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, December 21, 2017


The moment I bought this very sheer cotton voile with its mossy green flowers, I knew I wanted to make a froofy dress. And I wanted it to a bustle dress, right out of a James Tissot painting. 

The fabric sat in my shelf for about two years, and then one day I saw this dress on Facebook, by Prior Attire aka The Victorian Dressmaker. 
This dress had all the froofy-ness I wanted for my fabric. I followed her blog and found many more close-up details of it.  I can’t find the link directly to this dress but she has many other wonderful things on it.  And she’s currently working on a book, called The Victorian Dressmaker.  

I saved various versions of sheer dresses from this time period, and gathered ideas I wanted for mine, like ruffles on the sleeves, and a V-neckline. 

One of the identifiers of the dresses from this 1850s time period is the multi-tiered skirts. It can be from two tiers up to six. I was limited by the amount of fabric I had, and used a plain white cotton for its base, with rows of the ruffled fabric. I saved making my sleeves for last because at that point I didn’t know how much I would have when all was done. At one point I thought I was going to have to use a white sheer for them.
I began searching for a bodice pattern that had a V-neck and a peplum. I came up with Period Impressions #405 and bought that one. It looked fairly simple. But it was evil. I purchased the size I needed for my measurements, but it was about 2 sizes too large. I had taken it to a sewing workshop for help and we ended up almost creating a new pattern. When I finally got around to sewing the peplum on it, the drawings didn’t match what the patterns looked like. 
After all this trouble, my workshop teacher, Shelley Peters, asked me why I didn’t use the short white jacket version from McCall’s #5132, which I already had. Duh. Too late now.

In one blog, I found this statement, “Cotton dresses were very, very rarely made with a pagoda sleeve. In fact, they are so rare they are basically non-existent. However, sheer cottons are frequently made into pagodas, and are frequently worn without undersleeves. Pagoda sleeves were very popular in the 1850s, and begin to diminish as the 60s progressed”.    I’m not sure I agree with that. But I didn’t want to make pagoda sleeves, so I used a sleeve off one of my Truly Victorian patterns. I liked the ruffled shorter sleeves on this 1850s dress. But my fabric amount was very limited so in the end, mine only ended up with one ruffle. 
I started on the bodice first and when it was all constructed, I added self-piping along the bottom of the peplum, and armholes. Considering how sheer the fabric is, I thought it needed some extra strength. And I converted the closed neckline on it to a V-neck by folding the edges under. 

When I started the skirt, I first decided to use the method of just tearing panels and sewing them together for the base. And here was mistake #2. I had written to tear 4 panels. Which might have been fine but my white fabric was 60” wide, so it was HUGE. And long. Somehow, I also cut them too long by about two feet. I got as far as that in the first workshop, and went home to work on the tiers. We decided it was easier to use the Truly Victorian pattern #241 for the tiers since it gave me the measurements to make them and instructions to attach them to the base. But I had to set it aside at that time to work on finishing a couple dresses for Costume College 2016 at the end of July. 
Now here we were in November where I finally had time to get back to it. And I had a deadline for it next February for the Riverside Dickens fashion show. That always helps put a fire under me. I went to another of Shelley Peters’ workshops to get help with the skirt. I struggled trying to get those tiers on correctly. Apparently if I’d used the TV pattern, it would have me marking the panels to pin the tiers on. I had started this backwards: sewing the panels together, and then trying to figure out how to level them, along with my first time of hemming the skirt first, then pulling it up to my waist to get the correct length and cartridge-pleating it to a waistband. I had decided to go with four tiers, the first one being not so full but not flat, due to the limited amount of fabric I had. I started by measuring up from the hem the length of the bottom tier and making pencil marks on the white underskirt where I would be sewing it. Then repeated that going up for each tier. I first worried I didn’t make them long enough to reach the ground. But thankfully even after putting on my hoops and full multi-tiered petticoat, it worked out. I had very little overhang of each tier though. In retrospect, I should have sewn the tiers on above each line. The white underskirt peeps out in a few places. I may have sewn a few areas not quite on the lines. I added “miles” of green ribbon to the edges of the ruffles to make them stand out more. 
And speaking of my multi-tiered petticoat, I thought I was going to have to make one for this, because all I had was a two tiered one I used under my 1860s dresses. While looking through some of my photos of my costume accessories, I saw this photo of a multi-tiered petticoat I had apparently made for another 1850s dress the previous year. So, I had to dig around in my armoire where I store all my petticoats and bustles/hoops, and found it jammed in the back. It was made of a cotton fabric that was a bit heavy, and when I tried it on, I saw why I had thrown it in the back. I had made the waistband too big and it almost crossed over in the back, along with all those ruffles. I must have been going crazy sewing all those ruffles. But with the full skirt I’m working on, that’s not a problem, although at some point I may reduce it. But for now, we’re good. 
Did I mention how incredibly sheer my fabric is? You can barely tell the front from the back. I have to rip a hem out of one row of ruffles when I sewed the hem wrong, and had to remove one of the tiered ruffles when I realized it was wrong side out. I finally started pinning little tags on the tiers to make sure I was getting the front and back sewn on right.  And man, the sleeves! TWICE I sewed the sides together wrong.
After putting the green ribbon on the ruffles, this fashion print gave me the idea of adding it to the sleeves too. And using a pink bonnet I had. 

I finally finished the skirt and could try it on to see if it all worked. It was long enough, and everything seemed to line up Ok. My bodice is a bit plain though. I was going to make a white chemisette for the V-neck but decided to sew some white eyelet along the inside of the neckline. 

I couldn’t find any buttons I liked at two fabric stores, and needed to have some so I could make my buttonholes and finish the doggone thing. I ended up using some small domed buttons I had and covered them with some of the green ribbon. They’re a little bulky but for now they work, and I can button the bodice. And I think it needs a green bow on it now. That top is really plain. 
I have an easy fix for my bonnet. I already have one. This pretty pink and cream one, that I may add a little rosette or leaves of green ribbon to it.   
I have no plans to wear this until near the end of February at the Riverside Dickens Festival fashion show. Considering we usually get warm weather then, this should be pretty comfortable to wear. And maybe I’ll find some buttons I like better by that time.


  1. Wow, LOVE the tiered skirt! I have plans to make an early 1850's tiered skirt with a pinked scalloped edge, saving this post for reference on the order to sew the skirt.
    The blog you linked to is a lady who runs around the reenacting community. Reenactors can be....odd. They seem to circulate myths often that require such strong debunking that everyone is afraid of how to correctly do said thing. Now, when someone wants to make a cotton dress they think it has to be either a homespun schlubby dress, or a fancy sheer floofy dress. Blogs like this, with random statements about sleeve styles that *could* be done (but not even touching ALL the options) are following a tangent about what everyone is talking about in regards to appropriate styles in JUST the reenacting circles. Pagoda sleeves were a big to-do for a while, but it had more to do with the awful modern cotton print (think: whatever I thought was pretty and old-timey at Joanns) that was being paired with it, that got translated into cotton in general. Cotton is sometimes not cut-and-dry sheer. So now everyone's afraid of cotton for dresses, and thinks that very specific elements may or may not apply. Drives me nuts, the holes they dig for themselves and can't get away from. Rather than make rules....I'll go research and decide for myself, thank you very much.
    Just a side note: I have no problem with people who make costumes with fabric from Joanns, even if you make a Civil war dress from neon green and purple sparkly satin. That's great! Keep costuming. However, reenacting folks can be really uptight and have a problem with that, because costuming and reenacting are different hobbies, which I respect and understand.

  2. Thank you Michaela. I agree with you on the reenactors vrs costumers. I try for a historical-look but I keep in mind that its a costume and a hobby, so I don't go hog-wild on expensive fabric, most of the time. I also like to find fashion plates, actual photos, or museum photos of extant gowns for my proof, rather than someone's opinion. And I've seen some beautiful costumes made from Joann's fabrics.


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