Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Vastly Belated Bath Victorian Ball (2018)

So, more than a year ago now, I attended the Bath Victorian Ball with my fiancé, James, who you can follow over at Little Welsh Viking. I meant to do a full write-up for the gown I made, along with some shots of the suit of tails I made for him, but I never got around to it (PhD life). This is going to be slightly abridged, due to details I've probably forgotten, but here we go.

As always, a photo of the finished ensembles:

Photo by Lucas Pitcher, Timelight Photography

The theme for 2018's Bath Victorian Ball was natural form (1876-9, with some squidge on either side), but we were allowed to go slightly earlier. Even though I was making a new gown, I opted for the latter option because 1) I loathe natural form, with a couple of exceptions, 2) I didn't have enough fabric to do a natural form gown, which tend to be cut with shoulder-to-floor seams rather than bodice-and-skirt construction, and tend to use one or two fabrics rather than multiple fabrics and trims, and 3) early 1870s floofiness is one of the. best. things. ever. So I planned an 1875 gown, which was right on the edge between the ridiculous bustles of the early 1870s, and the deflated look that came in right after.

I should note that there were tons of ladies at the ball who made natural form look fantastic, and who made stunning, drool-worthy gowns. Just not for me, especially if I'm buying silk for it!

I started squirreling away fabric for this gown about three years ago. I had three yards of this and two yards of that, and so on - about 6 different types of silk taffeta and brocade, in the end, plus a few smaller scraps that I used for trim. The light pink bias-cut edging and cording that appears all over the gown is from three different pieces of fabric, that are mostly - but not quite - the same shade. Just had to be careful where I put them! All of these disparate pieces were not suitable for an elegant, long-line natural form gown, but they could definitely be cobbled into a ridiculous c.1875 confection!

Here are some of my references:

1870s Fashion Plate, provenance unknown

Ms Sophie Croizette, 1870s Victoria & Albert Museum

Fashion plate, Revue de la Mode, 1873

Striped silk dress, c.1870, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Based on all of these, and with reference to the bits of fabric in my possession, I came up with a design for my own gown:

I chose the one in the bottom left, due to fabric allowances. My main fabric was a gold/tan silk taffeta with some figured gold brocade stripes in it, of which there is a photo in the top corner of my design image. It's remarkably similar to the fabric in this 1880s dress, although my brocade repeats are narrower:

Gown, 1880s, Augusta Auctions

So that was the plan. I started with the bodice, using my basic Victorian bodice block and designing the skirts for it with an awkward combination of drafting and self-draping. I cut it in good fabric literally the day I left to fly to Canada for Christmas, so that I wouldn't have to take all 7 yards of it with me! Sorry for the horrendous quality of this photo; I was in a rush.

I did my best to pattern-match across the pieces, although obviously you can't do that completely on a curve. It worked pretty well. Un-matched stripes are totally period, though.

Here's the bodice after the first fitting in good fabric, and with some of the trim on the 'dagged' or 'vandyked' bottom edge, which was a fashionable style in the '70s (see the red and gold gown above).

At this point not all the boning was in, so the bodice was wrinkling over the hips and not quite sitting right in back. However, I was quite pleased with the trim - it took SO LONG, but it was exactly what I'd had in my head.

The inside took quite a bit of taming, especially along the hip-curves, but eventually both the seam allowances and the wrinkles on the hips decided to cooperate. I used the really thin zip-ties for most of the boning in this, by the way. There are narrow steels at the centre-back lacing, but that's it. Zip ties are cheap, and the ability of the plastic to take on a shape when you add some heat is much more reminiscent of whalebone than even spiral steels are. So there's a good argument for using plastic. They're not seen on the outside, so I care more about the properties of the material than the look of it, in this case. Steel or extra-strong plastic at the centre-backs is essential, though, to keep them from warping under the pressure of the lacing.

Next up was the bertha. My two main inspirations were these:

Gown, c.1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This one is a pinterest orphan :(

I really liked the 'windowpane' effect of the gauze through the ribbons, and I happened to have some very fine silk gauze laying around - I'd vowed never to use it because it was so impossible to cut on the grain, hem, or even touch without snagging, but it was perfect for this!

To make the pattern, I laced my corset around two pillows and then put the bodice on over that - not ideal, but it worked. Also, sorry in advance that a lot of these are instagram shots - I switched hard drives and transferred loads of stuff between computers, and I can't currently figure out where the original photos of these ended up. :(

That's the two-pillows-and-a-corset dress form in the bottom right

The taming of the gauze

Despite using a ton of gauze, mine ended up somehow...flatter...than the original. But it was hell to work with, so I'm leaving it as-is, forever.

Here it is at the final fitting, with sleeves. Obviously the hip-bits need some oomph under them to stop them from wrinkling and drooping. I'm not in love with the sleeves. I'd hoped to mess with them before the ball, but I didn't have time. They fit the slightly neo-medieval dagged-and-windowpane aesthetic, but they're a little...fake Rapunzel?...I'm not sure. 

Adding the eyelets using an original mother-of-pearl awl that I found for £3 at a thrift shop.

At this point we were only about a month from the ball, and I was panicking slightly as I moved on to the skirt.

I used a Janet Arnold pattern for the skirt, but it was for a day-dress, so I added a train. But why not use the handy 1870s floofy ball gown skirt with a train that she includes, you ask? Well. Mini side-rant.

Fun fact: that famous 1870s gown pattern, with the button-up front of the bodice and the nice trained skirt? The original dressmaker cut it wrong, with the bias at the front edge of the skirt panels, rather than the back edge. Janet Arnold does acknowledge this in the fine print on the pattern, but it's not immediately obvious as a problem if you don't already know about the bias-towards-the-back rule. Weirdly, although bias grain is notoriously (and usefully) stretchy and loses its shape, when it's worked into a seam, it's actually much more 'aggressive' than a straight-of-grain edge, because all the fibres in the weave are hitting the seam at an angle, whereas on the straight-of-grain side of the seam, half the fibres are hitting the seam dead-on, but the other half are perpendicular and not hitting it at all. This means that a bias edge will always push a straight edge away from itself. Thus, if the bias edges on your skirt panels are on the back-facing edge of each panel, they will naturally push the volume of the skirt around the body towards the back. This creates more pleasing folds and flutes in the drape of the skirt, and is a principle you can see clearly in dressmaking throughout the nineteenth century. When it is cut as-is, with the bias towards the front, the skirt will never quite fall the way most skirts of the period are meant to. 

I've still seen some really beautiful renditions of that dress, both with and without changing the direction of the skirt panels. However, where the bias is not switched, many of the successful gowns I've seen are, like the original gown itself, made in lightweight fabrics - silk-cottons, thin satin, gauze, and so on. These fabrics move and drape naturally, so the fluting looks elegant and intentional. However, my gown was to be made in stiff silk taffeta, flat-lined with even stiffer cotton organdy, and weighed down with multiple layers of taffeta ruffles. When faced with this much heavier and stiffer set of materials, the problems with the grain would have become much more visible, and there would have been clear folds and droops in the skirt that fell towards the front - that is, in towards my legs - rather than being held out towards the back as desired. I personally didn't feel like fighting with the pattern, so I chose a day gown with simpler panels and just added a train.

This is the culprit. You can see from the stripes that the bias is on the wrong side of the skirt panels.


I made the skirt in a plain tan 'taffetioni' in the front (who coined that term? Was it Lauren? It's great. I use it for any dupioni/shantung - that is, a slubby plain weave - that has few enough slubs that it can mostly pass for taffeta), and just a cotton sateen in the back, since that was all going to be covered with silk panels anyways. The whole thing was flatlined in cotton organdy for stiffness and body, bound with twill tape rather than being hemmed (another common period practice), and finished on the inside with a cotton organdy ruffle at the bottom edge, which is also something you see on lots of originals. It helps to keep the bottom of the skirt from folding in on itself, and serves as both a dust ruffle and a bit of protection between the floor and your nice fabrics.

I wish to thank the orcs of Mordor for their assistance with this stage of the gown sewing process.
Here it is over a bustle to check the train length. I actually went a little overboard on the width of the train at the sides - it doesn't need to come so far out until the centre-back panel and the back edges of the panels on either side. But it's easier to cut some away than to have to add it! I already had to piece the very back curve of the train.

Here is the skirt with some of the silk added. The gold and pink silk ruffle around the bottom was actually one of the very first things I did as prep for this dress, and it took probably as long as making the base bodice and skirt combined. Seriously, it took SO LONG, you guys. I did it all by hand with vinegar and an iron, trying to knife-pleat as evenly as possible. The pink sections are accordion-pleated and then stitched together at the top, so that they fan out when I walk. The whole bottom edge of the ruffle is bound in a strip of pink silk, which in itself took forever because I stupidly sewed it by hand! Why? Why did I do that? They had machines in the 1870s! 

For the rest of the trim, though, I got smart. That is, I got a fluting iron.

I saw this fluting iron at the huge antiques market where I eventually bought it waaaay back when I still lived in Ontario full time. That is, before undergrad. I had no immediate use for it, and I was about to move to Nova Scotia, so I left it. Fast forward seven years, to when I was planning this ballgown. I went home to Toronto for Christmas and took a trip up to St Jacobs specifically to see if I could find the iron - I hoped that no one else would have found, recognised, and purchased it in the very long interim. Quite the opposite - there were now two of them! The other was beautiful, but 1890s and fiddly, and would have had to be completely taken apart and cleaned before it would even function, so I got the 1860s one I’d originally seen. I’m pretty sure it, on its own, took up more than the allowable weight in my carry-on on the way to Scotland, and the security personnel were so alarmed by it that they made me completely unwrap and explain it. But I’m so glad I got it here! If you ever come across one of these, go for it.

Using it is really simple. You stick the base in the oven for a bit - I did 20 min to start, I think, and then 3 or 4 minutes to reheat whenever it started to cool down. I stuck mine on an oven mitt on the ironing board. Then you wet your fabric strip with a vinegar-water mixture, place it on the base, and roll the top piece over top to 'corrugate' the fabric. I recommend as much vinegar as you can stomach smelling (I did mine when I was sick and had a stuffed-up nose, which was, for once, ideal timing) and a trim width no wider than the fluting iron’s base. I tried to go over mine twice to get a double width, but it just ended up crunching the fabric weirdly and making the flutes wonky and uneven.

Here are the finished pieces of trim after being fluted and drying out. They remind me of those crepe streamers you used to see at grade-school birthday parties. I don't *think* I smelled like vinegar on the dance floor. :)

Next I made the apron bit and the various floopy bits and attached them all to the skirt.

That's literally the only in-progress shot I have of that. It was less than a week before the ball and there was so much still to do, so I was not really pausing for photos!

This is me, in Jimmy's old flat in Glasgow, on very little sleep, doing the final fitting before the ball. The super long floopy thing I'm holding in the top photo is one of the two pieces of trim that had yet to be gathered. I ended up doing that by hand on the drive down to Bath.

I found some square-toed shoes at a charity shop. They were a little small, so I opened up the back seam and used some more of that trusty light pink silk to extend them by about a 1/4". I also added some gold silk rosettes, also from my gown fabric. This was in the flat in Bath, the day before the ball!

In the end, unfortunately, I felt quite sick the day of the ball. I had aching shoulders and neck before I even put the ballgown on (a common problem for me), and I ended up with a headache by half way through the evening. I also had a nasty stomach ache, probably from anxiety and not sleeping. This is why you finish your dresses earlier, folks! But we did get some good photos.

There are the back tiers I didn't show you earlier. :) I need to make another petticoat to fluff it up more; I've two organdy petticoats and a lobster-tail bustle under there, but it's still not enough. MORE PETTICOATS ALWAYS.

The photos above are by Raven Stern. I guarded her camera during one of the dances I sat out, resulting in this strange shot:

Also, this was the first Victorian ball that I went to with James, which meant it was finally time for the suit of tails to shine! That's the suit of tails that I made back in my third year of undergrad, but never finalised because I didn't have someone who would actually want to wear it. Well, it was worth the wait. It fit James perfectly, so I just needed to sew the back seam on the trousers, hem the legs, finish some of the linings, finish the insides of the sleeves and armholes, add buttons, and take out all the basting.

And here we are at the ball:


I'll also include some photos of the tailcoat in progress, below. These are now quite a number of years old, and unfortunately I don't have any better ones, as I did most of the tailcoat sewing during the late evenings and all-nighters pulled between paper deadlines for history courses. Amazing it came out this well, really. It's all hand-stitched, and the photos show how many layers and components go into this type of tailoring.

The inside, with the horsehair canvas and a layer of wool felt visible. There is a second layer of canvas and a layer of soft buckram underneath the visible horsehair canvas.

A close-up of the front padding. The pad-stitching has been begun along the lapel. It has already been completed on the underside of the felt - this step must be completed before the felt is attached, via catch-stitch, to the canvas.

What all of this looks like from the right side. The fabric is wool barathea.

Once all the layers of stiffening are added to the fronts, the wool facing on the lapel and the first panel of lining go in. The tails are also interlined at this point; pockets will be added to the tails before the lining goes in.

Again, from the right side, showing all the basting stitches and guiding marks.
This is a cross-section of the shoulder, with the sleeve and body sandwiched together before being sewn. The body is on the left in this photo, and the sleeve on the right. In order, the layers are: sleeve lining (far right striped fabric, before being set in), sleeve roll padding, wool barathea sleeve, wool barathea body, horsehair canvas layers x2 (chest and body padding), soft buckram (ditto), wool felt (ditto), shoulder pad, body lining. The sleeve lining gets pulled up over all of it and tacked down to cleanly finish the inside, and then you barely know there’s so much bulk hidden in there!
I'm so pleased that the tailcoat finally saw its day in the sun (or rather, the chandeliers), and James will be able to wear it to any other late-Victorian events we may go to.

Traditional last photo of the night


The next morning we went to the Pump Rooms for breakfast, and wandered around Bath. I went as a suffragette, c.1907, but I think I'll save that for a separate post - this one is fairly image-heavy as it is.

I'm hoping to make an extra petticoat or two for the ballgown and then do a photoshoot with James in one of the historical houses near Edinburgh, so stay tuned!

Fishing in Fife

Oh hey, I wrote this and then never posted it! I've just found it in my drafts. It's from December 2016. Whoops. Better late than never.


Well, as usual, it's been a while since last I posted! Sorry about that. I've been working away, but haven't attended any events to show you photos from. That changed this past weekend, though!

A friend and fellow St Andrews student, Adam HL, pulled me into the project he was putting together on eighteenth-century maritime fashion, and, in particular, the material culture of early modern fishing communities in coastal Fife, Scotland, for his undergraduate honours course. Some of you may know Adam from his work on the French reproduction frigate Hermione, which stopped to call in various spots up the North American coast in the summer of 2015. His deep interest in maritime fashion resulted in his choice of honours project, and also in the project's, er, *expanding* past the usual bounds of university coursework! I was very glad to get involved, and it's been very fun - we put on two public talks at the University of St Andrews, co-led a walk down to the ocean estuary near St Andrews to learn about historical ecology, foraging, and fishing work, and did a photoshoot down on the St Andrews pier and harbour-side. For next term we're planning some further demos at the Anstruther Fisheries Museum, and hopefully a trial-run on the Firth with a recreated sma'line (ocean fishing line). You can read lots more about Adam's project here, on his excellent blog 'Fishy Fashion and Maritime Modes.'

First of all, here is a watercolour by David Allan from the end of the eighteenth century (#D404, National Gallery, Edinburgh), showing one of the very few depictions of Fife fishwives from this period, and a photo of me next to Jigger's Inn, an eighteenth-century cottage on the Mussel Road that fishwives would have walked down to get to the estuary.

The basket is a back creel, which would have been loaded up with mussels to bait the lines or herring to go to market. Fishwives walked many miles on foot down to Edinburgh or up to Dundee to sell their wares, and came back with the goods their families needed in their fish baskets. They were also responsible for using the mussels they gathered to bait the fishing lines their husbands would take out to sea. Fishwives were the backbone of these communities, and their hard work resulted in quite a bit of power - they had control of the money, the households, and much of the daily running of the town. We re-created three baskets for this project - the back creel and two smaller baskets - with the help of Liz Balfour.

The photoshoot we did on the St Andrews pier, with photographer Noël Heaney, re-created a series of photos taken by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill in the 1840s. Their work, now held in the National Portrait Gallery in London, gives us some of the best and earliest documentation of coastal Fife's fishing communities. Although our impressions are based on 18th-century sources, we chose to re-create this photoshoot because we wanted to show the continuity over time that made these looks iconic. Indeed, the fishwives' back creels and striped petticoats survived with little change until fishing declined here between the World Wars, and became so iconic that locals were able to immediately recognise my impression as I walked around St Andrews.

Here's my impression, alongside an Adamson and Hill portrait of Elizabeth Hall.

And Adam's impression, alongside an Adamson and Hill portrait of David Young.

Adam had reproduction seaboots made, and they are top-quality but very difficult to get off:

Behind us is one of the original fishing cottages in town, which you can see in another of Adamson and Hill's images:

So there you have it! It was quite a different impression for me, as my non-medieval kit tends to be more suited for ball attendees and suffragettes, but I really enjoyed putting this together and I learned a lot.


Note, 2019: Adam is still working on expanding his maritime impressions and is conducting further research into eighteenth-century dress and maritime work, particularly with regards to the material cultures of sailors of all sorts (except pirates). He's now based in the U.S., so definitely have a look at his work and public lectures if this is a topic that interests you!

Some Updates

Sorry for the incredibly long gap between this post and the last! I'm doing a PhD, y'all. I have time for sewing, but not for writing about it! (Unless it was sewing someone did in Scotland before 1543. Then I have time for it.)

Anyways, wanted to share some photos from a couple of events that took place ages ago and I'm honestly never going to get around to doing a full write-up for. Sorry.

First up is the Bath Victorian Ball 2017 - yep, two whole years ago - where I wore my beetlewing gown for the second time (but not the last!). I made some additions to the skirt embroidery, and some adjustments to the fit overall that I think helped it to sit a little better. The back is still wrinkly. Oh well - I am comforted by photos of horrifically-fit gowns on ladies of the 1850s, who dressed up in their best clothes for the photoshoot and still couldn't manage a smooth-fitting bodice. Still, though, I am way happier with the front of this bodice than the back. The nice little sweep of the skirt against the carpet there is because I forgot to bring my bum-pad to Bath! Whoops. Turned out nice in the photos, though.

Photos by Timelight Photography, and hair by Emma Forrest.

The main additions for the second year of wearing the gown were all the little flying beetles, and they make me very happy. I'm going to be making a new bodice for this dress and wearing it to an 1830s event this coming fall, so you'll be seeing it again soon! I'm excited to make some mad sleeves. Haven't quite decided on the bodice design yet, but it will be silly. And have more dead bugs on it.


The next event that I never shared was the Edinburgh Regency Ball 2018. This is a very cool event that re-creates an historical ball exactly: same day/date - just 200 years on - same original venue, same dances. It's happened three times now - 2017, 2018, and 2019.

I wore the same gown I always wear to Regency balls, because I can't be bothered making a new one (I also wore it to the 2017 Regency Ball, which is why I'm not including that here). However, I did add a new panel to the back of the gown, which vastly improved the silhouette and general floofiness (appropriate for a ball set in 1817); my fiancé, James, finished his velvet suit in time for the ball, and looked incredibly dashing; and I made our friend Chelsea a gown, as well, so that she could come along. We had a wonderful time, and you can see some posts about the suit over on James's facebook page and blog, Little Welsh Viking.

Chelsea's gown is blue silk chiffon over a blue cotton undergown, all hand-stitched by me. She helped to make her stays and made her petticoat on her own, so we're slowly reeling her in to historical costuming! Her coral necklace is by Janet Reutcke. My gown is white/translucent silk gauze with gold figured silk trim, also over a cotton undergown. Someday I'll make sleeves for the undergown, and a spencer, so that I can go to Regency picnics and so on...but not today.

Someday I'll also do a write-up for the Bath Victorian Ball 2018, but probably also not today.