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Creating An Embellished Victorian Gown

This entry is the first in a series for building a Steampunk or Victorian costume, but you may, if you wish, use the technique described for any kind of dress, including a wedding gown, bridesmaid gown, or prom dress. It is cute, easy, cheap, and just adds a bit of flare.

Most women have a cache of long formal dresses somewhere in their home: leftover bridesmaid gowns, prom or formal dresses, and even an old wedding dress. This tutorial will teach you how to reinvent them as a part of your steampunk costume. If you do not have a dress, I will teach you how to find one. If you choose to use this technique on a bought dress as a form of embellishment, just follow the instructions and do not proceed to the following blog entries.

Shopping

When looking for the dress, be sure to find something that has a full skirt and a formed bodice. It doesn’t matter if there are sleeves or not. All that matters is that the bodice area fits well and is somehow structured, and that the skirt is full-length, and full enough to poof up with a few petticoats. You’re going to want something that doesn’t have too much detail, and is in a color that you like.

Thrift stores are fantastic for this kind of thing. You can buy a great, full-skirted gown, and have it cleaned, dyed, whatever. A solid color with no beadwork is preferred, but not necessary. You’ll see what I mean as you read on.

My dress was given to me by a young lady who wore it to a prom. It is a Jessica McLintock, in a pale silver. It is fully lined, has a petticoat or “crinoline” built in, and a boned bodice, rather like a corset. This dress was free, which is the best thing ever, but usually, you can find one for less than 25 dollars on eBay or at a thrift store.

Embellishing the dress with lace

What you’ll need:

  • Dress
  • Measuring tape
  • Thread (go with all purpose or silk in a color that matches your lace)
  • needle
  • Scissors
  • Masking tape
  • A length of ribbon or cord long enough to fit around the waist of the dress and tie
  • Lace fabric (yardage will be determined in a moment) in a color that contrasts with the color of the dress. If you are creating the steampunk or Victorian costume, pick a color of lace that will match your bustle or your accessories.
  • An extra length of wide, satin ribbon (not mandatory, but will be inserted into bodice for comfort purposes)
  • Straight pins

Tips:

If you don’t have a mannequin or sewing dummy, this will be very difficult to do, but you can probably manage it if you work with the dress out flat on the floor and work very carefully. If that doesn’t seem like your bag, just have a friend or family member you trust with a needle, work on the dress while you wear it. You can be your own dummy.

Instructions:

  1. Put the dress on your dummy or mannequin
  2. Find the waist seam, which should circle the waist attaching the bodice to the skirt. If your dress does not have a waist seam, but is a smooth fabric, establish the waist by trying it on, and mark the waist with masking tape. This line is crucial in creating the gather or bunched-up rouging of the lace.Image
  3. Measure the seam or marked line (NOT YOUR WAIST) and multiply the measurement by 2.5
  4. This determines how many yards of 60” lace fabric you need to buy. If you’re not making the costume, but are embellishing, say, a prom dress that is shorter than floor length, it’s ok to use a shorter width fabric. Just make sure the fabric is wide enough to span from the top of the dress all the way to the hemline, without a break. This will prevent you from having to hem, piece, or generally frustrate yourself. If using a floor-length gown, find 60” lace fabric. I found mine online at Fabric.com, and got it for 5 dollars a yard.
  5. Find the middle of the length of fabric and pin this to your mannequin’s “center front”. Do not pin it to the dress, but to the mannequin so that the entire dress is covered by the length of lace, smoothly.Image
  6. Wrap each of the two sides around the mannequin and pin them onto the mannequin so that they touch. If you have a dress with a side zipper you must still follow this step. You can cut and stitch the side zipper in later, but you want to have the lace seam where it will not be noticed, and usually, that’s the back. If you have a back zipper, this is ideal for you, and I will teach you how to work the zipper in in the section called “zipper”Image
  7. Next find the center fold of the gapped portion of fabric at each side (where the arms might be) and pin these to the mannequin above the sleeve holes.This should leave you with one pin at center front, one at each shoulder, and two at the back center line. With gaps in between. This is what you want.Image
  8. Tie the length of ribbon or cord around the dress tightly. This will force the lace fabric down flush with the dress and create natural gathers. Image
  9. Go around the dress and shift the folds beneath the ribbon until the gathered fabric appears even and has the desired effect.
  10. Tack down the waist line first! Using needle and thread, go around the waist, following your predetermined waist seam line, tacking down the lace.

Tips:

Remember to quadruple your thread as if sewing a button. To do this, feed the center of a length of thread through the eye of the needle instead of just one side. This way there are four tails of thread, not just two.

To stitch this is easy, especially if your thread matches the lace and not the fabric of the dress. Just anchor the thread from beneath the dress, by sticking your hand up under and sewing from the inside to the outside. Capture a bit of lace, then stitch downward into the dress, then back out, capture another fold of lace, and go back through. This will create the perfect gather.

If you want to create a side gather, or mold the lace to gather in a non-vertical way, you can do this by following all the above steps, then adding this one: once you’ve arranged the gathers beneath the ribbon, unpin all the tack-points on your mannequin and shift the fabric a few inches right, left, twist, whatever you like. This will create a molded bodice, but give you a great, straight skirt.

11. Once the waist seam is stitched, anchor the top along the upper edge of the bodice. This will create something like a ruffle at the top edge. You can leave it, if you find it cute, or you can proceed to the next couple of steps.

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12. Once the waist and bodice edge are both tacked down, you may remove the ribbon or cord around the dress. This should give you the finished product.

Image

13. Remove the dress from the mannequin.

14. Fold the ruffle at the top of the dress over to the inside of the bodice and tack it down.

15. At this point you may tack the satin ribbon down over the lace, so that you don’t get chafed or scratched by the lace.

Image

16. Stitch the two ends of the lace together only up to the zipper. (if you have a side zipper, go ahead and stitch all the way up the lace and tack it down at the top of the bodice)Image

Zipper

  1. At this point, all of your dress should be completed except for the zipper area.
  2. If you have a back zipper, a natural gap should already exist, such that the two edges od the lace line up with the two sides of the zipper. If you have a side zipper, very carefully cut into the lace so that there is a smooth cut right over the zipper, for th full length of the zipper.
  3. Fold or roll the edges inward slightly (I folded my edges in at step 6 above, so that I would not have any rough edges on the finished product)Image
  4. Carefully, working from inside the zipper, to the outside, tack the edge down so that no portion of it interferes with the zipper mechanism.

At this point, your dress should be complete, and embalished with whatever lace you chose. You can now wear it with a belt, a corset, or even a bustle. Further lace applique, beadwork, or embelishment can be done, at the top edge of the bodice, the waistline, or wherever you like. My gown was made for the costume, and so it will be worn beneath a bustle and corset.

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2 comments on “Creating An Embellished Victorian Gown

    • When I post the accessories post and the hat post, a lot of that will apply to you. You can also build a hat. Men’s costumes are much easier, as historically accurate pieces can be easily sourced in modern day shops

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