Monday, November 22, 2021

The Magic of Bust Padding Improves the Fit of a Victorian Bodice

As some of you know, I made an 1870 day dress back in 2012-13 from Truly Victorian  patterns TV201 and TV400, with an overskirt drafted from a pattern given in Peterson's Magazine, January 1869, as well as the TV108 Grand Bustle. 

To date it is the only First Bustle era dress I've made, and while TV patterns are excellent and I had the help of two original mid-Victorian dresses then in my collection to use for construction assistance, I made some novice mistakes that haunted the dress so that on the Fit-O-Meter it never hit more than "meh...".

Now's the time to rectify the issues as much as I'm able. It has become the year of the refit anyhow, and I am still working out kinks with the 1895 wired and hairclothed petticoat.

The first fix: adding bust padding. Often called bust pads, the padding helps to smooth out the fit of a bodice and prevent the sudden dip or heavy horizontal wrinkling just above the bustline that can occur when wearing a corset, especially as a woman grows older. They're not augmenting the main body of the bust, but the space above and to the side of it. Added to a bodice, they often look like the first pads I added, below.

The bodice inside out, with bust pads, version 1, in the first position I had them.

How the Bodice Fitted Before the Pads

Look at the photo below. What do you notice about the bodice's fit?

Okay, besides the fact that the bottom hook and eye is left open. I was dashing to try it on. Did you notice that on your -- the viewer's -- left, that the bust fit is smooth while on the right there is a crease where the bust hits a hollowing of the upper chest above the corset? I am holding my arms in the same way on both sides, so it's not my position.

What caused the difference? The magic of bust pads, of course, or to be exact, the magic of one bust pad. The bodice was tried on to see if the pad I had just made worked, and yes, it did. After the photo, I was off to make the other so as not to appear lopsided.

The bodice used to fit even less well. Here it is the first time I wore the dress, in 2013:

Oh my, the poor bodice 
doesn't fit at all.

What happened? While the bodice was fitted over a toile, the issues were baked in from the get-go... If you look carefully, the tell-tale folds are there. 
Serious Christopher
wanted to be in the picture.

At that time I mentioned adding pads, but when the second fitting came around, I had forgotten about them, and also had the hubris to try the bodice on sans corset. Of course you're not going to see what's wrong when you're not wearing the proper undergarments...a rookie mistake.
I thought it fit then,
but no, it didn't.

So, main points so far:
  • bust padding fills in weird hollows above the bust that occur with some women when they wear a corset;
  • always do your fittings with the proper undergarments;
  • if you can, write down the steps in making your bodice, so that you don't forget to do something -- like add padding -- in the heat of making.
Got that? Let's move on.

Making the Bust Pads, Version 1

Following directions in Elizabeth Stewart Clark's The Dressmaker's Guide: 1840-1865, I cut pieces of thinnish cotton batting in concentric pieces, laid them atop one another, and tacked them together. The pad is sized to fill in the hollow between the bust and my shoulder. Then I made a cover out of scraps of muslin, and slipped the pad into it. The shape is an elongated semi-circle because the pad stops at the armscye, but your shape may all depends on where the hollow of your chest is sitting and how big and deep it is.

Four-layer pad tacked together, next to the little cover that 
I've just stitched together with combination stitch.

The cover is turned right side out and the pad is slipped inside.

Then the cover is overcast closed.

Here is the pad laid on top of the bodice so you can see relatively where it will sit, from the bustline up towards the shoulder, and from almost the armscye inwards. The flat side will sit next to the wearer, while the gently mounded side will sit against the bodice to shape it.

Then I pinned it in place inside the bodice, tested it by putting on corset and bodice, tweaked the position a bit, and then tacked it in place, catching only the bodice lining with each stitch.

Here is the pad being overcast to the bodice lining
using large stitches.

Here is where we were after the first try-on with the new pads:

Well, the issue wasn't solved on one side. I clearly needed more padding, and you know, it needed to sit further out to the armscye and go further up towards the shoulder.

Why do I say that? You shall learn.

Bust Pads and Padding in 19th Century Dresses

Padding out the hollow of the bust was common in Victorian clothing. If you spend enough time on Etsy looking for antique bodices for sale, you are sure to spot examples of padding in photos of the interiors.

When I brought up the success of the padding on the Truly Victorian Pattern Sewists FB group, Felicity Rackstraw, a fellow member of that group, was truly kind and gave me her perspective as someone who collects antique clothing and who has worked in London's famous bespoke clothing district, Savile Row.

"Padding is a wonderful thing. I used to work for a Savile Row tailor..." she wrote. "At work, we habitually padded areas for clients. Fixing uneven shoulders, broadening shoulders, lifting sloping shoulders, smoothing out a hollow chest, smoothing out back curvature or scoliosis. It is no different to padded shorts now to lift or boost a flat booty, or a padded bra. Only the aesthetic has changed."

If you've had qualms about padding, the above should have dispelled them. They're normal.

She showed photos of a once-glorious late 1880s-to-early-1890s silk lavender jacket and explained, "I have extant garments with it, this is one... the maker has put the padding inside the lining on this one, you can just about see the wool padding where I have lifted the silk away from where it is shattered."

The wool padding tacked in place with creamy white thread
between the fashion fabric and the lining.
Image courtesy Felicity Rackstraw.

As she said, "the lavender jacket is padded from the shoulders down to the bust inside the lining; there are no pads added 'after the event', as it were." In this case, then, the wool padding was added during initial construction of the jacket, thus rendering the padding invisible inside. No one need know it was there.

Here is the jacket as a whole.

Jacket front. Image courtesy Felicity Rackstraw.

Padding peeping out. Image courtesy
Felicity Rackstraw.

She and I traded comments on the FB post, and later on Messenger. A specialist vintage reproduction dressmaker, she owns Esme's Vintage Closet in Stoke-on-Trent in England, and maintains a Facebook presence at We had a delightful chat, and I am grateful for her insights.

Bust Padding, Version 2

I started over. This time I cut a pattern in paper that covered, like Felicity's bodice, from shoulder right out to the armscye. Then I cut scraps in batting and layered them. Whoopsie, I layered them such that the smaller pieces come inwards towards my bust, not outwards towards the fashion fabric. Backwards mounding. No matter, it ended up not making a difference.

Cutting the pattern.

Layering the padding. 

Not perfect yet. This time, I marked 
the wrinkle with pins. The
rest of the padding looked a little
much up near the shoulder. 

Aha!  See the pins I am pointing towards?
The wrinkle is below the padding!

Well. I had set my test padding too far up. Remember what Felicity Rackstraw said about adding padding where it was needed? I had added too much as well as misplaced it.

The patterning and pad-building was repeated.

This time, as you can see,
The padding runs into the armscye,
but doesn't climb all the way to the

Here is the final effect, below. 

The bodice fits smoothly at last!

The padding worked -- perhaps even too well. The bodice fits much more smoothly now. I might take a layer of padding out in the section up towards the shoulder and not close to the armscye where it might be a tad too much. In any case, am very pleased to have learned the technique. 

By the way, you can see that the removable fichu-collar that's tacked to the dres consists of two sides that pin together at bottom with a bow to cover the join. Here, the bow has not been put on.

I am hopeful that you found the above helpful. Once again, let's review:

  • Mark the position of the wrinkles in your bodice from the outside.
  • Match the positioning of your padding to where the wrinkles are, and shape it accordingly. The padding certainly doesn't have to be round. Shape it to add smoothness where it's needed.
  • Pin in place and test as needed. Your first go may not be the last one.

Other Tweaks to the Dress

The dress still needs work, I think. Here are pictures from Hallowe'en and from the last few days.

The bodice has a horizontal wrinkle across the back and there is wrinkling below the bust in front. Usually that means it might be a little too long. In this case, I think it's because the bodice has hiked up a little; it has done that each time I have worn it. The solution? I will add boning in the seams and add large, heavy hooks and eyes that attach the bodice and the skirt together. Combined, the bodice should stay where I want it. If that doesn't work, by golly I will add a waist stay inside that hooks closed, tightly.

The side view makes me wonder about the sleeves. Are they a bit full? Coat sleeves were meant to be loose, but this loose? Research is in order. 

The overskirt pouf is governed by how tightly three sets of thin silk ribbons are tied. Let's tighten the ribbons and raise the tripartite pouf higher.

The Halloween costume.

The hat is delightful. It's an equine dressage hat, a gorgeous vintage thing. The plume is meant to be outre for Halloween. 

In the front, I wish there was less wrinkling in the overskirt "wings" at the top of the overskirt. Memo: investigate what's causing it. Might I need to add another flounce to the petticoat, this one ending only partway down to fill things out? Am already wearing the grand bustle with back flounces and a petticoat made with a large flounce all the way around.

Finally, the unrelieved black of the trim has long bothered me. Perhaps I should make a bias band of the fashion fabric and work it in. Right now the puffing and the flounce are covered with black bias bands.

So there we are. Returning when all this is done; that may be after the holidays. Meantime, all safety and health to you and wishing peace to all. For those in the U.S., happy Thanksgiving.


Anna said...

Oh that's super handy to know about the padding. I haven't tackled much Victorian yet, but I'll be sure to refer back to this post when I get into the 70s and 80s! Now I'm thinking maybe I should start saving old shoulder pads when I tear them out of thrift store blouses and sweaters, haha!

ZipZip said...

Dear Anna,

I am glad! Those old shoulder pads are really useful. You can also use them to pad out a dress form, too.

Thanks kindly,


The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

Ooo, the Fit-O-Meter! I can envision it's arm moving along for each different garment.

You've done a lovely job explaining how to make bust padding and showing how it should be tweaked for each individual. I also love the magic of bust padding! :)

So interesting to see the photos from Felicity Rackstraw, as well. I've never seen padding between the lining and the flat lining before!


ZipZip said...

Dear Quinn,
Thank you kindly!
Wouldn't it be nice if such a thing as a Fit-O-Meter existed? I'd make it of brass and it would indicate just how far off you were, while a tiny bell would ring when you were spot on. :)

Thought Felicity Rackstraw's example was super-neat and I like the concept, because it means the lining remains clean-looking.

Very best,