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.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Recreating an Extant Gown; Mrs. Hughes or the Shop Girls

Last month while trolling ebay I came across an extant gown that looked in pretty good condition, close to my size, and a decent price, $65. It had a look of elegance but not fashionable. It reminded me of a dress. But where?

It looks black but its navy blue with narrow grey pinstripes. When it arrived I found the fabric to be scratchy and thin. I’ve never felt a lightweight wool but that’s what it reminded me of. I also thought it might be a working class dress due to its material. But the collar and vest insert is definitely real silk. The dress is all one piece, loose at the waist, and the only closure is where the front overlaps the vest. The belt on this photo from the seller looks kind of twisted but it drapes around the dress and ties in the front but on a larger waist than they had.  It has narrow shoulders so I can’t get it over the shoulders of my dress form to see its full size. Which means I can’t try it on. The collar looks to have been added on later or rather quickly as it’s just basted with large stitches, and not very well. I guess it made it look better and seems right for it though.
There are two buttons on the black collar just below the lace one, and used to have two buttons on each cuff but they’re gone. The cuffs are most interesting. Instead of an actual cuff, the fabric is folded over into a pleat, tacked down, and buttons sewn on. Now it occurs to me that given the larger width of the sleeve, this could be taking in the lower portion to narrow it down. Just an idea but on my own sleeves when I’ve had this problem I’ve just taken in the seams to narrow mine down. Might be worth trying.
The bottom of the skirt was the only place that showed real damage. There are some holes worn on one side and a small one in the back. The hem, which is already 6” deep, also had another 6” strip of the navy silk sewn to the end of it so it had a 12” deep hem. Wow!  I took the silk portion off because a large chunk of it was missing just about where the holes were so maybe someone stepped on it and ripped it? I’ll never know. But the salvaged piece of silk will be nice for covering new buttons on a dress.
I’m not real familiar with this time period about 1910-1914 so I asked for some help dating it on a vintage dress group. Suggestions ranged from 1912 to 1916, with the suggestions of it being an older woman’s dress for the later date but hanging on to earlier styles. Hmmm. I was more interested in the date of its style. So I kept looking. I found a similar one on Pinterest from the Norway Museum dated 1916 though. Pretty close.
It did remind me of something Mrs. Hughes on Downton Abbey would wear. Suitable for the Head Housekeeper and keeping with her somber attire. So I decided to name it Mrs. Hughes’ Dress.
My plans for this dress was to copy it for a pattern. Since it’s close to my size, it wouldn’t require a lot of sizing up. I’m currently up in Washington State visiting my Mom, who is a Pattern Drafting Extraordinaire. So she’s currently working on that and trying to get me to stand still long enough to make a muslin off of me to transfer to that and resize it. Not an easy task as I don’t hold still very well. I think I was the same way when I was a youngster when she made me dresses then.

Last night while reading a blog on Mr. Selfridge,  I saw this. THAT’S IT! That’s where I saw this dress. Or at least reminded me of it.
Agnes’ dress was much plainer but love her hairstyle. I think I need to share this with my wig stylist.
When I get around to making my copy of the dress it will be in a much more comfortable fabric. In fact I already have a couple pieces of suit-weight stripped fabrics that look a lot like the original. I’ll probably look more like Mrs. Hughes than the lovely young shop girls though.

This is part of the reason I’m up here in the Pacific Northwest, playing dress-up at the Port Townsend Victorian Festival, and button shopping at the vintage button trunk show in a local store. I was wearing this dress in the fashion show too, along with some of my friends. More on that later when I get home and download my photos from it. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I love it when events come up that I can wear some of my previous dresses again, especially ones that have only been seen once just because of their obscure time period, ie, we don’t usually do that time here in San Diego. And I’m also then not scrambling to get something new made just to wear to it. On the frustrating side of that, it means I’m procrastinating finishing a dress that I’m going to need in five weeks, and two of those will be spent out of state. Which means it better be mostly done before I leave.

Most recent events, which also included fashion shows I was in, was the Riverside Dickens Festival. A couple of us were asked to portray famous female killers in the fashion show on Saturday. And boy, did we find some nasty ones! We even had to clean up some of the “finer” details so as not to shock the audience. My lady, Frances Silver, hacked up her hubby with an axe then burned his parts in the fireplace. Nice.  Cindy was also wearing 1830s and her lady, Sarah Dazley, had poisoned two husbands with arsenic. This was Cindy's first venture into making an 1830s dress, and I really think it's cute, even if she doesn't. For more on her dress, check out her blog entry.

I wore my 1834 Jewel Tone Plaid dress since it fit the time period, although I’m sure this farm wife wasn’t wear silk taffeta but that wasn’t necessary. To liven up the description of mine, I carried out an axe but had it down at my side hidden in the folds of my dress. As I turned sideways the audience on one side could see it, and they giggled, which confused the other side. Until I went over there and they saw what I was hiding. It was great! I loved getting the laughs. 
Afterwards we had our entire group gather outside for the public to take photos. At one point the Queen joined us and we eyeballed each other’s plaid dresses.

These two photos taken by Cat L. show my bonnet fairly well, which was made by Cat F for me. It was royal blue silk, lined with pink silk, topped with a vintage hot pink velvet ribbon. Also shows a nice group of us wearing Truly Victorian pattern dresses, along with pattern designers, Heather & Laura McNaughton.
And that was the end of our day. 

After the Festival was over, a group of us met at Heather McNaughton’s new Victorian home for some photos wearing our dresses.

Thank you again to Jerry Abuan for his great photos of us. 
Two weeks later a couple of the ladies in our fashion show group were contacted by a women’s club in La Jolla about “our fashion show we were doing for them the following week”. Uh, oops. This was a request last August and there was never any confirmation because with it being a weekday hardly anyone can do them since they work. So with a bit of scrambling and picking a couple people out of another fashion show list, we got one together with 8 people and a couple changes of dresses. I had no way of taking photos during the show so I only have a couple I took on my cell phone while we were waiting to go out the door and walk among the ladies tables. 

We did a bit of a timeline show as it’s the easiest to do. Our narrator and writer, Melinda, said she was in a prime position to see the audience reactions: they were FASCINATED! and really impressed at the art of our designs. They asked very good, very pointed questions that demonstrated true engagement.
So even though we were worried about how we would do, they all loved the show. And it was funny that so many of us wore orange or red tones. I was one of those who wore two outfits, and the first was my 1834 Persimmon dress, which I have no photos of me in. The second was my 1887 Autumn Bustle.

Halfway through my description of my dress I had Melinda ask if they’d like to see my Imperial Tounure bustle under my skirt. They said an overwhelming YES. So she lifted up my skirt to show my red polka dot petticoat, then my bustle, which she demonstrated how it can collapse so I can sit down on it. They enjoyed that so much I’m going to try and keep that in my descriptions if possible. They seem to be fascinated by our underpinnings. 
*As a sidenote, the last time I wore this outfit, I noticed my skirt was not very smooth in the front as an 1880s skirt should be. I think the fullness at my hips lends the bottom of the skirt to have some excess fabric. So my solution was to sew ties on the inside seams on each side and pull it slightly to the back to smooth that out. However, in the rush to change out of my first dress and into this I missed telling my dresser about that and later realized my ties were in front of me. Oh well. Live and learn. *

Next week I leave for WA State to visit my mom again, and go to the Victorian Festival in Port Townsend where I’ll be in the fashion show. I’m bringing my Autumn Bustle to wear in it, and may bring a second dress to wear the second day since we’re going out to tea with some friends. But I think I need to wear this one again because it’s warm. My other choice was a thin cotton, and doesn’t hold up to those sharp cold winds in the port there.