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!

But Where Should I Put It? Part II

18th Century Purses

Let’s face it: girls carry around a ton of stuff. We have combs, keys, credit cards, cell phones, lipstick, band-aids, tissues, pens, and much more crammed into our purses at any given moment. Modern purses come in plenty of shapes, sizes, and materials to hold all our stuff, but what if you’re a modern girl with modern stuff costuming for a historical world? Where can I hide all my now-a-days necessities? The answer is, of course, historical purses! Since I already covered some of the chic purse possibilities for the 15th to 17th centuries, it’s time to cover the fun and filly period between 1700 and 1800!

The first option is pockets. Huzzah for pockets! In the 18th century, they became all the rage. The wide, structured skirts of the period allowed plenty of room for a lady to stash her detash! Pockets are especially handy because they are both hidden and held in place under the skirt, so you don’t have to worry about setting them down and forgetting about them (but do make sure you tie them securely)!

You would never guess how many candied figs you could pocket under this pretty green petticoat without anyone being the wiser! Pockets, whether singles or in pairs, weren’t sewn into clothes like modern ones. 18th century pockets were separate pieces that were worn around a lady’s waist and were accessed through slits in the skirt. Along with an apron and cap, a pocket was an essential piece of every 18th century housewife’s wardrobe. Pockets were almost always decorated, sometimes with just a touch of embroidery or ribbon near the opening, but often full-on blazing with silks or crazy-quilting. They were akin to samplers and were popular items for young ladies to make, showing off their skill with a needle and that they were mature enough to start keeping track of their own possessions.

Pockets not your style? Sometimes they just won’t do and you need something fancier. Most purses during the 18th century were frameless and soft, making them fun to make and decorate. Since they didn’t close with a clasped frame, purses and bags in the 1700s employed a variety of tying and wrapping methods to keep all your widgets from falling out willy-nilly– chasing after chapstick and loose change in a petticoat on a windy day is no picnic!

The first type of purse is a carry-over from the 17th century: the drawstring purse. Bowl-like gaming purses remained popular into the early 1790s, both for men and women (the first purse in this post is a beautiful gaming purse from about 1690-1710). Other drawstring pouches were used as formal wear for parties and court functions. These beaded bags were worn on the wrist or at the waist, so they were very visible and had to look amazing!

If they weren’t filled with a lady’s essentials– scissors, needles, thread, maybe a little packet of rouge if she was a bit of a flirt– these little bags were used as “swete bags,” filled with sweetly perfumed herbs or handkerchiefs to blot out any unsavory smells. Absolutely gorgeous beading became one of the most popular decoration techniques for these small bags. Here’s one covered with courtly motifs like a crown and a pair of cupid-shot hearts:

The small drawstring pouch below was made at the very, very end of the 18th century and was made to match one of those new-fangled ball gowns with the high waists, the beginning of the Regency style. It’s decorated with cut steel beads and gilded filigree spheres.

The next type of purse is the wrap purse, fashionable during the mid-to-late 18th century. Wrap purses function exactly like they sound: you use a long piece of ribbon to wrap your purse shut. These purses are rectangular with a flap that folds over the top.

Pocketbook purses (also called envelope cases) were made in a similar fashion, but didn’t have a wide swathe of ribbon to wind them shut. Some of these purses have button closures, but most merely folded closed.

While wrap purses were considered more feminine and pocketbooks more masculine, both were fairly unisex, depending on the decoration. Wrap and pocketbook purses are very simple to sew and there are so many ways to decorate them!

Floral Embroidery:

Florals are THE motif of the 18th century! Mums, roses, and fruits were the favorites. You can’t go wrong with an 18th century floral.

Beading:

This is a very classy purse from an unusual place. This purse isn’t Italian or French or English, but Mexican/Spanish. The 18th century was the colonial period in Mexico as well as the US. Wealthy Spanish hacienda owners made sure to keep up with Spain’s latest trends, but since they were more isolated than their European sisters, ladies in New Spain put their own twist on European fashions at the time. Spanish colonial is very, well, Spanish: robust, ornate, and often geometric thanks to Moorish influence. All of these mixed cultures make for a very unique wrap purse!

Figural Embroidery:

Figures are tough to embroider, let me tell you! No matter how well you draw or sew, they offer a special challenge. This pretty pastel purse is fantastic! Whoever embroidered it took plenty of time to get it “just right.” Doesn’t it have the perfect amount of charm? Love it!

Ikat-like Flame Stitch Embroidery:

Ikat fabric is made using an ancient  resist-dyeing technique on the threads before the fabric is woven. Since the fabric is pre-colored, when it is woven, the pattern is much softer around the edges than a fabric that is printed after it is woven. The watercolor effect of ikat fabric contrasts with it’s other famous quality: bold color and abstract patterns. Ikat fabric became very popular during the 18th century because the exotic patterns really wowed whenever they were draped over the wide panniers and long coats that were all the rage at court. The ikat patterns and colors of the 18th century are much more subdued and natural than modern prints, but look entirely different from the rococo pinks, blues, and yellows associated with the court in the 1700s. If you think this gown is wild:

Can you imagine if it was made of this:

You would stand out, that’s for certain! Since an entire gown made of the expensive, Indian fabric wasn’t an option for most women, bold flame stitch patterns that mimicked the look began popping up in embroidery manuals and accessories everywhere. I find flame stitch embroidery purses almost as often as floral patterns! You can even make Mrs. Manners proud and match your wild purse to your shoes:

Love these shoes!

The final type of purse during the 1700s is the case/chatelaine. Cases are less like purses and more like tailored boxes or jewelry. Most cases were made for wealthy nobles from precious materials. They are specially tailored to hold specific items, usually household tools, tobacco, etc.

This unbelievably fine agate, gold, and diamond case was, reportedly, “a gift from Queen Anne (1702-1714) to Abigail Masham…who was appointed as a personal maid to the queen about 1700” (The V&A Museum). Inside the hardstone shell is the fanciest set of lady’s tools I have seen! The case contains scissors, bodkin needle, fruit knife, and a combined pen and pencil, all made to match (except the scissors which may be a 1750s replacement):

So jealous! No doubt the pencil alone is worth more than a few months of my salary and I’m a writer…oh the irony! Cases are the sisters to chatelaines: pins or clips with watches, pencils, sachets and the like tethered to the top by loops or chains.

Often lavishly bejeweled because they were worn even in court, chatelaines were a purse without a purse. Anything you could possibly need was dangling near your hip within easy reach…no need to fiddle around in the deep, yawning chasm of a tote bag looking for your keys!

Lovely as they are, chatelaines alone aren’t very practical for most costumers since you can’t easily hang your iPhone out in the open and still look like an 1760s gentlewoman, though with some ingenuity you might be able to make a semi-period-looking case for it and all your other small things.

Oh! And one tiny last note about stashing stuff: if you carry a fan, don’t ever tuck in into your purse, bodice, or skirts– worst of all setting it on the shelf of your panniers (although it was quite acceptable to rest your arms on them)! It was considered exceptionally uncouth to carry your fan anywhere but in your hand or dangling from your wrist.

Click here to visit: Where Should I Put It? Part I

For those of us who costume between 1400 and 1700!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!