How I made this 1790's costume or the confessions of a Renaissance Costumer.

Costume Con Seattle was coming up and the focus was going to be the 18th Century. I wanted to be able to dress in something from that century. I had the fabric it was a powder blue silky tapestry with a two tone motif of the Napoleonic crests. Because of the motif I felt I needed to make a costume that would have been in style as late in the century as possible. I did not have much time to make this costume, about 6 weeks, not enough time for the type of literature research and pattern creation that I would undertake for a renaissance costume. So, I turned to Jean Hunnisette's book "Period Costume for the Stage and Screen, Patterns for Women's Dress 1500-1800."
There were several things in the book that gave me a leg up on the costume. On page 157 of section four there was a drawing of the costume I wanted to do, early 1790's. Part four of the book also had some patterns and some background information on the period. Most important to me were the corset pattern (page 138), the two drawings of corset busks (page 134), the illustration of the busk in its pocket (page 137) and, a discussion of period decoration.
Blowing up the corset pattern was the first order of business. I scanned it into my computer and used a drawing program to blow it up to my size. It needed very little alteration and could have been enlarged on a copy machine but I use my computer whenever possible. When I had the corset pattern full size I could get the outline of the busk pocket and there by the shape and size of the busk. I made it out of a 1/2" thick piece of Golden Oak about 12" by 3." I cut this piece on a table saw to give me a triangle 2 5/8" by 11 1/2". I then sanded it into the finished shape by rounding all the top edges on a table sander. This gave me a D shape in cross section in which the flat side goes toward the body and the rounded side away (figure 1). When I had the final shape I smoothed it with a fine grit sand paper on a palm sander.
I've made corsets before so this was not that difficult but, because there are bones running horizontally and vertically in the front and there needed to be a pocket for the busk, it was a challenge. The instructions that are in Hunnisette's book were adequate. I made up the corset in cream colored denim to the point of adding the islets. I covered it with silk, applied the islets through all the layers, and added a little trim along the bottom edge of the corset. As it shows in (photo 3) the outer dress is cut away to reveal the corset. It turned out to be a very comfortable corset much more than a Tudor or Elizabethan.
Next was the underskirt, which is made out of the same silk as the corset cover but one shade lighter. It is a gathered rectangle with center back seam, 3 yds. around with a 19" ruffle stitched onto the skirt 1 1/2" down from the top edge of the ruffle and 17 1/2" above the hem. I added some trim into the stitch line of the ruffle. The trim is made this from the darker silk by cutting 2" wide bias strips of the fabric with pinking shears and gathering two layers at a time down the center (photo 4).
Onto the outer dress: on page 164 of Hunnisette there is a pattern for the sleeve B that I enlarged and cut out of fashion fabric and silk lining. I slightly altered the pattern so that the sleeve was not as bent at the elbow. I sewed the fashion fabric and silk lining together in such a way that there was a placket at the wrist opening along the center back seam. I added matching fabric covered buttons that are just for show. I whip stitched the placket closed and was still able to slip on the sleeves (photo 3).
I arrived at a pattern for the bodice through the draping method. Hunnisette explains this method of pattern creation very well in the introduction of her book. I did the draping over the corset on a dress form with muslin. I added a center back seam line and followed the curved seam line of the corset in side back (photo 2). I looked at the drawing for the front opening line and at other period dress drawings and patterns in the book to see where the shoulder seam line should go. I followed the neckline of the corset plus 1/2" to get the neckline of the bodice.
When all this was right, I transferred the muslin pattern pieces back to paper. NOTE; I have not dealt with the pleats in the bodice front yet. At this time on the paper version of the front bodice pattern piece, I drew 5 lines that represented the fold edge of the pleats. I retraced the pattern adding two extra wedges for each pleat (fig 2) because each pleat should be three layers of fabric thick (the one you see and two you don't). I don't know if it was just dumb luck or what but when I had finished with the pattern piece, the front and back of the pattern piece were 90 from each other (photo 5). This meant that the motif was right side up to match the center back pattern pieces and the front was still on straight of grain. I interfaced the bodice pieces with a medium to light weight iron on interfacing. At this point I marked the press lines on the back of the interfacing fabric combination and steamed the pleats into the pattern piece before sewing. Here is a confession, I found one line I had missed or somehow over looked while rereading Hunnisette for the preparation of this article. "During the late 80's or early 90"s the side bodice can be pleated, the top of the pleats being shallow and deeper at the waist thus drawing the fabric towards the side." This means that I my pleats were wrong. I should have added two upsides down wedges for each pleat.
I flat lined the bodice with a matching cotton fabric (the lining should not have any pleats, you can use the first paper version of the bodice pattern to cut this). With right sides together, the lining bodice and the fabric bodice (without sleeves), were sewn together along the front opening and the neck. At this point the sleeves were added. Before I could sew the skirt to the bodice, the bodice waist line was finished by sewing the lining to the outer fabric along the waistline after the raw edges were turned up 1/2". This was done by hand with a whip stitch.
The skirt is three full widths of the fabric ea. 51" long, sewn together to match the motifs along the seam lines. I am 5'6" inches tall this gives a foot or so of train (photo 1&2). There is a 4" turn over at the top, a 2.5" hem and 11" fold over at both sides, but no lining. I mitered all four corners and used cartridge pleats to gather this 140" together to fit the bodice waist. The pleats started about 1.5" in from the ends to have a non gathered space for the trim. I hand sewed the skirt to the bodice with two rows of stitching, one on both sides of the stack of pleats taking one stitch per pleat. This is done so that the pleats are 90 from the bodice (Photo 6).
I made up a pattern for the peplum. It was made up from a piece of fabric twice the length of the waistline and 9" wide. This was folded in half long ways (wrong side out) and cut down to 2 1/2" inches on the ends. It was sewn along all three open sides (1/2" seam allowance) with a small opening in the center of the long seam so that it could be turned right side out (fig. 3). The folded edge is gathered and sewn by hand to the waist, the outside edge gets trimmed (photo 2&6).
All that was left on the dress was the trim. My fabric was in two remnant pieces six yards each, one piece was water damaged over the full six yards down half of the fabric, I had used the undamaged piece for every thing up to this point, this gave me a 6 yard long piece to use for my trim. I cut a 1 1/4" wide, 6 yards long piece of fabric with the straight of grain. It is not necessary to have your strip in one piece because joins are O.K. It is also O.K. to cut bias strips for trim. These bias strips are more difficult to fray along the edge and would not have given me the same results. When I unraveled the edge threads to 1/4" back from the edges of my strip, I was removing all the blue threads and the two shades of tan threads were left behind, which give a very interesting result. After fraying the edge, I sewed a running stitch in a zig-zag pattern from side to side, back and forth across the unfrayed portion of the strip (fig 4). You might be tempted to do this on the machine but do it by hand it goes very fast. You could mark the zig-zag but I did it free hand it was easy in my case because I had a repeat in the motif to help keep me on track. When this is gathered up to about 75% of its length it gives a serpentine trim. Do not over gather your running stitches should still show (photo 7). I added this trim to the places seen in the photos by hand using a running stitch keeping the center of the trim about 1/4" back from the edge of the dress fabric.
The fichu was made from a yard of lace fabric with a finished edge. It was draped over the costume on a dress form and the extra lace was cut away leaving just enough to tuck the cut edge into the corset. The cut edge was finished on a serger.
The final touches were jewelry, wig, and hat. The latter is a covered buckram and wire hat in a style popular in the late 1700's. I arrived at the pattern through trial and error. First I drafted it on the computer, then printed, cut out and, taped it together over and over until, it was right. I covered it first with felt then, with a silk in the same color as the dress but in a much darker shade. I added a cockade that has the Napoleonic motif in the center and a doubled 20" natural Ostrich plume (photo 8).
Even though I've only worn it once I'm very glad I made this costume. It added to my enjoyment of the 1800 Century Salon a great deal.

Last Revision: 10 Sept. 1998

Copyright Lynn McMasters, © 2007
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