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.


Thursday, April 28, 2016


Something that’s been in the “planning in my head” stage for the last year was an 1870s tea gown. These were the “house dresses” of the time period, later versions of wrappers, and pre-cursors to dressing gowns. They were meant to be worn around the house before getting dressed for the day, or to wear with the family for breakfast, and sometimes a visit from a close friend. They weren’t as tightly fitted as a day dress, most often not worn with a corset, and was all of one length of fabric, not a bodice and skirt. And they had trains. They were easier to put on and ladies didn’t need a maid to help them get dressed in them. I’ve seen them called princess dresses in catalogs too. Most likely from the long “princess” seams.
If you want to do some more reading about them, Leimomi’s blog has a lot of information on them.
When a challenge came up to make and wear them at Costume College this coming July, that fit right in to my project.

Right now the favored pattern for them is Truly Victorian # 423 tea gown. It’s labeled as 1880s but the style was also being worn in the 70s. The one by the Wisconsin Historical Society (aka Patterns of History), called the Avant-Garde gown from 1881, would have been a nice one but it only comes in Size 10. But I have it, and might try and play around with it someday.

This is a drawing I came across showing the interior of one that I think is from Janet Arnold’s books but I’m not sure. Notice that it has a stay belt on the interior that is attached in the back and hooks around your waist in the front to keep it snug. 
I didn’t want mine to look like a generic plain one, but something a little more elegant. I began collecting photos on Pinterest and found many would be hidden within a fashion plate of multiple dresses that could be worn throughout the day, or sometimes in the corner of a catalog page.

I found this lovely 1877 mourning tea gown (as seen by the black edged envelopes) and anyone who knows me, knows I love to make mourning dresses. There’s lots of little details I love on it. So this one may show up in my wardrobe too.
There are quite a few extant gowns for inspiration too, and a couple of them are Worth gowns.

I finally nailed down this one, identified as an 1870s Worth gown. The two ladies are having tea in a home, and have a visitor show up. The picture is a little grainy but her neckline almost looks like a chemise with a ribbon drawstring, and a bare neckline with a couple strings of pearls. Kind of dressy but still definitely an article of dishabille
The main fabric looks like a brocade, with a solid train, and a lightweight underdress. So I decided this would be my inspiration for a Worth tea gown.
My fabric was easy. I found this medium weight polyester, plum colored fabric in a newly opened store in the L.A. Garment District that was heavily embroidered with flowers and vines. It just screamed Worth dress to me. And at $2.99 yard, I bought 10 yards not even knowing how much I would need at the time. It turns out the pattern needs 7 yards, and the pattern pieces are full length so take into account if you have to buy small 3-4 yard pieces you will need 4 lengths long enough to cut from your neck to floor.
The center insertion fabric was the hardest for me to find. I first thought a lighter color than the plum but I think it needed contrast, and white didn’t work. After dragging it around in Yardage Town last week, I finally decided on a sheer pale pink chiffon. You can see through it but my plan is to shirr it so it’s opaque. Although bets are on whether I’m going to cut my throat after trying to cut and sew it.
I started tracing out the pattern yesterday so I could make my muslin to fit me. I only traced it down to the waistline for fitting. I saw the markings to pleat the Watteau back and thought this is going to be easy and followed the direction to fold them.

But then I was politely told just how I *should* be doing those pleats. And it wasn’t like the markings on the pattern seemed to show. WRITTEN IN THE DIRECTIONS, it has you fold the center back WRONG sides together and sew a straight line down to your waist on one of the marked lines. THEN you fold that in towards the sewn center line. BUT NOT ON THE INSIDE of the fabric as I did but on the OUTSIDE. Back to the drawing board. And no, I didn’t read the directions before I started. At least this was just the muslin.

I also was fitting this to myself with my corset on but after reading Leimomi’s blog I saw that these were not meant to be worn with a corset but to be comfortable in around the house. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that for a while because my pattern was cut to fit my corseted body.
Now that I’ve got that worked out, I get to start cutting my fabric. Just look at all that pretty!

Monday, April 25, 2016


In the past I have been amazed and entranced by costumes that my friends have made using modern Simplicity or Butterick patterns that had the lines for a historical dress. I’ve never been able to see that, just like those who can go to thrift stores and pull out stuff to make them. I’ve been there where I’ve said I could never do that. But I’m learning to never say never. You just have to give it a try, or find someone to teach you, or teach yourself. We’re not baboons. We have brains, and we can learn. But don’t get me started on reading pattern directions.
I love it when I see something that inspires me, and I wanted to share one of those somethings. My friend Joyce, who runs a group of ladies who go to tea in historical dress, put together an outfit for our Titanic tea on the Queen Mary last week. It was a purple skirt and jacket with a blouse, and she looked perfect. She had wanted something that was comfortable to wear and had little time to put it together. I kept trying to get photos of her so I could remember it later. And I finally got her to pose and open it a bit for me.

Of course I had to ask what pattern she used, and she said it was a kimono jacket and sewed up in a few hours. Kimono sleeves have no armholes. So it’s mostly all of one piece. And she used a modern McCall’s #6802 pattern for it but lengthened it to how she wanted it. The edges were trimmed in black velvet. Her skirt was the Truly Victorian # TVE 30 Single Panel skirt.

I’ve always loved the skirt and loose jacket look of many Edwardian outfits, and this just grabbed my attention. So I went looking for the pattern and in that hunt found a couple more that have possibilities, Simplicity 1318, with a really nice curved front, and McCalls 7333, that has a nice wide lapel but has a hood which could be made without it.

This last one, McCalls 7290, fulfills my dream of having something like what Renee Zellweger wore in the Beatrix Potter movie that was a long sweater coat. Of course now I can’t find a photo of it.   *not that it EVER gets cold enough in SoCal that I could get much wear out of it*

But think of it- if you’re not too adept at using historic patterns, or the originals are so tiny there’s not a snowballs chance that you could use it, or they’re too expensive, BUT you’re comfortable with sewing modern patterns, here’s your answer to something historic-looking.

But wait! There’s more! Something about Joyce’s jacket kept wiggling at a memory I had of another era’s dress, something that this would also work for.
It was this 1914 ad from a McCall’s catalog for a couple patterns, and in the corner I saw this and started me thinking that these dresses were no more than a skirt with a loose jacket tied around the waist. It was quite an eye-opener for me when I was thinking it was more complicated when it wasn’t.
And, so what about these from 1912-1918?

Now that I’ve opened your eyes, get thee to a pattern sale at JoAnn’s. I own them all now, bwahaha! 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

1908 Marigold Yellow Dress, and All the Warts

This dress has been in my Make It file and I finally decided now was the time to make it, since I had an event coming up in April that I can wear it. The Ladies of the Traveling Tea Society were going to tea on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA, to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic. So this 1908 dress would work just fine.

 It was suggested that a bright yellow or butter yellow would not look good on me but to look for a golden harvest-y yellow. On my last trip to the Garment District I found this poly-blend curtain fabric that looked good held up to my skin and hair. After searching the rest of the GD for a similar color, and no luck, I decided to use it. And it was on sale for $3.99. It has a bit of a shine but it’s a dull shine so not like a poly-satin-shiny fabric. 
I found a couple photos that showed different ways to do the type of bodice I wanted to try with the lapels. 

On my pattern review group, I asked for suggestions from anyone of what pattern I could use for the bodice. Most suggestions were the Folkwear #220 “Garden Party” dress, but with some alterations to the square neckline opening to make it V-shape.  The pattern is a bit small for me because unfortunately they don’t make them above a size 16. The sleeves seem to be about the right shape, and it was suggested to extend the length of cuffs to match the dress and I’ll need lace for it.

I remembered another bodice I'd made using Laughing Moon’s #104 evening dress pattern where I used it as a base and then layered fabric on it to create the V-shape. This will probably be about the same technique.

The skirt was an easy choice, Truly Victorian TVE 21 Trumpet skirt, which I haven’t made before, but looks just like the one in the fashion print.
While I was out of town for two weeks visiting my mother, I brought the fabric with me and spent some time doing the basic cutting and sewing but couldn’t go any further without having my dress form to start building the bodice trims on it. So it had to wait till I got home.
The skirt has an underskirt, a lining that’s separate from the skirt that has a ruffle on the bottom to help hold out the bottom of the skirt. Because of it being on the bias, it was truly a pain and the hem not very pretty. But it’s hidden so that’s all that matters. The instructions tell you to make it 2” shorter than the skirt itself but since I couldn’t mark that hem yet, I wasn’t able to go any further with it. So that had to be done at home too.
While I was out and about there, shopping in thrift stores and antique malls, I found a cotton lace tablecloth I decided to use on my dress for the V-neck insert and sleeve cuffs; and a straw hat that looked so much like the ones in 1905-08, I knew it could work.

Once I was back home I began building the bodice. I sewed two lengths of the fabric to make my lapels that I draped over the shoulders, crossed in front and back, and then the tails would be tucked into the waist. These were just tacked in place. I basted a square of the lace tablecloth fabric onto the front of the neckline and it was covered by the lapels.

I didn’t think the bodice was *quite* long enough to be tucked into my waist so I added a 6-inch peplum around the bottom. 
I had a lot of problems with my lace collar I planned to use with this. It’s a reproduction I purchased from a seller in China on ebay. I hated to cut it in half since this bodice closes in the back, and tried to just tack it in the front and would have tiny clear snaps on the back to hold it down. But each time I tried putting it over my head, right in the center back the lace began to tear. To avert a disaster, I made the command decision to cut it in half. And all was well. Except the next morning I saw the photo I’d taken and the collar was longer on one side in the front than the other. That’s what happens when the back of your bodice overlaps and takes up an extra inch or so. Out came the seam ripper but was an easy fix to replace the tacking stitches.

The black tie was fairly simple to make. Sew a long length of black taffeta in half, hand-sew it just below where the lace collar ends, and tie it in a bow. I tacked that down too.
I used the sleeve that came with the Folkwear pattern since it was the right shape, and used some photos of sleeves from a 1907 ad as my inspiration.
 I cut rectangles from the lace tablecloth to sew to the bottom of the sleeves, and then discovered a problem that would eventually not work as well as I’d hoped. The fabric is loosely woven and stretches. To sew the seam, I had to turn the edges under twice and sew it like a finished edge, THEN sew the two edges together which kept it from unraveling. But it still wanted to stretch. I sewed the lace to the bottom of the gathered cuff first, and then sewed a band around the top. Then discovered I had pulled the gathering stitches in and now it was too tight. So out came all the stitches. We’re all familiar with the “sleeves from hell” so this will be no surprise but after I sewed it all together again, it was still too tight. So I ripped again, made sure it fitted over my elbow, and sewed it again. This time they both went over my elbow.  *Wait for it…….*    The next day when I put it on, one of them was again too tight so by the end of the day I had a welt around my arm. One end of the cuff seems to have stretched out a bit so it flares at the bottom. Back to the drawing board. I think when I get time I’ll start looking for a different kind of lace fabric to replace those and the insert with.

Where do I start with the hem? The Trumpet skirt is flared at the bottom, which means the part of the hem I turn up is wider than where it’s hemmed to. Which means there’s going to be excess fabric to be taken in.  I know how to hem. But I’ve again realized I’ve never been taught how to hem other than short narrow hems. I turned up 3 inches and in my brain I figured out I could pull in that excess by doing a gathering stitch. Except this fabric is kind of thick and the thread kept breaking when I tried to gather it. So I folded tiny bits in, and held my head in shame. And yes, I lifted my skirt and brazenly showed it to anyone around me.
But by doing so, I received a bit of advice to drop the hem by 2 inches, because it ended up too short and my lining skirt ruffle was peeking out the bottom. Shameful! And then I should cut off some excess and only have about 2 inches turned up. Which is pretty much what I usually do but fortunately some instinct kept me from cutting off that excess which wouldn’t have given me enough left to hem. Some hidden intuition must have been at work there.
So I finally got the bodice all put together and finished off the edges of the lapels and peplum that will be tucked inside the skirt. I had plans for a nice belt and was going to track down a buckle I could take off one of my other dresses but since I was still hemming the blasted skirt at 10pm the night before the event I was wearing it to, that didn’t happen. So I made a quick band with the two remaining buttons I had left from the back bodice closure, and added a snap in the middle.
I can truly say I loved my hat. I traced a circle from the full size of the hat out of black taffeta, did a gathering stitch about 2 inches in from the edge (checking first that it would entirely cover the crown), turned that under and lightly tacked it to the hat. I had two lengths left over from the tie I’d made, so I used one around the base of the crown and another to make a bow for the back. These are just tacked on also.

I thought that looked a bit bland so added a long black ostrich feather around the crown, tacking this down more since they have a tendency to fly away on their own. And then I made a quick run to Michael’s for a lemony yellow rose. I had to carry a swatch of my fabric with me since not all yellows looked well with it.

Accessorizing this was easy since I have a lot of things from the time period already. So my long Edwardian parasol that was given to me came along as a walking stick, as did my antique black reticule I found in Florida a few years ago.

This is the second time in my costuming career that I didn’t have a chance to try on my dress before wearing it, and this is the reason why you really need to do that. My lining skirt was longer on one side than my skirt. Or what really happened is, my skirt wasn’t long enough. I marked my hems level with the floor then turn it up 2 inches. But somewhere in the process it shrunk. And then the tablecloth lace stretched. So it was a bit of a hot mess. It was more visible to me than others but we all know about that.
Overall I was very happy with my outfit. I think it just needs a few tweaks and I will be entirely happy with it. I wore it to the afternoon tea on the Queen Mary ship yesterday. We all wore dresses from close to the time period of 1910, had a very nice tea, and later toured the Princess Diana exhibit on the ship. It was more than just about Diana, but also the lineage and history of the royal family, starting with Edward, Prince of Wales (aka King George V) and King George VI, who became King when Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson.  It was a really nice exhibition. But sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos.

As mentioned, one of the things I’ll be changing is the lace insert and cuffs. I looked through the photos of my lace trims I have and came across two that just might work. I also want to make the cuffs a bit longer. I’ll have to see how they look next to my collar.

Since a lot of the front trims on the bodice are hand sewn on, they’re going to be easy to remove and replace afterwards. And at least I won’t be in a rush to try and get that done. Don’t they say costumes are always a work in progress?
At least Chloe approved my skirt. She managed to take a short nap on it while I was typing away here.