Making a “proper” Victorian bustle gown has been on my list to do for a while. For 15 years actually – ever since I first saw a lady dancing in one and marvelled at its drapery.
There were two distinct periods in history where bustles – in their most “Victorian” extreme – were used. The first was in the early 1870’s and the second was in the 1880’s. Elsewhere in history, bumpads of all sorts have been frequently used, but here I am talking about the much more prominent Victorian bottom enhancer.
From 1871 to 1873, gowns were remarkably similar. Gown ensembles were most often in two pieces; the skirts and the bodice. The skirts were gored (which made them nice and full) and often included an outer or overskirt that ended around the knees. This overskirt was generally pulled up in a polonaise-style over the bustle behind. For day bodices, the sleeves were not highly gathered around the sleeve head, but instead often flared out at the bottom, sometimes in layers, in a manner very similar to 1970’s pants! For evening bodices, the style was almost off-the-shoulder with short gathered sleeves.
The gown that caught my eye more recently was found in one of Janet Arnold’s pattern books, and I even had the material purchased and waiting patiently to be made up!
This particular post will deal with making the three skirt layers: the underskirt, the overskirt and the basque.
I used the pattern by Janet Arnold, in her book Pattern of Fashions 2. I had to make several alterations to it so it would fit me. For the skirts, this included increasing the length of the underskirt, and increasing the waistline measurements.
I normally post pictures of my pattern pieces, but this gown is quite complicated. If you are interested in making this pattern I suggest you either get Janet Arnold’s book or get a similar historical pattern to use.
I dont often bother making a mock-up of the skirts of a gown, so I got straight into sewing!
Step One: Sew the underskirt panels together, leaving an opening for the placket, which is on the seam to the left of the centre back. To make the placket, I just pressed the seam allowance open and top stitched around the placket edge.
Step Two: Janet Arnold’s pattern includes a pocket in the front left seam of the underskirt. I highly recommend putting one in! Mine is made from white cotton broadcloth, and set on an angle (facing towards the centre front) in the left seam. Make sure you make an opening big enough to fit your hand in, and that the pocket is big enough to hold your fan or any other item you feel is essential.
Step Three: Laying the two waistband pieces right sides together, sew around them, leaving an opening for to turn it in the right way. Turn it in the right way and press. Sew the opening closed.
Step Four: Neaten the upper edge of the underskirt, pleat and attach to the waistband. I laid the waistband on top and sewed through all thicknesses. (As compared to the normal method of sewing a waistband.) Attach hooks and eyes to the waistband for fastening.
Janet Arnold is not clear exactly how to attach the skirt to the waistband. She does indicate cartridge-pleating was used in the overskirt but does not state that this was also done on the underskirt. I initially cartridge-pleated the underskirt, but after it all unravelled at the first ball it was worn to, I decided to pleat it the second time around instead!
Step Five: Bind the lower edge of the skirt with matching bias binding. I cut my own bias strips and made binding that matched my trim.
Step Six: Sew the wide bias strips of flounce onto the bottom of the skirt, folding the raw edge under and sewing through all thicknesses. Attach trim to hide the seam. (See below for trim construction.) Sew binding to the bottom edge of the flounce.
The underskirt is finished!
Step One: Sew the skirt panels together, leaving the centre front seam open. Note: On the side seam of the front panel, two upward-pointing pleats are done prior to sewing the side seams.
Step Two: Take two waistband pieces and sew them in the same way as I sewed the underskirt waistband. Note: The waistband needs to be a finished piece (no raw edges) when a skirt is to be cartridge pleated to it. This is a different method of attaching the skirt and waistband than is normally done.
Step Three: Cartridge-pleat the upper edge of the back panel of the overskirt and attach to the waistband. Attach hooks and eyes to the waistband for fastening.
Step Four: Right sides together, sew the bias strips of flounce to the bottom edge of the overskirt. Attach trim to cover the seam line.
Step Five: Close the centre front seam by using covered buttons. For the bottom four buttons, overlap the two edges (right over left) of the skirt and sew through all thicknesses. For the remainder, sew buttons to the top layer (right) and attach hooks and eyes to fasten beneath the button, hidden from view.
Step Six: The inside of the overskirt is draped using a system of tapes and buttons. The exact placement of these is detailed in Janet Arnold’s pattern, but can otherwise be done by pinning to see what looks best.
The overskirt is completed!
Step One: Sew the pieces of the basque together. Sew the pieces of the basque lining together in the same way.
I discovered that there is a mistake in the Janet Arnold book, which confused me for awhile. The CB FOLD instructions are on the wrong pattern piece (the front), but when changed to the other (back) pattern piece, it all makes sense again.
Step Two: Right sides together, sew the basque and the lining together along the bottom and centre front edge. Fold the right way and press. Trim can now be added to the bottom edge.
Step Three: Make the pleats in the waistline and bind the top edge with bias binding to hold the pleats. Janet Arnold’s example was not bound with bias binding, but I found it easier to do that to properly hold the pleats in place. You could also attach it to the waistband in the normal manner instead.
Step Four: The waistband is made up of two main pieces: the outer layer cut on the bias, and the lining on the straight grain. The two layers can be laid wrong sides together and bias binding sewn around the top and bottom edges. The raw edges on the two short sides of the waistband can be turned to the inside and sewn down.
Step Four: Hand sew the bound upper edge of the basque to the waistband. I stitched “in the ditch” between the waistband binding and the outer material, through all thicknesses. Add hooks and eyes to fasten.
The basque is finished!
Making the Trim
Step One: Cut bias strips from your chosen material, joining the strips until you have the necessary length. Fold the raw edges in on the wrong side and press. You piece should now look similar to bias-binding that can be bought in the store.
Anchor your thread with a few stitches to one folded edge of the strip.
Step Two: Using a running stitch, weave your needle in and out of the material until you have reached the other folded edge of the strip. Don’t pull your needle out, as it makes it more difficult to gather the threads in the next step.
Step Three: Use your fingers to squeeze the material together whilst it is still attached to the needle, creating a series of gathers.
Step Four: Pull the needle through the material, still holding the material tight in its gathers. Make a few small stitches on the other folded edge to anchor the thread.
Step Five: Hand sew the trim onto your gown, trying to make your stitches as invisible as possible. I hand sewed the top edge and the bottom edge of the trim to the gown, rather than just securing it at the gathers. That then ensures the raw edges are all anchored securely.
And here is the skirts all layered together. My dressmakers form doesn’t seem to hold the bustle in the right place on the waist, so the back does tend to droop. However, it doesn’t do that when I am wearing it.
Keep an eye out for the next post in this series, the evening bodice.
Sources and Relevant Links
Image Source: Pinterest (but the original is reported to have come from manchestergalleries.org)
Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomens gowns and their construction, by Janet Arnold – buy on Amazon
Sewing a waistband in the normal manner – by Fashion Freaks
How to sew cartridge pleats – by Historical Sewing
1871 ballgown – by Before the Automobile (See this beautiful version of this dress made by someone else!)