Overdressed at the Nudes Exhibit: My 1880s Flannel Bustle Dress goes to the Museum

Waaaaaay back in December of 2018, I went to Dickens on the Strand with my friend Megan (aka Mistress of Disguise / Clusterfrock). Since it had been frightfully chilly the week before, I made a flannel bustle dress using the “duct-tape dummy” method (mummify yourself in duct tape and cut the form into pattern pieces) in anticipation of promenading in the cold streets of Galveston (plus, there were many tales of the previous year being rained out). It was my first time ever using the duct tape method and even though it was very time consuming, I was absolutely thrilled with the outcome! I have since made multiple dresses using the original duct tape pattern and each time I have achieved a good fit much more quickly than my previous slopers.

This is the only in-progress shot of have of this dress because I was just trying to buzz through it like a bee in a windstorm in order to make the deadline! You can see the raw duct tape pattern at the top and the absolute wild shape of it to fit my body. It looks insane (3 darts?! Whatever works…), but the resulting fit is unbeatable.

However, in grand Texas style, the weather shifted from being partly cloudy in the 30s to being sunny, 80 degrees, and soppingly humid. Despite being ill-suited for the heat, I wore my flannel dress to a marvelous tea party and had a good time anyway.

Unlike the Victorians who wore their grand, heavy dresses in the midst of a mini ice age, current Texas weather patterns are far from ideal for 5 pounds of fluffy cotton flannel! I meant to write a blog post about my trip right after the event, but never got around to it. So the poor flannel dress hung in my closet, entombed in a plastic dust cover.

Most of 2019 was much the same: far too warm to wear anything long sleeved, much less made of flannel. I made costumes out of cool fabrics instead, like my linen-blend 1878 mourning dress with 3/4 sleeves to beat the heat (also made using the duct tape dummy pattern as the base). Even when December rolled around, we pretty consistently hit temps in the 70s and 80s. If the heat wasn’t going to wane in winter, I decided I was just going to make fresh accessories for my black dress, like I did for the Waxahachie Christmas House Tours:

When 2020 arrived, a new DFW Costumers Guild event was on the horizon: Renoir, the Body the Senses, at the Kimbell Art Museum. Again, I pulled some fabrics from my stash in anticipation of just making a new overskirt, cuffs, and collars for my black dress. But as the day drew near, time ran out!

Life got incredibly hectic: we had planned a nice long visit to my parents’ house, but on the 8 hour drive over, our car died in the desert! We spent vacation wrestling with the dead car and the rest of the week tying to find a new one. By the time the Saturday of the event rolled around, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to sew. I considered skipping it entirely. But Becky really wanted to go and the weather had chilled…the flannel dress called to me from the dark recesses of the closet: IT IS TIME!

I pulled out out and prayed it would still fit. And it did! Huzzah! I always thought the front was too plain, so I had just enough gumption and time to add some navy ribbon to it. Much better!

I have discovered that ribbon—LOTS of ribbon– is invaluable to costuming. Rosettes, belts, hat bands, ties, hairbows, jabots, edging, waist-tapes, binding, accents, purse strings…ribbon is infinitely useful. However, don’t be like me and underestimate how much ribbon you’ll need: I used about 3 yards of antique ribbon just to make these few accents and I didn’t have a scrap left!

So I donned my chemise, undies, corset, corset liner, under petticoat, bustle, over petticoat, underskirt, overskirt, bodice, and hat, tickled the entire time that I’m wearing all these extra layers to go see nudes!

You see, this particular museum exhibit was exclusively Renoir’s nude paintings through the years (with a smattering of nude portraits by other artists that inspired him).

Ooo, lala!

vs. Our Extra-Fully-Clothed Group

Photo courtesy of Christy

Honestly, I think our costumed group provided excellent historical context and contrast to the exhibit. There we were, dressed as the women in the portraits and patrons of the museums viewing the paintings would have dressed in their day-to-day lives– highlighting just how intimate and revealing Renoir’s realistic nudes are and how brave and daring his models were to pose nude in an era where women generally wore very modest clothing and while idealistic, “classically” painted nudes were widely revered, the models/actresses posing for them were still given the disapproving societal side-eye.

I wish I’d gotten some photos of us in costume next to the paintings to show the contrast, but there were lots of people and I always feel a bit rude taking photos in a full gallery when folks are there trying to appreciate the art. I did grab one of Becky and I outside in the lovely, pleasant, absolutely refreshing 50 degree Texas morning air:

10000000% more pleasant than the 80 degree days of December 2018 and 2019!

Afterwards, we went to La Madeline for lunch where I stuffed myself silly with strawberries and cream!

It was a good day, something I sorely needed to lift my mood after the stressful week scraping and scrambling after suddenly losing the car. I am very grateful to my family and friends for helping get us through it all!

Oh! I nearly forgot on of my favorite little details about this dress: the tiny Victorian pin that’s on the collar. I don’t know who it’s commemorating or what significance 1850 has, but I love the tiny mystery!

Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

Full, Exhaustive Title:
Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

found in Extant 19th Century Garments from Augusta Auctions

I enjoy poking around on internet auction sites for extant garments “in the rough.” Museums can’t hold every original piece of clothing. There are literal tons of antique clothing sitting in private homes and shops that no one has ever seen before! We are blessed in this age of internet commerce to see some of these treasures for a few brief days on websites like eBay, Etsy, or Ruby Lane before they disappear again into private collections. Many of these amazing private holdings posess design details and quirks that are often glossed over by sweeping generalizations about past fashions. Looking through these often less-than-perfect dresses in their wrinkled, as-found condition is a wellspring of fresh sewing inspiration!
Since I can’t buy every gorgeous gown that scrolls across my screen, I have taken to collecting them digitally on Pinterest, combing through online sales pages for pieces with unusual features or appealing designs. One of the many sites I try to check regularly is the Augusta Auctions page. They are an antique/vintage textile and clothing auction house that so kindly keeps pictures of previous auction lots long after the auction has ended (so many times auction sites remove photos soon after the sale is complete). They have garments of many types from the 1700s to modern, but my research recently has focused on the Victorian era (1837-1901). Many of their items are de-accessioned from public museums which means that the Augusta Auction website is often their last accessible record before disappearing from the public view. Rifling through the auction lots has yielded some unusual and strange pieces, but it also has brought to light a few simple, unique design elements that a modern costumer could easily adopt!

1. Mix-n-Match and Matchy-Matchy Accessories
(I guess that’s really two tips in one, so this list has 6!)

Morning Glory Cotton Sateen Day Dress, 1880s
“2-piece, maroon [looks brown in the photos, but it my be more reddish in person] cotton sateen w/ blue floral print, lace trim, cut steel buttons, matching fan.” – Augusta Auctions

I’m not generally a matching maven when it comes to my day-to-day modern clothes, but making my own historical outfits means I pay a lot more attention to color, pattern, and stylish shortcuts. This dress has a classic combination of dense print paired with a plain matching color. The printed bodice and bustled overskirt are separate from the simple tiered brown cotton underskirt, so they can be mixed and matched with other pieces. The solid colored skirt would be very easy to match other bodices with and it’s likely the dress’s original owner had one or two other pieces she could mix together to create a multitude of outfits with, especially since (unlike many bustle underskirts that have plain backs) this underskirt is decorated all the way around making it extra versatile:

A very simple bustle back suitable for an active woman on the job or on the go!

But sometimes you just wanna MATCH. Some women match their shoes to their purse. Others can’t leave the house unless everything from their underwear to their earrings are all the same shade. This day dress in particular comes with a unique matching accessory, especially for such an otherwise ordinary outfit: A custom matching fan!

It matches so well it’s nearly camouflaged!

If you are interested in making a matchy-matchy fan of your own, here’s a semi-tutorial posted on La Bricoleuse:

Making a Silk Folding Fan

As an added bonus, the fabric on the fan was protected from the sun when it was folded up, so it did not fade! It gives us a clue about how much brighter this dress used to be: just look at that pop of ultramarine and hint of crimson! It was a brilliant use of excess fabric. Other ways to use extra fabric scraps to create matchy-matchy accessories include small drawstring purses and coverings for hats and bonnets.

Lined Drawstring Bag Tutorial
By In Color Order

Cardboard and Duct Tape Victorian Bonnet Tutorial
by Darling and Dash

2. Ribbon Flowers
(may be combined with the matchy-matchy tip above for decorating pretty much everything)

Detail of a Silk Visiting Dress, 1860s
“Three-piece buff changeable ribbed taffeta, trimmed with bright coral satin bands, scallops, bows, rosettes and Van Dyke points: front buttoning boned bodice with high neckline; belt with attached back peplum; trained unlined skirt, gold stamped label “Louis Hille Tailleur Pour Dames 398 Rue St Honore Paris”[…] Featured in April 1998 ANTIQUES Magazine” – Augusta Auctions

It’s fairly common to see garments decorated with ribbon bows and cockades, but when I found this dress, the big pink satin flower caught my eye right away. It is extremely similar to modern ribbon flowers that can be found on everything from toddler headbands to coffee cup koozies!

There are hundreds of ribbon and fabric flower tutorials, but for this particular design, there are three methods that will produce similar results:

Ruched Ribbon Flower
Tutorial by Nikki in Stitches

Scrap Fabric Flower
Tutorial by Melissa of Until Wednesday Calls

Round Petal Kanzashi Flower
Tutorial by A Pumpkin & A Princess

In addition to how modern the flower looks, the placement also gives it unique charm. There’s one at a fairly standard location at the small of the back, but another is placed just off the hip and another midway down the skirt. So cute!

The seamstress really liked trimming in general. Just check out the amazing design created with matching pink ribbon/fabric applied in a multitude of ways!

Rosettes, stripes, binding, applique, scalloped edging, bows… the works!

3. Embroidered Accents

Embroidered Visiting Dress, 1870s
“2 main fabrics: black silk faille & black silk satin, satin w/ narrow velvet stripe embroidered w/ wine, brown & blue flowers, polonaise bodice, cut steel buttons & lace, blue satin modesty insert, trained bustle skirt, B 36″, W 30″, Skirt L 40″-59″, provenance, Homans family Washington, D.C.” – Augusta Auction

Victorian costumes often feature lovely embroidery work. They didn’t have access to fancy in-home digital embroidery machines like we do now, but there are so many beautiful modern fabrics and trims that come pre-embroidered today so even if you can’t embroider, you can have the look! Even now, embroidered fabric can be pretty expensive. A whole gown of the stuff might be out of the question for most. A yard or two, though, is enough to add a rich touch to a dress like in this sophisticated frock:

The seamstress who crafted this dress made judicious use of the fine striped satin with embroidered flora, placing it front and center on the bodice and cuffs, but leaving the back plain while edging and gores in the skirt tie the look together.

There was quite a heated discussion on a forum about the legitimacy of using pre-embroidered fabrics in historical costumes. While handwork is always period, pre-embroidered fabric is a fantastic way to mimic the look. The embroidery on this dress in particular features a small, repeating pattern that looks very much like many pre-embroidered fabric available today.

Bonus points for the pieced front and late 18th century revival styling!

4. Bold Buttons

Silk Brocade Jacket, 1880s
“Black silk ground w/ Persian inspired brocade, small rondels in metallic gold, sky blue, maroon & yellow, fitted torso, constructed in style of gent’s 18th C jacket, black velvet trim & back pockets, cream & gold embroidered lace trim, 24 magnificent gold metal buttons inset w/ cut steel faceted beads in silver, cobalt & wine, bright yellow silk satin lining, B 32″, W 24″, L 27-30″, excellent. [De-accessioned from the] Brooklyn Museum.” -Augusta Auctions

The last dress had some pretty nifty cut steel buttons, but this jacket certainly ups the ante! Victorians loved buttons of all types and there are as many colors and styles as you can imagine. The buttons on this jacket are something truly avant-garde and different, though. They look thoroughly modern. They would be right at home on a 1930s suit or a 1960s mod mini dress, but here they sit on an otherwise unassuming brocade jacket!

Like many buttons and pieces of jewelry from the 19th century, these buttons are made of faceted steel studs riveted together. These are unusual for their added color and abstract dot pattern.

As they were 150 years ago, buttons can be an expensive investment, but they can really add a pop of character to an otherwise plain dress! Many Victorian buttons are more “traditional” than these, but Victorians loved quirky buttons of all types– from colorful lions and garden insects to distant planets and birds on a telegraph wire!
Etsy is a great place to look for unique buttons, both antique and modern.

With all the wild figurative metal buttons out there, you could probably use these awesome steampunk mechanism buttons or these ancient glyph buttons and no Victorian would bat an eye (they might even compliment you on them, considering how fond they were of industrial progress and ancient cultures). After all, they were the ones putting spiders, ears or corn, and fighting children on buttons first!

Fashionable fisticuffs, anyone?

5. Stunning Studs

Taupe Silk Tea Dress
“2-piece silk crepe, boned bodice w/ overlay of chemical lace studded w/ cut steel beads, grey velvet trim, label “Jermyn W. 45th St.”, B 36″, W 28″, L 41″” -Augusta Auctions
(This dress would totally fit me! If only I had snatched it up. It sold for only $120!)

Augusta Auctions dates this to the 1910s, but the shape, construction, and styling all scream 1889-1892, so I’m including it here.

Ah, my angsty teenage self sure did love silver studs! I treasured my gnarly Hot Topic studded faux-leather bracelet because it made me feel like an invincible warrior. Surprisingly, it’s not just goths and neo-Victorians who enjoyed being studded with glittery steel. The dresses above had silvery cut steel buttons. This particular dress cut out the middle man and has cut steel applied directly to the lace!

Cut steel jewelry and accessories have been around for centuries as a bright, sparkly alternative to diamonds. In the late Victorian period, cut steel was mass manufactured and widely popular. Steel-encrusted miser purses, opera capes, and shoes were de rigueur. While individual studs were less common, they were popular for wearing indoors because they were excellent at glittering in low light.
Studs weren’t just made of rounded cut steel. Some were spiky enough to make even the hardest-core punk rocker happy! Here are two bonnets with pyramid studs that defy the supposedly frail and fragile femininity associated with the Victorian era:

H. O. Hanlon Bonnet, circa 1887
Metal (the Met doesn’t list if they are steel or something else) studs in action. My favorite 1880s bonnet!

House of Virot Bonnet, circa 1885
Black glass pyramid beads add some fierce glitter to this otherwise plush bonnet.

Victorians loved the interplay between hard and soft surfaces and playing with textures. Some combinations are truly unusual and funky, but if done in moderation and with a careful eye for the design, even supposedly “modern” fashion elements can work in the Victorian era!