Empire Ensemble

May 31st, 2011

Just in time for our Neoclassical Memorial Day Picnic, I finished my Empire ensemble. It consisted of:

  • a stomacher front dress (built onto what was originally intended to be a separate bodiced petticoat);
  • a tiny lace shawl, strategically designed to preserve my modesty;
  • and a gypsy bonnet, complete with veil (a handy safeguard in case my shawl slipped; at least I wouldn’t be recognized).

Empire Back

As you may be able to tell from the back, with it’s tiny, raised bodice panel and slight train, it’s a very early Regency style (copied mostly from Janet Arnold). But because I based the scandalous neckline on a French portrait, I am calling the dress Empire instead. As you may recall from earlier posts, I initially thought the dress in the painting must close in the back, so I proceeded accordingly. As I worked through the fittings, and just couldn’t make the back behave no matter how I tried, I began to look for examples of back-closing dresses from this period. And I failed to find a single one that matched.

Then, I looked again at the painting, and again. And what do you think? It turns out the painting was a stomacher front as well! So I re-cut the back, removed most of the front, and cut a new front bodice piece to add to the apron part of the skirt. Because of the last minute change in plans, there are some definite irregularities in the dress construction. Most are invisible from the outside, but you can tell when you open it up. Ah well. I’ll do better next time.

Empire Front

Somehow this photograph avoids being terribly indecent, perhaps because it was taken indoors. But I kept my shawl draped around my neck and hanging down the front while I was out and about. Can you see the similarity to my inspiration painting? While it’s not an exact copy, I believe I captured the essentials. It was particularly exciting to see how Janet Arnold’s pattern created the exact lines seen in the portrait. I live for those little correspondences, when two disparate sources suddenly combine and magnify!

Alas, I fear I am now hooked on Regency. New dresses are already being planned…


May 24th, 2011

Turns out I didn’t need all 5 buttons…though I am reserving the right to add another one in the middle if the back gapes!


The dress pattern I am working from in Janet Arnold’s book is a stomacher front, so it closes in the front. But there’s another dress on the same page that seems to be more similar in some aspects of construction to my inspiration painting. The second dress is back closing, like the painting dress, and this is how its buttons are arranged.

Bust My Buttons

May 23rd, 2011

Tonight I finished putting together the bodice of my Empire dress fairly early. I didn’t quite have the energy to cut out the skirt and waistband though, so I decided to cover a set of five buttons for the center back closure.

From what I can discover online, there were three main types of buttons used on clothing at the turn of the 18th century: metal, fabric-covered, and thread (metal rings wrapped in thread to create intricate designs). Somehow metal seems incongruous on a delicate white frock, and I’ve gotten the impression that the thread buttons (of which Dorset seems to be a classification) are mostly used on undergarments, or things that need to be washed vigorously. So I opted for fabric-covered.

The question then arose as to what I should use for my button forms, and how to attach the covers. Since my time is limited, I decided to use modern buttons from my button box and cover them by gathering tiny circles of fabric around them and sewing it closed. I’ve made a mental note to dig deeper into this topic at a later date.


I made five buttons, which seems like more than sufficient to close the center back of my emerging dress. They’re rather thickish though, so I think I shall make thread loops instead of buttonholes. Even with three layers in the buttonstand, my dress fabric is far too fragile to withstand much strain.

Faux Historic Dress

April 27th, 2011

You’re probably wondering why I spent a good chunk of this evening cutting out this dress:

From upholstery fabric no less.

But I do have a good reason. Believe it or not, with a few minor changes, McCall’s Costume Pattern M4548 is an adequate approximation of a mid-19th century dress. Most importantly, it creates a reasonably good look without the need for historically correct undergarments. This makes it ideal for costuming the occasional interpreter at an historic house museum. If you’re aiming for a serious living history impression, this obviously isn’t for you. But if you’re trying to make a dress that will fit multiple people, who have never worn historic clothing, it’s a great find! A dear friend and amazing costumer shared this secret with me, and I hope she won’t mind that I am now sharing it with you.

In case you’re still wondering, WHY am I making a “faux” historic dress, kindly remember that in order to stay neatly hooked or buttoned into a truly accurate 1850s dress, you also need to wear an accurate 1850s corset. Which means you need an accurate 1850s chemise. And in case you have to use the loo in between tours, you’d need a pair of accurate 1850s drawers. Plus petticoats to hold it all out. Did I mention that someone needs to wear this outfit two weeks from today (at this event), and I have only a couple of sewing days between now and then?

Maybe, if you are very good, I will tell you why I can only squeeze a couple of sewing days out of two whole weeks in my next post. It has to do with something very exciting that is happening this weekend…