Monday, 6 June 2016

The Making of an 1840's Ball Gown

Well, the Prior Attire Victorian Ball has been and gone for another year. It was wonderful! I can't wait for the next one.

This year's theme was 'crinoline', and although I myself was resigned to wearing my bustle style from last year, I did go full speed ahead on a new gown for my lovely opera singer friend Angharad. I love making outfits for performers. Style and fit are so important, helping the performer to embody the character they are portraying and bolstering their confidence by way of appearance.

Angharad is a great lover of fabrics and had a beautiful piece of gold and black striped satin in the stash she collects for performance wear. It's been in there for a while, waiting for the 'right' design. Likewise, I had bought a metre of stunning purple silk velvet in Venice a few years ago that was waiting for it's forever style... and so a match was made!

There was only enough of the stripe to cut a fairly narrow Victorian skirt, so I opted for an early style - 1840's - to be worn with a small crinoline. Starting from the inside out, I made a shift, pantaloons, corset, crinoline and petticoat before I cut the skirt and draped the bodice. Angharad came up from London to stay with me at that point, while I did all the draping and fittings. Working to a super tight budget, I resolved to only use fabrics that were already in my stash. The shift and pants are light cotton; the petticoat is polycotton sheeting; the corset is made in black denim lined with coutil, with pink binding I snapped up on sale at MacCulloch and Wallis back when I lived in London. I did have to buy cotton tape for the crinoline, though. The shift would have been decorated with lace if I'd had enough in my stash, but that can wait for later.

The underwear in all it's glory. Yes, the pleats of the petticoat need pressing. I was too excited to wait! I love petticoats!

I make a lot of linen items and don't have a particular pattern that I use for them, but for the crinoline I used Jean Hunnisett's instructions, which are a little flawed but pan out in the end... the corset I drafted myself. Interestingly, I find that many of the mid-Victorian corset patterns out there are too short in the waist for myself and my clients. Angharad and I both need an extra two inches added to the length at the waist. On designs with bust gussets, the gusset never starts in the right place for me. I'm pretty careful with my fittings because of those watch points.

The beginnings of the skirt and bodice.
Tracing off the bodice pattern after draping it on Angharad.
The skirt was a bit of a fiddle. The fabric is striped evenly for the most part, then has a densely striped border along one edge. I could have just gathered the length onto a band and the border would've sat at the hem yadda yadda, but I wanted the main body of the skirt to have vertical stripes rather than horizontal, soooo... off came the border! I cut the fabric into drops, stitched up the seams and applied the border back on at the hem so that everything ran in the right direction. Plus I inserted a piece of the border, manipulated to have a couple of extra gold stripes on it, into the centre front. I pleated the waist edge to a cotton tape band so that the gold stripes were dominant. I like the sun-ray effect as the pleats open out into the rest of the fabric.

Pleats, pleats, pleats!
The bodice. Essentially, I had a couple of books laid open on the desk (Jean Hunnisett, Frances Grimble), Angharad standing in front of me in her Victorian underwear, a rough mock-up of a bodice in cotton, a box of pins, a pen and a big pair of scissors. Hehehe! Lucky she trusts me, mwahahaha :D After the bodice was draped and styled I cut it in both the velvet and some lovely cotton organdie, mounted the pieces, and did the assembly. Velvet goes together much more smoothly with an interlining. Light boning was applied to the seams and darts, and piping around the neckline which can be pulled up to tighten just a little. The gathered sleeves were crazy fun to make, like little sculptures.  the bottom edge is faced with binding, turned under and handstitched. I decided that a lining could go in when I had more time. most of the museum pieces I see aren't lined anyway so I didn't feel too bad about that. Hook and eye closure at the centre back. I opted for minimal embellishment because of the size of the skirt, but next time she's worn I think this li'l lady will have a bertha collar in the stripes.

The bodice back, showing the puff sleeve I enjoyed making so much, and playing with the border fabric to create a bertha collar for the next wearing.
While the bodice and skirt are separates, I do recommend hooking, tacking or pinning them together so that when the wearer lifts their arms up in dance there is no gap. In this case, with time being of the essence, I used black safety pins. Best. Things. Ever.

Making the rosettes. I found the gorgeous gold medallions and the purple silk velvet in Venice.
I kept the embellishment simple, just a black satin ribbon rosette with a drizzle of jet beads and a gold medallion set over each sleeve.

The finished product! First stop the Assembly Rooms in Bath...

... next stop, cocktails! I love how my creations go to so many weird and wonderful places!

Doesn't Angharad look wonderful?! She tells me she felt comfortable, elegant, and above all special in her gown. I achieved my objective :)

Here's the group picture taken at the Prior Attire Victoran Ball 2016, by the wonderful TimeLight Photographic. Can you spot Angharad? Can you spot me? :D


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post Ginny. The dress is beautiful, I love the stripes, but it's interesting seeing how complicated the undergarments are, and how the whole thing builds up into that ideal Victorian shape :)
    Sarah B