The autumn season is creeping up upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere. (Yay!!) And as cooler weather events start being organized and hosted, I’m sure many Dickens’ Fairs will be included. And don’t forget Christmas caroling and outdoor walks through state parks.
When I think of these activities with my costume mind I usually skim over the Early Victorian period. No doubt you probably do too. Specifically looking at upcoming Dickens’ and old Victorian London events, it’s easy for me to imagine deep bonnets, soft flowing skirts, tight sleeves, droopy side curls and the like. Nice 1840s and 1850s fashion.
It took me a while to warm up to the very early styles of Victorian dress. I mean, really. The ’40s dresses look plain tired in their struggle to be demure. The bodice front points down. The arms are held in place down at the sides. The front of the hair displays curls hanging down past the chin. Down, down, down.
What’s so uplifting about that?
The ’50s are better. We get ruffles again. Deep, fluffy ruffles. Sleeves start to flare at the wrist with more delicate touches of lacy undersleeves. It looks like we’re out of mourning and back into having fun with life.
Yet, when I think of Charles Dickens and his writing, I always go to Early Victorian first. I mean, he died in 1870 with most of his popular work starting in the mid-1830s and going through the early ’60s. So it’s appropriate to dress accordingly – in something from this early era.
If I was making a new costume from this time period, here’s what I’d do.
Appropriate Fabrics for 1840s & 50s Costumes
*Silk: taffeta, solid, printed, plaid and stripes, all with a sturdy hand and little drape (oh, and those gorgeous embroidered stripes that are WAY beyond your budget but make you determined to find something similar and still eat this month)
*Wool: tropical weight, lightweight suiting with stiff hand, broadcloths
*Cotton: solid or printed sheers, voile, organdy, medium-weight calico
*Stripes in the 1840s and Border Prints for 1850s.
Construction Tips to Keep in Mind
-Make chemise and drawers in linen or cotton. Use minimal trim.
–Corset in a general Victorian shape, moderately boned, or a corded/lightly boned garment just for lifting up and spreading out the bust to a fashionable height.
-Petticoats made with just straight panels of fabric. Keep them smaller in width than the skirt hem circumference. A corded petticoat is the perfect, historically-accurate under-layer for 1840s and early ’50s. Use organdy for stiffer petticoats. Use starch.
-Skirt cut from straight panels too. Front and side panels can be pleated in wide knife pleats angled towards front with center back panels gauged (cartridge pleated). Or cartridge pleat the entire skirt.
-Bodice mounted onto a fitted underlining (flatlined). Boning put into the dart take up or applied in bone casing. Use at least one bone at the center front/center back closure. Add padding straight into the upper bust area of the bodice for a full, smooth look. Finish neckline and waistline edges with piping.
-Save time by pinking strips of fabric for pleated or ruched trim.
The Recommended Sewing Patterns (not all-inclusive):
#102 – Chemise and Drawers
#141 – 1858 Round Cage Crinoline
#241 – 1854 Flounced Skirt
#246 – 1851 Petal Ballgown Skirt
#442 – 1860s Ballgown Bodice
#446 – 1860s Darted Bodice
#454 – 1845 German Day Dresses
#456 – 1856 Gathered Dress
#100 – Ladies’ Victorian Underwear
#114 – Ladies Round Dresses -1840’s-1852
#001 – 1820s-1840s Corded Stay
#002 – Two Early Nineteenth Century Chemises
#700 – 1850-1862 Fashionable Skirt
#701 – 1850-1867 Gathered and Fitted Bodices
#800 – Flounced or Single Skirt
#801 – Fan Front Bodice
#3727 – for late 1850s
#3855 – for mid-to-late 1850s
#9761 – for mid-to-late 1850s
Period Impressions (Google for vendors):
#447 – 1845 Day Dress
#449 – 1853 Fan Front Bodice
#454 – Sheer Summer Dress (late 1850s)
#B3 – 1842-1849 Cottage Bonnet
#B4 – Late 1840s to 1850s Round Cottage Bonnet
#B5 – 1850s Flounced Bonnet
The best of luck with your Dickens’ costume. It’ll look terrific!