yarn, though I managed to find a decent approximation with what was listed as “crochet lace” (totally not crocheted, you can tell). In retrospect I think my fabric was just a bit heavy, but since my best alternative was much too light it was the best I could get. If you’re looking for something similar, you may want to try Aliexpress.com, where I saw some crochet lace with tiny sequins in it that might mimic the original tinsel better.
I lined the dress with cotton crinkle gauze because I wanted it to have some stretch to allow me to fit the bodice snugly without needing boning. It worked, but the gauze I used ended up feeling kind of thick overall– go for as light a gauze as you can, to avoid being too hot with all of the necessary layers.
Structure: Most of my decisions on structure were based on the desire to avoid the dress sagging/stretching downwards from the sheer weight of the skirt. The princess seams in the bodice were a good call, both to aid in shaping and minimize stretching, and they were hardly noticeable once the beetlewings were sewn on. I also definitely got it right with my idea for skirt structure– the extra support of the separate yoke really reassures me that this dress will not stretch out longer over time (like the My Fair Lady dress did), and on a similar note I’m glad that I underlined the crochet lace with tulle, which kept it from losing its shape as I sewed.
I will note that in the future I may opt to wear a corset under the dress for a properly hourglassy figure, even if Ellen Terry’s contemporaneous letters expressed joy about how she didn’t have to wear one under the dress onstage.
Beetlewings: All the write-ups of the original dress say that it used “1,000 beetlewings,” like that’s some sort of huge number. Don’t listen! I used more like 1700 and I could’ve added more to the skirt without it looking overdone. And since I’m fairly sure that the wings they used in the original dress were smaller than the ones I have now, I’m betting the original used at least that many as well. To save on cost, definitely buy them in bulk on Ebay from Thailand instead of trying to buy them in the U.S. And since you’ll have to drill extra holes in them yourself anyway and trim them to size, you may as well get them undrilled rather than spending the money on predrilled wings.
Sleeves: I know I got the sleeve shape right in terms of the elbow crook being at the underarm seam– it was clearly that way in the original– but honestly, I don’t like it. It makes the sleeves twist weirdly around your arms when you try to bend them, especially when you raise your arms in that iconic right-from-the-portrait pose, and it’s uncomfortable to wear. Really, the only way it works is when your arms are down by your sides. If I were doing this again I would move the curved seam to the top of the sleeve, relying on the crochet lace and beetlewings to disguise the seamline, historical accuracy be damned.
Trim: Despite my belated realization that I’d made my sleeve trim too wide and thereby messed up the proportions, I’m still at least 90% happy with it. If I could go back I might have purchased one more skein of gold cording to double up on the border lines (like in the original), but I don’t know if I’d have bothered to correct the trim width– couching that many gryphon motifs was difficult enough, I don’t even want to think about doing 30% more…
Belt: That being said, I do think I may redo the belt at some point. The links are just too big and they look costume-y, which I was trying to avoid (at least, as much as one can while wearing a giant wig and a dress sewn with shiny green beetlewings). And I’m considering getting some gold foil to glue over the links for a “real metal” look, rather than paint.
Wig: I’m definitely going to restyle the wig the next time I wear it– looking at the painting again, the gold ribbon was too wide and wasn’t wrapped as densely as it was in the picture. And I’ll probably get some diluted glue to smooth over the wig to avoid all the flyaways I ended up with by the end of the night. Or perhaps a bunch of hairnets?
Anyway, all in all this was a really fulfilling project– I was extremely happy with the final product and had a great time wearing it, and learned some new skills along the way!
The theme for the Costume College afternoon tea this year is “The Haunted Mansion,” and I wanted something appropriately spooky to wear– but it couldn’t be too involved, since I already had tons of other work to do on my other costumes. After some brainstorming I decided to make a Victorian-ish black outfit with skeleton accents– in this case, a skeleton cameo brooch and a skeleton bodysuit worn under a sheer blouse, so the bones would (subtly) show through.
The brooch, blouse, and bodysuit were easily obtained, but I knew I needed a long, black skirt to complete the look. I considered finding a sheer black skirt to complete the “ghost” concept, but ultimately discarded that idea in favor of something more versatile– a black moiré skirt that I could re-use for other Victorian/early Edwardian ensembles.
I already had the perfect pattern in my stash– Truly Victorian 297, an 1898 flared skirt. I’d used it once before to make a tweed skirt for a steampunk outfit, so knew it was easy to put together.