Valen-Teens Tea and My 4th Version of Butterick 6093

Butterick 6093 Redo..trois…quatre!

valenteen-tea-ii2017’s sewing projects got off to a rocky start, but I threw myself into planning for Valen-Teens Tea with the DFW Costumer’s Guild. We would be hosting a special guest: Laura, the creator and president of Shear Madness!

img_0261-resize

Check out the Shear Madness Blog here.
And the Facebook community here.

laura-and-i

Photo courtesy of Barb Chancey

The event started off as informal and small, but soon grew to quite a full party! We met up at the Secret Garden Tea Room in the Montgomery Street Antique Mall in Fort Worth for an early lunch and, of course, tea:

img_0253-resize

img_0258-resize

After tea, we browsed the antique mall for a little while and then went for a nice stroll in the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens next door.

becky-on-bench-resize

The event’s theme was 1910s, so Becky wore a thrifted Edwardian outfit she put together from the wonderland that is Goodwill, including her favorite lavender skirt, a pin-tucked floral blouse, and a vintage wool coat she got for a steal– $15! To top it off, she wore a rosey straw hat with a floral spray left over from my Edwardian Hat Hack.

img_0277-resize

Becky’s outfit Breakdown:

Pink straw hat – $3.49, Goodwill
Floral Pin-tuck blouse – $4.49, Goodwill
Lavender formal skirt – $7.49, Goodwill
Vintage wool coat – $14.95, Goodwill
Total: $30.42
(Her stockings and shoes were from her daily wear clothes. Always check your own closet! you never know what will work perfectly for a costume!)

becky-bw2

Becky, 1915 style!

For my outfit, I dug Butterick 6093 out of the bottom of my pattern drawer. I’d made it a few years ago and had been less than impressed with the fit. However, I liked the general look and it goes together really fast, so I decided to give it another try.

Previous versions:

IMG_0191

Version 1, July 2015: “Straight” Size 12 made from cotton and a sari. It was a tad small.

IMG_0502

Version 2, August 2015: 1st attempt at a multi-sized dress made from a cotton sheet and a dupatta that Laura sent me. Made for my sister who was the same size I was at the time. It turned out a little too large.

So, I had Goldilock’s problem: the first dress was too small, the second dress was too big…I needed to find one that was just right!

Without the breaking and entering charges, of course.

I decided to make a wearable mockup first. That way, if I ran out of time to make the final dress, I would at least have a version that would work. A wearable mockup is a trial garment that is finished like a regular garment, but isn’t necessarily what you want the final garment to look like. It’s simplified and often made out of an inexpensive/not-so-important fabric. For mine, I had picked up some rolled up remnants of purple mystery fabric at Walmart years ago that had these nifty thick white and purple threads that made pin-tuck-like stripes in the fabric. I had never unrolled it to see what it was like. Turns out it’s cotton organdy! I almost saved it for a different project, but I had bought it with Edwardian specifically in mind, so I now-or-nevered it into a simple version of Butterick 6093:

img_0040-resize

It’s sheer and unlined, so I used French seams for everything except the armscyes and waist seam.

img_0065

Of course, that means that I had to sew every seam twice, but it makes a really nice, neat finish on the inside of sheer fabrics.

Since I’m an entirely different size than I was in 2015, I decided to start Butterick 6093 from scratch. I had tried a new measurement method for my 1868 Monet outfit earlier in January, and while that outfit didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, the sizing method was actually really helpful: Instead of choosing on flat size, like 16, and then doing a whole bunch of alterations sizing it up and down in various places via mockups, you take a few extra body measurements and choose each pattern piece individually.

31955090600_0669b850be_k-1

My 1868 dress of failure.

Original photo by Festive Attyre
(one of the few pictures of this dress)

I got the idea from my Fashions of the Gilded Age by Francis Grimble. In the book, you have to take a lot of incremental measurements of your body in order to scale up the pattern pieces. In the case of Butterick 6093, instead of just measuring all the way around my bust or full bust, I broke it down into two separate measurements: 1) full front bust from side seam to side seam and 2) back from side seam to side seam at bust level. Then I laid out the tissue and measured the pattern pieces themselves instead of relying on Butterick’s suggested measurements.

img_1217-resize

Minka “helped.”

img_1219

By using this method, I ended up with a size 14 back and a size 20 front! Sounds a bit crazy, right? But it works! Truly Victorian, the popular Victorian pattern brand, uses a similar method to select your pattern pieces. The method suits Butterick 6093 well because there are no darts or curved back seams to worry about.

I really love the purple organdy dress, but when I tried it on…

ice-cream

Scientifically accurate rendering.

1910s dresses, like Regency dresses, can be problematic on certain body types. Indeed, the ice cream cone look was totally in from 1910-1913, but that isn’t a look I strive to recreate! The combo of the crisp fabric and the way I had gathered it made for a super-full front that would make a great Lumpy Space Princess cosplay, but not the most flattering tea gown.

Oh. My. Glob.

But when I put it on my dress form, it looked fab!

img_0050

I mean, it helps that my dress form is shaped like an ideal size 10 with the added bonus of having one of my old bras stuffed onto it like a giant Barbie voodoo doll that sulks in the corner of my sewing room:

img_1211

I expect things to look awesome the dress form, but if she’s very-near-to-literally having my exact bustline, why isn’t it a muffin-topped mess on her? It turns out that it’s got everything to do with my short waist.

My dress form is standardized to meet industry standards. That means she has an “average” torso length which happens to be about 2″ longer than mine! So the purple dress looked great on her because the very fitted skirt was the right length for her. On me, however, the top is about 1.5″ too tall causing the skirt to extend past where it should be, pushing the excess bodice length up and over the top, creating the unflattering droopy ice cream cone shape (Why do I end up describing all my sewing projects as desserts?!).
If you look at my previous versions, you will see a similar thing happening even at the smaller sizes.
I removed an inch off the top of the skirt pattern pieces for my final version.

img_0063

Image includes complimentary glob of cat hair for your viewing pleasure.

It was like the magic cure! No more ice cream cone!

img_0272-resize

Of course, the final version doesn’t fit very well on my dress form, but that’s because it fits ME, not HER.

img_0002

Take that, Gertie!

The fabric I used for the final version is an amazing cotton shirting with woven swiss dots. Just like my failed 1868 dress, it is one of the last fabrics I purchased at Hancock’s before they went under. This time, however, I don’t feel like I wasted it! It was a dream to sew with. I used it “inside out” so the fuzzy side of the dots faced out. The cream fabric is a filmy cotton curtain I found at Goodwill that has a drawn threadwork look:

img_0032

Unlike the swiss dot, the curtain fabric was NOT a dream to sew with, so I didn’t make the long undersleeves I planned, but I did use it to make a contrasting rever! Thanks to my great experience with Butterick 3648, I am in love with revers! To turn 6093’s lapel into a rever, I simply taped it onto the bodice pattern piece on one side so when I cut it out, I ended up with this:

img_0001

I’ve grown to admire Butterick 6093’s versatile styling options. Even if you don’t want to do fancy stuff like make revers, it comes with a curved lapel that can be used alone or in a pair, a squared collar, and skirt panels that can be used alone or overlapped, or you can leave all those extra bits off, like I did for my purple dress! It also has two sleeve options, though I haven’t tried the long sleeves with the cuffs yet.

Pattern options include:

  • 3 skirt options: 1 drape, 2 drapes, none
  • 6 collar options: single lapel, double lapels, square collar, square collar+1 lapel, square collar +2 lapels, no collar
  • 2 sleeve options: short sleeves, long sleeves

There are over 30 combos you can make from the basic pieces alone!

And that number doesn’t even include things like changing the wrap direction of the bodice, adding extra embellishments, using more than one fabric, etc.

In fact–as a testament to the versatility of the pattern–we realized that three of us had used Butterick 6093 to make our tea dresses, but our dresses were all very different!

trio-resize2

While I opted for the asymmetrical collar and a double-draped skirt in light cotton, Jane used a textured wool blend and completely omitted the collar, and Laura chose the square collar and a printed cotton.

Instead of gathering the bottom of the bodice, I made two large box pleats. It’s definitely unusual, but it worked! I also box pleated the back in the same manner.

img_0029

I added a kick pleat in the back– the same solution Jane had come up with.

The dress is one piece and closes at the side seam with an invisible zipper. It’s not Historically Accurate, but it’s discreet.

zipper

For those concerned with HA, the zipper can easily be swapped out for hooks and eyes.

Overall, I would say that this pattern is a good one if you are willing to figure out the sizing. It’s flattering on nearly all body types and is a quick dress to make. I made it in about 10-12 hours (most of that time was spent ironing, TBH).

To accessorize my dress, I wore the hat I made in my Edwardian Hat Hack, my sister’s little white purse (which goes to nearly every event!), an antique necklace, some thrifted shoes, and a very serendipitous vintage coat I found the day before.

img_0094

becky-and-i

Photo courtesy of Mistress of Disguise

liz-autochrome-2-resize

My attempt at an autochrome.

Outfit Breakdown

4 yards of green cotton – $16, Hancock’s Fabric
1 cotton curtain – $1.49, Goodwill
1 invisible zipper – $3.50, Walmart
1 spool of thread – $1.95, Walmart
Shoes – $7.99, Goodwill
1960s coat – $18.95, Goodwill

Total – $49.88

Underneath, I’m wearing my beloved Rago 821. The way it fits me very closely mimics a Teens corset, but it’s stretchy and cheap! I got it for about $30 off Amazon. I highly recommend it for 1910s and later!

gate-resize

My updated, more technical review of Butterick 6093 is posted on the Sewing Pattern Review website here.

Megan’s photos of the tea can be found on Flickr here.

group-resize

And my photos can be seen here.

Advertisements

Full Belly Adjustment for a 3XL Gentleman: Altering a Vest Pattern for the Fuller Male Figure

FBAs for Everybody!

As a top-heavy woman, I often have to do major pattern alterations in order to get a garment to fit my bust correctly. In the lingo of the sewing world, this alteration is called an FBA or Full Bust Adjustment/Alteration:

From the NMSU Pattern Alteration Guide which you can download here (it’s been recently updated!)

An FBA involves slashing and spreading the tissue pattern to accommodate the excess width and length the extra curve of the beasts adds to the front of the pattern piece. At this point, it’s become second nature to me since it’s a needed adjustment on nearly every pattern.

My lovely husband, Christopher, puts up with me and my humongous stash of craft supplies; plus, he will often join me at costume events wearing whatever wacky get-up I concoct for him. Since he puts up with my shenanigans so well, when he found some curtains at the thrift shop and requested I make an 18th century waistcoat out of them, I wanted to make darn sure that I made it look the best it could!

I have made a few things for him before, including an 18th century suit, so I just re-used the same pattern since I knew how it worked and how it fit him. However, with much more practice and experience behind me, I now noticed some fit issues with the pattern. I knew from the previous years of working with the waistcoat pattern that the armholes were too small and neck too small, and now I noticed when we tried the waistcoat on from two years ago, it would hardly close in front even though it was gaping with extra fabric at the back….

Hmmmmm….sounds familiar……

101_695520151207_212642

“Make a face like mine! It’ll be cute!”
<Chris makes a grouchy face>
“Seriously?! You think I look like that?!”
<Chris makes this face>

Christopher is a big man. He’s 6′ 2″ and his chest is 54″ around (and his thighs are each the same size as my waist!). Christopher carries some excess weight in the front as many men do. His belly is about 52″ around which, according to the finished garment measurements printed on the tissue pattern, would mean that the waistcoat would be a tad too small, but he could close it if he sucked it in. While having a full belly and a tight waistcoat straining over it is perfectly period (perhaps even fashionable) in the early 18th century, it’s less than ideal from a comfort and craftsmanship standpoint:

Portrait of a Gentleman by Louis-Michel van Loo, circa 1734
Many portraits from the first half of the 18th century show men with full bellies and waistcoats in various states of unbuttoned-ness. It was quite fashionable to pose in a portrait like this, displaying a luxurious, studied nonchalance that being wealthy afforded you the time to practice.

Henry Burgum of Bristol by John Simmons, circa 1775
A very closely fitted waistcoat from later in the century. Tastes swung towards a more fitted, put-together look as the Industrial age rolled onto the scene. Mathematical precision, clean lines, and scholarly neatness were the new marks of the gentleman.

While a perfect fit wasn’t required by the period, as evidenced by his old waistcoat’s triangular gap at the front that tended to pop open unexpectedly and the excess fabric at the back, something really should be done to make the costuming experience more enjoyable for us both. Christopher’s full belly would require an adjustment similar to my Full Bust Adjustment, only his would be a Full Belly Adjustment!

When I searched online, there was lots of info about altering trouser patterns to accommodate a full belly, but nary a one for a shirt/vest (I even checked my Victorian Tailor book, but it was of no help, and my sewing books pretty much assumed you were fitting exclusively women. Bleh). I even searched for pregnant belly alterations since the shape is similar, but not much luck there either. I did, however, find three mentions of altering for a full belly: one on Male Pattern Boldness (showing a page from a book called Shirtmaking by David Coffin), a full belly adjustment on Get Creative geared toward women, and this one by Off the Cuff:

Since I was starting this waistcoat a mere 3 hours before the event, I decided to go with the simplest looking option of slicing and spreading the pattern. I pinned a piece of tissue into the gap of the old waistcoat over Christopher’s belly and used it to measure how much to spread the pattern open.  It’s the triangular piece of tissue to the right:

IMG_0226

In this photo, the pattern piece in the photo isn’t spread enough yet. Heck, it’s a miracle I even remembered to take a photo of it at all considering what a mad rush I was in!

I ended up swinging not just the side, but also the front until it filled the full width of the fabric (which was 45″ wide folded in half) like this:

FBA

A very crude drawing of what I did. Sorry!
Yellow: Tissue pattern outlines
Orange: Fabric outline
Blue: Tissue pattern of the gap I needed to fill over Chris’s belly
Green: The pattern gap swung open to match the belly gap
Red: other pattern adjustments made to accommodate Chris’ large arms and neck (not related to the FBA)

A proper seamstress or tailor might tell me that swinging the front screws up the grainlines, but as far as I can tell, it worked just fine for a costume waistcoat to be worn maybe once a year. Simplicity 4923 has a slightly curved center front, just like real 18th century waistcoats:

Waistcoat, circa 1720

Waistcoat, circa 1770-80
Later-era waistcoats were shorter and often have a sharper curve to swoop back at the bottom, matching the cut of the coat.

The FBA I performed does increase the width of the bottom of the waistcoat, so it fits loosely over his hips. For the era I was dressing him for, the 1710s and most of the 18th century, having a wide flare over the hips was a design feature rather than a problem. However, if you desire a close fit that pulls back in under the stomach, you will likely need to add some darts just like you would for a lady’s FBA, just lower.

Waistcoat, circa 1740
This waistcoat bears evidence of a FBA! Waistcoats often were pre-embroidered or came with a pre-woven design that would be cut according to the new owner’s measurements. In this case, you can see the woven design ends before the side seam, which is wider and not as sharply angled. Since a gentlemen always wore a coat out in public, the bare edge of the waistcoat was covered. You can see another, later example of a pre-embroidered waistcoat that is larger than its decorative design here. Chris’s waistcoat ended up with a very similar shape. It is less dramatic than smaller waistcoats, but it functions much better!

 Here’s Chris’s final waistcoat fit. You’ll notice that it has no button holes. I had no time to add them since I started the waistcoat so close to the event (I was still sewing buttons on in the car), but, as you can see, I got the fit pretty spot on since the center front meets without needing to be held in place! Huzzah!

20151207_222639

See the full outfit here: Georgian Picnic 2015

Support Garment Showdown: Options for Creating a Victorian Look With or Without a Corset

For this post, I am focusing mainly on the Mid to Late Victorian Era (1855-1901). However, there are tricks for all eras and I will be covering them soon!

corset_1880

Corsets are an essential part of almost any historical costume. For hundreds of years they have shaped and supported women and their clothing, creating otherwise inimitable silhouettes. However, corsets have long fallen out of the public’s good graces and only recently have they begun to make a widespread come back. Despite the revival, corseting remains one of the “hang-ups” for most new and casual costumers. We’ve already discovered that our ancestors came in many shapes and many different sizes, but what about their corsets? Many of us don’t corset on a regular basis; indeed, many of us have never even seen one in real life, much less put one on. Antique corset health myths and social stigma still hang around this staple garment, and many people are taught from grade school that corsets are enslaving, unhealthful, completely evil. It’s understandable, therefore, that some might be hesitant to give corsets a try. If the idea of a corset intimidates you, you are not alone! However, it’s worth trying and is the best way to get a proper Victorian shape.

Trying a Corset is Worth It!
(and easier than you think)

The biggest corset hang-up for many first time corset wearers is “the big squeeze:” the idea that the point of a corset is to squeeze you down to the smallest size possible regardless of comfort. While waist training and tight lacing were and are corseting practices to achieve greater size reductions, the average Victorian woman, working class women especially, used her corset mainly for supporting her breasts and the weight of her clothing (You can read more about the supporting properties of the corset here). When you first put on a corset, you need only lace as tightly as is comfortable. 2 inches is a good starting goal. If this sounds scary, measure your waist then suck in your stomach, pull your measuring tape tight and check the numbers again. You’ll likely discover that you can suck in your stomacher further than the 2 inches many costumers lace down in their corsets!

WaistMeasure

Light measurement: 29.75 inches
Tight measurement: 27.5 inches
“Natural” reduction: 2.25 inches
Ah, the unflattering pictures I suffer for costuming science!
Since weight and water retention fluctuates throughout the day, your measurements can vary quite a bit in only a few hours. A corset helps keep these measurements constant, which was great for Victorian women who could only afford one or two dresses at a time and didn’t have access to stretchy yoga pants!

bra

No Corset, Regular Bra: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

corset

Overbust Corset: Bust 36″, Waist 26″ (interior circumference)
This corset is being worn in this photo at a three inch reduction. You can see what a difference those three inches make! Even when I was younger and slimmer, I never had this much curve without a corset because I am naturally very tubular. Also, note the improved posture.

Historical silhouettes rely heavily on smooth curves to look correct. By putting on a corset and tightening it just an inch or so, you will notice a huge change in how your historical costumes look!

Before and After

Without a corset and with a corset.

There are many types of corsets/stays/”pairs of bodies” to choose from depending on what era you are looking at, but generally speaking, a classic overbust is a good place to start for a Victorian costumer. There are many modern corset options out there, but for a comprehensive list, I recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. Picking a corset can be a daunting task, so doing research is important. I have bought corsets from eBay (with plenty of scrutiny) and from Orchard Corset with good results. If you enjoy sewing, there are also historical corset patterns available from Simplicity, Butterick, Laughing Moon, Ageless Patterns, and many others.

It may take some getting used to the sensation of being constantly “hugged” by your corset at first, but a well-made corset will not hurt you. Most corset-related tales of broken bones and the inability to breathe are based on sensationalized misinformation, or, in the case of rib or hip pain, the result of an improperly fitted corset.

Dealing With Corset Fit Problems

For women who want to wear a corset, but don’t fit in standard sizes, I feel your pain! Not all bodies are created the same and while there is a wide range of standardized corsets to choose from, sometimes it’s hard to find one that fits right. Overbusts are especially tricky to fit. So, if you find your cups running over or your hips pinching uncomfortably, what’s a gal to do?

For ladies with large breasts, underbusts solve any top-fit problems by fitting under the breasts instead of over them. Though underbusts are more suited to Edwardian (1900s) costuming than Victorian costuming, to approximate the look of an overbust corset, pair your underbust corset with a firm control sports bra! For A-D Cups, a regular “pouch” sports bra with firm control is usually sufficient. For larger-breasted or augmented women, a cupped sports bra may be more comfortable (I have a Wacoal underwire sports bra that I absolutely adore). To hide the heavy outline and prevent your dress bodice from bowing between the breasts, wear your chemise, tank top, or whatever liner you choose over the bra to hide it. Since a corset would hold the breasts firmly in place, you’ll need a bra that will stop as much overt jiggle as possible. It is also okay if it flattens your breasts somewhat since, unlike modern bras, Victorians were more concerned about creating radical side curvature than enhancing forward projection. )( vs. P, so to speak! However, having big breasts in Victorian costuming is not incorrect. There were plenty of ladies out there with killer curves:

Portrait of a Couple, circa 1895 from Etsy

If you have large hips, finding a ready-made corset that fits them can be a challenge, too. If you already have a corset and find that it fits well, but is too small in the hips, consider adding hip gores or ties.  Lucy has a handy tutorial on adding hip gores to a pre-existing corset:

This method may also work for adding bust gores as well, but I haven’t tried it yet. Hip and bust gores are period correct and many Victorian corsets used them, so they are an option for both improving a current corset or drafting one of your own. Gores allow you to custom-fit your curve without having to make complexly-shaped pieces.

However, some people don’t fit in standard size corsets, don’t feel comfortable making their own, or can’t afford a custom corset. In addition, some women may find wearing a corset uncomfortable for many reasons– medical conditions, heat sensitivity, or general dislike of restrictive clothing.

Foregoing a Corset Altogether

While a corset will give you the best possible Victorian shape, if a corset just won’t work for you, you do have other options! One option is to wear a modern girdle or shapewear. I own a Rago waist nipper that gives my tubular body a delineated waist. While it is steel boned, it is stretchy and light, so I have more freedom of movement. It only reduces my waist an inch or so, but it does smooth and give me some curve.

bra

Regular Bra Only: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

cgirdle

Bra and Girdle: Bust 37″, Waist 28″

Boning isn’t just for undergarments, either. Many Victorian bodices had light boning built right in. This type of boning wasn’t made to reduce the waist. Instead, it served to support the garment, making sure it laid as smooth as possible over the corseted figure.

136_3905

Red Silk Bodice, circa 1890
The red channels around the waist have flat steel boning inside to help support it. While a corset allows you to fit clothes more closely, the bodice benefits from having its own support structure so it doesn’t twist, bow, or wrinkle.

Many modern costume patterns meant for theater or casual wear often have a few pieces of boning figured into the design for the same purpose. While thin, flat steel bones are the period correct way to support a garment, modern plastic boning is easier to find. I generally avoid the coiled “featherweight” boning found in fabrics shops and go for cable ties instead. Cable ties (also called zip ties) are flexible, but still firm enough to support things.

103_4173

Cable ties used as support boning in my 18th century embroidered stomacher.

Such boning will not give you the curves a corset or girdle will, but it will help prevent wrinkles.  In-garment boning also helps prevent the garment from riding up. If you have a well defined natural hourglass shape, adding a bit of boning to your bodice will instantly improve the way your dresses sit, show off your shape to its full advantage, and may be enough to give you a Victorian-esque look. Besides curves, a smooth fit makes any Victorian dress look much more authentic (though plenty of our ancestors still struggled with getting the fit just right).

The final option is to use visual tricks to create the illusion of a smaller waist. Many tricks Victorian women used are still in use today:

Belts and Sashes

Grace King Afternoon Dress with Belt/Sash, circa 1870-75

Sashes and belts varied in width from a thin, tasseled rope to 4 or 5 inches wide with a buckle the size of your hand! Some were made to match a particular dress while others were were mix-n-match.

Woman wearing a Belt and Buckle, circa 1855

In the Victorian era, belts were used to further highlight the corseted waist. However, sashes and belts can both help delineate the uncorseted waist as well and are especially helpful with placing the definitive waistline at the proper point for a particular style (1860s waists are high while 1880s waists are lower, etc.).

Swiss Waists

Woman in a Swiss Waist, circa 1860

A Swiss Waist is a type of belt/bodice that helped accentuate the waist. They may look like corsets, but they do not actually reduce the waist and were worn fitted over a corset. They were very popular during the 1860s. There are plenty of “corset style” modern belts out there that can mimic the look of a Swiss Waist:

While they aren’t suitable for waist reductions like a steel boned corset, many underbust “fashion corsets” with plastic bones can also be worn as a Swiss Waist or you can make your own.

Fabric, Color, and Trim Placement

Kate Winslet in her famous “optical illusion” dress.

Many modern dresses and theater dresses use contrasting colors like black and white to slim the figure. Adding black to the sides of the waist causes the eye to “ignore” the shadowed area, making the waist appear even slimmer. This beautiful purple gown is a perfect example:

Visiting Dress, circa 1863-65

The Victorians were adept at using visual tricks to emphasize curves, using striped fabrics, long lines of buttons, trim, and shaped inserts to draw the eye:

Day Dress, circa 1855-57
V-shaped trim placement on this heavily tasseled gown helps make the bust and shoulders look wider and the waist look smaller, creating an even more dramatic size difference. Other seamstresses would add trim to the bustline and shoulders only, leaving the waist plain so it would appear much smoother and smaller as a result.

Afternoon Dress, circa 1886
This dress combines three design elements to help elongate, slim, and accentuate curves. The first is the use of vertical stripes. This is case, the vertical movement is further emphasized by the row of bright, glittering buttons which draw the eye inward, enhancing the lengthening effect. Thirdly, the decorative, striped fabric insert in the center of the otherwise plain bodice creates a curving shape of its own, so the eye is drawn to its tailored outline. Lots of 1880s dresses have a contrasting insert in an hourglass shape because it adds interest, texture, and highlights (or creates the illusion of) those ever-important curves.

Much like color and print, another important factor is the sheen of your fabric. Generally speaking, shiny fabrics, polysatins, for example, have lots of forward presence while matte fabrics, like wools and cottons, tend to recede. So, if you are making an 1880s dress like the one below, putting a shiny fabric in the center and a matte fabric on the outside will draw the eye to the shinier center shape:

Walking Dress, circa 1885

Getting the Rest of the Shape Correct

Proper support garments like bustles, crinolines, hoops, and other skirt supports are also key to the Victorian silhouette, depending on which period you are attempting! All those big, fluffy skirts helped increase the illusion of a small, defined waist, so if you’ve foregone a corset, having good skirt  shaping becomes paramount. Online bridal suppliers offer many inexpensive hoops, pads, and petticoats that you can rent or buy if you do not wish to craft your own.

Basic Dress Silhouettes
This chart is a good timeline of fashionable shapes.
1850s: Layers of petticoats/crinoline and hoops
1860s: Full and elliptical hoops
1870s: Elliptical hoops and the bustle
1880s: Bustles
1890s: Layers of petticoats
It’s amazing how cyclical fashion can be…

Costuming isn’t just about looking good; it’s about feeling good, too! Whether you are designing for yourself or an entire theater troupe, it’s important to take comfort into account as well as accuracy. Our modern clothing is very different from 19th century clothing, so the layering, fluffy skirts, and tight fit take some getting used to. After some practice, you will be able to move as elegantly as you are dressed! Enjoy yourself and never stop experimenting with new techniques, eras, or (in this case) undergarments!

Helpful Links

Lucy’s Corsetry – Lucy is considered the internet corset guru! She has reviewed many styles and brands of corsets, makes her own corsets (and provides tutorials), and covered the health effects, myths, and modern evolution of history’s most controversial garment. Almost any question you may have is probably answered on her blog, Tumblr, or YouTube channel.

Historical Sewing – Jennifer is a very knowledgeable seamstress who is well-versed in Victorian fashion and sewing techniques. If you are seeking to make your Victorian ensembles more authentic or have a burning question about how to put a garment together, she’s probably got a blog post that answers it!

Foundations Revealed – This website truly is “The Corset Maker’s Companion!” This all-inclusive database is supported by subscription, which gives you access to a huge library of corset articles ranging from how to construct and S-bend corset to what sort of cording is best for bust support to how to draft the perfect corset for any figure and more. There are also many helpful articles about basic corset construction and history available for free!

Most of the pictures in this article are linked to their source page so you can get more information about them. There are also multiple links to other helpful articles or sources scattered throughout the text (links will appear as a slightly lighter color of text). Please feel free to click and explore! There is much more information available on this subject than I could fit in one blog post!

________

UPDATE:

Lucy of Lucy’s Corsetry recently did a video on almost this exact subject! She shows how to layer Swiss Waists/Belts over your corset and how to wear a fashion corset over a real corset:

Va-Va-Voom Victorians: Historical Costuming in the XL

Beauty Comes in More Sizes than Zero

Photograph of a Group of Sisters, circa 1900 from VintageJunkDrawerToo on Etsy

I had a student ask me yesterday about my Victorian costume obsession. I explained to her the basics, the ins-and-outs of the eras, the various delights of fabric and forms, and the events to attend to display your creations/acquisitions. She seemed intensely interested and expressed her growing love of costuming, “But,” she said, “only thin people can really wear those kinds of things.”

Photograph of Victorian Couple, circa 1880 from  NiepceGallery on Etsy
A very classic Victorian couple.

At first, I was a little taken aback, but I can see where her skepticism about Victorian costuming might spring from. Thanks to plenty of myth and media, we associate the Victorian era with one major thing: itty-bitty waists. When you say Victorian to anyone, they picture big skirts and corsets that will kill you if you so much as pick one up. It’s like one of those campy horror stories, only instead of a giant snake strangling our scantily-clad damsel in distress, it’s a giant, vise-like corset hell-bent on squeezing the ever-living daylights out of the poor girl.

Illustrated Police News, June 25, 1870

To put it frankly, yes. Victorians were thinner on average than we are now, but they were also shorter and smaller all around. “On average” is the key term. Just because there’s a perceived average does not mean everyone meets it. On the contraire! An average is made up of a multitude of factors (in this case dress sizes) that are all added together and divided into one number near-ish the middle of the lot. All that measuring and math adds up to a gross generalization about society.

“The Diamond Sisters,” circa 1900-1910 from thecedarchest on Etsy

Time for a word problem!

There are five friends—Nanette, Sybil, Gabrielle, Mary, and Florence. One of the friends, Nanette, was a tad late to the photoshoot and didn’t get her picture taken. Of the remaining four, the youngest, Sybil, is the smallest of the bunch with a 22 inch corseted waist (it’s important to note whether the measurement is with or without their corset which I will explain in a moment). Gabrielle and Mary both measure 24 inches in their corsets. Florence measures in at a lady-like 26 inches, corseted. Now, judging by her friends, what size is Nanette?

We can add all the known measurements together: 22 + 24 + 24 + 26 = 96 inches
Then divide the total by the number of present factors, in this case, the four pictured ladies: 94 ÷ 4 = 24 inches

So, if we are judging Nanette’s waist size by that of her friends’, she should have about a 24 inch waist, corseted. But that doesn’t really work in real life. Humans come in all shapes and sizes—even within a single family—and to narrow expectations with an “average” is unfair to everyone. Even in this particular scenario, the only limiting factor is that Sybil has the tiniest corseted waist at 22 inches. Maybe Nanette has a 22.1 inch waist or a 26 inch waist like Florence or perhaps she is perfectly average at 23.5 or nicely rounded at 34 inches…we may never know. Humans just don’t average out well on an individual scale, especially when it comes to measurements (which is why one-size-fits-all never really fits anyone). Size is determined by so many factors like undergarments, diet, genetics, and medical conditions like thyroid imbalances. These sort of factors are not new, modern additions to life. Even if unrecognized, these factors have always created variety in society, Victorians included.

Maison Léoty Corset, circa 1891

But what about those terribly terrifying corsets? Wasn’t everyone squeezing themselves down to 15 inch waists? Well, first of all, you should not be buying a corset to squeeze yourself down to an “acceptable” size. A corset’s main function is split between shaping and support. The goal is to mold the figure into the right proportions, rather than the right size. That distinction is key to understanding the Victorian aesthetic. Even the skinniest of gals will look strangely disheveled in any Victorian style if the proportions aren’t right. Victorian fashions from corsets, crinolines, and bustles to Mutton sleeves and Edwardian pigeon-fronts all shared a common goal: to make the waist look as small as possible no matter what the actual waist size.

Charles Worth Fashion Sketch, circa 1870
The wide, dropped neckline, puff sleeves, and enormous skirt all contrast with the carefully fitted, unadorned waist to make it appear even tinier. Top-heavy gals like me may want to avoid too much sleeve-poof, but wide or V necklines, plain bodices, and ornate skirts all help make the waist look smaller.

Since clothing was not bought completely “off the rack” until the 20th century, seamstresses and designers could mix and match elements to best suit each individual’s body proportions. The circumference of your waist, bust, bottom, or thighs is important only to make sure your dress fits you in the most flattering, proportional way possible! There were some pretty bodacious ladies back in the day, all looking fab in their Victorian (and Edwardian) gowns. Here’s just a small sampling:

Photograph of Couple, circa 1890 from EphemeraObscura on Etsy

1860s Ebay

Photograph of a Woman, circa 1860-1870

Cabinet Photo, circa 1885-90 from NiepceGallery on Etsy

Cabinet Photo, circa 1890 from  AlaskaVintage on Etsy

Cabinet Card, late 19th Century from PainterPoetMuse on Etsy

Wedding Photograph, circa 1889 from AlaskaVintage on Etsy

They all look just as Victorian as the next lady! They wore the same styles as everyone else with little tweaks to balance proportions out: most are wearing carefully fitted tops with minimal decoration, plus the era’s heavy skirts make a booty an asset, not a setback! Even larger Victorian ladies appear to have tiny, roll-free waists thanks to their corsets, which everyone, regardless of size, wore. In fact, a larger woman with a softer body could achieve comparatively more of a reduction than a muscular or skinny woman because a corset more easily molds softer bodies. Many of the gals in the previous photo montage would be modern US size 16-20+ without their corsets on. Corsets push up the bust and push the belly down to the hips, making for an exceptionally pronounced, attractive hourglass shape. In spite of their corsets, you’ll notice each woman has her own shape–some very rounded, others straight with minimal waist reduction. It’s all a matter of comfort and taste. That same rule applies to modern gals who love to costume: do what feels right to you!

Good Sense Corset Ad, circa 1886
While women wore corsets everyday, they didn’t all tightlace. In fact, tightlacing had been discouraged since the 1860s and wasn’t practiced by most women. Children did wear support garments at a young age and young girls were put into their first corsets in their early teens. Properly worn, corsets help ease back pain by improving posture and supporting heavy breasts. Health corsets like these became popular after 1890 as sports and exercise became popular pastimes.

However, there is one major argument about Victorian sizing that often gets overlooked: we are not Victorians. We are the products of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the 19th. Our lives and bodies are different and it’s not our duty to hold ourselves to norms that are over 100 years behind us. I can barely hope to match my own grandmother’s 23 inch waist from 1955, much less a young, high-society model’s 19 inch waist from 1895. There was a time when I tried—and golly, I may still wish I could—but my body is two generations different from my grandmother’s, with a different mix of genes, diet, and cultural norms. I enjoy corseting and girdles both as occasional and daily support, but any girdles or corsets I wear are relatively new to my life. Most earlier generations were introduced to shapewear much earlier in life and wore it much more frequently, training their waists since their teenage years. That experience is something we can’t and aren’t obligated to share.
However, historical shaping is something we can all take an interest in an explore without feeling societal pressure to do so (another big change from other eras where shaping garments were considered necessary for any decent public appearances).

And example for a modern Black Underbust Corset, from Hellmade Corsets on Etsy Corsets and cinchers, when carefully chosen and worn, can transport you from everyday to yesterday! Feel a little nervous about trying a corset? There is plenty of information on the internet about how to achieve the right look with or without a corset. Here’s my eBay corset buying experience and what really happens when you slip into a corset for the first time.

The point of costuming is to express something within yourself. Lots of us have “born in the wrong era” syndrome, so a hoop skirt here and a button boot there makes us giddy. Size doesn’t matter if you are a painter, wood carver, perfumer, knitter, or any other type of craftsman. Why should size matter in the costuming community? It’s an art just like anything else–an especially grand and fun one at that! Sure, body measurements matter when it comes to making patterns, but clothes should fit bodies, not vice versa.
So if you are a big woman with big dreams, don’t think you have to squeeze your hopes (or yourself!) down to size just because you don’t match the “normal” historical stereotype. It’s the 21st century! Resolve to costume bravely!

As with all of my articles, the pictures are linked to larger versions, helpful websites, and other informative resources, so feel free to click on them and explore!
For more info on costuming for a full figure, check out these amazing websites:

“Supporting a Large Bust” by Isabelle Mekel – How to corset for DD and larger

“Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction” by Christine Bayles Kortsch – Delves deeper into perception vs. reality (I also linked to it earlier in this article)

 

Find of the Month: Large Edwardian Day Dress

December 2012

Okay. Confession time. I’m not a huge collector of Edwardian clothing. It’s not really my style–all those dangly fronts and long-but-not-long-enough/short-but-not-short-enough sleeves just don’t jive with my normal aesthetic– so I rarely browse through Edwardian clothing. HOWEVER, I love nautical/military/anything with buttons. And late Edwardian fashion was all about those things!

Also, how can you say no to a 100 year-old black dress for $25?!

134_3226

Edwardian Day Dress, circa 1910-14

Check it out! This gem of a dress was made for a stout woman, comparatively speaking. It’s so hard to find extant clothing in larger sizes. 22 inch waists are little a dime a dozen, but a 32 inch waist? Priceless!

134_3228

Measurements: 40″-32″-50″
I had to pad the booty of my dress form because it’s even flatter in the rear than I am. Still didn’t get the hips quite right…

134_3261

Size comp shot! This dress was made for a woman a tad bit shorter than me (about 5′ 4″). Also, you can see the extent of my “professional photo studio.”
P.S. I’m wearing my Rago waist nipper. Super pleased with it!

The dress is silk which is, sadly, ripping to shreds in the unlined skirt. The bodice has faired better since it is lined with black cotton. There are glittery black glass buttons on both the bodice and on the skirt. Plus…

134_3233

POCKETS!

134_3243

The dress has a very plain back. The bodice back was all done in one piece and the skirt has small, pleated gores for walking ease. The dress is in sorry shape right now. I need to re-attach most of the trim (the thread tacking it down crumbles at a touch) and the hooks and eyes are held on only be loose threads and some kind of voodoo…

134_3235 134_3252 134_3254 134_3256

I have high hopes for it, though. I may make all the conservationists angry and fix this lovely up well enough to wear again! Can’t you just see it with some American Duchess Gibsons?

American Duchess “Gibson” Heels for 1900-1920…Coming soon!