Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1880s gown

The Corset.

As with most historic costume, it's vital to get the underpinnings right for an 1880s gown or the outfit will just look terribly wrong. Corsets had become very rigid and curvaceous by the 1880s - and long, because unlike those that go under hoopskirts they have to support a bodice that is smooth down to the hip. There are late-Victorian corset patterns available, but I don't like them because they don't seem nearly curvy enough to me (and I have wide hips!). I decided to enlarge a scaled pattern in Jean Hunnisett's Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women's Dress, 1800-1909, which unlike some of her patterns is apparently taken directly from a corset of the period. Enlarging the pattern to the right waist measurement seemed to give about the right hip measurement also; I knocked a little off the front pieces at the bustline but decided to do the rest of the fitting there when I made a mockup. I then measured the length of the boning pockets and ordered a busk and spiral boning from, since there isn't anywhere to get such things locally. There are many substitutes for boning materials, but if you want to bone the curving shapes of a late-Victorian corset you need spiral boning, which has the most important property of real whalebone: it curves not just forward and back but side-to-side.

I had just enough straight boning on hand to work up a mockup that would tell me if I was on the right track. I used some old stiffly-sized cheap curtain material since it held its shape much better than muslin. Since my pattern pieces had no seam allowance, I traced directly around them onto the fabric with a Sharpie and then cut an inch or two around that. This gives a more precise fit than working a seam allowance into the pattern, because in measuring out to add the seam allowance and then measuring back in when sewing the seam, you introduce a lot of room for error. This way I matched up my black seam lines directly to each other and ignored the amount of allowance.

I stitched all the vertical seams and pressed them toward the back, sewed the front shut since I didn't have the front-opening busk yet, and stitched a lacing strip and a couple of pieces of boning to the back opening. (Click on the image at left to see it up close. If you look carefully, you can see that I've lettered the pieces to keep them in the right order and right-side-up - a real problem with all these little hourglass-shaped pieces!) Then I very loosely laced the mockup with a tremendously long lace, wriggled it down over my head, and pulled the lace up. I wound up taking a little off the hip, and a lot off the bustline. Actually in retrospect I think I could have kept it a little bigger in the bust, and just would have had a little less "lift" - fine for this decade. Better a little snug than gapping, though!

Further research on corsets of this period, especially in The Corset: A Cultural History and the Kyoto Costume Institute's Fashion, revealed that although there were a number of color and fabric choices for corsets of this period, white silk satin was considered the most tasteful and ladylike choice. Since I happened to have some scraps of the same, this seemed providential. While I was waiting for my boning to arrive, I cut the corset out once in the white satin and once in a very heavy unbleached cotton canvas. Hunnisett's directions produce a single-layer corset with the boning set in channels, but historically a two-layer corset was more common and would provide more support with less boning. And would be cheaper, since I had canvas lying around but not boning tape. I traced the shapes of my pattern pieces lightly in pencil this time, since I didn't want the lines to show through to the right side if I had to let a seam out anywhere.

I ran up the seams of the silk pieces, folded the center back pieces in, stitched the boning channels, and marked and hand-worked the eyelets. Metal eyelets were widely used by this period, but I've had bad luck with them not setting properly, pulling out, or snagging delicate fabrics; and besides, they're bulky. Working them by hand is slow, though quicker with practice - and hey, it gives me an excuse to watch BBC America or listen to NPR while I'm working them. I use the Hunnisett method: poke a hole with an awl, and then using buttonhole twist or quilting thread whip roughly round from the wrong side, then tightly round on the right side.

After running up the vertical seams of the canvas pieces, this was about as far as I could get until the boning and busk arrived. Fortunately, they were right on schedule. I set the busk in the front, poking holes for the posts with the awl and leaving gaps in the other side's seam for the loops. At this point I was finally able to lace it up and try the thing on to make sure it was on track, which it was. I then laid the canvas and silk wrong sides together, trimmed the front and back edges of the canvas so I could tuck them under the silk facings, pressed the raw edges of the facings under, and stitched canvas and silk together. Then I stitched all the remaining boning channels from the silk side and inserted the boning (needlenose pliers are really handy for getting the boning all the way down into the channels). After stitching along the bottom and top of the corset to keep the boning in place and trimming to a 1/8-inch seam allowance, I bound the edges with satin ribbon. Between the bulk of the corset and the slipperiness of the satins, I couldn't keep the ribbon in place to sew it all with the machine, so I stitched one edge in place on the outside, then folded it under and whipped it down on the inside.

No 1880s corset is complete without a band of lace across the top. I had some very nice cotton lace, but to give the right look it should really be beaded - that is, have a ribbon threaded through it. My lace wasn't designed for this, but I found that it was tightly woven enough that I could clip it at regular intervals and it didn't unravel. I wove a thin pink ribbon through, handstitched it down, and was done.

The color is truer in the brighter flash pictures, but you can't see much detail and the angle is a little odd because my husband was sitting lower than me, so it looks bottom-heavy. The proportions in the second picture are a little truer, although perhaps a little top-heavy! Oh, well. These were taken pretty late at night. I'll try to get some better, daylight closeups of the details. Meanwhile, click on the little pics to see the big ones.

March 18, 2004: The Bustle Pad.

I needed a small bustle pad to assist with the gentle swelling you see at the back of these gowns. Once again I used Period Costume for Stage & Screen, although the shapes are so simple it's more about measuring the right dimensions onto the fabric than it is about enlarging a pattern per se. I found the directions to be slightly confusing, only because I couldn't quite tell from the illustration what I was going to wind up with. However, they worked out well once I got the gist, and although the pic at right is a bit blurry (click on it for a larger version), it definitely gives the idea. (It does look rather like a demented backwards apron, though, I must admit!)

The ruffle around the edge is optional, but I think it helps keep the thing in place on your backside, since the pad itself is not very wide. I also chose to make the tape ties longer on one side than the other, with the intention of tying it over my left hip instead of in front - I didn't want the knot and bow bulking up the close-fitting front of the gown.

I was able to make this pad from scraps of sheeting and netting that I already had around, and did it all in one day, so it was a very satisfying project!

Other Underthings.

Before I move on to the gown, I just wanted to add a few words about other underthings. Because I had a limited time and the only thing that mattered was the way the gown looked from the outside, I focused on making only those underthings that contribute to the fit of the gown - the corset and bustle. By rights I should also have made a chemise and drawers or the new-to-this-period "combinations" (which are, unsurprisingly, a combination of a chemise and drawers!). I also should have a short, narrow petticoat and possibly also a corset cover. And finally, I should have over-the-knee stockings and tie-on garters, whether fabric, knitted, or incorporating rubber (elastic).

However, I had enough "make-do" items and not enough time. I relied on a 1920s vintage linen chemise with an appropriate square neckline, a circa-1900 cotton petticoat (a little fuller than it should be, but so soft it just folds up on itself and doesn't hold the skirt out), and my modern underpants and knee socks.

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