Thursday, June 16, 2011

1860's Fashionable Ensemble

Although many people will urge their fellow ACW reenactors or wanna-be reenactors to not wear bodices and skirts that do not match, there is, as usual, a place and a time for everything and in some situations, contrasting bodices and skirts are just absolutely fine.

Note: Most of these images are from the originals section at The Graceful Lady website. Please go check out this site for a ton more fabulous images!

Here you can see a lady wearing a contrasting skirt and bodice in what would, I presume, be an alternative to a plain working or everyday type dress. It's not fancy and probably not very fashionable, but it looks tidy and neat and put together. This lady does not look particularly young, but she is wearing what appears to be an attractive, decorative hairnet and a bow at the neck. I once played with the idea of recreating an outfit like this one and was advised to make a lightweight, solid colored wool bodice paired with a wool skirt. I haven't made that outfit yet, but most likely will at some point. It would be a rather informal, working outfit to wear while I do active labor.

A more fashionable option in the 1860's was the sheer white bodice worn with a nicer skirt (sheer, wool, or silk). This could be accessorized with a decorative belt or coat or both. Most people agree that this was an outfit mostly worn by younger ladies. It was considered quite fashionable so presumably not as common a style as, say, a 1 or 2 piece day dress made with matching bodice/skirt. 

One pretty ensemble consisted of a skirt, a white bodice and a decorative belt that are termed in reenacting circles as "swiss waists". I found an illustration for the same style belt in La Mode Illustree that calls the belt a "swiss belt". You can see the illustration here: La Mode Illustree Some photos of this style belt are below: (the skirts in these pictures all appear to be of nice silk). 

In the photos above, the "swiss belt" has shoulder straps, or at least trim that gives the impression of shoulder straps. In this photo, you can see belts with and without shoulder straps. 

Usually, these white bodices were made of fine, lightweight cotton or silk, sheer or semi-sheer and may or may not be lined. They were cut like a dress bodice and often had a waistband at the waist, and were not tucked in like our modern day blouses. The armscye was dropped and everything was controlled and tidy. Similar to this one: 

The decorative belts were shaped and cut to the fit the figure and were lined and boned. An alternative name for this type of belt is "corselet" and you can see why! Although shaped and boned in a similar manner to a corset, these belts were NOT true corsets and would be worn OVER a corseted figure. 

Soooo. . .all that to say, I decided that, since I am 25, I had better make myself a sheer-waist and swiss-belt combination while I am still, hopefully, young enough to wear it. I know 25 is kind of pushing it, but since I will be wearing this outfit when my boys are NOT with me, hopefully I will appear less matronly and more youthful. :) Alas, I went through a similar thing when I was 18 and decided that before I turned 20 I had better get my bum in gear and wear short sleeved, open necked dresses while I was still able to. And besides - I'm not convinced that just because a lady was "older" in the 1860's she would automatically shun what was a fashionable ensemble of the time. Of course, an adult lady would not wear children's fashions but these sheer-bodice-swiss-belt combos show up in period fashion plates on ladies wearing full length skirts and otherwise "adult" attire. .. so?? No one can know for sure. Did any 25 year old ladies wear this type of outfit in the 1860's? I bet they did! 

Of course, with my usual fantastic planning, I decided I needed this outfit two weeks ago and started working on it on Monday. :P For the swiss belt, I simply tore a strip of mock up fabric and pinned it around my waist and kept on pinning and cutting til it fit me. Here you can see one of the first mock ups. I was having difficulty at this point with figuring out how the shoulder strap stayed UP on the arm since mine kept wanting to fall down. 

I finally figured out that the strap was cut in one with the swiss belt, and cutting it this way makes it sit well on the arm and prevents it from sliding down. Here is the final pattern I used taken from my last mock up: 

I used black cotton velvet for my belt and interlined it with tan cotton twill. The lining is of plain white cotton. Here you can see the partially-sewn swiss belt. I sewed the velvet and twill together and then made the casings for the bones (one at each seam and at the center front). I then put in the white lining and finished the front edges with a facing of the velvet. The top and bottom and armscyes were bound with black polished cotton since I didn't have enough of the velvet to use for the binding (plus it would have been pretty bulky). I had to take a tuck in the belt since it came out a bit too big for me, so that is the "extra" seam you see here: 

I made the belt to lace up the front. One original belt I saw photos of had what appeared to be metal eyelets or lacing rings sewn to the inside of the belt to lace the cord through, versus making hand sewn eyelets. I used black metal eyelets sewn to the inside of my belt to lace it, since I just don't have enough time to make eyelets right now. If the metal eyelets pull or don't work out very well, I can take them off and make eyelets later - for now they seem to work very well! Here is a really bad picture of the finished belt on my dressform over my sheer dress (another option for wearing a belt like this!) Forgive the form - its a bit too big so the dress doesn't close all the way and the waist is laced REALLY wide, but it gives you an idea of what it looks like. I'm VERY happy with how it came out and can't wait to wear it on Saturday! :D 
Today I am working on the sheer bodice that goes beneath this. For that, I'm using a lovely dotted swiss cotton my dear friend Amy sent to me. The bodice is lined with a half-high lining and is constructed very much like a regular dress bodice. Here is my try on pic when I was marking the waistline - 
There was some looseness/wrinkling at the shoulders that I didn't really like, so I ended up taking in the shoulder seam a little bit. I think because this material is so light, every little bit of extra fabric shows up as a fold. Taking in the seam seemed to help. It's still not perfect, but better than what it was. I know the waist looks a tad short here, but this is before the waistband was sewn on, which brought everything down exactly to waist level. :) 
Now for the sleeves! I'm looking forward to wearing this outfit when it's complete. I will pair this bodice and the belt with my brown plaid silk skirt and I think they will work quite nicely together. Who knows, that brown drawn bonnet I've been working on. . .oh. . .since last February? (not really working on it - I haven't TOUCHED it since last February!) may make its debut this weekend too. :) 



  1. I adore the weskit type bodice you're making. It's going to look awesome! I agree, too, with what you're saying about the Garbaldi blouses/bodices being paired with skirts. It seems like there are these "rules" that go around, in costuming communities, and for every period too, that just leave us scratching our heads as to how these myths got perpetuated. I'm glad to see you setting the record straight!

  2. Everything looks fabulous! I can't wait to see you in the finished outfit.

    I am so impressed with the amount of sewing you get done with three incredibly active kidlets!

  3. It's going to be *gorgeous*, Sarah! I simply love those Swiss waists, and yours turned out beautifully. Enjoy wearing your lovely new outfit, and I can't wait for some pictures of the finished ensemble! :-)


  4. It's going to look wonderful!

  5. you do such a good job of fitting. That's about 90% of making it right. Love it.


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!