1880s Holiday Outfit

August – October 2005

This mid to late 1880s Christmasy outfit all started because I fit perfectly into a friend’s corset. She convinced me it would be very easy to sew. I also happened to have some leftover red silk. This meant, of course, that I had to make a late Victorian outfit to go over it.
After getting a peek at the fashion plates in Elegant French Fashions of the Late Nineteenth Century, I was convinced that a mid-1880s outfit was the right choice. There were quite a few styles to choose from, and it was really hard to pick a favorite (I was torn between about four), but in the end, the ones I liked best were the v-neck jackets with center front openings. I couldn’t find a suitable commercial pattern, and I didn’t feel confident modifying one, so that was that. This book is great for inspiration, and I plan to come back to it – if, and when, I have more pattern drafting skills.
At any rate, I was impatient to start working on the outfit, and the underwear was all done. There happened to be 7 yards of green velvet in my stash (originally meant for a different project, but dyed too dark), so I started on Truly Victorian’s 1884 French Vest Bodice in the velvet. The plaid dupioni was the best match I found for the velvet (plus it was on sale), so this became a “holiday” outfit. I got some ideas from these two outfits, and in the end, was really pleased with the unexpected Christmasy theme.

Left: 1887 American; Right: 1888 Scottish
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The underskirt is TV’s 1885 Four Gore pattern. As for the overskirt, it was initially made up entirely in the green, with TV’s 1887 Waterfall pattern. However, when I tried on the overskirt with all the other garments, I found that it weighed a ton! There was so much velvet gathered onto my lower back, not to mention the weight of the bustle, petticoat, and underskirt, that wearing it was a strain. So the front panel of the waterfall pattern came off, and the “waterfall” piece got turned into a complete overskirt. I redid the front panel in the lightweight plaid, and it became a third skirt without too much trouble.
The vest front is in left-over wool. I was so happy with Aaron’s Cardinal buttons, that I made another batch for myself. The collar thingy was added in order to tie in the skirt’s fabric. The sleeves are modified too (made less poofy in the caps) to resemble the ones I admire in Elegant French Fashions. In retrospect, I should have flat-lined the jacket’s lining: it would have been easier to make future adjustments…especially since gaining or losing five pounds means a Victorian outfit no longer fits right. (It looks like the back seams already need taking in).
Obviously I had no idea what I was getting into by trying to sew a late Victorian jacket. My tailoring teacher had warned us, “fitting is not something you can learn in a book.” I probably re-did the darts seven times, and every other seam at least once or twice. I had no idea that stays would add 1/2″ to the size! The velvet/duck layer added still more unanticipated bulk. I also discovered that my jacket refuses to stay in place without constant tugging (it rides up). I don’t know if this is because it’s too big, too small, or just ill-fitting in general. Or maybe this is just the nature of these jackets. (Much later edit: that would be a waist stay). At any rate, the outfits I’ve made in the past have always had a bodice attached to the skirt, and were therefore anchored in place. So I’ve never encountered this problem.
At some point mid-way through, I packed the whole thing away and decided to start on something new. But the good thing about all these problems, was that I decided not to drop the draping class I’d signed up for months before. Whether this helps, is yet to be seen.