One of the local costuming groups was planning on attending the Battle of San Jacinto event outside Houston back in April. Since the 1830s is a rather important time in Texas state history (we were our own country for a while, dontchaknow), I figured a 1830s dress would come in quite handy. Makes sense, right?
The Battle of San Jacinto took place in 1837, far enough away from the bright lights of Paris or even New York to ensure the local ladies probably weren’t wearing the latest fashion. However, I knew I wanted to do something a little fancier than a work dress, so I didn’t worry too much about full-on reenactment accuracy. I did, however, want to get the period styling correct. So, late 1830s style it was.
By the mid 1830s, those gigantic gigot sleeves of the first half of the decade were being banded down, the puff moved to the forearm or even the elbow. The variety of options here is endless, but I found myself drawn to certain elements on these dresses.
Here, I like the overall decoration on the bodice and the look of the upper sleeves. If you look closely, the upper sleeve is smocked, not pleated.
This dress adds those fun ruffles on the sleeve above the main puff, a feature I really like. However, in this and every other example of sleeve ruffles I could find, the sleeve head is pleated, not smocked.
I also like the look of stripes on these dresses. My research indicated that stripes were quite popular during this period, which makes a lot of sense. Directional prints, and especially stripes, grant endless options for creativity. Notice how well the stripes match up! (Too, cutting on the bias like this definitely allows for easier shaping.
With all that in mind, I went down to the quilt store and bought ten yards of a yummy gold and red stripe. Because I’m crazy, I bought another yard of red for piping, which would stand out and show all of my potentially non-period seam placement.
A few maddening undergarments later, quilting cotton washed, ironed, and ready for cutting, and off I went. Sans pattern.
As it always goes with draping and mock-ups, I went through a number of iterations on the bodice before I felt myself ready to cut into my fashion fabric. The back pattern I stole from my 1860s Dickens on the Strand bodice, but the front I draped from scratch. I was looking for shoulder seams set far to the back, a dropped shoulder line, armholes that would give me as much freedom of movement as possible, and one bust dart per side, as this seems to be what extant garment indicate as typical period construction. Piping was stitched to the neckline. A wide waistband enclosed raw bottom edges.
The closure is to the back with hook and eyes (don’t even get me started on how tricky this was to work with in the final fittings!) with a pleated bertha in front. The bertha was made up separately by first patterning the shape out of muslin, and then mounting folded strips of fabric onto this. So much easier than pleating a huge piece of fabric! I whipstitched it in place, added that front oval, and as can be seen in the first dress up top, folded the raw end edges into the armholes.
The skirt was easier. Patterns of Fashion was very helpful in determining the final circumference. As common in dresses of the day, I left it unlined but did add a deep 12″ hem. I used the facing method, which may or may not be period but did save me on yardage. I hemmed it first, pleated the front and sides to a twill tape (later to be concealed by the waistband), and then cartridge pleated the back for that slight bustle effect. The whole thing was then joined to the wide waistband with two or three seams of small stitches. I was worried it wouldn’t hold, but lots of small bites get these big jobs done. The hardest part was keeping the cat off!
I should note, I was not initially happy with how the skirt hung. I had made a number of petticoats, but I wasn’t getting that “jutting out straight from the hips” effect that begins in this period. I made an insanely large 8 yard straight petticoat to go underneath at the very last minute, and that seemed to solve the dimensional problem.
The worst part of this whole dress was the sleeves. After some experimentation in an attempt to reduce bulk, I wasn’t getting the shape I wanted in the lower puff. I finally gave up and used a gigot sleeve pattern from Patterns of Fashion, as I’m sure the ladies back then would have done. The pleating was tedious, my math came out wrong, and there ended up being more “puff” to the pleats than I wanted. (I intend to do a separate post on this, as there is a sad lack of info out there about how to handle 1830s sleeves!). However, after a great deal of fussing, a few pleats added below the puffs, and cutting half the lower sleeve off in favor of a wide cuff, they came out pretty good.
Add a bonnet, a little bow in the back to hide the quirks in my cartridge pleating, that 1835 chemisette from Patterns of Fashion, and a pair of reasonably period-appropriate boots, and I thought it turned out quite nice.
It ended up that I wasn’t able to meet up with the Dallas group, as there seemed to be some miscommunication about the event (and the crazy rain we had the week before led to legitimate concerns about road conditions). But I did get to meet some of the other costumers and reenactors at the event. It was a lot of fun!
I am ashamed of the job I did on the hook and eye closures; they’re really a mess. I’m going to fix those before I wear it again. I will probably line the bonnet at some point in the future, and yes, my hair is more early 1840s than late 1830s… I need to pay more attention to things like that. I also need to figure out a way to take better photos… Either the light’s bad or I’m blinking in almost all of them!