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; Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, and a representative of the San Diego History Center. 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.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

1873 Cotton Mourning Gown for Dia de los Muertos

November 5, 2013

Here’s the gown I made to wear at Dia de los Muertos in Old Town San Diego this past weekend. Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday to celebrate and remember our dead. It’s a very colorful and happy celebration, and Southern California has embraced it.
Since I’ve made this pattern, Truly Victorian #410 Polonaise, four times now, it went together very fast other than having major problems again getting my sleeves to fit and getting them into the armhole properly. With some help, we discovered when I’m being measured for my sleeves the common measurement around my arm for the armhole doesn’t work because I’m bigger around my mid-upper arm. When I’ve enlarged the sleeve overall, it also made it too big on the rest of my arm, and I had those silly puffs at the top of the sleeve cap. After many refittings and cutting away of excess fabric, we finally got it to fit me and fit into the armhole. At some point I need to make a pattern to use for all future sleeves.
This is the top half of the gown, the polonaise, and a lightened up photo to show the embroidered pattern on the fabric. At this point my closure is a little crooked.

Trimming this dress was a lot of fun. There’s lots of ways to do that, and I like being able to make self-fabric trims. My cotton embroidered fabric gave me some great trim once I cut it in strips to have the embroidered section near the edge where I could gather it.

I put the ruffles around the neckline and after adding an extra cuff to the bottom of my sleeves to lengthen them, I added the ruffle to that too.
That wasn’t enough for me so I bought some 5/8 inch black velvet ribbon to also go around the neckline and cuffs. And I kept going by putting two more black velvet covered buttons on each cuff.
Other than coming up with some way to trim the skirt, the only other thing I could come up with was a big bow on the back of the peplum. After seeing the dress on me, I think the skirt is too plain and I plan on adding a deep ruffle to the bottom of it. The skirt is pretty lightweight too and even though I tried to make a black petticoat with a ruffle for it, I didn’t get that ruffle done so there wasn’t much fullness to it.
Since I was wearing this to the los Muertos Candlelight Procession and would have flowers on my head I didn’t need a hat for it. I would be draping a veil over my head with the floral headpiece on top. My jewelry was a black and brass necklace along with a pair of black “gutta percha” earrings I bought at the SF Dickens Faire last year. My face makeup was done by Cindy's daughter, Amy, and I think she did a bang-up job. We did discover that my skin is extremely dry and it was sucking up all the white face paint and she couldn’t get a solid white look on me. Apparently my expensive moisturizer is not worth the money I spend on it. She recommended Jergens brand so I bought the shea butter deep conditioning moisturizer version yesterday.
When I arrived in Old Town, I stopped by the Whaley House to visit with my friend Robin there and then walked back to the Cosmopolitan Hotel (one of the original buildings in the park) to sit on the steps and wait for other guild members to arrive. I was about 1 1/2 hrs early so I enjoyed having my photo taken with the public who came to celebrate with us. At one point a couple furry fellows showed up and joined me for awhile, and they got more attention than me. But I got lot of compliments on my makeup and my gown.
As more of our group showed up for the procession, the “paparazzi” began gathering around us taking photos. We started a line-up on one wall and every couple minutes another guild member would show up and we got bigger.

Our favorite place for large group photos is on the steps of the Cosmopolitan.
At one point so many people were wanting to have their photos taken with us that Gina’s husband, Larry, started announcing everyone to step up on the stairs to have them taken. We did this for about a half hour until it was time to head over to the Procession starting point.
A little confusion ensued as we weren’t really sure where we were to gather this time. Apparently it wasn’t the same point as last year, and we knew the path was different so we wandered over to the other side of the park where we saw the crowds we were expecting to see. We couldn’t even get through them. We finally managed to get closer to the front and then heard “San Diego Costume Guild to the front!!” People started parting so we could get through and we managed to get up with the banner carriers.
The hard part of doing this is walking slow enough to not make it a mad dash to the end. Occasionally we came to a halt and with Melinda’s help we slowed the pace down. Its only a ten minute walk to the cemetery that was our final destination but we wanted to draw it out longer. Having hundreds of people on the sidewalks and many on the street in front of us taking photos made it very enjoyable and makes all the work and sore feet worth it.

This year the cemetery was decorated even better with many orange marigolds, the traditional flower, and candles around each grave. It’s a very small cemetery so it takes over an hour for everyone to come in, look around, and funnel out the back where we stand as guides for them.
Here you can see how limp my skirt is, and how much nicer it would look with a flounce like Cindy has on hers, along with a decent petticoat. *I just love the color technique Jerry did on this photo*
I'm looking for photos that were taken of the beautiful cemetery but so far only have this one by Debbie. 

My thanks to Gina, Kathy, & Georgina for the use of their photos, and for the many that Jerry Abuan took of us. For more of his photos, see his website here:


  1. I was looking at the picture, going, 'I love that dress', then I thought, 'wait, isn't that my polonaise with a different neckline?' My friend made it for me with that pattern but a different neckline to suit my shape better for Steamfest, and I wore it again recently for Tea Duelling (pictures on my blog) I adore it so much! I want to make one in crimson, too, and black!

    1. Laura, I've made this same poly 4 times now. I love it too but also would love to alter it so it doesn't look like everyone elses. I've added an apron to one of my mine. Could you link directly to the entry that has your's? I'd love to see your altered neckline.

    2. Here are the Steamfest ones, then the tea duelling ones. I am standing in incorrect posture in the tea duelling ones which is making the neckline gape a little more than it should. Because I am quite flat chested, we decided to raise the neckline, but then my friend cut a V out at the front, which I think gave it a really nice shape without being too revealing! She also used single darts for the bust instead of double at the front

    3. Thank you, very pretty! Those of us who have made this have had the same problem with the neckline gapping. I've cut the front edges on the closure down a bit to account for that. I also add ruffles along the edges just in case. As you could see in the one closeup of the bodice, my buttons were crooked because I was trying to turn the edges under to take that in.
      I've also made my sleeves straight instead of the bell shape. I can be a klutz sometimes and I just know I'd be knocking things over with those bells.

  2. I forgot to say, I also love your makeup, and I would really love to go to a Dia de los Muertos event one day! I think they are lovely, and a great way to remember those who have passed! I love that the graveyard was decorated for it, I would love to see that! San Francisco is on my list of places to go, so hopefully I will see that sometime, I will have to try and plan my trip for that time of year!

    I like the photo effect, too, it makes it easier to see the lovely details of the black gowns, which can otherwise be quite hard to see!

    1. Check back here later. I'm asking if anyone has photos of the graveyard. I know I saw some but can't remember where.

  3. I love that the dress is made of cotton. You write so well that I feel I experienced the event.
    Rochelle, ATAA

  4. I am always impressed by your expertise with the costumes. I don't mind not having the flounce at the bottom of your skirt at all. Love the contrast then of the bright flowers in your hair.


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