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. most of the time. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can find me on Facebook, or have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

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HI, my name is Val. I'm a member of Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles, Dean Emeritus of 2018 Costume College; member & Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, a representative of the San Diego History Center, & an honorary member of SITU (Someplace in Time, Unlimited) in Seattle. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of one.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Copying a Dress from a Fashion Plate

In 2014 I was so inspired by a fashion plate of an 1837 dress that I immediately went into gear to make it for the next month. Crazy, huh? Of course not. We’re all crazy around here.

I was only able to copy the main points of it but not the sleeves as that’s still a bit beyond my skill level. But in the end I was really happy with it and put another notch in my costume belt. 

I have an entire album devoted to dresses I want to make, and in looking through them, I see a recurring theme—BIG TRIMS. Things that stand out, not tiny little details. I want them to be seen, and not hide in the background. I tend to like fiddley things that require hand-sewn details. I guess I like pink too. This is only four of them. I’m not giving all my secret plans out. 

We ALL know these dresses aren’t real; they’re “fashion prints” so the artist can draw whatever they like even if not humanly possible to make it, and look like that. And that includes the women’s bodies, corseted or not. So I have to take into consideration that that may not look so good on me. But they were smart because the exaggerated designs- big sleeves, big shoulders, big skirts and bustles, all went into making us “appear” smaller. Smart Victorians!
So here I am starting a new year and a new dress from an 1853 fashion plate that I want to wear next month at the Riverside Dickens Festival, and in the fashion show there. At first glance it made my jaw drop, literally. And hey, purple! I need more purple in my wardrobe. It didn’t appear too complicated but more details started presenting themselves to me when we looked closer at it.  
 I had started planning it about a month ago, just figuring out my pattern for the bodice (going to use Truly Victorian 446 for it) and tearing the skirt lengths out while at a sewing workshop. Next weekend I will again go to one and this time will get some sewing done. At the last one, Shelley Peters looked closely at the print and began pointing out tiny details that I hadn’t noticed, like the black point d’esprit lace that overlays the bodice. She showed me the lines of it along the sides of the bodice, down the front, on the sleeve caps and the cuffs. Wow, I never saw that! And she just happened to have that fabric so I bought some from her.

In looking closely at the skirt and overlaying tablier, we determined that the skirt is separate and the tablier lays over the top of the skirt, due to the heavier folds of fabric just under the tablier. That will make it much easier to construct. And btw, I just learned that word tablier. Now you know it too.
And look, fiddly ruching and black velvet trims around the edges! My kind of thing! 
The sleeves are my nemesis but it might be something I can fake by sewing little ruffs on top of a straight sleeve. I very much doubt I’ll make those white puffs coming out from slits in the sleeves. That’s a bit much, and no one ever said you should make it an exact copy. I think there’s a rule about that somewhere.
I went searching on Etsy for a similar lace collar and came up with this vintage one for $20, and it’s coming from France with free shipping, no less. Now I just need to find some matching lace to use on my cuffs. I bet I have some in my stash but I need to see how white this is when it arrives.

EDITED TO ADD: my collar from France arrived yesterday and it's beautiful. A good solid whte, a little shorter that I'd hoped but perfect to use. 

When I started planning this I also wanted to make the bonnet in the picture. It’s rather pale and not immediately noticeable on the table behind the model until you blow it up. I thought I would have plenty of time to make one (best laid plans). But I only have 1 ½ months until it’s needed, and knowing how slow I’m sewing, that’s not going to happen. Unless the sewing birds show up one night.
But luck was with me over the holidays. I found out Shelley Peters (of Kansas Mercantile & Historical Sewing Workshops) had some shirred bonnets for sale and she brought her wares over to my house for me to shop from when she was out my way. And there it was, an antique white bonnet that I could use for this.

The color of the flowers on it obviously won’t work for this, so I’ll be looking for some pink ones, and a nice soft pink ribbon to put some loops on the outside.
 Next I’ll have to decide soon what to do with the hair. A wig, obviously, and I considered long curls either on the sides or towards the back (that’s Louise May Alcott in 1855). But with the lace framing my face, those may not show. I do like the side braids on the second photo, and those are easy to fake. I’ll have to see how I can strategically place some roses there. Not sure a lady of a certain age would be that frilly, but I’m not going as an old hag.

We’ve been catching up on a lot of recorded programs on TV lately instead of sewing but if I can just get Chloe away from the TV and back to the cutting table, I can make some progress on this.



  1. Can't wait to see the outcome! Its going to be fabulous.

  2. A wig would be acceptable. Louisa had her hair cut when she was ill following a brief nursing career during the Civil War. She wore a wig for a time. Women usually wore false hair pieces to get those fashionable curls.

  3. What a brilliant project! I love getting my inspiration from fashion plates and like you I have stored more images that have taken my fancy than it is probably possible to recreate in three lifetimes!Not that that is a bad thing - it forces you to really look closely at them and choose carefully. I will look forward to seeing your progress on this dress. It will look stunning. I will also be starting work soon on an 1878 dress inspired by a number of fashion plates if all goes to plan. Happy sewing :)


I would love to hear if this was any help to you. Pretty please!