Tea With Madame X -or- A Start to A Goth-tastic Gown

Last week I put together a “quick and dirty” black satin bustle skirt to wear with my Steampunk outfits, but as all of you know, having a large quantity of black satin can put crazy ideas in one’s head.

I decided I should go ahead and make a bodice to go with this skirt, and the first that popped into mind was the famous risque gown painted by John Singer Sargent, for the unforgettable “Madame X” portrait.

This is a lightened version, in an attempt to see what’s going on with the bodice.

So why not?  This costume will be a fun ballgown for Victorian evening dance occasions, so I’m not much concerned with historical accuracy.  I want it to look the part, and of course I want to exercise my feeble craftsmanship muscles and maybe try some new things.

I studied Sargent’s painting and saw that the bodice crosses in front, but most of the details are difficult or impossible to see, so I decided to go with a more straight-forward approach and do a simplified bodice with very curvy front seams.  We also can’t see the back of the bodice, so I’ve made that up as well, keeping in mind the scandalous nature of this dress.

Jane wearing corset, boob enhancement, and the skirts.

First up was squeezing my compressible dress form into the right shape.  The bodice, for the purpose of draping, is strapless, which works well with Jane the Not-So-Uniquely-Me form, as she is fairly accurate everywhere but the shoulders.  I added the petticoat and bustle skirt as well (always work patterns over any undergarments or skirts, to account for changes at the waist).

Draping the front and side front pieces, with the pronounced curve over/around the bust

The side front seams curve quite a lot over the bust.  The side seams are also curved slightly to accommodate a flair at the waist.  The bottom of the bodice curves up rather sharply towards the back to help it sit nicely with the bustled skirt, and the top of the bodice back dips quite low.

Low back, very low back.  The jeweled straps will come in quite central, to help everything stay up

A quick toile and approximate pinning onto myself showed where things needed to be adjusted.  The plunging neckline was too low for even me, and the back edges needed to be reduced.  You can also see through all of this that my usual mid-bust Victorian corset will have to be replaced with something, er, much smaller.

Looooow front.  I raised it rather a lot.
pinching in a little excess at the center front, and you can also see my mark +3/4 to add to the neckline

A few quick adjustments to the pattern, and I was ready to cut fabric, but not before a solid plan of how exactly this thing was going to go together.

The muslin pattern traced out with seam allowances

I need the bodice to be very stable, to practically stand up on its own.  It also needs to not move at all, given the revealing lines, and with dancing that can be a problem.  Here’s what I planned in layers, starting from the top-most satin, to the interior:

  1. black satin
  2. fleece padding layer
  3. bust pads (fleece & batting)
  4. 2 layers of muslin with boning channels
  5. staybelt at the waist
  6. interior stays in top-sewn channels, stitched to every seam allowance

With all this stability, it might be possible to wear the bodice as a corset itself, instead of over a separate waspie or underbust corselette.  /hopes

four layers of bodice pieces sewn together in two sets – the satin is interlined with fleece on every piece.  The red and white are two layers of cotton with boning channels sewn in.
Check out these busties.  I was having a Madonna moment, hahaha.  They are made from batting sandwiched in fleece, spiral sewn on the machine, and whipped to the fleece interior, to fill in the boob area.  Why did I do this?  Because I am not anywhere even remotely close to the shape of Madame X, and with a waist that only reduces to 26″ on a good day, I figured I could use the help on the top too.

So at this point, the bodice is mostly sewn together, but is awaiting the back pieces, the staybelt, and interior stays on the seams as well as in the channels between.  The idea is that all this extra boning will straighten out the seams that you can see are currently buckling, and provide a fairly rigid understructure to keep everything smooth and secure.  As is the usual case with satin, it looks pretty much like a rumpled mess right now, but hopefully it will come out in the end and be a suitable homage to Madame X and John Singer Sargent :-).

The bodice in-progress, with the skirt.  The bodice needs boning to smooth out that warping, but it’s looking on-target right now.
Ah, the joys of satin, but I’m expecting a lot of that to straighten out with the boning.  Also, some not-great matching up on the seams at the bottom, but that will be easily trimmed to the right shape and turned up with black bias for a nice clean edge.


  • Lauren R

    March 25, 2011 at 12:32 AM

    I think pasteboard or paste treating is a great idea, though I would be wary of using it for Victorian bodices that may see a lot of movement, because if the pasteboard "breaks" you'll end up with a scary crease, particularly under the bust. However, maybe a combination of the two? pasteboard AND some boning? Or pasteboard in some pieces but not others, or some parts of the pieces…? /brain spinning. Thank you for the link!

  • Lauren R

    March 25, 2011 at 12:36 AM

    Oh, I totally missed the additional pages about the rubber cement, durrr. I'm totally going to try this. It's too late to go back and do it for this bodice, but definitely for future bodices. Wrinkles drive me (and everyone else, I'm sure) batty!

  • The Dreamstress

    March 25, 2011 at 2:51 AM

    Oooh…sexy! I can't wait to see the finished item!

    This dress is on my someday list too. I spent hours in front of it when I was at the Met, sketching out what was happening with the dress. I still can't decide if the front drape is velvet or a very light chiffon on tulle.

  • Stephanie Ann

    March 25, 2011 at 3:44 AM

    😀 I just cut out a commercial pattern today that included some "extra stuffing." Being a D cup, I almost instantly threw it out. Then I had a second thought- if I put it in the dress, that drastic change in shape from bust to waist would be, well, DRASTIC! I did end up throwing it out, though. It's not a dress for turning heads.

  • Rowenna

    March 25, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    Thanks for this post! I've been piddling around with the idea of a bustle-era-inspired modern gown for a formal event this fall…and this post gave me some great ideas and techniques for my continued experimenting! Looks gorgeous!

  • Amelie Montmartre

    March 25, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    This is absolutely beautiful! Madame X's dress is such a lovely painting, and would look absolutely stunning in black satin! I wondered if this might help – In the Forsyte Saga, they actually recreated a version of the Madame X dress in red for one of the characters. I couldn't find any decent screenshots, unfortunately, although the Movie Costumer's Guide has a few – but if you check the clip out it gives you a better view.They seem to have chosen red velvet rather than silk or taffeta – interesting choice, but not at all like the fabric shown in the painting!


  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    March 25, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    Laure your bodice is looking positively bitchin'!! I would seriously tape the top edge of your bodice, so it curves into your body shape more and doesn't stretch, given how deep and biased that sweetheart is. Much more stable too. 🙂

  • Lauren Stowell

    March 25, 2011 at 8:15 PM

    Thanks guys. This bodice has and is still and will be a battle. It's the satin, UGH, why does it have to be so eeevil!

    Petit – I love the Forsyte Saga, and I know just the dress you speak of. I can credit that series with piquing my interest for late Victorian clothing. Irenie wears some of the most stunning things!

    MrsC, I've got your tutorial up on my screen and am all ready to bust out with the taping on the neckline. It needs to be held in to the body for the sake of modesty, but also because the satin needs to be stretched down the front. Thank you for that tutorial!

    As for the bust pads, I think I'm going to take them out. It might have worked if I'd made them a more flattering shape, but when I have the bodice on my actual body they look lumpy and weird.

  • Lauren Stowell

    April 4, 2011 at 2:14 AM

    Hi Terri. Yes, I'm thinking velvet ribbon straps with bling sewn on, to approximate the blingy straps in the painting. The straps really help keep things in place, too.

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