The Late 1860s Aubergine Ballgown

Me and Kristen at the ball – photo by Nevada Live Magazine

I couple weekends ago I was all a-tussle finishing the evening bodice for my new purple 1860s gown. I intended to wear it to a local Civil War ball, and was happy to put the finishing touches on it a couple hours before leaving for the ball.

I didn’t take the easiest path on this bodice. I scaled up a gridded pattern from Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress, 1800-1909, using a new-to-me digitizing technique, and after a quick toile (maybe a bit *too* quick), I cut into my silk and stabilizing layer.

Well it all worked out in the end, despite fussing with the side seams and performing an impromptu nip-n-tuck on the back pieces. I stitched in some hand-sewn eyelets, and bound the bottom edge in self-fabric piping. At this point, unadorned, the bodice looked very bridesmaid, which influenced my decision to add sleeves (because I’ll avoid them if I can!). Again using Hunisett’s instructions, I mounted organza puffs on muslin bases and stitched them in.

The bodice base without sleeves or any boning int he front point. It looks so…modern.
The bodice with the sleeve puffs and the base pieces for the bertha pinned in place. Still no boning in the bodice.

It’s amazing the effect this little detail had on de-bridesmaiding the design, but the bodice needed the big finale to truly look period – the bertha.

One invaluable tip I picked up from Hunisett and Janet Arnold both was to cut bias strips and lap them onto a base, to create the pleated look of the bertha. I found this method SO much easier than trying to pleat a piece to shape, and gleefully layered on bias strips in the silk and organza, followed by a super-shreddy strip of ruched silk, and some trickier-than-they-look finishing pieces to cover where the berthabits met on the center front and shoulders.

Layering bias strips of organza and silk. Note to self – change the friggin’ thread color next time, because that sh*t’s visible!
The nearly-complete bertha pinned into place. My first base wasn’t big enough, so I added more organdy and kept layering until getting to the size I wanted

Ginormous bows and bling finished it, and at least on the dress form the thing looked glamorous.

Day of the ball – adding black taffeta bows, big sparkly things, and planning jewelry for the evening.

I wheezed a sigh of relief when the bodice fit my actual body like a glove, and everything stayed put, despite the incredibly low-cut design, and constricting shoulder (can I even call them that?) straps.

Photo by Willie P. 
Photo by Kristen – everything stayed put, thank goodness.
Chatting with a gentleman I met at the dance. I need a bit more oomph in the skirt – elliptical shapes are a bit tricky to support. Photo by Nevada Live Magazine
For hair I used several hair pieces and a wash-out mousse to color my own hair brown, so it would blend with the hairpieces. The tiara could use a better method of sticking to one’s head. Photo by Nevada Live Magazine
Photo by Nevada Live Magazine
I made little rosette clips for my Tissots dyed to match the dress, and attached a ribbon temporarily under the arch, to tie them on for dancing – this was a very common addition to evening slippers of this and other periods, though more often they were stitched onto the sides of the shoes.
Tissots with ribbons – if I hadn’t run short on black satin ribbon I would have made the ribbons much longer, to loop around the ankle. Photo by Nevada Live Magazine

Most importantly, I felt wonderful in the gown. I felt regal and glamorous and graceful, and I can’t wait to wear it again!


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