Part One, or This Really Isn’t Hard, Honest.

I’ve been working on this ever since I got the purple bodice done, and it turns out (surprise surprise) that it’s kind of long. So this is Part the First.

The intention of this is to help those who are getting into serious reproduction stitchery, or looking for help with period-costume theatre. If you’re just looking to go out as Queen Victoria for hallowe’en next year, this is probably (but not necessarily) TMI for you. Likewise, if you consider yourself an expert in the area of Victorian reproduction sewing, you probably already have any information I can offer.

All I’m shooting for here is to help people, especially people who work with commercial patterns, understand what is going on in the period cuts, so they have a better ability to judge and where necessary alter the pattern they’re using for the best possible fit. I don’t generally use commercial patterns, but there is nothing wrong with doing so – there are some quite good ones out there nowadays – as long as you understand how they are made, and how certain alterations to cut that are made for the mass-market casual sewer can damage your chances at getting a good ‘period’ result.

Victorian gowns, early or late, can be lots of fun to make. All that interesting drapery, the trims, the lace… watching it all come together can be thrilling. But it can be equally frustrating to spend hours draping and pinning and sewing tucks only to find that the darned thing won’t sit right. The smooth, tight lines of a bodice back should point up the drapes and bustles or emphasize the fullness of the skirt, and if the back is bunchy or loose, the overall effect is spoiled.

If your bodice isn’t fitting like a glove, it doesn’t mean you “can’t sew”, or that historical costume is “harder” than any other sewing. What it means, most of the time, is that the bodice has been cut incorrectly, due either to a modern pattern’s [mis]interpretation of a period line, or to a lack of information about what is/should be going on in and under the garment.


As I said before, I don’t use commercial patterns for historical gowns. This is not to say that there aren’t some perfectly acceptable patterns out there, whose designers have put lots of good research into the shapes and styles. But. The changes in line, in mode, in style of construction and in our very concept of the purpose of clothes and the nature of fit has changed so much in the past century that both the designers and the purchasers of commercial patterns are often bringing to the act of cutting their fabric a whole set of assumptions that are not appropriate for period construction. For example:

Fabric is relatively inexpensive.
Someone who has just shelled out thirty dollars a yard for silk brocade may not feel that they are participating in this misconception, but unless they have to scratch to trim a hat out of the leftovers, they are. A seamstress ‘in period’ would be using the most efficient layout possible, often on narrower fabric than you’ll find in any modern “suggested pattern layouts”. (like, 25 inches wide!) She would ‘railroad’ (cut sideways) and piece sections if necessary, which is rarely if ever suggested in a modern layout. Using period shape and layout has for me always resulted in using less fabric than suggested by a modern pattern.

Period patterns are hard to size and fit
Again, this may seem like a reasonable assumption if you have on the one hand a period pattern sample, which consists usually of a bunch of strange shapes with little letters next to them, and on the other a commercial tissue pattern with recognizable shapes clearly labeled and a variety of sizes marked out for you. But those carefully graphed sizes are one of the main sources of error for the unwitting cutter. Simply put, modern patterns do not fit. Oh, you can make a stunning modern garment, in a size just right for you, and it will be comfortable and flatter you and hang beautifully and garner compliments galore. But that is a modern concept of fit. If you are making a custom fit 1870s bodice, it should cling snugly to your carefully molded figure, it should neither hang nor shift but simply be. “size” is virtually irrelevant, because what your measurements are and more importantly WHERE your measurements are are both factors that you have some control over, and they may change from morning to evening, when you decide that your decolletage requires different undergarments, let alone from person to person. Remember Scarlet lacing herself tighter so she could wear her afternoon dress to the barbeque? The reference is an anachronism, but the situation is perfectly relevant.

A note: It is true that it has been possible to buy clothes “off the rack” for centuries. Often these clothes were ‘used’, but as fashion became increasingly industrialized, new clothes based on the concept of ‘standard sizing” became more and more readily available. And if you had the choice, you didn’t buy them, because they did not fit as well as clothes you made yourself or had custom tailored. This is still true. If you have ever spent a day at the mall trying to find a pair of jeans that looked half decent and didn’t bulge in some places and threaten to rip in others, just try and imagine how much fun it would be to buy a dress that didn’t make you look like the maid on her ‘day out’.

The human shape has straight lines
We now bring to pattern cutting an image of the human female torso as a sort of stuffed tube with a clearly delineated “front”, “back”, and some curvy bits about halfway up the “front”. I suspect there is a very interesting socio-psychological reason that we have for some years now been slicing our clothes neatly along an arbitrarily designated point halfway back from our nose, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that this rather linear view of a round object is limiting and not the most effective way to achieve the “fit” mentioned above. Shoulder seams, for example: The line of an actual shoulder is a sort of “S” curve down from the neck, up and around over the joint. Placing a straight-grain seam at this point will not only fail to fit (or even approach) the shoulder, it will negatively affect all other seams on both the ‘front’ and ‘back”, and quite probably the armscy as well.
We also tend to assume that both the front and back of a garment should be cut straight. I don’t know why. Neither the front or back of the human figure consist of straight lines, so trying to shape a garment along the straight of grain at these points is doomed to fail.

Finally, some pictures to look at!

Here are is a picture of a reproduction “violin” bodice I just saw the other day:


Now, overall, the dress is gorgeous, and you can see that a tremendous amount of work has gone into it. So how annoying must that thing going on at the back shoulder be?
But the problem isn’t really with the shoulder: Notice how straight the lines are in those centre back panels? And, the shoulder seams are so high you can’t even see them in this photo. There’s just no room there to fix the shaping. Now here is a period pattern for a gown like this from this very cool site:


Look how much curve there is in those same pieces. That’s why it’s called the “violin”. Look at the deep angle on the back shoulder. That’s going to fall quite a bit below where we’re used to seeing that seam.

Here’s an extreme example of a historical gown made to a modern cut. (with the same lines as the gown above). This picture is the pattern cover, so theoretically it is the ideal manifestation of this pattern, in beautiful fabric on beautiful models.


Like I said, it’s an extreme example. If you’re actually interested in reproduction sewing, you will eschew anything that calls for a zipper in the “notions” section. Great big hint there of what you can expect! But I included this shot because the dresses do look nice, right? The first thing a lot of people might think is “wow, what a great result, this pattern isn’t so bad, even with the zipper! I could always use hooks instead.”

Here’s the sketch from that pattern showing the seam lines.


Now look at the cover again. These are skinny models, and they aren’t wearing corsets. That front is cut straight, so there is a straight line from chest to gut, and another straight line across the chest. Even in the heavy fabric, you can see that it is wrinkling and puckering a bit there, and around the hip. Put this shape on a woman who HAS some shape, and those wrinkles are only going to get more noticeable. Boning and pressing will not fix this. Now check out that violin pattern again. You may have to trust me here, the frame of the pattern didn’t come through very well, but the front is just a little off the straight. And, it has those two huge darts, the first of which will pull that not-quite-straight line into a big “fish” or s-curve over the bust.

There’s a practical reason for all this tight fitting, as well as an aesthetic one – all that drapery is HEAVY! The more structure the bodice has, the less it will be pulled down and out of shape by any drapery below or behind. Basically, the more drapery that is attached to the bodice (because often a gown is in two pieces, and a lot of the drapery is on the skirt) the tighter and more structured it is going to have to be.

Two more pictures. The first is the back of the bodice I just finished:


Because it is on an armless and too-small dressform, there’s still a bit of droop where an arm would be – which I have to mention is true on the green dress up there as well. But even with that, I think you can see how much difference the extreme curves and the extra back pieces make. The shoulders are also dropped towards the back, avoiding that straight line across a curved surface.

Here’s an actual period dress I found yesterday in the collection at Mass. U:


This one is on a form built for it, so you can see the way the pieces sit over the corset. It’s got the same line at the shoulder, too. The sleeve caps puff up more than mine do, which mine ‘should’ – the customer specifically requested that they not, as she doesn’t like that.

Those super-curvy back seams that meet the armscy are almost always there – even in the violin bodice, the stabilizing fabric is cut to those lines. They just give the best shape control.

If you’re making a costume for a fuller figure, the temptation may be to widen that centre back piece – but that’s not necessary at all. Widen the side back if needed, and alter the darts in the front. A larger woman is shaped more ‘like a woman’, not less, and that extreme shaping will flatter her more.

Here are some photos (from this site) that show a variety of figure shapes, all of whose dresses fit and flatter them (in the context of the period aesthetic, at least!) Notice that it’s the heavier ladies who have the most pronounced waists and who (in my opinion at least) look the best in these styles:

picture-7.jpg picture-5.jpg picture-10.jpg picture-6.jpg picture-8.jpg

So there is my really long intro. Next time, I’ll talk about how the proportions actually work, and how to use the measurements you’ve got to make your own patterns.

Edited to add – part two is finally up, talking about measurements and the shape of the back.  The link is here, and I notice that it is possible if you want to subscribe to RSS for a particular tag, so if you want you could subscribe to the “pattern cutting” tag for updates as I post them.