Posts Tagged ‘Victorian’


Dress Front with sleeves pinned on

The underskirt is 99% finished. Hah! All that remains are some extra hooks for closure. The back portion of the underskirt I trimmed differently then the front portion, which was common for the period. I was rather sick of rigid, straight up and down pleats, so I took a long piece of doubled over 16.5″ wide plum silk (8 inches when folded and turned), and pleated it in on itself  4 times every 8 inches. 8 seemed to be something of a magic number with the underskirt, because lots of things ended up being done in 8s. I don’t think there is any significance to this.

20090511_0002I have some sleeves, though they are not lined, sewed in, finished off, or decorated. They are pinned on for the photos. I used the plaid because I had a good amount of it left over and hated to waist it. It’s not one of those fabrics that you can coordinate with a lot of other things. It’s demanding stylistically, but wonderful, wonderful to work with. As far as fabric goes, I can safely say it’s the best I have worked with. It ranks a 10 in texture liveliness, personality, color, and ease to work with. I bought it on e-bay, and basically based the entire dress around it.

The sleeves are made in two pieces, so they have a slight natural bend at the end. I cut a big circle, then a hole in the middle, and ever so slightly gathered it into the bottom of the arms at the 4 cardinal points of the sleeve hole. I think I’ll sew plum pleating to the inside – if I have time – and I will trim where the circle meets the sleeve with a bow and such.

The side view looks so much better when worn, primarily because the dummy bends to the right and back, and because it has no derriere. Absolutely none.

20090511_0003I’m sewing some antique lace to the inside of the collar. It looks authentic because it is real antique, probably late 1800 lace. There was exactly the right amount.

The back bow will be basted, because there isn’t much on earth that looks more stupid than a screwed up out of place bow moving around a dress, or moving around anything for that matter.

This dress would not have been worn in high summer, but this time of year is perfect for it. It would have been a walking dress, worn to parks. I like to think it’s Parisian. Who else but a French woman would wear purple plaid silk?


I wish so much I could let everyone feel the dress! It feels fantastic with all of that silk, and the rustle is so inspiring! What the previous red and black bustle dress did for drama, this one does for texture and tactility. You just want to touch it!

She will embark on her maiden voyage in less than 48 hours… no more posts for a couple of days. Back to work.


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I’ve postponed finishing the skirt, primarily because I can’t make up my mind yet about how to allocate resources. In the meantime, i have started the ever so particular polonaise. Below are shots of the plaid pinned to the interliner, which is then loosely pinned to the dummy.

I changed the design. There will be a heavily pleated panel extending from the mid-back bodice (under the ‘V’), which will probably be poufed. From the side back bodice panels, I am sewing two side panels. You’ll just have to wait and see what it looks like.

Side Bodice

Side Bodice

Back center bodice

Back center bodice


Side from a distance


Back from a distance

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The Back

The Back

Here are drawings of what I plan to do. The drawings were quickly done, but they get the point across. It will look like a purple plaid frothy puff with lots of bows! What would be better for spring?

The Front

The Front

I wrestled for a while with my plans for the seaming. The plaid poses some curious problems, foremost being that the lightest colored, lilac stripes – which I want to be vertical – run horizontal across the bolt. Where I had expected no problems with creating a long train, as I had planned to do, I realize that to cut the back panel all in one piece I would need to make the white stripe horizontal, and this draw the eye wide. So, I came up with a solution and can now proceed.
The sashes are a recent addition. First, they will cover up some of the seaming I’ll need to do. Second, I think they are so Tissot. Third, they add froth. I am shooting for as much froth as possible, without making the waist and body disappear. When it comes to making a purple plaid silk dress, the more froth the better.

I hemmed the skirt and turned the waist band today, which didn’t take very long. In fact, it was almost nothing, so I’m not bothering with pictures.

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Bustle Portion of the skirt is attached to the top of the 3 panel train

Bustle Portion of the skirt is attached to the top of the 3 panel train

I made some small progress on the underskirt today.

The train is gathered and sewn into the cotton tape. The idea is that more cotton tape will be used to do more rigging in the future. But I decided that I wanted to cover the rigging with a darted panel. So the darted panel was sewn to the cotton tape as well. I will sew more rigging when I’m ready to attach the whole thing to a waist band.

An Apron is sewn onto the front 3 panels. It's gathered at the sides.

An Apron is sewn onto the front 3 panels. It's gathered at the sides.

I cut the apron and trimmed it with a pleated flounce. The apron is then sewn to the front panels.

The front panels and back panels are still not attached to each other, but I’m basically ready to sew them all together then insert the whole contraption into the waistband. Maybe tomorrow?

A friend wants to take photos of me and the new dress, so I have a deadline for completion: a week and change. Should be fun.

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Front Panel

I started cutting into the gown fabric today after making the pattern pieces and a mock up of muslin. I will document here how to construct a dress. I couldn’t work on it too intensely today, so everything is all basic.

Here is a shot of the front panel pinned to the dummy.  Understand, this is the base skirt. It will be adnored with puffs, pleats, scallops, and an apron that is also adorned. I’ll get to the apron later.

Front panel with wedge-shaped side panels

Side Panels attached to the front panel

There will be an attached back train of modest size.  It is made up of three panels of the silk, sewn together. I gathered the train into a piece of sturdy cotton tape. Right now, it’s just pinned to the tape. The train is not yet sewn to the front panels for reasons that will become clear later. Basically, it’s being held on the dummy by friction.

Keep in mind, that the three train panels are something like 7 feet across, all of which needed to be gathered into the 19″ piece of cotton tape. There is a lot of stuff going on there, and things are not as simple as they appear.

Back train attached pinned to front panels

A rather wide apron will be attached going across the three front panels and sewn into the seams above the train. The cotton tape that holds the train will be held to the waistband with rigging, and two purple panels that cover the rigging.

The Brown dress in the middle is the inspiration for my Polonaise design. Coming soon.

The Brown dress in the middle is the inspiration for my Polonaise design. Coming soon.

To the right is the 1874 Godey fashion print that is the closest thing to what I have in mind for the back of the polonaise. Of course, it’s brown and not plaid. 

The proposed underskirt will be much more elaborate than the one shown on the brown Polonaise in the 1874 print. Also, the front of the Polonaise will be shorter, which will allow for a lovely apron. But I really liked the long train effect on the brown polonaise.

I am already in love with my grape-popsicle colored silk. It’s so soft, so sturdy, an so easy to work with. It rustles and drapes like a dream, and the color is just so Victorian.

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Think Victorian women outspent Victorian men on personal consumables?  Think again.

It has been a common misconception that the Victorian American woman was a little more than fond of retail therapy and large scale personal consumption. Much of the basis for this misconception has been that the little data that has been analyzed has been approached from the standpoint that those buying the consumable goods are those consuming them. Add to that the contrasting images of males and females we have culturally assumed for the Victorian era (women in large poufy dresses and Parisian hats, compared with the austere, polished and serious patriarch from the male fashion plates) and we have a nice historical myth. But  just because Victorian women purchased more goods, does not mean they consumed them.


Big Spender

Consumer Society in America has an article that claims that according to the 1890 census, men consumed 2.5 times more on clothing than women. And that’s not all. Though men’s clothes were at the top of list ($446M), liquor and alcohol came second ($290M). Then footwear ($274M) and tobacco ($197M).  Compare the almost $200M spent on tobacco with the $183M American women in 1890 spent on women’s clothing. Further down the list are perfumes and cosmetics, sporting goods, billard table materials ($2.8M!), and some other androgenous cosumables such as pocketbooks and watches that were likely consumed more by men.

The article states that the numbers are accurate, since the census did purposefully divide men and women’s clothing into two separate categories. What this does not include are clothing items made at home, in which case women were producing what they consumed. Men would have been more likely to buy more of their clothes off the rack, rather than relying on a wife or female member of the family to produce them at home.

But, as the article continues, even if the clothing items are entirely removed from equation, the consumption of men and women becomes basically identical. If, for example, the census numbers missed a third of female consumption on clothing, that would still only put women at about 44%, claims the article. So the assumption that Victorian consumerism was highly skewed towards the feminine is entirely wrong.


Appealing to Feminine Frugality

Though this is just a theoretical scenario, could it be possible that women were better at keeping their clothes in good shape? With all that liquor and tobacco being consumed, there were bound to be some casualties (think clothes with cigar holes, sloppy eating). Also, I believe that women’s clothing, particularly those in the middle class, was more designated into functional categories. She had house dresses, visiting dresses, walking dresses, perhaps a formal dress. Though this is just a theory, perhaps feminine ritual resulted in women dressing appropriately for the purpose. Other factors entering into the equation could be that women had more structure to their clothes – such as boning – that preserved their clothing from wear.

There is also the possibility of price discrimination across genders. Men were the income earners. Their image was important. Women, on the other hand, did not earn income, and were usually dependent on a male family member for spending money. Women in 2009 will spend more money than a man on their clothing and hair because they likely perceive a financial benefit resulting therefrom: better job, richer boyfriend. She may be on the dating or job market for years, whereas a Victorian women could be married before she was 20.

In any case and for whatever reason, unless there were a lot of women running around in men’s clothes, drinking copious amounts of  alcohol and smoking cigars (a la Lilian Russell), women were not the big consumers of the Victorian era.

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1840s silhouette

1840s silhouette

After consuming a significant number of books on scientific advances in the 1840s, I wonder why, in such a highly charged atmosphere of innovation and energy, their clothes and hairstyles were so dreadful.As much as I enjoy championing the champion-less, I would take up the cause of this decade begrudgingly, and only out of a desire to understand the physical aspects in which all these advancements took place. For fashion-wise, the decade was invidiously dowdy.

Scientifically and philosophically it yielded an extraordinary number of innovations and divergences in thought:

  • John Stuart Mill writes, Principles of Political Economy, in 1844
  • Start of the Computer Revolution with Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace
  • First Publication of The Economist, 1843
  • Marx & Engels write the Communist Manifesto, in 1848
  • First convention for Women’s Rights held in 1848
  • First use of general anesthesia in an operation in 1844
  • First telegraph sent, starting a Communication Revolution
  • The Political ‘Revolution of 1848’
  • Darwin’s preparation of his theory of Natural Selection

But the women’s clothes were awful. The fashions of this decade were the prudes of the prudish nineteenth century. Alison Gernsheim writes: “Never before or since has Western women’s costume expressed respectability, acquiescence and dependence to such a degree as in the 1840s, the most static decade of nineteenth century fashion.” And, I am inclined to agree with her. One would need to go back to the fifteenth century – and very arguably not even then – to find a decade of fashion so hell-bent of stifling what our genetic disposition would urge us to find attractive.

Sick faces encased in poke bonnets or drooping, plastered hair

Perhaps, besides the Europe-wide famine, this was one of the reasons for the explosion in thought. It is difficult to imagine the female visage inspiring contentment and distraction for mankind when framed by such severely parted, drooping hair and visible only when her view is straight-forward on due to her deep-brimmed poke bonnet. Those wretched bonnets made the sideways glance in the park or the passing look on the street impossible. The sullen, sick faces of the fashion plates, stuffed into stovepipe-like contraptions or sad, plastered hair were little improved by a lame spattering of dinky lace and fake flowers. And the bodices! Their cut made the youthful and sinewy matronly, the tall and willowy gangly and angular, and the well-busted top heavy and immobile. The constriction of the skirts, pancake-like flattening and dropping of the bosom, all-over covering of the skin, and face-blocking unflattering hair emphasized that idea that women were indeed forbidden fruit, but not in a good way. Mystery was abandoned for sanctimonious righteousness, boring rigidity, and the stifling doctrinal tightness of fear and disapproval.

The fashions of the 1840s were a blight upon the eyes of men and an encasement for the expression of women. In 1839, the year before the plunge into this mirthless decade, Honore de Balzac bent minds into viewing fashion as “sort of a symbolic language,” and that “to be proficient in the science, every woman walks about with a placard on which her leading qualities are advertised.” It is sad to imagine that the language of fashion would be one so without poetry and voiced with a clipped, monotone lack of ingenuity and spirit. Clothing can be not only a sounding board, as Honore suggested, it can also be an entombment. Is it any wonder that George Sand dressed like a man?!

1847 Portrait of Lola Montez painted for the King of Bavaria

1847 Portrait of Lola Montez painted for the King of Bavaria

It is easy to imagine the lascivious and romantic beauties of their days, the Josephines in high waisted Empire clothes, lounging on chaises and eating strawberries, or the Marie d’Agoults attracting the young Liszts in their exaggerated puffed-sleeved of the 1830s showing off their little waist and luminescent faces with dangly earrings in the candlelight. Or perhaps the era of the hoop that was to follow in the 1850s and 60s. Though it is not my favorite period, it had more redeeming qualities than the 40s. It was when below the waist was just too large and festooned to be ignored and the bosom generously framed and available for visual consumption.

But the 1840s? Even Lola Montez – the courtesan who was rumored to have seduced the King of Bavaria by wrestling her way into his study, sliding her hips onto his desk, and cutting her bodice open with a rough pair of scissors without so much of an introduction – looks dowdy and prudish in the fashion of the time. Though the particulars of the story are exaggerated, Ms. Montez’s quick temper and overpowering lustiness were infamous. But in her high-necked black gown with her flat conical bodice, It is hard to imagine her irreverential gall and hedonism inspiring the discontent among the masses that led to the downfall of her royal lover and the end of her career as a mistress of state. Though to her credit, the decision of Ms. Montez to not rely on her fashionable clothes to capture the Wittelsbach King – and eventually a title – was a demonstration of good strategy.

The western world of the 1840s must have been a rather detestable place: cold weather, potato famines, cranky men and bad clothes. Is it any wonder that so many were disenchanted with their institutions?

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