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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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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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Here is the skirt to date:

Skirt Rigging. The skirt is turned inside out.

Here is a lovely shot of the rigging. The rigging is made out of black twill tape. The skirt in this photo is turned inside out. I have sewn the skirt to the waistband, but the waistband is not yet turned. The rigging is sewn to the inside of the waistband. When I turn the waistband, the joins will not be visible.

Skirt Front

The front of the skirt is to the right. I have basted the side panels between the apron and the skirt back. You can see part of them here.

The skirt is still relatively far from being completed. It is not hemmed. The hem is untrimmed, and the poufs still need to be basted to the rigging.

Skirt Side with Side Panels

Here is a side view of the side panels. It gives a nice shot of the hand pleating, which I did on the side panels while watching “Employee of the Month.” It made the film much more bearable. The side pleating shows up much better in person.

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I had 8 yards of black velvet and 8 years of red-black dupioni silk in storage. In addition, my mom gave me 5 inch red bullion fringe. They coordinated remarkably well.

I am not yet finished with the skirt and will post updates, but here is what I have for pictures so far.

Here is the bustle front apron made of red-black dupioni silk, and sewn to the front panels of the black velvet base skirt. The bottom is trimmed with red fringe and hand pleating.

Hand Pleating

To the right is a very poor picture of the pleating trimming the base of the skirt. When possible, I try to hide straight, boring stitches, and the hand pleating hides the stitching that attached the fringe to the apron. I sewed it on by hand while watching a scary ghost movie, and it made the movie far more tolerable.

Here is the bustle back before the waist band and rigging (I will get to the rigging later). I lined the scalloped ruffle on the bottom. The fringe was sewn on between the right fabric and the lining, so there is no visible stitching. The poufy red skirt part is flat-lined in black tulle. I will be stitching the poufs into place once I have sewn the rigging (stay tuned). The red silk is gathered onto a strip of black twill tape, and then the black velvet train is gathered into that as well. There is a lot of black fabric gathered into the train, and its very heavy.

Since the rigging hasn’t been made yet, I have pinned the black twill tape (not visible) to the bustle underneath. Otherwise, it would just sag down.

Here is a side view, showing the length of the black train. It is not finished. I will be making two draped, fringed, and pleated side panels to go between the apron and the skirt back where that black panel is in the middle of the picture. As of this writing, it is already finished, and will be in the next post.

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The Bustle is not complex. It’s a hump-backed skirt with 7 bones, and a back brace. I used a not so cheap white cotton fabric. It is absolutely worth it to not be cheap about the fabric. It took about a day to complete. Here is the result.

I gathered the flounces by hand, and trimmed them with white cotton cluny lace. I am very careful about not using modern, man-made fabrics, because they really do affect the feel of the clothes. There are seven bones: 4 straight across the back, 2 bones at the hem that cover the complete diameter, and one that arches between bones 1 and 2 at the top. I nicknamed that one the “gothic arch.” That bone adds a great deal of stability.

The flounces are sewn into the side seams.

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The project is an 1875 Bustle ensemble complete with all the underpinnings. I started the project about a month ago, so I will post this is segments to catch up.

Corset before top and bottom binding

Corset before top and bottom binding

First, I needed a corset. I chose a cotton Matelassé fabric I had bought many years before and a lining of linen-cotton canvas. The cotton matelassé had the look of fine lingerie, and a touchable softness to make it look comfortable and sweet, not harsh or neo-gothic. Mind you, it will have spiral steel bones, but I didn’t want to advertise the fact.

Working on corsets is not the most satisfying work compared to, say, the skirt. You deal with a very small amount of fabric, and the decorative and creative aspects are limited. I wanted to create one that did the job, was pretty, and looked like it could have come from an 1870s lingerie shop in Paris. I decided to get the sewing over with quickly and painlessly. So I decided to only use two layers of fabric and create the channels for the 10 spiral steel bones per side by sewing them between the two layers. In retrospect, I should have used twill tape to make the channels. The matelassé by its very nature stretched more than the linen-cotton and was difficult to work with. Also, since the matelassé was to thick, inserting the bones into their casings became a battle with the seam excess, which wasn’t really a fair fight. Fortunately for the project, I am blessed with a degree of patience sometimes astonishing to myself. After lots of convincing, the bones slid all the way into their channels.

Also, while working with the linen-cotton canvas, the edges began to fray a great deal. So I used some no fray liquid I bought from Joann’s to keep the fraying from distracting me while I worked with the fabric. This is not authentic, but I cut off the edges that had the substance on them after they were sewn. The modern, sticky, unfriendly material had no place on a Victorian Parisian corset. I know that Elizabethans would use wax for the same purpose, and I believe that the Victorians may have as well.

But the results weren’t bad. After inserting the bones I stitched the top and the bottom then bound them in taupe silk by hand. The bottom binding I also made into a ruffle which I found quite feminine and comfortable.

Finished Corset

Finished Corset

The front has a straight steal busk, and the back has grommets for lacing. I used an awl and a screw driver in tandem to create the holes for the grommets, and they came out perfectly. My corseted waist is smaller than the dress dummy’s so I can not completely lace up the back of the corset for the pictures without it looking awkward.

She’s quite a beauty… though no one will see her worn.

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I have fond memories of flouncing around my girlhood home, a high-ceiling Gothic Revival, wearing an 1880s bustle gown my mom had purchased in an antique shop. It was a beauty of taupe fringe and olive silk satin and silk taffeta. The bodice front closed with a row of hand-painted mother of pearl buttons. The adorned sleeve cuffs ended in a four inch thick ruffle of the finest lace I have ever seen. The bustle portion was adorned with beaded appliques. It was a very expensive gown, and perhaps, due to the lack of wear, may have been made for a wedding. It compares in detail and quality to many of the examples of Worth gowns of the period I have seen, but it has no label or name to identify it.

The elegant bodice peplum was cut to fit the small of the back, pleated and folded like a cascade and highlighted at fabric stress points with jet beaded appliques. I would run my fingers up and down to feel the whale boning, and imagine some grisly, roughened Victorian sea captain who may have wrestled some monstrous beast of the deep to bring the bones onto land and eventually more than a century later, into my young hands. The whole ensamble was a marvel in texture. Every surface of the bodice and skirt were adorned with pleating and ruffles, drapes and appliques. Even the back of the bodice was a symphony of seam lines, rising from the waist like music from an orchestra.

Handling and examining the dress gave me more for my imagination than any book or novel. Wearing it was even more intense, as though I were possessd by  the ghost of an era. It never lost its stale, dry smell, the smell of brittleness from disintigrating satin and horsehair stiffening. There was no body odor or sweat stains on the interior so it must have been worn only once or twice. I could describe the wearer – about five feet, four or five inches, a smallish, though not remarkably small waist, and a bosom that barely exceeded the measurements of the waist – but there was little of her in the garnment beyond her measurements. I awaited to feel some signs of the woman for whom the dress was made, such as a sourceless smell or rush of feeling, but little came beyond a great urge to sit up straight and perch on chairs. I did not have the appropriate undergarnments: no corset, no bustle. When I buttoned all of those marvelous buttons, and hooked the gathered olive satin yoke below my neck, the odor of brittleness was strongest and I felt an overwhelming stiffness in my neck. Being filled with a girlish imagination, I imagined that the girl/woman who had worn the gown died from a broken neck. I think now perhaps it was just resulting from the stiffness with which I held my back to fit into the thing.

I could wear the dress until my body began to mature and my chest measurement exceeded those for whom it was made. I revisited the gown ten years ago, hoping my matured body could find some space admidst its sewn silk. Excitedly, I took it from its tissue paper-lined box, looking at its construction and components with a whole new set of eyes, and ready to plunge into its confines in hopes of an acceptable fit. But alas, though the skirt seemed to fall better, the bodice button holes and their corresponding buttons would not meet beyond few inches above the waistline. The effect was gone, as the bodice dangled awkwardly. It was all the discomfort without the grace and propriety I had remembered.

Why do I post this seemingly random story? Because this evening I will be reunited with my fabled, phantom gown for the first time in ten years. It’s a homecoming: the dress inspired the project in the next entry, the project inspired a reunion with the dress, a poor thing that has been unloved in an ancient attic for ten years, where it could only find company in an occasional bat, hornet, and one-sided conversations with the prattling rain.

Pictures of this olive objet d’art are coming soon…

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