Uncovering fashions from 1870 to 1900

Taking the first steps: undergarments and a dress pattern

In January, I made the Truly Victorian Petticoat with Wire Bustle pattern TV101. It has hoop bones (made of wire) built into the back, under the ruffles, to create the classic bustle shape. My corset was custom made for me by a Civil War reenactor whom I met a few years back. My chemise is made from the Simplicity 7215 pattern.

I was all set to make the Seaside Dress from Black Snail Patterns, but after reading a thorough review, I went back to the drawing board. It seems that the Black Snail dress is rather shapeless, and doesn’t carry the fullness of Early Bustle silhouettes. The fact that the style of the Early Bustle period (1869 - 1876) still has an overall round quality as it comes out of the Hoop Era (1856 - 1869) makes sense. But, moving away from the infamous bell shape, the bustle accentuates all of the gathered fabric on the backside. As time marches towards the turn of the century, the bustle shrinks, grows, and shrinks again.

A Brief History of Women’s Fashion, 1870 - 1900

The Early Bustle period (1869 - 1876) evolved into the Natural Form period (1877 - 1882) and then into the Late Bustle period (1883 - 1889) — all in just twenty years. George Seurat captured the silhouette perfectly in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which in 1884, was neatly nestled in the Late Bustle Period.

Entering the Edwardian Period (1900-1909), a nod to Natural Form style surfaced, but with the reintroduction of the Leg o’ Mutton sleeves (a throwback to the 1820s). Undergarments underwent a change, too, with one major difference being the corset: the S-Bend. For a fascinating analysis on the S-Bend corset, take a look at this article on Foundations Revealed, called The S-Bend in Context.

Second steps: a better dress pattern

The blog post that reviewed the Black Snail Seaside Dress included images of a dress thought to be the inspiration to this pattern. The Woman's Seaside Ensemble (Overdress and Petticoat), Europe, circa 1870, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (full profile here), does have definite similarities. And, given the reviewer’s notes on fullness and shape, I can see how a pattern could be drafted from these photographs.

My research on how other costume designers set out to find their inspiration lead me to the Modern Mantua Maker, whose skills, breadth, and accomplishments are astounding. From her practice, I learned that she considers both primary and secondary sources in order to design with historic accuracy. She referenced a few pattern making books, which I will write about in an upcoming post, and also seemed to work often from Truly Victorian patterns.

With this new information in mind, I began looking at images (primarily from La Mode fashion plates) that inspired me, staying in the narrow timeframe of the Early Bustle period (1869 - 1876). I stumbled upon the original Seaside Dress once again. I had come full circle. But, as is usually the case, I had returned to the start with a lot more information than where I had begun. I quickly found a suite of patterns that work together (all on Truly Victorian) — TV400 - 1871 Day Bodice, TV 201 - 1870s Underskirt, TV305 - Bustled Apron Overskirt — so now I will make the Seaside Dress, after all.