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!!


  1. Oh my heavens!! Your outfit is fabulous!!! The color is so rich and the fur really makes the whole thing wintry!! The picture of you on the carousel makes my heart so happy!!! Job so very well done!

    1. Thankyou so much. It is definitely one of my favourites although very heavy to wear. Riding on the carousel was just wonderful - and it was actually semi-dark and snowing at the time which made it really magical with all the lights and authentic organ music from the carousel. I'm really glad you liked the costume

  2. Thankyou so much. It is definitely one of my favourites although very heavy to wear. Riding on the carousel was just wonderful - and it was actually semi-dark and snowing at the time which made it really magical with all the lights and authentic organ music from the carousel. I'm really glad you liked the costume

  3. Gorgeous! I love beaver lamb fur and velvet. Marvellous combination.