My, but the response on covering plus-sizes was intense when I asked for article ideas on the Facebook page! Thank you for the input!
Appears many of you who are “busty lasses,” larger than size 18, and plus-size need to know more about historical patterns suitable for your “stout” figure and how to trim garments with appropriate proportions.
You were also curious to find out if our full-figured 19th century ancestors wore the same styles as the mainstream fashion or simply wore wrappers all the time. (Hint: they wore the latest modes with aplomb.)
To help, I’ve put together a list of items and tips you can incorporate into your period sewing and think about when dressing your lovely larger figure.
A note: “curvy” doesn’t always mean “plus-size.” Even though this article is directed to larger sizes (due to the requests), if you have curves, these tips will be handy for you too.
[Small disclaimer: I personally am not plus-size in a modern wardrobe, being a good size US 14. However, I have large hips, small waist and DDD bra cup. So I understand a bit about full figures. I would love to see other sizes give their insight in the comment section here.]
First thing: Wear a good fitting corset – everything else is built on this so it’s SUPER important. Honestly. Doesn’t matter if it’s slim Regency, full hoop skirt fashion, or 1890s leg o’ mutton sleeves to hide the arms. The CORSET IS KEY to a proper historical silhouette.
In regards to corsets, straight seamed panels seem to be better suited for larger curvy figures, especially if you want some minimization. You’re probably thinking, “but gussets help smooth corset panels over curves.” Yes, gussets DO allow for a svelte look. They do help to cut the corset further into the waist area while providing bust & hip support. I won’t argue that.
It’s simply that the straight seamed panels have the gusset shape built in. Gussets are perfect for smaller busts and hips and for those larger women who want to emphasize their assets. 🙂
As for patterns, the Truly Victorian #110 pattern is fantastic, but you must pay close attention to selecting your size to cut. Laughing Moon #100 is good but doesn’t give quite the tighter waist shaping that curvy girls need (not enough of the gusset shaping added to the straight seams). However, if you carry weight in the belly/abdomen area it’s a good pattern to start with. For more on fitting larger busts in corsets I highly recommend this fabulous article on Foundations Revealed.
Stay modest in the cut of your costume– no very low necklines. It’s okay to be revealing, but not a wench. Curvy girls look best when the gown is fitted well to the figure, emphasizing the curves, but not over-exposing them. This goes for dinner bodices with V or low rounded necklines as well as for ball gowns.
Although, in staying modest, give space to the neckline. Cut down a rounded jewel neckline just a tad to give the neck flesh more room and not make the head look cut off. Shallow Vs and rounds allow for the full bust to “breathe” and not look so confined.
This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t make a high, round neckline bodice. Oh no. This style was seen in many decades – the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s & 1880s primarily, even into the 1890s but with extra collars & trim. Merely give a little bit of ease around the neck seam. And goodness, utilize those waist darts to smooth the fabric over the bust to waist.
Speaking of darts – don’t sew them up in your mockup before fitting. Pin up the excess fabric at the fitting to make two or three darts that allow the fabric to be smoothed around the torso. Follow more fitting tips in this video tutorial.
If your bodice or corset is too small/tight, think about adding an extra panel between the side and side back pieces. Besides the extra width, you get more seam allowance to play with for fitting and tightening the fabric to the torso.
Reduce the size of your sleeves. Your arms may already be large; why add to their girth with super wide sleeves?? It may sound contradictory – needing smaller sleeves for larger arms – but it’s a trick to slenderize the look.
For form fitting sleeves from the 1840s, and 1860s to 1880s, keep the ease minimal on the upper arm, like only an inch or so in circumference. Of course, movement will depend on a well-fitting armhole as it relates to the bodice it’s sewn into. If your sleeve has too much fabric and your arm swims in it, try these tips to taking it in.
For wide sleeves such as puffs from the Regency Era, 1830s, 1890s, and evening gowns of the mid-to-late decades, cut down your puff sleeve pattern to where you get the effect of a puff but not the width of fabric. Too much fabric around a full arm will add visual weight or make it appear larger than it is.
Reduce the width of the puff by making vertical cuts and folding the pattern up evenly. Make sure not to reduce the cap seam line too much. You need at least 1.5″ larger in the sleeve to show any gathers for a puff.
Also, lengthen the puff sleeve. A number of available patterns offer a puffed sleeve that’s very short. I know modern cap sleeves are *the thing* but not so in historical styles. Add length to the hem straight around or simply bow out the hemline to where the pattern is lengthened in the center but stays the same underarm seam length.
Don’t weigh down trim if you’re not comfortable with it. If you’re concerned, be conservative with trim – one large hem ruffle; basic sleeve cuffs; ribbons tacked on flat and not pleated or gathered.
But I want you not to hesitate to add trim either. The key here is to make the trim larger in proportion to you. Don’t add a 1/4″ or even 3/8″ ribbon around the neckline if you are a size 22. It will look like an afterthought and not flow with the entire design. No, use a 1″ or wider size.
If your skirt has to cover 52″ hips, that hem will be wide too. Don’t go slapping on tiny rose buds for decoration.
Think *bigger* and don’t worry about too much. You’ll most likely know when it’s too large as it’ll start looking like a masquerade, fancy dress, or Halloween costume to you. Trust your instinct here!
Remember, though, to increase the overall size of your trims about 10-20%. Pleats should be wider – even an extra 1/4″ can make a difference. Visible pockets should be cut larger. Sleeve cuffs and collars need to be enlarged from the pattern.
Accessories too: hats should frame the face, so that bonnet brim may have to be cut longer and deeper for a rounded face. Reticules should also be cut bigger to compliment wider hips.
And yes – larger women wore the same styles and same trim designs as other smaller women. Skirt panels were still cut the same, just wider and perhaps longer. Sleeve shapes remained the same. I encourage you to constantly study and view original photographs, paintings and antique garments to notice the details.
Re-think horizontal. Nowadays, horizontal stripes are a no-no for plus-sizes. True, they do make the dress appear wider than desired. But in the 19th century you WANT to have a wider hemline or wider sleeves/shoulders so as to emphasize a narrow waist. Use this to your advantage!
Just because you have hips or are a busty gal, don’t knock extra padding for the historical silhouette you’re going after.
For example, I have wide hips at 46″ BUT… my back side is rather flat. The Truly Victorian Imperial Bustle (lobster tail) gives me the full back protrusion I need for the Bustle Era. To get the late 1880s shelf I need to ADD a pad on top of the Imperial bustle. Ack! That’s a big back side. Well… at least it seems to me.
Indeed, it’s how the final look is viewed by others (not yourself in the mirror as that’s plain subjective). The confidence you exude while wearing your ensemble goes a long way too with the look you’re going for despite additional padding. 😉
Pay attention to the clothes in your modern wardrobe. Transfer the same guidelines to the historical costumes as you did when picking out the t-shirts and dresses: v-necks, dark colors on bottom, 3/4 length sleeves, particular colors people say look good on you, armhole shirt seams that sit on the shoulder and not hang off so everything looks baggy, etc.
Be willing to accept your measurements as is. No cheating on them! Our 19th century ancestors made the clothes to fit the body they covered. No off-the-rack items were really available (except perhaps undergarments).
It’s only contemporary sources that have told us we all have to fit into a size 8 or size 16. To heck with that when making period garments! Fit YOUR body, not the girl on the cover of Style…. or even in the period fashion plate that’s, again, an “ideal” of the age.
Work on your fittings:
- Open out those shoulder seams to allow the fabric to cover the fleshy shoulder instead of pinching tightly
- Keep the armholes high under the arm, then cut them larger around the top half only to help prevent cutting into the flesh
- Use up to 3 waist darts in front to bring in excess fabric at the waist
- Add extra width in skirts evenly to each panel instead of only centers and sides
- Cut waistbands to your corseted waist measurement over undergarments and with a little ease; fit skirts to the band length with darts and seam allowances
Recommended pattern lines:
- Truly Victorian
- Laughing Moon
- Past Patterns
- Simplicity (watch for fitting issues)
- Period Impressions
My final thought for the stout ladies is a question: Are you bringing your 21st Century mindset to your historical costuming?
Truly. That view of what you *think* you look like in costume is based a whole lot on your 21st C. mind. Heavy-set people have existed throughout all generations of people. Don’t let the prevailing world view of plus-size get you into a tizzy over how you should wear a Victorian dress.
Wear bright colors if you want. Dress as a puffy cupcake if it makes you happy. But most of all, keep at it!
If you fall into the “stout” sizing for Victorian ladies, what’s been the best technique you’ve used for flattering costumes? Share below so we can all learn.