September Sew Monthly Challenge – Historicism

I was working hard on a dress for the costuming group’s train day, but Very Understanding Boyfriend found out his friends’ wedding was that weekend! I was happy to change plans, but it did leave me with a half-finished dress and no costuming event for the month. And then I remembered that we had a tea!

The theme for the tea was “pink”. Which is why I wasn’t planning on going. I’m not a pink kind of girl, as it tends to go very wrong on redheads. However, I do like making things. And when I realized this would be a good fit for the “historicism” challenge, I picked up six yards of lovely Civil War cinnamon from the local quilt shop and got to work.

This is the finished dress:

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The Challenge:

Material: The pink calico is a quilting cotton. The skirt is sateen from Jo-Ann’s. The accent bits are silk and rayon velvet from Dharma Trading.

Pattern: The underskirt is the go-to Truly Victorian 4 Gore underskirt. The polonaise is draped based on a pattern in Bustle Fashions. The little style details are from Bustle Fashions

Year: 1883-1885

Notions: Covered buttons, twill tape, hook and eye closures, one (non period) snap for the neck, spiral steel boning, lace

How historically accurate is it?: I adapted a pattern from Bustle Fashions, so I’d like to think it’s pretty accurate. Materials and construction techniques are as close as I could figure.

Hours to complete: 25-35.

First worn: 17 September

Total cost: Oh god… fashion fabric, 6 yards at $11; lining 6 yards @ $1.50 (on sale at JoAnns), underskirt 4 yards @ $8 (also on sale); silk and velvet scraps @ $15, covered buttons $7, pink cotton thread $8. The rest of the notions I had in the stash. So… $137.
I did not have much time to get this done. Two weeks. Two weeks, with one weekend taken up by a family trip to my cousin’s wedding shower. I needed something I could get out fast, clean, and without a whole lot of angst. I don’t know why I thought a polonaise would be fast, but at least it came together without any massive problems.

Please note, I was HAULING on this, and didn’t get to take as many photos as I’d have liked!  Construction notes are below the cut.

Polonaise gowns were very popular in the late 18th century, and made a huge comeback during the Bustle Era. They’re just fun, and you can see the appeal with the silhouettes at play in the 1870s and 1880s. Now, to be fair, I can’t find anything directly linking these two, but I do know that the Centennial in the 1870s sparked a lot of interest in 1770s fashions, and it don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the polonaise gained in popularity as part of that. Also, when designing this, I tried to take some cues from the earlier period. The ruffle at the bottom of the skirt, the colors, and so on. I figured this would be a fun challenge!
The first thing to do was the underskirt. In the interest of saving money (quilt store fabric is EXPENSIVE), and usability, I decided to do a contrasting skirt. I got up at 6 AM on a Saturday, went for my run, came home, and pounded it out in a day. The ruffle is perhaps a bit wider than it should be, but I felt it was the right proportion for the height.

Next, I draped the polonaise. I have a fitted bodice pattern, and didn’t want to screw around with fitting yet another pattern. Instead, I divided the Bustle Fashions pattern into skirt and bodice. I cut out my bodice, made up half of it, and cut away where the skirt looked like it connected.

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Using the apportioning system, I made the patterns for the skirt portions, marked where the bodice connected, cut mock-ups for the skirt portion, draped them, pinned/marked, removed, laid them out flat, and taped the pattern pieces together.

This whole process required a bit of math, as you can see on the pattern page:

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And this is what it looked like on the dress form:

THe trickiest part of this process was figuring out the darts in the front skirt sections.  Eventually, I just gave up trying to design my way out of it and figured I could put the darts wherever they needed to be in the finished piece.  This worked out okay (thankfully).  Once the whole thing was reasonably fitted, I laid out my pieces, cut the lining and top pieces, and serged them together. These were not easy to deal with on my tiny little serger, but I managed.

This is what the pieces looked like, with all those back folds:

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The next thing I did was apply the facings to the front and back skirt sections. Now, I made the mistake of buying a purple lining (as there wasn’t any matching pink at JoAnns) and doing a cream facing, so if this thing flips around, it looks a bit like an easter egg! I also made the mistake of putting netting in the back section for bustling. Here, it was way too stiff, and I had to cut it out after the hems were already sewn down. Cost me some time. Next time, I’d go with a very light tulle or poly organza.

I wanted solid color buttons, preferably the shade as the background pink, but apparently, cinnamon is not popular these days. I went through every roll of silk at High Fashion trying to find a match – I’m desperate if I’m willing to pay full price there – but had to go with a darker shade. At least it’s in the same palate! The lace from my stash was too white for this cream, so I tea-dyed that along with a bit of velvet I ordered for another project I’ve got in mind. I made buttons, lapels, cuff facings, and set it all aside.

Once everything was assembled, the dress came together very easily. I measured and applied the buttonholes and buttons, pleated the sides and back, made some serious adjustments at the side seams (my dress form is at my natural 29″ waist, but I corset to 27″), applied tapes, applied bone casings and put on the collar.

The last thing I did was attach the sleeves. These are also drafted from Bustle Fashions. The section on embellishments is quite helpful. The lace detail is stitched onto the lining, with the lapel facing sewn to the fashion fabric, pulled back, and tacked down after all the lace was attached. I turned the lining in a quarter inch and slip-stitched down.

Now, at that point, I had a wearable garment. I wanted a little more interest in the front though, so I added the double collar and a little ruff. Cut, ironed, folded, and slip-stitched down. The velvet had to be worked completely by hand.

Add a waist tape, boning, and a bonnet, and we’re ready for tea!


I do have a few issues with this (the collar is a problem, the fit isn’t perfect at the sides, the sleeve feel bulky) but overall, I think it turned out great!

One issue I did notice on this dress, for anybody who’s working on a polonaise, is that the fit must be perfect through the waist. No ease, or at least, as little ease as possible. The back drapery is laid in box pleats on the underside of the dress. This adds both bulk and weight at the back, and it wants to pull away from the body. I solved this with serious adjustment in the side seams, as well as the waist tape. I sewed the waist tape very firmly to the “neatening” tape over the top of the pleats. The waist tape serves essentially as a waistband for the skirt portion of the polonaise, and keeps it in place more securely than the bodice could alone. Do not skip the waist tape in a polonaise!

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