Altering My 1860s Evening Gown

Currently on my sewing table is a “simple” alteration to my one-and-only 1860s evening gown. I made this gown, along with a matching day bodice, back in 2014 and over the years it’s mysteriously shrunk in the closet.

A quick try on to see if letting this bodice out would even be possible…

With the Nevada Statehood Ball coming up, it was time to pull the old girl out and inspect for possibilities of alteration. I usually have little to no hope of this because Past Lauren is notorious for making bad decisions like trimming seam allowances too closely, cutting open darts, and making things with too-little fabric.

Aw Yissss, look at those BIG HONKIN’ SEAM ALLOWANCES! Note to future self: more of this, pls.

But this time, for whatever reason, Past Lauren actually left some big-honkin’ seam allowance on the side seams! MIRACLE!

Trying the gown on, I needed to make these adjustments:

  • Move the hook/bar on the skirt waist to let it out
  • Let the bodice side seams out to gain a total of about 1.75 inches (crikey)
  • Remove the bertha and take tucks in the neckline of the bodice front and back to bring the shoulder straps up onto the shoulders more.
  • Re-make the sleeve puffs for the larger armscyes and set them in again.
  • Re-shape the bertha and tack it back onto the bodice.
  • Replace all the hooks and bars linking skirt and bodice.
I opened up the side seams and re-set them on my dress form, with a final check on my body before sewing.

We took some pretty hefty tucks on the front and back neckline to bring the straps further up onto the shoulders.

The biggest “domino effect” part of this project was having to completely disassemble and re-shape the bertha. I re-used as much of the previous bertha’s material as possible, but also got dang lucky in finding a small bag of purple silk scraps to piece together more bias from.

My hoop also needed help, greatly. Chrissy, queen of costume engineering, improved it 1000% adjusting each hoop, but part of the problem is that I used a combo of scavenged hoop steel and giant zip ties, and it’s all just wackadoodle due to different ‘spring’ strengths. My bottom hoop is not big enough and my top hoop was *too* big. I ordered some proper hoop steel and re-stuffed each channel, including discovering an empty channel at the hem and correcting that with its own, fresh new hoop.

Before silhouette adjustment – it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great.

Additionally, I crafted a new Ugly Puffer – longer and flatter in front, which helped bulk out the middle section of the silhouette nicely. The truth is that I really need a different/new/proper elliptical hoop entirely, but with precious little time I just Tim Gunn’d this one and it worked well enough for the evening.

Hoop, bum pad, Ugly Puffer, and petticoat fluffed out the elliptical silhouette. I find this silhouette tricky.

While I have a lot of small-ish tasks to do, it feels great to be able to wear something again. I did not sell this gown in my great moving-house purge, even though I knew I’d probably never fit it again. I am pleasantly surprised and very happy to find that’s not true and it shall have more life. Making new things is fun and challenging, but re-using, updating, and remodeling old things is satisfying, responsible, and historically accurate too. <3

Final try-on of the re-fit gown before the even night. All systems go!

Photos from the Nevada Statehood Ball are coming soon!


  • J.A. Gough

    November 1, 2019 at 5:48 PM

    As someone of a similar age who also struggles with a collection of vintage and costumes that don't really fit my grown-up body, these posts of reworking old gowns are super inspirational to me!

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 1, 2019 at 6:10 PM

      I'm so glad they're helpful! Yes, this is challenging, and can be a bit heartbreaking – I've sold or given away a lot of vintage because I change size (upwards) quite a lot. If it can at all be altered – darts, side seams – I usually try, but it can be tricky.

  • DLM

    November 5, 2019 at 1:04 PM

    The color and fabric are sumptuous, and I've always been charmed by the wide, graceful neckline of these midcentury gowns. It's lovely on you!

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 5, 2019 at 7:04 PM

      thank you! I didn't realize I loved purple so much. I actually struggle with the wide necklines – the first version of this bodice was so far off the shoulder I thought it would fall down, hence the big tuck taken in the neckline on the alteration, and even then it was pretty low!

  • The Quintessential Clothes Pen

    November 6, 2019 at 1:49 AM

    Closet shrinkage is the worst! It's awesome that you were able to let out this gown and re-wear it though! And those alterations are pretty minimal, aside from the bertha. I'm trying to do better about making my historical clothing alterable as I move forward in life. It really helps sometimes! Looking forward to photos of the finished effect.



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