Category Archives: Fancy Dress

Suggestions For Dressmakers, 1896

“When it comes to making, the actual sewing and finishing, the American dressmaker has nothing to learn from anyone. First class American dressmakers turn out the best work, so far as the mechanics of dressmaking go, of any dressmakers in the world. In point of fact, they make dresses too well. They might with advantage to themselves, and with no disadvantage to their patrons, unlearn something about sewing, and let some of the fussy details, over which they now bother their heads to very little purpose, go by default.

But the A-1 American dressmaker puts too much fine sewing into her dresses. They look well; they look about as well on the wrong side as upon the right side; perhaps if they were not such marvels of patience in the inside finishing, they might be more artistic to look like on the outside. Look at even the highest priced foreign made dresses; by comparison, they seem almost slovenly in workmanship, compared with American dress, but after all to what end put such an infinite amount of pains into finishing off a dress that, nowadays, is worn but a few times…house dresses and evening dresses might be slighted in finishing just as the Parisian dressmakers slight them without suffering an iota in looks or wearing possibilities, and with a notable saving in time and trouble.

The Parisian dressmaker is clever. She knows every trick in putting her work where it will make the most show. So long as she gets the effect she wants, and it stays as long…as it is required, which is not long, for instance, in a tulle party frock, she doesn’t try to make the sewing in every part of the sort that would win a prize at a school exhibition. The Parisian Milliner long, long ago, found that she could get effects by pinning on her hat and bonnet trimmings that absolutely defied sewing, and the Parisian dressmaker will catch a flounce of lace here and a ribbon there with fascinating grace, and never bother her head about what it looks like on the wrong side. Why should she?”

7138bd5bed5bd5a8921d1fd61bbdfd27I came across this passage in Suggestions For Dressmakers (1896) a number of months ago around the time I was completing my 1899 elusive blue evening gown. It is from the chapter called “Making” on pages 27-28.

The passage immediately brought to mind my process for making historical garments, which is usually along the lines of the “American dressmaker” in that I put many hours of fine sewing into my dresses to make the insides just as much as work of art as the exterior.

The obvious and most current example that came to mind was the dress I was completing at the time, but there are many others as well. Here are a few made during the last few years and spanning the 19th century in terms of their origins.

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In the style of the “American Dressmaker”, the beautifully finished interior of my 1899 elusive blue bodice made in 2016.

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Another beautifully finished bodice in the “American Dressmaker” style from 2014. This is Georgina’s 1858 evening bodice.

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Tidy insides in my 1813 evening gown made in 2013, also in the “American Dressmaker” style.

I also had this passage in mind while working over the first part of this year on my recent 1885 Night Sky fancy dress. I decided with that ensemble to follow the suggestion to adapt to the “Parisian Dressmaker” style and not worry about the insides as I usually do. While still quite tidy, I did not spend time finishing unseen seams inside the skirt or finishing the edges of the vertical seams on the bodice, as you can see below. It was a bit of a struggle with my natural instincts, but worked out very well in terms of the working on this right up until the deadline and not having time for all the pretty finishing anyway.

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I couldn’t entirely shake the urge to be tidy and nicely finish things, but I did leave some edges raw and basted on the trim in case I want to easily remove it in the future.

There’s also the mention of pinning trim on hats. That is a suggestion that I often make use of! I can think of multiple examples of hats that have had trim pinned on for years even while the hats are in storage. For example, remember the hat that I wear with my 1895 Skating Ensemble? That’s the same hat from my 1883 Tailored Ensemble with fur trim and extra feathers that have been pinned on since early 2015. I’ve felt no need to sew those on!

Do you sew like American dressmaker or a Parisian dressmaker? Is it a conscious choice for you to pick one style or the other, or is it just your natural sewing method? What about hats? Do you ever pin your trimmings on?

1885 Night Sky Fancy Dress

It has been a goal to make a specifically fancy dress outfit for years, but particularly since I made a makeshift 1860s flower basket fancy dress outfit in 2015. This May I had the perfect opportunity in the form of a fancy dress ball!

I decided to make an 1880s bustle dress because I already had all the undergarments, including my still-new-feeling 1880s steam molded corset, and because it’s a period of dress that I rarely wear, especially for dancing. I wanted to experiment with dancing in a bustle to see how it worked and what it felt like.

Design-wise, I was inspired by Mrs. Alice Gwynn Vanderbilt’s Electric Light fancy dress outfit made by Worth in 1883, but wanted to adapt the idea to fabrics I already had on hand. Since the fabric I came up with was navy blue, I decided on Night Sky as my inspiration.

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Mrs. Alice Gwynn Vanderbilt’s Electric Light fancy dress outfit, 1883

I started my outfit in January and worked on it over the next four months or so, but despite all that preparation time I was still working on it right up until the day before the event. Luckily, I did the vast majority of the work of cutting, sewing, and fitting before March and April when I became super busy. Tasks left at that point included finishing the bodice edges, trimming, and closures.

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In addition to the Mrs. Vanderbilt’s inspiration I also looked at other 1880s skirts for draping ideas and other 1880s fancy dress outfits for trimming ideas. You can see the most inspiring images and extant garments on my Pinterest board for this project here.

For ease of documentation, I’ll do the facts as with the HSF:

Fabric: 2-3 yards of navy blue cotton twill for underskirt, 6ish yards of navy blue polyester charmeuse, 1ish yard of pink cotton twill for flat lining, and 1-2yds of silver net.

Pattern: My 1885 Frills and Furbelows Bustle Dress pattern, adapted for evening and for the style of skirt desired.

Year: 1885.

Notions: A 3yd tinsel garland, 6 star brooches, 3yds of navy polyester ribbon for lacing, hook and bar closures for the skirt, and thread.

How historically accurate is it?: 90%. Recognizable in it’s own time, certainly. Reasonable construction, certainly. Materials, not so much. It was much more important to use what was on hand than to purchase new fabrics, especially since this is an outfit that I don’t see getting a lot of use.

Hours to complete: Tons. I didn’t keep track. Bustles are fussy and require lots of time with a dress form to achieve an elegant drape.

First worn: May 21.

Total cost: Most of the fabrics were in the stash with the exception of the silver net and most of the notions were purchased cheaply on eBay. Let’s say $20.

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For the photos I wore the dress with my black Seaburys and the new rhinestone shoe clips that I purchased in March. It was quite sparkly and elegant, but for dancing I changed into navy blue velvet flats. They were just as cute but did not get the special treatment of being shown off in photos.

I had the grand idea to use my curly hair ends flipped up on top of my head like the curled fringe popular in the 1880s. It’s also long enough that I was able to make the bun shape on the back also using only my natural hair. I pinned in star brooches to match those on my dress as decoration.

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All in all I’m quite happy with the final result! Dancing in the bustle was just as easy as any other Victorian style. The differences were that all the extra fabric was behind me making some movements more challenging due to space such as during a quadrille, and that the bustle and layers of fabric on the back gathered a fair bit of momentum when turning, creating quite a swish!

Construction wise the only change I would like to make after one wearing is to bone the center back edges so that the back lies flat when laced onto my body and to sew in a matching fabric piece behind the lacing holes to hide any white from undergarments that wants to peak out. I’ll also need to wear a different chemise or tuck the top down so there’s not white cotton poking out at the armholes. However, these are minor changes and I’m not sure when I’ll have the opportunity to wear this again so it might be awhile before they happen.

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For this ball we set up a double sided picture backdrop, one side of which you’ve already seen. The other side included a large stuffed jaguar/panther I dubbed Jaggy for the night. You often see backdrops in regular Victorian photos as well as fancy dress photos. Unfortunately, with my heels on I was too tall for them! Oops! Being too tall inspired me to take some fun sitting photos.

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Hanging out with Jaggy.

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Tired after a night of dancing.

For decoration out of the ordinary, we had the lucky and unexpected use of the fabulous blue and turquoise lanterns in many of the pictures as well as multicolored paper lanterns with lights inside. We put the lanterns around the room in glass vases as bouquets. First, a picture from the set up part of the evening. Second, a picture with some lanterns creeping into the photo.

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Fancy dress outfit, check!

1860s Flower Basket Fancy Dress

A few weekends ago now, I went to an event at The Down Town Association in New York. It was an event out of my usual ordinary line of events and so I took the opportunity to create something out of the ordinary to wear. The title of the post rather gives it away… but I only had a week to put my outfit together!

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Flower Basket, 1860s. This design was created by Jules Helleu or Léon Sault, possibly for Charles Frederick Worth.

Using this image as my inspiration, I determined that I needed to make a flower basket, but that I could use Annabelle as the base for the floral dress. I also wanted to use only items from my stash, thus limiting my options a little bit. So I spent my weeknights creating a fabric basket that fit over my hoops and then furiously pinned flowers to my skirt the day we were leaving for New York in the hopes that they would look good and at least a little like my inspiration image…

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(What does a flower basket do with her hands without a bouquet?)

In the end, I enjoyed my flower basket very much, but didn’t like the fact that my furious pinning job didn’t really achieve the cascading flower look I was going for and that Annabelle’s pre-existing flowers were rather heavier looking than I had hoped, also contributing to the lack of cascading flower look. Maybe someday I’ll try again with the same basket and a different, or differently modified dress, but it was fun to do something different even if the results were not as great as I hoped for.

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I like the basket when you don’t see the skirt flowers.

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(Maybe a flower basket holds her handles?)

As I mentioned, this event was held at The Down Town Association in New York, which was established in 1860 (perfect for my fancy dress!). As far as I can tell the association is still housed in the same building they’ve been in since 1860. It was quite lovely inside, with detailed architecture and beautiful rooms. One room was a library full of a rather random collection of books. I enjoy perusing books and so proceeded to examine the titles closely. And guess what I found? A volume of Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage from 1912!

This excited me quite a bit, not only because it was from 1912, but I think also because it reminded me of Persuasion, in which Mr. Elliot is described as putting Burke’s Peerage in a position of honor in his estimation of important things in the world. Regardless, I got distracted and insisted that I needed to take pictures and look through.

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Here I am, reading Burke’s Peerage!

Burke’s Peerage certainly is an undertaking, and this volume only covered the alphabet through letter L! Unfortunately, I didn’t spot a second volume in the library, but I hope it’s there somewhere.