A couple of years ago, thanks to Pinterest, I stumbled across a blog post about a dress held by the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum. I think it was pretty much love at first sight – there was definitely something about the bodice that made me just want to sit and look at it. Then, as I did back then with almost every Victorian era dress I came across, I pinned it to my board and there it stayed, getting lost amongst all the other pictures.
At the start of last year, when I was trying to decide what sort of bodice I wanted to make along with my black four-gore underskirt and asymmetrical overskirt (thanks Truly Victorian! I love your patterns) I ventured into the depths of my Pinterest board and began to sift through the images. I didn’t find the Shippensburg bodice picture straight away, but found some others that I quite liked, like these two:
Close, but no cigar… I liked both of them – I still do, but I just wasn’t 100% convinced that I wanted to replicate either of them. While I was looking at them and contemplating I suddenly realised that I had seen a similar bodice before and hunted through all of my images to find the picture of the Shippensburg bodice.
To my relief, I found it and I still liked it as much as I did when I first saw it. That was it. Here was the bodice that I wanted to base mine on. The only problem was… I didn’t have a clue how to do it! I was still learning to sew and trying to draft my own pattern pieces was uncharted, ‘here be monsters’ territory. I knew that I could use the French Vest Bodice from Truly Victorian as a base but from there on was a complete mystery. I tried to figure it out from looking at the two photos that I had found and came up with some sort of plan but I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew.
One day I was sitting on the train and I had a lightbulb moment. What if I emailed the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum and ask them some of the construction questions that I had? They probably wouldn’t reply – why would they, I’m some random person from the other side of the globe and of no real importance. Surely they had better things to do?
Karin Bohleke, the director of the Archives and Museum replied and I was floored. She didn’t answer my questions but took her reply one step further and sent me a description of the dress, a couple of photos that were in their system, and promised to send me more in depth interior photos of the bodice within the week. How amazing was that?
I was so excited when the photos came. All 27 of them. Twenty Seven! I thought that I might get four or five, not 27. Wow. Once again, I was completely floored by the generosity of Karin and her student Emily, who took the photos for me. Everything, the entire construction of the bodice was made so much clearer and all of my questions had certainly be answered. And, I found that it was a lot more straightforward than what I had been trying to do with my mockup (I was tying myself up in knots trying to do it on my own).
The pleated ‘vest’ is attached to the bodice and ends just below the top of the ‘flap’. And the lapels are basted to the bodice to stop them flapping about:
With a clearer idea of what I needed to do I set to with my mockup, drawing all over it and making notes with a pink marker. When my brother-in-law saw me wearing it he said it looked like I was about to have plastic surgery! It took a bit of trial and error to draft the lapels, ‘flap’, and the pleated vest portion but I felt like I ended up with something useable.
The lapels and cuffs on the original bodice have a beaded trim so I decided to follow suit and stitch beads on the edges on mine as well. I’d never sewn beads onto anything before and had to turn to youtube for tutorials. I found Angela Clayton’s beading tutorial helpful and watched that a few times.
Unfortunately, I had underestimated how long this whole process would take and with a week to go before the Oamaru Heritage Celebrations I succumbed to some horrible, nasty bug that knocked me off my feet for a few days. Despite gaining two days of sick leave, I could barely function and it took all of my energy to slowly tackle the buttonholes, make the pleated vest sections and sew them on, sew on the lapels and the flap. I think I was sewing the buttons on the day before I flew down.
I was so proud of myself, wearing this outfit in Oamaru. I had set out to teach myself how to sew and to make my very own Victorian dress and I had done it. I kind of wish that I had recorded just how many hours it took me but all I know is that a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears went into it. No matter how hard it got, or how often I asked myself just what had I gotten myself into, I stuck with this project from start to finish. And I learned that there are some amazingly kind people out there in the world who will do what they can to help you if only you ask.