VIDEO: 18th Century Inspired “Little Black Dress”
When I’ve finished a garment, the usual order of events is as follows:
Declare said garment as the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen and as having been a total waste of time and fabric.
Decide that actually, it isn’t too bad and will perhaps be worn only at home.
Said garment becomes my favourite and most-loved article of clothing and proceeds to be worn to shreds.
The following article is about a historically inspired “little black dress” which followed the opposite chain of events.
When I first tried it on, I loved it. This is the point at which I recorded the video, which accounts for any incongruity between this article and my exclamations of love in said video. After having worn it several times however, I have grown to dislike it more and more. Why would I keep reading this article, then? you ask? Well, one usually reads such articles for the purposes of entertainment and learning, wouldn’t you agree? Well, a disliked final garment offers more in the way of both learning and entertainment than one of those “I’m-an-amazing-seamstress-isn’t-this-beautiful” articles, as you will see.
Drafting a Historical Yet Modern Design
For a long time, I’ve wanted to embark on some eighteenth century sewing. A dress to be specific, but one which is wearable day to day. Did I succeed? In some ways yes, in some ways no. I have been wearing this dress, but it is not my favourite, and a few factors go into the “why” of this. Next time I attempt something similar I will hopefully create a more successful end product by learning from my mistakes. If you are a sewist in this vein, hopefully you can avoid these mistakes!
I used my close fitting bodice block to draft the dress bodice with a “V” neckline, princess seams, a “V” shaped waist, and short puffed sleeves. Based on my mock-up I opted to change the princess seams to armhole princess seams, slightly widen the neckline, and make the “V” waist more shallow. I also opted for a slightly looser fit.
Problems and Pitfalls: Sewing the Dress
Using my trusty vintage sewing machine, it was time to sew. This was my first project after completing my Edwardian corset and in comparison, this sewed up quickly and easily. The fabric itself, a linen viscose blend from Blackbird Fabrics, was soft and practically sewed itself. How did this soft fabric go with my particular dress pattern? Unfortunately, not too well. More on that later.
I began by sewing the princess seams together. The back princess seams required some reworking, as they created took much of an outward bulge (too tight of a curve). After that, I sewed the skirt panels together using french seams, and hand-stitched strips of silk organza along the neckline, waistline, and centre front. This acted as my interfacing. The bodice was fully lined, apart from the sleeves.
To gather the skirt and puff sleeves, I used a line of hand-stitching. I trimmed the hem of the puff sleeves with matching bias tape, and sewed an invisible hem on the skirt using a strip of silk organza hidden inside, to help give the skirt hem some stiffness. Finally, I sewed the hook and eye tape to the centre front using a single line of machine stitching and my zipper-foot. This hook and eye tape could also use some hand-stitching in strategic areas, but I haven’t gotten to that yet.
When I ordered this linen viscose fabric, I’d known it would be somewhat soft, and I’d figured that using a softer fabric would offset the historical details (real 18th century dresses were more stiff). In reality, while this may make it more “wearable”, it also makes the dress somewhat incoherent. A stiffer fabric is needed for this kind of fitted, tailored design.
Another problem which came up involved the neckline. Partway through sewing, I opted to lower the V-neckline. I felt that it was looking more like a vest-neckline due to being too high. This did improve the look of the dress, but sadly because I didn’t make this change during the paper pattern stage, the neckline now gapes, and the gaping becomes more pronounced the longer the dress is worn, as the fabric stretches out.
Mixing and Matching? Beware!
During this project I experienced a classic pitfall which goes along with combining inspiration from different historical periods into one garment. Everything about the “look” of a specific period, such as the sleeves, skirt, bodice, etc., was meant to go together to create a balanced end product. For example, the dramatic skirt silhouettes of Eighteenth century dresses were usually balanced by simple fitted sleeves. The empire waistline of regency dresses were often balanced with short puffed sleeves, which ended in line with the waist. In the Victorian period, when dress waistlines sat lower, the puff sleeves became longer so as to still line up with the waist of the dress. This creates balance and symmetry, while attracting the eye to the waist, which is the focal point of almost all historical dresses.
In this particular make, I was inspired by those short Regency puff-sleeves, and sadly they don’t go too well with the deep waistline of the dress. Elbow-length sleeves would have looked much better, so as to create unity with the waistline.
Now, one more complaint and I will be done. The colour black. I had wanted a black dress because I didn’t have any in my wardrobe, but after sewing this I discovered black just isn’t my colour. Maybe if it was still winter, and if I’d liked the dress itself more, I’d sing a different tune, but as it is, I think coloured garments flatter me more.
What About You?
What do you think about the dress? Have you ever sewn a garment which didn’t come out too well? Have you managed to successfully combine components from different periods into one garment? Let me know in the comments below!
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