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! 



  1. This is fantastic! You're a brave one.

  2. I love this article. The polonaise has intimidated me from the first. I'm shorter and smaller waisted and fuller busted and hipped than the garment's measurements and altering it is a trial. Once I get the bodice part fitted I then go insane trying to adjust the lower, bustle part.

    Do you think you could do a companion piece to this article that would discuss how to correctly fit it?

    1. That would be like the blind leading the blind. Fitting is my worse attribute, and altering is almost non-existant. I've done some tweaks to change a look but not doing any sizing changes other than adding an inch or two to side seams.
      I'm not sure if Heather's Truly Victorian Forum could help with something like that, but maybe someone there knows how to alter patterns?

  3. I have made this pattern several times with different neckline and sleeves; and the peplum, of which I created my own pattern. One of my students made the bodice with a turn back lapel of contrasting lining that finishes in a small V at the bustline. The bustling in back is the fun part...I use grosgrain ribbon tacked up inside. Hang the finished polonaise inside out on a door frame or hook, then starting at the waist band area under the peplum sew 3 pieces of 1/2" ribbon that are about 12 - 18 inches long spaced about 4-6" apart, then starting in the middle pinch up the back skirt to your desired fullness and tack to the ribbon, do this 3 times for the middle and twice on either side. Turning the polonaise right side out to check as you go, and voila, bustling. :)

    1. Yvonne, I'm glad to hear others are changing it up. It has a lot of possibilities. My first three I cut out and sewed all on an "assembly line" about 6 years ago so not much variety in the cut, and now that I'm a little more experienced, I want to try more things out with it. I'd love to see what your's look like.
      Your bustling technique sounds similar to my friend Cindy's, and I usually do mine on my dressform.


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