Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Drawing the Line from Extant to Wearable Vintage Gowns

Vintage Fashions from the Victorian and Edwardian times have always intrigued me.  They symbolize the height of femininity in a bygone era.  The lace, the frills, the tiny waists juxtaposed with the huge hoop skirts or bustle skirts, what could be more elegant?  That's why when this vintage ensemble came up for sale on eBay as an "Extant" piece or "for study", I knew I had to have it, and hoped that I could save it.  Now, I am at best an intermediate seamstress, so taking on something that was going to require some refurbishment made me a little nervous.  The seller was a lady in England.  She had found the pieces in a truck of her neighbors house that she was clearing out as a favor, as her neighbor was elderly and was moving into a nursing home.  There was no designer name on the petersham, and she knew of no past provenance.  She stated it was "filthy, dirty, and had lots of holes", and she thought it could be used as a study piece at best.  So, I was thinking extant pattern pieces when I won the auction.  

It took a couple of weeks to arrive, and it was exactly as described.  From start to finish of this project probably took me about five days of intermittent effort.  Soaking was the first step, as the ensemble really was dirty.  It was actually about three soakings before I was happy.  From there I went ahead with the skirt first.  I removed the existing waistband, as it was tattered.  The skirt had two buttons on the waistband, one front center, and one back center.  The button hooked into button holes on the bodice to help hold it in place.  However, with the overall fragility of the fabric, I did not recreate the button feature, I went with a simple set-in waistband.  I also learned how to hide my fabric darns by tucking them in a fold or a pleat, and there were a lot of them!  By adding on a new waistband I was able to adjust the sizing to fit me by easing out some of the gathered fabric in the back.  I also went ahead and added a vintage white petticoat underneath the skirt to help showcase the windowpane plaid, and also to protect the outer fabric from future stress.  The skirt has a small four inch train. 

Next came the bodice.  Now this ensemble came with two bodices, both "day" bodices, both in poor shape.  One was in worse shape than the other, (probably because she wore that one more than the other?), so I elected to use what I could of the lesser one to help patch together the other one.  I took the first bodice completely apart to make extant pattern pieces before using what fabric I could to restore the other bodice.  My goal is to have Spoonflower custom print out at least two yards of fabric in the future, so I can recreate this bodice again, but that will not be an inexpensive endeavour to be sure!   I was able to let out some of the gathering and pintucking in the bodice, plus add in some extra fabric under the arm to make it a wearable size for me.   After much detailed work, I was happy with my efforts to conserve this ensemble.  I will probably save this gown for the occasional Fashion Show only. 

Saved for extant pieces due to shattering and holes
 Now, I am going to guess this ensemble is late Victorian for a couple of reasons.  First, the ensemble was originally all hand sewn for a larger person, and was then resized for a much smaller person (B32, W21, and length at 40" front and 43" back) at a later date using a machine stitch.  The fabric is a tissue silk in a french blue with tone on tone "window pane" plaid as well as dots woven into the fabric, not printed.  The lace, which I salvaged, was cotton net and all hand made.  Secondly, I found another gown at the University of Connecticut that is dated 1897, that is very similar.  So, while the design is certainly reminiscent of Edwardian, I think it might actually be Late-Victorian, what do you think?

Day dress, 1897 (by UConn Today)

Finished Restored Gown
In conclusion, I found it very interesting to work on this vintage gown.  I felt a real sense of camaraderie with the original owners.  Tracing over their hand-sewing in someplaces and keeping almost all of it intact, and then working through some of their machine stitching as well.  It was a little sad to think that the original owners probably are no longer here on earth, but I hoped it might make them happy to see that one of their gowns had survived and was being appreciated.  What was really interesting is when I was steaming both the skirt and the bodice, the steam would release a fragrance every now and again, and I believed it to be the perfume she might have sprayed herself and her gown with before she went out to dinner that last evening.  Enjoy!


  1. Thanks Val! It was a lot of fun! Now I am working on my new 1906 ensemble. LOL!