Ok, I admit I love day wear more than evening dress. This is true for both my historical wardrobe and in my 21st C. life. But when it comes to the invitation to a ball, I have to have *something* to wear to the event, right?
With a new year of historical costume events planned, there are sure to be many early 19th C. activities you’d like to attend. Aside from the various picnics and teas, balls and soirees are especially fun with the dancing and flirting as the main attractions.
Looking graceful can sometimes be pretty tough while wearing period costume. What your outfit is made from can help put you in the right frame of mind. For example, you wouldn’t likely wear chiffon to a bonfire on a chilly night. Same goes for trying to survive in wool at an elegant dinner party. Fabric selection can really make or break a design.
Remember, Regency fashion took many clues from ancient Greece. The idea was for a smooth line down the figure. When searching out appropriate materials, look for drape-y textiles such as thin cottons and soft silks. They’ll need a soft “hand” and be on the thin side to fall in graceful folds. Avoid fabrics with too much body or a stiffness that doesn’t lay right.
Are you looking to make a cotton muslin dress?
Cotton is oh-so-comfortable and oh-so-Regency too! You’ll find many existing ball dresses made from the sheerest of Indian muslin. Now, it’s quite a challenge to find fabric in today’s market that is comparable to the thin textile they had available. So look for pretty voiles in solid colors or with dainty prints. Embroidered prints, stripes and windowpane cottons are perfect.
White cottons were “de rigueur” for fancy ball gowns, but have fun with color too. In a ballroom the ones in the light colors will stand out and be noticed over the dark evening gowns.
A soft cotton organdy will also do well – especially if you intend on applying beading, fringe, braid, flowers and other trim. The organdy’s natural stiffness will give good support to the decorations.
Quilting fabrics are great sections to look through for Regency-inspired prints. The cotton yardage is generally high-quality (you’ll know it by the $8-16/yd price) and the printed designs can look period. Stay away from heavy cottons as they will hang too stiffly for flowing around the dance floor. The quilting fabrics are better for day wear but if you keep your eyes open for a well-spaced, delicate print in a flowing hand, you can manage to look quite graceful. Stick to the lighter colors too.
For other selections, Swiss or dotted cottons work well as do all-over eyelets, especially with a border print. Be sure to choose a lightly embroidered eyelet for a more period look. Vary your look of a white cotton dress with a colored underlining or bodiced petticoat.
Or maybe you prefer to be dressed in elegant silk?
Silk is heavenly for ball gowns. But remember that silk holds heat in and may make you “shine” a bit more than you prefer when performing vigorous dances.
Lightweight silks like chiffon, organza, washed silk and sheers work beautifully for ball gowns. You’ll find period paintings of ladies in velvet gowns, so if want to go with velvet, make sure it drapes well and is not too stiff. A silk-blend velvet is a dream Regency fabric but can be challenging to sew.
Taffeta may be used, but look for one with a high thread count for a softer drape. Dupioni with its slubs is a rougher silk and is really a more modern use fabric. There are some dupionis, though, that have few slubs and can be a great, less expensive substitute for taffeta.
Have you thought of using a sari as fabric for your Regency dress? Not just cottons came from the Far East to Europe and Britain. Indian saris (with around 4-6 yards each) are absolutely perfect for an early 1800s gown. Use the border for the dress hem and even on the hem of the sleeves. For a challenge, drape a cross-over bodice with the border at the neckline edge. Saris are available in both silk and cotton but try to avoid the synthetic fiber ones if you can.
You can also add a lovely overdress to make your Regency evening dresses more versatile. Use a silk or cotton gown for the base and add an overskirt (or overdress) in a lightweight cotton voile or silk chiffon.
If your budget will allow, a lovely plain or embroidered cotton or silk net fabric would be fabulous as an overdress or even for just the dress sleeves.
From this photo you can see the variety of fabrics used for evening dresses. All of these girls each made their own gowns; many using the same principles found in the 1800-1820s Fitting Tips and Tricks handbook.
So here are a few keys to remember when searching for Regency-appropriate, ball gown fabrics:
#1 – Stick with natural fiber fabrics when sewing any 19th C. garment. They’ll keep you cool and comfortable. If you must use a polyester fashion fabric, make sure to use a cotton or linen underlining.
#2 – Go for white or pastel sheer cotton voiles, eyelet or a dotted Swiss.
#3 – Chiffons and embroidered organzas are lovely in a ball room.
Don’t get too frustrated as it’s not easy to find that perfect fabric. Keep these recommendations (and your budget) in mind when shopping for your historical costume project. Even the best costumers (myself included) had to make less-than-perfect fabric choices to learn what’s best. And every project is a challenge to get it just right.
I know you can make a stunning new Regency ball gown for your next event with the right fabrics and the best fit! I’d love to support you in your costume sewing with the Historical Sewing page on Facebook. Join me on Facebook and together we’ll build the dress up box of our dreams!