HSF/M #10: 1910 Dowager Countess Evening Gown


This gown was already in my sewing plan before I decided it fit into the HSF/M Challenge #10: Sewing Secrets. It turns out that it fits into the Sewing Secrets challenge for multiple reasons:

#1: Because like many dresses from the first few decades of the 20th century, the method of closure is cleverly hidden, rather complicated, and definitely secretive–you really can’t tell how the dress goes on just looking at it once it’s all hooked up. (Right? Can you figure it out before I show you later in the post?)

#2: The beaded panel on the front might look familiar if you’ve been reading my blog for a few years. It is actually the sleeve (turned upside down) from a 1980s evening gown that I remade into a sleeveless 1925 evening gown.

#3: I made this dress with a train because I had enough fabric, it’s elegant, and I don’t get to have many dresses with trains because I’m usually dancing in them. However, I do plan to dance in this dress, so I included a secret hidden button under the decorative knot at the back and a loop on the center back skirt seam so that the skirt can hook up (bustling, essentially) to be a uniform length all around so I can dance unhindered!


I paired this new dress with my American Duchess Astoria shoes, because they are super comfy and made sense color-wise with my other accessories: plain white stockings, a super long strand of faux pearls, lovely clear/white dangle earrings I’ve had for at least ten years, and two matching metallic silver wrapped hair pins I think my mother gave me also a number of years ago. Underneath is my 1913 chemise and corset.


I’ve had all the fabrics in the stash for at least three to seven years. The underskirt was leftover from a former project never fully pictured here on the blog–an 1890s 2 part dress taken directly from an extant bodice with an extrapolated skirt (the skirt was worn by a friend in Newport in 2012–there are pictures toward the bottom of this past post, and I forgot that the ensemble I’m wearing in that post also uses this same fabric as trim). I had purchased way more fabric than I needed and had more than enough for the new project, so I guess I’ll be using it on another something someday. The matching chiffon and charmeuse I’d purchased with the intention of making a 1910s evening dress back in 2012, but ran out of time that year.

When I was first seriously thinking of making this dress, I thought I had enough fabric to do something like this dress, but I hit a snag when I realized I only had about ½ yd of the charmeuse and that the beaded sleeve I was hoping to incorporate into the dress was entirely unsuited for the shape of the beaded bit on the inspiration dress. I decided to make a dress like my original inspiration someday, but to go back to the beginning for the current dress and rethink what the dress might look like. I would up with something I am quite happy with that is drawn from a variety of inspirational dresses on my 1909-1914 evening gown Pinterest board with this as the most obvious inspiration.

Just the facts:

Fabric: One beaded silk sleeve from a 1980s evening dress that I deconstructed two years ago to make a 1925 evening dress, about ¼ yd of plain weave cotton for the base, less than ¼ yd of silk charmeuse, about 2 yds of silk chiffon, and 3-4 yds of lightweight silk faille for the underskirt.

Pattern: Created by me, loosely starting with the pattern for the bodice of my 1912 burgundy and gold evening gown and referencing skirt shapes in Janet Arnold for inspiration.

Year: 1910.

Notions: Thread, hooks and bars, and two pre-made tassels.

How historically accurate is it?: It definitely passes Leimomi’s test of being recognizable in its own time. It uses accurate materials and accurate techniques. 95%.

Hours to complete: More than I kept count of.

First worn: In September 2015.

Total cost: Technically this is a stash project because all of the things I used have been in my stash for years, except the tassels, which I bought within the last year knowing this project was high on the to do list. If I had to guess at the cost of the materials it was probably $50-$60 dollars.

The dress was sewn with a mixture of machine and hand sewing. Most of the assembly of the bodice and skirt pieces while they were separate was done by machine, as was the hemming of all the chiffon and faille (though the hem edge of the chiffon is actually the selvedge). The hand sewing came in when I went to mount all of the pieces together. I started with the under bodice and kept adding layers and figuring things out as I went. The closures are also hand sewn.

Incidentally, I’m not really sure what color to call this dress. I’ve been calling the colors orchid and mauve, but I’m not really sure those are the best color names. The chiffon and charmeuse are a shade of pinky/purple that’s hard to put a finger on and the contrast faille is more grey than anything when it’s by itself, though it really takes on a pinky/purple cast when paired with these other fabrics. Does any really perfect color name come to your mind? If it does I’d be happy to know what it is!

As I mentioned, the closure for this dress is quite complicated and as I knew I was going to include it in the sewing secrets challenge we took pictures specifically of the closures to document how it works. If I tried to explain only with words I’m sure there would be confusion, so I think the pictures will clarify things. We’ll start hooked up and unhook as we go.

The back knot snaps into place over the belt, which hooks together at the back. The button for the bustling skirt loop is hidden under the belt in this picture.
The belt unhooks all the way to center front.
The chiffon overskirt unhooks from center back to the side.
Then the front bodice chiffon layer unhooks at the top edge of the beading and at the waist so it peels back toward the side. After that the under bodice unhooks and the dress slides right off. Is that what you thought might be the closure system?

Overall, I’m super pleased with this dress. It’s very comfortable, has lots of fabric in the skirt so is easy to dance in, and is a nice transitional style between the full skirts and pigeon breasts of the years around 1908 and the much slimmer, longer lines of the years around 1912. Plus, it has a train!

Here’s a comparison of the dress with the train down and then with it looped up. Luckily, these pictures were taken before dancing. Turns out that while I was dancing a very fast waltz, either my or my partner’s foot caught the hem of the dress and caused the loop to break, so I’ll have to repair it more sturdily for the next wearing. Ah well, that’s why they make safety pins!



I was quite pleased with how my hair turned out, so I had to make sure to get a reasonable close-up. Some of the curls are natural and some are made nice and smooth with a curling iron. The key is to put the hair up in a lot of different sections–and I mean a lot!


I call this dress the “Dowager Countess” gown because the shape of it reminds me of what Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey often wears to dinner parties. Look at the bodices on these dresses: this dress, this dress, and this dress are all examples of a similar style–one that the Dowager Countess wears often! And why wouldn’t I want to be reminded of Maggie Smith when I think of this dress? Her snarky comments are highlights of Downton Abbey! (Incidentally, one of my friends wore the just-emerging-in-the-1910s style of pants in the ballroom to this ball–gasp!–and we took some posed snarky pictures. Head over to her blog, Plaid Petticoats, to take a look at her scandalous outfit. When you get to the bottom you’ll find the snarky pictures. You might even find that you think I’m there twice, because I was wearing this new 1910 dress and I loaned my 1912 evening gown from 2012 to a friend who happens to be being snarky with me.)



HSF #10: 1925 Beaded Dress

Starting with a bang. Here’s the dress!

During the swap and sell at last summer’s Newport Vintage Dance Week, I came across a rather awful 80s or perhaps 90s evening gown while browsing. I had been considering trying to hand bead my own gown for the Gatsby Ball during the dance week, but had determined that I was not devoted enough to the 1920s and had settled for a less time intensive green silk gown. This 80s/90s dress, though, got my brain going. What if I used the beaded section to make a beaded 1920s evening gown? No hand sewn beading required! I dithered about the decision for maybe 20 or 30 minutes and asked for lots of opinions from my friends (none of whom were very decisively helpful, I must say), but then I hurried back to buy the dress before someone else did! It was only $10 or $15, not bad, for not having to bead it myself!

Size 14 beaded evening gown with princess seams and a giant zipper.
Full length glory.

The whole thing was rather bleh colored with the pale lining. I decided that when I remade the dress it would need more color than the original, but I wanted to keep new fabrics in line with the beading colors so they wouldn’t look out of place. I picked grey for the skirt to bring out the beading and I picked pink for the slip to add some color under the grey but not distract from the beading.

First thing was to cut off the skirt. I kept it because I hate throwing things away, but it’s heavy and polyester… My thought is that one day I might need some sort of petticoat base or lining for a dress that is so great on the outside that this skirt won’t detract from it if it’s not seen. In the meantime, it’s taking up space in my stash. Oh well. After the skirt was cut off I removed the sleeves. They really were contributing to the dowdy look of the beaded section and they did not add to the sleeveless 20s evening dress look I was going for. I kept those too… I have no idea what I’m going to do with them! Beaded evening bag one day, perhaps?

No sleeves! It’s getting better already.

I debated for awhile about taking out the zipper (because it would add work, you know). In the end I decided I really didn’t want to see the lap of the zipper in the back, especially since it was pulling the beading around and making it not match up symmetrically. I also removed the nude lining in the bodice to expose just the silk gauze with the beads. I’m so glad the beading was done on silk! It really adds to the look. Of course all those interior seams were french seamed and I didn’t want to actually take apart all those seams in the silk gauze. So I carefully cut the lining away along the seams then was able to pull out the lining seam allowance because it would just fray where the stitches are. That part wasn’t super fun…

Cutting away the lining to expose the beaded silk gauze, then pulling out the lining seam allowance.

But I was left with a sleeveless top of beaded silk gauze! There was more hand sewing required to get it looking nice (there was no way to get a machine in there with all those beads!): I whip stitched the arm and neck openings; sewed up the back seam where the zipper was; whip stitched all of the seam allowances down on the inside; whip stitched the seams on the outside to close up un-beaded gaps on the seams so the princess seam lines weren’t so visible… Not all of this sewing was necessary to make the top wearable, but it was necessary to make it durable. I want to be able to wear this dress for a long time and not have problems with the beading or the silk gauze, so durability was important.

Completed beaded top.

After getting the top finished up nicely I had to figure out a pattern/plan to make the grey skirt. I scoured my 1920s pinterest page to look for ideas. I liked the idea of an uneven hem and a skirt with extra fullness at certain points. This lovely yellow dress was my main inspiration.

1920s. Pictured on All The Pretty Dresses blog.

My points aren’t quite as long as this, though I wanted them to be… I didn’t have quite enough fabric for that. I had the added challenge of making sense of those little cut ups in the bottom edge of the beading in conjunction with the skirt. I didn’t want to sew those cut ups closed because the edge beading continued up them and it looked weird, so I had to figure out a way to work them into the skirt.

I think the yellow dress had rectangle pieces that are just left free at the dippy points. My skirt, however, has four a-line panels at front,  back, and sides with diamond shaped pieces in between that go up into those cut ups. The skirt pieces are french seamed by machine. The hem was serged and then turned and topstitched by machine. The finished skirt was then attached to the beaded top by hand. First I sewed it along the beaded edges, then I turned the raw edge under on the inside and whip stitched that in place to keep the skirt from fraying.

After I replaced the zipper in the back with a seam I was able to get the beading to match up really nicely! The skirt hem with the serged edge turned inside and topstitched.
Attaching the skirt to the bodice. Running stitches on the edge of the beading and then the raw edge turned under and whip stitched. (These are those cut ups in the bodice I was talking about!)

For the slip, I measured my waist and bust to determine the trapezoidal shape I would need to use. I just guessed at a length (which turned out to be about 6″ too long!). I added a few inches of ease to the waist and bust measurements to make sure I could easily put on and take off the slip without any closures. The side seams of the slip are french seamed by machine. I made tubes for the straps and machine sewed those on. The neck and hem were finished by hand because I had time and didn’t feel like pulling out my machine.

A pretty boring slip.

While wearing the slip I noticed it was showing at the underarms and front neck. The underarms were expected and I’m totally ok with that. But I didn’t want to see the slip at the front (I think part of it is because the beaded section is heavy and pulls down in front when I move), so I bunched it down with a safety pin. Will I ever sew it for real? Probably not. Sometimes safety pins are your friends.

Now i know which way is front on the slip! Not that it matters, since it’s the same front and back aside from the safety pin…

Ready for some more facts?

Fabric: ~1yd pink polyester medium weight crepe, ~1.5 yds grey polyester chiffon, and the beaded silk gauze section of an old evening dress.

Pattern: none.

Year: 1925.

Notions: thread.

How historically accurate?: I give it 85%. Polyester was definitely not in use in the 1920s and the princess seams on the bodice aren’t really accurate for these dresses either as far as I know.

Hours to complete: 20-25. Lots of hand sewing or it would have been faster.

First worn: To the opening of the Great Gatsby, old sport! I was part of a dance performance before the movie. More on that soon!

Total cost: $18-$23 depending on what I paid for the original dress, which I can’t remember!

This is the description for this HSF challenge:

The written word has commemorated and immortalised fashions for centuries, from the ‘gleaming’ clothes that Trojans wore before the war, to Desdemona’s handkerchief, ‘spotted with strawberries’, to Meg in Belle Moffat’s borrowed ballgown, and Anne’s longed for puffed sleeves.In this challenge make something inspired by literature: whether you recreate a garment or accessory mentioned in a book, poem or play, or dress your favourite historical literary character as you imagine them.

Oh wait, did I mention that my literary inspiration for this is The Great Gatsby?

Woo! 1920s beaded dress!

It was super fun to wear this to the opening of the Great Gatsby and dance in it. I was able to wear my ivory American Duchess Astorias (not for dancing, but for walking around) which made me happy, as well as a necklace recently given to me by my mom! And in the end, it’s great that the original dress was a size 14, because it gives the top that roomy/boxy/no waist 20s style on me!

This link contains an affiliate code, which provides a small benefit to my shoe fund. This does not affect my impressions and reviews of this product.

I’ve got these two related final notes:

  1. The safety pin was patented by Walter Hunt on April 10, 1849. “Hunt’s pin was made from one piece of wire, which was coiled into a spring at one end and a separate clasp and point at the other end, allowing the point of the wire to be forced by the spring into the clasp. It was the first pin to have a clasp and spring action and Hunt claimed that it was designed to keep fingers safe from injury – hence the name.” From about.com’s entry on Walter Hunt as an inventor.
  2. Serging/overlocking/merrowing was invented by the Merrow Machine Company in 1881. From wikipedia’s entry on ‘overlock’. It has been used to finish seams since at least the 1920s, according to the Vintage Fashion Guild (they’ve got a whole page of neat vintage clothes dating information that has good dates for when different sorts of construction styles and methods came into use!).