As I browse through the myriad of fashions in my Godey’s Lady’s Books from the 1860s, I take note that underneath all the ruffles, rows of velvet bands, trim panels, fringe and other various items, the shape of the dresses themselves stays relatively the same.
Honestly, if you study any mainstream fashion you’ll notice the basic shapes of clothing in general. When I first started sewing my Civil War reenactment wardrobe I thought most of the early years’ fashions looked the same.
That wasn’t true, but I was only focusing on the fact that they nearly all used the same basic foundation. I was building “from the skin out” rather than going straight to the fun of trimming and design.
Let’s take a look at the building blocks for styles in this mid-Victorian period and you too can see the main foundation of this era.
1. Day Bodice: The very basic, most worn garment isn’t much different from our modern blouses and tops. It starts with a front, back and side back. The front is fitted with two darts, but for smaller busted women, they can get away with only one.
The back princess seam (connecting the center back and side back pieces) can be used to fit the basic shape to the figure. The front can also have a princess seam, although it is rare in the 1860s.
You’ll sometimes see day bodices with an additional side piece, under the arm and between the front and side back. And, although the center back is generally one piece, a center back seam can be discovered on existing garments.
On some extended bodices (basque) or those with peplums, you’ll occasionally find a waistline seam or horizontal fitting dart.
2. Evening Bodice: What girl doesn’t want a party dress? One to bounce along in at the ball?
This nighttime wear is made with essentially the same seams as the day bodices – a one-piece front with two darts, side seam connecting to the side back piece then the center back. The closure is in the center back where adjustments can be made during the fitting.
The back/side back princess seam runs from the waist at center back in a curve up to the middle of the back armhole. This is the best placement for fitting around the shoulder blades. This princess seam can also run from waist up to the low, evening neckline.
3. Day Sleeves: For daytime wear, you’ll see coat sleeves, open pagoda sleeves and full bishop sleeves.
Coat sleeves are cut with two pieces – an upper and lower part, also called the top and bottom sleeve sections – with the front seam running forward of the armpit along the inside of the arm and the back seam starting around where the arm meets the body and going over the elbow down to the outer wrist area.
Wide pagoda sleeves can be one-piece, or two for a fuller look. They are worn with undersleeves to prop them out a bit and show them off. The main seam runs on the inside of the arm like the coat sleeve, and if there is a second seam it is towards the back of the arm. Rarely will you see more than two seams unless you’re looking at an original garment that has been pieced for a large pagoda shape.
The bishop sleeve is similar to today’s poet blouse sleeves with one full piece gathered into the armhole and at the wrist. Because it’s basically one large rectangle shape, only one seam exists. This seam is placed at the bodice side seam or moved forward a bit to follow the inside of the arm like the coat and pagoda sleeve.
4. Evening/Ball Sleeves: Many sleeves on 1860s ball gowns are small puffs, sometimes covered with an epaulette or cap or even another puff sleeve with the hem loose with the smaller puff peaking out.
The puff sleeve only consists of one seam at the underarm. (It, too, can be moved forward to the inside of the arm.) Or, the seam may be left out altogether as the gigot sleeves from the 1830s. A circle with an off-center hole and the outside edge gathered into the armhole can be used, but be careful not to make the circle too big for this era.
5. Skirt: Depending on the width of your fabric, skirts of the 1860s decade can be from two to five panels.
In the first couple of years, straight panels (usually 2 to 4) were used and set onto a waistband or bodice with knife and cartridge pleats. When the elliptical hoop shape became popular around 1863, panels were cut in wedges, angling toward the back and forming more seamlines. The straight side of the wedge was stitched to the bias edge of the one next to it.
It’s hard to avoid seamlines showing in the expanse of your full skirt, but generally the center front is on a fold with the first seams being about at the side of the body (of course depending on the width of your fabric).
As easy as these descriptions seem, challenges still exist in actually putting together 1860s garments. One is how to get those seams in the right places and using them to fit the fabric.
But don’t be afraid to jump right in with your project… even if your pattern calls for a back zipper and weird padding.… you’ll learn period techniques faster and what works easiest for you by simply getting started and finishing your next project. Apply these few seamline ideas and I know you’ll look terrific at the next Civil War event!