Back to the 1830s

At the beginning of the year, when I was roughly planning out projects, I decided to work on 1830’s things after the big 1895 project was done. The main reason was a romantic (so, 1830s) weekend in the UK I was hoping to go to. Of course, that weekend got cancelled, but I decided to just go ahead with my plans. My main inspiration was this dress from the Concord museum:

#concordmuseum hashtag on Instagram • Photos and Videos
Satin Dress, 1834-6. Concord Museum. Worn by Harriet Tufts Russell of Arlington to the inaugural ball of Martin van Buren in 1837

I really love the bodice treatment in particular. You see a lot of pleats in 1830’s bodices, but I’d never seen this particular style which creates a diamond shape in the middle. I’ve since looked at fashion plates for something similar, but it seems to have been a fairly unique design.

While I was working on the base of the bodice, I also found a photo of the back. I’d only seen exhibition pictures up to that point, all taken from the front as the back was to a wall. But the museum actually posted the back view on their Instagram, which was super useful! It has this fun little ‘cape’ going around the back, which I never would have seen otherwise.

Concord Museum on Instagram: “This beautiful white satin gown was once worn to a President's Ball. Tag someone you think would look great in it. Come enjoy more…”
Satin Dress, 1834-6. Concord Museum. Worn by Harriet Tufts Russell of Arlington to the inaugural ball of Martin van Buren in 1837

I started this project in June, and first up was patterning. I wanted to achieve a couple of things with this. First, was to use padding and really strive for the very ‘wide’ off the shoulder silhouette. The second was to pattern everything before I started cutting, including all the pleats. That was mostly because my fabric was only 80cm wide, and even with 8m of it, it was going to be a bit tight.

The pattern gave me some trouble this time, and it took a while to get everything fitting like I wanted to. A big shout-out to the Foundations Revealed community here for helping me out. But, eventually, I got there, and had all the pattern pieces in place!

I opted to use my silk only where visible. So there’s no silk underneath the pleats on the front, nor at the top back which is hidden by the cape. The sleeves had to be pieced, as my fabric wasn’t wide enough otherwise. That’s exactly what they also did in the period due to similarly small widths, so I am actually quite pleased with that.

The blue line is where the join in the sleeve is. The sleeve is cut on the bias, so this blue line runs along the fabric edge. The little red lines show the width of my fabric.

I started sewing with the skirt, which is fairly simple, just rectangles. The front is pleated with knife pleats, the back is cartridge pleated. The whole skirt is lined, as the silk is rather flimsy on it’s own.

Skirt done, it was time to start on the bodice! I only cut those parts that would be visible out of the silk, so the front base is entirely out of cotton, and so is the top of the back. The side panel of the silk actually extends to the front to end where the pleats begin, and the center front ‘diamond’ is a square of silk whose edges are hidden by the pleated panels.

The pleats are stitched down strategically in places by hand, just taking small bits of the silk under a pleat to make sure the attachment wouldn’t be visible.

After the pleats were stitched down, I could add the padding. I’d already made the shapes out of thick flannel layers to fit my bodice pattern over. They were pinned in, and covered by a layer of cotton which I stitched around by hand.

This is the final inside, showing the padding. There is a bit over the bust, but the bulk is above and to the outside to give the smooth round and wide shape

Then came the sleeves. There’s a join in the silk, and the sleeves are again fully lined to give a bit more structure. There was a lot of gathering involved! I tried to get as much volume as possible towards the back, but in the end it’s pretty evenly gathered as tightly as possible all the way around to make it fit. I finished the slits in the sleeves first, by simply laying the lining to the silk right sides together and turning inside out. This gives a neat finish to the edge.

The cape was piped with double piping, which was quite fiddly as it needed to go around all the points. I decided not to line the cape, as I was afraid the lighter cotton would show too much, and I didn’t have enough silk left to fully line them with that. So the piping around the edge is stitched down as small as possible to not show too much on the right side. The cape was stitched onto the neckline first, which was then finished by a row of single piping, with a slightly larger cord. It’s actually important to finish the necklines of these gowns with something non-stretchy, as you don’t want an off-shoulder gown to stretch and slip off.

Final touches were the waistband, boning, and the hooks and bars. The back was finished the same way as my friend Nikki shows in her wonderful video here.

As a quick wrap-up, I made myself some sleeve plumbers from the AD pattern here. These are quite important for keeping the dress in shape, though I think I want to experiment a bit more on how to attach them best to the dress.

And then she was done! This project took some time, mostly as I took long stretches off to wrap my head around what to do next. With the bodice taking a number of drafts, and the layers of silk and cotton and pleating in the bodice all needing some figuring out, it took more brainpower than I had most evenings after work. I’m really happy with how it turned out though, and can’t wait to wear it out when it’s possible to have events again.

Meanwhile, I took it for a brief spin during our holidays near the forest, to get some pictures! I took my antique pelerine and Regency bonnet as accessories, because I’m still working on an 1830’s bonnet. It’s not quite big enough, but has an okay shape.

The pelerine is very pleasant for covering your shoulders, but also effectively hides the most interesting part of the dress: the bodice pleats. So I also took some pictures without.