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.


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! 


Sunday, October 4, 2015


About 6 months ago my hairdresser, who knows about my costuming and some of the fashion shows I’ve done, asked if I’d be interested in putting on a show for her church’s annual fund raiser tea in Bonita. It would be another small one, 10-12 people for a half hour, which is the size I like to do. So I told her I’d love to.
Since this was a new location I knew I could use the same narrative I’ve used before, “Fashions through Time: 1810-1910”, and just update it with new dress descriptions. I spent the next couple months looking at dresses some of my friends had made or were wearing, and contacted them and asked if they’d like to join me. I filled most of the spots but still had two left and I waited until after the last fashion show at the Gaslight Gathering convention to “shop” there. I ended up seeing one gorgeous 1890s dress one of my models was wearing and asked her to wear that instead of her 1914 dress. So my hunt changed to different time periods to fill the now vacant ones. I held off committing myself to any decade since I have quite a few of my own to choose from, and once most of the others are filled, I can put myself in.

I visited the church hall where the fashion show and tea would be held about a month before the date. It was huge. I found out this is a major annual fund raiser for them, and outside the building there was going to be a craft sale, and after our show, ballet dancers would be performing on stage too. And there’s a pianist playing during the tea. Classy!

I took lots of photos of the area, so I could share with my models to be familiar with it, and did a diagram so I could work out our floor plan later. The “stage” is very plain but large, with just a large crucifix on the center wall. So I needed to think of what to add to the ambiance. I settled on using two dress forms again like my first show where we could display some underpinnings.

Finally got my line-up filled in, with Nancy again as my narrator and as a model, although I really wanted to fit a mourning/black dress in there. During my presentations I include some history on the fashions, one of them being that black dresses were not always mourning. But since I had to fill in the 1900-1910 myself, I wore my 1905 Pink Stripe Floral with S-bend corset to explain why those didn’t bend the ladies over. My narrative from the show tells about the changing styles of each decade and then a dress description to illustrate them. So there you have my “historical fashion show”.



 The day before the show I returned to the church to put up the display clothing and got to watch the ladies of the church decorating each table in individual themes. All 200 of the tickets for the tea had sold. I think this is the largest show audience I’ve done, although I’ve done two in one day with a larger attendance combined.

We all arrived early to have a lunch served to us in our dressing room and then took our time getting dressed, and waited for a bit. I was still trying to decide whether to have the ladies walk out and step up on the stage or walk up the side ramp and come up onto the center. In the end, coming out center stage proved a better choice. So here we are getting ready. The first two photos are mine taken with my cell phone (AGAIN forgot my camera) and the others by Gina.

I brought two of my antique parasols to be used in the show, and April was able to use the small 1850s cream one with her dress, and I carried my lace covered one.

Photos backstage by Gina.

I was almost the last one getting dressed as I was running back and forth making sure the microphone was found and placed on stage, finding and letting the church coordinator know we were there so our lunch could be brought back (chicken salad on croissants & potato or macaroni salad). I hadn’t worn my 1905 dress and S-bend corset for about two years and I had to have help getting laced in and everything buttoned up. This is one outfit I absolutely can’t get into myself, and strangely enough, it was also the easiest dress I've ever made. I also couldn’t find my hat at home I wear with it, and was really worried it had been lost after last wearing it in the Port Townsend fashion show. So I wore another straw hat I had. Good news though- the hat showed up later that day but too late to wear. That’s another tale.
So it was about time to go on. We lined up outside the door where we would walk out one at a time and go up on stage. Then Russell, our narrator Nancy’s husband, who is our gentleman escort/butler, suggested he walk each of us out to the stage, which I agreed would give us a nice look of elegance. This also proved to be a great idea because he was able to take some photos of us using Gina’s camera while we were up there.
And the show was on. As each model finished, they stepped to the back of the stage. Again, photos here were provided by Gina.
Both Birda and Jody looked like sapphire and emerald jewels in their Regency dresses as they began the show but sadly we have no photos them onstage yet. Gina really brought in the Fall colors with her 1830s dress. April countered that in her Spring time 1850s dress, and displayed the antique parasol I loaned her. Nancy was again showing off her 1860s undies and we heard the audience laughing. Cindy was recovering from a bad cold but soldiered on and looked lovely in her pink & grey plaid 1870s. This was Chanel’s first time in a fashion show, wearing her pink & cream bustle gown, and apparently she hammed it up as the audience was laughing again. Jo’s 1892 avocado green evening dress added an elegance to the show, and got a lot of close looks later when we walked around the tables. I ended the show in my pink floral stripe, and demonstrated how the S-bend corset and underpinnings gave me the fluff of a pigeon breast and rump. I heard a few oohs when I part-way opened up my silk lined lace parasol. The silk is shattering so I hope to have that replaced someday.

When we finished, we all stepped forward to the front of the stage for a group view. (I hope some of the many photographers I saw will share any of their photos with us.) Then we stepped off the stage and walked among the tables for the audience to have a closer look. I had a lot of them asking how the dresses were kept clean, especially with the hems that dragged behind us. And yes, I did get my skirt stomped on at one point, and the “ripping” I thought I heard was actually the snaps popping open on my back placket. I stood there frozen until it was confirmed no rips. Whew! 
If I get any group photos sent to me from onstage, I'll update my blog with them.