The Wilton Dress

Long ago during grad school, before I dove more seriously into historical costuming (because of lack of time and funds), I worked at a Barnes & Noble where I came across the Images of America series title Wilton, NY by Jeannine Woutersz.

The dress on the cover immediately struck me, and I told myself that one day I would be good enough at sewing to recreate it.

During 2020, after finishing my UFO pile I decided I needed a new project and it was time to attempt the dress. With the help of Instagram I tracked down a wool/cotton blend fabric that was a fair enough imitation of the striped skirt, and I bought some wool serge from Burnley & Trowbridge for the jacket. I knew I had seen images that appeared to be a patterning diagram from a book for a jacket very similar to the one in the cover image.

Through a reverse Google image search, I discovered that the diagram was from a book titled The National Garment Cutter Book of Diagrams by Goldsberry, Doran, & Nelson, published in 1888. And the book had been scanned by the Library of Congress and is available online in its entirety. I now had my fabric and my pattern; it was time to start drafting.

I started with the skirt, since that is the most striking part of the outfit, and the one I didn’t have a pattern for. Using the top bits of a mid-1880s skirt pattern that I already had, I made up a kind of yoke for the shaped top part of the skirt that would go into the waist band.

I made sure that the hem of the yoke would all sit at the same level, even as the top part would be gathered into the waistband at the back. And then a big rectangle of the skirt fabric just needed to be pleated to match the circumference of the yoke hem. I tried to match the stripes of the fabric to the pleat pattern of the image as closely as I could.

It’s hard to see in the lighting in this photo, but there are stripes on there.

I then tested it by pinning it to the yoke and putting it on my dress form.

I quickly realized that although the pleats in the original image are razor sharp, the cotton/wool twill fabric I was using would not hold the pleats that nicely on its own. So to help the pleats along I copied something I had seen in an image once–someone had an original Victorian-era gown with pleated skirt that they had posted photos of, and the inside of the skirt had cotton tapes tacked to the back of the pleats to hold them in place. I won’t include the image I saw, because it belongs to someone else, and I unfortunately can’t remember who, but below I’ve included a portrait I found on Pinterest that appears to show that a similar technique must have been used on the skirt worn by the woman seated on the right:

The way her pleats catch and the skirt buckles all at that one level indicates to me that there may be a tape tacked to the back of the pleats there.

I used cotton twill tape from Burnley & Trowbridge, and tacked the pleats at two levels of the skirt.

Then I sewed the pleated bit onto the yoke!

It was about then that I realized that all these years of getting away with wearing my other mid-1880s gown with no petticoat were at an end. With the weight and pleating of this fabric, the skirt was collapsing in on itself, and not just because I hadn’t hemmed it yet. One cotton petticoat later, things were looking much better.

Then it was time for the harder part–drafting the bodice. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of the drafting process and what I struggled with. I think I was doing that bit around December 2020/January 2021 when the pandemic situation was pretty tough, and my brain hasn’t really banked many memories from those few months. I know I must have made a couple mockups, but I can’t remember how many, exactly. I think I struggled with the length at first; I seem to remember adding a length strip to the waist of the pattern, and then having to slash it down the center length of the pieces to add some inch(es) to the bust and waist measurements. By around mid-January I was cutting out my pieces and interlining them.

The first fit check seemed okay, albeit with the collar seeming a bit high. Looking at it now, though, there was a bit of extra room at the small of the back that I wish I had noticed at this point, but was either too distracted or too lazy to pick up on.

I then made the sleeves from a pattern I had for a different 1880s jacket, and added the contrast cuff per the diagram in the book.

I also drafted and attached the revers to the jacket front.

At this point I realized that although I had used the “wrong” side of the gray wool for the vest front, and the “right” side for the revers (one side was flannel and one was smooth), it was not enough of a contrast and completely washed out the revers, which were the coolest part of the jacket. I ended up putting the project away for a while, unsure what to do.

I fiddled with it a few months later, making boning channels for synthetic whalebone that I put in the seams to keep the fit smooth.

Around this time I also decided the gray vest front Would Not Do, and I grabbed some black cotton sateen from my stash, cut out and put the darts into new vest fronts, and instead of taking the jacket apart (like a smart, meticulous person) I decided to fudge it, and just pulled back the jacket layers from the vest front, laid the new vest over the old, and tacked it in there.

The color is better, but in hindsight, it probably would have been easier to take the jacket apart to put in the new vest front.

I then detoured for 6 weeks into the witchy riding habit from my last post, and once I came up for air in November I decided I wanted to finish this dress for the Troy Victorian stroll. Four weeks away. Did I mention I hadn’t gotten around to choosing buttons to match the original image yet?

I pulled a bag of vintage buttons a friend had gifted me out of my stash and had to mix and match them to have enough to space nicely on the revers (I had to skip the cuff buttons altogether).

I then had to hem the jacket and attach the collar. I used the pattern from my other 1880s jacket for the collar; I had some trouble figuring out how to integrate the jacket fronts with their revers and the vest front into the collar, and it came out messier than I would have liked, but I got it wearable. Part of me already wants to try the jacket again; fix the fit issues in the back and figure out how to seat the collar more neatly. Maybe in a different color that still coordinates with the skirt.

But then I still had to make the overskirt. For that I just started draping and trying things over the underskirt, trying to make sure I would have enough fabric for a front drape and a back drape.

Trying to get the front swag… bit… correct.

The front drape came out a little shorter than the original image; I don’t think I properly accounted for how much pulling the drape to the waistband at the sides would shorten it. But I still think it sets off the underskirt nicely.

For the back I didn’t have a lot left, so it’s basically a rectangle of fabric that I tacked in a couple of random places on each side to give it a bit of a drape. Of course, we can’t see the back of the dress in the original image, so I was at a bit of a loss of what to do, but there are a lot of fashion plates from around the same era that seem to have simpler back drapes, relying on the substantial bustle worn under the skirts for shape, rather than on the external skirt fabric.

And then, it was done! Or at least wearable! In time for the Victorian Stroll.

I accessorized it with my vintage fur muff and hat, and the temperature was warm enough that I was able to wear the outfit with a long sleeve shirt and leggings underneath without needing a dolman on top.

The following are some photos taken by my friend Rebekah. They were taken outside, and in the parlor of the “Castle House” in Troy, the outside of which you may have seen in HBO’s new show The Gilded Age.

The back, so you can see the drape better.

Overall, I think I did a near impression of the original image. I do still need to source better buttons, though, especially because I didn’t have enough for the cuffs and the back of the jacket. I did get a lot of compliments on this outfit, and it was fun to wear, so I’m happy to have another winter event outfit that is a bit warmer than my gray cotton gown. Since finishing this, I started a sewing room renovation that has gone a little… sideways… so although I’m poking at a couple projects, I haven’t made a ton of headway on anything. Maybe my next blog post will be about my renovation adventures.

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