Since two readers kindly mentioned a previous post about a Victorian dress on social media, I have many new followers. Thank you! and, welcome! I’ll try to wander into the 1800’s more frequently!
I apologize for the picture quality. I was documenting many dresses, which belonged to a friend, for the purpose of an inventory, with no thought of ever blogging about them. (The collection has been sold.) I didn’t have the luxury of researching on the spot, finding the perfect undergarments, or worrying about perfect pictures. H0wever, just being able to handle 19th century garments, and look inside them, is a privilege, so I feel obliged to share.
The bottom of the “fan” of fabric is gathered with rows of stitches about 1/2 inch apart, which creates a slight “pouch” effect and makes the gathering very flat over the waist.
The bodice is finished with a very typical period detail: narrow cording encased in bias self-fabric. You can also see that the cartridge pleating has several rows of stitching, which makes for a less bulky and more controlled waist area.
Characteristic of period construction, the skirt was gathered straight across the top of the yardage. Instead of cutting away the fabric into a V shape to follow the bodice, the Victorians left the excess skirt fabric hanging inside the front. Also visible in this photo are a few faint stitches ruching the tightly gathered front “fan” to the underbodice. You can see the way the bias fabric of the piping which follows the waistline has been hand-stitched to the underbodice. There appears to be a white hanging loop at the point of the bodice. This may have been added by a collector.
There are two boning channels on the center front seam, and the boning is wider than 1/4 inch, probably 1/2 inch. There are two diagonal boning channels, too. (If that white at the lower right of photo is an inseam pocket, I missed it while examining the dress.)
When you consider how the skirt was constructed and attached to the bodice, the straightness of the horizontal stripes in the fabric becomes truly impressive. Look at how well the stripes line up. (At this time, skirts were not cut into gores; all the side seams were on straight grain, turning the skirt into a very wide tube.) Read more here.
The flounces on the skirt are cut on the bias and not really gathered; the sheer material of the dress seems to change its pattern when closely gathered. I actually wondered if two different fabrics were used, but the contrast is entirely due to the the way the material looks when closely gathered or not gathered at all.
Look at that pattern match! At the top of the lower flounce, we can see that its gray and white stripes line up perfectly with the vertical stripes on the skirt, with the bias flounce eased only enough to make it work.
I don’t know the fiber content; I am guessing that its nearest equivalent would be printed cotton voile. The dress works so well because the fabric is so soft and light that it can be gathered very closely.
I only photographed the back while it was on a padded hanger; it has a hook and eye closing.
The woman who collected this dress knew a great deal about hammered brass hook and eyes and could use them to date garments. I know nothing about them. Perhaps because the dress’ back is also gathered, there is no boning at the center back opening. (Dresses that lace up the back need that boning.)
I documented a tiny hole in the fabric, and therefore have this picture which shows the piping around the armholes; there is no piping at the side seam.
Dresses with dropped shoulders, like this one, were very liable to tear at the armhole if the wearer raised her arms suddenly. This fragile fabric has survived amazingly well. (Click here for one that tore.)
The lace didn’t survive as well as the dress. I know very little about lace. Is this machine-made? It may well be.
Did the original owner wear sheer engageants — interchangeable sleeves — with this dress? I don’t know. The sleeves themselves are not tight, but roomy.
My hat’s off to the dressmaker, who cleverly used the stripes in the fabric as guidelines for all her hand gathering stitches!
Dating? A Fan-front bodice pattern from Past Patterns is based on a dress from the 1840’s. Click here to see Past Patterns No. 801. I once owned a completely hand-stitched fan-fronted bodice in apple-green striped silk; it had pagoda sleeves. As the Past Patterns site points out, photos from the 1850’s also show women wearing similar dresses.
I do hope someone who really knows Early Victorian styles can help to put a date on this dress, although there was a considerable time lag between city and country styles, so real precision is impossible without provenance. Who knows, someone may find a photo of it being worn!
Edited: This link added Aug. 9, 2015: another light weight cotton dress, dated 1860, with bias-cut ruffles, was pictured and described by Alys Mak-Pilsworth at the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. Click here.