Saturday, January 26, 2013

1860s Mourning Dress

For some reason unknown to me, we often get invited to participate in funeral reenactments. It was because of this that the first outfit I made when I first started sewing was a mourning dress. Unfortunately it had a lot of problems. The bodice is too big, the neckline to big and its clearly a Simplicity pattern. There was not enough fabric given to me to make a skirt, so I was given a skirt made for me very generously by one of the ladies that would help me temporarily of a polyester that works amazingly well as a microfiber cloth as I walk through my house. I have come a long way in my sewing since then and therefore decided last May that it was time to finally upgrade my mourning dress.

 My first dress.

After looking around for awhile online I finally found this dress from the Metropolitan Museum.

While I love silk  dresses, I tend to like simpler cotton dresses. There are already many women in the group I am involved with that have many beautiful silk dresses, that I find it nice to focus more on the cotton and working/middle class impressions. Although I do still like a nice dress every now and then. Either way I loved the shape and design features of this dress. 

I started making this dress in May of last year for an event. Unfortunately I started making it a week before a funeral event and I never managed to complete it in time. I was able to finish the toile, construct the bodice and attach one sleeve. It then remained on my mannequin for the next 6 months while I was occupied with my studies.

The other day I decided to sign up for the Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenges. For the second fortnight the challenge is to complete a UFO. I can not think of another UFO more deserving of being completed than this one (other than Nic's 1830s frock coat.... which I'm current out of love with once again as I have to draft and fit the sleeves).

In undertaking this dress in May I was in love with the challenge of the simple yet beautiful features of the pin tucks and decorative darts. I believe that it took me about three tries with the calico to get it to a stage where I was happy. It also took a bit of work to then translate the effect correctly to the voile that is a lot softer and stretchier. I am very grateful to Jessie for all her help in getting the fitting and details perfect. I feel sometimes I must be a trial in my need to make everything perfect. I love how the Met Museum has the zoom feature on their dresses so that I can indulge in this bad/awesome habit.

It really has been easy to finish as there is not much detail left, everything was cut out and ready to sew. The only difficult part was the hanging  of the skirt from the waist with the two layers of fabric. This was overcome with a little patience and a lot of pins. The bodice and skirt on this dress are two separate pieces. I was going to make it as a one piece dress, like most originals and drawings of this period, however I noticed that on the MET photos you can see the skirt waist band and separation between the skirt and the bodice on the back view. Therefore, I made them as a two piece and added waist hooks to keep the bodice attached and sitting flat.

Unfortunately, I do not have any construction photos due to the speed that I was sewing, my lack of remembering to take photos and as I cannot find the photos I took when drafting and fitting the bodice originally.

 Close up of the front of the bodice.
The pin tucks are stitched down only on the voile. The darts are only pressed flat, as I could see no stitching on the original. The lining is in a skin tone cotton and has none of the features of the voile (It is a plain lining with normal fitting darts).
The front is closed using hooks and hand sewn cotton thread eyelets. The closure is center front with a longer waist band that closes further to the side, as on the original.

 Close up of the back of the bodice.
This was constructed the same as the front.

Close up of the sleeve. The ribbon I made using a strip of silk that I folded over and tacked down by hand. I also used silk organza to make the ruffles on the cuff.

 The front and back of me wearing the dress after finishing walking in the Australia Day Parade in Adelaide. The skirt looks too long in these photos, as I did not realise I was standing on an incline. On flat surfaces it has a 1" (3cm) clearance on the front and 1/2" (1.5cm) on the back.

The Challenge: UFO
Fabric: Black Cotton Voile, Skin Toned Homespun (lining), Black Silk Dupion (sleeve trim) and Black Silk Organza (sleeve trim)

Pattern: None - drafted and fitted from a previous fitted calico pattern.
Year: ca. 1867

Notions: steel hooks, skin toned tape for under hem

How historically accurate is it? As accurate as I know how to make it, I referenced the photos on zoom and a similar dress in Nancy Bradfield's Costume in Detail pg 221 and photos I previously took of originals in a friends collection.

Hours to complete: about 18 hours. The original construction of the bodice 6 months ago took a lot longer as I had to get the pin tucks and visible darts correct.
First worn: today to take the completed photos

Total cost: I believe that the cottons were about $8 per meter on special and I used.... ummm about 9 meters of each as I am very tall (6 foot) and need a lot of fabric in my skirt drops.... so about $150. The threads and silks were scraps from previously finished garments.

As this dress was very quick to finish and while going through my other UFO's I found/had a moment of pure inspiration.....
To be continued......


  1. Wow, I love this dress! So beautiful. I'm saving it to my inspiration folder!

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