Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1880s gown

The Skirt.

Once again I had two patterns to choose from in Period Costume for Stage & Screen: a Foundation Skirt for 1880-84, which was a bit fuller than I wanted but had a nice smooth front, and the 1880 Skirt, which was closer to the line I wanted if perhaps a bit too slim, but had long darts in front that I didn't like and also had a strangely pieced-in train I wasn't too sure about. I decided to go with the 1880-84 skirt.

Skirts of this period are supposed to hang very straight and smooth, with heavy folds of material rather like elaborate window drapes. In order to get the right weight, my plan was to interline the skirt with a heavy brushed cotton I'd gotten very cheaply. Or rather, what you do is build a "foundation," as the pattern name implies, and then use it as a sort of frame to drape the fashion fabric over.

With scaled skirt patterns I don't make an actual pattern, I just measure out and mark the fabric itself. And since my interlining was so inexpensive, I just went ahead and cut it out.

I treated the interlining and the lining pieces as one, turning the selvages to the outside - which would become the inside when I draped the fashion fabric over it. Does that make sense?

I immediately found that this skirt had far too much volume. I took quite a bit off the side front seams (I don't remember how much, but I think it was something like eight inches off either front edge and half that off the side fronts. It was still too loose, but I decided to solve that problem by using tapes. In period, it was very common to control the fullness in a skirt by sewing tapes (ribbons) into the side-seams and tying them inside the skirt to keep it close to the legs. It's a way of having quite a full skirt but keeping all the fullness at the back, while keeping it easier to press (untie the tapes and you can flatten out the fabric) and maintaining flexibility in case fashions change to a wider skirt sillhouette. In practice I find that the tapes make it a little more difficult to get into the skirt - it's easy to get your legs tangled up - but they do work exactly like they're supposed to.

I quite like how this turned out. The gores work amazingly well to produce a fitted shape, very rounded over the hips. My bustle pad really produced a good profile, too.

February 2, 2005: Getting Serious About the Skirt.

While the skirt base was made from a scaled pattern (although heavily adjusted once tried on), the fashion fabric was almost entirely sewn by hand directly onto the skirt base while it hung on a mannequin. I found this was the best way to work out the draping, get my stripes to come out, etc., and really faster and less frustrating than it would have been to have tried to work out a pattern and stitch it up on the machine, then apply it to the base.

That said, there was one part where the machine sped things up considerably: the shirring on the front panel. My inspiration for the shirring, the fashion plate at right, has varying numbers of shirred lines, but I decided to keep mine symmetrical. The placement was a little tricky; the bottom tier looked best when it had a bit less material below it than the others, and the top looked best when it was a compromise between distance from the waist and distance from the bottom of the bodice. I just played with different pinnings until I got something I liked. Then I measured out groups of five lines for each shirring, marking them on the back of the velvet since it's basically impossible to mark the front, and ran the gathering threads on the machine. I then pulled the threads up, placed the fabric on the skirt front, pinned it into place, and ran over each line of gathering with a line of machine stitching. I didn't want a gathering thread breaking and letting the shirring come out.

It was tricky getting through all those layers cleanly and even trickier getting the bulky skirt base manuevered around the machine; in retrospect I think I should have only basted one of the side seams when finalizing the skirt base, ripped it out to sew on the shirred panel, the sewn the side seam up properly. Well, live and learn. At any rate, it worked, and here is a closeup of the shirring. I think the velvet responded to this treatment beautifully!

Next I draped the striped fabric onto the base. I didn't have overmuch fabric for this, so I started by folding under the material at each end so that the stripe would match where it met the bodice, and pinned it to either side of the front. Then I smoothed it back toward the sides. My opening was at the right side, so I went ahead and cut the fabric off vertically there, of course leaving plenty for a seam. (On the left side I put in a pleat at that point.) I folded the new cut edge under until my stripes matched again, and pinned it into place. Below you can see how the seam was stitched up, showing the opening in the fashion fabric, and the opening in the skirt base below.

So now I had the fabric pinned evenly at the side seams of the base, and a big loose tube at the back. Basically I just experimented with putting in various pleats and poofing up the fabric with my hand until I got the effect I was after. I wound up with a slightly odd arrangement of pleats coming back from the front and forward from the back, but it works and it's all hidden under the bodice anyway!

I experimented with multiple poofs but wound up with just one big poof in the back that fell away into a small train. I couldn't see how the poof would keep from collapsing when I sat down, so I decided to stuff a few handfuls of tulle into it before I secured it to the base. Amazingly, it's just tacked to the base in about four places - that's all that's needed to hold it.

Lastly, I cut long strips of the velvet along the selvage, seamed them together, and zigzagged the raw edge. I folded the selvage edge under and whipstitched it in place, then gathered the strip just below the zigzagged edge to form the ruffle that is seen at the bottom of almost all these gowns (when there isn't a ruffle, there are box pleats). I stitched it directly to the base, and then I trimmed the overskirt, turned its edges under, and stitched it directly on top of the ruffle.

Oh, yes, and I added a waistband.

Here's the final effect:

You'll notice that the velvet panel in front doesn't completely cover the base fabric at the top. That's because it's covered by the front of the bodice, and I was afraid the shirred velvet would be too bulky near the waist. I didn't want a line to show where the velvet ended, either, so rather than turn the edge under I just covered it with binding lace, whipped down.

As with the bodice, I'm still playing with the idea of adding some ribbon trim to the front edges where the velvet meets the silk. And I'd like to add another row of velvet ruffle to the bottom edge; right now it's just barely long enough to cover the base, so if anything pushes it up you see the base material. Of course I could trim the base back, but my original intention was to have a double ruffle and I do have just enough fabric to make it, I believe.

March 17, 2005: Finished!

After playing around with various trim possibilities, I decided they were just too fussy and it was busy enough already with the stripes, lace, and fancy buttons. However, I did fix the ruffle at the bottom. I didn't have as much extra velvet as I thought, so instead of adding a second ruffle or shortening the skirt base, I moved the ruffle down. This was only possible because I had overlapped the ruffle quite a bit with the overskirt, so the raw edge at the top of the ruffle would still be covered even when moved down.

It was a nuisance: I had to unstitch the overskirt from the ruffle (that was easy, it was fairly loosely handsewn); unstitch the ruffle from the base (that was a pain, it was machine stitched); move the ruffle down exactly the right amount that the overskirt would still cover the raw edges; and re-handstitch the overskirt into place. However, it was well worth it. Not only do I have full coverage of the skirt base and a slightly longer skirt, which I like, but also the ruffle looks better with the overskirt hitting it just at the gathering line. It's a subtle change but a good one.

And with that, the dress is done! Check out the gallery for lots of pictures. And do let me know what you think!

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