That Victorian Dress

(No actual sewing in this post, just ogling—may be boring to anyone not a history or historical-fashion nerd. On the other hand, it might make a good sleep aid.)

So we pulled this thing out of a bag…

So this crazy thing happened a few weeks ago. I went over to my mother’s house for dinner (as we often do, now that we live within popping-over distance), and, amidst the pleasant after-dinner conversation, we began to dig through some boxes of vintage and antique sewing paraphernalia an old garage-saling buddy of my mother’s was downsizing. There were old sewing notion, and lace, and more lace, and patterns—those deserve their own post—but one unimpressive bag blew everything else out of the water.

This bag held a dress.

An antique dress.

What I think is a genuine, original, Victorian, bustle-era dress, to be precise.

More or less exactly the kind of dress I’ve been musing, however on-and-off (and let’s face it, everything is more off than on with me these days 😦 ) about making.

Holy fucking shit, Batman.

Like most dresses of the era, it consists of two parts: bodice (“waist”) and skirt. I’m thinking it originally would’ve had an overskirt, as well, as the upper skirt is made in  plain fabric and would be pretty unsightly. The skirt as a whole is kinda weird, but we’ll get to that.

Things You Should Not Do With Antique Dresses: 1) wear them!

The whole outfit is in a black wool ?jaquard, with a woven, textural pattern. The bodice is ornamented with yellow silk underlying black lace black lace yokes and undersleeves (the impression is of pagoda sleeves and engageantes, though they are not removable). And yes, I did try it on, as I was not able to resist. It fits, for a given value of fit—I suspect were I properly corseted it would be too big. The sleeves are a trifle short, but given my monkey-arms anything else would be surprising; the skirt length is remarkably good for me as well. The edge of the shoulder sits in the right plate, although it looks as if it were made for someone with much more sloped shoulders than mine.

Waist (Bodice)

The "Waist"

The “Waist”

The bodice extends about three inches below the natural waist, and has a straight lower edge. The waist closes at centre front, with hooks and eyes, with the “stomacher” added as an overlay attached to one side. The front is shaped with darts, while the back is shaped with double princess seams curving into the armscye. The neck is finished in a simple standing collar. The shoulder seam falls well to the rear of the true shoulder. Although the shoulders are quite sloped (but then I have square shoulders), at least on me, they are not dropped; there is a tiny bit of fullness pleated in at the sleeve cap, but I suspect this is more to do with inexpert easing than a desire for any actual fullness there. The sleeves are very curved, and give the impression of a two-layered sleeve. The outer sleeves are vaguely Pagoda-style, though much narrower than 1860s pagoda sleeves, with shaped, ornamented hems, and are cut in a single piece with the seam under the arm, although they are shaped with a long dart that also lies underneath the arm.  I originally thought this dart might give some shaping, but it is actually a consequence of a major alteration the bodice underwent at some point; someone took in the side-seams (by hand) by about 1″ on each side (total reduction of 4″)—so the sleeve had to be taken in to fit the shrunken armscye. The undersleeve, which is made of the yellow silk & black lace like the yoke, seems to be attached to the sleeve lining, (check this) and is rather puffed above the velvet cuff. Now, pagoda sleeves and engageantes are a classic 1860s look, but I don’t think this dress is quite that old—everything else about the cut makes me think “Bustle era”—fitted shoulders, dropped bodice waistline, narrow skirt with, y’know, bustle accommodation in the back.

The bodice is largely machine-stitched, although the decoration and some later alterations were done by hand. It is entirely underlined with a fairly smooth, sturdy cotton with a printed stripe design. This fabric has held up very well over time. The wool fabric of the main construction is also very sturdy and in more-or-less perfect condition. The main ornamentation of the bodice comes in the form of a yellow silk, which was tucked with 1/4″ tucks before it was attached, overlaid with black lace and finished with a combination of sequined trim and black velvet ribbon. This yellow silk is found in front and back yokes around the neck, the “stomacher,” and the engageantes-style lower sleeve. Although the black lace is damaged in places, particularly on the lower sleeve, the yellow silk is much more badly shattered, resembling ribbons in most places where it has split along the lines of the tucks.

The front and back yokes are strictly decorative, not part of the cut of the garment, as they are underlain by the black wool and not reflected by any seams on the interior. The yellow silk can be seen on the inside of the shoulder-seams, where the tucks are most clearly visible. You can also see very rough hand-stitching on the inside of the bodice where the bottom of the yoke was attached after, or at least attached after the sewing of the CB seam. The stomacher also seems to be basically applique’d to the front of the bodice, with a second row of hooks added to keep it closed on the left side.

The sleeve itself is lined, rather than underlined; the oversleeve (pagoda-style sleeve) is cut in a single piece, while the lining is what I think of as a typical two-pieced , strongly-curved Victorian sleeve. There are a couple of pleats around the elbow of the sleeve lining, though I’m not 100% sure they were intended to be functional. The underlseeve is stitched by hand to the sleeve lining just below the elbow, which I could see by turning the sleeve inside-out. (Another thing I shouldn’t have done) The oversleeve is held in place around its hem by thread-bars, so I wasn’t able to pull it up to see exactly how the undersleeve was stitched on.

Bodice inside: boning and waist-stay

The rear seams of the bodice have short bones around the waist (five in total), machine-stitched to the seam-allowances, which are in turn stitched down to the underlining. The waist-stay is attached to the boning casings of the back three bones only, with variably-neat stitches; however, whoever took the bodice in at the side-seams didn’t bother to shorten the waist-stay, so it is essentially useless in its current form.


Lace stomacher, yoke, and collar.

Lace stomacher, yoke, and collar.

While the yellow silk was attached during the construction of the garment (after the CB seam, before the shoulder seams), the black lace in the yokes was added after; the lace is pleated toward the neck-edge to make it curve around the yokes.

Black velvet ribbon trims the collar, forms the cuffs, and outlines the stomacher, as well as forming a decorative faux-lacing across it. One corner of the stomacher is also ornamented with a slightly bedraggled bow of the ribbon. The bottom of the bodice, which is straight, is trimmed with a wide black velvet ribbon as well. In addition to the black velvet trim, there is a complicated sequined trim applied along the edges of the yokes, stomacher, and oversleeves.


The skirt

Trying to get a full-view of the skirt and failing. It's not particularly full. With all the piecing, I wonder if they were running out of fabric?

Trying to get a full-view of the skirt and failing. It’s not particularly full. With all the piecing, I wonder if they were running out of fabric?

The skirt is maybe the most puzzling part about the dress—it almost seems like an afterthought. It is very narrow, and fits very closely over the (my) hips in the front (This strikes me as odd since I’m neither corseted nor naturally curvy). Most of it is made of the same fabric as the bodice, but the front panel is made in some kind of plain black twill, and the upper portion of the side and back panels are in a plain black fabric as well. (It looks brown in the photos because I lightened them to show details.)

Skirt front, showing upper panels of different fabric.

I wonder if they were running short on the main fashion-fabric, and were making do. The only fullness in the skirt is at the back; while there is very little actual gathering at the waist, there is a triangular panel the middle back waistband, creating space for a distinct, if probably small, bustle. (This is interesting—all the Victorian sewing books I’ve read talk about gathering the fabric in the back waist for the bustle, not about shaping it with darts or seams).

Skirt back, inside, showing seams of triangular “bustle cover” panel.

The waistband itself is made of the brocade fabric, underlain by something else (maybe the same sturdy fabric as the front panel, or maybe a grosgrain tape of some kind) but is not finished on the inside. The skirt opening is on one side of the front panel, and is very roughly constructed, although it has a wide underlap. Or maybe it’s just that there are very few hooks to hold it closed, so it gapes and sits a bit oddly. This rough closure, along with the plain upper panels, make me think that an overskirt may have originally covered most of it. It is unlined (and only the front panel is underlined), and is hemmed by machine.

My mom asked her friend if she knew anything more about the dress. According to my mom’s friend, the dress belonged to her grandmother, although, given the look of the dress, I’m thinking great-grandmother is more likely (Grandmother was born in 1880, great-grandmother in the 1850s). 😉 I’d love to hear if anyone has thoughts on the dating or other features—I’m calling it “Bustle Era” based on the style alone; depending on how bustle-friendly it actually is (I haven’t had the chance to try stuffing the skirt to see how big a bustle it can accommodate) I might even be tempted to suggest “Natural form” (a few years in the late 1870s, early 1880s when the skirts got very slim), as the skirt seems quite slim to me—but then I’m not seeing it all puffed out with petticoats and whatnot. It doesn’t have the bell-shaped flare I tend to associate with 1890s Victorian fashion, and the smooth, narrow sleeve caps make me think Bustle Era as well, as opposed to huge 1890s puffs. But I’m also very, VERY far from being an expert on these things. (Oh, and my mom’s friend said she knew the dress wasn’t in very good shape but perhaps I could use the fabric or trim for something. >_<)

I think my favourite thing about this dress is the way the details call back to other historical time periods (assuming it is 1880s or so, anyway)—the sleeves reminiscent of the 1860s (although slimmed down for a different time-period’s aesthetic) and the stomacher and front-panel of the skirt that remind one of gowns of the 1700s.

I took a whack load of more detailed photos with my mom’s good camera (although the lighting was still not the best), and have placed them on Google Plus as well as in an album on Flickr (Flickr link currently going to my profile as that album is taking FOREVER to load… big pictures. 😉 ), for those of you who want EVEN MORE closeups of actual antique dressmaking.

This stuff really makes me want to sit and make historical costumes… as if I have time. Hallowe’en is coming up and, while that would be a perfect opportunity for WEARING a historical costume, the kids’ orders are taking priority right now (hello, Batgirl and Tiny Tina.)… but a girl can dream, right?



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13 responses to “That Victorian Dress

  1. Amy

    The only comment I would make is that often dresses were re-cut and re-styled over the years if the fabric could hold up to the wear. This dress may have begun it’s life earlier than you think and might have been made over later into an updated style, either for the original wearer or a smaller relative.

    • LinB

      Agreed! The bodice is entirely reminiscent of late 1860s-early 1870s (that sloped shoulder was very popular then), re-made for a later wearing. The skirt looks far more like an 1890s “walking skirt” than anything from the 1880s, at least from these photographs. 1880s underskirts were often quite narrow and straight, to contrast with all the bunching and draping of an overskirt and/or bustle — and to achieve the much-to-be-desired “S” shape, a very full, very high bosom balanced by a very full, very deep bustle. You could balance a cup and saucer on some of those bustles.

  2. Did your friend’s grandmother have anything to do with theatrics? If it’s an old “general victorian” costume, it would explain the strange construction of the skirt and the mix of eras

  3. I can’t give a definite pronouncement on the original date of the dress, but I can tell you it’s current stylistic date. It’s not bustle. It’s quite certainly 1900-1905. The bodice style is very much of the turn-of-the-century/early 1900s, most especially the yoke and the sleeves. Those are called bishop’s sleeves, and they were all the rage c.1900. I think the grandmother born in 1880 is pretty likely. Now, the skirt shows a couple of different things going on. Although the bustle was 10 years out of date at this point, skirts still often concentrated fullness at the centre back, so the bit of it on this skirt is consistent with c.1900. However, it was common practice to use less expensive fabrics in areas that wouldn’t be seen, so your idea of there having been an overskirt or something is sound. But those weren’t too popular c.1900 and the bodice is so definitely of that date that I’m not quite sure what to think. It’s possible it was altered later in the 20th century to its current state. If I saw it in person I’d be able to tell you if and where there had been alterations to the bodice and/or the skirt. I have difficulty imagining the bodice currently being an alteration of an earlier one (it would have had to be a massive overhaul), but again, I can’t say for sure.

  4. This is so neat! The dress is very interesting, both in its construction and in how it looks. It reminds me that people have always made clothes…just as I piece together dresses and skirts when I don’t have enough fabric, people in previous eras likely pieced together their clothing. Somehow, that makes me not only feel better about my own sewing, but also makes me feel a lot closer to seamstresses of all eras.

    Congratulations on this exciting find! I’ll be interested in seeing more of this dress.

  5. Zena

    You should know my friend Morgan. She has a Masters in archaeology (fibre and fabric). She focuses on earlier period than this (she’s just been cataloguing some spindle whorls in the UK and will be off to Ethiopia re textiles shortly), but knows her shit. You can find her at

  6. This is fascinating!
    I’m no expert either and I see you’ve already had comments from people who know more about this than I do.
    I can just add that I don’t think it’s a Natural Form era dress because at that point, dresses were often made in one piece or had really long bodices and if there were overskirts it that look, they were not voluminous. The limited width of the skirt makes me think about the second bustle era and it seems like the dress may not have been made to fit over a cage-like construct but over a small bustle pad.
    Of course, Carolyn seems to know a lot more about this but I wouldn’t have identified this dress as being from the earliest years of the 20th century because it was clearly meant to be worn with an overskirt (not popular at the time) and, to me, the bodice doesn’t look like an obvious style for an S-curve silhouette (although the bodice length would be right and the posture would go some way to explain the shape of the skirt, like Carolyn said, without a bustle).
    And I agree with everyone else that historical dresses were often altered over time, both to suit changing fashion, changes in the wearer’s size and to replace worn-out parts.

    Is there a museum near you which has a costume collection? And someone on the staff who knows about these things? In that case you might be able to make an appointment to show the dress to an expert and have her/him tell you more about it.

    • I can give you a couple of contacts in Alberta, if you like. At least as somewhere to start, perhaps. Are you closer to/in Edmonton or Calgary (you are in Alberta, right?). I know a dress historian teaching at, I believe, NASCAD and there is a small dress history/material culture program in the U of A’s Human Ecology dept (where I did my MA) and they have an in-house historic dress collection.

      I’m still convinced the bodice is turn of the century. The neck yoke and sleeves are unmistakable. It’s true that it lacks the pouter-pigeon front that was so wildly popular, almost universal at the time. But it’s still not enough to convince me otherwise. It’s important to remember that real people were no more walking fashion plates then than they are now. You find all kinds of quirks on their surviving clothing. But that style of neck yoke and those sleeves did not appear on the scene until c.1900, they wouldn’t have been known beforehand. The skirt is certainly a mystery, I hope you’ll get to figure it out – and share what you find! I rather wish I could help in-person, I love puzzling out these things! lol

      • I agree with you about the sleeves and especially the yoke—the absence of the pouter-pigeon front threw me, though. Hmm. I still can’t imagine the skirt being worn without an overskirt, though, and I haven’t found any examples of those from this time period. I WAS in Calgary but am now in Saskatchewan… It would be fun to talk this over with someone actually in the know! 😉

  7. The way you explained the skirt made me think of Little Women and Jo burning the backside of her skirts for sitting too close to the fire! 😀

    What a lovely find! I know nothing about historic garments, but it seems like this one fell into good hands (despite the ancient dress-wearing? lol). I saw your shots of it a few weeks back when you tweeted about them, and it got me curious what you were up to (theatre costume find? museum theft?).

  8. My word – what a wonderful find! From what little I know about Victorian / Edwardian dresses, I would err towards the Edwardian era.

  9. Pingback: Historical Clothing of the Late Nineteenth Century | Tanit-Isis Sews

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