Of ballgowns and trains

The early 1870’s fashion absolutely loved its trained gowns. I followed that when designing the train for my own ball gown, I knew I really wanted to have one.

foto van Atelier Nostalgia.

My train

 

Although practical and train-less dresses do exist they are a lot more difficult to find than their trained counterparts. Small trains were even worn for morning wear, and there’s plenty examples of walking dressed (obviously meant to wear out of the house), still with a small train. And you can be sure those wouldn’t always only be worn on perfectly clean pavements!

Just to avoid those images which might have the label ‘walking dress’ stuck to them without provenance, an example with the text next to the fashion plate. A walking dress for winter, you can be sure that train didn’t keep clean!

Winter walking dress and bag c. 1874:

 

You can imagine that if an informal morning dress has a train, that an evening dress or ball gown would practically always be trained. For a formal event, or attending the opera that’d be fine, but for a ball one needs to be able to dance. In a waltz, that includes being able to step backwards without tripping over your dress.

This train is stunning, but there’s no way I’d be able to waltz in this as it is.

Met Museum

 

So two questions arise: how do you keep your train clean, and how do you avoid stepping on it? Both questions are now rather relevant for me, as I’m wearing my 1870s ballgown to a ball this May, and I definitely want to dance!

The first answer to keeping your train clean, is to add a balayeuse. Or, in English, a dust ruffler. A balayeuse is basically a separate piece of fabric, attached to the underside of the train. It makes sure the train fabric itself doesn’t touch the floor, and it gets dirty instead. The idea is that it’s detachable, either by buttons or just unpicking some stitches, so you can wash the balayeuse without having to wash your train.

This image is from the late 1870’s, but it shows the general idea. A separate panel attaches to the underside of the train. This one seems to have a lace layer ‘on top’ between the balayeuse and the floor.

Tygodnik Mód 1877.: Trains' detachable balayeuse.:

 

Not all balayeuses were totally practical, especially for evening dresses they could be made of layers of lace, peeking out underneath the hem. After all, your ballgown is generally only worn inside, so it wouldn’t get quite as dirty as outside.

So that takes care of the dirt, but what about the dancing?

First thing to keep in mind is that not all evening occasions would be balls, so it wasn’t always necessary for an evening gown to be fit for dancing. However, if it needed to be, the practical solution was to simply bustle up the train!

Now, annoyingly, I couldn’t actually find period images of the same dress (either fashion plate or existant) with either a long train or a bustled up one. I’m pretty sure they did this though, so if anyone has a source I’d love to know!

I rather suspect this dress though, but alas, only one photo I know of exists…

Gown, 1874, Charles Frederick Worth, Medium: purple silk faille and is trimmed with silk lace, silk fringe, and velvet bows:

Worth dress, Kyoto fashion institute

 

Aside from bustling up the whole train, one could also use a ‘loop’ to hold it up while dancing. I found this wonderful image showing the process.

SAGE GREEN BUSTLE EVENING DRESS, 1880s 2-piece silk faille, red velvet panels, ecru embroidered lace trim:

Sold by Augusta Auctions

 

So, back to my own gown! In the end, I decided to make both a balayeuse and a method to bustle up my train. The way I ended up bustling it it still drags just a little bit, so the balayeuse protects the edge on the ground.

The balayeuse I made is rather simple, I just traced the part which was on the ground in white cotton, and then made ruffled strips of pinked fabric to stitch onto it in half circles. Credit for the method goes to Prior Attire, who has a tutorial here.

foto van Atelier Nostalgia.

 

It attaches to the train with buttons. The button holes are on the balayeuse, the buttons on the underside on the train. (Obviously, as otherwise there’d be holes in my train).

To bustle up the train I played around with the fabric a bit. In the end, I attached two small strips with button holes to the sides of the train. These attach to a button at the sides of my overskirt. Since my train is attached to the overskirt in the first place, this is a good way to pull up the sides. For the center I sewed a strip of cotton tape to the middle with button holes. I then sewed buttons to the train, spaced wider than the holes in the strip. This way the train bustles up evenly in the center.

The proper look:

foto van Atelier Nostalgia.

 

And because I love inside-out views, one of the train. Left two are bustled up, right is let down. That weird ‘swag’ on the side is hidden by the overskirt when worn right.

foto van Atelier Nostalgia.

 

 

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1870’s underskirt trim

While making the trim for my 1870’s dress, I also looked a lot at images of other underskirts of the period. There’s loads of different ways to trim the skirt, and although  skirts without any trim do exist, they seem quite rare. In fact, there are so many options available that I can imagine it’s difficult to pick how to trim a dress! In Dutch there’s a saying, that you ‘can’t see the forest through the trees’. Basically it means there’s so many options that you can’t clearly see any one choice clearly. So in this post I’ll give a brief description of different types of popular trim.

To illustrate how different trims were used in combination, I’ll be using pictures of existent 1870’s dresses. All of these are in the Metropolitan museum of Art. I’ve decided to only use this source, as it’s very extensive and many of the dresses are photographed in high resolution so close-ups of the trim are available.

Nearly all trim on bustle skirts is a combination of lace, fringe, fabric/ribbon strips, ruffles and pleats.

Lace

Lace existed in many forms and shapes, and would be made out of silk, linen or cotton. In the 1870’s, lace could already be made by machines although hand-made lace was still an industry as well. I’m not an expert on lace, so I won’t go too much into types and history here. From what I’ve seen, nearly all lace used on dresses was either a shade of white  (white to yellow-ish) or black.

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A skirt close-up. Rows of lace attached to ruffles of sheer fabric.

 

Fringe

Fringe is the type of trim Victorians loved but which doesn’t get used a lot today. It seems it’s just not that appealing to the modern eye. Fringe is mostly seen on the lower edge of the over-skirts, but it does also occasionally pop up on underskirts. Fringe can also be beaded, or consist of more adventurous shapes.

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An example of very pretty fringe, with tiny tassels and what looks like beads

 

Fabric/Ribbon strips

Contrasting strips of fabric or ribbon are often used to create (mostly horizontal) stripes. These strips can be turned over, used as bias tape or finished by bias strips themselves.

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Fabric strip decorations. You can see how they’re cut on the bias, the edges seem to be folded under.

 

Ruffles & Pleats

Ruffles & pleats are by far the most common way to decorate a skirt and come in a massive number of variations. A ruffle is a gathered strip of fabric, a pleat is folded. You get strips of ruffles, strips of pleats, folded pleats, or gathering on the whole fabric creating a smocked effect. Loads of different versions exist.

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Three rows of ruffles. The top one is gathered with multiple rows to create a smocked effect.

 

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Two rows of pleats. The top strip is frayed and box pleated, stitched down in the middle. The lower strip has spaced double box pleats. (and a row of lace at the bottom).

 

Some more examples, for inspiration. The dress below has a dark brown skirt with a lot of tiny pleats.

In the close-up you can see that the top two rows of pleats have tiny folds in them. They seem to be knife pleats, stitched down at the top. The bottom has just 2, wider rows. The fabric in-between seems gathered down just a bit. There are some folds as well, but they’re very uneven, so I’d guess that this is just a result of the gathering. Might be that they originally had very shallow box pleats as well.

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Another one. A very dark blue one with light accents.

Mourning dress | American | The Met

In the close-up you see that black lace was used in a very clever way. A lighter strip of fabric was sewn on, with the lace overlay. Below are ruffles, slightly gathered. The ruffles are lined in the light fabric, being sewn in such a way it just shows around the edges.

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Another blue number

Afternoon dress | French | The Met

This dress also has trim lined in a contrast fabric showing around the edges, similarly to the previous one. In this case the strip is knife pleated and then folded in the middle to create the zig-zag effect.

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A combination of a lot of different things! On the overskirt, a strip of lace covered in a strip of fabric. The underskirt has a wide strip of fabric, which seems to have been gathered near the top, in the middle and near the bottom. These gathers are covered by fabric strips. The slightly ‘poufy’ effect is probably created by placing the top and bottom gathers just a bit closer to the middle gather than necessary. The bottom part has short sections of knife pleats with unpleated bits in the middle.

Walking dress | American | The Met

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Another brown dress. There’s only a little bit of underskirt visible.

Dress | American | The Met

In the close-up, you can see that a brown lace trim is used, with very small knife pleats underneath.

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A very classy dress. From this distance it’s difficult to see what’s going on.

Mon. Vignon | Dinner dress | French | The Met

Close-up! You see that the main part of the skirt is gathered with five narrow rows of stitching. This create the smocked effect, and creates the gathers in the rest of the fabric. The bottom is ‘finished off’ with two rows of small knife pleats.

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To finish off, a white cotton dress.

Dress | American | The Met

A close up shows that there are small rows of ruffles, with what seems like a knife pleated bottom part, stitched down at the bottom.

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Bustle Skirts

Since my last post on my 1870’s dress, I’ve continued working on the skirts. In total the skirt consists of 3 garments, an underskirt, overskirt and separate train. The separate train isn’t really a typical thing for the 1870’s, most of the time the underskirt would be trained and could be bustled up. I wanted to be able to remove it completely though, so I decided on a separate train.

The underskirt was made with the Truly Victorian pattern TV201.

TV201 - 1870s Underskirt

It was a great pattern, very easy to put together. My only note would be to check the length you need before you cut. I ended up doing a white cotton hem facing so I only needed about 1 cm of skirt fabric to do the hem, but I also didn’t really have much more! I consider myself short, but I have to remember that’s by Dutch standards (I’m 1,67m). So if you’re average or taller, check if you don’t need to cut extra length on this pattern.

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The hem facing on the underskirt. It was machine-sewn to the bottom and finished by hand at the top.

Also, this pattern has a pocket option! To make it a bit more sturdy I made the main part of the pocket from cotton instead of the silk.

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Pocket from the inside.

From this same pattern, I also made an extra petticoat. Although my bustle has ruffles built in, the weight of the skirts and train warranted an extra layer. The only thing I did different was that my petticoat doesn’t have a pocket and I made ruffles for the petticoat.

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Ruffle

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A rolled hem on all the ruffles.

I made some pictures of my skirt over the bustle, with & without petticoat. These were taken before I trimmed the skirt, and really show the difference.

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With bustle cage underneath

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With bustle & petticoat underneath

 

The basic construction of the overskirt I patterned myself and already blogged about here. The only addition I made was black lace around the edges.

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The train I patterned myself as well. It’s basically a rectangle with a curved end, pleated on the top side to lay smoothly over the bustle.

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First stage of patterning, old sheets!

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The eventual pattern on paper. Every square is 5cm.

I didn’t want to add an extra waistband, so I’ll be attaching the train to the overskirt. The overskirt has ties on the inside from the bustle. In these ties I made small buttonholes near the top. The train has buttons at the top to attach it to the overskirt.

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Buttonhole in one of the bustle-up ties on the inside of the overskirt.

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The top of the train, with 3 buttonholes to attach to the ties. In the photo it just lies on top of the underskirt, that’s the waistband you see behind it.

Unlike the base and over-skirt, I did line the train. Because my fabric is super thin and light, I wanted a bit extra weight to make it fall properly. The whole train is lined in white cotton, the silk edges flipped over and sewed down by hand. The very top of the train is made of just white cotton, as this part won’t be seen anyway. It’s hidden beneath the overskirt.

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The finished train from the inside. The lining starts where the silk does on the outside,

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The edge of the train. The silk was turned over twice on top of the cotton lining and sewed down by hand.

 

Next it was time for decoration! I used a very pretty black tule lace as main decoration. The lace was sewn to the train both near the top and at the bottom to make it stay flat. At the top I used black thread to blend with the lace, at the bottom pale yellow so it wouldn’t show if the train happens to flip over a bit. For the skirt it’s only attached at the top.

As the top of the lace is cut tule, I also wanted something to cover the top. I looked at various trimmings and eventually settled on this ruched design. I generally like pleated trims better, but they are very geometrical and in this case a more organic design fitted better with the lace. The added bonus is that this trim is relatively quick to make and takes relatively little fabric. Only about 2 times the finished width instead of 3 as for pleats.

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I made small bits of trim to check whether to do pleats or ruches.

I debated whether I would hem or pink the edges of the trim. Pinking has the advantage of being much quicker and saving bulk, but hemming is more common. I eventually settled on pinking for practical reasons. Most Victorian pinking is shaped in half circles with small triangles. Modern pinking lacks the half circles, especially when using a scissor as I did. But I figured since the trim design leaves the edges slightly curved anyway it’ll barely be noticeable.

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Strips for trim cut with pinking scissors

For making the trim, I first cut strips and sewed them together. Next was measuring and drawing the seam lines. My strips were about 8 cm high, and the triangles have a bottom length of 8 cm as well. After drawing was sewing the gathering stitches. I ended up sewing per 3 lines, not wanting to gather huge pieces with 1 gathering string. Final step was gathering the trim. And, of course, sewing it on.

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Marking triangles. The cutting guide of lined pattern paper came in handy to measure every 8 cm

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Gathering stitches

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The finished trim.

All in all, I sewed on about 10m of lace and 9m of trim (made from 18m of strips) by hand. For anyone who thinks sewing the dress together takes most time, not quite ;). The trim really does make the dress though.

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To finish up this post, some pictures of the different layers while worn! (Apologies for the weirdness of my chemise in the back… It’s not supposed to be that wonky)

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Bustle over-skirts

For my ballgown I’ll be making an under-skirt, front-apron, back-bustle, back-train and a bodice. The front-apron and back bustle will be attached to one waistband forming one over-skirt. The train I’ll be making separately so it can be removed. I’m using a commercial pattern for the under-skirt only, the TV201 1870s underskirt, which I already had in my stash.

So for the rest, I’m drafting/draping my own pattern. The bodice will be similar to my 1860’s ballgown bodice. The train will be fairly straight-forward, just a large panel rounded off. The over-skirts I’m draping myself, and to help others these are the patterns I came up with!

The over-skirt I wanted to make is similar to these images from the Musee de Familles and the Journal des Demoiselles.

The striped one:

Journal des Demoiselles 1872:

And the yellow/red one:

Musée des Familles 1873:

I started with the back bustle. I was greatly helped by this tutorial from Historical sewing, where she shows how to bustle-up a back skirt.

I took an old sheet I had laying around for mock-ups, and started by pleating the top to fit the back width I wanted. I did this by eye, looking from where on the side I wanted the back bustle to start. After pleating, I pinned the top to the waistband of my bustle cage. For the mock-up, I used four large box pleats.

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Next I started to pleat up the sides. Again I didn’t really measure these out, just did it by eye and pleated the fabric up until I liked how long the pleated section was.

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I then looked at the center ‘swag’, and pinned around the bottom to where I’d like the bustle overlay to hang. I didn’t want to actually cut it, so I could re-use the sheet for latter mock-ups. This is what it looked like at this stage, if you look closely you can see the pins around the back marking the length.

 

I didn’t mark the position for the inside tapes which will hold the bustle in shape yet. The cotton held its shape quite well on its own, so I’ll make the tapes when I’ve cut and pleated the silk for the actual bustle.

Next up was the front swag! I used an old shawl-like square of fabric. This one wasn’t pleated around the front, but pinned on straight. Then I pleated up the sides to match the length of the back bustle. As turned out the fabric I had wasn’t quite wide enough at the bottom and too wide at the top, so it’s a bit tilted in the mock-up version. It did give me a good idea of the dimensions the finished apron will need though.

 

After I’d pinned everything, I took the mock-up pieces from my dummy and started measuring to draw up my pattern. This is the eventual pattern I’m using. I hope it’s readable, I overlayed the measurements in black just in case. As the pattern says, my waistband will be 68,5 cm, the front apron has a 37 cm waistmeasure and the back 31,5 cm adding up to the total. The length of the side pleats downwards is 30 cm. The pattern is drawn to scale here, every square is 5 cm. The tapes for the bustle were determined with the silk bustle, as it drapes very differently to the cotton. The little image on the right shows the width of the pleated top back panel with the length of the tapes underneath. The colored spots represent which position on the tape was matched with which position on the fabric of the bustle (red with red, etc.)

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Made in my eventual fabric, this is what the inside of the back bustle looked like before sewing it to the front. I ended up making 8 box pleats at the top and the pleats on the side are also a bit smaller than in the mock-up.

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And all put together, shown over my bustle cage! It’s not fully done yet, I want to add trim to the bottom and roses to the sides, but to get a picture of the eventual shape and proportions. The right side has a slit to put it on, and to reach the pocket in the underskirt which is on that side.

From the front (left) and back (right)

From the sides: