A Victorian Ball Gown

SLR_3_7331-002I am very fortunate to have two very beautiful young women to model the historical gowns I make! The next two posts concerning gowns, will feature two crew members, my daughter Shara, and my feels like a daughter, friend Katherine, wearing Victorian ensembles.

2012_04_051-007This Victorian Gown was made for a client in Japan who is planning to wear it as her wedding gown. Once again our lovely Katherine is modeling this.

This is a circa 1875 – 1878 Ball gown which sports a full bustled over skirt, a double tiered ruffled underskirt, and an off the shoulder basque back style bodice with pouf sleeves. The patterns that were used came from Truly Victorian. They are TV324, which is the Long Draped Overskirt, and TV416 which is the Ball Gown Basque Bodice. The underskirt is of my own design.

2012_04_051-005I used a Seafoam green faux silk which is embroidered with ivory, gold, tan and turquoise florals and leaves, for both the overskirt, and the main part of the bodice. The pouf sleeves and the underskirt are made of a 100% pure golden dupioni silk. The bodice is fully lined and boned for added shape and structure, and buttons at the front with self covered golden dupioni fabric buttons. This bodice also has a lovely pleated basque back.The draped overskirt is fully lined and was lengthened at the back by several feet to incorporate a long and elegant train for the evening.2012_04_051-004

To trim this gown, I used golden pearl teardrop beading around the sleeves, around the bottom and extending around the basque back of the bodice. I also used this beading on the draped front of the overskirt. I used golden swagged and scalloped rayon venise laces, which were hand-dyed using potassium permanganate. This method of dyeing gives lace a rich golden colour, and perfectly matches the silk dupioni. The result lends a very antique quality to the gown.SLR_3_8484-003

Katherine is also carrying an authentic Victorian lace fan made of bone and wearing a pair of beige, non-shiny, elbow length gloves. She is wearing a single strand of golden pearls around her neck and wrist, and golden crystal drop earrings. Simple but very effective accessories.

Something I really enjoy doing is creating matching foot wear for these gowns. For the Victorian gowns I purchase vintage lace booties, which I then dye and decorate with left over scraps of the lace and trimmings used in the creation of the gown. For this dress, I tea dyed a pair of lace boots and decorated them with the left over golden lace. I also re-laced them with a matching satin ribbon. The effect is very lovely when worn with the dress.

Don’t forget to click on the pictures to see the full size and effect!SLR_3_8470-002


Details! Details!

How can you level your costume up from alright to amazing? The answer is in the details.

Patterns! There are a lot of pretty good costume patterns out there, made by the more common pattern companies like Butterick, Simplicity and McCalls and for a very reasonable price anyone can get one. There are also those less well know companies such as Sense & Sensibility, Past Patterns, Kannik’s Korner and J.P Ryan, who produce some really great historical reproduction patterns. Some are quite complicated and some not. Some offer reproduction garments and some are just for fun costuming and still others are a combination of both.

The historical reproduction patterns often require a fair bit of hand sewing, but much of the sewing can also be done by machine. I tend to do both and use a serger or just a regular sewing machine for many of the long seams. I do, however, try my best to hand sew visible stitching and I almost always apply trims and things by hand. Doing this creates a much more authentic looking piece of historical apparel and I like that. Whether or not a person does this is completely a personal choice. The choice might be made, keeping in mind what the garment is to be used for. If this is a gown for a Halloween party or a masquerade ball, you could simply sew the entire thing by machine. If you will be using it as a historical re-enactment piece or for a historical ball however, I would suggest doing at least some of the sewing by hand. It’s a great opportunity to learn some of the tricks and stitches used by the seamstresses and tailors of old.

Fabrics! An important thing to do, if you wish to create more realistic apparel, is to do some research. What kinds of fabrics did they have available to them, what was popular with the different classes and so on. If you are wanting to reproduce something from a certain time period and class, there is no point in using an expensive silk fabric to sew a dress for the serving or working class who wore mostly cottons and wools. Unless of course it is just for a fun costume and then anything goes. Serving wenches can then wear satin and lace! If you wish to create something a little more authentic however, and come up with reasonable facsimiles of time period clothing, find out what was worn in what era and do some detailed research about that before you start to sew or buy materials. People in history did not have access to synthetic fibres, true fabrics like silk, cotton, linen, muslin and wool were used.

Closures! Other details that are of great importance are such things as closures. There is nothing so unauthentic as a zipper in a gown or a pair of breeches that hail from the 17 or 1800s! Modern-day zippers weren’t invented until the early 1900s and the forerunners of it not until the late 1800s. Typically they were not very popular because they were far to complicated to use until 1913.  Most clothing was closed by laces, buttons and clasps and the latter two were used later and then often only by the more wealthy, who could afford such luxuries as buttons.

Trims and things! Men and women have always loved to trim and decorate their clothing! However, this was also something that was not commonly done by the working class. Perhaps they might have a small tidbit of lace or such that they could wear with their Sunday best if they even had such a thing. Lace was most often hand-made and  this took time to do, time unfortunately was not a commodity that most lower classed women had a lot of. Upper classed women however did, and they commonly wore lace and trims on their clothing. They also wore ribbons, braid and buttons. Your challenge will be to find examples that look like they were hand-made or see if you can make or acquire it. I favour venetian, battenburg or crocheted type laces because they generally have a more antique or handmade appearance. Embroidered ribbons and silk braids also make nice additions.

Accessories or Accoutrements! Paramount to creating an authentic look are the accessories that you will choose to wear with your ensemble. Depending on their status or station in life, (ie, an officer, a merchant, a gentleman or perhaps a farmer), men wore wigs, silk or linen cravats, gloves, leather boots or hessians, jewelery, such as pocket watches and tie pins, plus a variety of hats and other head gear. I am speaking here primarily about the 18th and the 19th centuries. Prior to that they might also have worn pendants, gold and silver chains and jewels, again depending on their place in the classes. Even weapons such as pistols, swords, daggers or armour on a knight might be considered an accessory that you might or might not wish to invest in. A warning here however, in order to be realistic they must be decent quality reproductions, and this can demand a fairly large drain on your pocket book.

Likewise, lady’s accessories would have consisted of underpinnings such as corsets, stays, hoops, panniers and bloomers. Depending upon the time period they might have worn leather slippers or boots, gloves, carried a reticule and a parasol, worn a hat and a variety of jewelery. Beaded necklaces, brooches and bracelets with pearls, coral, shell and other semi precious stones were popular. Jewels set in gold and silver, also lockets, chains and cameos. Metals such as brass and copper were worn. They did not have access to costume jewelery until much later.  Women also sometimes carried a weapon, such as a dagger or a small pistol. The key here is to see what will fit into your budget and to once again do the research and find out what was worn in what time period. Adding Victorian accessories to a Georgian era costume will not do!

Hair! One other thing well worth mentioning are hairstyles. Hairstyles then as now, were and still are very important to affecting a certain look.  If you wish to portray a person of the upper classes in say the 1700s, you might want to wear a powdered wig. A gentlemen during a certain chosen time period or station, might have worn his hair long or short, with or without a beard, sideburns or mutton chops. It may not be possible to wear your hair long but for most men it will only take a few weeks to grow some strategic facial hair. A woman might want to purchase a hair piece or practice doing and decorating her hair in some of the styles of the period she wishes to emulate. Again a little research goes a long way.

The most important thing to remember of course, whether you are costuming to re-enact, or simply to attend a Halloween party, is certainly to have some fun with it. Almost everyone loves a great costume or reproduction piece, and whether you favour one or the other, the secret to success is in the details!

The Language of the Fan

Lady with a Fan, by Renoir

Lady with a Fan, by Renoir

After doing some research about hand fans, I found out something I had not previously known about them. Although they were meant to keep a woman, in her many layers of clothing cool, it seems there was much more to them than that!

Beautiful hand fans were a fashion statement, made of a variety of exotic materials and fabrics, such as ivory, tortoise shell, sandalwood, silk and lace. Many were dyed in bright colours, pierced and carved with elaborate designs and hand painted with beautiful florals, dragons, and scenes depicting lovers in courtship. More than that though, they were a way that a young miss could flirt with prospective beaus and/or suitors. Yes, a fan was used as a convenient communication device. A way to transmit messages, particularly in matters of the heart, to others in the room. A language actually, one which everyone in society would have understood. In a time where young men and women were often kept from speaking privately, or spending time alone together, a fan could come in mighty handy indeed!

I found the following here, and thought it was pretty interesting!

The language of fan was widely used by women and men as a means of communication.

The fan placed near the heart: “You have won my love.”
Half-opened fan pressed to the lips: “You may kiss me.”
Hands clasped together holding an open fan: “Forgive me.”
Hiding the eyes behind an open fan: “I love you.”
Shutting a fully opened fan slowly: “I promise to marry you.”
Drawing the fan across the eyes: “I am sorry.”
Touching the finger to the tip of the fan: “I wish to speak with you.”
Letting the fan rest on the right cheek: “Yes.”
Letting the fan rest on the left cheek: “No.”
Opening and closing the fan several times: “You are cruel”
Fanning slowly: “I am married.”
Fanning quickly: “I am engaged.”
Opening a fan wide: “Wait for me.”
Twirling the fan in the left hand: “We are being watched.”
Twirling the fan in the right hand: “I love another.”
Presenting the fan shut: “Do you love me?”

Now, before we all rush out to buy a fan and try our luck…have a care, for on a very warm evening, in your vigourous quest to stay cool, you may just be sending accidental messages of love to all the wrong people, and end up finding  yourself surrounded by many would be and unwanted admirers. What a pickle that would be! I can’t help but think this “fan language” could become very confusing indeed!