March 1, 2023

Making an 1880s Plaid Ensemble: Skirt & Draperies

This is the year we're finally making the plaid 1880s bustle dress!  In 2022, I finished the underpinnings for the project - including a lobster tail bustle, underpetticoat, and flounced petticoat - and today I'm sharing the completed skirt and draperies of what will be a three-piece, c.1883-86 plaid ensemble.  

As my lovely patrons already know, I have a deadline of an upcoming "Getting Dressed in the 1880s" presentation in April for the Niagara County Federation of Historical Agencies!  My session is bright and early at 9am to kick off the annual convention, which means I'll be waking up at 5am on a Saturday to travel there...I'll need to work diligently through March to pattern and produce both a bodice and hat for the ensemble, so you can expect at least two more, future blog posts on the ensemble.  

But for now, let's take a look at the making of the skirt and draperies - inspiration for the design, details of the construction, and completed project pictures.  

Historical Inspiration

Years ago, I bought 10 yards of the this navy blue, rust, and white woven cotton.  I knew I wanted to make a bustle dress era with it, but I can't say that I had a specific design in mind then, or really even now as I'm making it.  I just sort of let the fabric guide me into what it wants to be.  

There are certainly plenty of extant examples of plaid dresses from the 1880s, made in silks, cottons, and wools.  I liked the contrast of the pleated self-trim from this wine on white plaid, printed cotton day dress:

3-piece, printed cotton day dress, c. 1880s:
including a cuirass bodice, over, and under skirts.
Augusta Actions, Lot: 1038

I was also drawn to the bold, bias-cut trim on this long-time favorite portrait of a young Black woman in a plaid ensemble:  she's so pretty and poised, looking directly towards us.  I wish I knew who she was, and more of her story. 

Portrait of a young woman, c.1880s.
Source: Fabric and Color Journal 

Finally, here's a plaid walking dress from an 1887 French fashion plate:  I intended to have both the skirt and draperies match in the plaid, and am considering a solid, navy blue wool bodice with contrasting plaid panel at the center front.  My other design flips the fabrics, with the plaid as the main fabric, and contrasting panel in navy blue velvet with a matching collar and cuffs.  I could always make both...🤔  But for now, a single bodice will do, as we're on a deadline!

Walking dress, French fashion plate, c.1887.

Construction Details

As with most new projects (and since the 1880s are an unfamiliar era for me), I began with a mock-up for the skirt.  I started with Truly Victorian's 1885 Four-Gore Underskirt pattern (TV261), and added a casing and drawstring to help keep the skirts over the bustle in the back.  I used a cotton bedsheet for the mock-up: 

Mock-up for 1880s skirt, based on TV261 pattern.

Mock-up for 1880s skirt: test for casing with twill tape ties to hold the skirt in place over a bustle.
Interior view on the left, exterior or outside view on the right with directional pleats.

Pleased with the look, I cut the skirt panels from the plaid fashion fabric, and assembled the skirt.  I finished the hem with a cotton muslin facing (instead of lining the skirt), and pleated the skirt onto a band with a metal closure.  I thought the skirt looked a little limp, so I made a small cotton pad after the dimensions in Costume in Detail by Nancy Bradfield, page 253: 

On the left, skirt before adding a small bustle pad. 
On the right, a much-improved silhouette with a little padding!

Small cotton pad measures 7" long, and ties under the pleats at the back with cotton tapes. 

With the base done, it was time to trim the skirt!  I played around with different designs, thinking first of deep rows of ruffles or pleats, and then settled on box-pleated bias bands.  After cutting, seaming, and pressing all the bias strips together, I eyeballed and pinned wide box pleats, making enough for the skirt hem, and for trimming the draperies too:

To make the trim, I cut and stitched bands of bias together.
I turned and pressed the top and bottom edges inwards by a half-inch each.
Then, I eyeballed and pinned wide box pleats along the strips.

Pinning a row of pleated trim all around the skirt, I top-stitched them around the hem at the top and bottom edges to secure the individual box pleats and mount the trim.

Pinning the box-pleated trim in place.

Here's what the newly-trimmed skirt looked like when finished:

Finished skirt with a box-pleated, bias band of trim: front and side views.

Additional side and side-back views of the finished skirt.

With the skirt finished, I moved onto the draperies.  For these, I traced the pieces from Truly Victorian's 1886 Asymmetrical Drapery Add-on pattern (TV382).  According to the pattern directions, this add-on is made one with the skirt; but mine is meant to be a separate piece and pleated onto its own waistband.  This way, I can mix-and-match the pieces, if I do end up making a navy-blue wool or solid silk underskirt.

Drapery in progress...a look at the finished front.
The front and back draperies were trimmed and pleated separately, 
before being joined at the sides and attached to a waistband.

I lined both the front and back draperies with cotton lawn to give them more body.  I applied the same box-pleated bias trim to the long sides, playing with the direction of the plaids. 

Inside view of the front drapery, showing cotton lawn lining.
Both the front and back draperies were finished with 1" hems,
and trimmed with the matching box-pleated bias bands.

After both the front and back draperies were trimmed and pleated, I attached them together at the left side.  I mounted them on a waistband - this time made of the fashion fabric with lining - matching the pleats to the front, sides, and back of the skirt.  The waistband overlaps at the right, and fastens with a metal skirt hook and bar.  With that, both the skirt and draperies were complete! 

Completed Project Pictures 

Finished skirt and draperies for my c.1883-86 plaid ensemble: 

Font view of c.1883-86 plaid skirt & draperies.

My favorite side view - just look at all of those pleats!

Back view of the c.1883-86 plaid skirt & draperies.

Detail shot of the burnous pleats, which are large folds of fabric left free from the waistband
and hang down in a cascading loop.

Wish me luck as I tackle a bodice and tall hat next!

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