Sunday, July 19, 2020

...And a 1920s Dress


Normally, I wouldn't consider the '20s to be in my "sweet spot". I'm mostly interested in the 1830s-1860s and the Edwardian-Great War era. That puts me right up against the 1920s, so I was willing to fudge a bit because the novel I most recently wrote more-or-less ends in 1921 and because there's a '20s event in September that I want to attend.


My planning for this one was a bit all over the place. My original plan was pretty much "make a '20s evening dress". Where to go from there, I wasn't sure, not being very familiar with the era. I had the vague knowledge that most people have of what the '20s looked like. I also knew that that popular image is, mostly, not correct.

As I started poking around, looking at patterns, I came across some really neat cotton fabric with a brown base and all kinds of art-deco designs in white and pink and red and tan, all shot through with silver pinstripes. I got super excited and decided I would definitely use this fabric for my new dress (spoiler alert: it didn't work out that way, obviously).

I bought a pattern from Reconstructing History and followed it and had all kinds of problems. It was too big in pretty much every way, and it hit me in weird places, and I didn't really like the shape. My attempts to fix the fit around the shoulders and chest meant the gathering at the hips was too high, and... And anyway, it just wasn't working out. (I should note that I went as far as making it up in the brown art-deco fabric before abandoning this attempt.) Frustrated, I went online and poked around, trying to find inspiration and a way forward. I found the following diagram--"cinq rectangles=un robe."

It seemed simple and like something I could do. And I did. I sketched out a "pattern"--more of a diagram--according to my own measurements. The mock-up looked pretty good. But then I did it in the brown fabric, and, again, it just didn't work. The problem with this diagram is that you gather a lot of fabric into a small width at the shoulders, and when you bring the back skirt around to the front, you have this awkward bulkiness at the sides because of that fabric that reaches from right under the arms at the back down to the waist at the front. That fabric is meant to wrap around to the front for effect, but there's a lot of bulkiness. Looking back at my failure, I think it might be the fabric I used. A mid-weight cotton probably isn't quite the right medium. It probably needed something much lighter weight. I might retry at some point in the future using something lighter.

In any case, I went back to the Internet, poring over fashion plates and patterns. As I mentioned, actual '20s dresses aren't quite what most people think they are. The dresses were longer than you might think and almost never actually had fringe, for instance. Though I ended up making a dress with blocky straps, most dresses had little sleeves and/or a wide, scooped neck. And these gowns were generally made of layers of very light fabrics like chiffon. I liked the looks I was finding but was struggling with exactly how to bring it to life without 1) buying new fabric or 2) buying any more patterns. Because as I wrote on my calendar to remind myself: "No more fabric, FFS!"

Anyway, I came across the following image and knew it was the ticket. Firstly, it's adorable. Secondly, I had light yellow crinkle chiffon that would be exactly the right thing for it. Thirdly, I had a good idea of how to make it.

Now, the source of this picture is Pinterest, and it seems to be an image from a vendor of some pretty nifty vintage-style clothing. At first, I thought it was an original '20s dress, but when I looked into the origin, I wasn't so sure. Dig as I might, I wasn't able to resolve that entirely. It has an original look, but the site doesn't seem to be selling actual vintage clothing. But they might post pictures of actual vintage clothing (as inspiration or what have you). In any case, the look comported pretty well with what I had seen in fashion plates, so I felt comfortable using it as my inspiration.


This dress was entirely self-drafted, which sounds considerably more impressive than it is, I think. The dress is, not so unlike the "cinq rectangles" diagram, made up almost entirely of rectangles. A rectangle for the front of the bodice and one for the back, and two rectangles of fabric for the skirt. Well, four, really, but we'll get to that.

For the bodice, I started with my bust measurements, then added 2" for seam allowance and 3" for ease. I suppose I could have made it one big rectangle that I sewed into a tube, but I did make a front and back panel. For the front panel, I measured up from the center of the rectangle by 1.5" and drew a curve down to side seams. This was to give a little more bust coverage, to make me feel more comfortable in the dress. As for the length, I measured from where I wanted the dress to start under my arm to where my hip bone sticks out (because '20s dress are very low-waisted). Because I was still in the "figuring it out" stage, I added a few inches for a margin of error. I should add, I was using white lawn, which would serve as both a trial run for the chiffon and as the under dress, because obviously I couldn't wear a dress like the one above without some kind of under dress.

That was pretty much the bodice figured out. I puzzled a bit over the ruched section of the dress. Was it a strip of fabric covering the seam where the skirt and bodice met? Was it a strip of fabric that was connected to the bodice on top and the skirt on the bottom? Eventually, I figured out that the strip of ruching was the top of the skirt, gathered to the bodice with several lines of gathering. So, I went ahead and ruched the top of my skirt panels. I had cut two panels, each of which was as wide as the entire bodice and 20" long (which seemed to be the right length for my short frame). When I gathered the panels down, it was a ration of 2:1, skirt:bodice. I did five lines of gathering for the ruched effect, all of which I sewed by hand.

In retrospect, I should have created a strip that was the right length (the length of the bodice) and height (the section of ruching is 3" high) and gathered the skirt down to the panel before attaching it to the bodice. This would have helped in making the gathering neat and even. Actually, in retrospect, I shouldn't have ruched the lawn under-dress at all but left that un-gathered so I could gather the overdress to it. But as I said, this was basically a trial run for the overdress.

I pinned on some temporary straps (just pieces of ribbon) and was pretty pleased with the effect of the dress. I now had proof of concept. I went ahead and cut out pieces from my yellow crinkle chiffon. I can't recall if I mentioned this fabric in another post, but this stuff is hard to work with. It tends to warp really, really easily as you try to transfer your pattern onto it and cut it. I made use of the selvage edge for the skirt panels, of which I cut three because I decided I could use more volume in the chiffon skirt than I had in the lawn skirt. Thankfully, the pieces for this dress were basically all rectangles, which made it easier to keep the lines straight.

Anyway, the next steps were simple enough in concept: sew up the side seams, sew the skirt panels together, run the gathering stitches, and gather the skirt to the bodice. However, this was somewhat fiddly work, what with the chiffon being so given to warping. I had to measure and remeasure everything to ensure it stayed even and level. I also decided that two skirt panels would suffice and set aside the third panel (a fortuitous decision in the end). In any case, with the chiffon outer dress put together, I pinned it to the under-dress and sewed the layers together at the top edge. I rolled the chiffon over the edge of the white lawn (I'd cut the chiffon about an inch longer than the lawn) and stitched it down to the lawn so that the stitching isn't visible from the outside. I also connected the two layers at the waist.

Another retrospect thing: If I were doing this again, I actually might forget about what I said above and just flat-line the chiffon to the under-layer, treating them as one layer.

I attached more-permanent ribbon straps to the dress and had what amounted to a completed dress. I was satisfied with this as a base, but it still didn't have quite the right shape and look.

The dress as completed without any added touches. It
looks quite pink, but I promise it's yellow.


I had three major issues to resolve and a few assets in my corner. The first major issue was the skirt length. The skirt came to just above the knee, which was too short, as all the fashion plates showed skirts ending around mid-calf. The white under-dress also peeked out under the yellow chiffon. The second issue was the straps, which were nothing but two 13"-long white ribbons. I'd never intended these to be the final look but to be the structure on top of which I would add....something. Sleeves? Ruffles? Lace? More yellow chiffon to make wider straps? This was TBD. My third issue was that the overall look was too plain. It needed more visual weight at the bottom and top to balance the ruching in the middle, and I also just wanted it to look more more.

What I had to work with was the following: that third skirt panel I had set aside, pieces of a failed bodice from a different project using the yellow chiffon fabric, and various bits of lace and trim. I took apart that old bodice and quickly realized that the waistband from that would make a lovely bow for the middle of the bust line and that what had been a peplum would be perfect for a tie around the waist (like in the inspiration picture). I wouldn't need to hem or alter these pieces at all, just attach them. Hurrah! That helped.

Pile of scraps from an old bodice, on top of my comforter.

I played around with that discarded skirt panel, and thought about making it a little shrug thingy like in the inspiration picture, but it just didn't quite work. I considered making flutter sleeves out of it. Then I realized that the perfect solution was to cut the panel in half lengthwise so that I would have two panels the same width and half the height as the skirt panels already attached to the dress. I would then sew those to the bottom of the skirt, making a flouncy little flounce. To hide the spot where the flounce was attached, I would apply some kind of decoration.

The unadorned dress, but with the added skirt flounce

Thence commenced a lengthy scouring of the Internet for some kind of trim to cover the line where the flounce attaches to the skirt. Should I use a lacy trim with gold accents? A Greek-key trim? Then, as had happened a few times already during this project, inspiration hit. Recall that art-deco-design fabric I failed to make good use of? Well. Here was a good use for it. I would cut out a strip of only the lotus flower part of the design and stitch that in a long strip over the place where the flounce was stitched to the skirt.

Done and done.

The lotus flower design.
Ironing my strip flat (it's folded over in thirds, envelope-like).

This brain-wave helped solve the problem of the straps, as well: I would use more of that fabric to make wider straps. I went ahead and did that, then thought it needed a little something more to ground it. So I made little ruffles using more leftover bits of that failed bodice.

Oh, and I should also note that the weight of the dress made it sag from the straps. I'd added 1.5" to the top of the front bodice, but it was sagging between the straps so badly that it was straight across. So I added a band of ribbon all the way around the bodice, and in the front I added some "boning" (a zip tie) to help it keep it's shape, and that worked. It still sags a bit from the straps, so I'm going to keep this folded for storage rather than hung.

The dress, without the ruffles on the straps and
without hair/makeup done. Also, without shoes.

And so I had a dress! A whole dress, almost entirely of my own design, and it turned out *so well*. I was really, really proud of the different design decisions I made and the problems I solved. I was most pleased with the fact that I used stuff I already had.

A few notes. In the below, I'm wearing a wig for volume and some dark lipstick (which I actually really like and might wear more everyday!). The shoes are actually 1860s reproductions (American Duchess), but they're simple white shoes and therefore unobtrusive and versatile. The gloves are cheap Halloween gloves, and I think I'll get white one to match better, though the contrast is kind of nice. You can't see it very well, but I am wearing a white headband in this pictures, too.

The dress on a hanger. It looked really pink in all
the pictures I took in this spot, so I color-corrected and now 
some of it looks a bit green, but the color of the dress is closer to correct.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

...And a Blue 1860s Dress


Fabric: bought via Facebook directly from a fellow costumer who was de-stashing. Blue cotton "Marcus" reproduction fabric with red-and-white flowers. According to buyer, originally bought at Needle and Thread in Gettysburg.
Fabric cost: $65
Fabric amount: used nearly all of about 7 yards.
Lining: bodice is lined with white cotton lawn; sleeves and skirt are unlined.
Trim: black braided trim, about 1"; used about 6 yards; also bought directly from fellow costumer de-stashing. Got a bolt of many yards for $15. [Note: the trim isn't included in any of the pictures here; I applied it after my little photo shoot.]


I have to say, I feel like I have come a long way on my sewing journey and have travelled quite a learning curve. I've come out on the other end with new sewing and problem-solving skills, and a lot of pride in both the things I've produced and the hard work I put into them. See, I'm not always a natural at things, but I'm a quick learner and quite persistent when I get the bug. It may take me a bit, but I can usually work through almost anything and make a good showing of it, even if I'm not brilliant at it.

I say all this because I was thinking of some of the other dresses preceding this one that were...not up to scratch. There are a few I'd rather forget about. Since I've made a few other 1860s dresses, I can compare this one to them. The very first dress I sewed, a white 1860s dress, is actually quite nice, though fairly simple. The second, tan dress is lovely and may still be my favorite historical costume--but it wasn't very well-constructed. There are loose threads and some weird little things here and there. But this new dress not only turned out looking nice, it's also solidly constructed. It bears close scrutiny.

But anyway, having made a number of 1860s dresses before, what possessed me to sew another? Well, I was only satisfied with two of the dresses I made, and the aforementioned poor construction bugged me. So I wanted to do it and do it well. Also, I have grand visions of myself wearing these to various events (which events exactly, I don't know), and so I would like to have a few dresses to choose from. That's probably wildly optimistic, but mostly my motivation was just to have another pretty dress, one that I was fully satisfied with in look and construction.


Once I had decided I wanted another 1860s dress, or rather had decided that I was going to act on that aching need for another pretty dress, I needed to decide what pattern and fabric to use. Lemme tell you, I spent a lot of time considering patterns and fabrics.

I started with the fabric: I purchased a dress length of blue-and-brown stripey cotton. It's nice fabric. I quite like it. But I realized that it was most suitable for a wrapper-style dress. And while I did strongly consider a wrapper pattern, I didn't really want to do a wrapper. Eventually, I settled on Simplicity 4551, a day dress pattern that is out of print (I bought this used, though not via Facebook). The pictures looked pretty, the bodice was gathered (which I understand was the standard for cotton dresses, while wool or silk used darts; I already have a pattern for a darted bodice), and there were three interesting sleeve options. I was planning to use the blue-and-tan stripey cotton for this dress, even though it was really more suitable for a wrapper.

Then, in one of the Facebook groups I'm a part of, someone was selling a dress length of blue, red-and-white-floral-printed fabric. It was a good price, it was pretty, and in spite of the fact that I already had blue cotton fabric for an 1860s dress, I bought this stuff. It seemed more appropriate for the pattern. And you know what? I do not regret it one bit. Because when I got the fabric, this was how happy I was with it:

Okay, so that might be because this fabric took an epic journey through the US postal system and I was VERY happy to finally get it. I live in Virginia, and after this package was mailed from, uh, Ohio I think it was, it started bouncing around from Washington DC to Southern Maryland to Virginia and back again--for three weeks. It got stuck in a circle because the sender had put in the wrong ZIP code (and apparently, this caused the postal tracking system to completely melt the eff down and send my package in an endless loop of existential, tautological dread). I had to pay to have the package "intercepted" and finally received it like a month later (the seller did reimburse me for that).

After it took that epic journey and made me smile, I just knew I wanted to use this fabric for this 1860s dress, and I knew I wanted it to be my next project.


By the time I got the fabric in the mail, I had already spent some time working with the pattern. For logistical reasons, there were times I had to set aside my 1910s project for a bit, at which point I worked on the 1860s project.

As mentioned, I started with Simplicity 4551, but, of course, I had to make major alterations (for those who don't follow along, I'm 4'11", with a strangely-shaped torso and very short legs). To describe the bodice pattern a bit: it consists of a darted lining layer (the pattern calls it the "under-bodice", but it's basically a lining) and a fashion-fabric layer that is gathered at the waist in the front and back. It buttons up the front, and the sleeve I chose has a lot of volume at the shoulder and becomes narrow just below the elbow (similar to a leg-of-mutton of gigot sleeve). It's an unusual shape, but I liked the look of it, so I chose that over the other options.

I've struggled with fitting in the past, but this time around, I used the advice in this article: worked like magic. I used tracing paper to draft a pattern with a shorter shoulder seam, and with my first mock-up it fit like a glove. It was beautiful, just beautiful. It almost brought a tear to my eye. Almost.

I had to work a little harder to make the over-bodice fit. That took a few attempts. It also took cutting up the mockups from my 1910s outfit. I figured that whatever worth there was in keeping the mock-ups for the future (in case I ever wanted to make the pattern again and couldn't figure it out from the pattern pieces or the finished product...), the fabric itself was literally more valuable. I want to try to waste as little fabric as possible. It saves money and, uh, the planet.

In any case, for this project I also had my fancy new dress dummy, which was a life-saver. It really helped in making sure the under bodice and fashion fabric matched up neatly.

Also worth noting: as a result of my fiddling with the pattern, it ended up being a little too short-waisted. I made a point of trying on the mock-up with my hoop skirt, and I'm glad I did, because I needed to add some length in the back and at the sides so that the bottom of the bodice was right at the top of the hoop skirt. The bodice needs to end right where the hoop skirt starts or else you'll get a strange, triangular dead space, with the torso and hoop skirt as two sides and the skirt itself as the hypotenuse, if that makes  sense. In any case, that problem was fixed, and I moved on.

Sleeves can be a real pain in the ass. And I had fears of these sleeves in particular just murdering me with their complexity. I was sure I would find myself defeated by the pleated tops of the sleeves and the way it tightens at the forearm. I envisioned the elbow being in the wrong spot and everything being twisted. But, as luck would have it, while I altered a lot about the bodice, I didn't alter the armscye. Which meant that I didn't have to change the top of the sleeve at all. Huzzah!

The problem was the length, and how to shorten it while keeping the proportions correct. I accomplished this by pleating the pattern piece where I wanted to take out length and bulk. This broke the nice smooth lines of the pattern piece, of course, so I free-handed some lines to connect it all back up. It took just a little refining of my free-hand lines, but all things told, it went shockingly well. The poof poofed in the right spots, and the sleeve tightened at the forearm in the right way. Bonus: I now basically have a leg-of-mutton sleeve pattern if ever I should want to make a dress that involves such a thing.

On the bottom is the original sleeve pattern. On
top is the revised sleeve pattern.
Mock-up on the dress form, with an unrelated hat.


Being satisfied with my mock-up, I went ahead with cutting out the fabric for the finished product. I cut the darted "under-bodice", or lining, out of white cotton lawn--lightweight but sturdy, soft without adding bulk. This went together easy as pie. It's just three pieces (the back of the bodice, for both the lining and fashion fabric, is one piece, and the front, for both the lining and fashion fabric, is two pieces). It was just a matter of sewing four seems: the two shoulder and two side seams., then sewing in the darts I also marked a line two inches from the bottom, where the waistband would sit and along which the upper bodice would be gathered. At the front, I turned under the center front edges, making sure to offset the left from the right by about an inch so I could lap the right side over the left to button it and still have everything centered.

Then I got to work cutting my pieces from the fashion fabric. I did my damndest to match the pattern so the front two panels mirrored each other, and glory be, it worked. To conserve fabric, I actually cut the waistband out of two pieces of "cabbage" and stitched them together at center back. I left plenty of leeway in the length of the waistband, just so I had some "wiggle room". I've found through experience that it's better to err on the side of too much than too little.

With that done, I sewed the side and shoulder seams, hand-stitched gathering stitched along the front and back of the outer bodice, stitched the lining and bodice together at the neckline and the center-front, and gathered the gathering stitches until the bodice fit to the lining. Then I stitched the bodice to the lining at that 2" mark I mentioned earlier. Those last two inches, currently comprised of the lining only, would be covered by the waistband.

I'll be damned if I know why the lining and outer layer didn't match up at the armscyes (see picture below). I carefully trimmed my mock-up to fix exactly this problem, then transferred it to my pattern. Or at least, I thought I had, but maybe I somehow missed that step. In any case, when I forced the layers together and piped around the armscyes (more on that next), all was well. Huzzah!

The next step was piping. I hate piping. It's finicky and takes forever, but it really is necessary for an 1860s dress--and it does look nice. Previously, I've done piping entirely by hand. This means 1) cutting out strips of fabric on the bias, 2) folding some cord into those strips of binding and 3) stitching it together, then 4) stitching it to the right side of the fabric, with the raw edge of the piping matched with the raw edge of the fabric and 5) turning all those raw edges inwards in order to 6) stitch it all again so it stays in place, then, finally 7) trimming the middle layers away and pressing it in place. Yeah. But, hey, I figured out how to attach the zipper foot to my sewing machine! I was ecstatic at this, thinking I would be zipping through this piping like nobody's business. Alas, the tension was wonky and I couldn't make it work well, so while I did that first stitching by machine (that is, stitching the cord into the bias strips), I actually attached the piping to the dress by hand. It was a lot of hand-stitching, but honestly it wasn't that bad, and anyway it's much more precise to do it by hand. It turned out quite well.

I started by piping the top of the waistband, then attaching that where it was meant to go, directly to bottom 2" of the lining. I had barely enough width in my waistband, so I had to finagle the bottom edge, but it worked out fine. I piped the neckline and the armscyes, as well.

Along the way making this bodice, I did multiple "gut checks". That's a weird way to put it, actually, because it sounds like that might be literal, but no. I just mean I tried it on at various point swith and without all the underthings, just to be sure everything was still fitting like it should. Above, I took the mock-up sleeve and pinned it on, just to be sure everything was sitting correctly. It looked kind of cool with the contrasting color sleeve, like a varsity jacket from the '90s.

And the above is how it looked with sleeves attached and buttons/buttonholes completed. The waistband was lacking closures and the sleeves were lacking cuffs.

Annndd, here she is with the collar and cuffs exactly as the pattern called for. With that, we had a completed bodice.


Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures while making the skirt. However, it was a pretty straightforward process. I've made skirts like this multiple times now. I cut off some of the uneven excess from my length of fabric and had about 5 yards of 44"-wide fabric. I'm quite short, so I needed a finished length of 35". The top 2" would be stitched into the waistband. The bottom seven inches would be my hem. So I went ahead and hemmed first. Then I used a scrap of muslin as a waistband to pleat the top of the skirt to. My method is to mark off every 32nd of the skirt and the waistband. Then I match the marks and fold the excess skirt fabric towards the front or back, depending on which direction I want the pleats to face.

Believe it or not, I had the worst time with these damned pleats. I had to redo half of them once and then the whole thing once because I just kept doing it unevenly. It's actually hard work for me, because it can only really be done on the floor, and it's hard to get up and down, up and down. But, I told myself that I couldn't do a crappy job just because I was tired. I was under no deadline, so I would take a rest and come back and do it right. And I did.

But then I realized that when I was measuring out the muslin waistband onto which I pleated my skirt, I did it wrong. Don't ask me how; I don't know. Even though I measured it against the actual bodice to be sure, that skirt waistband was like 3" too long. As I said, I don't even know.

My brilliant solution? Just scootch over the hook-and-bars and let the volume of the skirt hide my mistake. It basically worked. I may at some time in the future go back and actually gather the skirt. But then again, I may not... I'm fairly sure other projects will distract me.

I now had a completed skirt and a completed bodice. They needed to be sewn together. This was straightforward. The skirt waistband was 2", and the bodice waistband was 2" (by design), so I sewed the skirt to the waistband at the top and bottom of that waistband, "stitching in the ditch"--that is, I used the gap where the piping meets the waistband to hide the stitches.

With that, I had a complete dress. Trying it on, however, I quickly discovered that I did not like the collar as it was shown in the pattern, and the cuffs were too big, even though I'd reduced their width by something like an inch. To fix the collar, I just pinned the points together with a brooch. I turned in the cuffs and pinned them temporarily.

See, I was determined to get some pictures of myself in my dress the next day: a fun quarantine activity around my apartment complex. I didn't have time to redo the cuffs entirely. But I DID (apparently) have time to fiddle with my hoop skirt. I read a tutorial online and compared it to my hoop skirt, the shape of which I wasn't entirely happy with (not bell-shaped enough). I discovered that part of my problem was that the top hoops were not wide enough. I made them as wide as the fabric of my hoop skirt would allow, and it actually helped quite a bit. It would also help, I think, to have a fluffy petticoat. But I, uh, don't.

Before I regale you with some pictures of me in my dress on a lovely early-summer day, let me regale you with a picture of the innards of my dress.

1. The bars for the hook-and-bar skirt closure, matching up with the hooks (#6).

2. Internal strap attached to the skirt waistband at front and back and long enough to be looped over a hanger to take the weight off the shoulder when hanging (it's better practice to store flat, but I don't have that option).

3. Stitching that connects skirt waistband to bodice waistband. You'll see it's stitched at the top and bottom, because these stitched have to take the weight of 5 yards of skirt. You'll also notice that just to the left of the 3 and where the internal strap connects, I stopped stitching the skirt to the bodice. The last few inches of the skirt and bodice are separate so that they can be closed separately.

4. Buttonholes. Don't mind the messy threads.

5. Bodice waistband closures. Two hooks and eyes to close it horizontally, and one vertical hook to that the bodice and skirt don't gap apart at the front where they aren't connected. If they did, that white waistband on the skirt would be really obvious.

6. Hooks for the hook-and-bar skirt closure.


The order of operations for getting dressed is:

1. Chemise.

2. Stockings.

3. Drawers.

4. Shoes.

5. Corset.

6. Hoops.

7. Dress--on over the head, close the skirt with the hooks-and-bars, close the bodice waistband with the hooks-and-eyes, button up the bodice.

8. Brooch.


I took these around my apartment complex, which has some lovely old trees that offered lots of shade on a warm day. I was really quite comfortable, even in quite a lot of layers. Cotton is breathable, and the hoops keep the skirt away from my skin, so my legs were only covered by drawers and stockings. Anyway, I set up a tripod and took these pictures, and had so much fun that I decided to hop in the car and drive over to a nearby park on the site of a Civil War fort (I live in Northern Virginia; you can't throw a stone without hitting something CW-related). And, yes, I was able to drive. I just skooched my hoops out of the way of my feet and it was fine.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

...And a 1910s outfit

A technical note: I'm re-publishing this, which was originally published June 5, because something went wonky with the blog post, and it appeared on the main page but not when you tried to view it as an individual page.

The finished product--a 1910s outfit.

I've been working along behind the scenes for some months now, buying [too much] material and [too many] patterns, looking at old fashion plates and the projects posted by other costumers online, and generally making plans. This was all groundwork for a series of projects I have planned, and it's been a long time in coming to fruition. But at last, my efforts are starting to bear actual fruit, and I'm very proud.

The first fully-realized outfit to come out of this whirlwind of planning is my 1910s ensemble: a blouse, chemisette/guimpe, skirt, jacket, and hat. I knew I wanted a 1910s look (better than the one I'd previously put together), and I'd been skimming the Internet for inspiration. I wanted to find a period image (so that the final product ended up looking credible) but to use modern-day patterns to achieve the look (because I needed a pattern to start off of). Finally, I came across the following image:


To my delight, I realized I had the perfect fabric. I had bought some slate-gray, white-polka dot, wool-blend fabric for another project. When I got the fabric, I realized that, while I loved it, it was much too heavy for the intended purpose. I had gotten some white-and-navy-blue-striped fabric at the same time; it was lighter-weight, but, until this point, I hadn't been quite sure what to do with it, either. But when I found this image, it all came together perfectly. The two fabrics I'd bought would work beautifully together to create the outfit in the image.

What was more, I knew which patterns I would use. So I had a plan.


Fabric: white cotton lawn (about 1.25 yards), black lace of unknown fiber content (I think it's a natural fiber, though), white lace of unknown fiber content (but almost certainly not natural fiber).

Let me preface this by saying something I've said before. I'm 4'11" and have a rather odd, boxy shape and very short arms and legs, so I have to heavily alter every pattern I start with. I was measuring up one of the patterns and got so frustrated at the difference between the pattern measurements and my own measurements that I literally scrawled in my notebook, "WHO DID THEY MAKE THIS PATTERN FOR, GIANTS?"

The first piece I tackled was the blouse. This pattern is made of four pieces: the center front panel, the center back panel, and one panel each for the left and for the right sides. There's no seam at the shoulder; the side panels start at the front waist, goes up over the shoulder, and continue down to the back waist. It closes up the side. These side panels are held together by the front and back panels (which are kind of like an 18th century stomacher, but, you know, both front AND back).

Mocking up the blouse on my new dress form.

I think all this made it harder to fit the pattern to me, because boy did I struggle with this one. I think I went through four mock-ups, using up a lot of muslin in the process. My main problems were wrinkles under the arms and across the back, and weirdly-fitting sleeves. The angles on the original pattern did not work at all on me, but I had a lot of difficult finding the right angles. Eventually, I got to something that I was satisfied with. Perhaps someone with more skill could've done a better job, and maybe I could've stuck with it and made it perfect--but probably not, and I frankly decided I'd fiddled with the damn thing long enough.

Once I was done with mocking it up, the rest was actually pretty simple. I cut out the pieces from my white lawn and sewed them together (simple, straight-ish seams all around). I decorated the front and back panels with black lace and added some black buttons to ground the black lace. I decorated the cuff with white lace and black buttons.

Of course, the blouse really wouldn't have been worn alone but with a chemisette (or guimpe). This fills in the neckline up to the chin--a very typically Edwardian look. The 1918 dinner dress I recently made included a pattern for a chemisette to fit into the triangular neckline. I used the pattern but made the bottom square instead of triangular. For the "fabric", I used the same 2.5"-wide lace that I'd used on the cuffs of the blouse. I pieced it together at the edges so that the front and back are each four panels of lace wide. I used literally every last bit of the lace to finish the collar part of the chemisette; that bit of lace ran in the opposite direction (horizontal) to the lace on the rest of the chemisette (vertical). I added some hooks and eyes for closure, but I made a hash of that am going to redo it. I'll either reconfigure the hooks and eyes or do buttons with thread loops instead.

That's the blouse done.

All the lace that was left after making the chemisette.

It looks a little silly tucked into jeans, but this
is the blouse with the chemisette.


Fabric: slate-gray white-polka dot wool blend (about 1.75 yards); 1 yard of belting.

This pattern is designed to go along with the blouse pattern above. Probably if you're the same size bottom and top, the front panels match up so it's one long line from the neck to the hem. But am I the same size on the bottom and top? Of course not. I bet that's the same for a lot of women.

In any case, the skirt was actually surprisingly easy (less fiddly than fitting the blouse). Skirts do tend to be easier because the only thing I really have to alter is the length. That was the case here. It was a little trickier because of the kick pleats at the bottom of the skirt. See, I determined from day one that I needed to take off 8 inches from the skirt. Yep, eight whole inches. Did I mention that I'm really bloody short? I'm really bloody short. However, if I just took the 8 inches off the bottom, the kick pleat would be basically gone. On the other hand, if I took it from the top, then I'd have a disproportionately long kick pleat. So I took out four inches from above and four inches from below the kick pleat.

This was a PDF pattern I printed myself and taped together. So what I did was fold the pattern up by 2 inches (which actually eliminated a total of 4 inches) at a point above and at a point below the kick pleat. Then I untaped some of the pages and scooted them over (inwards) so that the vertical lines of the skirt matched up again (when I took out those 4 inches, it interrupted the line of the skirt, of course). This had the result of narrowing the width of the skirt all the way down, but that was desirable, too. Again, I'm a small person. The less fabric, the better. And if I had kept the same width and just drawn a new line connecting the old line with the new line, I would've ended up with a skirt that flared out too much, and it would no longer have been "narrow" but a-line. I hope all of that, or any of it, makes sense.

I did a mock-up just to make sure everything was kosher, and it was, so I moved on to the fashion fabric. Doing the kick pleat required some careful attention to the directions. It involves basting the seam (I did it by hand to make it easy to take out later) part of the way down and pressing the seam allowance towards the front, then topstitching it down and removing the basting stitches. That's how you get the "panel" look. In any case, I didn't run into any difficulties there.

Where I ran into difficulties was the internal waistband. I was wildly optimistic in thinking that the muslin waistband I'd used in my mock-up would work. After all, I had fit it very nicely to my waist and I was happy with it. 

Oh, wait. Let me back up a bit. This skirt, like many skirt of the time, has an internal waistband. It sits just above the natural waist and has little darts in it to hold it close to the body. It is attached along its top edge to the top to the skirt and thereby supports the skirt while the skirt skims nicely down the body. To make this work, the waistband has to be well-fitted, but it also has to be sturdy enough to support the skirt. The fabric I chose for the skirt, a wool blend, was quite heavy, and the muslin was really pathetically unable to support it. I searched out "belting", which is what the pattern calls for (should've listened to the pattern to begin with, huh?) and found it (online) at Mood.

While I waited for the belting to arrive in the mail, I moved on to the jacket, but I'll get to that in a minute. Once I got the belting in the mail the other day, I set right to fitting it and then sewing it into the skirt (carefully by hand so that the stitching isn't visible from the outside). I sewed in the hook-and-bar closures, and voila, I had a skirt!

I mean, for the most part I had a skirt. The hem still needed to be leveled (the back was longer than the front) and, you know, hemmed. So I did that the other day to complete the look.

Levelling the skirt hem. Put it on the coffee table to get some height.


Fabricwhite-and-navy-blue striped wool blend (about 1.5 yards); same slate gray white-polka dot fabric as skirt for facings (about .5 yards).
PatternWearing History 1916 jacket (the pattern is for a jacket and skirt, but I only wanted/needed the jacket so only bought that part of the pattern).

This was another one that gave me fitting problems. The pattern gives sizes based on bust, by which I was not the smallest size. And yet when I measured the pattern pieces, it became evident that anything but the smallest size would swamp me. So I started with the smallest size and started reworking it from there, taking width out of the shoulder seam and bringing up the armscye and taking length off the bottom of the jacket. This is easy to say but was difficult to do--keep in mind, I'm entirely untrained and have no bloody idea what I've doing. I'm winging it based on hopes, prayers, and Internet tutorials (I'd be lost without help from the Internet).

I got the torso to a place I was happy with and moved on to the sleeves, which gave me no end of trouble. They were ludicrously too big--like I wrote in my journal, I don't know who this pattern was made for, but they must have really, really long arms! In any case, I spent hours fiddling with the damn sleeves, trying to get rid of the slight wrinkles at the back. But again, I felt that I wasn't going to get any further by fiddling with it more, and I was reasonably happy with the fit. So I moved on to the fashion fabric.

One of the things I loved about this pattern was the option for a sailor collar, which is exactly what was in the image I found (really, the patterns and fabric worked out perfectly to create this project). In the image, you also see the lapel and collar are faced with contrasting dark fabric, the same fabric as the skirt. So naturally, I used the striped fabric for the jacket and faced it with the slate-gray fabric I used for the skirt. I had to fiddle with the way the collar met the lapel, because it was off for some reason, but that wasn't too hard--I didn't mess with the pattern, I just eyeballed it and pinned it in place and then sewed it. In any case, with that achieved, I set in the sleeves, again struggling to get out the wrinkles.

To finish the jacket, I added buttonholes and black buttons and made a belt (with black buttons, naturally). The black buttons match the buttons on the blouse, though you can't see the blouse when the jacket it on.

And with that, I had a jacket and a complete outfit!


As soon as I had the waistband in my skirt, I put on the whole ensemble, even though the skirt wasn't hemmed. I actually took it all off, then decided to put it back on, do my hair, and take some photos. I'll let you in on a secret. I'm actually wearing bright pink socks here, but you can't see them.

All in all, I'm really pleased with the look I achieved here. It is actually quite close to the original, which I'm proud of. I put in a lot of work and thought, and it paid off nicely, I think.


I will post some time in the future about the hat. You see the hat in my pictures, but that is the *unimproved* hat.

I also have a lot of the gray fabric left over. I might use it to make a 1910s toque hat, and I am heavily considering using it for an 1860s paletot (coat), even though I don't think polka dots would be correct for the period. I also have enough of the navy-striped fabric to make a whole dress out of; that will be well down the road, I think.