There has always been something about a frothy pink Natural Form era gown that has caught my fancy. Any time I came across paintings of heavily trimmed pink Natural Form gowns on Tumblr I would fall in love all over again.
When Prior Attire announced the date for their 2018 Victorian Ball in Bath, and that the theme would be Natural Form era, I decided it was time to finally make my pink confection, and to take a chance and go to the UK for the first time–for a costume event!
Very long, so please click to read more!
Right from the start, I had a bit of trouble sourcing my fabric, though. It took me a while to find something that I thought was quite the right shade, especially since I was limited to shopping for silk online, and website photos can’t always portray the color accurately. Burnley & Trowbridge had a “soft pink lutestring” silk that looked like the right shade, but I wasn’t quite sure what “silk lutestring” was like. Even when I finally decided to just take the plunge with that silk, Angela called me and left a voicemail informing me there was only a few yards left of the ten that I needed for the gown. We played phone tag for a couple days as I tried to inquire if there were any way to order more of the fabric. We finally connected and she informed me that yes, she was able to special order more for me, and it would be on its way soon. Success. I also cheated and bought a few yards of cream polyester chiffon from the JoAnn’s for the gown trim, though at the time I was only vaguely conscious of what that might do with it.
Then I spent hours looking at fashion plates to try to formulate a plan of exactly what to do.
I had interlibrary loaned Frances Grimble’s Fashions of the Gilded Age vols 1 & 2 while preparing for my Gryffindor gown, and after looking at the available paper patterns I decided the book was my best bet for the look I wanted. I purchased a copy of vol 2 only for now, since vol 2 contains patterns for evening and ball gowns. The pattern I settled on is simply referred to as “Satin Dress,” and consists of three pieces for the bodice, three for the overskirt, and three for the underskirt.
Which meant it was time for math. I am notoriously bad at math, and it wasn’t until I had traced the pattern on the only graph paper we had laying around the house that I realized the pattern was printed at 1/4 scale, and the graph paper was printed with 5 squares per inch. This led to even more math than I had really planned on, and it took me a couple days to draft up the pattern.
By January 1st, though, I was making my mockup and everything seemed… surprisingly well-fit.
This would become a theme with this gown. For every step in the construction, I would try something, feeling like I had no idea what I was doing, and that I wasn’t sure if what I was about to try would work correctly, and then it would come out much better than I expected and I would be flooded with relief until it came time for the next step. The one thing that I should have caught in the mockup stage is that the bodice as patterned is too short for my torso. I didn’t take the seam allowance at the neck and hem into account when I was trying the mockup on, but luckily by the time I realized I was able to finagle something to hide the issue, which you’ll see later.
After the mockup fitting came the scary part–cutting out my silk. This is still only the second time I’ve worked with silk so I spent a good while staring at the pattern pieces laid out on the fabric before I could convince myself I was actually ready to cut it.
Since the pink silk was so fine, I interlined it with white cotton twill to give it strength and structure before sewing the bodice pieces together.
Before going any further on the bodice, I realized I really should make my skirts first, as their volume would affect the fit of the bottom half of the bodice. I made my underskirt from the same Truly Victorian TV225 pattern that I used for my Gryffindor gown, but I added the train to it this time around. I lined it in a lightweight white cotton to ensure that the underskirt would be opaque and to add a bit more structure. The hems of the two layers are separate from each other to avoid any weird ballooning of the fashion fabric layer, but on the back panel I did sew the tie back cord channel through all layers, since I was afraid the silk was too thin to handle a cord channel on its own.
This meant that at the side seams of the underskirt the lining layer and fashion layer are all sewn together in one seam, unlike the vertical seams in the front part of the skirt. This left the skirt hem a bit messy at the sides. And when I eventually put the pleated trim on the hem, sewn to the lining layer and peeking out from under the fashion layer, it left a gap at the skirt side seams where there was only one layer and the trim could not be sandwiched. It’s not terribly noticeable, I don’t think, I only mention it as something that came out messier than it could have, and something I’d like to figure out how to do better, if I do end up having to do something like that again.
Once the underskirt was together I put the barely-constructed pieces on my dress form and realized I was really going to have to amp up my underpinnings game.
I made the quickest, ugliest bustle pad you ever did see (I’m sparing you photos, because it’s bad. I accidentally put in all the quilting stitches before turning it right side out, and didn’t feel like taking them all out, so now it has the raw seam allowance all around the outside… Trust me, no one wants to see it. But it does its job.). I was annoyed both that I couldn’t seem to find good reference photos for the type of pad I knew I had seen somewhere, and annoyed that I was taking valuable time away from constructing the visible bits to make something that I wasn’t even sure was going to look right. I basically just cut out some half-moon shaped muslin, stitched all the sides and put in some quilting stitches to make it look like a cushion, and shoved scraps of batting in there. It took me all of half an hour and it was rough. But then once I had the pad together and put it on the dress form under the petticoat and underskirt I realized I had done the right thing. The fit of the bodice was already looking better (let me remind myself yet again: don’t skimp on underpinnings!!).
I then took another little detour and made a train for my petticoat, partially to fluff it out more, and partially to keep the skirt fabric itself off the floor and ground as much as possible. I did a quick dirty job of the train, too, cutting out an approximate fantail shape, sewing a few ruffles onto it, and whipstitching it onto the back of the petticoat so that it could easily be cut off later, leaving the petticoat able to be worn with my walking-length Gryffindor skirt. To do it properly I should have put buttons on the petticoat and button holes on the train, but by now it was already February, and I was getting nervous that I still had a lot of work to do, plus an international trip to prepare for.
After another few days of panicking over what to do with the overskirt, I decided to just keep it simple and follow the rest of the pattern for the “Satin Dress.” The pattern called for a front and back panel and panniers on either side, but the thought of pink panniers on top of pink overskirt, on top of a pink underskirt seemed too flat to me, and the thought of using my cream chiffon for the panniers didn’t seem right either. I ended up leaving the panniers off.
The thing about this overskirt is that it’s stupidly simple, but it came out looking way more complicated to execute. The back panel is just a rectangle gathered at the waist, middle, and hem and then pleated in a few places at the sides, but it creates a nice two-tiered waterfall effect that everyone was complimenting. The front panel was a little more difficult, only because I followed the measurements and directions, then pinned it on the dress form only to find that even hemmed it was dragging on the floor at my toes. I threw a bit of a fit and got discouraged until something told me to look at the side seam position again. I literally moved the side seams of the front panel back an inch on either side of the waist, and suddenly all the problems were fixed. No more dragging on the floor, and the drape looked loads better.
After fixing the overskirt, I finally started to feel like I was on track to finish this thing, even though I still had a ton of work to do. I cut zip ties, made cases for them, and sewed them into the seams of the bodice to keep them smooth; I made tiny cording with white yarn inside to finish the edges of the bodice, then turned the seam allowance to the inside and whipped it down to the interlining; and I used scraps of the white twill to make little panels and used my new grommet press to put eyelets in for lacing the back.
Once I got the eyelet panels in I could finally try on the gown, and this is where I had another bit of a panic. I discovered that the bodice was too short for my torso, and the result was that either I could shorten the shoulder straps and the bottom of the bodice rode too high and gaped terribly, or I could leave the straps long and show a daring amount of cleavage. Even with the cleavage pulled down, though, I didn’t quite have enough hip to fill out the bottom of the bodice. Even with my bustle pad on.
I received some support from friends on Facebook, though, and was able to salvage the situation by darting the center seam of the bodice slightly, and adding padding to the inside of the bottom edge of the bodice. The inside looks a bit of a mess now, but no one is supposed to see it but me, anyway.
The only thing left at this point was trim. I needed something around the top that would bring the neckline up a bit, so I found a bertha pattern for one of the other ball gowns in Fashions of the Gilded Age and made a test in muslin. It seemed to fit the neckline of my bodice just fine, so I made it up in one layer of the white cotton twill and one layer of pink silk. Then I grabbed my cream chiffon and started playing. At some point I also ran back to the store and grabbed some offwhite lace trim because I felt like I needed a third texture. I seem to have misplaced the originals of some of these photos in my transition between phones, so you’ll have to look at the photos saved from my Instagram stories with my commentary pasted over them.
It was better than I could have hoped. One try and I had my trim exactly the way I wanted. I quickly sewed the chiffon and lace to the bertha, and then made pieces for the back as well.
Once the bertha was finished, I hand stitched it to the bodice above the original neckline to a level I felt much more comfortable with. I then realized my skirt was a tad short for both my petticoat, and my short heels, so I made a last minute decision to put pleated trim around the hem of the gown and train, and I’m so pleased that I did.
The last touch was to put a button hole in the lining of the skirt train and put a button on the train of the petticoat, along with a loop of ribbon. This made it so that the skirt train would stay attached to the petticoat and I could hold the whole thing up safely for dancing at the ball. I had everything finished a good two weeks before we left for the UK, and I was honestly in a bit of shock about it. I’d been working on it for four months, and every step of the way felt like a struggle. I think, because FotGA includes only minimal instructions, not a complete step-by-step, I had to fill in a lot of the construction techniques and process myself. This gown forced me to use every bit of knowledge I’ve gained in my costuming journey so far, and then build on that. It left me pretty exhausted, honestly. But it makes me quite proud of this dress. I’m still amazed to look at it and know that I made it. I’m also not sure I’m going to be making another ball gown like this for a while, but we’ll see.
But our trip!
I packed up the gown and we headed off to London to hang around the UK for a bit before the ball. We went to the Victoria & Albert and the Portrait Gallery in London, the National Museum of Scotland and Edinburgh Castle, and once we got to Bath we went to the Fashion Museum and had tea in the Pump Rooms. I got to see so many garments and portraits in person that I have seen photos of online, it was overwhelming.
In Bath we met up with Naomi, who I’ve been friends with on Instagram for a while, for tea before heading to the dance lessons. Then we got dressed in our hotel room, I realized at the last minute that the curling iron I brought would likely explode if I plugged it into the UK electrical outlets and had to figure out something else to do with my hair, and then we headed to the Assembly Rooms for the ball.
And our official ball photos from TimeLight Photographic:
And Dan got one of the back of my dress for me:
The whole trip was really magical, though the ball seemed to go by so fast, after all the months of planning and sewing. I’d love to go back, but it might be a couple years before the finances will allow it. For now I have a few photos to remember, and all of my ticket stubs from the places we visited, too.
Well, if you read this far, thank you for taking the time. This post got much longer than I thought it would, but this dress was a journey (and then was brought on a journey…) so there’s a lot that I had to say about it, and a ton of photos of the construction I wanted to share. I’ll probably be bringing this dress to Costume College with me, so say hello if you spot me in it!