The Making of Manon: the 1890's ball gown

When pondering a new project, I always search for that one piece of inspiration to set the creative gears into motion. It can be a pair of shoes with just the right decoration for mimicking on a collar, or a necklace from ages past that would look perfect with a historical replica gown. For Manon, that trinket of musing was this pink and silver butterfly barrette:

Pale, frosted pink with touches of mauve and iridescent rhinestones gave me great ideas for the color scheme of my Belle Époque outfit. Determining whether I would create a walking suit, day dress, or evening/ball gown became the main challenge as I vacillated between contrary designs like a pendulum swinging from a string. Ultimately, a ball gown seemed like a safe choice since I knew that it would be rather simple in construction and wouldn’t limit my comfort or mobility the way a spectacularly broad daytime hat would against the back of a movie theater seat (I have experience in these matters, as surely you can tell). I did, however, sketch a design in the vein of one of Laurent Pelly’s signature looks from the opera:

Manon / Metropolitan Opera

Once the decision was made in favor of the ball gown, I settled on the 1890’s for my gown’s impersonation since La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Age) spans well over 40 years (roughly 1871-1914 by generous standards) with varying fashions in each decade. Now to narrow down the style of the neckline, sleeves, and skirt…

The gowns of the decade were bedecked in fancy laces, expensive jewels, and lavish ornamentation. Most noticeably were the enormous puff sleeves and long evening gloves worn by the ladies.

The decoration of the gores on the skirts was also in vogue.

As for me, I wanted a trademark 1890’s style, which meant a separate, softly pointed bodice and gored fan skirt trailing behind ─ both cut from pale pink crepe back satin and decorated in contrasting rosy mauve corded lace. Making a mock-up was the first order of business. I designed my bodice to have shoulder straps that opened wide onto the chest and a pointed bottom at the front and back, which was characteristic for the time period.

Once the bottom edge was modeled to my satisfaction, I cut along the line and had my new patterns pieces, which were then laid out onto interfaced cotton lining fabric.

Covered Rigilene bones were sewn onto the front princess seams in addition to one bone down the middle of the face side of the lining while other bones were sewn onto the bust portion of the bodice to give it shape and support.

Onto the back !

A minuscule waist was at the forefront of the iconic 1890’s silhouette. While the broad design features of bouffant sleeves and sweeping skirt hems aided in the appearance of a tiny waist, I wanted to be sure that I did my best to achieve the proper look and decided to make a built-in corset in the bodice. The attached lacing panels are shown below. Each panel has two sides: one for the lining (cotton) and the other for the side facing the back (satin).

Next came the skirt…

Doing my best to keep the gown fairly accurate, historically speaking, I made a pattern using measurement instructions given in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashions 2, an invaluable resource for fashion historians and sewing enthusiasts alike. Seam allowances were added and then the paper pattern was pinned to folded layers of crepe back satin (face), lining fabric, and interfacing to save time on the cutting process.

The interfacing was fused to the wrong sides of the face and lining fabrics and set aside for later…

After sewing together all the pieces of the bodice, pressing the seams, and stitching quilt batting onto the bust to cover the exposed bones, it was time for a fitting !

The fitting indicated that the armscyes needed to be cut down slightly since it was jabbing into my underarm area in a most uncomfortable way. (Later on I would cut down the armhole even more since it was still bothersome.)

A portion of the armscye cut down.

Let’s get back to the skirt…

As per Patterns of Fashion 2, the hems of the fancy skirts in the 1890’s were interlined with buckram in order to keep them stiff and stand out and away from the wearer. This was essential in creating the proper figure that I wanted to achieve so I bought 1 yard of heavyweight buckram and cut it into strips based on the equation of the circumference of the skirt divided by the width of the buckram. If I remember correctly, I think I ended up with 8 strips that were 56-57″ long (the width of the buckram) and about 7¼” tall. Sewing the strips together gave me one long strip of stiffener.

The edge closest to the hem was sewn on first. Then to compensate for the decreasing skirt circumference higher up, I made long cuts into the buckram along the top edge (and shorter ones along the bottom) to help bend the stiff mesh into a circular shape.

Below shows how the interlining looks from the inside. There are two lines of stitching for the buckram (top and bottom) and then the pink outer face fabric was turned to the right side and the seam allowance topstitched to the inside.

All was pressed and ready to be pleated at the back. A simple waistband was added to the top, hooks and eyes were sewn to the band, and the skirt was ready for decoration ! Lovely, isn’t she ?

Calculating that it would take over 5 yards of lace trim for the bottom hem of the skirt, I purchased 3 yards of a sequined corded lace with double scalloped borders in the rosy mauve hue that would serve as the accent color, just like in the butterfly hair clip. Of course, the two selvedges of scallops gave me close to 6 yards of trim, which I snipped off and pinned their lengths in place onto the skirt.

Now, just between us, I glued the bottom border of lace onto the skirt with a clear fabric glue. I had no other choice ! If it’s early June, then I’m most likely going to hand sew the lace. But with only a month before the October opera and a bevy of other projects waiting half finished on my ironing board…well… Toss me the bottle of glue ! I did hand sew the rest of the lace, however, including the motifs along the two seams of the front gore, which took 3 hours EACH to complete. Yes, the glue saved me !
The skirt was complete (other than hanger straps, which I added later) and then it was onto the sleeves ─ the massive, puff sleeves.

The Sleeves

Perfecting the fit of a sleeve has always been an elusive task for me. They’re either too tight, too lopsided at the top, or just plain unsightly. Sometimes, I want to give up. Since I didn’t want a failure with my 1890’s ball gown sleeves (they were, after all, consuming almost a yard of fabric each), I counted off the number of squares on a layout in Patterns of Fashion 2 and my sleeve block turned out great with only a few tweaks. Below is my sleeve pattern with markings for the front, back, and shoulder seam. However, in the process of sewing and attaching, these factors were not so important and I ditched the idea of lining up the points with those on the bodice straps. You’ll see why in a minute…

Three layers of the sleeve pattern were cut:

  1. cotton lining
  2. interfaced crepe back satin
  3. crystal organza

After staystitching the edges, strips of horsehair braid were vertically sewn along the wide section of each sleeve at evenly spaced intervals. This provided a structured “oompf” and ensured that the sleeves would not droop. Next came a row of ruffled crinoline to begin building the “fluff” in the sleeve.

And then more rows of crinoline, and more, and more until the sleeve looked like this:

It almost looks like a pink and white lamb ! Baahhh !

Time to join the layers together…

…and gather the tops and bottoms.

And this is where things got tricky. Because it’s infinitely easier to gather and serge at the same time, I opted to use my serger to knock two balls out of the park after striking out with machine gathering ─ no matter how careful I was to not pull too hard on the thread tails, snap ! A thread would break. Frustration set in. Finally, it dawned on me to gather the sleeves on a cord so I went back to the serger and tried this trick. Guided by the red arrows, you will catch a glimpse of the white cotton crochet cord.

Eureka ! It worked ! From there, the sleeves gathered with remarkable ease.

And here’s what the bodice looked like after the sleeves were fitted to the straps. Sparkly, shiny, and fit for a princess, wouldn’t you say ? Time for a fitting !

A disaster: The inner support materials of the sleeves proved to be much too heavy for the wide set shoulder straps and as a result, the bodice became an “off the shoulder” style, which was not my intended look. I tried using lingerie tape under the straps to help them stay in place, but the copious amounts of horsehair and crinoline won out every time. Back to the drawing board…
The seam ripper and I have a very close relationship and it was in action again with this project. I picked apart the sleeve layers, removed half of the horsehair strips, and reduced the number of crinoline ruffles before serging together the layers ─ again. Thankfully, my fear of having droopy sleeves due to a reduction of inner support was unrealized and once reassembled, they still possessed that iconic “poof” with no signs of droop. They remind me of swim floaties worn on the arms of children who are learning to swim.

A fitting was carried out and STILL the straps were falling down, just not as quickly as before. Only one thing could be done to salvage my hopes of keeping the straps on my shoulders and that was to somehow shorten the length of the strap. This was done by pinching together a back portion of each strap and sewing it down by hand. It sufficed, but wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, the corded lace sewn onto the bodice covered any obvious imperfections.

Pinched portion of back shoulder strap sewn down by hand stitches

Completing the look was the beautiful rosy mauve lace I bought online from a Los Angeles fabric store. Snipping out varied motifs was necessary, but tedious at times, and don’t get me started on how much of a brain buster it was to match mirrored pieces ! I think I scrutinized each scroll of the lace pattern until I couldn’t see straight ! But, the devil is in the details and it paid off in the final outcome.

C’est très chic, n’est-ce pas ?

With the final touch of the butterfly clip ─ the source of my inspiration ─ perched atop my updo, I felt like I had stepped back in time to the grand days of Paris in the 1890’s. The dress gave me fits during construction, but not at the opera ! It was a dream to wear. Now, if only I had a Chevalier des Grieux on my arm and a fancy ball to attend…

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

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