Friday, January 20, 2012

If I Were To Make This Titanic Tea Dress, Here's How I'd Do It

If I were to make a Titanic tea dress, this might be it. This is a House of Drécoll dress, circa 1912, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession no. 1998.253.3). Here is the high-waisted Empire look so very popular at this date, but rife with lots of other historic references.
Here are the references I see:
  • 1770s: the open robe, polonaised, and the tucks in the front of the petticoat. The full sleeve ruffles. the box-pleated ruching.
  • 1790s: the trained open robe, pulled back to the sides. The fluffy wrapfront dress underneath the robe. So is the wide lace trim edging the robe. The sash effect.
  • Late 1860s: the sash tied in a low bow at the back with the robe boufed up inside the bow. In 1868, for example, the Harper's Bazar Baschlik Mantilla wrap ties up the skirt in back in a very similar way. See Cornell's HEARTH site, Sept 5, 1868.

What historic references or ideas do you see?

Wouldn't it be a treat to wear?

How I Would Construct This Dress

Like many ornate Edwardian gowns of this date, the dress construction is layered and rather devilish. On this dress, it's not that the basic pieces are that oddly shaped, it's that there is just so much to think through and so much to sew and connect.

-----A Short Interjection To Rant-----

This era mastered draping and fit, but at the cost of flexibility. Here is a dress with clear references to earlier eras, but as with most backwards-looking designs, only superficial ones. Its construction is clearly of its time. Looking at it, I can nod in pleasure with the ingenious way it's made, but another part of me sighs that so much of the work is plain unncessary and that if the wearer were to grow or shrink, if something needed remodeling, or if the wearer loved part of the dress but hated the rest, she was pretty much stuck with the designer's entire ensemble or an expensive and potentially unsuccessful redo.

Step back a century or more and the landscape is very different. Not only do the customers rule (for the most part) on design, but the actual garments are cut and closed with methods that allow for changes in weight and even wearer, while the essential fit remains good, and the garments are made to layer and often can function as separates to be mixed and matched in fashionably appropriate ways.


-----End Rant-----

Here is how I might construct the dress. I am not saying that this is how the designer did it, but it's how I would use typical Edwardian shapes and methods to do it.

Let's start from the inside out. Refer to additional pictures at the bottom of the post for visual information.

A bodice ("waist") lining;
The Dressmaker, p. 90
This dress may look unfitted, but given how smoothly the lace wrap-front portion of the bodice lies, the layers you see likely are mounted onto a tightly fitted lining. That lining helps to ensure that the dress retains the draping wanted, and doesn't just hang heavily from the shoulders, even with an interior belt to help hold the ensemble up.
  • Using one of the resource books from the last post, especially Butterick's The Dressmaker (Chapter XVI, Lined Waists), I'd find a fitted front-closing low bodice lining pattern and draft and cut a toile from strong cotton. Given that I do not have a corset for this period, and not everyone wore them at this date anyhow, I'd tack multiple bones to it at front, sides, and back to create the shape. Then I'd adjust the seams and once it fit tightly, I'd stitch in the bones for real and attach hooks and eyes to the front center. If I had a proper corset, I might forgo all but a back bone or two, and depend on the interior belt (see below)to create the shape.
  • Next I'd create an interior petersham belt, 2.5" wide preferably, to which both bodice and skirts are stitched to. I'd close it at front side with large, heavy hooks and eyes. The belt was a super common construction aid. It helped high-waisted skirts have no visible waistband, allowed connection of bodice and skirt to a firm foundation, especially helpful with soft, tearable fabrics like net or heavy passementerie and beading. Follow the directions in the Butterick The Dressmaker book (see last post), and if it's unclear, you can refer to analagous directions in the other manuals. Make sure to set the belt above the natural waistline, perhaps two inches. It's really hard to find modern petersham in this width. You can butt narrower widths together and whip stitch them to approximate the width needed.
  • I'd stitch the tight lining to the belt.
An example of an interior belt on a dress in my collection.

  • I'd find a wrap-front kimono bodice pattern from the same list of books for the lace portion of the bodice. The kimono design was hotter than Louisville in July and featured no shoulder seam, and sleeves in one with the bodice. The lace portion of the bodice does not need sleeves, so those do not need to be included from the pattern.
  • To get the gentle wrapping motion of the lace on the front of the bodice, I'd toile it in lightweight, drapey cotton, then cut the lace for real. Make sure the waist short, for this dress is high-waisted. Give the back a gentle neckline point, pretty deep, to match the original.
  • Once the toile fit, I'd cut the real lace, preferably a net with a loose needlelace pattern on it, seam it with very narrow French seams, hem the armscyes, and gently mount it to the underbodice and to the belt. Closure? Multiple hooks and eyes at both sides, eyes attached to the lining. The Butterick book The Dressmaker details how to drape a bodice atop a fitted lining. This layer is tacked to the belt, too.
  • Then I would use the same kimono bodice pattern and toile the open robe bodice, this time in a crisp or starched cotton imitating the crisp silk taffeta. The sleeves are included this time. You will notice that when the sleeves are cut, the stripe will automatically run horizontally when worn! Make sure to allow for the deep cuff on the sleeve.
  • The front of the open robe has a dart, perhaps a two-ended dart, to the right and under the bust. This helps to pull the robe back in a curve from the bust. Make sure the back neckline curve is very deep to match the original, and that it has a few scant gathers.
  • Then I'd cut the silk, seam it with French seams or open seams finished with binding.
  • Cut the blue ribbon trim, mount to the underbodice up just near the bust, as in the original.
  • Mount the robe bodice to the underbodice, and right over those ribbons.
Section of The Dressmaker about draping the
outside bodice fabric to the lining. p. 93

  • Attach robe bodice to the belt, too. Again, refer to those manuals. They illustrate this, as do some originals. Sometimes the tacking is plain messy and can even be seen on the exterior of the dress! It was covered with a sash, hence the slapdash work.
  • Cut and tack the sleeve flounces. I'd want to toile the shapes.
  • Then I'd pattern the underskirt in interfacing. It's hard to tell on the original, but this looks like a one-piece skirt, so called. There are plenty of patterns for them in the books I have referenced in the previous post. If I could get net with an integral loose pattern, that would be great, as the pattern at the bottom was not only almost standard on nice dresses at this time, but is a reference to the 18th century habit of embroidering petticoat hems with deep bands of embroidery. Otherwise, plain Jane. Sigh.
  • I'd add the tucks.
  • Next, the skirt would be cut and sewn with narrow French seams, and tacked to the interior belt. Handy thing, that interior belt.
  • Now for the open robe skirt. This I would drape right on the dressform, from a single piece of fabric, gathering some at the sides and heavily in the back. I'd hem it and, yes, tack it to the belt!
  • Next, cut, scantly gather, and tack the lace flounce to the edges of the open robe.
  • Make box pleat trim and tack onto the open robe.
  • Now it's time to connect the underskirt to the robe. I'd use doubled thread and connect the two layers with long tacks that leave an inch or so loose inside, so that the robe can move. I'd tie the ribbon bow at this point to, and tack where necessary. This is a matter of playing. The complex Edwardian garments I own use a lot of these sorts of connections to preserve draping just so, even when the wearer was in motion. These are works of sculpture as much as they are dresses and even their overall movement is controlled.
  • Next, the sash. A single layer of the silk, pinked with a tiny pinker, and backed with cotton to help it cling to the silk. Hooks and eyes to attach it at the front.
  • Next, fun with high-quality vintage paper and silk flowers. The posy can be tacked to the front of the belt.

Whoo. That was a process, wasn't it?

What do you think? Is this something that you'd try?


Gail said...

I have seen a Victorian skirt called "tied behind the knees". It looks similar to the dress's skirt.

ZipZip said...

Dear Gail,

Yes! Some skirts in the natural form era were tied behind the knees. Hop-hop, anyone?

Very best,


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Or hip hop Hobble, anyone? ;-) Lovely post, Natalie. An excellent way of getting a 1912 fix too without having to make one of the cussed things. They are such traps for young players, looking all louche and easy, like a kimono dressing gown thrown on, but OH NO! hehehe. VERY good point make too about the inflexibility. A sign of times where fabric was not as expensive and showing off just how goshdarned rich you are was a big deal. No wonder less rarified folk stuck with the less complex and more practical earlier looks!

ZipZip said...

Dear Mrs. C.,
Thanks a lot! That means a lot, coming from someone like you with all of your experience.

Cussed thing is right. Now, had I time, might I make another lingerie dress, or a summer suit in raw silk noil (I have an original and it takes great advantage of the nubby fabric)? Perhaps. But the calendar is booked solid and in January, with it so dadburned chill-blained cold and damp outdoors, tea and a book or some embroidery are more my speed. Or perhaps I am in a slump. It's more fun to watch you costume a play, or my friend Jenni do ditto, and help friends with their projects, than do something for the self right now.

Hugs to you in the warmish section of the earth,


AvaTrimble said...

Natalie, your detailed, carefully researched posts are such a joy! My formally-trained-historian's heart always goes pitter-pat when I encounter such marvelous examples of costume scholarship - where it's both good historical scholarship and really functional, oriented toward looking at garment construction and techniques.

This post in particular is really inspiring - I'm working on researching 1912 clothing (for the New Mexico statehood centenary more than Titanic, incidentally) to do reproduction work, and I want to do things right, but it's not a period I know a whole lot about, so I really appreciate this level of detail.

And your short interjection is really interesting! Part of what I love about historical and vintage clothing/sewing is that things tended to be much more practical, even when they were, uh, foo-foo and fancy. Things were made to be altered and remade. It's interesting that the clothing of this period wasn't really done that way. I think some of the clothes later in the 20th century were somewhat adaptable, but I feel like once bag linings and hyperfocus on finishing the inside of a garment as well as the outside became prevalent, the adaptability and functional longevity of garments really suffered. I actually tend to incorporate a lot of 19th century style construction techniques into the mid-20th century vintage inspired garments, because I like the functionality of keeping things so they can be altered. Your interjection is really thought-provoking - gets me wondering about how and why these things changed, and the potential relationship with increased consumerism & an emphasis on designers rather than dressmakers creating clothing for the wearers. Hmm!

Unknown said...

Wonderful and informative! I adore this dress for all the reasons you note, it is such a nod to the 18th century and I wanted to 'give it a go' for the Titanic year. Your post is great, you've done my hard work for me, thank you! I probably won't go for authentic, just for the 'look' but creating a strong base to drape it all on, especially the grose grain ribbon, that's perfect. Thank you and if I do finish it, I'll let you know.

ZipZip said...

Dear Lorna,

Oh good, I am so glad this dress will get made and hope the construction musings and sources do some good. Would LOVE to see the results!

Very best,


ZipZip said...

Dear Ava,

Gee, that feels nice to hear. I do try hard to document best I can, so am glad when folks enjoy that part.

Plus, personally, I think you nailed it when you talked of the various factors that may have moved clothing into a less renovatable, less functional, more throwaway phase. Please, please do explore that! Sure, we had Make do and Mend in the 30s and 40s, but by then the instruction books were generally telling us to cut things up, not refit them. Fashions' changes were so speedy and stark, there was that finishing thing, and then, the cult of The Designer, well under way. Ooh, what a research project that would be! Are you in NM now? Most curious.

Very best,


AvaTrimble said...

It would be very interesting to write a paper or article exploring the changes in clothing construction/management. I feel like it would require a TON of research to do it well! Your point about Make do and Mend is really excellent - there was a need to thrift and the preservation of materials, but fashions and construction techniques had already shifted away from designing that in as a feature, so in order to make it work beyond minor changes (hem length, collar and cuffs, belt/sash, lace or other trim), things had to be taken apart and recut.

I sort of had that kind of reworking mentally filed away with 18th and 19th century reworking, but it's really quite different, isn't it? As I think more about it, I suspect that it's not just the switch to the cult of the Designer away from the dressmaker working FOR the client, but also the Industrial Revolution. As materials became cheaper, there was less of a compelling need to preserve and continue using textiles, so the continued wearing of a dress (even a refashioned one) was going to have less potential to be seen as virtuous, and it was going to be more feasible for more people to buy new clothes/materials than in earlier years.

I will have to keep mulling this one over and put some thought into the possibility of writing something up properly. But oh boy, to really cite it properly and just just be guessing in an authoritative manner (like so many fashion theory articles and books are written, sigh), it would take some seriously exhaustive research. I'm thinking - books & magazines & so forth that make mention of how often fabric or a new dress is/ought to be purchased, how often such sources talk about refashioning and how extensive the refashions are... Hm!

And, yes, I am indeed in New Mexico now. I'm doing my master's in history with a concentration in public history (aaaaand also a thesis) at New Mexico State University. The libraries have really extensive archives, so I expect there will be lots of good researchy stuff to peruse. Plus I think I'll be able to use designing a 1912 clothing exhibit as my final project for my Interpreting Historic Places course, which will be a fun way to present information. Of course, it will just be a PowerPoint, not an actual exhibit, but still fun!

Sarah said...

The Met just states this as a "dress," not specifying day or evening wear. Would you call this a day or evening dress?

By the way, your instructions have inspired me to make this myself! Thank you!

ZipZip said...

Dear Sarah,

You are right! I was sure I had read it as a day dress, but the Met does not specify. It could work as a tea confection or as a dinner dress. It's not terribly low-necked.

So glad you are going to make it. Such a pretty thing.

Thanks for pointing out my error: will fix right now.

Very best,