Saturday, 31 October 2015

Happy Halloween

When I found out at the last minute that I needed to go into work in costume for a Halloween event, I quickly threw together this costume from bits and pieces in my wardrobe. As most of my costume is currently stored away at my parents house, I mostly only had underwear which I always keep with me for constructing new dresses over. And since most of the undies are white I decided on a ghostly theme...

I wore my corset over a blouse with my bustle and petticoats, then liberally applied high factor sun cream and talcum powder to my face and hey, presto: one Victorian ghost!  I think I gave a few people on the train on the way to work a fright!!

And here's a nice picture of my Halloween "owl" pumpkin - it was the first time I've ever carved a pumpkin and I was very proud of the result. I found the design online and it turned out really well...Unfortunately though this picture does not show just how huge the pumpkin was. I couldn't get my arms around it and could barely lift it!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Photographic Inspiration - An Empress Sissi winter ensemble

When I started this blog, I rather optimistically planned to have all of my completed costumes uploaded within weeks. But life never turns out quite the way you plan and I am now at least a year behind my original schedule!

So, with the nights drawing in and a definite chill in the air, I decided that it was more than time that I shared one of my favourite projects: a winter dress inspired by a photograph of the Empress Sissi of Austria .

Empress Elisabeth - 1865
Ever since I watched the "Sissi" films with Romy Schneider, I have been fascinated with Sissi and especially with her wonderful clothes. There are some truly wonderful portraits of her, but I especially like the photographs as they have a sense of reality that the paintings never quite capture.

When I came across this photograph I was looking for inspiration for a winter ensemble that I could wear for a Victorian Christmas event held in the historic dockyards in Portsmouth. The theme is usually a Dickensian one and so I knew I wanted a crinoline but, with only a few weeks to make the costume, I initially had in mind something simple that could be finished quickly.

However, once I came across this photograph, nothing else would do. So what if was going to take hours to apply the fur trim and the braiding?!

The first thing I did was to try imagine the colour. At first I thought dark green would look good but when I got to the fabric store I didn't like the shades of green and chose a deep burgundy wine red instead. By chance I already had some braiding that was suitable for the front and I sourced some beautiful military brass buttons.

The only barrier remaining was the fur trim... I had chosen a cotton velvet to stay as authentic as possible and wanted to avoid synthetic fur at all costs. However, I knew that I would not be able to afford or easily find pelts so I began look for vintage fur coats that could be salvaged for their parts. I didn't have much luck to be begin with but then I came across a 1950s beaver lamb coat at a vintage fair. At first it wasn't really intended to be cut up - I quite fancied wearing it with some of my 1950s dresses. But after wearing it once or twice I discovered that it was so heavy that I always got backache and there aren't really that many occasions for wearing a fur coat in the UK, especially as I was living in the south of England at the time where it doesn't really get cold enough. And I had after all only paid £10 for the coat...

The coat was therefore sacrificed and in a short but moving ceremony made considerably shorter by cutting strips from the bottom. In the meantime, I started my costume with a simple 1860s bodice that could be worn underneath the paletot. This was inspired by another photograph of Sissi, possibly from the same photography session in which she appears to be wearing the same skirt.

I used Truly Victorian's darted bodice pattern (TV446) and made up in the same burgundy cotton that I bought to line the paletot. The buttons were self cover buttons made up with the paletot velvet and I used some lace that I tatted myself for the collar.

Truly Victorian Darted Bodice Pattern - TV446 (from

The tatting - after a few experiments, this was my first full size piece of tatting

Then it was on to the pleating of the skirt. I used Truly Victorian's method which involves pinning the fabric to a waistband on the mannequin and constantly dividing the excess fabric in half until the pleats are small enough to be pinned to the waistband.  I will save the details for another post but it is a great method if you are not working to a pattern and simply have one long tube of material to pleat up. And although it may be time consuming and somewhat dangerous if you consider the number of pins sticking out of the waistband when you take it off of the mannequin, it is simple and effective.

The pleats all ready to be tacked

Finally, the best part of the project...the paletot. For this, I used Past Impressions Pattern 419: 1860's Paletot Overcoat and adapted the sleevs to make them narrower at the wrist.

The paletot was made of the same burgundy velvet as the skirt and lined with the burgundy cotton. I took the collar from the original coat and applied this to the neck of the paletot and applied strips of the fur to the cuffs and hem. And this was the finished result with the gold braid and buttons:

I had great fun wearing this costume at The Portsmouth Festival of Christmas and even made the local news on my Dad's arm. I also proved that a crinoline doesn't stop you from climbing on and off of ships (although I gave climbing through a hatch to get onto the Victory a miss) and riding a small horse but didn't go quite as far a trying to ride a bicycle!!

I wore the ensemble with a matching fur hat that I made specially from scraps of the fur coat. This was made using an original Victorian pattern produced by Ageless Patterns.

Ageless Patterns #1580 1868 Ladies Fur Cap - FIND THIS PATTERN HERE
My version of the cap being modelled by my oil lamp!
And, of course, there was the underwear. As this event was in December I knew it was going to be cold so I opted for an authentic Victorian solution: cosy red flannel. I made up drawers and a chemise and was very glad I did. It was like wearing my favourite pyjamas under my costume and I was warm and toasty all day, even though the weather was very icy and the event finished after dark.

Luckily the Empress did not attend the event, thus avoiding any "she's wearing my dress" embarrassment!!

Saturday, 3 October 2015

A new blog...

Hello. If you have visited my blog before or are visiting for the first time and like my costumes, you may be interested in my new blog "La Belle Modiste" where I will be advertising items of costume for sale. All of these will be new items sewn by myself and will be for sale on ebay. I hope to cover a whole range of garments and accessories from the 18th century to the 1950s. Please follow CLICK HERE for more details and to see what I have for sale at the moment.

Historical Sew Monthly: June and July: A new accessory...

My new bonnet seemed like the perfect entry for June and July's challenges: "Out of your comfort zone" and "Accessorize". The bonnet was one of the most indispensable of all Victorian accessories and this was my first foray into the fascinating and rewarding world of historical millinery.

The Challenge:
June - Out-of-your-comfort-zone
July - Accessorise

And technically this also qualifies for March's stash-busting challenge as I was so eager to get started with this project that I deliberately planned to use only materials that I already had to hand without ordering anything new.


 The fabric is a synthetic curtaining fabric that has a very nice finish that looks the part without costing the earth. It is a light fabric and nice to handle and sits well. 


I used Timely Tresses "Eliza Coretta" pattern to create this bonnet.




Millinery seems to involve a whole host of bits and pieces:

For the structure of the bonnet I used buckram for the headpiece and tip and millinery wire covered in net to form the brim.

The decorations consist of ruffled synthetic white lace; artificial flowers (fabric and plastic); small satin ribbon bows; and gros-grain ribbon ties formed from two pieces of antique ribbon in different shades. 

How historically accurate is it?

The shape and style of the bonnet are very accurate for this period. Timely Tresses' patterns are very well-researched and based on extant bonnets. The decoration is also based on my own research into original bonnets and closely follows the tastes and trends of the period and the construction techniques are authentic. With the exception of the bavolet (curtain) hem, the whole bonnet is hand sewn. However, the majority of the materials are modern substitutes. The gros-grain ties are nineteenth-century antique ribbons but the main bonnet fabric and decorations are made of synthetic materials chosen with an eye to achieving as authentic a look as possible with available materials and without breaking the bank!

Hours to complete:

Approximately sixteen hours in total spread over three days.

First worn:

I wore the bonnet briefly to try the overall effect in the mirror but I will be selling the bonnet. When I started out, I had originally intended to wear this bonnet with my 1850s walking dress which is made in the same material. However, I got a little carried away combining lace and flowers when I was trimming the bonnet and although the look is very authentic it is now a little too frilly and floral to go with the dress. Hopefully somebody else will have a dress just waiting for the perfect accessory or maybe it will inspire a new costume for somebody.

If you are interested in this bonnet and other items, please visit my sister blog:

Total cost:
I don't have an exact figure as all of the materials that I used for this bonnet were bought some time ago. However, including the kit with the materials for the frame, the fabric and the decorations, I would estimate something in the region of £40-50 for the materials.

A new venture...

With my studies complete I decided that it was more than time that I got back to sewing but I had so many half-finished and planned projects that initially I didn't know where to start. However, having spent 6 months researching and writing about 19th century bonnets and bonnet ribbons it seemed fitting to choose a project that had been waiting on the back burner for some time.

About two years ago when looking for patterns that I could use to create suitable hats to go with some of my costumes I discovered Timely Tresses. The website is like an Aladdin's cave for the budding milliner and I couldn't resist purchasing some patterns and kits straight away. The only difficulty was choosing which styles to begin with. In the end I picked three, two for me and one for my Mum and waited eagerly for them to arrive from the US.

However, as is always the case with these things, life got in the way and the bonnet kits sat patiently in the bottom of my wardrobe waiting to be made.But then as I was researching my dissertation and coming into daily contact with original bonnets I could feel my fingers itching to get started on one of my own. So the first thing I did once my 15,000 words on bonnet ribbon styles were submitted was to pick my first pattern.

I decided on the Eliza Coretta which is an early 1860s style with a moderately high brim.

The Eliza Coretta pattern from
As I had never attempted any millinery before this was a completely new venture but I was delighted with the end results.

See my next post for more details about this bonnet.

Historical Sew Monthly: January and February: A blue foundation garment...

So here they are finally: the details for my first HSM challenge.

The Challenge:
I decided to combine January's Foundation Challenge and February's Colour Blue Challenge for my first project and so I chose to make blue garters.

I chose a Rowan pure wool 4 ply yarn in a shade called Blue Iris.

The pattern is an original from Godey's Ladies' Book (1861) that I found here. It is very simple and easy to follow.


The great thing about this project was that, unlike most of my costume projects, it required only a small amount of yarn and a piece of cardboard to make to pompom, so very economical.

How historically accurate is it?
The end result is quite historically accurate as the pattern was original. I suspect that the yarn is probably spun differently nowadays but I deliberately chose pure wool to keep the fibres as authentic as possible.

Hours to complete:
Only a few. I haven't actually completed the second garter yet but this first one only took a couple of hours, split into 10 minute bursts here and there whenever I had a chance.

First worn:
I haven't worn this yet as the second one isn't finished, but as soon as its partner is complete I want to test them out on my period correct stockings. I am dubious about how effective they will be but it is the look that counts and I can use them during costume demonstrations.

Total cost:
Almost nothing. The wool cost about £4 but I have only used a small amount - there is plenty left for more garters or another small project.

The proof that being over ambitious does not always pay off...

Back in February I decided for some reason that it would be a good idea to join the Historical Sew Monthly. I knew then that in the middle of studying for a Masters Degree in Dress and Textile Histories that I was unlikely to have a lot of time for sewing. However, as it turns out, I seriously underestimated just how little time I would have for anything else once I started researching and writing my dissertation!

After spending March and April on a museum work placement, I then launched into my research into Victorian bonnet ribbons and from April until August I hunted down, photographed, analysed, read and wrote about ribbons from dawn to dusk, seven days a week without fail! But not once in all those months did I even get close to so much as sewing a ribbon onto anything!

Now though, with my masters complete and the dissertation submitted I am eager to get back to my sewing. Sadly, however, I have to report that the progress on my first HSM project currently amounts to one lonely garter!

And here it is...

See my next post for the full details...