Before wintertime is officially displaced by spring for my region of the world, I would like to share my grand outing on a snowy day last month. It was then that my newest historical costume made for a very memorable time ice skating. This classic winter sport was immensely popular and accessible leisure activity for ladies of Victorian times. I had to test how that actually worked out along with other like-minded women of the St. Louis Historical Sewing Society, of which I am a member. My Victorian skirt from December of 2021 acquired a matching bodice and bustle adornment which I stitched together for the occasion. Along with some new additional accessories, my original skirt had a quite different look that is more mid-1880s this time around…and I am ecstatic. I was warm in the cold being a fashionable Victorian lady for an afternoon having fun wearing what I had sewn – what could be better?! We skated at our city’s Steinberg rink, the largest outdoor ice rink in the Midwest (United States).
I did not expect to make a bodice to go with the skirt when I bought its herringbone flannel fabric last year, so this project was a surprise for me, too. After cutting out the Victorian bustled skirt in an unconventional pattern layout to save material, there was a ¾ yard panel leftover plus some generous sized scraps. “Why not try something out”, I thought a month before the date of the event. My silk velvet blouse from my first Victorian outfit was too fancy and fragile to be trusted for ice skating, and neither was it warm enough. I had nothing to lose aiming for a matching set. If you know me, it will be no surprise that every scrap was utilized to maximum potential, and now I am pleased to no end that I have a set!
As much as I liked my first attempt at a Victorian outfit, I am only now fully in love with dressing the “Industrial era” after this my most recent, ascetically coordinated 1880s outfit. A fully me-made outfit was the proper dive headfirst that I needed to get a good feel for wearing the fashions from Victorian times. Yet, doing so has left me itching to make a full-out fancy, sleeveless, trained evening ensemble out of moiré fabric…but I am getting ahead of myself. Please enjoy a small portion of my joy through the photos of my wonderful day out skating in my Victorian outfit!
In case you are wondering, I will clarify that I had absolutely no problem ice skating in this and did not find it difficult, cumbersome, or restrictive at all. Even though bodices of the Victorian era had little ease and wear close to the body, a garment that is properly fitted and tailored should not be restrictive. I altered and especially redrafted the existing sleeve pattern to have better upper arm fullness, higher armscye, and more forgiveness by cutting on the bias. Looking at old Victorian pictures, this doesn’t seem to be the ‘normal’ snug fit, but I am costuming for the 21st century. While I do aim for historical accuracy, I am going to make my clothes real-world conscious so they work for me the way I want them to, otherwise the best benefit to sewing for myself is negated.
In contrast, the bodice is more true to the Victorian times than the way I set in my sleeves. I fitted it perfectly like a snug body double to stay put on me no matter how I moved. It was always poised and wrinkle free due to its 8 vertical channels of lightweight boning wrapping around my torso from the bust down. The full range of movement in my arms makes sure to more than make up for the tight fitting bodice, and I was free to dance, throw snow, save myself from falling, or do whatever tickled my fancy. Achieving this balance of a structured fit that still retains body freedom has similarities to the tailoring practices of couture fashion – something I will address further down in my post.
The short pannier undergarment I was wearing to bustle out my skirt behind me kept it from under my legs and gave a fantastic, impressive swish when I’d move around on the ice. The ankle length of my sensible, unadorned walking skirt along with my simple, plaid apron drape was unfussy so there was nothing for my skate blades (or other people around me) to catch onto. As an 1889 edition of the Ladies’ Home Journal explains, “First of all, a skating costume needs to be short, and next it should be simple.” I did not fall down once! I even ran through the snow in this outfit. Remember – just because my clothes may look old-fashioned doesn’t mean that I am that way personally, nor does modest clothing mean a woman can’t move around enough to still have fun. Do not read a book by its cover.
To complete my ensemble, I used several eclectic items from on hand. First of all I am very proud of tweaking a vintage 1950s hat in my wardrobe to make it passable Victorian. Bright colors, especially in velvet (if not fur), were encouraged and popular for at least some portion of a Victorian lady’s skating ensemble, as can be read in many publications of the times. I took off the hat’s original netting and added on a matching red velvet ribbon from my existing notions stash (shocking how well it matches). This way I could tie it under my chin like a traditional Victorian hat but it also would stay on well without needing a hat pin. To further decorate the open crown, I pinned on another little bow up at the top. A lace-trimmed satin pocket square (bought from my trip to Italy so many years back and worn as my neck cravat in my first Victorian outfit) went over my head’s crown under the velvet 1950s hat. A 1930s era lace collar with an attached descending lace dickey filled in my Victorian bodice’s open neckline over my blouse (again, something I wore with my first Victorian outfit). I used a reproduction brooch that I have had since I was a teenager to keep that lace collar in place.
Finally, the most special accessory of all is my beaver fur collar – it had been my paternal Grandmother’s piece. It gave me a little extra warmth, a bit a rich-looking luxury, and a touch of something extra special. I was wearing her earrings, too! I almost never go without wearing something from one of my ancestors at this point – no matter if I am dressing historical, vintage, or modern. Fur seems to be one of the list commonly seen staples for trimming to a proper Victorian ice skating outfit. I was so happy to give Grandma’s accessory an outing with me, even if it did cover up my neckline details which took me so long to complete. In hindsight, I rather wish I would have had my fur muff (posted here) with me, too, but it did not match my overall darker, warmer brown tones very well. I also did not want to run the risk of losing or staining it. Oh well – I was plenty warm as things were and had a great time without it. Other of my fellow Victorian skaters did bring their furs, though, as well as one Sewing Society member even wearing a pair of true Victorian skates!
FABRIC: A dark brown herringbone printed cotton flannel was used for the skirt, a 100% wool twill for the neckline and cuff contrast (leftover from this Victorian apron drapery), and an all-cotton broadcloth in brown for the bodice lining. A 1 ½ yard cut of rayon white plaid shirting was the front apron drape.
PATTERN: Simplicity #5457, from Andrea Schewe, labelled as ‘Victorian 1880s’, from year 2003
NOTIONS: lots of thread, lots of mid-weight interfacing, three packs of buttons for the bodice front, several yards of cotton covered feather-lite boning, 6 yards of rolled braid upholstery trimming, and lots of hook-n-eyes
TIME TO COMPLETE: The bodice alone took me about 50 hours to do – most of it was all the finishing and details which I primarily did by hand. The bustle adornment took about 5 hours to make. Everything I needed was happily finished on February 3, 2022 a few days ahead of the event.
THE INSIDES: both bodice and bustle adornment are bag lined for a completely clean and tidy coverage of all raw edges.
TOTAL COST: The flannel and contrast wool were leftover from my last project. The broadcloth lining, boning and all other notions besides buttons were all on hand already from a rummage sale purchase last year, so I am not counting the costs for them either as it was negligible. The 6 yards of upholstery trim cost me about $12, the buttons were about $6 for three cards of four, and the plaid shirting was $13 – all bought at my local JoAnn Fabric store. In total just over $30!
This project was not just a desire to improve upon my existing Victorian skirt but also a search for validation as well as answers after making my end-of-the year Charles James inspired bodice. As I mentioned in my post, it is often said that his creations are inspired and loosely based on Victorian styles. The more you look at the gowns he made in the 50s decade particularly, it is plainly obvious in the bodice shape and fit, as well as in the skirt drapery. However, I said this as one who was quoting well-respected fashion historians. I was also associating the two from the perspective of merely observing construction and design line similarities. Even still, both come from something other than a hands-on means. I have studied some X-ray scans and interior detail images of Charles James’ gowns to get as close as possible to personally inspecting such high couture pieces for comparison sake. Then, constructing and wearing my very own 1880s bodice has given me that in-person confirmation that Charles James’ bodices are indeed very Victorian. I feel so validated. I am still so elated over this discovery!
They are both very stable (can stand on their own apart from a body), multi-layered (composed of an exterior, interfacing, interlining, and lining), boned in many channels, close-fitting, and tapered low in the front but high in the back along the waistline. Being an experiment, I wanted to try on the finished main body with my Charles James inspired 50s shantung skirt before the sleeves and any details were added. I wanted an even better idea of how much a Victorian bodice could look like part of a Charles James gown. I installed a separating sport zipper down the center front because I wanted a secure fit that wasn’t fiddly to close (which would be the case with hook and eyes) but also to help me be able to try this on properly as soon as possible because I was so excited. The first try on for every single thing I make for myself or others is always so filled with nerves and anticipation. I knew it would fit on account of my measuring at the pattern stage, it was just being able to finally see this bodice on me that blew me away.
I knew from the get-go that I was not going to be a die-hard for 100% true authentic construction methods as long as it is something not seen to anyone but me, anyway. I did do clean, structural tailoring techniques that were more 21st century than true Victorian (which often had quite messy interior finishing) and so very much hand stitching. The inside looks so perfectly finished for my taste and achieves the ‘proper’ look in the end. Thus, ignore the zipper and you can see that this is indeed what Charles James based his gowns on, especially the Babe Paley one I was inspired by (see picture of red dress above) when making my Tulip bodice (post here). Look at how great it looks! The fit feels similar to how a well-constructed 50s evening gown would be (I have tried a few on before). This is an 1880s pattern, though, remember! Sewing this bodice was the best tactile research project ever.
Now that I have sewn more than one item from Simplicity #5457, I can heartily recommend it. The sizing is great and has a fit true to the charts. I made no other tweaks besides lengthening the hem to the sleeves and adding in ‘reach room’, as I mentioned above “The Facts”. I love how economical it is, too. A whole Victorian set – bodice, skirt, and bustle decoration – out of 3 ½ yards (of main fabric) is impressive. It comes together as easily as possible. Even still, with all the tailoring, fitting, and finishing this is time consuming nevertheless so be prepared with a lot of patience, free time, and some sore fingertips. This pattern is super versatile, as well, but that is the good thing about a simple design – you have a base for whatever strikes your fancy. It is highly probable will be using this pattern again.
All of the detailing finishes were my own idea and design. This includes the bustle adornment that is the trio of hanging tabs and not the little pleated rump peplum, which is attached to the bodice. These were not part of the Simplicity pattern I was using for the main body of the bodice, but self-drafted or at least my own addition. I drew up a frontispiece to cover the zipper and make it appear as if I have some sort of faux button placket. It is tacked down to the bodice on the right side of the zipper and hooks closed on the left side. One dozen decorative buttons decorated the frontispiece because Victorian fashions were opulent and extravagant, after all! Then, the neckline and cuffs received the rope trim and then a thin, visible overlap of the same woolen which went towards my first Victorian apron drape (posted here). Pieced together, I had just enough woolen scraps to make this idea work.
I felt these additions added depth, interest, and complexity appropriate for the era. Yet, as this was meant to be a basic and practical set, these decorative elements add the right touch of finery without any gold work, beading, or embroidery so common for the era – these were all too fancy for my intention. The rope and woolen trimming were sandwiched in with every other seam’s construction except for on the bodice neckline and cuff hems, where it is hand tacked in place after the edges were fully finished. I could not commit myself to what I wanted to add until after I could have to opportunity to try it on together with the skirt.
The bustle decoration is all I could make out of a few rectangles of material that were left from the bodice. I think it is cute and different – totally my design while still convincingly Victorian inspired. I didn’t want to overwhelm the simple apron drape with a draped booty bustle. However, I was too short on fabric for that to be an option. I have seen a few fashion images or extant garments which have basic bustle adornments that are similar to what I crafted for myself. I lined the underside with matching fabric to cover up the raw edges so the tabs look just as good no matter which way they flap. I added more of the rope trimming (used on the bodice) into all the edges of the three hanging tabs to help them to be more decorative and seemingly intentional. They were something I just cobbled together, after all! In lieu of closures, I merely attached all three tabs to a length of brown satin ribbon (on hand, used to stabilize the inner waistline of my skirt) so I can tie it to my waist before I dress in my bodice…easy peasy and versatile!
Just like for my first Victorian outfit, I was here again inspired by the brown and white dual tones worn by the woman on the far left in an original Godey Lady’s book original hand-tinted fashion page from April 1874 that is framed in my bedroom. Besides my one book page print, however, I have found a plethora of fashion plates and extant 1880s garments which are in a variation of brown tones, contrasted by gold and/or white. Along that vein, I specifically wanted to complement the white of my blouse peeking out from under my bodice’s open neckline and ¾ sleeves. My first apron drape was too bulky under the close fitting bodice, also seeming too fussy and drab when the skirt and bodice were matching. I therefore merely hand draped a plain cut of yardage in a soft rayon to be my new skirt apron. The plaid weave brightens up my overall brown tones and adds a level of simple sophistication with a touch of bright white, as I had wanted. The plaid easily adds to the impression that there is more going on than there is (as it was super simple to incorporate it into my ensemble) yet keeps my set relatable. Plaid was quite popular to use in women’s fashions of Victorian times throughout many countries.
My Indian sari pleating skills came in handy to “make” my skirt’s new apron drape…no stitching required other than to hem the fabric’s cut ends. First, I asymmetrically tucked in the top half (most of one corner) to the plaid fabric panel into my waistline starting from my left side seam over to the other side of the center front. Then, I hand pleated the free end, much like is done on a pallu (the decorative end) of a sari to drape it over the shoulder. Finally, I brought it around to tuck the pleated end into my waist at the center back. This process is so much easier to do in real life than to describe but it is really that simple – no pattern or sewing needed!
I see many of such asymmetric apron drapes from the early to later half of the 1880s decade. I love any asymmetric fashion and I feel that I can relate to Victorian styles better when I see them elegantly, artistically askew than perfectly uniform and proportionate. The benefit to costuming in the 21st century is here again (as I mentioned above previously) the ability to customize a historical style to my own taste, ability, and budget. I don’t know for sure if such asymmetric apron fronts were historically sewn or draped, or even something that would have been paired with such an outfit as this. Yet, whatever seems to work for me and achieves my own interpretation of the 1880s works for me.
I recognize I have a LOT to still learn about the nuances of Victorian fashion. Thus, I ask those of you who know what you are doing more than I to go easy on me here. I love my newest historical set and am proud of my progress in interpreting this era, especially since – up until recently – it has been something I never remotely figured I would ever be sewing or wearing. Victorian dressing was something I have long been content to admire from a distance. It seems to be very complicated to understand. The styles adapted every year or two, especially between the 1870s and 1880s…bustle sitting high, bustle sitting low, elevated hairstyles, cascading hairstyles, short waistlines, long bodices – and all these in different combinations! Things must have been confusing for women of those times who wanted to stay “on trend”. At least tailors and seamstresses or even home sewists were probably very busy tweaking hemlines, adding extension panels, and making accessories to keep up.
This newest Victorian set is a big step further into exploring that well of knowledge which is fashion history but I have a feeling this era will be much more challenging for me to get a hold of fully in my mind than anything from the 20th century. I will keep trying, though! I guarantee you this will not be my last Victorian project. I just hope my next Victorian creation has such a fun time out as this one! Ice skating in full Victorian garb is an event that will be hard to beat!