Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1880s gown






updated January 18, 2004

updated March 18, 2004

updated February 2, 2005

updated March 17, 2005

updated February 3, 2005

see the finished product!


SMITH-MCDOWELL HOUSE was built in 1840 and is the oldest house in Asheville. I've been volunteering there since the beginning of the fall, helping with school programs, house tours, and the textile collection. One of the things that's interesting about the house is that each room represents a different decade, so that one can move through it like a timeline from 1840 to 1900. The Christmas decorations are handled the same way. For Christmas 2003 they've inaugurated special candlelight tours with costumed docents, and of course I wanted to be involved.

All the costumes they had thus far acquired were more or less 1850s, so I wanted to do a later period that would go with the ornate 1880s parlor or 1890s dining room. And the "candlelight tour" concept meant that I needed to do something along the lines of a dinner or reception dress. My choice of decade depended primarily on what sort of fabric I could find affordably that fit one of those periods and was the appropriate level of dressiness.


A good deal on a silk-blend striped fabric made my decision for me; multicolored stripes were popular throughout the 1880s. Rifling through my trim stash for period-appropriate and coordinating trim produced a few yards of buttery beige silk satin ribbon, ditto of burgundy velvet ribbon, and absolutely miles of cream net lace. I also liked the brocade ribbon but there was only about 14 inches of it.

Very few gowns of this period were made in just one material, so with the stripes in hand I hit a discount fabric store and almost immediately found a luscious burgundy cotton velvet, very dense and with barely any pile direction, amid the cut lengths on a discount table for about $7 a yard. There were something like three yards and I decided they would have to be enough.


Now there was still a lot of research to do. The bustle declined through the late 1870s, disappeared completely around 1879-1881, and then rose again. I don't like the large, flat-topped post-1883 bustles that look as if you could set a teacup on them, but I wanted a gown that was firmly in the 1880s, so I chose to aim for 1882-83, when only the moderate swellings of bustledom were apparent.

Although it's a little early at c.1880, I liked the princess-line dress at left, and my fabric is encouragingly similar to the plate's (even in color: according to the description that gown is wine stripes on a blue ground, with blue secondary fabric, and mine will be gold stripes on a wine ground with wine secondary fabric). My stripes are running the wrong way to cut such long shapes, so no princess cut for me. However, I like the ruched front skirt treatment, and thought it would work as well in the burgundy velvet as the satin of the original.

Among two-piece dresses, I particularly liked the examples below, all from the excellent site La Couturiere Parisienne. (Click on the small pics to see larger ones.) The fashion plate shows a bodice with a curved bottom I like (minus the fringe) and, on the second model, a better view of where the flat front of the skirt meets the puffings of the back. The Eduard Manet portraits both have square necklines that are very typical of the 1880s and are always framed by lace. Also highly typical is the contrasting-color panel down the front of the second bodice. This seemed a good way to continue the wine velvet up the front of the gown, tying the bodice and skirt together visually (and also bringing a flattering color up to my face!).


After messing around with various bodice designs, I finally came up with the sketch at left. It's particularly, well, sketchy, because the original is only about three inches high, rendered on the corner of a piece of paper in a waiting room. I guess I never stop thinking about costume!

Although you can't really see it in my sketch, I decided to incorporate a small train into the design. A couple of years preceding 1882, dresses for almost every time of day were trained; by the mid-1880s, very few were. In this transitional period, trains were still very common on formal gowns, and I think they add a lot of grace to an otherwise very upright, reined-in style.

Onward to the underpinnings ...

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Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.