Archive for the ‘1875 Semi-formal Housedress’ Category

I have photos of the dress being worn forth-coming and they are really amazing. Stay posted.

I have worn the ensemble in public twice for durations longer than 4 hours. I find myself explaining to my company that the dress is a dress, and can be worn, moved in, and sat in. I do not need to stand up in it, I can get up by myself, I can walk and even run, and, yes, I can breathe just like everyone else. I just breathe, stand and walk differently.


(everyone’s favorite reading material)

I tight-laced the corset on Saturday night and was uncomfortable after about four hours. It was rather pointless, since I fit the bodice without the tight-lacing so any further reduction in the size of my waist would not have shown. The well-deserved deep breath I took when it was taken off felt fantastic. I would imagine that Victorian women would do what we would call ‘tight-lacing’ for short durations only, sticking to a looser lacing for daily social occasions.

Remember, the corset was their version of our bra. It was just as common, and not reserved for special occasions. But just as the modern woman will have underwear for the gym, for school or work, with a formal gown, or on a special date or event, so would a Victorian woman own a number of corsets in differing magnitudes/powers. They manufactured nursing corsets, corsets for young girls with poor posture, and more relaxed versions with limited boning.

The modern concept of the corset being an item for the naughty and deviant is an evolution of its meaning. Since I am taking a class on Beowulf, I will call to mind an example from Old English. The word deor in old English means beast or monster and can be applied to a vigorous fighter. The word evolved to simply mean animal, and finally, came to rest at it’s current translation: deer. So when one translates a sentence describing Beowulf¬† as a ‘deor’ it means he is a fighting man of monstrous powers in melee, not Bambi.

The corset used to be an clothing item that would smooth a woman’s lines, show no unseemly bulges, prevent sweat from coming through the clothes in a time of no deodorant, and keep her posture long to present her as a member of the non-labor class and in good health. It was a functional tool. The corset has evolved with links now to Bettie Page, bondage, subversion and victimization. When I made and wore my corset, it was for the former purpose, not the later.

Today, I wore the corset for about four hours with it not tight-laced, and it was actually comfortable. Unlike popular conceptions of Victorian corsets, it does not hurt your back. In fact, I have read that tight-lacing corsets is easier if you have no stomach muscles, since stomach muscles are less squishy than fat. The back-supporting stays of the corset can hold your back straight on its own, no stomach muscles necessary. Upper class women in the Victorian period, who would be trained with corsets from an early age developed a dependency on the corset since most of them were relatively inactive and had no encouragement – either physical or social – to develop chiseled abs. They had outstanding posture, however, and their years of tight-lacing can’t have been that much worse for them than years chained to a computer desk with no attempts to improve and maintain good posture.

For some unexplained reason, it makes me stiff in my upper back where the corset does not cover. But perhaps that is because I was trying to hold my neck very straight. The Edwardian S-curve corset may be different, but that is the topic for another post and project.


It is a dress, and can be worn like any other dress. It is hemmed correctly for me, so I don’t need to hold it up in front when I walk. Due to the cut of the panels and the twill tape piece that holds it in back, the train and skirt stays where it should without any adjustments needed after wearing. The bodice is cut properly, so I can move in it naturally. When I don’t want the train to trail, I bend over (without help) and pick it up without letting the bustle petticoat show. It’s not hard.

Sitting is easy as well. To keep the bustle looking even, one must perch on the edge of the chair. The bustle naturally sticks out a little in the back, showing off the skirt beautifully. I used to wonder why women in fashion plates were shown perching on chairs with their skirts falling into place perfectly. It happens naturally due to the construction of the dress, and explains why so many of the parlor chairs were small, low, and armless. It also explains why in a parlor set the ‘man’s chair has constrictive arms, and the womens’ were smaller scale and armless. If a woman were to sit in a chair with arms, her bustle wires would have no where to go. I have lounged on a sofa in the gown. In the bustle that I made, which is more hoop-like, it sticks out a bit at the hemline. It’s not very graceful, but still doable. I would imagine that a woman would have another bustle for relaxed days, which would be less hoop-like. The bustle I made was rather formal.

In summation, the hardest thing about moving in the gown was actually walking my tall boots, which were modern, and I’m not saying this for effect.


Not so easy, but doable once the fear subsides. This was the most interesting part of my experiment, since I often suspected that many of the fashion changes in the twentieth century developed after the shift from carriage to automobile.

The hardest aspect of the bustle-automobile relationship is getting in it. It would have been easier had I not had a hairstyle where my hair was combed over rolls and a hat. The rolls in my hair and the hat would hit the top of the door opening. Correspondingly, my mind would be hit with a rush of fear: did my hat fall off and take my combed and padded hair with it? Did I break any feathers or lose a silk flower? But there was no damage. Acctually, the hat/hair matrix were the greatest inhibitors of mobility: turning your head to look at traffic while being afraid you would break a feather. But as soon as I realized I wouldn’t break a feather it was easy.

It is hard to sit in a car in a bustle in a demure fashion. The skirt and hoop need to be pulled past the knees with the bottom bone floating above your lap. But even with that, I was covered up more than most women in my age bracket.


If I wanted to be very scientific and empirical, I could set up situations in which some data could be gained. Since we have no data regarding dressing and undressing and locomotion of women in 1875, we are unable to compare and contrast. But I could while wearing the dress time how long it took me to pick of the skirt, what percentage of my bottom sat on a chair, my lung capacity while wearing the corset, or how long it took me to drive from point A to point B and compare and contrast with, say, 21st Century expectations taken from a sample of thirty or more. But since that’s a lot of work and so on and so forth, I will not be specific about my own observations.

I am pleased that the ensemble I created is wearable. The originals must have been wearable since they were worn by women in circumstances just as physically trying if not more so than ours today, so I am satisfied that the gown was authentic in that respect. Appearance wise, it looks very authentic (pictures coming soon). So it passes the look and feel test in flying colors. As to the construction, I know that I used, where ever possible period materials: silk, cotton, steel bones instead of plastic, no polyester, etc.

Since the whole look must be period, I looked at old fashion hairstyle plates for the period. I combed the back of my hair over two rolls to get a nice ‘bustled,’ shelf-like hairstyle, atop which I perched a shrunken, tiny hat which I made myself out of the gown fabric. From the rolls, I had cascades of ringlets, both my own and fake, which I pinned in place. The effect was really good, and isn’t as hard as it sounds. I did my hair with a corset on if that says anything.

As I previously mentioned, there are some breath-taking photos forthcoming taken in Mount Hope Cemetary.


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Here is the finished gown.

Gown Front

Gown Front

I trimmed with bodice neckline with some antique black lace taken from a turn-of-the-century gown. It closes in front with hooks and eyes, and I attached faked buttons which are period.

I put a costume choker on the mannequin. I might wear it.

Bodice Front

Bodice Front

Gown Side

Gown Side

Gown Back

Gown Back

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The skirt is officially finished. Here are the bows I added. I inserted fringe in the end hems.

Location of the bows.

And here is the bodice front, just pinned. It is still unlined and unfitted, so the edges are rough. I will close the front with metal snaps and add faked buttons going down the center. I allowed the neckline to plunge a little, because hey, it is Halloween. I may add some lace or pleating to the top or around the collar.

Unlined, unfitted bodice. The front panels are pinned.

After working on this project for a while, I am starting to grow dissatisfied with little details, even though they are certainly acceptable. I guess that mean’s its time to stop soon or else risk undoing perfectly good work. Rationally, I understand the gown is good enough, and I am exercising some discipline to avoid being self-critical.

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Rochester is cold, wet, and sometimes snowy. My costume has been benefiting from the inclemency in the weather.

The sleeves are pinned on the bodice.

The sleeves are pinned on the bodice.

She (the gown) is starting to look beautiful. I hand sewed the pleating on the sleeves. They are partially lined in red silk. The upper portion is lined in black muslin. Here they are pinned on the dress. The sleeves are lined, but the bodice is not so the lower hem is still rough and unfinished.

A prior plan was to attach ~13 pleated semi-circles to the hem of the skirt. To make each, I sewed two circles, 11 inches in diameter. I made a radial cut, then folded and ironed them to make a half circle. I made two of these before abandoning the project, after realizing that I liked the hem better without them. The plan now is to sew my two half circles together and re-pleat and iron them. I will attach them to the peplum of the bodice. I may as well, since they are already sewn. I have my two semi-circles lying on the peplum in the picture to show what they will look like.

I made all of the trims myself, except of course the fringe. All pleating and so forth is made of the original red silk or the black velvet so that the design is consistent and homogeneous. The original design of the gown was to present the bustle as a beautiful, provocative and feminine silhouette, not campy or overdone with lace and silly bows. I am afraid that many who make costumes for the bustle can have a tendency to go too much in one extreme or the other: overly ‘immature’ goth with little regard for the original aesthetics or frilly, fussy, and covered in polyester dinky trims picked up at Joann’s and applied without any regard for design or homogeneity. They miss the point entirely. The trim serves the design and not the other way around.

I am at the point where very little is left of the red silk, and what is left is in very small pieces, so the decoration needs to end due to lack of resources. I had hoped to have enough to do another row of pleating on the sleeves, but are fine as they are and I want to work on a hat.

The front will be presentable after I do a final fitting tonight, then line it, so stay tuned.

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The bodice pieces are sewn together, and I concocted some sort of collar yesterday. It’s partially stiffened with buckram so that it sticks up in the back, and then turns out to show the red lining.

The bodice still needs a lining, sleeves, and the false vest, so its probably about 30% finished. I boned it with spiral steel, and encased the bones in black cotton buckram. They were sewn to the seam excess, which I hear is very period. It prevents the bones from being visible from the outside, and keeps the bodice as ‘soft’ as it can be with steel bones. I will probably place stays in the vest portion as well.

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The skirt is 99.5% done. All that remains to sew are the hooks to close the waistband and I need to sew two bows to the sides (last minute addition). Also, it should probably be steam pressed.

Now, I am on to the bodice. I made a mock-up in black muslin, which I fitted onto my torso while wearing the corset. The bodice fabric will be black velvet with an interliner and a liner in black muslin. The jacket portion of the bodice is made up of 7 pieces (sans sleeves), which I have cut and flatlined with the interliner fabric (black muslin). Interliners hold the fabric in place, preventing it was stretching or warping. They are essential to making bodices that need to hold their shape. As an aside, Elizabethans were very fond of them and would sometimes use two or three on one bodice in addition to the regular lining.

The pictures show the bodice pieces without the fronts just laid on the dummy with no sewing or folding. But these photos are useful to show the eventual silhouette.

Here is the finished skirt with half the bodice pieces pinned.

Some of the bodice pieces are pinned to the dummy. The flash shows the detail, but misinterpretes the colors.

A faithful representation of the colors of the gown.

A faithful representation of the colors of the gown.

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I’ve hemmed the skirt (whip-stitched it by hand) and attached the fringe. To hand pleat I individually pin each pleat then stitch. I did not hand stitch the pleating in place because I would rather budget the time for the bodice and the hat (coming later). I will probably hand stitch the pleating onto the skirt. About 13 feet of pleating is needed, which means that the strip of silk is ~25 feet pre-pleated. That’s a lot of pleating, pins, and silk. The cats have been highly entertained by the strip when it is in motion.

After the pleating is stitched in place I very lightly ironed it. Heavier ironing would make it look too rigid, which would contrast too highly with the billowy top of the skirt. It was a design choice.

7 feet post-pleating with 125+ pins. This covers just half the hem.

Hand Pleating: 7 feet post-pleating with 125+ pins. This covers just half the hem.

The Hand Pleating is pinned in place on the train.

Half of the Hand Pleating is pinned in place on the train.

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