Just over a year ago a costumer friend of mine decided to have a fancy 1860s cotillion for her 30th birthday, complete with catered food, dances (with an instructor), and ball gowns, all in a Victorian B&B up in the Adirondacks. At the time she announced this, I was working three jobs, one of them a retail job, and the Christmas shopping season was just gearing up. At first I thought there was no way I’d be able to make a suitable gown to be able to attend this fancy cotillion.
But after a strong latte in a coffee shop one day, my creative impulses kicked in, as they are wont to do when I’ve had caffeine, and I decided that I was going, and that I would somehow make a dress. That very day I dragged my boifurendo to JoAnn fabric to see what I could get on a meager budget. Luck was on my side, and the Simplicity patterns were on sale. I picked up Simplicity 2881, even though, honestly, the example dress looked kind of awful. Yellow cotton gingham for a ball gown? But I decided the shape underneath all that extra trim was what I needed, so I could leave the trim off and use a more luxurious fabric. Silk was unfortunately out of my budget. I was hoping for a dark, rich green, but JoAnn’s was not forthcoming in that department. So I picked up a purple polyester shantung with very minor slubbing that did a fair imitation of silk.
Now, the reason I call this the gown of DOOM is that from here on out, it seemed like everything that could go wrong with this dress did go wrong. I bought boning from ebay and when it arrived it was very weak sew-through boning which was not at all what the photo in the listing said. I ran out of time to make a proper hoop skirt, and so had to buy one from ebay that unfortunately doesn’t quite have the circumference necessary.
Then I made a mock up of the bodice, noticed that it was a little big, and I adjusted the size of all of the pattern pieces. Once I cut the pattern pieces out of my fashion fabric and started sewing the bodice together, I noticed the bust was a bit loose, but I kept tricking myself into thinking that the bust was loose because I couldn’t hold it closed in the back properly at the top. It wasn’t until I finished the edges and put in the eyelets and laced it all the way closed that I realized the bust was huge. I could fit snacks down the bust of my bodice in case I got hungry on the dance floor if I wanted to. That was when I went back to the pattern and noticed for the first time this message:
Thanks for being upfront about the fact that your pattern is basically unusable, I guess?
The pattern specifically allows for six inches of ease in the bust. Six. Inches. For what is supposed to be a fitted bodice worn over a corset. I was furious. And panicked.
In a time crunch, and because it was just a fun dress for a friend’s party and not anything that I’d be like, taking to reenactments and trying to pass off as accurate, I ended up putting darts in the bodice starting at the bust line, going down toward the waistline. Not the best option for a well-fitting garment (or probably any garment), but once I added a v-shaped band and a bit of lace at the neckline, inspired by extant garments like this one, it hid the fit issues and came out looking acceptable. Then some of my eyelets started popping out, which is when I decided never to use the stupid eyelet anvil setup again, but at that point I had no time left to worry about the construction, it was time to dance.
The finished dress:
Moral of the story: don’t use commercial patterns for historical costumes.
What I did learn from this dress, though, is that cartridge pleats are fun and not nearly as scary as I was thinking they were. I don’t know where I got the idea that cartridge pleats are scary. But they’re not. They’re fun. And they look awesome. The party was also a blast, and it was so awesome to have a fancy dress to hang out in. Now I’m thinking I need to do something fancy for my 30th…
Anyway, back to the present. I’ve returned to working on my Renaissance court gown, with the intention of getting it done for a new little local Ren Faire that is in three months, or at the latest, for the New York Renaissance Faire that starts the first weekend in August. So hopefully I will have some productive court gown updates soon!