Tag Archives: vintage clothing research

Early Victorian Fan-Fronted Dress, Inside and Outside

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!

A fan-fronted dress in sheer plaid with bias flounces. From a private collection.

A fan-fronted dress in sheer plaid with bias flounces. From a private collection.

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.

Bodice of a fan fronted dress , early Victorian.

Bodice of a fan fronted dress, early Victorian. Private collection.

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.

CF waist, fan fronted dress.

CF waist, fan fronted dress.

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.

Early Victorian fan-fronted dress; inside view of center front waist where is attaches to the skirt.

Early Victorian fan-fronted dress; inside view of center front waist where it attaches to the skirt.

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.

Underbodice of fan-fronted dress. Inside front, showing boning.

Underbodice of fan-fronted dress. Inside front, showing boning.

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.)

Skirt of fan-fronted dress.

Skirt of fan-fronted 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.

The flounces and hem of the fan-fronted dress.

The flounces and hem of the fan-fronted dress.

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.

Back of fan-fronted dress.

Back of fan-fronted dress. Bias sleeves were common in the 1840’s and 1850’s.

I only photographed the back while it was on a padded hanger; it has a hook and eye closing.

Hooks and eyes at center back of fan-fronted dress.

Hooks and eyes at center back of fan-fronted dress.

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.

Armhole piping. l

Armhole piping, left side of dress.

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.)

Neckline of fan-fronted bodice is trimmed with lace.

Neckline of fan-fronted bodice is trimmed with lace.

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.





Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, Costumes for the 19th century, Dresses, Early Victorian fashions, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

CoPA: The Commercial Pattern Archive

All three of these undated patterns were dated to 1974 using the CoPA Sample data search. What a great reminder that 1960s styles influenced fashion well into the 1970s!

All three of these undated patterns were dated to 1974 using the CoPA Sample data search. What a great reminder that 1960s styles influenced fashion well into the 1970s!

If you are interested in costume history or vintage sewing patterns, you will probably enjoy a visit to this amazing website. The Commercial Pattern Archive (CoPA) is a searchable database — with pictures — of more than 56,000 vintage patterns.  It gives you access to vintage patterns from several collections:  46,500 patterns from the 1840s through 2000 in the collections of the University of Rhode Island; plus many patterns from the Kevin L. Seligman Collection at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (18,000 items!)  and patterns from individual collections and other museums. More patterns are being scanned and added regularly.

Parallel Worlds with a Common Interest in Fashion History: Collectors, Costumers, and Theatrical Designers

The CoPA site is a project of the Costume Commission of the USITT. (The United States Institute for Theatre Technology.) Theatre Technology isn’t just about lighting instruments and scenery materials; over the years, the Costume Commission — people who design and build costumes and teach costume history, etc. — has become its largest (and a very active) division. As a former member (now retired) of the USITT, I’d like to introduce the resources of USITT to members of the Vintage Fashion Guild, costume re-creators, vintage collectors and other researchers. We all have a lot in common!

You Can Sample CoPA Searches: Give It a Try!

UPDATE 1/24/2018: Since this post was written, the CoPA site has changed; according to Joy Spanabel Emery, whom we all need to thank for her work on this project, the full benefits of the site are now available without a paid subscription! You can now search by pattern number, and have access to the entire online archive. You do need to subscribe. And, if you use this site, a donation would help to keep it being enlarged and maintained.

She wrote, “Since the CoPA database is now available at no cost, the Sample option is no longer necessary. At present an enrollment form is necessary for access. The from can be downloaded from the website…. We are now relying even more heavily on volunteers and financial donations to the Joy Spanabel Endowment Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation.

I urge you to try this amazing archive of vintage patterns! The Log In page will allow you to download the subscription form. Click here.

[DELETED: Although you may want to subscribe in order to make full use of the scanned patterns and the entire CoPA collection,  you can access sample searches by clicking here. LINK IS DEAD ] There is a lot of information available to anyone — for free. If you want an overview of patterns and fashions from, say, 1920 to 1929, just scroll down to 1920 and then hold Shift as you scroll to 1929. If you want to see every sample in that time period, leave all the other settings on “Any.” If you want to limit your search to a certain type of garment (e.g. bathing suits) or a specific designer, or just one pattern company, or a keyword (e.g., “halter,” “corset,” or “pedal-pushers,”) that is also possible. If you want to search the whole archive, select all the Collections, the same way you select a range of dates.  DELETE: You can do repeated sample searches for free. CoPA says this gives just a sample of the collection, but I was able to date five of my undated Vogue designer patterns in a few minutes. (They happened to be included in the collection. However, you can also use the search to place your pattern within a number sequence, even if you don’t locate that specific pattern.)

It is now (2018) possible to search for a specific pattern number from most companies.

REVISED 1/24/18; SEE ABOVE or CLICK HERE for the new, 2018 CoPA Home page. If you want to take advantage of the entire collection and be able to see images of the pattern pieces as pictured on the envelope, so that you can drape a version of the pattern on a mannequin, you will need to subscribe, but the subscription only costs about $10 a month (Minimum of 4 months. There are Group Subscription Rates, too. See below.) REVISED: 11/6/18: Membership is FREE! However, donations will help to continue expansion.

Explore the CoPA Site for More Great Information

Read about the history of  CoPA site at PROJECT.  ON the 2018 site: ABOUT US or NEWS .

The FAQ explains how the patterns were dated and answers other Frequently Asked Questions about the archive. INSTRUCTIONS will help you to use the search engine and to print images. [Note: The USITT member who showed me this site says that MAC users sometimes have problems; the sample search works wonderfully with my PC.]  PARTNERS  is especially interesting because it lists several other pattern collections in the United States, Canada, and England, with summaries of their specialties, plus contact and visiting information. Some of these collections are represented in the CoPA Archives. You may discover a collection near you; for example, the Sterling Historical Society in Sterling, MA has “a good representation of very early Butterick patterns and papers.” The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has 18,000 patterns and pieces of fashion ephemera that belonged to USITT member Kevin L. Seligman. These collections can be visited by appointment. [Note: some of the Partners information is being revised. CoPA is an active, growing database.]

More Information about the Commercial Pattern Archive

Here is some other information from Joy G. Emery at the University of Rhode Island, who has been working on the CoPA project for many years:

“All proceeds from the subscriptions are used to pay student assistants working in the archive. In addition to the patterns we have an extensive collection for fashion and tailoring materials that are available to visiting researchers.
“Unfortunately subscribers can’t search with a specific pattern number. But looking at the pattern company and year(s) (determined by the style of the fashion), it is easy to determine what year the specific pattern number was issued.
“We don’t include separate numerical lists of each pattern company’s numbers. However, there is an option to view a list of 200-plus company numbers for the patterns in the Archive by hiding the images.
“Questions about group membership – and any other questions regarding the database or archive can be referred to  jemery@uri.edu .”

Book to Watch For: A History of the Paper Pattern Industry

A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution, by Joy Emery, will be published at the end of May by Bloomsbury.  This should be of great interest to collectors and fashion historians. Thanks to Joy for sharing all this information in her book and on the CoPA Database, for generously including her own pattern collection in the database, and for her help in checking this post for accuracy.



Filed under Dating Vintage Patterns, Exhibitions & Museums, Resources for Costumers, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage patterns