Reclaiming a Hat Icon: How to Turn a Trilby into a Victorian Lady’s Hat Tutorial

This post is a bit of a weird ride– from Charles Dickens to Trolls to Britney Spears. But you could get a great hat out of the deal!

I should have written this post almost a year ago when I went to Dickens on the Strand with Mistress of Disguise back in December of 2018, but I really fell off the blogging wagon and didn’t. So, finally, here’s a blog post about my costumes for Dickens on the Strand 2018– beginning with my thifty hat makeover:

While it’s not the most flattering hat on everyone, the trilby (commonly misidentified as a fedora) comes in a vast array of materials and sizes. In fact, after ballcaps, beanies, and cowboy hats (here in Texas at least), the trilby is the most readily available male hats. You can even buy them at Walmart for less than $10.

via Quora

I have a massive love of hats! I have at least 30 of them, some of them vintage, some new, and many modded for costuming. Some of them are also my husband’s hats, like his tricorn, cowboy hat, and numerous old fedoras/trilbies. However, both fedoras and trilbies have gotten a sour reputation recently because of their association with internet trolls and creepy pick-up “artists.” Due to these bad stereotypes, my husband hasn’t been wearing his old trilbies as much anymore, so they were just gathering dust in my closet.

But did you know that fedoras actually started as a popular unisex, feminist fashion in the 1880s and trilbies are perfect for transforming into Victorian lady’s hats? Yes, indeed! So when I needed a last minute hat to go with my flannel 1880s bustle dress, I decided to take the trilby back from the trolls and give one of those old hats a new life.

During the 1870s, bonnets began to be replaced by hats as the fashionable form of daytime headgear for ladies. The ancestor of the modern fedora was actually created in the 1880s as a hat worn by all-around badass Sarah Bernhardt, who wore the first fedora during a play called, well, Fedora!

I couldn’t find a photo of Sarah Bernhardt in her original Fedora, but here she is in a different cool hat. You can see how you could easily make a similar hat by modifying a modern fedora.

In 1894, The Trilby hat was invented and also got its name from the hat style worn in the theatrical production, but the trilby was worn by a male actor and has thus been a man’s hat from the start. However, the shape shows up in women’s hats of the previous decade, making all our currently-much-maligned trilbies the perfect base for last-minute-panic Victorian bustle hats!

Natural Form Era hats. The Vintage Dancer has an excellent article on 19th century ladies’ hats! Click the fashion plate above to visit.

Lady’s Hat, circa 1885 via the Met Museum

I took trimming inspiration for my last-minute trilby transformation from 1880s hats like the lady’s on the left.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any in-progess pics of my Dickens on the Strand hat because– in my usual fashion– I made it literally the night before Megan and I left for Galveston! However, I did absolutely nothing to the base hat, just trimmed it (haphazardly).

I used 1 roll of cream-colored ribbon from Walmart, a netting remnant, and pinned an antique silver dime brooch to the front.

Now, there is a secret to every successful hat…and I’m going to spill the beans just for you.

As I have stated before, this is just a plain old man’s store-bought trilby. Even under all the trimmings, it’s still very visibly a modern trilby…probably because it’s a good two sizes too big! It’s my husband’s, so it’s an XL hat made to fit a 6′ 2″ dude. If I just plop it down on my head, it’s so huge it engulfs half my noggin!

Yet, most modern hats– even ones sized correctly for your head– sit far too low on the face. If you’ve ever gotten photos back from an event only to discover your face is all shadowed over and hidden by your hat, it’s because modern hats have very wide, deep crowns to sit far enough down on your head to keep them in place at the expense of your forehead.

But don’t worry, you still look fabulous!

Historical women’s hats, however, were designed to perch on top of elaborate hairstyles, particularly buns. Often, they hardly touched you head at all, sitting entirely atop a nest of fluffy hair instead.

 

And instead of relying on a deep crown to stay in place, women used hat pins.

Call the Police! I’m Wearing an Illegal Hatpin!

Even if a hat had a deep crown, it often had an interior fabric “cap” or drawstring ring that kept the crown from swallowing your head.

Some well-designed modern hats still use this feature. This is the inside of my favorite modern “church lady” hat that I wear for Edwardian costumes. You can see the drawstring ring inside that adjusts to fit your head so the enormously tall crown doesn’t eat your face.

Any of these things can be done to modify a modern hat to fit in a historical manner. In the case of my trilby-turned-Victorian hat, I didn’t have time to put in a fitting ring, but I did have plenty of hair to stuff into it. This kept it aloft.

In fact, the true secret to historical hat success isn’t just the hat itself: it’s the hair under it!

Properly styled hair– even if it’s the most simplistic version of a period style– instantly takes you from hat rookie to hat champion!

To demonstrate this better, here is a series of hasty, terrible bathroom selfies I took.

Let’s start with a modern trilby I have that actual fits me correctly:

If you want to use a trilby to make a Victorian hat, I recommend starting with one that actually fits, or one slightly too small.

As you can see, it fits much better than my big brown one! But with the deep hat crown and modern hairstyle, the farthest back in time this hat takes me is high school in the early 2000s. No thanks!

BRING IN THE HISTORICAL HAIR!

This is my go-to basic hairstyle. It’s my collarbone length hair pulled up in a simple bun and then my beloved “curl loaf” slapped on the front. Nothing fancy.

This style is perfect for the 1880s and 1890s, but it can carry you from the late 1870s to the 1910s if you really need to. Plus, it works especially well with hats! The bun gives you something to perch your hat on so it stays off your face, and it give you something to safely stab hat pins into to keep everything in place. The curls up front also help lift the crown of the hat away from your face and, if you’ve got strong features or a large face like me, the curls peek out from under the hat a bit to soften your face. Plus, the hairstyle looks good on its own, in case you have to remove your hat.

Now that you’ve got your hair in place, you can play with how you wear your hat! To instantly take a trilby from modern to old-fashioned, wear it on the back of your head for a more bonnet-like appearance:

A fashion plate from the late 1870s showing bonnet-like hats worn on the back of the head to take trimming inspiration from.

You can also wear the trilby backwards so that the curled part of the brim is at the top of your head to help disguise the modernness even more. Covered in trimmings like puffy bows and feathers or covered in fabric to match your dress will further transform it!

Covered in lace and fabric, a modern trilby could be used as a base for these 1870s bonnets! Notice how these bonnets/hats are sitting way up high on a giant mound of hair, as was fashionable in the 1870s. The hats aren’t even touching their faces or necks. Worried you don’t have enough hair? Don’t worry! Most Victorians used plenty of hairpieces to make such fab hairstyles.

Another way to wear it is perched up on your hair completely, tilted forward a tad. Rather than disguising the shape of the trilby, this angle shows off the full shape and works well for the more tailored looks of the 1880s:

Of course, wearing it this way also puts your hair on display more, so make sure the back is nice and neat (unlike mine, ha!).

So many trim options! From the 1870s to the 1880s.

No matter how you choose to wear it, however, you will want to trim it. Depending on your trilby’s material. you might be able to get away with a few ribbons or spray of flowers, but the Victorians loved trims and, as you can see in the fashion plate examples, the base hat is often buried under a mound of bows, lace, feathers, flowers, and other crazy-fun whatnots! So get creative and go wild with the trims!

For my 1880s dress, I wore my/my husband’s giant trilby perched on top of my head. It was so huge it still kind of ate my head, but it worked perfectly for a last-minute hat with not a lick of hat blocking required! Plus, it was inexpensive. Since I recycled an old hat, I only had to spend money on the ribbon, which was, like $3. I guess if you wanted to count it, the $10 brooch was the biggest expense, though I had that on-hand, too, or it could easily have been replaced with a big button. Is this method perfectly HA and the pinnacle of design? Ha, no! But all-in-all, it worked just as I needed it to!

HAPPY COSTUMING, M’LADIES! ;)

Conquering the Croissants Part III: Simplicity 4244 FINAL RESULTS

For 10 long sewing-skill-and-weight-gaining years, I had been beguiled by bake-shop beauty Simplicity 4244, the infamous “hip-croissant” Victorian wedding dress pattern:

“You promised the bread jokes were over…”
I LIED.

While the build-up took nearly a decade, the actual sewing itself took only about four weeks to make a double batch of dresses: one week to work up the gumption to cut the pattern, one week to fiddle with the mockup, one week to sew the ballgown for Tiaras and Toe Shoes, one week to turn the mock-up into a real dress for Bustles and Bullets the following weekend.

Though it was begun second, I finished the ballgown version first:

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Simplicity 4244 Evening Gown Cost Breakdown

8.4 yards rayon/nylon fabric – $27.66, Hancock Fabrics
1 king sized grey cotton sheet (dress lining) – $4.99, Thrift Town
1 twin size polyester sheet (bustle lining) – $1.99, Thrift Town

1 spool thread – $2.49, Walmart
17 hooks and eyes – $3, Hobby Lobby

Total: $40.13

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Yes, my tiara is on crooked. I took these pictures on a whim 20 minutes before I had to transform back into my regular librarian form for work, so my hair is a mess, too. Don’t care! Still fabulous! If I were real royalty, I might just start a jaunty-tiara trend.

I fondly think of it as my “Ariel” dress because halfway through sewing it together, I realized the shimmery–and impossible to sew– material is similar to Ariel’s modern Disney princess dress:

2013 Princess Ariel Redesign

I didn’t really have time to really roll with the theme, but I did give a little nod to her with my mermaid-tail bustle:

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The bustled train and pleated chevrons are the same fabric as the body of the dress. The right side used for the accents is very shimmery and iridescent. It’s very pretty, but I thought a whole gown of it would be kind of overwhelming and not so historical looking. So for the main body, I used the “wrong” side of the fabric which is lighter and not so shiny.

You may be getting the feeling that there’s something else different about this dress. It seems to be missing something….

Oh! I know! To make a ballgown version, I left off the sleeves:

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To slow off my toned-by-ten-hours-of-typing-a-day upper arms, of course. Why pretend to look rich if you can’t flaunt your sedentary lifestyle?

Fashion Plate, 1880

Well, that is true: my version is missing the sleeves of the original, but that’s not quite what’s bothering you?

Hmmmm…

Is it the plainness of the design? I did leave off all the trimmings except for the pleated chevrons on the skirt. Indeed, my ballgown is rather plain compared to the original pattern design and other fancy gowns of the era. I started it only a week before the event (a bad habit I’ve developed, I know!), so I didn’t get to add all the extra bits that would really make it ball-worthy. I did try to glam it up with a glittering golden floral spray I found for a steal on eBay:

bodice ornament

Jealous? Don’t be! Get one for yourself (or two) here!
I always expect eBay jewelry to be a little less pretty in person than the professional photos show, but this floral spray is just as gorgeous in person as it is in the picture.

Besides, I didn’t want my dress to outshine my glorious eBay tiara!

tiara

If you need a princess crown on a pauper’s budget, this tiara was only $25 with shipping!
It’s good quality and the seller I purchased from is in the US, so if you live in the States and need a tiara quick (like I did), I highly recommend this shop.

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What? I’m STILL missing something?!
Well, let’s look at the original again:

Ah! I’ve got it now! You’ve noticed that my ballgown is COMPLETELY GLUTEN FREE!

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No breakfast foods in sight! It is a dinner dress, after all.

I am aware of the letdown this must be. After all, the whole reason everyone is so fascinated by this pattern in the first place is the handbang-sized puffs ballooning out of the side, but I SWEAR I have an excuse!

Simplicity 4244 calls for 14 yards of fabric to make according to the directions (not including all the bias binding and pleated trim). The shimmery teal fabric I chose was one of the bargain bin closeout bolts at Hancock Fabrics (*weeps silently*), so I only had 8.4 yards to work with. As I revealed in my post about constructing this gown, the pannier swags at the hips are formed by two very long polonaised bodice pieces:

simplicity 4244 pieces

Pattern pieces #1, #1A, and #3 become the swags.

With only 2/3 the fabric I needed to make the pattern as designed, I had to choose between these fabric-hogging swags and the full, luscious bustled train I desired. For the sake of my time, sanity, and design sense, I chose the full bustle.

My sacrifice (*more silent weeping*) does have an upside besides a swanky mermaid bustle: it shows the most basic structure of Simplicity 4244 and how easily you can change the design to suit you or your fabric. To do away with the overlay, I just cut pieces #4, #5, and #6 (the bodice lining, front and side skirt pieces) as one. That made the full front without the need for the polonaise layer over the top.

It also proved that the identifiably Natural Form Era lines of the dress are not dependent on the panniers. Since the pattern pieces themselves are historically accurate, the Victorian framework is already there for you to work with.

Lessons learned: The bare minimum amount of 45″ wide yardage to make an 1870s dress from this pattern is about 8 yards, and the design is not dependent on the panniers for the historical look.
Also, every women needs a tiara
!

Rest assured, friends, I did not neglect the fluffy polonaise croissants entirely.

Baking bread and latent ideas are two things you don’t want to neglect.

Before I made the ballgown, I made a mock-up. Since my initial half mock-up for this dress had gone so well, I decided to make my full mock-up a wearable mock-up. A wearable mock-up is one that you finish just like a regular gown, essentially a full garment. It was still an experiment, though, so I didn’t want to waste money on fabric if it wasn’t going to work. I chose a cheap $1-a-yard plaid cotton gauze from Walmart and used a king-sized cotton sheet for lining. Since I had the full 14 yards–well, 13.75 yards as there were some mangled sections– of fabric, I was able to make the polonaised front sections and even have enough fabric left for long sleeves and pleated trim around the hem!

BUT…

I did not make the croissants as directed!

I guess you could say that instead of full, fluffy French croissants, I made Pillsbury crescent rolls. I pleated the polonaise down the entire length of the side and skipped the rear swag entirely.
Here is the result:

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There she is!

I know, no delicious hip pastries, but the construction of the front remains nearly the same. The bottom of the polonaise front “floats” over the lining beneath:

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Since I made the mock-up with the ballgown in mind, the square neckline is a little too…ahem!…sexy for respectable daywear, especially for a old married missus like m’self! So I accessorized it with a fabulous micro-pleated cotton collar I hacked directly off an old button front blouse I’d found at Goodwill three days prior. I thought the shirt was hideous, but something in my mind nagged me to take it home. Glad I listened! The collar slips over my head like a scarf and is just the right size to keep me looking proper:

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The bows were made from the very last bit of ribbon left over from my 1850s bonnet. I used this amazing bow tutorial from The Ribbon Retreat to make the two big bows.

My dress form is a little wonky and no where near my shape, so the fit of the bodice and booty isn’t the greatest on her, but you get the idea. This dress isn’t designed to be worn over a full bustle. Instead, the bustle ties inside and my ancient tablecloth bum pad give it the right amount of fullness. Despite reducing the size of the train, it still ended up rather sizable for a walking dress. I can walk in it, though, and walk I did– around the Fort Worth Cowgirl Museum with the DFW Costumer’s Guild!

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Photo by Jen Thompson of Festive Attyre
(with some help from an obliging gentleman in the lobby!)

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Photo by Jen Thompson of Festive Attyre

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Photo by Jen Thompson of Festive Attyre
I love this picture because I actually wrangled my hair into a passably suitable hairstyle despite being hair illiterate!

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Photo by Jen Thompson of Festive Attyre

We had a wonderful time together dressed as 1880s city folk and turn-of-the-century country cowgirls! As you can see, I was the “oldest” of the bunch, just eking over the 1880 mark. There are more photos of our outing in Jen’s Cowgirl Museum album on Flickr and if you’d like to play dress up with us, check out the DFW Costumer’s Guild website for a list of events!

Simplicity 4244 Plaid Day Dress Cost Breakdown:

14 yards of plaid cotton gauze – $14, Walmart
1 king sized sheet – $4.99, Thirft Town
Hooks and eyes – $2, Hobby Lobby
1 nearly-full spool of thread – $2.49, Walmart
Ruffle collar stolen from blouse – $4.29, Goodwill
Navy ribbon – $4.75, eBay

Total: $32.52

Alrighty! Review time!

Let’s take off the rose colored glasses and get going.

This gown is tricky for me to review because while all the techniques and the pattern pieces themselves are all fairly straight forward, the sheer amount of fabric and the fitting requirements make it unsuitable for a beginner.

If you forgo the trimming, as I did, I think a confident (or stubborn) intermediate seamstress could tackle this project with good results. I consider myself an intermediate seamstress, and I was challenged, but not frustrated, by this pattern. I would NOT try to make a ball gown out of it in a week as I did! Take your time and go slowly. You will need to be willing to work with your body in order to get the smooth fit over the torso required to make this pattern shine, so be prepared to practice making lots of darts! There is a fair amount of hand finishing: facing the neckline, sewing hooks and eyes or buttons, and sewing on the bows. If you choose to do a proper hand-sewn hem instead of a machined hem, be prepared to spend a few hours to sew the 100+ inch length (depending on your train). The large pattern pieces require lots of space to cut and assemble and can be unwieldy around the sewing machine. However, I feel the work is well worth the result you can get. The accuracy is spectacular and, as a base, the pattern offers plenty of opportunities for customization.

I had fun making this pattern and will likely make it again in the future–perhaps this time with all the carbs included!

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Part I: Researching Simplicity 4244
Part II: Making Simplicity 4244

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Sadly, this pattern is Out of Print (OOP), so it can only be purchased through private sales. If you want a copy, check online auction and craft sites. I think it’s a good candidate for a re-issue by Simplicity. Maybe if enough of us “Conquer the Croissants,” they’ll consider re-printing it so everyone can more easily get a copy to play with!

Conquering the Croissants Part II: Making Simplicity 4244

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!

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.

simplicity 4244 pieces

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:

4244 victorian original comparison

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.

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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And sew pattern pieces #1/1.a on top:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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!

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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

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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.

Sorry, folks!

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!

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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:

simplicity4244 ruching

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!

simplicity 4244

“…”

Keep Reading:


Part III: Simplicity 4244 for Day and Night

(also, fewer half-baked jokes….)

Careful, they’re still hot!

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!

Conquering the Croissants Part I: Researching Simplicity 4244

You may be familiar with a certain Simplicity pattern, #4244. Number not ringing a bell? Perhaps the phrase “Victorian hip croissants” might:

Even the model is wondering why she’s wearing an unbaked breakfast pastry…

I saw this dress when it originally appeared in the pattern catalog a decade ago. It’s very ornate with lovely details, but I was confused by it as were many others. The pattern was pulled from production after only a year in print in 2006, but I never really forgot about it. The oddity of it was like a little worm that spun a chrysalis in my mind, biding its time until I was ready to take on the challenge of turning a pastry into a butterfly. Last year I finally decided that I had gained enough sewing skill to attempt the curious croissant pattern.

Step 1: Finding Real-Life Examples

The very first thing I did was hunt for reviews and examples other people had made. Copies of the pattern are plentiful despite being only printed for one year, but since the pattern is OOP copies run between $20 on the low end and $70+ on the high end. I didn’t want to invest money in a pattern that was bungled up or impossible to make. Plus, the picture on the envelope and the line drawings did not provide satisfactory information about the actual fit of the gown.


The picture on the pattern cover is a side view. It showcases the croissant-forming pleats and the elbow-length sleeves. However, it doesn’t show what the front or back looks like. The line drawing on the inside, detailed as it is, wasn’t ideal for figuring out how everything draped because the woman in the drawing appeared to hovering in midair…

How does the train lay on the ground? How do the poufs look from the front? How does the material choice affect the silhouette? How puffy are the hips in real life? How on earth does the back work?!
To find answers, I looked at some rare, real-world examples that had made from the pattern. It turns out that not very many people have made this dress, or at least not many people have shared pictures of it online (the pattern came out 10 years ago, after all).
I was very pleased to find 6 examples! I’ve made a Pinterest page to keep track of them:

Simplicity 4244 Examples

If you have made Simplicity 4244 or make a version in the future, let me know! I would love to add your creation to my Pinterest collection. Also, I highly recommend posting a review to Sewing Machines and Pattern Review‘s website so others can learn from your experience.

For a long time, only two completed versions of the pattern were posted online, both by Heidi of Time Travel Costumes. She posted a step-by-step process on her blog and she uploaded her incredibly detailed process to Instructables. She also posted pictures on Deviant Art and wrote brief reviews: the review for the black version is here and the review for the purple version is here. In both reviews, she concludes that the 72-step pattern was “Difficult, but Great for Advanced Sewers.” I’m not the world’s greatest seamstress or even the world’s 3-millionth-greatest seamstress, and, though I crave a challenge, the sheer complexity of the gown described intimidated me.
Other versions include Sara’s pink confection from Etsy, Gina’s purple cotton version and Patti’s brown silk version shared via the Historical Costume Pattern Review group on Facebook, and Lydia’s floral cotton version from her blog, the Antique Sewist. Everyone’s reviews echoed a similar sentiment: it’s an okay pattern, but be prepared to work for it!

Thanks to their reviews and photos, I felt prepared enough to give Simplicity 4244 a try, but I still wondered:

How historically accurate is Simplicity 4244 and if it isn’t, can it be salvaged?

Step 2: Historical Research

Many Simplicity/McCall’s/Butterick/etc. “Victorian” costume patterns are less-than-accurate. Everyone seemed rather incredulous that such a strangely constructed dress could be genuine. What, if any, era was this “Victorian” wedding dress pattern from? Did ladies ever really think wearing breakfast foods were fashionable?

1870s breakfast dresses

Fried eggs and black coffee, anyone?

One thing historical seamstresses complain about most is the Big 3’s lack of historical background for their designs. Many independent historical pattern makers go to great lengths to provide their customers with excellent, well-researched information about their patterns. Patterns of History, for example, lists popular color choices for the particular year so you can make sure your 1888 dress isn’t made of a color that didn’t exist before 1895.
The big commercial patterns, on the other hand, barely include any explanations with their patterns, so you have to do your own sleuthing. The front of the Simplicity 4244 pattern envelope has a clue: a logo for the “Victorian Bridal Museum.” Turns out that the Victorian Bridal Museum is a real place which you can still visit! I emailed the proprietress, and the dress that this pattern is based on is not out for display, but she shared some tantalizing photos on the website:

1875 wedding gownSo close to making out details on the back!

simplicity 4244 inspiration 1875

Notice that the original dress’s hips are not quite so puffed-out and smooth as the pattern picture shows. Instead, they hang in heavy folds. For the publicity photos of the reproduction, the well-meaning-but-misguided Simplicity style team padded out the sides, resulting in the overly-plumped, pastry-like appearance. It seems to be a common misunderstanding that Victorian gowns were all hugely fluffy, so even museums sometimes get overly ambitious, adding bustles were there should be none or, in the case of this unfortunate Worth gown, stuffing the skirt like it’s a Build-a-Bear…

They may be tiny photos, but they were proof that 4244 wasn’t just another Big 3 pattern of dubious accuracy, but was based off of a real dress that did, in fact, have swagged hips! The museum dates the gown to 1875, which puts it right before the Natural Form Era, but after some research, I began to find dresses in fashion plates with similar hip poofs from about 1879-1881–quite a few, actually. This is just a very small sampling showing the various styles and placements:

Revue de la Mode (day dresses), 1879
Natural Form Era dresses are called “Natural Form” because they more closely followed the wearer’s body. While hip pads and small bustles were still worn, they were much more subtle than the fluffy bustles of the early 1870s and the shelf-like bustles of the later 1880s.

Revue de La Mode (evening gowns), 1880
The lace ripple down the front is a nice touch.

La Mode Illustrée (day dresses), 1879
Double hip swag! Also, a pointed swag similar to Truly Victorian, Past Patterns, Mantua Maker, and many other polonaise patterns.

Revue de la Mode (day dresses), 1880
The pink polonaise/princess gown on the left is so pretty!

La Mode Francaise, 1881
The swags are not quite as full as the previous years, but the rippled lace trim down the skirt front was still around.

Fashion Plate, 1880
BEHOLD THE GRAND POUF!

The hip “croissants” were called “panniers” at the time. There was an 18th century style revival during the Natural Form Era thanks to the United States centennial, though the languid, low-set swags of the Natural Form Era bore little resemblance to the wide, shelf-like panniers of the Rococo period. The Natural Form Era’s version of panniers were at their puffiest during 1879 and 1880.

In addition to the photos of the original gown and the fashion plates, I also found other extant gowns with puffy panniers and swags:

American Day Dress, circa 1880
The museum has way too much bustle under this Natural Form Era gown in their display so the back looks funky. In reality, the “bustle” should fall in a long, graceful train with the bulk of the puff at thigh level.

French Silk Dress, circa 1880
So much fringe! But I really like the bow at the neckline.

Dress, circa 1876-1881
Another frustrating “there, but not there” photo of a very similar style gown with no other views available! Maddening!

American Reception Dress, circa 1875-1880

American Day Dress, circa 1881
Blue was obviously a very popular color at the time! I like the lower-hanging swag of this polonaise-style dress quite a bit.

Simplicity 4244 is a princess-line gown made as one piece fitted with French darts at the waist. Princess-line dresses were popular during the Natural Form Era. They could be quite costly to make because even though they look slim, the large, full-length pattern pieces can require lots of continuous yardage, especially since many had long trains. As an example, Simplicity 4244 requires 14+ yards of modern 45″ width fabric. Historically speaking, high-quality silks might only come in widths 23 or so inches wide, meaning a princess line dress could easily gobble up 20+ yards.  Most princess-line gowns fit very tightly and smoothly and were the body-con dresses of their day:

“The Ball” by James Tissot, 1880
A creme-de-le-creme princess-line ball gown with oodles of knife-pleated ruffles!

The languid pannier style, however,  is more of a feature of two-piece gowns and polonaises. Were there other one-piece princess gowns made in one piece with polonaise-like panniers worked into the design or was the original inspiration dress an unusual one-off? Turns out there were some others, like this pretty lavender princess-line gown:

princess line gown

Princess Line Gown, circa 1880
This gown from the DigitaltMuseum shares many similar features with Simplicity 4244: one-piece construction, a Vandyke (dagged/triangle) hem with ruffles, short/elbow length sleeves, a flat train, and even a little puffing at the sides.

However, the most exciting dress I found in my hunt was not in a museum, but from an eBay seller! All the Pretty Dresses, a blog that collects images of private-collection antique garments, luckily saved some images of it before it disappeared. And, lo and behold, it is nearly a perfect match for Simplicity 4244! Here’s Simplicity 4244’s line drawing:

And here’s the extant gown from All the Pretty Dresses:

Natural Form Era Dress, circa 1876-1881

Square neckline? Check!
Layered standing and lace collar? Check!
Line of tiny buttons down the front? Check!
One-piece construction? Check!
Long, flat train? Check!
Funky, lace-trimmed hip swags with tails that are pulled over the back? Check! Check! Check!
DING DING DING! WE HAVE A WINNER!

This poor extant gown is in sorry shape, but the design elements are still there, clear as day! So Simplicity 4244 was indeed accurate in styling and at least common enough for there to be at least two examples left after 140 years.

With this new knowledge at hand, I took the plunge and ordered the pattern, fingers crossed that I hadn’t bitten off more croissant than I could chew…

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—–AMAZING UPDATE!—–

After posting my final version of Simplicity 4244 on the Facebook group Historical Costume Pattern Reviews, Arlene Terrell contacted me with some fabulous news– she was a friend of Eve Faulkner, the proprietress of the Victorian Bridal Museum, and she not only had a larger version of the picture from the website, she had a photo of the original owner wearing the dress!

I am sharing these precious photos here with Arlene’s and Eve’s permission so you can see all the detailing and how the original fits on a body vs. a mannequin:

original simplicity 4244

Photo courtesy of Eve Faulkner, The Victorian Bridal Museum

Arlene’s comments: “Here is the original dress as displayed […] the original wasn’t displayed over the correct foundation for the skirt and the hip drapes were stuffed with tissue paper, so perhaps this is what led the photo stylist down the wrong path .

Bride wearing simplicity 4244

Photo Courtesy of Eve Faulkner, The Victorian Bridal Museum

Arlene’s comments: “Here is the original owner wearing it as intended”

———-

Curious how the pattern goes together? Keep reading:

Part II: Making Simplicity 4244

Part III: Simplicity 4244 COMPLETED!