I thought it would be helpful to give some cheats guides to creating a Victorian outfit .There are lots of dress Diarys for costumers but this is designed for those who may never have sewn before or who have never made period costume before and perhaps have a low-budget and few specialised tools or textiles, the aim is to use easily available items and the minim of skills and time while still creating an accurate look.
Unfortunately there is one part of any costume from any historical era for which there is no shortcut .It’s essential to wear the correct under layers.That doesnt however means hours and hours of sewing or a huge time outlay.
The essential items are
A simple first layer
A structural layer
An over layer
For every era from Tudor to late Edwardian a corset or stays its essential.Also for almost every era it also means a structural undergarment.For the Victorian era the structural undergarments most typically include either crinolines (hoop skirts).
or for later Bustle gowns styles such as the one below
You will need a bustle, either a cage bustle or tulle faux cage bustle
or cushion style bustles ,one or other of these is essential for creating the correct look under a bustle gown ,its impossible to create a bustle dress thats looks good without creating an underlayer to boost its shape.
First layer ,,essential
you will need a chemise or underskirt.Typicaly re enactment chemises have sleeves and are specific shapes but as this is a layer that is unlikely to be seen you can use anything.The real thing can be seen below and its still possible to buy original items fairly cheaply of ebay and Etsy but the most common sizes will be 6,8, and 10 ,,after which the chances of finding originals in your size begins to dwindle
It doesnt need to be a pretty ,or accurate item but it does need to be at least thigh length .It must not have any fastenings such as ties or hooks and eyes or be too bulky
,Its only purpose is to go under your corset to stop the corset rubbing and all corsets when worn under outfits for any length of time do rub .It has to cover your bottom or it will ride up under the corset and be really uncomfortable but doesn’t need to be too long and should you be planning to wear the Victorian outfit for any length of time its helps not to have too many long layers that go under the corset as it makes loo trips all but impossible. something shaped like this nightdress from BHS is ideal
.It’s best to choose cotton or silk rather than synthetic fabrics as they absorb sweat better and are more comfortable but it’s not essential .If your likely to be somewhere cold a pure silk strappy nightdress in the same style as the one above would be good as silk is a very good insulating fabric.
Alternately you can make a chemise using the instructions in my cheats guide to making a chemise.
the easiest is just a tube of fabric with two pieces of trim,lace or ribbon to make straps
.The next layer will be Stockings ,these need to be worn rather than tights as ,tights will make it impossible for you to go to the loo.While everyone tends to assume black or fish net are the best styles ,fish net stockings are not accurate ,black is ok ,but you can also wear ,white ,ivory ,blue ,red ,yellow,pink ,anything but flesh coloured ones .
If you dont like stockings ,,or hold ups ,then pop socks or normal high leg black cotton socks can be worn instead,If you wear short socks and want to go the extra mile tie a piece of ribbon around the tops to look like faux garters (many 18th and some 19thc stockings did only come to knee length)
Layer two ,the Corset
What you want is the right shape rather than a tiny waist ,you’re looking for a modern corset in this style
No Victorian gown or faux Victorian outfit will look in any way correct without one.While you can at a pinch get by if you’re wearing a dress with a boned bodice the ties from any petticoat, hoop skirt or bustle are going to dig in your waist and not only be uncomfortable but create ridges of what will look like fat even on the skinniest person .Its also easier to keep bustles and hoops in place if they are safety pined to the front of corset .This doesn’t mean you necessarily need to buy an expensive steel boned Victorian style one ,or that you need to be uncomfortable.It’s possible to create roughly the right look with a very cheap fashion store-bought one for well under £10 but it must be the correct shape.I buy most of my everyday corsets from primark .You want a Victorian look one that dips below waist level .its best to buy one thats around 4 inches smaller than your waist ,,its ok if the corsets a bit too small as you can leave the back slightly unlaced but it cant be too loose fitting
It doesnt need to be steel boned or look amazing ,Its best if it has little or no decoration on it and be cotton or satin not mesh or lace , it must not have cups or underwires and it MUST backlace .
If you don’t want complete accuracy and prefer ease of movement you want the kind that fasten with hooks and eyes up the front NOT the ones with steel fastenings such as that shown below
Though these corsets and steel boned corsets are more accurate and look pretty they are much more restrictive as the front catches are seated on steel panels which are not particularly bendy.These are also impossible to customise.I only wear Steel boned corsets or stays were accuracy is required.If you do want steel boned corsets then again try ebay and type in Steel boned corset .Do not be tempted to buy any which says waist training as these are not healthy.
customise your corset
If you buy a glmaour /fashion corset with plastic bones ,from Primark ,top shop,etc its possible to make the corset even easier to move about in by making it into a underbust style.This is extremely easy ,just chop a few inches off the top of the corset,I usually chop around 3 inches off to create a corset that just barely skims mid boob level as this is still enough to create the right shape but frees a little bit more of your torso ,but I also have one cut to almost below bust height .The plastic bones on lingerie corsets cut quite easily .then cover the top edges with a piece of fabric to stop the bones sticking into your boobs and cover that with lace.Its sounds more time consuming than it is ,,I usually manage it in around half an hour.The one below is the one I usually used for work
this is the corset covered by a gown
Layer three an easy Petticoat
Your next layer is a long underskirt or petticoat ,you need this both to protect your skin from the hoop or bustle you will be wearing and to stop the shape of your legs showing through the long skirt or showing under a crinoline .You can make one fairly easily by using an old white sheet ,
First cut the sheet to the right length by holding it against you ,make sure you cut the sheet so that the sheet hem can be the hem of the underskirt ,Sew it up the two cut sides leaving a gap at the waist part this gives you a tube of fabric
The easiest way to make a faux petticoat for a hoop skirt is now to do a simple stitch right along the top and pull the stitches tight to make gathers.
Then sew these gathers onto a long piece of ribbon leaving enough ribbon either end to make ties fold the ribbon over the top and stitch again to hide the cut fabric at the top of your “skirt”.
If you prefer a prettier finish you can sew the gathered panel onto a wide trim and just add ribbon ties
For later Victorian bustle dresses you do exactly the same thing but leave the front ungathered .This method doesn’t give the neatest of finishes but is easy ,quick and does work .If you buy a flounced valance sheet you can make a tiered petticoat by cutting off the sheet above a flounce and gathering as before
Alt you can buy sari petticoats these are very cheap and work perfectly.Coloured ones do tend to leak colour so white or cream are best ..Its also possible to find modern white cotton tiered skirts that look like petticoats in charity shops and use these but they tend to be bulky at the waist.
If you have the lace and a little extra time you can cover either your own stitching or the machine stitiched hem by adding lace
If you want a stiffer bottom to the petticoat you can fold the hem over once or twice before sewing on the lace,or add cord place it on the hem.
Then fold the hem over it and sew,Its best to use white or cream cord but I used gold here so it would show up clearly.
The petticoat below has a proper waist band and is made from a vintage Edwardian sheet and edged with hand crochet lace but is made using exactly the same method described above
The Structural layer
The next layer is either a hoop skirt or bustle,check the images at the top of this post and below to decide what shape you need to create,Hoop bridal petticoats can be bought very cheaply online from sites such as ebay .These are usually very flimsy and not suitable for frequent use but an economic option for a one off event.If you want something nicer and wider or stronger the best ebay petticoats are from the USA and usually described as civil war era hoop petticoats with 5 or 6 hoops
You need a petticoat with at least three hoops and ideally 5 or 6 .the hoops need to be adjustable as for the Victorian era you want to create a dome shape rather than the pyramid shape they usually arrive in .Not altering the hoops is the main reason for bought hoop skirts looking inaccurate .The Tudor era had triangular hoop skirts but the Vctorians had gentle curves domes or ellipses.
The shape of gown above with wide sleeves is best achieved with a simple tulle /net bridal petticoat as it would have been created at the time by wearing a lot of petticoats.
The Victorian typical hoop skirt
This shape needs a crinoline to look ideal and to move correctly but a very big net petticoat would be passable.The cage crinoline /hooped petticoats make the skirts of your gown sway gracefully as you move so even if you can create the correct shape with tulle you can’t recreate the swaying movement .A cheap one off ebay from china will cost less than £10 and sometimes only £5.
Here is the same dress with first a tulle /net petticoat and then with a hoop.
with a hoop
Later styles of hooped skirt
This needs a hoop but to create the fullness at the back I add a net frilled panel tied at the back.
When your hoop skirt arrives ,find the gaps left in the skirt to alter the hoops ,change them to the right shape then bind the edges with a lot of cellotape, parcel tape etc as this stops the hoop ends working free which they will invariably do otherwise.Also dont be tempted to create the widest possible hoop ,English hoop skirts were mostly fairly narrow compare to the USA civil war era skirts seen on Gone with the Wind or other dramas ,the very wide skirts take a lot more fabric,,maybe an extra 5 metres are heavier and really awkward to move around or sit in.The gowns above are on display in the metropolitan and V & A museums and representative of the usual width of gowns .
If you need to travel or sit a lot the most comfortable option for all the above styles would be a tulle or net petticoat ,You can make one in exactly the same way as making the cotton petticoat but using tulle,,the one below has between ten and 15 yards of tulle
the petticoat under a dress
You can buy net very cheaply off ebay or from fabric shops and just gather it using a running stitch ,it doesnt need a hem you just cut it to the right length
Cheats wide net petticoat.
To save time you can buy two or three net petticoats off ebay use one for the base then chop the others in half lengthways to mix and match under the outfit for the right fullness and shape .So for a normal Victorian domed skirt you can just tie them on with the front open .
if you chop enough tulle off to make a gap that stretches from either hip to give a flat front it gives a more more accurate shape for earlier wide skirts as the skirt front is flatter.
also use tulle to create a faux bustle ,chop one or two of the petticoats in half gather them up tightly to make a narrow gathered up piece ,then safety pin or tie them together and pin at the back of your normal plain cotton petticoat.The bustle below is made from scratch but you can get the same effect by chopping up commercial net skirts and tieing them on the back of a bought net petticoat
This is the bustle above worn under a dress
For bustle gowns you want a fairly flat front and very full back ,,you need a little fullness at the sides ,basically you need a crescent shape of decreasing fullness ending at your side. Dont make the tulle bustles too long as once the weight of the dress is over them they will drop slightly and leave trails of tulle sticking out from under the dress.
If you want to add height to the bustle add a small bustle pad,you can improvise this using a very small cushion with ties added or make one with some stuffing from a pillow or duvet
To make a high bustle ,you tie on your tulle bustle then tie this cushion bustle above it,fix both to your waist and hips with safety pins attached to the corset to stop the bustles shifting to one side.Tulle bustles like tulle petticoats will not move the same way as correct cage bustles ,Cage bustles sway slightly from side to side as you move ,tulle ones dont
Last Layers (optional)
Finally over the bustle or hoop skirt you need another petticoat,its not essential if your wearing a tulle bustle or petticoat but is highly desirable if you wear a cage bustle or hoop petticoat as otherwise not only does the hoop show through but they are also likely to catch on the fabric of your skirt and possibly snag it .This underskirt can be made as before for the first underskirt.
If you do have spare time and want to try something more complicated .This is the layer I personally like to put extra work into ,there’s not really much functional purpose but it does make you feel much better and also means that anyone seeing your petticoats sees the pretty one .I often add a fabric trim around the bottom of this top layer petticoat to match the skirt that the petticoat will be going under .I also like to add layers of insertion lace on narrower petticoats as they help create a bit of air flow.
I also like to add frilled flounces as they look pretty when you walk,make a lovely swishing sound and make the outer dress move nicely ,especially if they are made with taffeta(.You can buy frills of tulle ,lace ,cotton or pleated silk from china very cheaply and just tack them on)
Its possible to make frilled hem petticoats easily if you can find bedding with frilled edged and utilise those but it is time consuming and not essential.Another useful but far from essential style of top layer petticoat is a trained one ,you can make this by added a long piece at the back or adding a deep frill at the back that falls longer than the remaining parts of the skirt
Trained petticoats make dresses trail gracefully behind you ,heres the petticoat being worn under an Edwardian gown
These are not essential but are quite handy to have if your outside as not only do they add a nice warm layer but if your hooped skirt blows up slightly in the wind people wont see bare legs or your socks.
These are more panteloon style bloomers than the later shorted ones ,they go to just above ankle level.
They are not hard to make ,they are two long narrow rectangles of fabric stitched into tube shapes then sewn onto a ribbon to make a waist band and ties as for the petticoat.
Bloomers were not like modern trousers or French knickers they didnt meet in the centre but were just two legs on waist band.
Apart from being useful I quite enjoy making bloomers they use very little fabric but if you buy gathered broderie anglais lace for the bottom and bought little ribbon bows or roses you can very quickly and cheaply make quite pretty ones.
This is totally unneeded ,it was worn to protect dresses from damage by corsets but if your petite theres some very pretty ones to be bought quite cheaply if ebay or etsy ,rhey are often listed as blouses but were infact underwear They often have very pretty necklines and if your going to be outside give you an extra layer for warmth
That completes the underwear section
I can imagine that this sounds like a lot of trouble for layers no one sees but it’s these layers which make the difference between looking like a true Victorian and looking like you have put on a long dress.
The next part of an outfit which is usually forgotten but which is essential if you want to look authentic is accessories,these include a bonnet or hat.
No lady would go out without a bonnet or a hat,its best to chose the right shape bonnet or hat but not essential
The other essentials are Mittens or gloves and for comfort a fan ,,a cheap,spanish or chinese one will do but try to keep it one plain colour such as white or black.Costumes get very wamr to wear in most weather and especially in summer so fans are essential if you want to stay cool.
.I will do a separate post on making bonnets and hats from everyday items later .Mittens can be bought from shops and as long as they are plain colours they will look ok ,you can also make mittens by chopping off the sleeves of jumpers use the sleeve end for your hand part and the cut edge can be hemmed and used for the cuff part.To make lace mittens do the same thing with a lace sleeved blouse or use a rectangle of lace wrap it around you hand to get the right shape cut and stich.To further tailor mittens made this way you can put the mitten on pinch the fabric that falls between your thumb and the remainder of your hand and add a few stitches so that the mitten sits flush against your thumb when on .You also should ideally try to find a shawl.Dont use the crochet or open knitted fashion shawls as these are just not accurate and also very little use to keep warm.Try to find a paisley shawl or a plain cream or black wool one .Shawls dont need to be square they can be rectangular but they do need to be large .
These were cropped sleeveless blouses that went under dresses to make a more modest neckline or for warmth .There are sometimes antique ones available on line
Or they are easy to make by just cutting sleeves out of a modern white cotton blouse that has a pretty neckline .These are again useful if your going to be outside
Lastly some donts
Dont forget to put your shoes on before any corset,,it’s very difficult to put shoes on once you have any corset on and more or less impossible in a steel boned one
Dont be tempted to wear tights ,,its impossible to go to the loo in a Victorian outfit and tights.wear hold up stockings or pop socks or even just normal cotton socks.
If your quite buxom dont tighten the laces your corset from the bottom up as it will just add to your cleavage tighten the top first then work downwards ,this will help reduce your cleavage,
Its also an idea to tuck the dangling corset lacing ribbon securely into the corset or its going to dangle and annoy you ,,and be awkward to navigate on loo trips .Likewise its best to tuck up ties from hoops bustles etc
Dont wear shoes that are glaringly modern ,people will notice ,also its best not to wear narrow heels as sooner or later you will put your heel through the dress or petticoat.
Dont wear wrist watches,pierced earings (unless they are quite plain studs), A big no no is any expensive or expensive looking modern necklaces as victorian ladys would only wear exepensive jewels or necklaces for evenings or special events and wearing faux jewels of any kind was frowned upon .
Try not to wear make up such as coloured eye shadow or anything but natural coloured lipstick or nail varnish.
I will do posts on how to make a bonnet and gown over the next weeks or so .