An 1877 Natural Form Ballgown in Aubergine

December 29, 2018


This is a story of a last-minute dress.  But a less last-minute dress than usual.

Back at the end of summer, I had randomly come across a great deal for a hotel in Galveston, right smack in the middle of everything during their annual Victorian Christmas festival, Dickens on the Strand. I snatched up the hotel deal and recruited my friend Liz (of The Pragmatic Costumer) to go on a road trip with me.

One of the events I knew I wanted to attend was their new Dickens Soiree, an evening shindig in the 1892 Bishop’s Palace mansion. Of course, the original clothing plan was for something with absolutely enormous sleeve goodness, but I couldn’t settle on any sort of specific 1890s design that really grabbed me. I could have redone my gold evening gown, but this event felt like it needed something new and spectacular.

I waffled.

I was planning something Natural Form for the Saturday tea, so I concentrated on making the undies for that and spent my free time surfing Pinterest.

I waffled some more.

Finally, I just gave in. Natural Form fashion has me firmly in its grasp, so I just rode the waves. There was a stunning pink dress from 1877 that had wormed its way into my mind before, and I had just picked up a bolt of deep purple taffeta that would make a fabulous evening gown.

And I was sick of working on the undies!


I managed to get a running start on this dress, getting the skirt entirely cut out, flatlined, hemmed, and mostly assembled in one day. I used a cheap muslin for the flatlining.


I should have waited to hem the skirt until after I had added the ruffles, but I went ahead and hemmed it at this point. I ended up going about it a little oddly.  I had cut the skirt long in the front, and simply turned up the excess and tacked it to the lining. On the train, though, I cut a facing for the hem, since turning up that large of a hem on a rounded edge would have been a nightmare. Next time, I’m definitely just doing the facing the entire way around. I ended up making more work for myself doing it this way.

Once the skirt was assembled, I started adding my trims. There are three layers of pleated ruffles at the hem of the underskirt. While this doesn’t sound like a huge deal, each ruffle takes 6 hours to cut out, assemble hem, pleat, and attach. After doing all my measurements, each ruffle strip ended up being 25 feet long before pleating!

It took an entire weekend of work just to get these three ruffles attached to the skirt.


To make things easier on myself, I used a pleating board. I set my pleats using a 1-to-2 vinegar/water mixture. This was basically the Victorian version of chemically setting your pleats so they wouldn’t fall out, and it works fabulously.


The way I usually do ruffles is that I hem both of the long sides of the ruffle and then sew it down directly to the skirt once it’s pleated, and leave the top hem exposed since it will be covered by the ruffle above it. I did things a little differently this time, though. After studying my antique natural form gown, I really liked how the top edge of the pleated ruffles on it had been encased in a band of self-fabric. I decided to do the same thing with this gown.
So, along with cutting out the ruffle strips, I cut out the binding strips, which were just 2-inch wide strips of the gown fabric. When I attached the ruffles, I put the strip on top of the ruffles and sewed everything together at once.


I then pressed the strip upward and turned under the raw edge before stitching it down. This gave me a really neat, clean look.


This also saved time in the end, since I didn’t have to hem the top edge of the ruffle strip. I just left that edge raw since it would be hidden by the binding.

I draped the overskirt directly onto the mannequin with, honestly, not a whole lot of planning of how it would go.

There are three sections to the overskirt. First, there is the apron front, which has a ruffle at the hem. Underneath that is the lowest layer, which goes from the center front all the way around to the back. This also has a ruffle at the hem. Finally, there is the short pouf in the back, which also has a ruffled hem.

Taking ques from my antique gown again, I left the overskirt un-lined. I think this was a good move, since the flatlining would have poofed out the pleats too much, and I don’t think it would have hung as nicely.

This time I sewed the ruffle and strip to the overskirt hem, wrong sides together, so that the seam was on the front of the gown. Then I turned up the casing over the exposed hem and closed it in. This gave me a clean edge on both the front and back of the overskirt.

I didn’t want my overskirt moving all around on me as I wore it, so I sewed it and the underskirt into the same waistband. The skirt opens up at the side-back, where the front apron meets the back drapery.

Finally, I could work on the bodice. I had enlisted my mother into helping me make a paper-tape dress forms so I would have my exact corseted shape to work off of while draping my pattern, and it was such an improvement over my janky stuffed form that I had been corseting to make my gowns on. (A form with a much shorter waist and narrower shoulders than I had, which is why some of my recent projects had turned out fitting so weird.) I finally had something that actually looked just like me that I could build my costumes on!
I draped my pattern in plain muslin, and then used it to cut out my bodice and interlining. I used more plain muslin to interline the bodice.




At the hem, I sandwiched a bit of piping between the outer fabric and the strip I had cut to be a hem facing, and stitched it all together at once. I turned the facing to the inside and tacked it down by hand. I did the same along the neckline edge.


From the fashion plate, it was hard to tell exactly how the bodice closed. Since there was a bertha on the front of the gown, I figured it would probably be best for the bodice to close up the back in some way. I settled on using 1/2” buttons covered in the gown fabric, but as time ticked away I found I had run out of time to order them. I ended up doing some last-minute hand-sewn eyelets in a color that matched the gown. This was the thing that made this gown end up as another mad-dash end of the line project, since I was up late the night before we left for Dickens finishing the darned things!

I stuck with the fashion plate and made short, puffed sleeves for the gown. I had momentarily thought about leaving the bodice sleeveless, but I really like the finished look the sleeves give it.



Looking ahead to the 1890s and how those sleeves were structured, I first made a short, close-fitting inner sleeve. I then cut out my puffed sleeve and put that over it, gathering it to fit the top and bottom edges. I bound the bottom edge with a strip of taffeta, and a little bit of piping, which acted as a narrow cuff. The entire assemblage was sewn into the bodice armhole.

Finally, I had to make the bertha. I have to confess, berthas are my kryptonite. I can never seem to make them do exactly what I want them to do, even when I have a pattern or tutorial with detailed, step-by-step instructions. So, I just faked it. I used a strip of leftover pleated material from my ruffles and pinned it to the neckline until I liked the way it sat. I hand-sewed the pleats down so the stitches wouldn’t show.


Even though there are some elements that I didn’t have time to get to, I am so, so happy with the way this gown turned out. I feel like it’s my best, most complete outfit to date, and it makes me excited to tackle new projects again. I feel like this might finally be the outfit to pull me out of this year’s sewing rut.

Anyway, here are some more pictures of the gown in action! The first night I wore it as intended (an evening gown) for the Dickens Soiree.



The next day, I wore the gown again for the Dickens Tea, hosted by the Houston costumers group. I hadn't had the time to make the daytime bodice that I had planned on, so I wore one of my Edwardian blouses underneath the bodice.


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1 comments

  1. Just found your blog after The Pragmatic Costumer listed it. Really lovely dress you've made, and it suits the location. Enjoyed the construction notes: it's always cool when to see original methods used, or well-thought-out takes on assembling trims, such as the method you used on the overskirt trim to save work and get a clean look.
    Very best,
    Natalie

    ReplyDelete

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