One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 2)

October 29, 2014

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60


After much procrastination, consternation, and perspiration (the sewing room upstairs gets rather toasty), I finished assembling my modified-for-the-1850s Simplicity 3723 day dress!


Hmmm….not so impressive.

While it looks pretty close to the envelope, if you think it looks a little “off” in that photo, you’d be right! This is a perfect example of how much undergarments matter. Simplicity 3723 is designed to be worn without a corset, but I fitted it over one for a more period look. However, since my corseted measurements and my uncorseted measurements happen to be exactly the same, I decided to take the opportunity to show how important proper undergarments can be. This is what the gown looks like without any petticoats, hoops, or a corset. It looks rather frumpy, doesn’t it?

You’ll also notice that even the pagoda sleeves, while lovely, look a little flat compared to what you’d expect. If you look at period photographs, you’ll notice that some ladies are wearing their wide sleeves alone, but most have fluffy while undersleeves filling out the cuff:


Daguerreotype portrait of a Woman, 1849-52
Worn sans undersleeves. Another later example here.

Handtinted Ambrotype of a Woman, circa 1855
Example of undersleeves from right around the time of my dress! Her undersleeves and collar are “Broderie Anglaise” (a type of homemade eyelet that was very fashionable in the 1850s). I like this photo a lot because she looks a bit like me. I even did my hair similarly. We’re history sisters!

Undersleeves, circa 1850-69
These are also decorated with broderie anglaise.

Undersleeves could vary from very fancy to extremely plain. For simplicity (Ha, ha! Jokes.), I chose to go with the latter. Making your own undersleeves is very simple! They are just two tubes of fabric gathered with drawstrings at the top and bottom. I used elastic cord for the drawstring because trying to tie drawstrings on yourself is impossible otherwise. Many undersleeves of the period had drawstring tops, but button cuffs for this very reason. However, I wanted something very quick and easy that anyone could make. By using elastic cord, I can dress myself.


I just measured the length from above my elbow to my wrist and cut that much off a bolt of 45 inch fabric, which I then cut along the fold, giving me two rectangles of fabric 18″ x 22.5.” This is about as “skinny” of a sleeve you can make. The fuller your dress’ sleeves, the fuller your undersleeves should be.

By 1858, hoop skirts were in full swing. I really want hoops, but right now, I don’t have the cash. Instead, I fit my dress over a cheap bridal petticoat I found in Goodwill for $7, a modest bumroll, and my “post-haste” petticoat.


Also: sock boobs!
I fitted the dress over a corset, but I didn’t put my corset on my mannequin because she is actually much longer waisted than I am and is nipped in and hard as steel in already!


My “post-haste” petticoat is just 3 or 4 yards of fabric with a drawstring waistband. it’s post-haste because I made it 20 minutes before an event in a panic! Now it’s been worn with everything from an 18th century dress to 1880s bustles!

So now:


Thanks in part to the heavy weight of the fabric, the final shape isn’t as defined and full as hoopskirts, but it’s still full enough to be period appropriate, especially for a common country woman. This fullness is actually perfect for 1840s, though! Now I know what to do for that decade when I get around to it.


The collar is just some soft net lace I had originally bought to make 18th century engageantes. I really wanted to use an antique collar, but I couldn’t find one the right size. This works well enough, though. I am really proud of how the tassels turned out. So much fun!


I notice a lot of pictures of museum workers standing by Victorian dresses, especially Queen Victoria herself, commenting about how tiny everything is. Well, it’s kind of an optical illusion. My dress looks pretty small compared to me, but that’s mostly thanks to modern clothes which aren’t fitted and cut across the body at the widest point. Also, you can really see just how much wide skirts make your waist look smaller by hiding your legs, which in my case are the skinniest part of my body. By hiding them, the eye re-focuses on the new skinniest place: your waist!

Before I could call my outfit complete, I needed a bonnet! No self-respecting 1850s lady, especially an ol’ married lady such as m’self, would be caught dead outdoors without proper headgear. Simplicity 3723 comes with a fabric sun bonnet pattern that’s pretty cute, but I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be petty, tailored, and stately in a modest-sized spoon bonnet that fit fairly close to my head. I also didn’t want to be too matchy-matchy. I had some dark blue ribbon that complimented the jewel tones of my dress and reminded me of this gorgeous bonnet in the National Trust Collections:

Bonnet, circa 1840-50
It’s dated a bit early, but simple enough that it could pass for almost any style between 1840 and 1860.

I used one of the many flower pot baskets out of my TV-intervention-worthy hoard as a base. As a few online tutorials suggested, I took off the top binding and soaked it in hot water for a few hours to try to remove some of the waviness in the brim. The basket straw is much thicker and brittle than hat straw, so I couldn’t get it as flat as I wanted, but slight waviness doesn’t seem to be a issue for these historical ladies:

Ladies of Davenport, Iowa,1863
My bonnet ended up being almost exactly the same shape as the one on the far left. Also: love that lady’s purse!

I rebound the edge with bias tape and in the process discovered that you never, EVER use “Amazing QuickHold” glue. Ever. It smells like skunk, makes the cat flee from the room in disgust, and causes the husband to ask many unflattering questions. It’s formulated to be thin, so it also soaks into fabric, leaving little frosted white patches when it dries. Do not recommend! I learned my lesson and went back to trusty old “craft” glue.


I would have sewn everything on, but once again the thick straw got in the way– and perhaps no small amount of pure sloth. I really do love my hat baskets, though. They’re really cheap, easy to obtain, and highly entertaining. If I mess one up, I don’t feel as bad as if I had invested in an expensive reproduction bonnet form or even a straw hat. When I found the flower choices at the local craft stores to be rather uninspiring, I made some cockades using this tutorial and added a tassel cut from the dress trim scraps to tie it together without being overly matching:


Bonnet cost breakdown:

2 yards navy ribbon – $4.75, eBay
2 yards mustard ribbon – $4.75, eBay
Hat basket – $1.59, Goodwill
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
2 yards pleated brown ribbon – $4.50, Walmart
Bias tape – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $19.57

Add some second-hand square-toed boots and I was ready to trundle everything out to my graciously obliging mother-in-law’s house for a photoshoot! Here’s everything being worn altogether:




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Dress cost breakdown

6 yards printed cotton – $17.82, Walmart
2 yards burgundy cotton – $5.94, Walmart
4 yards tassel trim – $15.96, Hobby Lobby
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
Cotton sheet for flat lining – $1, Thrift Town
Hooks and bars – $1.69, Hobby Lobby
Brown poly-cotton thread – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $46.39


Bonnet – $19.57
Bridal Petticoat – $7, Goodwill
Flat, brown leather ankle boots – $29, eBay (Talbots brand)
Collar brooch – Personal collection

Total: $102.50
(a bit spendier than I would have liked, but still cheaper than purchasing one pre-made!)

Aside from the still-too-small petticoat circumference, I’d say my foray into the 1850s was a success!

I think the biggest reason the outfit came together so well stems from the way I approached the project. Sure, I wanted to be a bit ornery and prove you could make something passable out of the barest of materials, but I mostly made this dress for myself, approaching the project as though I was making clothes, not a “costume.” I chose fabric, colors, and trims that I thought looked best on me, not just because they were historically appropriate or pretty on their own and I made sure that I could generally exist in it comfortably without feeling suffocated or weird. A lot of costumes I’ve worn in the past have always felt costumey, so they projected as costumey, too. While taking on a different persona can be fun, if you are historically costuming in general, you are still you, even if you are an accountant in Alabama portraying a fisherman’s wife in 17th century Spain. Naturally, you would wear what “they” would have worn, but you are also the one wearing it, so wear what you would wear, too!


Many thanks to Becky for allowing me to roam all over the back 40 and helping me take photos!

For construction details and the story behind this dress, check out Part 1.


23 Responses to “One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 2)”

  1. Helen Fratena Says:

    Charming! And it suits you very well. The cockade on your bonnet remind me of sunflowers. You could have stepped out of an 1850’s photograph!

    I have always appreciated your “pragmatic” approach. I, too, have been accosted by the “authenticity” police. Sometimes you want to go to the time, trouble and expense to be proveably authentic, but sometimes you just want to wear something that didn’t break the bank, blind you with minute details of hand sewing, and take the rest of your natural life to research and sew. Kudos to you!

    • Liz Says:

      You are totally right! They DO look like sunflowers. I hadn’t noticed until just now.
      Getting accosted is never fun, but even if my outfit isn’t up to par (usually due to my work-in-progress sewing skills), my research is pretty close. A lot of historical fashion police incidents stem from folks’ inherent need to showcase their knowledge on the subject. I’ve learned the best way to handle negative remarks (if I can’t ignore the person) is to segue the conversation into a discussion of fashion in general, rather than my own. Then it can be fun! The worst that can happen then is they insult my sewing skills, which, honestly, are not that great. But by that time, it becomes apparent that they’re just grumpy, and I graciously make my exit.

  2. Nancy N Says:

    Awww, just beautiful! I too thought the Walmart fabric kind of plug ugly, but I am won over–it looks like it lept off one of those sampler pages! Great color combo for you. Many kudos for showing us how to re-tailor the simplicity pattern (the very one our little theater company used to sew the dresses for Little Women back when I was 15). Wish we’d had your expert advice back then!!!
    Many thanks for the inspiration,
    Nancy N

    • Liz Says:

      This particular Wally World print is a bit like the Limburger cheese of the fabric world. However, I had to bite! :)
      I wish I had been sassy enough to try these pattern experiments back when I did theater, too. Maybe I’ll get another chance someday.

  3. genteelkris Says:

    As usual your ensemble is quite lovely!
    Well done :)
    It’s always a pleasure to read your blog :)
    Thanks for sharing !!

  4. Jessie Says:

    You know, the other Docents…. the more experienced ones who get all their patterns from laughing moon and tell me I must only wear 100 percent cotton and hand stich outer seams… they make me feel bad at every event with my hand me down remade frocks, thrifty substitutes and drawers made from nurses scrubs. But you, you make me feel like I’m doing it right, well and perfect for me. You are an inspiration!

    • Liz Says:

      LOL! I’ve been there many times. Being authentic is hard work, but it does pay off in the end. I’m just a bit too under-skilled, under-funded, and impatient to bring that level of dedication, though. So I do the best with what I have, and so far, it’s worked out fabulously! Also: Nurses scrubs as drawers? OMG! Brilliant! I never thought of that!

  5. Mom Says:

    Stunning and you do look a lot like the young lady in the photo. Hmm? Where did you get those good looks?

  6. Marilyne Says:

    Wow! A lot of hard work and effort – but it really paid off! Amazing job!

  7. totchipanda Says:

    I might have squeed out loud to see the finished product. Thank you so much for sharing the process. The results are stunning!

    • Liz Says:

      Aw, thanks! I hadn’t actually seen myself in full-outfit mode until Becky showed me the pictures, so it was a surprise for me, too! :P

  8. Sarah W Says:

    It really turned out beautiful, and you look lovely in it. Good colour choice; brown and red are pretty together. I’m one of those who try to make things as “right” as I can, but seeing how well you fake it is never the less inspiring.

    • Liz Says:

      Thank you! Despite what the subtitle italics might say, I actually consider this the first non-“faked” dress I’ve made. The materials are correct, as is the construction and even the final pattern itself. The only thing I really faked out on was sewing the entire thing by machine (except the trim), deciding to keep the single bust dart provided by the original pattern, and not piping all the things. Things to work on later!

  9. Very impressive! I don’t think you’ve converted me to this particular pattern, but I did do a similar thing for a recent project. There’s really nothing wrong with using a commercial pattern as a base to be altered – the problem is that, of course, they don’t generally advertise the specific parts that need to be altered.

    Did you notice that Sarah Jane made a dress in the same fabric recently? Your posts came up consecutively on my dash, made me smile.

  10. Sallie Says:

    Wow, this is so pretty! It’s truly amazing what the undergarments do.

  11. Shirley Taylor. Says:

    I so enjoyed following your progress on this, Would it be possible to show a photo of the basket you used for the bonnet as I’m in England and would need to find something similar.

    • Liz Says:

      I’m so glad you liked it! The basket I used is a woven straw hat basket for covering flower pots. I used a plain one in this post: “Flower Pots and Romanticism: The 10 Second Poke Bonnet” and you can usually find them cheaply at garden shops, online (but shipping is costly) or second hand shops. Sometimes charity shops even put them with the hats because they look so similar! They come lined with plastic, but it’s easy to remove. The one I used for this bonnet is about 5.5 inches (~13cm) across the bottom.

  12. Nelda Evarts Says:

    I was thrilled to find your post and heartily agree that this particular pattern is a real workhorse; in 2012 I made 5 Civil War era dresses from it and have at least 3 copies of the pattern in my collection. I costume for community theatre and we’re not too obsessed with historical accuracy, but we do want to try to convey the period look by the shape of garments, appropriate colors, fabrics and trims, etc. I find the historically accurate patterns generally too expensive for our purposes when several outfits are required. They are also usually too difficult for most volunteer sewers. Thanks for some new ideas! I’m encouraged now to try some additional pattern adjustments and use this pattern again for some 1840’s gowns.

  13. Rebecca Says:

    I’ve been referring to your blog for a long time – last year our town held a WW1 centenary event and a photographer friend wanted to offer people portraits in 1914 period outfits – your Edwardian On A Budget page was invaluable in assembling mix-and-match outfits for all shapes, sizes and ages from thrifted or altered modern clothes – thank you!

    But this year they’re celebrationg 150 years since our Albert Memorial, and 1865 at low cost / low effort is not so easy! Any tips?
    The charity shops have lots of 1880-90s looking fitted jackets and I tried a quick outfit using one closed at the neck with a brooch, over an evening dress, with a bustle pad tucked under the back. It looked great for Late Bustle but there’s no way it’d pass for mid-Victorian.

    Does it come down to cheap bridal hoops, white blouses and making big skirts with adjustable waists?

    • Liz Says:

      Wow! It sounds like you’ve been really busy! I’m so glad my historical “cheats” have been so helpful. :)

      As for making mid-19th century outfits, what you choose to do mostly depends on how historically accurate you want to be and how much sewing you’d like to do. If you want to do as little sewing as possible, you’re on the right track with the blouse/skirt combo! Look for blouses with high, round necklines (like a t-shirt level neckline) and big, loose-fitting sleeves. They don’t have to be white either: check out this photo. Add a nice wide belt and wide skirt and you’ll be golden! If you are lucky (and on the short side) you might even be able to thrift the skirts. Broomstick style skirts (the really full, pleated ones) work really well over petticoats as a skirt or as petticoats under a skirt to create fullness. Just add some ballet flats and straw sunhat to complete the look (and a shawl if you like, especially with fringe)!

      If you want to sew, there are lots of patterns to choose from. The one used in this post (Simplicity 3723) works well without the need for any of the fancy alterations I’ve done.

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