Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1880s gown

The Bodice.

I waffled quite a bit over what pattern to use for this bodice. There is only one example of a gown of this period in Patterns of Fashion, and it's not very applicable to my design. Period Costume for Stage & Screen offers a basic Curiasse Bodice, as well as the 1876-83 Cuirasse Bodice. The first is more readily adapted to having a different-colored panel in the front, but it also has a "fish," a horizontal dart at the waist that I didn't like very much and thought might cause problems with my striped material. I also liked the six-piece back of the second pattern more than the four-piece back of the first, although I let myself in for a lot more stripe-matching nightmares as a result.

I didn't want to try to drape a pattern, because my corset does not fit well on my mannequin and was likely to give me strange results.

I used an overhead projector to blow up the pieces to the right size, and after tracing them off adjusted them slightly, the better to match my corseted proportions. Then I ran up the pattern in that same stiff curtain material I used for the corset mockup.

This first mockup came out remarkably well, although because I am long-waisted I wound up letting out the "shoulder" seam (which actually sits at the top of the back) almost an inch, front and back. Click on the photo at left for a larger image.

Rather than trying to shape the bottom of the bodice, I had left it straight across, since I still needed to fiddle with the front panels and I thought I'd better draw in the bottom curve with it on me than on the flat. Likewise, I drew in the square neckline while wearing it. (What you see here is a rough cut - it wound up being lower.)

The Period Costume pattern I used is shaped in the front by two very long vertical darts on each side, but for my contrasting front panel I needed a seam rather than a dart, running all the way up the front. I converted the dart closest to the center front into a seam, extending the top of it so that it met the outer edge of the square neckline, and curving it outward more sharply below the waist. I put in the bodice curve in front, but wasn't yet sure how I wanted to treat the tails so left them long. At right is what I wound up with; the pieces run, left to right, from center back to center front. The right-most piece is the contrasting front panel.

At this point I also drafted the sleeves. Sleeves of the early 1880s were undergoing an important change, from the "coat sleeve," rather wide, falling-off-the-shoulder style of the 1870s to a closer-fitting, less dropped look. Later in the decade they would become even more fitted and higher on the shoulder, until by the early 1890s women looked as if they were shrugging all the time! But anyway, I used the Period Costume Two-Piece Sleeve, which is described as being designed to "go into an armhole which is in the natural place," although in fact my armhole is still slightly dropped and it worked fine. In my pattern, shown at right, you can see that I used my usual lazy method of patterning for two-piece sleeves: I cut almost, but not quite, through the cutting line for the lower sleeve, so I can use one pattern piece for both upper and lower. It saves room in the pattern file, too.

I was able to recut the front of the mockup and insert a new front panel, as well as attach the new sleeves, to test my altered pattern. Excuse my awful mirror photos! You'll notice that I also got started on the skirt, but to keep things straight I'll save a discussion of that for later.

July 5, 2004: Matching Stripes Is for Masochists.

I do not really advise using a striped fabric for a clothing pattern that's cut in a bunch of complex shapes, as this one is - at least not if you care about matching your stripes. The problem with these heavily curved, princess-seamed bodice pieces is that it is not actually possible to cut the pieces so that all the stripes match up perfectly, even if you fudge the grain lines a bit.

The way I cut my pattern pieces these days is with no seam allowance - that way, you lay the pieces on the fabric, chalk around them, cut a rough seam allowance around that, and rather than matching the raw edges when you sew, you make sure that your stitches are going through the chalk lines on both pieces of fabric. It's a little more trouble to get the pieces lined up, but it's more accurate, and it makes it much easier to match stripes or patterns - since the edge of the pattern piece is the seam line, you can see exactly where the pattern needs to line up.

For example, when I was matching the side backs to the center backs, I chalked out the center back first, and then butted the side-back pattern piece right up next to it and sketched on it the continuation of the fabric pattern. Then, when I moved the side-back pattern piece to another part of the fabric, I knew exactly how to place it on the fabric.

Victorian dresses are almost invariably lined with some sort of brown or tan cotton fabric, glazed for preference (like chintz, although modern chintz is softer and less varnished-looking than the old glazed linings). Trying to keep costs down, especially on something only I would see, I opted for a plain cotton in a tea-stained color. These cotton linings are invariably treated as backings for each of the fashion fabric pieces, rather than shells in their own right. In other words, the modern practice is to make a bodice, make a lining, then put bodice and lining together with all the raw edges hidden by sandwiching them in between. The Victorian practice is to lay each lining piece on its corresponding bodice piece and treat them as one ever after, resulting in raw edges showing on the inside. These edges are usually overcast to keep them from ravelling, and are used to stitch the stays to. At left is a photo of the interior of a genuine 1890s bodice I own. On the left flap, if you click through to the closeup, you can see the varnishy quality of the glazed cotton (the camera washed it out in the main body for some reason). Oh, and I think it's interesting that the white stripe on either side of the button/buttonhole facings is the selvage. Unlike followers of current pattern instructions, seamstresses did not cut them off as a matter of course.

I've wondered about the reasons for this difference. I think that the Victorian method produces slightly smoother seams on the outside, and prevents the lining from shifting around - makes it act as a strengthening backing for the fashion fabric, in fact. The modern method is more geared to ready-to-wear shopping, in which you want things to look as nice on a hanger as they do on a person. It also works better on less-fitted clothing, which almost all non-stretch modern clothing is, by Victorian standards.

Anyway, I put my lining pieces on my bodice pieces and sewed them all together. Below is the result.

I got the shoulders matched, and the stripes at the upper back and under the arm. The "tail" was inevitably going to produce a sort of fan of stripes, and I was fine with that. My fabric has a pretty soft hand with a fair amount of give to it, which has good and bad points; it causes the slight wrinkling you see here (looking much worse than in person because of the flash), but it also makes a fair amount of easing and stretching possible. I wasn't happy with the way the stripes were meeting in the mid-back princess seams as seen above, but in order to keep the stripes right on the upper back I really had to manipulate the fabric. I don't have a picture yet of the improved stripe-matching.

I do really like the shape of this pattern, especially from the back; the curve out around the upper back, in at the waist, and back out over the bustle captures the style of the period. The slope of the shoulders down from the neck is just right, too. It looks as if I'm slumping slightly, but that's really just the cut. The front doesn't look right at the sides because it's just pinned in a couple of places and needs to be pulled more snugly around the corset.

February 2, 2005: Detail Work.

The shoulders of 18th- and 19th-century jackets and bodices were almost never padded, but padding was sometimes used to fill in the depression between the shoulder and the chest (and sometimes just to improve the chest!). I decided that the lie of my bodice need some improving, so I cut a piece of padding to fit from the shoulder seam at top to just below the bust point. I was going to use cotton batting but, oddly, on the day I went looking for some no one had it in stock. I wound up using silk batting instead. It sounds fancy but it's really sort of like a cross between cotton and wool batting in texture, quite soft but dense.

I tapered the padding piece off a bit at the bottom, tucked it in between the fashion fabric and the lining, and tacked it to the armscye and the inside front edge to hold it in place. In the photo at right, of the bodice turned inside-out, I think you can just make out the way the padding softens and smooths the lining in that just-below-the-shoulder area.

You can also see a bit of how I overcast all the seam allowances to join the fashion fabric to the lining and keep things from raveling. This was usually done by hand in period, but I used the zigzag stitch on my machine and frankly it worked just fine. I also overcast the bottom edges together after trimming them to shape.

Since selvages were seldom removed in period, I simply turned my front edges under and slip-stitched them into place. The bottom, neckline, and sleeve ends were also turned in and slip-stitched.

Of course, I am getting a bit ahead of myself. I've skipped over the part about shaping the bottom of the bodice! Basically, I just pinned it up into several different shapes until I found something I liked. I knew I wanted the front to come to a rounded point and for the sides to curve up fairly far, since that's a flattering line; it was the back I wasn't sure about. After trying various rounded and pointed shapes, I decided on the slightly tailored flair of a squared-off tail. However, the tail does taper inward toward the bottom - it just looked better that way.

The Trim.

I also had some decisions to make about trim, but of some things I was sure. I knew I needed a ruffled lace border around the neckline and sleeves, inspired by the examples below (art credits on the first page of this diary).

Fortunately, I got a great deal on yards and yards of a really nice-quality, soft, cream-colored net lace on eBay. A burn test shows it to be probably polyester netting with rayon needlerun embroidery; the effect is very similar to what in period would have been cotton net embroidered with silk. It has one straight edge and one scalloped, so after gathering it up slightly I attached it to the neckline, one piece facing out and one facing in. It's just tacked in place by hand.

I also knew I wanted to tie the velvet of the front panel into trim on the sleeves, so I made fairly deep cuffs. To make the cuffs, I just copied the shape of the bottom of the sleeve, seamed the two pieces together, overcast my edges, and turned the tops under and slipstitched them. Then I turned the sleeve inside out, kept the cuff right-side out, and used simple running stitches to attach it to the bottom of the sleeve. I did the same with a gathered length of lace. When the sleeve was turned right-way-round again (see below left), I pulled the cuff up over the bottom, leaving just a bit curved under to hide the join in materials and the lace peeping out the bottom.

All Buttoned Up.

Another thing I knew was that I really needed some fantastic buttons. Buttons really gained importance in the designs of the late 1870s, and some incredibly wonderful creations adorned bodice fronts throughout the 1880s. Metal, enamel, glass, thread-woven - there was a wide range. The most interesting to me are the pictorial buttons, with images of flowers, birds, classical figures, and all kinds of other things on them. (See example, below left, of buttons on the bodice of a purple silk cut-velvet day gown by Emile Pingat, from the Kyoto Costume Institute.)

I needed ten matching buttons for the front of my bodice, and again eBay came to my rescue. I almost bought some genuine Victorian buttons, which are still available in surprising numbers, but most are bought and sold by collectors who want one each of every design in the universe, rather than a good-sized set of matching ones. In the end I bought 20th-century Czech glass buttons, where they still have the old molds and still hand-paint the glazes onto the buttons, or at least did until recently. Mine feature a pair of very Arts-and-Crafts-influenced sunflowers, glazed in a beautiful iridescent gold/burgundy/purple that changes with the light. I am so in love with these buttons! Unfortunately, the bad photo below right does little to convery their beauty.

I also apologize for my hastily-made handsewn buttonholes, which are fairly crummy but which disappear into the velvet and really don't detract in person. However, It's worth noting their placement, which is quite close to the edge of the bodice. Contemporary clothes usually place a margin of fabric between the button and the edge, but the buttons on bodices of this period are usually right up against it.

Overall Effect.

So this is how far I got on the bodice before I wore the outfit. This is how it currently looks (although this is just loose on a mannequin - it looks much better over my corseted self!):

It's just amazing to me how the lace transforms the look. I am still tinkering with the idea of adding some ribbon trim to the front where the striped fabric meets the velvet, as well as on the cuffs. I am also considering the more aggressive revision of making the sleeves three-quarter instead of full-length. Although I like the proportion of three-quarter sleeves in the paintings shown above, I feel more comfortable in full-length ones and also didn't want to have to worry about long gloves. However, my striped fabric is quite creasy, and the sleeves wind up very crumpled about the inner elbows after just a few bends of the arm. If I were to cut them off higher, I could have the cuffs coming up to the elbow and hiding this problem.

We'll see!

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Copyright 2004-05 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.