Commercial Colonial: Making a Slightly-More-Historical Rococo Gown out of Simplicity 3723 – Part 1

18th Century Sewing Adventure #2 – Part 1

(I enjoy historical costuming, but be warned: I’m no stickler for historical construction techniques! If you are looking for more accurate methods for 18th century gowns, I recommend this pictorial guide or one of the many other beautiful creations in the blogs listed in my blogroll.)

I’ve never sewn anything Rococo before. I usually stick to thrifting and heavy modifications to existing clothing for most of my costumes, but mid-18th century lady’s clothes are a little tricky.

Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1775

Because of the unique fit of 18th century gowns, it’s hard to get the right look without sewing your own from a well-documented historical pattern. I wanted to make a mid-18th century gown, but I have neither the skill nor resources to make a historically-accurate recreation at the moment. Instead, I decided to go for a Rococo creation more accessible to the common costume crafter, a.k.a. Simplicity 3723:


View “D” is totally happening….minus that wild rose print…

Why 3723? Well, it was on sale at Hobby Lobby for 99 cents, that’s why.

This pattern is trying be historical (Andrea Schewe actually designs some really nice historical patterns), but it falls short of glory– I’d give this pattern a D+ in history class.
It’s truly a theatrical pattern meant to convey stereotypical historical flavor blended with modern comfort. We used View A for a production of The Miracle Worker in high school and it worked beautifully for quick costume changes thanks to the zipper in the back and the one-piece construction.

However, the qualities that make 3723 perfect for theater are what condemn it for historical inaccuracy. But there is hope!

I like to make something historical-looking from modern items, so I decided that this pattern was perfect for a “How to Tweak a Modern Pattern to Make it Look More Historical” project! I will follow the majority of pattern instructions, but make tweaks both small and large to make it appear more like a historical garment.

I decided to go for a house-maid look: a mix of rich and economic fabrics as well as styles, just like a thrifty maid would cobble together from a mistress’s cast-offs.


I used Photoshop to add color to see how the dress might look upon completion.

I posted this sketch earlier. It had been languishing on a small corner of my sketch book forever, and I noticed that it could work with Simplicity 3723’s construction, plus a few modifications, of course. For example, the Simplicity pattern’s skirt design was too round and full, creating a cone-shape rather than a pannier shape. The pattern’s sleeves are a little long, and the giant fabric ruffle is ungainly. I would need to tweak these things to make the pattern a tad more “acceptable.”

Here’s where I’m at as of now:


Front: Looks pretty much like the front of the pattern envelope. It may not be done, but I can still be proud it’s wearable! I opted to leave the sleeve flounce off and eventually trim the sleeves with lace. You can tell the sleeves are still too long to be flattering…and that’s AFTER I shorted them a whole inch!

I chose a mix of fabrics so the stomacher, over-dress, and petticoat would look like individual pieces even though they are sewn together as one dress.  The dress is actually fitted over a pair of pseudo-stays (in reality, it’s a corset. I can’t really call a steel-boned corset “stays” with good conscience), but I opted to take some photos to show how the dress hangs on the body as it is displayed on the cover models: no underpinnings except a bra and panties! Scandalous!


Ah, yes, that zipper…

This is only my second commercial pattern-sewing experience, the first being my 1713 gentleman’s coat for Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #1. Most of my sewing experience is mending or modifying garments, not starting from scratch. Thanks to my irrational fear of the sewing machine, I hand sewed the entire dress except the giant seams in the skirt hem, back, and front edges. I love hand sewing, but those long seams are no picnic!

I’ve completed the dress as far as the pattern directions are concerned, but I’m currently only at the half-way point in the whole project. Even though it looks fairly similar to the envelope, I made a few modifications to the pattern to make it look more like a true 18th century dress:


Instead of sewing the skirt onto the bottom of the stomacher piece, I opted to bind the bottom and leave it free-floating to enhance the illusion that the dress is made up of more than one part. I bound the top of the petticoat panel with bias tape and stitched in the ditch to attach it to the bodice seams. The stomacher is made from vintage wool crewel-work embroidery on a cotton/linen blend, mimicking the floral embroidered stomachers of the early 18th century.


I also bound the top of the stomacher to match the bottom. I also plan to edge it with some cotton lace as well.


Ignore that stray weft thread. It has since been snipped!

I finished the front of the skirt side panels. The “petticoat” panel is merely basted in, so I could actually remove it and wear the dress over a separate, true petticoat. I had only a half-yard of the floral decorator fabric, which is half the width specified by the pattern for a front panel. The thinner panel actually works much better than the full panel would have! A full, pleated panel would make the silhouette too round.

Every fabric used so far has come from my stash. I rarely buy fabrics with a particular project in mind, but I do meticulously catalog prices and yardage thanks to the miser genes passed down through my mother’s side of the family (we’re all teachers, antique lovers, and tight-fisted!):

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever was $1 a yard at Walmart
1/2 yard printed floral “petticoat” snatched up as a remnant from Hobby Lobby for $10.64
A crewel embroidery “stomacher” was a freebie included in a package of other sample fabrics

The bodice and sleeves are flat-lined in cotton sheeting from my old college dorm dressings.

I ran into a few fit problems with this pattern. The shoulders are very wide even for 17-inch shouldered me, so I extended the darts up the entire length of the back, solving some of the problem:


This photo was taken on my dress form, which is shaped like no human I’ve ever known.

I opted to retain the zipper just for the practice. I’ve never sewn a zipper this long before and I am unabashedly pleased that it turned out decently. You could choose to cut the bodice back as one piece, sewing hooks and eyes along one of the stomacher seams to create a front closure instead of using a zipper, but if you like the functionality of a zipper for comfort or theater use, I have a sneaky plan to help hide it!

The fit of this dress straight from the envelope is ridiculously frumpy. I wish I had set the stomacher lower for more of that infamous 18th century cleavage, but with my pseudo-stays, the girls are much perkier. In fact, the addition of (mostly) correct undergarments does wonders for this dress! But for now, I leave you with my anachronistic self perched on a rock in my “pirate wench” pose.


Toenail polish is sooooo 18th century!

So far, not bad, but I will admit to almost completely decimating my Paypal account for some quality trims.

Next up: How to make this pattern less terrible!

— Commercial Colonial: Part 2—

14 thoughts on “Commercial Colonial: Making a Slightly-More-Historical Rococo Gown out of Simplicity 3723 – Part 1

  1. I love your posts and really enjoyed this one. I do stuff like hat. I’m still making my proper stays (which may be finished sometime or other) so until I do there’s no point making an actual historic gown. In the meantime I have been fiddling with a commercial pattern or two. In fact I think it might be that one and the pirate one that I’m combinng with a bit of ‘ hmmm how will I make that fit?’ Sandra-ness. Thanks for the insights!

  2. I think this is lovely! As a historical costumer myself I firmly believe that any attempt at the look and feel is a great day in costuming! Great job.

  3. How interesting that you too are a sewing machine phobic. I sew Regency costumes by hand and have just sewn a red wool cloak/hood which is 6 pieces of outer cloth, 6 pieces of lining and comes down to my ankles. Endless long seams and SO heavy and hot in a Maltese summer! Love your dress but agree about lowering the stomacher to give the girls an airing!

  4. I can’t wait to see what you do with it! The fabrics are great together and I have major stomacher-envy.

  5. Looking forward to your idea for hiding the zipper. I also need “Historic clothes” which are easy put on by yourself. No traveling lady’s maid for me. I hide elastic where I can. Hiding a zipper would be truly a help. Thank you for sharing your techniques.

    1. The weather is looking promising this weekend and, though my lace has still not arrived for the sleeves, I think the dress will be done by this weekend for photos. :)

    2. I know what you mean, ones where you can dress yourself are very helpful, I only have one top I need help with and it is a pain, you have to make sure someone is home to do you up. Front buttoning things also help. For instance a front buttoning bodice and a skirt that does up with a hook and eye seems to be pretty easy to put on. But yes, I don’t mind a hidden zipper if it helps.

  6. Ah, yes, that pattern is frustrating, isn’t it? I made it as what I thought would work as an ‘everyday’ Victorian looking dress. Even with my thin fabric the waist was all bunchy, and the unfitted shape looked terrible on my tiny chest. Yours looks much better than mine did, though. In the end I learned my lesson that Simplicity patterns often need a lot of tweaking, and sometimes not even that is enough. Looks like you worked out how to adapt yours to make it fantastic though.

  7. Thank you for sharing. There has been lots of confusion about this project. This project’s goal wasn’t to make a historical gown from the get-go. It was to show how to take something historically inaccurate and make it better by rocognizing what elements are missing or incorrect. Since many average seamstresses use brandname commercial patterns, I thought it would be helpful to show just how much potential there actually is in these widely available products. There are many beautiful historical patterns available online that make much neater, historically correct gown, but you can still make a good gown using what’s available at your local Walmart.
    You can see the results of these tweaks here:

    1. I see though what you mean with altering mass-produced/brandname commercial patterns.
      You did a good job hiding the zipper with the faux Robe a la Francaise back, I really like what you did with the back! :) Something seems a little off though about the stomacher though (I don’t mean its lopsided or anything, I just meant it doesn’t seem historically the right shape). I don’t think I would have the patience to alter a pattern that has so many problems/historical inaccuracies XD So I applaud you for that :)

  8. Liz, once again you have saved my bacon.
    Over the last five years you’ve got me through Thrifted Edwardian, Budget 1860s, Quick-and-Dirty Tudor, and inspired a Multipurpose Viking/Narnian Maiden costume.

    Now, however, I’m costuming an entire ballet show, which was mostly fine and easy and based on existing leotards and stuff from wardrobe… right up until two weeks before show day, when the elderly principal said ‘Oh, and for the minuet in the ball scene I really think we need something like this’ and pulled out a full-on picture of Marie Antoinette.
    I nearly fell off my chair. I had two weeks (around a full time job and two kids), nearly zero budget and they had to be able to DO BALLET in them, so no hoops or paniers. Luckily there were only four dancers.

    Inspired by this post and your Commercial Colonial, I pulled some old long tutus with satin bodices from wardrobe and got out trusty Simplicity 3725 (the girls’ version of 3723).
    I made the drapes from view C and attached them to a stealth waistband, then made simple tube sleeves (with the ruffle) and elasticated the tops to keep them up.
    The panier-y drapes and the free-floating sleeves give the effect of an off-the-shoulder gown when worn over the old dress, and contrast bows and a soft tulle fichu add texture and divert the eye from the worst of the shortcuts (Pinked edges! shoddy machine gathering! Upholstery taffeta!)
    My first draft croquis (also inspired by your use of them) is in the link.

    (Actually the material is a gorgeous – 60″ shot magenta quilted polyester taffeta mean for curtains at £1/m, which was handy considering the amount I needed.)

    So thank you for, well, everything. This is a phenomenal resource and I will keep coming back as long as my friends and neighbours need costumes.

    1. Props to you (Ha! Theater jokes) for pulling together an entire new set of costumes in such a short time!Theater costuming is a special challenge and adding dance into it increases the difficulty level ten-fold. I’m glad my blog helped you overcome the challenge. :)

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