Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: early 1840s gown

The Dress.

March 28, 2005: Fabric Hunting.

I always like to figure out what fabric I'm going to use before I make final decisions about design, because it doesn't do to plan a dress around velvet and then have to change your plans because you find a great deal on silk taffeta!

I was surprised to find that finding the type of cotton I wanted was actually much more difficult (and about as expensive) than silk would be. Plain silk is easy: I have a reasonable number of sources, many colors would work, etc. But I really wanted this to be a practical, washable dress, although an upper-class version thereof.

Period printed cottons can be had from on-line vendors, but they are the heavy, dark quilting fabrics only used for dresses by servants and farmers' wives. Upper-class women such as would have inhabited Smith-McDowell House were wearing much finer cotton muslins, almost invariably white with light-colored printing, and usually with some kind of a stripe woven in. At left are two of these types of gowns dated 1837-9, and below are some close-up examples of this type of fabric (from ca. 1840 and 1845-50, respectively; all are from the Manchester Gallery of Costume).

Although similar to earlier "Indiennes" designs, the better printed cottons of the 1830s and '40s are marked by increasingly complex color schemes employing softer colors, and cleaner printing methods that allowed the designers to avoid heavily outlining everything as they had before. Ubiquitous at the time, such fabrics are pretty much unfindable now. Even not worrying about the woven stripe, I could find very, very few printed batistes or voiles, and nothing with an appropriate pattern.

Finally, in desperation, I was rummaging through my fabric drawers looking for inspiration and I found something I had forgotten about. It was two lengths of Laura Ashley fabric, originally intended for fitted bedsheets but rejected in the inspection process and sold very cheaply (by the pound!) at my local discount fabric outlet. It was so pretty I'd picked it up a year or so ago thinking vaguely that I'd perhaps make a Regency gown out of it just for fun, and so cheap I wasn't worried about sitting on it - it couldn't have been more than $10. I couldn't believe there would be enough but because of the extra-wide width there was, just!

You can click on the above image to see it closer. I love the violets! Sorry about the color - the background is actually creamy white. I'll try to remember to get a better, daytime shot.

Although the fabric below is from the late 1820s and thus has the simpler colors and heavier outlines of earlier printing techniques, I am showing it because the overall feel of the twining floral is typical of the entire early 19th century and reminds me in a general way of my fabric.

April 2, 2005: Digging In.

As I said on the first page of this diary, I prefer the late-1830s holdover sleeves (banded down at the upper arm, full on the lower arm) to the long tight sleeves that came in around 1840. Similarly, I like the soft, draped bodice styles more than the smoothly darted ones (although the draped ones are made on a fitted base, too). Some of the drapes are clearly tacked on top, but I particularly like a faux wrap style that came in around the same time as the banded-down sleeves. Below are two examples; the first is from the Snowshill Collection, ca. 1837-40, as shown in Nancy Bradfield's excellent Costume in Detail, and the second is from the Manchester Gallery of Costume, ca. 1837. Click for larger versions.

I am also going to go with a straight-across waist with waistband, as seen in both images above, rather than the more newly fashionable type that came to a point at the waist. Generally, that was kept for more formal styles.

I decided that rather than enlarge a graphed pattern, for this project I would drape directly onto my corset on a mannequin. It went pretty well, considering that I was completely making it up as I went along!

Since the draped bodices are laid on a fitted base, I needed to start by producing a standard late-1830s/early-1840s bodice pattern. After examining the diagrams of such bodices in Patterns of Fashion and The Cut of Women's Clothes, I pinned pieces of muslin to the back and side back on the straight grain, and to the front on the bias, and then just smoothed and pinned the seams and darts until I was reasonably happy with them. Below is the bodice at the halfway point, with the seams pinned and the excess fabric trimmed away. (Sorry about the half-photo of the front - my camera ate the rest - but at least it kept the half with the mockup on it!)

Hallmarks of this period are the bias front with a single dart on either side; the dropped-back shoulder seam, a leftover from the Regency and before; and the two-piece back with very broadly curving princess seams. The armscye is also dropped slightly off the shoulder, to produce the drooping look so popular with the early Victorians.

After completing the other half, I drew in the seam lines, removed the pins, evened out the two sides, and basted the seams. Then I tried it on myself, over the corset. Although these bodices are invariably fastened on the CB (center back), my mockup closes at the center front purely to make trying it on possible by myself. The fit wasn't bad but for a first try but there were a few issues: the front dart didn't end quite right at the bust peak; the overall fit was a little too snug; the back pieces didn't taper in enough at the bottom once I took off enough for the waistband; and the neckline was much too high.

So I carefully cut the pieces up along the seamlines in order to produce a set of rough fabric pattern pieces with no seam allowance. I traced them onto butcher paper, regularized them, and drew in my adjustments. I also drafted a first sleeve, purely by measuring up the overall dimensions and roughing in the curves, from an example in The Cut of Women's Clothes. It's really a strange two-part sleeve, with the fitted upper section cut completely separately from the full lower part.

I stitched up Mockup Mark II in muslin and was pretty happy with the bodice. Obviously I haven't put the waistband onto this version yet; in the photo it doesn't look like there's room for a waistband above the hips, but I am longer-waisted than my mannequin so there's a longer gap on me. The sleeve has some problems. The top is too small for the armscye; I think the lower section needs to be pleated rather than gathered at the top; and I also don't think it's full enough. But it's a start.

April 13, 2005: My Mockup Mocks Me.

Firstly, as promised, at right is a much better look at the fabric I'm going to be using for this dress. Click for closeup.

Secondly, this mockup and I are having a hard time of it, but I almost have it beaten into submission (ahem!). My second sleeve was a better fit in the armscye, but I also had to extend the front piece just a bit at the top of the side seam, to make the scye a bit smaller. Still, for whatever reason, the period layout of a perfectly balanced upper sleeve, in which the width is the same both at the top of the arm and just above the elbow, is not working on me. I need to taper it down toward the elbow; otherwise my sleeve is either much too tight at the top for comfort or too loose above the elbow for the right look. I suspect that if I still had the reedy arms of my youth - or if I didn't heft my husband back and forth between wheelchair and bed, causing bicepage (er, whatever you'd call it) - I would not have this problem.

However, my other annoyance is that I was so wrapped up in whether the upper sleeve had enough narrowness, and the lower sleeve enough fullness, that I completely failed to notice that the upper sleeve is just plain too short! Once I fixed the other problems this really smote me in the eye. However, of all problems, that is the easiest to fix. I am seriously considering just winging it on the pattern and not mocking it up again, however. I want to cut out my dress!

Below are the main pattern pieces as they now stand (except that I have not yet altered the upper sleeve). One square of the grid equals one inch. The sleeve pieces are at right; the giant curve at the top of the lower sleeve is gathered up into the straight bottom of the upper sleeve. Please note that the bodice front should be placed on the bias, as indicated by arrows; I laid it out for the photo purely to show its relationship to the other bodice pieces. Oh, and my side-back piece is abnormally small compared to most examples you'll see, because I have a very narrow back.

My waistband fitted just fine and looks like I wanted it to, at least. (I'm using an old sheet for this and the piece from which I cut the waistband had a hem, so that's why it has that seam through the middle of it in the photos below.) I'm also fairly contented with my bertha, which is the name for the drapey bits across the chest. I just randomly chose a width to cut a piece of fabric, gathered it up at the top, pinned it to the shoulder seam (which is actually over at the top of the back), pinned again where the tie-down bit will go, draped it across, and chopped it off. Amazingly, this method worked perfectly the first time! The current state of the muslin is below. Remember that my left and right sleeves are not the same (the one at viewer's left is the newer version), and that my mannequin has broader shoulders, a shorter torso, and a wider back than I do, so it looks a bit different (read: better) on me.

One issue I've been seriously chewing over is that of fastenings. These gowns were invariably fastened down the back with hooks and eyes. However, my husband can't really manage fastenings at the moment, and I always prefer to get dressed at home. So I'm thinking of taking a cue from a nursing gown of this period I saw recently on eBay. It had the usual fastenings down the back, but it also had hidden hooks and eyes down the front. A wrap style is both a blessing and a curse here. On the one hand, I can't just open the dress down the center seam, because I have a big gathered panel going across the front. On the other hand, if I keep the big gathered panel detached at the bottom, I can -aha!- use it to hide my front opening.

Obviously, if I do this, the bottom of the wrap can't be stitched into the waistband, the way it is in the inspiration Manchester Gallery gown (below); but there are plenty of examples from this period of bodice drapes that are simply tacked directly to the bodice. So I have lots of period precedent. I think it's a reasonable solution.

Sooooo, I'm just about ready to tidy up my pattern pieces and start cutting. Notes to self: Remember all those extra bits you'll need that you haven't mocked up! Such as bias strips for piping the seams, and more strips for the ruched section on the upper sleeves.

April 21, 2005: Snip, Snip, Snip.

My dress fabric is all cut out and waiting for me to start sewing. The weird shapes of the partly finished fitted sheets I'm using for fabric made the layout process interesting, but I got it all in there. Despite my comments above, I still almost forgot to allow for the ruching sections!

I also cut the lining material, which is some plain white cotton I already had (I buy it whenever it's cheap, for mockups and linings). Apparently white plainweave cotton was the standard lining material of this period - sometimes linen was still used, but the classic brown chintz of Victorian linings had not yet come into fashion. The skirts of cotton dresses were not typically lined, but there was a peculiar fashion for extremely deep hems, evidenced faintly on the right side of the skirt by the change in opacity where the fabric is doubled, plus a hint of the stitching at the top of the hem. I don't have enough material for a proper deep hem, but even in period they were often faked with a strip of lining material stitched in instead, as I'll be doing.

Actually, I have done a tiny bit of sewing: I seamed all my one-inch bias strips together and made a nice pile of piping to include in all my bodice and sleeve seams.

May 9, 2005: Catching Up.

I have a lot to tell you about, as I've been sewing up a storm rather than diarizing. Sorry!

I started off on the upper sleeves, on the principal that I should get the futzy detail stuff done first. After basting together the fashion fabric and lining, I took a rectangle of fashion fabric twice the width of the sleeve, marked it with 1/2-inch seam allowances and then longwise into thirds, and ran gathering threads at the top, bottom, and thirds-lines. I then gathered it up along all these lines to fit the width of the sleeve. I stitched piping across the top and turned it under to finish off the edge that would lie atop the middle of the sleeve; the other three edges were matched with the raw edges of the sleeve and pinned. If you do this, remember that in order to create the puffs, you will lose some height as well as the double width. I had to pin carefully at the sides to pleat up the extra fabric.

In the first photo below the sides are pinned but the piping is not yet turned under; in the second, it is all stitched down. I found that the whole thing was small and stiff enough that I did not have to overstitch the gathering threads at the one-third and two-thirds lines. (Click for larger pics.)

Having gotten this far, however, I was suddenly struck with doubt as to the poufiness of the whole thing (would it be too voluminous under my arms?) and decided to move on to other things before doing the second upper sleeve.

The Bodice.

I began the bodice with the back, again treating each lining piece as one with the matching fashion fabric. I didn't bother to baste the pieces together, but I did pin them at the corners so they wouldn't shift. Pinning and stitching the curving back seams with the piping in them was a bit fussy, but not too bad (I used a zipper foot, of course). It's easier when you're not planning to press the seams flat afterward, because if you run a bit wide in one spot or another you can just go back and run another bit of stitching and you don't have to pick the old bit out.

When the seam is first stitched, it's quite bulky. However, after trimming to a scanty half-inch and pressing with lots of steam from both sides (being careful to edge up to the piping as much as possible rather than mashing it flat), it comes out quite tidy. Especially because I followed up by whipstitching the raw edges together, mostly to prevent ravelling. (Machine zigzagging would work too, but of course the handsewing is more period.)

I was quite surprised to discover at this point that the piping serves a purpose besides being decorative, although in retrospect it seems obvious. It acts just like cording in a corded corset, and stiffens the bodice tremendously! Not enough to make it uncomfortable in any way, but definitely enough to help it stay nice and flat to the body. The heaviness of the all-in-one seams accentuate the effect; if the lining were separate, the seam would not have nearly as much body but just as much bulk. Fascinating!

Next I put the darts in the fronts, and stitched the fronts to the backs at the sides and the shoulders with piping. Then I sewed piping to the neckline and turned it under. Now, because I had sewn the lining into the fashion fabric seams, I could not turn the raw edge of the piping inside the lining - it was held down at the shoulder seams. But the bias cut edge was not prone to raveling, so I decided to simply turn it over on top of the lining and whip it down. Pressing this required much steam and the utmost spread of the bias to get it to lie nicely at the flattened curve just behind each shoulder, but it did work out. In the second picture below you can see that I then turned the back allowances twice over the ends of the piping and whipped them down, too. (Be sure to check the closeups to see what's going on with the stitching.)

Next I had to deal with the front. I mentioned earlier in this diary that I planned to imitate a nursing bodice I'd seen on eBay, but in fact I have since realized that I was thinking of the wrong one - the nursing bodice I preferred was on the wonderful site Heritage Studio. Which is great, because you can go see it yourself!

As you can see, it doesn't open all the way down the front, just to the underbust line. I stitched only the fashion fabric together at the front from the waist to this line, because I didn't want to have simple turned-under raw edges at a finished opening. I did include piping in the seam, but when I got to the opening I sewed it to one side of the front. (Getting the center-front piping and the neckline piping to meet nicely was a pain - in retrospect I realized I should have used one piece that ran up the front and turned to run around the neckline.) I pressed open the fashion-fabric seam and then turned the lining seam allowances under and pinned them to the fashion fabric. Then I whipped everything shut.

(In the photo below you can see that I started the center-front process and then realized that I needed to do the neckline piping first. I put them in this diary in the order that they wound up needing to get done.)

Finally, I stitched white-enameled hooks (brass hooks would be more period-correct but the only ones I can find are very large; I may make some from wire eventually, but only if I'm feeling obsessive) to the side of the opening with the piping, as this is the lap-over side, and I used buttonhole twist to make stitched bars on the lap-under side. I made sewn bars because they are much more flexible than metal ones, hold better, and show less - and metal bars are almost impossible to find now anyway, as the manufacturers have seemingly abandoned them for eyes only.

For those who don't know, here's how I sewed the bars: Take a couple of small holding stitches on the lining side. Pierce the needle through to the fashion fabric side where you want one end of the bar to be. Stick the needle back to the lining side where you want the other end to be. Now, don't pull the resulting stitch tight - leave it just a little arched up from the fabric. Push the needle back through to the fashion side, right next to where you just went in. Stitch a buttonhole stitch around the thread arch you've created and snug it down to the base of the arch, right next to the fabric. Make another and snug it down next to the first. Continue until you've covered the entire arch in buttonholing. This makes a beautiful, neat, strong bar, and it's actually very easy.

The photo below was taken when I had sewn only two of the bars.

My last job on the bodice was to attach the waistband. I initially sewed it on with piping at the top, but I didn't like the look and after checking period sources realized that most people then didn't either! I ripped it off and resewed it. Sorry, no picture, but I basically just slapped it up against the bottom of the bodice, stitched, and turned the raw edge down toward the waistband.

May 10, 2005: The Skirt.

You can see a lot of the typical late-'30s construction details I'm imitating in the back view at right from the invaluable Costume in Detail. My skirt consists of five panels: two that are 31 inches wide for the back and three of 24 inches for the front, for a total hem circumference of about 134. The only reason for the panels being different sizes is that I'm making this out of two sheets, one a twin and one a double, whose lengths and widths are different. I wanted to wind up with a skirt circumference in the 125-130 range, and I wanted skirt panels that were in a period-realistic 22- to 30-inch width, and I preferred a seam at the center back (for the opening) and the sides (for potential pocket holes) but not the center front.

The skirt is not lined. I stitched the panels together with a presser-foot's width seam allowance and machine zigzagged the edges together, except at the top of the side seams - where I may want to put pocket holes eventually - and the top of the center back, which of course will be left open with a placket. Then I pressed the seams flat to one side.

I decided to gauge (a.k.a. cartridge-pleat) the skirt to the waistband. This treatment is very typical of the time, and marks a shift from the more typical flat pleats of the 1820s and '30s. It helps add kick to the skirt, popping it out from the waist a bit. It's also handwork-intensive and really helps with the Oh I'm So Period look. Since I'd been doing a lot of handwork on the bodice and hadn't burned out yet, it seemed like a good plan.

There are lots of cartridge-pleating instructions on the web, such as here and here, mostly for Renaissance reenactors. I found that the only problem with those was that they expected me to be pleating heavy wool, when in fact I was dealing with thin cotton. The biggest difference this makes is in the size of the stitches; the thinner the fabric, the smaller the stitches need to be. I wound up taking a double row of roughly quarter-inch stitches. In retrospect I would have made them even a bit smaller. Not because they don't look good, but because it would have been easier to sew. When they're smaller they pack tighter when you draw them up to fit the waistband, and when they're a bit loose you have to fiddle with them more to spread evenly over the waistband.

Another period technique I've used (and which you can see in the photo) is that rather than stitch the skirt to the waistband, you:

1. Stitch the skirt to the bottom of a petersham band

2. Stitch the top of the petersham to the top of the waistband lining

3. Invisibly handstitch the bottom of the fashion-fabric waistband to the skirt.

This way, the petersham and the lining take all the weight and strain of the skirt, and besides it's easier to handle just the petersham (rather than a whole bodice) when you're fiddling with making the gauging come out just right across the length of the waist.

Unfortunately I don't have access to proper petersham, and the cotton webbing in the fabric stores is mostly too heavy and stiff. I wound up using something called "Shaker tape" or rug-binding tape, which erred on the side of being too soft and flexible. A little annoying to work with, but better than too bulky! Also, at this point I started getting nervous about getting the dress wearable in time for the filming of the public-service announcement for the Heritage Alive Festival and started taking shortcuts, so I attached the petersham to the waistband lining by machine (it doesn't show on the outside, but it looks a little rough on the inside).

The first photo below shows the petersham'd skirt sewn to the inside of the bodice. The second shows the outside, with the waistband being turned under in preparation for handsewing it in place. I've provided really big blow-ups so you can see the gauging and stitching clearly.

So far so good, but now I was really feeling pressed to produce something wearable, fast. I discovered to my surprise that I had in fact left enough skirt length for an okay period hem, but I didn't have time to stitch it properly. I'll have to come back and handstitch it later; in the meantime I literally just topstitched it with the machine. With the busy print, it's invisible when I wear it.

I decided the bodice looked perfectly nice without adding the bertha (drapes) for now, so next I tackled the back opening and fastenings. I slapped a really simple continuous placket onto the opening in the skirt, and tidied up the ends of the petersham by enclosing them in the double-folded ends of the waistband. I then sewed hooks all down the back of one side of the bodice opening, including the waistband, and wanted to make proper buttonholed bars down the other side but decided they would take too long. So on a temporary basis, I simply made double loops of buttonhole twist. They more or less work, but in addition to wanting to replace them anyway, I have since realized that in my anxiety not to make the bodice too small around (it always gets tighter as you add lining, heavy seams, etc. to what fit as a muslin mockup), I actually have made it slightly too loose. So I'll need to attend to that, as well.

Also, although my plan of unhooking the top of the bodice front and the bottom of the bodice back in order to get the thing over my head and still be able to fasten it myself worked, some of the top hooks tended to unhook themselves in the pulling-on process. To keep them under control for the time being, I just whipped the back edges together at each of these upper hooks.

Now the only thing standing between me and a wearable dress were...

The Sleeves.

If you will recall, I'd only done the ruching and piping on one of the upper sleeves, and I wasn't too sure about how I felt about it anyway. In the interests of speed, therefore, I simply ripped the ruching panel off the one I'd done (it was easy to clip the stitching from the back [lining] side of the sleeve, and it didn't harm the ruching panel) and started putting the sleeves together.

They went together quickly. I had been going back and forth about whether to line the lower sleeve, and at this point I opted to do it, but now I think I'm going to take the lining out. It makes the puffy part too stiff, not fluffy enough. I need to take the sleeves apart again anyway, as I meant to pipe the seam where the lower sleeve meets the upper sleeve, at the armscye, and at the wrist, but again I felt it would take too long.

I finished by slapping two sets of clear plastic snaps onto each cuff, and I was ready for filming! Below are a couple of photos my husband took (thanks, honey!). I'll try to give details soon on hair and accessories so far.

I think the puckering of the fabric below the shoulders is a product of several issues: primarily, the low, tight armscye makes the bodice ruck up when I lift my arms and I have to remember to tug down on the waist when I put them back down (which I didn't do for this photo). Also, the bodice is a little too loose, and I think when I make it snugger this problem will improve. And of course if I add a gathered bertha, no one will be able to see what's happening in that area of the bodice!

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Copyright 2005 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.