One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Gal to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!
One of the first project goals I ever set for myself way back when I started this blog was to see just how many different eras of dress I could squeeze out of Simplicity 3723.
I made three different ones between 2013 and 2014:
1: Mid-18th Century “Lady’s Maid” Dress
2: Bustle Dress (aka the future Lizzie Borden Costume)
3: Late 1850s-early 1860s “Civil War” Dress
I am a big fan of using something you are familiar/comfortable with as a starting point for creativity. Not everyone likes to dive into a new hobby or project head-first! If you start with something you are familiar with, you can make small tweaks over time, continually refining and changing it, learning along the way. That’s what Simplicity 3723 was for me. You can see the evolution of my sewing skills and styles in just those three dresses. Playing around with this pattern built up my confidence enough for me to branch out into other patterns, testing fit methods, and eventually doing my own (unabashedly reckless) drafting.
Simplicity 3723 is one of the simplest costume patterns that touches on four basic skills: gathering/pleating fabric to fit, attaching a sleeve to an armhole, inserting a zipper, and using darts to make a close fit– plus it’s often insanely cheap! On sale, you can buy a copy for $1-$5 and you can find second hand copies readily. From a historical costuming perspective, it also helps you learn how to wrangle large amounts of fabric in skirts, recognize a few key features of different eras (like collars, stomachers, sleeves), and begin making basic accessories like caps and shawls/fichus.
Though there are four “looks,” there are really only two base dresses: one with a darted bodice (Pilgrim and Prairie) and one with a stomacher/insert bodice (Colonial and Rococo). The more specific “looks” come from little add-ons, like the tall collar for the Prairie vs. the wide white collar for the Pilgrim.
Views A and B both share the same base dress, made from just 5 simple pieces.
Recognizing that, we can take the 2 basic dress types and change up the pieces and accessories to make even more options! Simplicity 3723 makes a great sloper– the sewing term for a basic, fitted pattern that has been personalized to fit your body so you can use it as the base for a variety of styles. These dresses aren’t Historically Accurate™. Instead, it is designed to be ✨Historically Inspired✨ and quickly sewn, whether by machine or by hand. However, you can easily tweak the pattern to suit your accuracy, style, or fit preferences.
For example, my pink 18th Century Lady’s Maid dress was only my second costume sewing project– ever. It is far from perfect. I was using whatever vaguely accurate fabrics I could scrounge up. I was still learning the ropes of fitting and historical shapes. But you can see, even with my limited skill and knowledge at the time, I was able to make a presentable 18th century dress. I even sewed the whole thing by hand since I was terrified of sewing by machine. By the time I made my bustle dress version, I knew the construction wasn’t going to be Historically Accurate™, but I had begun to feel confident enough to start exploring with modifications and shapes, like using the polonaise swag pattern from the 18th century dress– View C– as a bustle “overskirt” instead. And for the Civil War dress, I had begun applying some historical techniques, like flatlining, plackets, and adding a hem facing, and I branched into drafting sleeves.
So Simplicity 3723 is a growth-chart of sorts for me. However, I’ve gained weight and moved on to other pattern methods. For 5 years, my (many) copies of Simplicity 3723 had sat mostly unused in my drawer, aside from its perfect one-piece sleeve pattern, which I used for many other dresses.
Before Covid 19 hit, the DFW Costumers Guild had planned on having a Romantic Picnic themed around the 1830s. I have long loved the 1830s! In fact, the fourth dress I had planned to make from Simplicity 3723 back in 2015 was an 1830s version. I just got distracted and never go around to it. However, with Romantic Picnic on the agenda, I decided to revive the idea.
Then the Pandemic hit. I suddenly had tons of free time, but no event or motivation…
However, my mom had also planned on going to the Picnic. It was her first historical dress project. When she asked my opinion on where she should start, I recommended Simplicity 3723, of course! She had sewing experience sewing darts, zippers, and gathering, so I knew that the pattern, while not Historically Accurate™ would make the process of creating her first ✨Historically Inspired✨ outfit much less stressful. She is much more principled and disciplined at sewing than I am, so she started and finished her dress for the event well in advance, rather than at the midnight-or-later-hour as I am apt to do. And guess what, she knocked it out of the park!
She made View A without the standing collar, which most closely resembles early-to-mid-19th century styles, specifically the 1840s:
Left: Wool Dress, 1840s, Tasha Tudor Collection via Augusta Auctions
Center: Fashion Plate, April 1846, via The Met Museum
Right: Silk Dress, circa 1844, via Museum at FIT
Sophia Finlay by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1843-1848
Together with my sister’s green Butterick 5832 dress and my dad’s dapper top hat and vest (plus the fancy crystal-topped walking stick he made), my family was looking darn spiffy in their 1840s outfits!
A few weeks ago, I dug out some tobacco-colored fabric I’d bought on super sale years ago. I have a penchant for ugly brown fabrics, apparently. Anyhoo, it immediately screamed “Jane Eyre” at me.
The 1840s weren’t just calling, they were pounding on the door and standing in the yard with a boombox over their head…
Having gained weight, I had to start my Simplicity 3723 sloper over from scratch. To do this, I used the “half-n-half” method: I measured my front half from side-seam-to-side-seam at the fullest part of my bust. Then I measured the bodice front pattern piece on the tissue and cut the size that most closely matched, in my case, a size 22. Then I measured my back from side-seam-to-side-seam and measured the back bodice pattern piece to match: I used a size 14 because it was the smallest in the envelope I had (12 would have been ideal), but tapered the shoulder line so it matched the bodice front shoulders.
I fit my dress over corset. This is optional, but it vastly improves the historical look, as you can see in both my 18th century and 1850s version of this pattern.
I used thifted sheets to make two mockups until I was comfortable with the fit. It’s still not perfect, but I was itching to get to work on the dress proper.
One of the hallmarks of 1840s dress is either a very long, straight, plain bodice or a floofy, pleated, fan-front bodice like this:
Left and Center: Wool dress, circa 1843 via the Met Museum
Right: Portrait of an Unidentified Woman, circa 1845-50 via LACMA
Because Simplicty 3723 already resembles an 1840s dress, that means we don’t have to do many major changes unless you just like to make your life more difficult for the sake of fanciness…
Me? Attempting to overachieve? Never!
By the time I widened the pattern piece enough to get the fullness over the bust, my front bodice pieces were going to take up a whole yard!
I reeeeeeeally wanted that floofy fan front! But, alas, I tried a few different ways, but in the end, my fabric proved to thick and too scarce to pull it off.
So I resigned myself to just doing a smooth fitted bodice, which was much quicker, easier, and while not super fancy, looked nice. Like I did for my 1850s version of this dress, I turned the back zipper into a front closure. Eventually I’ll get around to installing hooks and eyes properly, but for now, my Jane Eyre dress is closed with tiny straight pins.
But lo and behold, I put on my bodice after merrily sewing it together and discovered it was slightly too large because I accidentally cut double the amount of seam allowance. My solution? Remove the extra width in the front with the world’s tiniest fan-front–just two pleats! Serendipity at its finest!
Inside-out view of my bodice, showing the pleats. You can also see the placket I added and the extra skirt fabric folded over at the waist. This is a period method for attaching a skirt to a pointed bodice. I could trim it off, but if I ever want to let the dress out to be larger, keeping the extra fabric will make it easier. Oddly, I found the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking to be most helpful figuring out how to do this, despite my dress being a full 100 years later in date. Here is an example of a one-piece early Victorian dress with the extra skirt material folded down around the point. Simplicity 3723 accounts for a small point in its skirt pattern already, if you decide to use the skirt pattern they provide rather than a rectangle panel like I did.
To make the pleats, I literally just stood in front of my filthy bathroom mirror armed with a teacup full of pins and got to folding. Then I top-stitched the pleats down to make them stay.
The shallow V neckline and two simple rows of ruffles on the sleeves compensate for my rather plain bodice. Both things were stylish in the 1840s and both are simple additions to the basic 3723 pattern. Just trim the rounded neckline of the pattern into a V shape and for the ruffles, I cut four strips of fabric (two for each sleeve), hemmed one edge, and gathered them before sewing them to the sleeve while it was flat.
PRO-TIP: Trim your sleeves while they are flat! It’s sooooo much easier than trying to trim one once it’s sewn into a tube. Trust me!
For skirts, I always prefer to use one long panel rather than the multiple cuts Simplicity recommends. It happens that most 42-44″ cottons are just about right for a skirt length on me, plus using the selvedges at the waist and hem really cuts down on fraying!
NOT-A-PRO-BY-ANY-STRETCH TIP: In a time crunch or just lazy like me? Use the selvedge edge as your hem! If you selvedge is white/printed with color testing rather than being edge-to-edge printed with the fabric pattern, you can turn it up and do a little 5/8″ hem or add a facing. Another trick I’ve used before is utilizing the hemmed edge of a sheet at the bottom edge of the skirt!
I pleated rather than gathered the skirt into the waist. I used a piece of fabric 112 inches long and gathering that much is too tedious. Pleating is fiddly, but faster for moi. Plus, I like pleats in general.
I intended to do a slash placket like I did for my 1850s version, but I was a dum-dum and got so excited about my pleats that I didn’t realize I’d put the skirt seam up the front instead of the back…
PROFESSIONAL-AMATEUR TIP: A small, busy print helps hide seams and little mistakes. If you’re new to historical sewing, take a few minutes to look at Pinterest (I made a small board with examples) or a museum collection website like the Met Museum to familiarize yourself with the fabric colors and patterns popular in the era you want to wear. Some costuming folks look down on the quilting calicos, but let me tell ya, those fabrics have been an absolute joy for me to sew with: easy to find, easy to clean, easy to assemble, easy to hide mistakes with. Seriously, a nice, small repeating floral on a colored background is impeccable for this pattern.
Thanks to the busy print and the pleating, it’s hardly an issue. Crisis avoided!
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Seriously. Victorian costumes in particular are surprisingly forgiving. Wonky seam? Just add some fancy trim. Weird neckline fit? Cover it with some lace or a big ribbon bow. Fabric has a smudge because the Entenmann’s chocolate-dipped donuts were on sale? A brooch lives there now! Mistakes are opportunities for creativity, whether design choices or choice words.
Besides dog-ear hairdos, tunnel-vision bonnets, and fancy pleating, a classic bit of 1840s fashion is the pelerine. An 1840s pelerine is like a little cape/shawl/collar made out of the same fabric as the dress. They were used both for warmth and to protect the shoulders from the sun during the early part of the decade when off-the-shoulder and wide boat necklines were popular.
Right to Left: Via Augusta Auctions, via Pinterest, via the John Bright Collection, via Pinterest
Looking at the 3723 “Pilgrim,” I couldn’t help but notice how her oversized collar resembled a little pelerine….so I pieced together the last few little scraps of my fabric to make one!
I didn’t have enough of the antique grey ribbon to use on the pelerine, so to jazz it up, I used antique tape lace collar had been languishing in a drawer since 2014 when I bought it to put on my 1850s version of 3723. It was the wrong length to fit that dress, but fit the neckline of the pelerine/collar perfectly.
So here is my final 1840s Jane Eyre/Mrs. Bates look!
I decided I needed some last-minute lappets, so I just slapped some chunky lace on my head like a Victorian Unfortunate Biggins. Ain’t I gorgeous?
Yes, I am.
(And I’m not the only one!)
(Though, honestly, this crochet cap with chenille dangles is pretty baller)
I also owe a huge thanks to both American Duchess and Mistress of Disguise aka ClusterFrock. In addition to my corset, I am also wearing two petticoats — an Ugly Puffer based on Lauren’s blog post here and a wonderfully ruffled cotton petticoat made by Megan— that absolutely help transform this dress from sad flat frump to sassy plump frump!
Ugly Puffers also make fantastic scarves.
If you’ve been a fan of the Simplicity 3723 series, thanks for your continuing support. One of the highlights of my life is when I get a comment or message from someone who saw a project on my blog and felt inspired to give it a try! Now that I have updated my measurements and have a new 3723 sloper, I hope to pick the series back up, finally completing the projects I had planned 6 years ago.
Better late than never! Stay tuned!
Note: This pattern is available under a couple of different names, including Simplicity 3723 (standard misses’ sizes), Simplicity 3725 (girls’ sizes), Simplicity 2354 (extended misses’ sizes, OOP), Print On Demand EA235401 (extended misses’ sizes), and It’s So Easy H0113 / S0321 / S0705 (Pilgrim and Prairie only, in girls and standard misses, OOP). The pattern pieces are similar across all these patterns, so and tweaks I make should be possible regardless of the pattern number you are working with.