In order to construct the skirt of the Saratoga dress, I relied on a combination of basic printed patterns, draping, and drafts of extant patterns reprinted in books to get the look that I was going for. The original skirt looks like it consists of several layers of overlapping fabric, so a lot of experimentation had to be done to get the angles and overlaps right.
The first thing I had to do was make improved undergarments to make the skirt have the correct shape. The woman in the photograph is curvier than I am naturally, even with a corset, so I made a quick and dirty halfmoon-shaped bum pad out of left over cotton twill that I had in my stash. I based it loosely on bum pads I saw diagrammed in Fashions of the Gilded Age, and ones that other costumers have made, but I drew up the pattern myself based on my waist and hip measurements.
The effect is modest, but definitely added more hip spring.
Next I made the underskirt. In order to economize on the silk fabric I cut the top portion of the underskirt from basic blue cotton and the bottom from the fashion fabric the rest of the dress would be made of. I used the Truly Victorian 1878 Fantail Skirt pattern as a base, I have used it a few times before. The back panel has channels so that the skirt can be cinched to hold it closer to the back of the knee for that Natural Form trailing skirt look, even without a long train. This layer is completely separate, with its own waistband.
I kind of really hated this part of the underskirt. I had spent six hours putting this together, and the clashing blues and awkward length drove me crazy. But luckily, all of that was going to be covered by trim and the overskirt anyway.
The next step was to start pleating strips of silk. I would spend the next month hemming, pleating, basting, and attaching pleated strips of silk, but I’m going to do a separate post about the actual pleating process since it involved making my own pleating board, and making some fun time lapse pleating process videos.
The underskirt was trimmed with one row of pleated contrast fabric at the hem.
For the next layer I again started with the blue cotton fabric. I cut a panel the width of the front and side panels of the underskirt and shaped it with darts at the waist. Once again, the lower part of this panel was the silk fashion fabric. The length of this layer was determined by draping it over the underskirt and measuring where the trim panels should overlap. The bottom of this panel was trimmed with blue pleated silk, and an overlay of contrast fabric was added just above that.
The next step was to try draping the overlapping overskirt panels until I found something that worked. This step was one of the ones that took me the longest and caused the most frustration, because it was hard to get the angles of the panels right, and the muslin practice fabric with no trim on the edges just wasn’t hanging and behaving the same way silk panels with pleated trim would do, so it was hard to know what would actually work. I was very reluctant to try draping with the silk, though, because I didn’t want to make a misstep and end up without enough fabric to complete the rest of the dress. I did upload a quick timelapse of my draping process to my YouTube channel, but you can also see photos of the draped pieces below.
The skirts honestly looked pretty awful for a while, and it was hard to motivate myself to work on something that I didn’t like the look of. But once I got the first section of trim on one of the overskirt layers, I knew I was going in the right direction, and everything seemed to speed up after that.
The trim on the overskirt layers is mitred where it meets at the corners of the panels. It took me some time to figure out how the trim should meet, and how to mitre it, so I also uploaded a video to YouTube where I explain the process I used.
After trimming each section of the overskirt I draped and redraped… and redraped the panels onto the cotton base layer to perfect the angles of overlap, pinning them in place once the layering resembled the original image.
Since the only part of the dress we can see in the image is the front and right side, the back was left entirely up to my interpretation, and it was uncertain how the right side tied into the back panel. After draping the front sections there was a portion of the blue cotton middle overskirt layer that was left exposed, so I had to overlay a panel of the blue silk, and I ended up ruching a panel of silk to put above the contrast layer to hide any blue cotton that might show when the dress moved.
After covering all of the exposed cotton, I used the measurements of a skirt panel diagrammed in Fashions of the Gilded Age to cut out two panels that would be draped into the back of the overskirt. The sides and middle back edges of the two panels were tacked up in two places on each edge to create a draping, waterfall effect.
At this point I also set the final position of the overlapping panels in the front, and basted through all layers of them onto the blue cotton panel.
The back panels were sewn together in the middle back, and the sides were sewn to the side edges of the rest of the overskirt panel. Everything was then sewn onto a waistband. To keep the back panel of the skirt loose and drapey, and to keep the front panels smooth against the body, I put tie backs into the side back seams, to be tied under the back panel.
The final step was to add trim to the back panel. In the original photo, the trim at the back looks like it alternates to the order of the trim on the front, so this time I put blue at the hem and a layer of the contrast trim above it.
I felt that the back was still too plain, so I cut four more strips of the gingham fabric, hemmed both sides, folded them up into looped ribbons, and tacked them inside the cascading folds of the back panel.
When it was all done, it almost looked as if I had planned it out meticulously! Instead it was just a long process of draping and guesswork to get the look I was going for. I’m very please with how the skirt came out, as I think it’s really the focal point of the whole outfit. The overlapping layers of pleated trim look so crisp and interesting, I have a lot of respect for the person who designed the dress in the original image.
The whole dress is actually done now, so I’m working to catch up on all my blog posts about it. The big final part of my grant project is a presentation I’ll be giving at the library on October 24, but I have a feeling I’ll still be catching up on detailed blog posts after that.
See the next post about constructing this dress: Constructing the Bodice
Saratoga Arts made this program possible with an Individual Artist Grant funded by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.