This is a photo diary of my costuming "travels"; where I've learned and struggled to make historical costumes for myself. They're not always pretty, but always fun. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

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My name is Val. I'm a Past President & member of the San Diego Costume Guild, and Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of it.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Sunday, November 22, 2015


I started planning for our next Costume Walkabout at the Del Mar Antique Show in November once I heard the theme was Alice in Wonderland. Of course there will be the usual characters there but I don’t like to do “costumes” and wanted to stick to my historical clothing. This is where “character development” comes in which I don’t normally do but I did one in the past as The Ghost of Xmas Past, Present, and Future for a previous Walkabout.
It didn’t take me long after searching for Alice ideas to come up with an adult Alice Liddell, who the book was written for, all grown up. The book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written in 1865, and Alice Liddell was 10 years old when it was written. So I figured by adding 30 years to her life that would make it about 1895. So there I had my time period I wanted to make my dress.

My memory of Alice is from the original 1951 Disney movie when I was growing up. And then I saw someone’s page of ideas for costuming an Alice, and I got some ideas from it.  Blue skirt, white blouse, maybe a half apron. I’ve got black Mary Jane shoes. Ooh, bunny jewelry! 
And then I thought how about an Alice who became totally obsessed with rabbits when she grew up?That gave me all kinds of ideas for some accessories. It would be like the White Rabbit wouldn’t leave her, day or night. Her jewelry could be rabbits. And she would always be looking for rabbits.
I came across this photo of a watch-style purse, and remembered this large wooden pocket watch I had that was actually a Christmas decoration. It has a short gold chain, and I can hang it by a small chatelaine onto my waistband.
I first thought of wearing a black ribbon headband but after being reminded of a hat, I pulled out my boater hat that HAS a black ribbon on it. Perfect!  Needing to add a little something to the blouse for color, I thought of making a navy blue bow tie for the neck like this photo I found. I still hadn’t decided on a white apron yet.

Hunting for jewelry on Etsy was fun! I typed a search in for bunny jewelry and was surprised the amount of it that popped up, and many referred to the Wonderland White Rabbit, or Peter Rabbit. Since Alice Liddell was a real person, I didn’t want to refer too much to the cartoon character, and picked this life-like bunny pendant. It was only $10. But then I saw this antique child’s ring with THE rabbit in it looking at his pocket watch, and it was ONLY $7, so yeah, gotta have it! Total cost in jewelry was kept under $20. I like that. I don’t usually spend a lot on accessories for my costumes, unless it’s something antique but since everything else came from my stash, I decided that was ok.

I also decided to include a very small stuffed rabbit and knew I had to make an apron now to put it in the pocket of the apron. My friend Cindy found me a cream plush one at a swap meet that was a perfect fit for a pocket. So which came first, the apron or the rabbit?
While I was out shopping in the Halloween sales department at Michael’s I found this black bow tie for $3.97, so that saves me from making something that will probably cost more than that. I originally planned on wearing my usual white boots but remembered I’d bought some Mary Jane-style black shoes recently and they were similar to the shoes Alice wore as a child. 

I considered wearing a blonde wig for about 15 seconds. Uhh…no. I used to be white blonde myself, and as I got older it became more brown/auburn. So I decided I would stick to my usual wig color, and have it up in a 90s style, her being an adult and all.

My patterns are the Truly Victorian #494- 1894 shirtwaist, and #291- 1898 walking skirt.

I had picked up some powder blue cotton-twill blend fabric for my friend but it had a bit of stretch in it  and wouldn’t work for her, so I decided to use it for my skirt instead of wasting it. My white 100% cotton for the shirtwaist is a bit sheer and would need a good stiff netting in the sleeves to hold up those big puppies.

The apron was the easy part. My very first sewing project when I was a little girl was an apron I learned how to make at our local girls club. A large square of fabric, hemmed on three sides, pleated or gathered onto a long strip of fabric that was folded over and became the ties in the back.  Another small square of fabric became the pocket just big enough to hold a bunny. He was safety-pinned in for safety.

The skirt was very easy to sew together, although I had to deal with some stretchiness. I staystitched all around each panel that helped a bit but the waistband may start stretching quite a bit. In retrospect, I think I should have sewn a real sturdy interfacing in it to hold it firm. Maybe at a later time I can re-do that.
The blouse was probably the most work but still an easy sew. I used some stiff netting folded over and covered with a layer of cotton between my arm and the sleeve so it wasn’t scratchy. It only went in the section from the armseye about 6 inches down, although there was more in the poofiness. There’s still a bit of it in the armseye seam allowance that I’m slowly snipping away but will probably still poke me occasionally. A solution for next time will be to finish off the netting seam first with a strip of fabric before it goes into the armseye.
I chose the front buttoned view, and the short peplum primarily for more length to tuck into the waistband. I don’t plan on wearing it on the outside of the skirt. I’m not real happy with my collar. I managed to miss having a piece in it that the upper collar would fold over, so mine sticks up. Which is ok but there’s a slight gap. My bowtie will be covering that up though. 

So here is the whole outfit put together, and I decided I would bring my blue parasol that had just been recovered by my friend, Connie, at Victorian Parasols. *Don’t mind the little black and white furball there. She gets into everything.*

So off we go to the Del Mar Antique Show in San Diego for Lady Mari’s Costume Walkabout. We do this twice yearly and are given a theme to dress in. Today’s theme was Alice in Wonderland, and there were many Cheshire Cats, Mad Hatters, Queen of Hearts, White Queen, Dormouse, White Rabbits, a White Knight, Tweedle Dedee, Knave of Hearts, and many variations of fantasy and Steampunk. I had expected to see a lot of Alices though. Very surprising there was not!

This is worth pointing out. Bob was the Mad Hatter and had his dormouse skeleton in his teapot. Also notice the bandoliers with tea tins, tea spoons and strainers. And his tea medals. Lots of details went into this. 

By the way, did you know this year was the 150th Anniversary of the publishing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland book? Happy anniversary Lewis Caroll and to Alice Liddell, who the book was written for. You can read more about the book’s beginnings here:
This was likely the last costume event I’m going to this year, unless I’m able to make it to our Guild holiday dinner since it coincides with our family get-together. Keeping my fingers crossed I can get out early enough to go. If I do go, I will most likely wear my 1880s Red & Black Check bustle dress.
But there will be more sewing going on; like working on an 1830s bonnet in an online class I signed up for last month at Historical, and working on my purple dress for the Riverside Dickens Festival fashion show. Oh sheesh, I just realized what I wrote. I’m making dresses JUST for fashion shows now? No, it will have other uses. It’s just the next and first event I will need it for. And then there’s a maize yellow 1905 dress I want to make for an April event.
Thank you to Jerry Abuan  for some of the photos I shared here. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

WORKING OUT THE DETAILS: Truly Victorian 1873 polonaise

Recently a friend asked me for some feedback on making this pattern, and it seemed easiest to do it as a blog post. But I wanted to make this more than just a “how-to” post.
First I have a description of a polonaise dress for you. These were also made in the mid-1770s but I’ll be talking about the ones in the 1870s.  Taken from Wikipedia: "In 1871 Peterson's Magazine sated that the polonaise was an overdress based on the 18th century sacque, with the bodice cut in one with the gathered-up skirt. Peterson's Magazine also described a 'Polonaise basque' as being gathered fully on the hips and forming a deep tunic in the back. Godey's Magazine for August 18 71 identifies the term polonaise with two separate garments a bodice and an overskirt."

It took some hunting to find some actual fashion prints showing these worn. They are primarily in the 1872-73 prints. I only spent a half hour searching for some but not a lot were shown. On the other hand, I found lots of photos of modern costumers sharing their versions. So apparently it’s much more popular now than then. They also seemed to be very frilly and more dressed up versions than the sturdier ones of some of the modern copies. So I’d say it’s a very girlish dress.

I found two patterns listed in an 1872 Peterson’s Magazine, and 1873 Revue de la Mode. 

 Some of the fashion prints show them standing sideways so you don’t get a good look at the front, but you can see the longer bodice pulled up on the sides and fluffed up in the back. And they have lots of bows. 

This sheer extant dress is dated 1872-76 and includes an apron in the front, which had given me an idea of doing the same with one of the dresses I made a few years ago.
This teal dress looks more like a traveling dress without any frillies. 
The Truly Victorian #410 (1873) pattern has been very popular since it came out. It combines both the bodice and “overskirt” so it makes a quick and easy project with less fabric being needed for the big bustle overskirts. The polonaise, or “poly” as some of us call it, has lots of ways to individualize it so it doesn’t look too “cookie-cutter” but I can usually recognize it right away.
After looking at all the fashion plates and photos I have a couple more ideas of what I’d like to try on it; like these two dresses, both of which could use the TV pattern as a beginning, and not look “cookie- cutter”.  

I collected my photos of ones I’ve made, and really thought I’d made more than four. I’ve sold the green striped one, so I guess that means I can make another one?

 For this time period, most of us wear a lobster tail bustle. As you can see in the photo of my green striped dress, I wasn’t, and I had a very sad looking butt. In the white with black polka dot one, you can see the apron I made for the front. It was actually made like a regular apron because I ran out of fabric so the portion that you see in the front is all there is with a narrow waistband that hooks in the back.
Most of the ones I’ve seen made up all have the same problem as I did: the lower corners of the square neck tend to pooch out. I made my first three back in 2009 not knowing at the time I was narrow shouldered from my neck to shoulder point, and short from the shoulder down to my bust line. So that seems to be my problem as you can see in these two photos.

On the green striped fabric, it’s a bit too broad across the front. Obviously this is on my dress form so the fit is a bit different. When worn, the outer corners would gap out. On the purple floral fabric, you can definitely see the fabric bunching to the side of my neck. Also my armholes were down my arm too far, and it caused the pooched up sleeve cap on the purple one. The black pleated trim I did on the square neck covered the gappiness.
The fitting solution to this was to take a little tuck on the lower corners of the pattern or muslin. And in my case, pull it up a bit into the shoulder seam. I also cut away part of the armseye so it didn’t hang down so far, and then after sewing my sleeves in, it took up that excess fabric. I didn’t have a chance to apply this until I made my most recent black mourning version of it. But it’s a lousy photo where my bodice had bunched up after sitting down.
A discussion came up recently on the appropriateness of an open neckline in the day time. This WAS the style of the early 1870s but if you’re not comfortable with that, ruffles in the neckline, or a row of lace across it can be done. Or how Arlene T. did her version from another pattern. (Photo compliments of Arlene). I’d love to try one of these doing a V-neck too with lace along the edges.  

I altered my own sleeves instead of using the bell-shaped one that comes with the pattern. I tend to wave my arms around a lot, and knock things over so a straight sleeve worked better for me. I used the sleeves from TV 400 for mine, and had no problem switching them.
I really think this is an easy pattern to make. It’s a bit different from a regular bodice since its all one piece and you have to attach the top and bottom together in the back but not as a normal waistline. The skirt is sewn under the peplum to the back. More on that in a minute.
One of the first confusing things (for me) began right in the beginning. I cut out my pattern pieces and noticed two had directions on them to tape them together to use as a single piece. So I did. Then when I pulled out the directions I’m reading Step 1 and it said something about making a single pattern piece. I kept shaking my head and then realized oh duh, I’d already done that. Yeah, having a stupid moment.
I don’t line my bodices but always flatline them now. This photo shows you just how much of that bodice in the front you’ll be flatlining. The maroon cotton twill was my flatlining fabric. You don’t need to do the entire thing unless it’s a sheer fabric.
As I said, I don’t line (aka bag line) mine but I finish the edges with a bias binding, either purchased or made from my fabric. So that entire edge around the square neckline and down the front were all bound and finished. I traced off the line of the neck opening to make an L-shaped piece for the binding there. *Confession time here: I RARELY cut my binding on a bias. I have no problem using my fabric cut straight but I would recommend doing it on the bias if you’re using it on armholes to get the curves better.*
The next confusing part (again for me; maybe you have brains), was attaching the back of the polonaise to the bodice. The back skirt portion is pleated into the side of the front that has been pleated also. You can pull it up into the sides as much or as little as you like. (It’s easier to show some of this on my lighter colored dresses).
The top of the back skirt is only partially attached to the back of the bodice underneath the peplum. I sewed a strip of twill tape to the top of my skirt to pleat it to. It’s then attached just at the sides and the center seam. If you stuck your hands up under the peplum, you’d find air, but it doesn’t show.

I DID line my peplum portion with my fashion fabric so I could get a nice point to them. I cut out just enough to start at the top of the peplums. Also if they flip up you don’t see a contrasting fabric.
And then of course you attach some tapes to the skirts in back and pull them up to create your floofs. I’m not really good at this yet, so I won’t try and push my unprofessional techniques of that onto you. Needless to say, safety pins are very handy.
On all of mine I’ve finished the top of the peplum with a bow. But I think I need to go bigger!