The popularity of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” novel from 1843 is one a strong reason why Victorian fashion always seems to be the choice for a historical “old timey” flair to the winter holiday. However, the celebratory traditions of the Victorian era do have a large part to play in the way Christmas has been celebrated in last 150 years. The traditions of sending greetings to friends and family, caroling, the Father Christmas figure, glittering trees, and showy wrapped presents which spread good cheer and abundance were each not original to the Victorian era and were celebrated across the world for centuries before (in some cases). Altogether, by the 1870s these practices were solidified into being one holiday, all thanks in part to the wide publicity of the way Britain’s Queen Victoria began celebrating Christmas with her family in the 1840s.
As much as I love the aesthetic of a Victorian Christmas, I have long been a confused but always captivated admirer when it comes to Victorian fashion. What is with the big rear end? Is it difficult to wear? Why were the trained skirts so “extra” when there were dirt roads and hazardous carriage wheels to deal with? How can there be so many various trimmings (pleats, ribbons, ruffles, and beading) that actually look so good together? Every detail in every fashion plate or extant original is so beautiful but also so unusual, with the fanciest Victorian ladies’ outfits a lot to look at, for sure.
I actually have an original hand-tinted fashion page from April 1874 Godey’s Lady’s Book framed in my bedroom (see it in my post under “The Facts”) that speaks for my lurking obsession. Did you know that in both 1850 and 1860 Godey’s printed an Americanized version of Queen Victoria’s Christmas scene with her family, and it is known as the first widely circulated picture of a decorated holiday evergreen in America? Art historian Karal Ann Marling called it “the first influential American Christmas tree”, and it certainly helped anchor the tradition for the Western Hemisphere by the 1870s.
I am a hands-on type of girl, though, and just admiring for years was eventually not going to cut it. There was only one way to ultimately answer some of my internal queries and satisfy my fascination – attempt to sew my own Victorian wear. My mom had recently given me her stash of historical costuming patterns, so I was conveniently set. I figured Christmas was the best time to pick up this project for reasons listed in the paragraphs above, but especially with the local historic homes decked out in old time finery fit for a background setting which would be 1870s appropriate. I also realized that I did not have historic clothing for the wintertime – the lack of which has now certainly been amended in the most fantastic way!
The recent purchase of a highly decorative vintage silk velvet jacket (possibly from the 1930s) which would remotely pass as Victorian gave me an easier introduction into sewing this new-to-me historical era. Thus, for this outfit, I only had the make the skirt and the apron drapery which goes over the skirt. The jacket gave me a ‘starting point’ idea to work off of, as well as having half of my outfit ready-to-go. Luckily, I already had a reproduction blouse on hand, a 1880s Red Threaded corset, a lightly boned bum pannier, and my 1860s undergarments (made by me, yet to be posted) to help the rest of the outfit easily come together. My Grandmother’s brooch pins down a lacey pocket square serving as a ruffled neck cravat.
Using the vintage jacket for my bustle set hints at a running theme I will be having here on my blog for 2022 – the revivals of historical styles which can be found in vintage fashion of the 21st century. More on this coming soon! On a basic level, the ‘not-true-Victorian’ jacket helped me remember to not be so hard on myself if I don’t get my first Victorian outfit perfectly historically correct. Many of today’s most popular costumers are not strict about accuracy as much as I remember from being in re-enacting groups 20 plus years ago, but I am my own worst critic. The older in era I sew, I want to be as accurate as is reasonable for both my means and my sanity (my Middle Ages dress is an exception).
I acutely realize sewing is a journey and – especially for historical clothing – one can learn so much during the push to continue to trudge forward through challenges. Looking back at the visible proof of that progress is something to be proud of, which is why I still love to wear things I sewed 10 and even 20 years ago. I am confident this my first Victorian set will be very versatile to me, and be a work in progress that I will appreciate having made when I did…the way I did. I have previously sewn and worn garments from the decades with bookend the Victorian era – Regency and Edwardian – so I am happy with anything fun, fancy, and swishy which fills that void.
The location for my photos is the historic Chatillon–DeMenil Mansion, located in St. Louis, Missouri. Construction on the house was begun in 1848 on a five-acre tract of the pioneer Henry Chatillon, somewhat famous as the leader of an Oregon Trail expedition. In 1855, the house had then been enlarged to its present Late Greek Revival style form under the new ownership of prominent businessman Nicolas DeMenil and his wife Emilie Sophie Chouteau, the descendant of both of the founders of St. Louis. Being a Victorian house, it was decked out in all of the era’s holiday finery. I was so happy to hear the docent comment that I looked like an 1870s picture of Lillian Robert, the wife of the house’s heir Alexander DeMenil!
FABRIC: a dark brown herringbone printed cotton flannel for the skirt, with poly felt – leftover from this hat project – to support the hem (I’ll explain more about down below) and a 100% wool twill for the apron drapery
PATTERN: Simplicity #5457, from Andrea Schewe, labelled as ‘Victorian 1880s’, from year 2003
NOTIONS NEEDED: Lots and lots of thread went towards this project – I finished up about four 250 yard spools. Other than that, I needed lots of size 2 hook and eyes.
TIME TO COMPLETE: The skirt combo took me about 30 plus hours to make (a large part of it by hand) and it was finished on November 30, 2021.
THE INSIDES: all edges are tightly stitched over for a simple edge finish
TOTAL COST: The dark brown skirt flannel was bought on sale at my local JoAnn store for $5 a yard – with 3 ½ yards, my total is about $18. I’m counting the wool apron drapery as free because it was rummage scraps I picked up as part of a “$1 a bag” second-hand sale of material. All notions were already on hand, most from my paternal grandmother’s stash. What a reasonable way to dive into Victorian dressing, right?!?
For women’s wear, the shape and placement of the underpinnings, as well as the size of the overall silhouette, changes subtly but still significantly over the span of less than any given 5 years throughout the general Victorian era (1837 to 1901). I kept close to the year of my bedroom’s Godey print – 1874 – as my main inspiration, because that is what I see on a regular basis! Nevertheless, the 1870s & 1880s is often seen as the classic trademark look of the “bustle era” to the Victorian period, and veering closer to the 1870s suited everything I had to work with already. I do think that the date of 1880 for the Andrea Schewe pattern is at least 5 years too late – the late 1870s shifted into a more curvy natural form look for a number of years before returning to the full bustle.
From my research into bustle era looks, it seems my outfit is more of an interpretive mix of trends which ranged between 1870 and 1876. My velvet jacket has a natural waistline length, with close fitting sleeves that are set in at my natural shoulder in line with pre-1873 fashion. My reproduction blouse and my jacket both have fuller wrists, as seen circa 1873. Hoop skirts were just beginning to be replaced in 1869, so amplified rear ends at this time (early 1870s) were rather tame compared to the late bustle era. The overskirt’s apron fronts and draped backs were detachable and shorter than any overlay that came post 1876. These details are everything that this Andrea Schewe pattern has, hence my skepticism of the cover’s date. Nevertheless, all of these historical details also happily suited my working with scraps, using what I had, and trying make this outfit on a budget. I still used quality fabrics which would have been utilized for a garment back then, and my entire outfit – inside and out – is cotton, wool, or silk. My hubby actually found the fabrics I used for my skirts – he has been trained well to know what material I like and is an expert at finding a good deal!
It is actually a very versatile set for historical dressing. I am hoping to make a different overskirt and more dramatic drape in the future, as well as a matching bodice, so I can turn my underskirt from the current “walking outfit of a comfortably wealthy middle class woman” into a fancier, trained outfit of a wealthier woman. Yes, visible appearance of class status was what was done back then, for better or for worse. Finding out about the way women of different classes dressed is how we study Victorian fashion today, and understand them when modern costumers choose what to recreate. I myself like a more practical look for a lot of my historic garments. I enjoy wearing things that might have seen more use and been worn by more people like me perhaps. It’s all part of my “stepping back in time” idea, I suppose (which I discussed here in this post, already). It is also easier to start off basic and work up to some intricate finery!
The skirt and its apron drape were really quite simple to make – the hardest part was adjusting to a different silhouette. All the accoutrements, such as the pannier for the bustle back, petticoats, and a corset, too, needed to be tied, laced, and hooked on myself in between construction fittings to see how my two pieces would work for me. I had a good beginner’s outlook to power me through. After reading a few blogs (this post was especially helpful), I figured out that the best way for me to approach Victorian bustle outfits were to view them as nothing more than a bodice with a two part skirt – underskirt and overskirt (which consists of the front apron and the back drape). No big deal…they just require a lot more material and in much weirder pattern shapes than what I am used to sewing. Once I got my head wrapped around the undergarments and foundation, then I could understand what my end goal was and not be completely mystified during the construction process of my bustled skirts.
I wanted warm fabrics in a natural materials, so my basic underskirt is flannel. My hubby found a flannel that has a wonderful two-toned herringbone weave. This makes such a basic cotton appear as if it was a brushed wool, or a suiting, and provides interesting texture. To continue the warmth factor, and level up the underskirt, the apron and its draped overskirt are my wool twill remnants. I would never have used such a fine woolen if it hadn’t have been small, hacked up remnants which were completely moth chewed (it was like this when we found it, hence it was offered as good as free).
I normally dislike using really nice material on historical costuming clothing mainly because I get sad over the fact it will not see much wear when compared to my regular wardrobe. If an expensive fabric will help my project turn out a successful recreation of my ideal I have no problem diving all in. It is all about give-and-take. However, it is ideal for me when a fine fabric has existing issues too obvious for a more fashionable design. The deep folds of the pleated apron front drape hide moth chews big enough to slip a pencil through. It also hides the seaming I did to come up with pieces which just barely fit the patterns. I had to improvise my own back overskirt drape because of the lack of material, too. I really wanted something more impressive over my bustled back, but I am just as happy to have ‘rescued’ a nice – but damaged – material from the trash bin.
The way the details are put together are a mix of finely done and rather unorthodox. In lieu of a proper waistband for both underskirt and overskirt, I used brown satin ribbon turned under inside for easy finishing and for stability. Cotton flannel relaxes too much to trust to just interfacing (I’ve learned) and there was nothing left but tiny scraps of the woolen. All hems and top stitching at the waist was prick stitched invisibly most just because I couldn’t find a color thread to match. I just couldn’t bear the thought of a harsh solid stitching line jarring my efforts thus far to make a nice historical outfit here. The extra mile is worth it to me…which is why I also spent so much more effort on the underskirt hem than what would be expected just looking at it. Again, flannel is awfully limp, and my skirt hem needed some body, weight, and stability. I cut a wide 5 inch strip of felt for the entirety of the skirt bottom, and tucked it inside the flannel hemline. I have read and heard from my fellow historical costumers that Victorian and Edwardian skirt hemlines could be stabilized with canvas, horsehair braid, or some sort of interfacing to help the silhouette of the skirt. Again, I was just working with what I had available. The felt does a great job at doing just what I hoped it would do. For never doing something like this before, I was really overwhelmed at this step.
The jacket is a very interesting blend of the old and the new, too. The exterior is an older silk velvet, I can tell, especially by inspecting the decorative stitching, but the interior has modern poly chiffon lining. When I bought it, someone had done some very pretty creative modern up-cycling to make it what it is today. Subtle brown stains, indistinguishable in the fancy stitching, makes me assume this must have had shattered lining and different closures and been in a rather sad state. I was happy to see another sewist’s great job of mending and thrilled to have a vintage piece (at a great deal, I must add) which didn’t need me to find the free time I don’t have for garment repair…all I had to do was enjoy wearing it.
The apron overskirt, as it was patterned, has these peculiar but very smart back yoke panels which reign in the deep side pleats, keeping them smooth under the back bustled drape (attached down halfway, also for ease of dressing). I like the way the smooth helps the overskirt fit and lay in an uncomplicated way, yet I also do not know if this is a modern adaptation or a true historical but little used overskirt detail. I have not yet seen such a feature on any other Victorian bustle skirt patterns through other companies, or even extant garments, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possibly out there and I haven’t yet seen it. Other costumers or historical seamstresses, come jump in the comments and let me know about this overskirt yoke!
Perhaps the hardest learning curve of going Victorian was attempting a 1870s hairstyle. I bought a 7 piece fake hair clip-on extension kit at 18” length to add to my existing hair and followed this YouTube tutorial from “Silvousplaits” (highly recommend, by the way). I played around with my “new hair” for several hours the night before my event to get used to working with it, and so the styling as you see it here is my 3 third attempt. If I had bought a 22” fake hair extension set I might have been able to try the second draped and twisted hairstyle in the “Silvousplaits” video or even had my braid go all the way around. I used hair flowers to cover up the raw end of the braid, with all the pins I needed to keep the silky fake hair in place, and utilized a basic hair comb to hold the braid down at my top crown. Victorian hair was fancy anyway, so I really don’t feel bad about having to use something extra in my up-do – the fake flowers and greenery add a nice splash of color in my half-fake hairstyle.
Again, after explaining my hair situation, I am going back to my old feeling that Victorian fashion is so weird. I have never before used fake hair and I am not used to having to use more than what nature has bestowed upon me. Just based off of my experience with trying to re-enact the bustle era fashion, I can see why the Victorian period is often criticized as the era for keeping up unrealistic appearances. My hair is half not mine, my body is restricted into a then-societal expected shape, and I have a fake caged booty. What a woman wore back then told every spectator of her class, marital, and monetary status. There were many wars and shifting of national boundaries at that time. I would not have wanted to be a part of that era, and find it interesting in a different way than I do for the 20st century’s history. I can’t relate in the way I can for the era my Grandparents lived through, but Victorian times had so many goings-on and such a shift in many aspects of life that the new Industrialism and colonial actions brought about…it is the history buff’s dream. I like the fact Victorian times were the beginning of what we think of as modern living conditions, even if women’s fashion still had a good way to go before it too was ‘modern’.
Perhaps a Victorian Christmas is too much for your taste. Whatever way you celebrate this holiday, I give you my wishes for a happy, peaceful, and healthy holiday which will leave you with good memories, warm feelings, and a full tummy! Yay – we made it this far through the year of 2021! Now, for one more week to go so we can walk into 2022…