Thursday, December 8, 2011

1840's Dress Progress - Kinda

So far this week I have spent a little time each day working on the bodice of the 1840's dress. And I am still not done with the bodice. For me, who used to be able to whip up a complete 1860's dress in a day, piping, hand finishing and all, this is discouraging.
It seems at every turn I have to re-evaluate something, recheck something, do some more research. Maybe it's because I'm so unsure of myself. This is a new fashion era for me and I lack confidence to go boldly ahead and cut and sew. The 1840's has created a Meek and Mincing Sarah Jane.
For one thing, the fitting method completely took over my mind these past few days. The way the material between the neckline and waist was treated caused me a great deal of frustration. How to get that tidy, neat fit? (and I am deliberately excluding fan-fronts from my mind since those are a whole different style - the look I want is the molded, tidy, wrinkle-free rigid torso look).
It seemed there were two ways of doing this. One way fitted the bodice with darts and another way fitted the bodice with princess seams. I found evidence of both methods used in the 40's. So, okay.
But then, there was variation among those options. You could fit a bodice with 1 dart on each side, like the 1837-1841 morning dress on page 65 in Patterns of Fashion 1, or  you could fit a bodice with two darts to each side, like this one:
You could fit a bodice with princess seams. The first image I found that showed clear princess seams was the right-center dress in this plate, which shows princess seams going from the neckline to the waist. I posted this one last week. 
Then a few highly respected costumers suggested to me the Jean Hunnisett patterns for 1840's bodices as excellent starting points. The pattern for a princess seam bodice from the patterns in this book calls for princess seams going from the front armscye to the waist. I decided to go with that. Here you can see my first mock up, with the pins indicating where the new seam line will be.
Then I came across this picture which clearly shows a bodice fitted with princess seams that go from the shoulder seam to the waist (this is the same style as my gray ballgown bodice; the pattern for which I am using as a base for the 40's dress).
Another interesting thing about the above picture is that there is no center seam in the bodice, and it doesn't appear as though the front seams are piped!
And I thought piping was ALWAYS used on 40's dresses!
Then I looked more at my inspiration dress image and realized with a jolt that yes, it looks like this bodice is also fitted with princess seams that go from the shoulder to the waist! Look at how the stripey pattern gets chopped off as it nears the shoulder. . .it definitely looks like there is a seam there.
And this late 30's dress from Costume in Detail has the same kind of princess seams (and just the beginning of a pointed front bodice!)
But at this point I had already cut out my bodice with the princess seams going from armscye to waist.
Grrr. Frustrating. I have spent the last few days wondering if what I have chosen to do with my dress will even be remotely 40's-ish. . .because every time I think I know something, something new pops up and throws my theories into the water. This is why we "never say never" in historic costuming, right?
So that is why my bodice has been coming along slowly. At least with the sleeves and skirt I know pretty much exactly what I am going to do. A tight, bias cut sleeve and a plain old rectangular construction gauged and faced skirt. Easy, right? We'll see.
Here is my mock up of the 1860's ball gown pattern. This is 60's in style, so I knew I'd have to modify it a little for a 40's look. Going off the Jean Hunnisett pattern as a guide, I cut a new seamline that went from the armscye to the waist. I also trimmed down the neckline a bit. I only did one mock up of the bodice, since it seemed to work pretty well just as it was. There are wrinkles in the mock up along the seams but I think that was mostly due to the cheapy poly/cotton thin fabric I was using for a mock up. The semi-finished bodice doesn't wrinkle up much at all on me.
Here is the first try on of the bodice in the fabric I'm using. Not too bad, but I did change a few things. The black lines (sorry they are hard to see!) on the viewers left indicate where I made some changes. First, I cut down the neckline to get more of a horizontal line from shoulder to shoulder. I also trimmed the front armscye since it was cutting into my arm and making a wrinkle under the armpit. I also refined the curve of the front point so it would match, more or less, the bias stripes on the center front. I wish now I had only cut down the sides of the neckline, not the center. : / 
I also had to redo the back almost completely. . .for some reason the upper back was WAY too wide and the neckline way too gappy. I don't know why since I used the same pattern for my ballgown and it came out fine. Weird. I cut down the straps on the back bodice and that snugged the armscye up too much, so I had to recut the back armscye. I cut my side back pieces on the bias at first but it looked funky so I ended up ripping them out and recutting and sewing side back pieces on the straight.
Then as I sewed and tried on, and sewed and tried on, the bodice seemed to significantly shrink in size. This alarmed me and the only reason I can think of for this is the fact that all the piped seams are very thick and heavy. Grading the seams and even pressing them open didn't seem to help much. They just take up more surface space so I have less room to fit my body into. Tightening up the stays a tad helped, but I am going to have VERY little overlap at the back opening by the time all is said and done!
I think the main bodice is finally done, though. I piped the waistline this morning. I still need to pipe the armscye and make and set in the sleeves but after that, it appears to be smooth sailing.
And here is a picture of the extra material draped up on the petticoats, so I can get an idea of how the bodice will look once the skirt is made and attached.


  1. Again, lovely! But you seem to have had quite a bit of trouble with it - I hate it when that happens! It's usually at that point a project goes into the back of the wardrobe for six months or so...

    I love piping, and bias cut striped fabrics, it's a couple of the many features on 1840's dresses that I like.

  2. Lovely! I just love the fabric and the way you designed all of the lines! I really like that fabric for a Christmas dress - festive but not over the top! Very pretty!

  3. Sarah, it is really beautiful. I've always been a fan of the 1840's, and I'm so pleased to see you create something from this era...and doing it so well, at that!

  4. Yes your progress is beautiful! I echo was others have said! I can't wait to see it finished!!! It looks so festive and cheerful, definately worth all the frustration I hope! I know when I finished my first 1860s dress it was worth all the pain and frustration. :) May your endeavors be blessed Sarah.

    In Christ,

  5. Just amazing! Even if the fabric isn't technically historically accurate for 1840s, I think it completely captures the "feel" of the 40s. I especially like that the meandering vines also have a bit of an 18thC feel to them because you see so many 18thC gowns remade in the 1840s. It's too bad you had so many headaches fitting it, but the end result is outstanding. And think how much easier the next one will be! Can't wait to see it finished.

  6. I know this has nothing to do with your post but i was wondering if you are going to be reenacting at Gettysburg this comming summer... I am a big fan of the Civil War and my family will be going either this summer or next to Gettysburg as part of our senior trip. I am homeschooled as well.

  7. Thanks - Laura, I hadn't thought of that, about 18th century gowns being reconstructed into 40's styles. I'm glad the fabric does have a "feel" of the 40's, even if it's not 100% perfect. It's nice to use it at last. I was so bummed I couldn't use it for 60's things!

    I have the sleeves done and in and hope to finish this beast of a gown by the time the weekend is over. Today I think I will be spending a few hours gauging!

    Then I have insanely decided my husband needs to dress 40's for Christmas too, so between Monday and Christmas Eve I hope to get a new pair of trousers, a waistcoat and a tailcoat made for him. . .it will be part of his Christmas present from me, of course. . . ;)

    Gabrielle, I think I will most likely be going to Gettysburg in 2013, so, not this coming summer but the one after. I'd love to meet you if you will be going then as well!!

  8. Sarah, my bodice shrank as well - I'm sure it was all the piping. Your dress is beautiful - thank you for sharing :)

  9. Thank you for replying. I would love to meet you as well. I really like your blog! im really interested in history and am glad i found your blog to follow. =)


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!