An 1876 Victorian Bodice

On June 1st, a month and a half before I would be wearing this Victorian outfit at Costume College, I started on the labour-intensive work of the gown’s bodice.

Step 1 was cutting out the Ageless Patterns bodice pieces in a cotton muslin. I made sure to trace out and sew the darts as marked so nothing would be wonky with the fitting itself. This pattern was based off an original, and although I knew it was roughly my measurements, I still figured there would be some modifications needed to fit my modern figure. I ended up increasing the amount of fabric at the hips to fit over the skirts, took in the bust a little, and removed some of the height from the neckline. All these modifications were transferred back to the original paper pattern and a new pattern was drafted… Then I went through the process again with the new modified pattern; making a second cotton mockup toile until I was happy with the results. This time I was lucky, mockup No.2 worked well. Although, I will come to regret not dropping the shoulder a little more. This would have given a more correct look for the period and the armscye would have had a better fit with the sleeve shape. It was a small detail, but the draglines pull towards the culprit of that shoulder point. Something to learn for next time! Fortunately, it didn’t diminish my love for this gown in the slightest, but I would aspire to (and did ultimately) improve on this pattern in a second version of the gown.

With the fitted pattern for the bodice now created, it was time to cut out the pattern pieces in both the fashion fabric and a lining fabric. With Victorian gowns, the lining and outer fashion fabric are sewn together as one piece. With the fabric lying flat, I used a basting stitch to secure the two layers together to keep them from moving about before taking them to my sewing machine. I also made sure to sew the bust darts with a basting stitch so the dart would catch both layers of fabric at the correct point and avoiding any puckering or slipping of the lining or fashion layers (particularly at that tricky final bust point). A facing piece was added to the neckline and then sewn down only to the lining of the gown with hand stitching. Hand stitching just to the lining prevented any visible seams on the outside destroying the crisp final look. With the center front turned in and also secured with hand stitching to the inner lining, it was then time to add fabric covered buttons. Using 10 buttons seemed to have the correct look I was going for. The button holes were added with the use of a hammer and a chisel-like buttonhole cutter (used to cut through the fabric as neatly as possible). The raw edges of the holes were then hand worked with a delicate buttonhole stitch.

Time to sew the sleeve pieces and begin decorating. With the upper and lower sleeves sewn together, I used the same gold charmeuse I had used on the skirt to add interest to the base of the sleeve. The charmeuse is backed with cotton (bag sewn) to help it hold its structure, and then carefully pleated down towards a central point. It was then attached to the wrist of the sleeve. I did all this while the sleeve was still not yet attached to the bodice to make it very easy to handle.

I decided to add an extra decorative cuff over the pleating. A version of the cuff was actually included in the Ageless Patterns instructions, so I didn’t need to draft this portion. I simply added some bias trim charmeuse to the edge, machine stitched down on one side, and then turned over and hand stitched to complete the trim. A covered button and cute charmeuse bow at the back of the cuff completed the sleeve detailing. The sleeve was now ready to be sewn on to the rest of the bodice!

Time to really turn it from just an ordinary dress bodice into a Victorian creation with the help of internal engineering!

The first thing to be done was to secure all the raw edges down to the lining with hand stitching. I made sure to clip into the raw edges of some of the curved seams so they would lay flat against the dress and not pucker. Over the seams I added twill tape boning casing, hand sewn down to the lining of the gown. The boning helps the bodice hold its shape and avoid extra wrinkling. You can see this in originals like this, or this, and its still done in its own way in modern wedding and couture gowns. With the boning in, I now pad stitched some wool to the hollow of the chest of the gown to get a fuller period-correct silhouette. Some lace trim was also carefully pleated and added to the collar of the gown. The detail at the center back bustle of the bodice was also hand stitched to the inside of the gown at the waist.

The final to-do list item was the waist tape that holds the bodice securely in place….and voilà!! The gown was finished just in time to head off to Costume College in California. This dress that I have poured my heart (and many hours of labour) into making will have a certain special magic to me for years to come.

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