Inspiration – Outfit break-down

I’ll be trying a new idea in this post. As anyone following this blog might’ve noticed, I have a tendency to think about and plan sewing projects a bit faster than I actually sew. That’s probably because you can dream and plan on the train, or at work in breaks, but you can only sew at home. As I work full time and am away a couple of evenings per week and travel quite a bit, I don’t get around to actually doing as much sewing as I might like sometimes. But I also know that reading about actual sewing, and seeing work in progress is the best part of reading a blog like this (at least, that’s my personal experience with other blogs). So I’m trying something new, which is a little closer to actual sewing than a pure inspiration post, but doesn’t require me to do the sewing.

With this concept, I’ll be taking 1 outfit from a painting, fashion plate, or an extent ensemble. I’ll try to analyse what’s going on, and how one would go about recreating it. From fabric, to possible techniques and patterns. I might do more in the future! And I hope that if you’re the type to look at images and dream about recreating them (like I am), this might give some insights on where to start!


So, for this outfit break-down, I’m going to start with one of my personal all-time favourites. This bustle-dress from ca. 1880, owned by the Met.

I loved this dress as soon as I saw it. I especially adore the gold fabric, and the neckline treatment.

So, let’s say I’ll ever get around to making it, where to start?

Well, first it’s always a good idea to see if there’s more images of a dress. For a fashion plate or painting we usually only have one view, but with an actual dress there might be pictures of the sides and back!

Luckily for us, the Met usually has their collection photographed from different angles. So we also get a shot from one of the sides and the back. Unfortunately, they only photographed one side, which for most eras would be enough, but this dress is clearly a-symmetrical, so the other side remains a bit of a mystery.


So, where to start? Well, fabric is a good first step. What is this dress made of? In this case, we can just check the museum website. Most museums specify the materials an object is made of, which in case of garments is usually the fiber content. For this dress, it reads ‘silk’, so we can safely assume that at least the outside (visible) fabric is silk.

So, what type? Silk exists in many different versions, usually named for the way the raw silk is processed, the way it is weaved or the weight. You can determine the type of silk in several different ways. Most practical in this situation, you might be able to distinguish types visually. Not all silks reflect light the same way, or have the same visible weave. Another good way to start is to first determine what fabrics were used in the period. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Izabela from Prior Attire has a very complete post on what fabrics were used when here.

In historical uses, most silk used in dresses is taffeta, followed by satin, brocade, damask and velvet. Taffeta refers to a pretty stiff silk with a smooth finish. Satin is much drapier than taffeta, and usually has a bit more shine to it. Brocade and damask are patterned fabric, and the term refers to the manner in which the pattern is created. (This post by the Dreamstress is a great post on the terminology) Velvet is created with a pile, which is the softness you feel when touching it. Be aware that these terms refer to the process of making the fabric (or the weave), and are also sometimes used on other materials than silk. Taffeta can also refer to rayon fabric, and satin to polyester. And velvet can be made out of cotton or polyester as well. So a historical taffeta or velvet might not look the same as a modern one!

So how do you see which is which? Velvet can usually be identified by the way it catches the light. I’m personally not familiar enough with them to distinguish brocade and damask, but you can see what they are if there’s a pattern woven in the fabric (so not printed or painted or embroidered on!). To distinguish between taffeta and satin, look at the stiffness and the shinyness. Satin is much shinier, and very drapy. Taffeta could be so stiff it would stand on it’s own.

So, back to the dress. My best guess is that the purple fabric is a taffeta (very sure), and the gold a brocade (a little less sure). (When in doubt, zoom in! Not all websites upload in high resolution, but the Met museum does, as well as the Dutch Rijksmuseum).



Now, if recreating this dress, you might also go for other fabrics or combinations. I usually decide based on 1. How accurate do I want it to be, 2. How much time am I willing to spend finding the fabric and 3. How much am I willing to spend. Silk is expensive, and that also means I usually can’t find it anywhere. We don’t have so many fabric stores around, and the markets usually cater to the more budget-aware. And there are many good quality polyester fabrics out there, so not a lot of people are using real silk anymore. I usually try to find something which feels accurate, with the right drape and shinyness. If I can find a true silk or wool that’s great, if not I’ll go with what I can source. (because ordering from China online for a lot of money is just scary!).

For the rest of the dress, we’ll need a little more materials. The lining of the fabric will probably be in cotton. The bodice will have boning (usually baleen or steel), and there looks to be lace underneath the train. Then we can see that the front closes with covered buttons. And, if we again zoom in, a row of pearls next to the neckline and cuffs, and the keyhole closes with a hook and eye.




So now we have an idea of what we need for the dress! Now how do we get it to look like in the picture? The first step would be to ensure the proper underwear. In this case we’re talking about the 1880s and there would be a shift, drawers, corset, bustle case and petticoat. There might also be a corset-cover, and maybe a second petticoat. I’ll not go into this as much here, but a dress like this will never look right without the proper underwear, its absolutely a vital part of the outfit!

So, assuming we already have all the correct underwear, how to make a dress like this? It’s time to start looking at the possible patterning. A good first start is to look at available historical patterns to see if there’s anything which matches. A next step would be to modify existing patterns, or look for historical patterns which need to be drafted to fit. A final possibility is drafting the pattern yourself, but that will take more experience to get right.

For this dress, a great place to start are the Truly Victorian patterns. They’re one of the main pattern companies for Victorian historical patterns, and I’ve had a very good experience with them. What’s more, they have some patterns which suit this dress perfectly!

To break it down again, there’s patterns needed for the bodice/train, the overskirt and the underskirt.

You can see in the pictures that the bodice and skirt are connected. I’ve never seen a pattern for this, but Truly Victorian does have a pattern for a bodice with this exact neckline treatment, and another train pattern which looks very similar.

TV462 is the bodice pattern:


And TV361 the train:


So, what about the skirts?

This is where it gets a bit trickier, as there’s no patterns for this exact shape. A good starting point for the under-skirt would be TV261-R, which is a base-underskirt.

The bottom of the trim can be made with box pleats. The middle seems like wide box pleats with a big of baggyness at the bottom, and the top is yet another type of trim.

For the over-skirt, both TV368 and TV365 could be used as a base, if made a little shorter.

I hope this post was able to inspire! For anyone interested in this dress, I’d invite you to take a look at Fashion through History’s version, her posts are here and here.