I’ve put off writing this post because I wanted to do a bit of research before writing, because I know the vast majority of my readers are not interested in sewing, but I also know some of you are interested in history. So, here’s a fun bit of very esoteric homeschool history, and a bit of sewing trivia.
First off let’s discuss Civil War era clothing in generics
Let’s discuss some cultural references that we all know, that make up our impressions of this era:
Queen Victoria, globally this era is named for this queen, she reigned for over 50 years, and watched huge changes go on. This is right smack in the middle of her reign.
Charles Dickens, oddly enough in my mind I tend to put his writings as more Edwardian, and in the late 1890s or early 1900s, but in reality most of his writing is set in the mid-1800s.
Louisa May Alcott, and Little Women, in particular I was thinking of Meg’s dress for the ball when I was making my gown. Little Women is set during the Civil War, and frequent references are made to their father being away for war.
Gone With the Wind, this may be more of an American thing, but I know for sure most of us think of Scarlett O’Hara and her over the top dresses.
Now let’s talk particulars of Civil War era clothing
I’m going to start this off by saying I am not a fashion historian, I’ve been studying this, because it’s an area I’m interested in, but I’m not going to claim expertise.
The Civil War era was known for big skirts for all women. Beyond that there are two distinct styles you will see.
First is a drop shoulder gown. This is for an older lady, or a young woman who is out and about for her day. For an older woman this might be made up into a silk, but generally speaking it is made out of cotton, and in this particular era, it had lots of frills, tassels, and business to be found.
Next, we have a ball gown. This would have been worn by a young woman. This particular gown has a couple of different things I want to point out (this is the design my dress is roughly based on).
Around this time a fashion called a swiss waist became popular. Nowadays we will tend to call this a corset because it is boned, and brings in your waist. It is not a corset, a corset is worn under your clothing and smoothes the line of your body under the clothing you wear.
More details on this dress, it has a chemise, and a hoop skirt. The hoop skirt shape changed greatly over the years, and my hoop skirt is a vaguely 1800s shaped skirt, though it could be used for earlier eras like early Elizabethean. Over the hoop skirt would be several layers of petticoats (between 2-3), this is to smooth out the hoops, if you just wear your fashion skirt over the hoop skirt the lines of the hoops will be visible, and you don’t want that.
I liked the look of this ball gown, and so I chose to model my dress off of it, I will start all of this by saying my ball gown is historically inspired, but not historically accurate. I can go into details of why that is if you’re curious, they mainly have to do with construction techniques and materials.
How I put my dress together
First I spent several hours researching Civil War era fashion, and then I went through the different patterns I had. I ended up deciding to use a combination of 3 different patterns.
For my skirt I used a petticoat pattern that I have sewn up several times before, and is very quick to put together.
For my chemise, I used the chemise pattern from a Regency era (think Jane Austen 1810-1820).
Finally for my swiss waist, I used a bodice pattern that is Renaissance inspired I spent a great deal of time debating whether or not I was going to remove the straps and make it strapless, like many swiss waist patterns of the time were. In the end I opted not to do that because of time constraints, but I may go back and remove the straps to make it look more correct.
The chemise sewed together fairly quickly, I used a border fabric that had a lovely eyelet at the bottom, and made a nice shaped hem. I have no picture of this step. I opted for a combination of french and flat-fell seams on the chemise, depending on the placement of seam, I think the gusset sleeves were flat-fell, but the rest were french. You are now learning why I am not a craft blogger, I forget to take in-between steps.
I sewed a mock-up of the swiss waist, and figured out I needed to add about 2 inches of length to the bodice because it was not hitting properly at the waist, I also pointed the ends a bit more than my pattern was because my inspiration dress had a very pointed front (and back, but I wanted to do a light peplum on the back). Then when I tried it on the dress form, I discovered I needed to add some to my waist, the pattern being intended to end before you reached the hips, and it did not spread out quite enough.
After all that fitting I took the toile apart and cut out my lining, I sewed together the lining and it fit well, so I cut out the fashion fabric, as well as an inter-lining to which I attached the boning. I added boning to the side seam, center front seam, and to the princess seams on the front and back. Adding boning to the center front seam meant I could not easily add grommets, so I opted to close it with hook and eyes.
To fit all 3 of the layers together I sewed on a bias strips made from contrasting fabric from the skirt (after I’d cut out most of the skirt pieces, more on that in a second). After I machine sewed the front side on, I hand sewed the other side.
Now the skirt. My original plan had been to sew the skirt with 6 matching panels, and then sew a ruffle to the bottom, and sew a matching ruffle to my swiss waist, and possibly even sew on another ruffle or two, because it’s the Victorian era, there is no such thing as too many ruffles.
Only as I laid out my fabric, I had enough fabric for 5 panels, and having 5 panels meant I would not have a full enough skirt, so I first went to every JoAnn’s fabric store in the area to see if they had anymore of my fabric, and on one did, it was being discontinued. Then I started piecing a chevron pattern for the front skirt piece. Sewing each half of it was okay. I was sewing this from all sorts of bits and pieces, and I felt rather like Meg as she was trying to piece together a new silk dress from the pieces of her sister’s old dresses. And it was quite a headache.
Eventually after several tries and several times of ripping out seams I got that blasted chevron sewn. In case you are wondering silk essence is a beast to sew, a really true beast. You might also be able to tell from this picture, but that poor silk essence, and the poly-satin I had has been steamed and maneuvered into place, and the poor fabric has been quite tortured.
In the end, I had quite a learning experience, and it was both intensely satisfying and immensely stressful.
Next year the museum will have a World War 1 exhibit, so they are planning on a WW1 dance. I think I might have a pattern for that time period, but the teens are an even more confusing time period for clothing. Hopefully though I’ll have more than a moth’s warning, and I’ll be able to plan it better.
Why do I tell you all of this 3 months later?
For one, Maryanne wanted to hear more about how I did it. For another, I learned a lot doing this, and that’s my secret point of this post. Historical fashion trivia aside, we all need to keep learning. I spent hours during January reading about Victorian fashion, and then I spent hours learning new sewing techniques, I theoretically knew how to sew that chevron before, but I’d never done it. It was a lot of trial and error.
My next great adventure to learn about is teenagers. My boys are now 11, and they are fast approaching teen years, back when I was pregnant with them, and about to become a mom I read dozens of books on parenting. Okay, maybe only a dozen, but still a lot. Then as they became toddlers and preschoolers I read books about elementary kids, and junior high kids. I want to prepare ahead of time.
So, I’m looking at this years Omnibus* and there are several books on teens, preparing them for high school and college, preparing them for social media (is anyone else glad social media didn’t exist when they were teens?), transitioning to middle school and then high school.
That’s my summer reading right there.
Well, that and several more books on organization. It looks like this year we might not be going to the Navajo, so instead I’ve got a plan for us to organize and downsize lots of toys and things we’ve outgrown (going back to that my boys are about to be teens, and my daughter is quite firmly a tween). I’m brainstorming some daily challenges for each kid, and some funschooling, like last summer’s Space Exploration week. I’ve got several history themed weeks in my mind.
If you’re interested in reading along with me, you can pick up the Omnibus this week only. The files will be available for download until the end of June.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I have about 70 or so new books to read, and about 20 great talks to listen to while I go for my morning walks.