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.


Monday, March 16, 2020


Last August I went on an 1890s sewing binge. I decided my wardrobe I’d wear to the Victorian Festival in Port Townsend, WA near the end of March was going to be primarily 1890s. This was an important time period for this seaside town, and they would also be convenient for transporting them from CA. I would even be able to bring more than 1 or 2 dresses. Somewhere during that time, I had also started making an 1872 dress based on the green arsenic-filled fabrics for the fashion show at the Festival. That would be quite a bit bulkier but that didn’t stop me from my goals.
I already had three fabrics set aside for making skirts from; a dark plum, black with white pin dots, and a green & white striped. I later added a burnt orange that came from another project. I can make skirts pretty fast, and I just cut them all out at the same time, then sewed all the side seams, and then eventually finished each of them. Three of my skirts were actually going to be late 1890s, and the black and white would be 1903.

Each of these skirt fabrics had a particular fabric I was going to make a blouse from for them. I had a small amount of a tiny purple flower fabric to go with the plum skirt. And I used a remnant white stripe voile that could be interchanged between the green stripe and the burnt orange skirt. The black with white pin dots would have a matching blouse of its same fabric so I could use some antique lace I’d been hoarding for a few years. I trimmed some of the torn edges to make it usable on my blouse.

I used the same skirt pattern for all, Truly Victorian #291 1898 Walking Skirt, one of my favorites.
My blouses would be a variety of styles. The purple floral was made from Butterick 3417, because I LOVED the fluffy ruffles on the top of the sleeves. Also, it was the only pattern that I had enough fabric for. For the white blouse and the black and white pin dot, I used Truly Victorian #TVE 41, 1903 shirt waist, since it was originally planned as a later time period. I found out I can tuck the fullness of that blouse into my waistband, and it works perfectly well for 1890s. 

I had another white blouse I was going to try making from a white on white dot cotton jacquard, using the Vintage Pattern Lending Library # E9322 1899 blouse but it required some grading up. I ended up getting so involved in my fashion show dress, that it got set aside.   See my previous blog post, My 1872 Dress of Death.

I sewed up the first three skirts very quickly, and then began working on my blouses.  

I had a lot of fun with my purple floral blouse. The Butterick pattern was very easy to make but the pattern cover is deceiving on the length of the sleeves. They end in the middle of your forearm, which surprised me when I was cutting it out. I didn’t have enough fabric left to make ruffles for those. The shoulder ruffles were perfect for sewing a thin dark purple ribbon along the edges, which I repeated on the collar and the cuffs.
Now I have to confess that I have an inspirational lady I follow on her dressmaking. Erika, of La Belle Epoque Design, has made the most beautifully trimmed dresses, that I often just want to copy hers. She uses a lot of vintage lace but also modern lace, and in wonderful ways on her dresses. These two have been very inspirational for my current outfits. They’re both made of cotton but her strategically placed laces really raise them over the top. If you’d like to follow her, she’s on Facebook.  

I’m not sure where she finds her lace because I find it very hard to find any in enough yardage, or enough appliques to do any of this, but we can all dream and carry on the search. Either way, the search is half the fun.

For my one white blouse, I wanted to put a bunch of lace appliques on it and had four I had bought from the LA Fabric District, probably for about 50 cents each, and put two of them down the front. I hand basted these on.
My black and white pin dot required more extensive hand-sewing to put my antique lace on it. It was very soft and I didn’t want it to bunch up in the center, so that took me quite a while doing that. I wanted to use the remnant pieces of the lace that I’d cut off and put them on the sleeves but I can’t seem to get them on properly so I may revisit them later.
I jumped ahead and cut out, and sewed, the fourth skirt from the burnt orange cotton, and was again inspired by an outfit I’d save the photo of years ago because I loved the color and the skirt trims. I’m sorry I don’t know who it was. I just came across it on the internet but everything on it called to me. 
I wanted to repeat the lace and velvet along the skirt hem, and had a roll of cotton crochet lace I used for it, along with some 1-inch black velvet ribbon I had left from another project. I still have enough of the velvet ribbon and may eventually put a row around my plum skirt.
So, these are the final outfits that were finished to wear to the Victorian Festival. I found the long black sweater online after hours of searching, and it can be worn with both of these. In the seaside town of Port Townsend, it gets very windy, and blowing off the bay, sometimes its icy, so a nice sweater to go with these was a good choice. 

I still have some of the plum fabric, and also of the green and white stripe, and at some point, I’d like to make a bolero from them to go with these. This was my idea. 
I always thought I would buy the Wingeo #316 bolero pattern to make one but recently came across this pattern from Repeated Originals on etsy, that’s described as a corset cover. But I think it would be perfect for a bolero. It was inexpensive and I downloaded the digital pattern. Being this small, its an easy project.  

Sadly, just last Friday, the Victorian Festival was cancelled due to the Corona virus outbreak in WA. I had already cancelled my flight up to Seattle the previous week, because my two-week visit with my Mom might put her at risk. I was still working hard writing the narrative and dress descriptions of everyone’s outfits for the fashion show, all the time feeling very sad that I was going to miss it. But the Festival will come back next year, and will be it’s 25th anniversary. So, we’ll be working off many of our ideas from this year, and move them forward to next year. It was looking to be really amazing with all the new ideas the directors were putting together for the Festival, and we plan to continue to support them in any way we can.   

In the meantime, I have started some new projects, both in the 1870s time period. One of them is a seaside dress, that I printed out and taped together a digital pattern from Black Snail Patterns. I’m just waiting on my fabrics I ordered online to arrive. My dress will be pink stripes on top of a white with pink polka dot skirt. If and when I get up to WA later this year, I plan on wearing this to meet up with my friends there in Port Townsend.

I also decided to attempt making a dress for a friend in WA, who worked so hard for us this year. It will be a pattern I’ve made numerous times and hopefully that makes it easier for me.                         

Sunday, March 8, 2020


I’m often inspired by a fabric when I make a new historical dress. This time is was a vivid Xmas green Bengaline-rayon blend fabric I’d bought through a friend. It immediately said to me “arsenic green”. Many costumers interested in the history of fabrics know exactly what this is.
For a short history: In the early 1800s, color choices for clothing changed dramatically. In 1814, a company in Germany developed a new green dye. It was brighter than most traditional green dyes, and was bolder & didn’t fade. The shade was so jewel-like that it quickly began being called "emerald green." It was also called Paris Green. The vivid green color was achieved by mixing copper and highly toxic arsenic trioxide together. Women loved it, largely because it was during this time that gas lighting, rather than candlelight, was being introduced, and the color showed up more brilliantly. In the 1860s through 1880s green fabrics showed up more and more.  This color was used in fabrics, clothing, hair ornaments, artificial flowers, wallpaper and carpeting.

Except as women began showing skin rashes, open sores, and other signs of arsenic poisoning from wearing the dresses or working with it, the British Medical Journal wrote that the arsenic-wearing woman "carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms." In the 1880s, this knowledge became public and they quit using this color. An extant dress that the MET has in their collection is still so highly toxic to this day that workers must wear masks and gloves when they handle it. We mostly refer to it as “arsenic green” now.  *Now you know why I named my dress, The Dress of Death. 
Not to be dissuaded from making my own green dress, I began searching for gowns of green in those time periods, and landed on an 1872 one held in the MET Museum. *The hoop displayed under this is too full for an 1872 dress. By this time the skirt was flatter in front with a small hoop to hold it out, and a bustle attached in the back, similar to the one I own. But I loved the details of it. The black and white photo is of a similar dress the MET also has, and with better underpinnings. As you can see, dresses of this time period have lots of details you can play with. 

This was another idea I had of an 1873 dress, and with all the issues I had in making my final dress, sometimes I wished I’d made it instead. But nothing says I can’t make this someday.  
I found various fashion prints from 1872 to give me ideas of the silhouette and the trims used. It also gave me an idea of making a chemisette to fill in a neckline. Yeah, not exactly like my inspiration photo. But I couldn’t find a coordinating fabric to make the insert like it, so I went another direction with it. I also took notice of the hats and hairstyles they were showing.


My starting point for the bodice pattern was Truly Victorian #403, 1872 Vested Bodice. They didn’t have an over-skirt pattern for this yet but Heather said she was working on one. I started planning this in November, and hoped to have it ready to wear by February 22.
I decided to just make my skirt from panels of fabric, and I was convinced to try a new construction method of making a front panel that would be open on both sides at the top, and then go over the side panels that just had a narrow waistband on those that came to the front and closed. The front waistband would then go over it and hook on each side. Sound confusing? Yes. But while I was looking at one, I thought it ingenious, and a great way to make size adjustments.   *sample from Shelley Peters
My mistake was having my brain in an 1860s mindset and I had most of my skirt constructed before I realized the pleating was supposed to be pulled to the back and smooth in front. So, I had to rip that out and start over. And the front panel also had to be flatter. It was also supposed to have large inside pockets on both sides but even now that its finished, those are a failure for me.
Get over it. I proceeded to making the bodice. I was using the TV pattern as my base, which has a vestee sewn into it. I chose not to do that and make a chemisette instead, because of the fabric issue I had. Instead of a white chemisette, as was more common, I picked a pretty white cotton with green leaves on it, and it went well with my green fabric. Actually, I bought all 10 yds of the cotton that JoAnn’s had because it will make a pretty dress all by itself. Yes, I am a fabric hoarder. 
I’m not a real big fan of pagoda or flared sleeves but I decided to stick with the inspiration design having that little flair. So here was the base dress.
When I tried it on, it didn’t fit as well in the bodice as I liked, so I took in two of the front darts. Then my search was on for some matching fringe to put ALL OVER the dress. This was a really hard color to match, and for awhile I was thinking of going with a navy blue one, but finally found some at Target Trim in Los Angeles. I was starting to panic, as the fashion show I was going to wear this for was in two weeks. And this would require a lot of handwork tacking it on. Its lighter in the photo but its actually pretty close and just a tiny bit lighter. The fringe on the shoulder wasn’t on my inspiration dress but I saw it on another one and felt it needed MORE on mine. 

A couple weeks away from the Riverside (CA) Dickens Festival fashion show, Heather told me she just wasn’t going to be able to get a pattern for the over-skirt done in time for me. So, I just “created” one myself. I only had 1 1/4 yd/ 56” wide of the fabric left so I had to be judicious in my planning. Half of it would be the front, and the other half the back. I used the curved portion of a split-front over-skirt from a TV pattern to cut out my front. For the back, I just put tie-tapes in the waist hanging down to pull up the bottom of it. I used a photo as my idea for it. The front came from one photo, and the back from my inspiration photo. With my limited amount of fabric left, I couldn’t make swooping sides as I would have liked but the addition of the fringe helped fill it out. 

I was pretty happy with how the back came out. I ended up covering some large buttons in the green fabric to do on the sides of my over-skirt. 

I didn’t have a pattern for a chemisette since in the past I just used a blouse pattern and left the sides open with no sleeves. So, I downloaded one of Truly Victorian’s digital patterns, TV#149. I used the plain front but the small upright collar on it. This was my first purchase of their digital patterns, and its markings on the pattern pages are so well done, it went together very easily. I made this in two hours. 

In getting back to my skirt issues, I kept trying to bring more fullness to the back but it wouldn’t flatten out as much in front. I began focusing on my accessories at this point. While looking through some pages of fashion magazines from 1872 on Google Books, I came across this interesting little hanging purse. The majority of them were written in French but with the help of a lovely Canadian friend, she translated it to tell me it was called an “aumoniere”, translated to alms purse. She explained that they were small and the ladies or children would carry their “alms” or donation coins for church, to keep it separate from their regular money. The purse would hang from a belt, and many ladies would do some beautiful embroidery on them. 
I found them dated from 1862, the 1870s, and the oldest, which my friend found, from 1902.

At first, they all seemed to be on riding outfits. 
But then I found one shown with a regular dress from 1874. Good enough for me!
I began drawing out a pattern using one of the shapes, dug out some hunter green cotton velveteen I had in my stash, and had a lot of fun making this. My intention was to make it just large enough to hold my cell phone, since obviously my pockets on my skirt weren’t going to work, but it ended up 2” too small. But it looked SO CUTE with my dress.  Do you like it? I’m thinking about making a pattern available for it.
I had big plans for making a white cap or hat to wear with my dress, and my Canadian friend was again kind enough to upload a free pattern for making one but the week before the fashion show, I knew I wouldn’t make it in time. I dug through my hat collection and found an 1870s one that would look good with it. I still want to make one of these though.
Next up was hair. I had a very long braid I’d been saving to use for the 1870s, and looped it up in a serpentine shape and pinned it together, then put a hairnet over it to hold it together. Then I pinned it on to one of my wigs. I’m not a great hair dresser and that lump on the top would be covered by my hat. When I have time, I’m going to take it to my wig lady and ask her to do a better job of it for me. 
The day of the Dickens Festival fashion show finally arrived. We’d had pouring rain earlier, and off and on during the day, but it didn’t keep a large crowd from coming. Our group of models were smaller this year because of various things coming up, and of course some illnesses. But we had an appreciative audience. Since our numbers were down, Cindy and I both volunteered to wear two dresses. I wore another 1870s dress, my Red Plaid, since I could wear the same underpinnings, exchanging my bustle, and same hair with a different hat.
Of course, we rarely get any group photos given to us but Cindy and I took some ourselves. 

Now, time for some self-examination after seeing the photos. OMG, the green bodice is still too big! And I forgot to shorten the shoulder length, so that explains why my sleeves were too long. Argh!! And I need yet another petticoat. The fabric is heavy so its pushing down the multi-tiered one I’m wearing. When I get time, I’m taking off my waistband and attaching the skirt its normal way. Oh, and the waist on my over-skirt was too big too. No way I could have lost that much weight in one week since I’d last tried it on. I would really like to have a longer over-skirt in the back to balance it out but without any more of the fabric, I’m not sure what to do.
On to my next project, finishing up my two 1890s outfits to wear to the Port Townsend Victorian Festival at the end of March.