Tuesday, December 18, 2018

. . . And a Dress

For a while, I've idly considered the idea of putting together a reproduction Civil War-era dress, or at least a very close approximation. I wanted a dress of the correct style and cut, though I was--and am--willing to compromise on things that aren't so easy to see, like drawers and stockings.

But recently, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, I got really fired up with this idea and decided now was the time to make it happen.

First thing was first. You might be able to get away with not-period-correct undergarments that won't be seen, but you simply cannot wear a dress from the era without a corset. It will not fit or look right with a modern bra. I'm no fashion historian, but I know very well that all those myths about corsets making it impossible to breathe and moving your internal organs were just that: myths. Or at least, they're myths as far as this era goes. They're actually perfectly comfortable if fitted properly. I also knew, however, that I had no chance of sewing a corset myself, not one that was any good. So I ordered one online (through Treadle Treasures), and really it wasn't all that expensive and was very well-made.

I also looked at cage crinolines. This is essentially a hoop skirt, though it's just the "bones" of it--the hoops. The problem was that honest-to-God cage crinolines were several hundred dollars, and this project was just for fun, so I was not interested in paying that much. Instead, I compromised by buying an inexpensive hoop skirt usually used for weddings. It was just right for me, actually: the circumference and length were great.

The other key undergarment was the chemise. Well, technically, there should be drawers as well, but I had no real interest in making or wearing drawers, which are loose pants, almost like harem pants, that reach to about the knees and aren't sewn shut at the crotch (ahem). I'm perfectly happy skipping the drawers and wearing modern panties, which no one will see because nobody had better be looking up my skirt. A chemise, however, was necessary, because you do not, I repeat do NOT, wear corsets directly against the body. Why? Because they will quickly become dirty with your body oils, and corsets are elaborate and expensive and meant to last for a long time. Same with the fabric of the dress; it's meant to stay clean by being separated from your skin by the undergarments. That's the point of the layers of undergarments people wore: to keep their outer clothes clean (and to keep warm when it's cold). Body linens, like chemises, could be easily washed and would usually be changed daily. Some people would change multiple times a day if they had the means and the desire.

Anyway, a chemise is a relatively simple garment. I had a little difficulty with this one (as I will have with anything I ever try to buy ready-made or sew from a pattern). First, it was just way too big, even though I used my measurements to decide which size of the pattern to use. That shouldn't have been a surprise, since I'm petite. I ended up having to take a lot off at the shoulder (because the neckline was sitting too low), four or five inches off the skirt (because it was halfway down my calves!), and taking in the flare at the armpit (which was just a bit too, uh, flare-y). I added lace to the neckline and hem, and voila. Chemise!

In this picture, I hadn't added the lace yet.
The next thing I needed was, well, a dress. There is a pretty healthy online trade in Civil War-era clothing and patterns, so I had a few options. I could have a dress custom-made; I could buy a ready-made dress; or I could sew my own. The first was too expensive for me. I wasn't willing to spend $400-$500 dollars for a dress. I did, however, find a dress with a 27" waist. (For the record, my natural waist is the same as my corseted waist, for a few reasons: I don't have a lot of give there, I've never "trained" my waist to be smaller, and I have no real desire to try to make my waist significantly smaller. Also, my corset will not go much smaller anyway (I ordered it for my natural 27" waist"; maybe I could/should have ordered it for a smaller waist; you can always leave the laces looser).

I had two problems with the dress when it arrived. The first I knew I would have: it came to me unhemmed, per my request (by the way, the dress, too, was from Treadle Treasures). So it was far too long (remember, I'm very short, 4'11"; I ended up taking 13" off the hem). The second was that it fit, like the chemise, too high in the shoulder. It looked like I was shrugging, or a linebacker. So I was left staring at this well-made dress with these visible fit problems, wondering how on earth to solve them. To make the thing fit really well, I would have to take the entire thing apart and put it back together. That would mean taking apart the lining, as well. Of course, I have no real sewing skills (did I mention that I am a *complete* novice?), so I knew I would be doing a pretty poor job if I did it myself. I'd have to take apart and resew practically the entire thing just to take some length off the back and adjust the shoulders. So I ruminated, and my solution was essentially to pinch the outer fabric and lining at the back waistline seam and sew it together by hand. It's basically tacking it in place, but it worked fairly well. As for the skirt, well, it took a little experimenting to get the length right, and it was a lot of fabric to try to wrestle with, but I did get the length right, and I pinned it in place. The result was this:

I'd say it looks pretty darn good! It falls nicely and fits pretty well.

I should note the style of the dress. It's a day dress with a fitted, darted bodice and pagoda sleeves. The pattern is a black-white-and-green plaid, and it's trimmed in green. I bought white under-sleeves to go with it (the sleeves were a bit long, the cuffs were too big, and the elastic closure too loose; all of which needed fixing).

I started to hand-sew the hem, since I didn't have a sewing machine (one worth mentioning, at least; what I had was a joke). It was a long process, and I spent several hours and got only about a third of the way done (ugh). I also pinned the undersleeves where I needed them.

Then I came to a screeching halt, because I'd gotten a little frustrated with the fact that this dress didn't fit me as well I would like (aside from the problem with the shoulder seam, skirt hem, and undersleeves, the pagoda sleeves are also a few inches too long for me, and overall the dress is just a little bulky on me). I'd decided to try the second route: sewing myself a dress. This was a very ambitious and possibly crazy idea, because, as I mentioned, I have no sewing skills or experience, except for piecing together a simple dress for a costume back in high school. But I do like making things, and I have pretty good visuospatial skills and can follow directions and measure things carefully. I knew from the start that this was going to be a pretty tough task.

Spoiler alert, I was right. Also spoiler alert: I did it anyway, and though the result is a little messier than I would like, I still did it.

I ordered 8 yards of white Swiss-dot fabric. It's a very light, sheet cotton fabric with small same-color textural dots (ie, three-dimensional, like little balls of lint!). The pattern I ordered (through Truly Victorian, pattern 447) was for a sheer dress, a popular summer/warm-weather style in the 1860s. I also had gotten several yards of white muslin for the chemise and to mock-up the dress. I definitely needed to practice and figure out the puzzle-pieces of the bodice before attempting to make it with my "fashion fabric". I was, after all, a novice.

I poured over the instructions that came with the pattern and got to work. For this particular pattern, you can customize the front and back to your measurements, using a formula they provide. This was great for me because I have such unusual measurements (my shoulders are wide compared to the length of my torso and the circumference of my waist). I did notice, however, that there was no pattern for the skirt. I contacted the pattern-maker and then almost instantly realized that there was a diagram rather than a pattern, because 1) these skirts are enormous and a pattern would be the size of my entire living room and 2) they're relatively simple, using big rectangles of fabric that you hem at one end and pleat at the other.

Anyway, I got underway with my mock-up. The bodice for this style of dress comes in two parts: the inner lining, darted in front and consisting of three panels in the back, and the outer lining of the lighter fashion fabric, which is gathered at the center back and on each side of the front closure. The lining fits snugly and sits right at the edge of the shoulder, and has (or should have--I skipped these) little sleeves. The lining goes all the way up to the neck, where it closes snugly, and has long, very full sleeves that are gathered at the shoulder and cuff (bishop sleeves). The lining and outer shell are (meant to be) connected along the side seam, around the waist, and around the armscye (the sleeve opening).

When making the bodice lining, I found a few things. I'd used my measurements, but even with allowing a very narrow seam allowance, the fit was snug. I also found that, yet again, it was too high in the shoulders, so I had to take about 1-1/2" off at the shoulder.

Next, I mocked up the outer shell. Confession: though I wasn't as precise as I could be on this muslin mock-up, it actually looks a lot crisper than the final product, because the fabric has a lot more structure to it (see the picture below).

I found a few things. First, the sleeves were 3" too long. Instead of re-cutting, I just folded it under at the elbow, taking out those 3" and planning to remove those 3" from the pattern for when I cut out the sleeves from the fashion fabric. Two, because I had altered the bodice at the shoulder, the pieces no longer fit together as they should. I decided to let this go. They still could fit together at the sides and the bottom seam. Third, though I cut out two sleeves, I didn't bother to gather the second sleeve at the shoulder and cuff. It's time-consuming, and it would just be a mirror-image of the sleeved I'd already mocked up. Hence the one-sleeve look below. Four, I wanted an actual cuff with buttons on these sleeves, though the pattern didn't call for it. Five, putting the lining and outer shell together was more difficult than it might seem. You see, at the front, they both button, and they button separately, but at the bottom they button together . . . I had to go over the directions there several times just to try to wrap my head around this. In the end, it took me sewing on buttons and cutting holes and actually manipulating the fabric to understand the mechanics. On one side of the front closure, you have to leave a slit in the lining for the outer layer to pass through. The bottom two buttons (at least on my bodice--it would depend on how you space your buttons and the slit) pass through both the lining and the fashion fabric. Then the two layers button separately. Also, as I pieced together this mock-up, I learned which order to sew the seams in and so forth.

In any case, with the process more or less figured out, it was time to get started on the actual dress. The bodice would be first, and I would worry about the skirt later. So I cut out all my pieces. I had by this time borrowed my mother's sewing machine (bless her!), so I could make some quick headway. I actually retained most of the mock-up lining I'd made, because I planned to use the muslin anyway. I did redo the front panels because the old panels had been handled and sewn this way and that so many times they looked a mess. Since I knew what I was doing (uh, sort of), it was relatively quick work to gather and sew together the pieces of the outer layer. I then gathered the sleeves at both ends and attached the cuffs and sewed the sleeves to the bodice. I even pinned the side seam. I was ever so excited to be so close to finishing the bodice (this was, by the way, several days' hard work). And then I tried it on and, oh no! The sleeves seemed way too long! I was perplexed for a while, until I pulled out the pattern I had altered to take off those 3". I'd done it wrong; I'd taken the three inches out of the circumference of the sleeves rather than the length.


I could re-cut, tossing the incorrect sleeves. But that would be a waste of fabric and time, and the sleeves were already attached to the rest of the bodice, and all that time gathering at both ends . . . I'd have to undo all my work on the cuffs, and unstitch several bodice seams, too . . . . It was late that evening, but before I went to bed, I came up with a not-so-great but decent solution. I would just take the 3" off the end of the sleeves. I would take off the cuffs, measure the three inches up from the end of the sleeves, and cut it off. I'd have to redo the gathering at the cuffs and the cuffs themselves, but at least I wouldn't have to undo everything. So that's what I did the next day. I figured that with so much fabric, it wouldn't be noticeable if the exact curve of the sleeve at the elbow was slightly different, or if there were 3" less fabric in the circumference of the sleeve. I was right; the sleeves look fine.

With all that put together, and the side seams sewn up, what was left was the closure. I mentioned the work I did to figure out how to place all the buttons and holes on the mock-up. But when figuring all that out, I did not actually sew any buttonholes. I just cut unfinished holes in the fabric. I had to do much better than that on the final product. So I set to work trying to figure out button holes. The sewing machine I used did not have a buttonhole foot, so I was using the zigzag stitch and trying to make neat, straight, perpendicular lines in the shape of a tight rectangle, the middle of which would be the buttonhole. If that sounds easy, it is not. It took a very, very long time to make it look neat, and in the end I had to do some hand-sewing to neaten it up. I also hand-sewed the buttonholes on the cuffs.

I was working feverishly on this one night, and it was getting late when I finished the final buttonhole at last. But I was in a fever to get the bodice done (I may have literally been feverish). All that I needed was the buttons. So I sewed them on as quickly as I could, very loosely, and I put that sucker on, and I was so, so pleased. I literally jumped for joy at quarter past 11:00 on a work night. The picture below is from the next day, in the sunlight. A completed bodice! (And my white hoopskirt.)

Hurrah! Bodice completed. That was definitely the difficult--or at least complicated--part. Now what remained was the skirt. That was my thought as I went to bed the night I finished the chemise. I went to bed doing mental math, attempting to determine how big to make my pleats.

While I appreciated the diagram that has come with the directions, I found a different plan online that seemed more intuitive. It involved taking 5 yards or 3 panels of 60" fabric, dividing it into four sections, and pleating each section. I used that as my guide instead of the diagram that came with the pattern. I had 55"-wide fabric, and, again, I figured that in the end a few fewer inches of fabric in the skirt wouldn't be noticeable, so I sewed together 3 panels of 55"-width fabric. The length was the distance from my waist to the edge of my hoopskirt (which I measured at 39"), plus 1" for the seam at top and 5" for a seam at the bottom. The trouble with all this was that this fabric is very light and has a lot of give to it. Also, 165" is a LOT of fabric to try to wrestle, especially when you don't have much space to work with. I tried my best to make it nice and crisp, and it turned out fine, but it is a little wonky, especially around the waist.

In any case, once I had kind of wrestled this fabric into order, I put on my hoopskirt and held the length of the fabric up against it, just to see if I was in the ballpark. I had 4" of hem to work with (so I could lengthen or shorten the skirt). Turns out, it was about an inch too long, so I repinned the bottom hem. Once I had that figured, I zipped off the hem around the bottom edge and then started pleating. That was a trip. I'd figured out a method for pleating (see my earlier post), but I hadn't reckoned on the last little fold-over piece, which got in the way, and in any case, I think because of the give in the fabric and how precise I was trying to make the measurements, it kept turning out a little wrong. I had cut out a waistband of the right length to use as my template as I pleated. Once I had pleated the fabric, I pinned it and then sewed it to that waistband.

The next task was to attach the skirt to the bodice, and I'd been ruminating on this one for a while. There were no directions for this in the pattern, and I had difficulty finding anything online. So I came up with this solution: the waistband was sewn to the wrong side of the skirt fabric. I would proceed to pin the bottom of the bodice to the top of the skirt, with the right sides of the bodice and the skirt fabric facing one another. So it would be bodice layer, skirt layer (facing one another), and then the waistband. I would sew all that together, then fold the waistband over it all and sew it in place. It would be like a seam sandwich, with the seam contained with in the waistband. Also important was the closure: I would leave the last several inches of bodice and skirt unattached at the front and finished off the bodice seam and skirt seam separately. This was because they would close separately. I was using the dress I had purchased as a guide in this (if I were to do it again, I would not do this, but attached it all the way around).

Now, after doing all of the above, I found myself faced with several problems. In spite of all my efforts, I had not, as I thought, left an extra inch on both sides of the skirt for a closure. The result was that the bodice and the skirt closed apart from one another; the skirt was snugger, leaving the bodice a little loser over top of it, which gave it an awkward look. Secondly, folding under the bottom of the bodice to finish it off left it slightly bulky, exacerbating the issue of the different closures.

Solution? The green belt that came with my ready-made dress. That helped immensely. And, frankly, given that the dress was completed--really completed!!--I wasn't going to worry too much about those little issues. (Other issues: the front closure issue also meant the skirt opening gaped open slightly, which is less of a problem since both it and the petticoat are white; the cuffs look nice but tend to make a "v" at the buttonhole rather than closing in a nice circle; at the neck, the button tends to slip along the buttonhole, meaning the plackard doesn't sit in quite as neat a line as it should; also, the pattern doesn't really allow for enough fabric for the button plackard to be wide enough, so the buttonholes kind of extend into the single-layer fabric.)

In spite of these issues (some of which I'm going to attribute to the fact that this lightweight fabric is hard to use, most of which I attribute to my novice skills), I was super duper proud of the result, and it looked lovely:

You can see the intended effect of the sheer dress, though not super well in this light: there is the more opaque lining, and the lighter fabric over top. You can just see the shadow of the lining at my collarbone under the sheer fabric. And the skirt looks fine, as do the sleeves; you'd never know they "should" have more volume. (Anyway, being petite, it helps to take the bulk out of the fabric, or else it'll swamp me.)

The next step was my hair, because ladies in the 1860s didn't have modern shoulder-length bobs. The trouble is that my hair is not very long and is quite fine in texture. I was never going to accomplish a period hairstyle without some help. Of course, ladies of the time had the same problem as me; many had fine or thin hair, so they used additions to achieve the fashionable look. I did so through Etsy, buying a cheap dark-brown braid. (I also purchased a snood, but it hasn't arrived yet.) I did a bit of YouTube research and figured out how to do my hair. Step one: part in the middle. Step two: take a hunk from the crown of the head to the ear and forward, and twist it up and out of the way; do this on the other side. Step three: take the bit that's left in the back and coil it and pin it, then attach the braid and coil the braid around at the back of the head, pinning that in place, too. Step four: pull those bits of hair from the front towards the back, twisting them as you go, and wrap each of these twists around the coil at the back, then pin in place. And, ta-da:

And the other day, I put it all together: hair, underthings, and dress. Well, first, the underthings, haha!

You can really see the hoops in some of these pictures, but in most light it's fine, so I'm not too worried and don't feel compelled to sew a petticoat to remedy this.

So am I satisfied? Well, I'm very, very pleased, and I love my pretty dress. So, yes, I'm proud of myself and . . . satisfied. But there are some errors with the dress (though they aren't really evident unless you look closely). I think I might want to try again, incorporating what I learned . . .

Oh, and I learned about a place in Gettysburg that does honest-to-God wet-plate photography with Victorian style backdrops and all. So, yeah, I think I'm going to do that, and while I'm there I may stop by a fabric shop with lots of pretty, period-appropriate fabrics . . .

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