Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: The Dress

I'm going to tell you, dear readers, about my Victorian dress, even though I generally like to wait until the outfits are complete, I'm afraid this one will take a very long time, and might be retired before it is ever finished.

Have you ever seen some fabric in a store and known exactly what you'd make it into? Even if you do not currently "do" that period? How long would you hold on to said fabric just waiting for the right opportunity?

About 10 years ago I came across some tan linen fabric embroidered with  white and gold flowers that I just had to make into a mid-nineteenth century gown. At the time there was very little possibility of me branching from the Renaissance into 19th C. but I could not pass up the fabric. I liked it so much and worried about the amount a hoop skirted form would take up I actually bought more of it when I saw the same pattern again the next year. The fabric then sat in a bin for a very long time. Five years after going into the bin I pulled out my lovely linen when it looked like there was a possibility that we would put on a Wild West show. That opportunity fell through so the fabric went back into storage. I thought I'd get to make it up when a friend got married and had a tea party theme, I ran out of time.

Well obviously the fabric was destined to be an 1870s garden outfit for me to wear in my role at Strawber Banke. The funniest part is when I first started contemplating making my own 1870 dress, I had completely forgotten about the embroidered linen! I was thinking about my current fabric stash and the possiblity of purchasing something new, and got to wondering if there were any more bins of fabric that were still out in the shed... Voila, the perfect Victorian garden dress material. Purchased so long ago as to now feel like it was free.

When deciding on a dress shape and pattern I spent a bit of time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photo collections site and almost immediately found two lovely linen dresses that I thought would be suitable for the garden. The best part of both, is that they were not covered in ruffles that would weigh down a dress or pick up more garden debris. The dresses I liked had lovely looking scalloped hems, which is completely different from anything the Mrs. Goodwins wear. I even managed to find some extant dresses with scalloped hems that were embroidered with little flowers. Yay for documentation! Yay for having an eye for fabric even before I knew what I was doing!

I started in on the skirt first. I’ve done quite a bit of sewing now, and my last few historical skirts have turned out awesome. So I took a big risk and decided to make my skirt with only my own patterning. Ugh. I used much too much fabric, both width and length. I was attempting a little bit of poof with petticoats, so I made it a few inches longer than usual. I wanted to be able to work in it, and to have the width for some poof so I put plenty of width in there. It turned into a heavy, flappy mess.

I was heartbroken and in a total panic because it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I was due to start in the garden and I only had some underpinnings and the horrible skirt. The person in charge of role playing at the museum saved me. She pulled out the maid’s outfit that I’d worn 14 years before, the first time I worked at Strawbery Banke. The thing fits me better now than it did then, and although it is worn, and not very regal, it was time period appropriate. And complete. After that first day I took my skirt home and chopped off almost 5 inches in length, and 35 inches in width. I wore it the next time I was in the garden and I’ve gotten tons of compliments on it ever since. The skirt still does not have a closure in the back, and the ribbon binding on the bottom edge is only sewn to the front of the scallops, it is not turned under. But no one seems to notice, and it is holding up fairly well.

I wore the nearly completed skirt and the old green bodice for a month and a half while I fussed over my own bodice. My friend Kristina helped me make the pattern and fit it, but as soon as we were done I lost the pattern piece for the back. then when I re-made the pattern I spent a few weeks getting the fit right by sewing and re-sewing the lining pieces. When I finally got the lining right, fixed my pattern and cut the fashion fabric (my lovely embroidered linen)  it was mid-June. I was determined to have something wearable other than the old green thing for the Fourth of July festivities at the museum since I would be in the garden that day.

A big part of stitching the bodice was putting on the trim. A bland tan linen needs a contrasting trim to make it special, so I matched the golden skirt trim with some golden piping, and put a chocolate brown ribbon underneath to make it pop. Before I stitched the lining to the bodice I put chocolate brown piping around the whole thing. This is a Victorian garden dress after all. By the time I got that done I barely had time to finish the front hook closure before the 4th. I did not manage to make sleeves or a belt or any of that. Luckily the museum had purchased with blouses for all of us gardeners to wear on the very hot days, so I pinned the button front of the shirt into the bodice so my arms are covered by the shirt sleeves. I ran out of time to sew hooks on to the skirt top, so I put safety pins on the inside an for the past month and a half have been attaching the hooks on the bodice to the little bit of the pins that show on the outside of the skirt.
4th of July, in the Goodwin Garden. I promise better photos some day!

I keep promising myself that I'll put on the sleeves, finish the skirt, and make the apron and bustle bit that goes over the whole thing, but at this point I happy wearing it the way it is. Maybe I'll have to come up with some mid-nineteenth century event this fall to get me motivated to finish it.

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