In my last post, I dug into the history of the infamous “Victorian hip croissant” pattern, Simplicity 4244:
“Please tell me you are done with the croissant jokes…”
With a clearer understanding of what the pattern was supposed to do, I was ready to start baking…er…making Simplicity 4244!
“I hate you…”
I made both a day and an evening version of this dress. The pattern is accurate and easy to alter for either look, depending on your fabrics and trimmings. This is a pretty lengthy post because I wanted to be fairly thorough. It’s not a step-by-step guide, but I did make changes to suit my needs which I thought I should elaborate on.
The Process: Analyzing the Pattern
I had already figured out the era and the look the pattern was aiming for, but was the pattern itself historical in construction? As soon as I got my copy in the mail, I opened it to see what the pattern looked like. With over 70 steps printed in the guide and 32 pattern pieces (9 of which are not patterned on the tissue, but rather measured out on your own), I almost had a mini heart attack!
DROP THE PASTRIES! ABORT MISSION! ABORT MISSION!
BUT, upon further inspection, I realized that 38 of the 72 steps were instructions for trimming and only 8 to 9 of the 32 pattern pieces were actually needed to make the basic shape.
Blue highlighted pieces provide the basic structure of the gown.
Orange dotted pieces are helpful, but not required.
The rest is all trimming and train.
I was honestly expecting something hideously complicated, especially for the piece(s) that would form the side swags. I was surprised to discover the swags are polonaised via an elongated/skirted version of the bodice. Pattern pieces #1 and #3 in the image above become the swags merely by pleating them according to the guide provided by pattern piece #2. You’ll notice that I didn’t highlight 2 or 3 as necessary to make a dress from this pattern. You will see why later!
After I did my first mock-up (photo below), I thought, “Why is there a long, weird, curvy dart under the arm?” A few of the other instructions also caught me off-guard and I began to wonder, “Is some of the funkiness of this pattern due to the fact that it’s based directly off of an original garment with its own quirkiness?” After making the pattern twice now, I can say with certainty that Simplicity 4244 is quite accurately patterned from the original gown, including some period (and possibly personal) techniques. I cannot vouch for it from a strict candle-light-and-hand-dawn-well-water reenactor’s point of view, but from a hand-finish-the facings-but-machine-the-long-seams costumer’s point of view, this pattern is right out of the period. The little underarm dart/pleat, for example, is a tell-tale feature of period polonaise patterns. Frances Grimble’s book “Fashions of the Gilded Age, Vol. 1” even has a nice little excerpt about it in the introduction to the Polonaise section:
“‘[A polonaise] is shaped under the arm by a dart instead of the regular underarm seam.'” – F. Grimble quoting Harper’s Bazar, 1879, on page 310.
The same excerpt even describes the precise way 4244’s panniers and rear swag are formed from the elongated front bodice piece:
“‘In very many dresses the pannier fullness attached to the front is brought outside the side pieces and back. It is joined together by a large rosette or a sash bow on the middle seam of the back.'” – F. Grimble quoting Harper’s Bazar, 1879, on page 310
Indeed, when you compare Simplicity 4244 to original period patterns (in this case a polonaise dress on page 318 of “Fashions of the Gilded Age Vol. 1”), they are spot on, right down to having pleat markings to create the pannier swag:
The purple tissue is my traced pattern of Simplicity 4244 pattern piece #4, the front lining, exactly as it is printed. The small Xs on the left side of the antique polonaise pattern denote the pleats to make the pannier for that particular style.
That’s what makes the gown a polonaise/princess-line hybrid: the front portion is constructed like a polonaise, but the one-piece construction and flat train behind are hallmarks of the princess style.
The Process: Cutting and Fitting
Choosing the correct size can be tricky, and I have, much like the over-stuffed puffs on the envelope, expanded beyond my usual bounds in recent months, so I went by the finished bust measurement on the back of envelope, which led me to choose a base size of 12. All the shaping at the waist and hips is done with French darts, so the bust measurement is the only “static” measurement besides length.
Here’s the dress (inside out) before I added the front darts. Makes a cute 1920s dress, don’cha think?
I decided to fit the dress over my new Corset Story corset. While it’s not entirely accurate, the long tapered waist and a dramatic hips are perfect under the close-fitting Natural Form style. I don’t have very prominent hips to begin with, so having the extra va-va-voom really helps get the proper shape. Here’s the first mock-up I made, a straight size 12, using only the top half of the pieces to make a “bodice” of sorts:
You could probably make this dress into a two piece dress if you chopped the pieces off at the hips like I did for my mock-up.
Not bad! I did end up completely changing the darts to accommodate my larger bust-waist ratio and shorter waist. At first, I thought I might need to remove the underarm dart, too, because it was pulling strangely, but I figured out that, like the other darts, it just needed to be tweaked to fit my body. This where the “direct from historical garment” part comes in to play. You may need longer/shorter/deeper/shallower or otherwise slightly different darts than the original wearer. Altering darts is part of the joys and sorrows of being a uniquely shaped human being!
Original pattern in purple on the left, my changes on the right. Notice I didn’t include the side dart on my pattern. I found it easier to pinch them out by hand before adding the sleeves in order to obtain the best possible fit.
I am exceptionally proud of my French Darts. I’d never sewn them before and I was very pleased that I did them passably the very first time!
The Process: Fabric Choice
As discussed in my previous post, fabric choice is hugely important since it changes the way the swags lie. The original dress was silk satin which lets the panniers hang properly. A great fabric choice to be sure, but so very very very far out of price range!
Instead, I scurried off to Walmart for bargain-bin cotton gauze. Walmart had them in a few colors–purple was my first choice– but this yellow plaid had enough for a dress: 14 yards. And, yes, it did take nearly the entire 14 yards to make my plaid dress! If you plan on doing the original Vandyke hem and pleating, you will need closer to 16 to be safe. This is accounted for on the back of the envelope.
Thin cotton gauze/voile is an excellent choice for this gown. It’s got the drape needed, but still has body; plus, it’s easy to sew. Highly recommend–especially at $1 a yard!
I also bought the last bit of an iridescent rayon/nylon blend from the bargain section of Hancock Fabrics (*sad sigh*) for the evening gown version.
I am terribly upset that H.F. is going out of business. I found so much awesome fabric there.
I only had 8.4 yards of this stuff. It was painful and tedious, but I was able to squeeze an evening dress out of it with only a few tiny scraps to spare.
I used cotton sheets for the lining in both gowns. It took 1 king-sized sheet each.
The Process: Cutting
This is where I started to deviate from the design. The pattern pieces are so huge that I found it easier to cut my fabric into sections as I went. I cut the lining out of the sheet first which helped me work out the best cutting configuration for my needs.
Obligatory “helper cat” picture.
Also, you can see some of the changes I made to the pattern. The two front skirt pieces, for example, I cut as one. On an original gown, the separate pieces were probably done so they could fit on narrower pieces of silk. My fabric was able to accommodate them as one, though. Since I was making a day dress, I also omitted the extra piece for the super-long train by cutting the back piece about 3 inches from the fold. This provided enough fabric for a full back without being overwhelming.
I am 5 foot 6 inches tall. I lengthened the skirt by about an inch all around the bottom to make it walking/ankle-length when I wear a small heel. As I discovered later, the skirt pieces are squared off at the bottom in order to form the triangle edge. If you are going for a smooth hem (as I was) you’ll need to taper them; otherwise, the bottom will not match up. I discovered this too late to fix the plaid gown, but I was able to cover the weirdness with trim.
The Process: Assembling/Not Assembling the Hip Swags
Alrighty! Here’s the fun part everyone’s curious about! How in the great blue blazes do do you make those croissants?!
Well, you assemble the skirt front(s) and lining:
And sew pattern pieces #1/1.a on top:
Then use use the provided guide to pleat it up into the pannier shape at the side. That’s literally it. How you pleat pattern piece #1 (and #3, if you are making the gown with the tail swags in the back) is what determines how delicious your croissants/panniers look.
It is now confession time: I majorly deviated from the pattern here. I wrestled with this decision. After all, half the glory of this pattern is the soft, fluffy hip-croissants of infamy! But, no matter how strong my drive to prove this pattern is good in spite of what folks may say, my drive to experiment with the pattern was stronger. So instead of pleating the sides from hip to bum like the pattern guide told me to, I pleated it the whole way down.
I wasn’t sure if having lots of pleats terminating so abruptly on a princess-line gown was accurate, but my dress ended up looking similar to this extant gown:
Brautkleid (Wedding Dress), circa 1881
In fact, my plaid dress ended up being very similar to this gown even though I didn’t mean it to be! I must have been surfing on a 1881 wavelength as I was sewing.
LESSON LEARNED: You do not need to make the hip croissants if you don’t want to! You can play with the polonaise front as much as you want. Look at extant examples for inspiration. Get creative!
For my ballgown, I left the polonaise panniers off entirely in order to get a full dress out of only 8 yards of fabric. Instead, I used pleated bands of decoration down the front.
The Process: Assembling the Back
This part is easy. You just follow the instructions given. The train is completely customizable depending on how full or long you want it. Since the train is a separate width of fabric from the back pattern piece, you can easily make it of an accent fabric like I did for my ball gown. The train gives you a lot of options to play with it by making pleats, adding layers of ruffles and lace, tucking in flowers, or playing with draping. It’s quite fun! I’m not a huge fan of the flat train. I find it rather uninteresting and difficult to maneuver, especially at crowded public events, so for my ballgown, I created a mermaid tail train.
To make the mermaid tail, I cut the train lining the size I wanted the finished train to be. Then I cut the fashion fabric much longer in order to make three fat box pleats:
I made them a too far down, so I ended up tacking the top of the pleats up in order to get them to fall attractively.
An entertaining view of the WIP laying flat on its side. SO. MUCH. TRAIN.
Even if you choose to leave out the train entirely, the back of the dress is very full. My plaid dress is only six inches wider than the back piece (the pattern calls for an extra 20 inches to make a full train) and it is still very VERY full and long. I struggled to get the whole thing in a picture when it’s flat:
This would be gorgeous going down the aisle on a wedding gown and the length is pretty much fashion-plate ideal for the Natural Form Era! However, it makes getting around modern life difficult, so for the sake of myself and others, I bustled it up with some cotton tape, creating a nice little “meringue” pouf at the back to make up for my lack of croissants:
Minka is miffed that mommy won’t let her play in the wonderful plaid tent.
A NOTE for ladies with narrow and/or swayed backs and/or large busts with a small ribcage:
The lower back of this pattern is very VERY wide. The pannier pleats are probably under the model’s arm rather than father back as they should be because the lower back is too wide. I ended up taking nearly FOUR INCHES of width out of the lower back to get it to hug my spine the way it should!
This one change greatly improved the side profile and fit of the dress. So if you find yourself tugging at your front French darts wondering why you keep taking out more but it still doesn’t look right, take some width out of the back first! It will also help slim your side profile and give you that graceful, swooping line so prized during the Natural Form Era!
The Process: Sleeves
Again, I failed to stick to the pattern. I didn’t make this dress with the sleeves given. Instead, I created a 3/4 length, one-piece curved sleeve (which I should post a tutorial for soon) for the plaid dress and left the sleeves off entirely for the ball gown. This was just personal preference. The two-piece, short sleeve pattern that comes with Simplicity 4244 is perfectly fine and period correct; it’s just not to my taste.
The Process: Finishing
The pattern calls for 15 tiny buttons and button holes down the front. I have never done buttonholes before and hadn’t even figured them into my pattern fitting, so I used hooks and bars (flat eyes) to close the front instead. Again, just a personal preference.
I made 4 inch wide hem facings to finish the hems. A hem facing protects the lining and fashion fabric from wear and weighs down the train so it lays more smoothly on the ground rather than bunching up or flipping over. I also added a key component that Simplicity 4244 is completely missing: interior bustle ties!
I can loosen or tighten the ties to give me the shape I want. The cream colored cotton tape is helping distribute the weight of the train along the seam. A period gown would also have a waist tape (an interior belt) to help support everything. I left the tape long so if I ever put a waist tape in, I can use it to help hold up the train.
Having the interior bustle tie under the skirt in back pulls the front tight to the body so that you get the very slim front profile and flared train/tail in the back. It keeps the sides from flaring out like in the line drawing and on the model which Natural Form Era gowns are not supposed to do. You can tell the original gown probably had ties, too: the ruched trimming at the bottom ends abruptly about the place where the gown would wrap around the wearer:
Bustle ties would pull the ends under the train, masking the abrupt stop.
I did not use either of the collars provided by the pattern. Instead, I just bias bound the square neckline (this step is is included in the pattern directions). I learned a very handy trick for making beautiful, neatly-turned facings: understitching!
Understitching keeps the facing from rolling over to the front. There are tons of tutorials, but this tutorial on Craftsy helped me the most:
“Essential Techniques: Discover the Secret to Perfectly Sewn Necklines!” by Linda Reynolds
I used the same technique for the armholes of the ball gown.
Between learning how to make French darts and understitching, I can safely say that I have graduated to the Intermediate sewing level! I even made it official on PatternReview.com. :P
However, those two techniques were the only new skills I needed to learn in order to make this dress. Everything else– plackets, hem facings, hooks and eyes, and pleats were all things I’d done before. In fact, most of the techniques to make the basic version of this gown without all the trimmings are fairly easy to learn. The most challenging part of the whole thing is the front placket. The rest is wrangling the huge amount of fabric and getting the fit the way you want it.
I know I said that this was going to be the final review, but my process analysis went waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay longer than anticipated! So this is now an overstuffed, underdone trilogy!
Part III: Simplicity 4244 for Day and Night
(also, fewer half-baked jokes….)
Careful, they’re still hot!