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19th Century Underwear Projects – The Purple Civil War Ensemble

This project is actually a couple years past already but it’s still one of my earlier favourites. Now the Civil War Silhouette is not a style I typically work with but this was a special request from a really great friend of mine and I could not deny it. It was my first, and to the date of this post, only civil war style gown I’ve ever made. I have plans to make more of these for her in the future though, because I thought she just looked amazing.

But since the theme of this month is underwear, let’s talk about what it takes to make this shape.

 

I make a lot of our corsets without the front busk. This might be an anachronism on my part, or maybe just laziness, but I guess I just like the smooth, closed front.

The Chemise and the Corset

Have I harped on enough about wearing a chemise under your corset yet? I made this purple one out of some nice 100% cotton I had laying around the studio. As I’ve mentioned before, using 100% natural fibers is SUPER important if you don’t want to feel like you’re wearing a plastic bag under all those layers. Do yourself a favour, wear a fabric that breathes and doesn’t chafe against your body. It’s a simple garment that makes a huge comfort difference. We used the TV 102 Truly Victorian Chemise pattern. It’s a super simple pattern, but if you don’t want to buy a pattern you can totally mock one up if you have any basic drafting skills. These kinds of pieces can be really plain and utilitarian, or you can go all out on the super fancy styles you see in old fashion magazines.

The corset is also a Truly Victorian Pattern (TV110) and it’s not the only pattern I use, but it’s certainly my favourite one so far for it’s simplicity and ease of use. The sizing has a great range, and there’s no gores or gussets to worry about. Perfect starter pattern for a beginner. I wanted to make this one a tiny bit more special, but I didn’t have a lot of time, so I used a fashion layer of teal green silk over some black coutil for the base and freehand embroidered the front of the silk with some cotton embroidery thread that I had laying around. 

Remember: DON’T SKIP THE CORSET! If you’re wearing hoops and skirts like these they will kill your hips to try and wear them without something supporting them. Trust me on this. It’s actually MORE comfortable with the corset than without.

 

 

 

THE HOOPS

These hoops were a very different sort of beast from our usual bustles. In some ways they were a pain to make – managing the big, long bands of metal in a confined space was not fun, but in the end it’s a really cool shape to achieve. We got the hoop steel from Farthingales in Ontario and cut it with bolt cutters. They had some handy hoop connectors too that made assembling them a breeze. The fabric banding along the bottom acts like a barrier to stop you from stepping through the bands as you walk! These hoops really have a fantasic bell swing to them when you move, but you need to be careful when you sit down, otherwise the front might tip upwards and lift your skirts right up!

I know the colours are a bit mismatched – but it’s underwear and the grey grosgrain tape I used was on sale for a great price! Everything else came out of stash. 

Another fun bit about these hoops is how easily they collapse flat when you’re not wearing them, making them easier to store under your bed! Overall these took me about a weekend to make the first time, now that I know how they’re done, I’d say I could finish them in a day.

Admittedly, I should have used a lighter cotton for this. Luckily, the model is strong enough that the weight of the heavy petticoat isn’t a problem.

 

THE PETTICOAT

The Petticoat for this civil war shape is dead simple to make. It’s a drawstring waistband and two loooong bands of fabric gathered along the length to create the big puffy shape seen above. I made a poor choice on the fabric choice with this one. It’s cotton, so it breathes, but I should have used a lighter cotton and gone with starching instead of trying to use the density to fluff out the skirts. It makes for a heavy outfit and for the next one I’ll go with a lighter and prettier cotton and use multiple layers and starch to achieve the body. This one is simple, utilitarian and does the job. Without a petticoat (Or two, or six) you risk a limp and lifeless skirt – or worse – you risk the obvious appearance of the hoop bones making your skirts look lumpy.  
Petticoats breath life and grace into your skirts and I highly recommend that you don’t skip them. 

Once again – breathable fabrics like natural fibers are key here for comfort. Petticoats of any shape being made of stuffier fabrics will help make a sauna under your gown.

 

Ready to Dance!

THE SKIRT AND BODICE

The bodice and skirt are made with more Truly Victorian Patterns. The bodice is TV442 – 1860s Ballgown Bodice and the skirt is TV240 – 1860’s Ball Gown Skirt.

At this point, once you have the structural undergarments done the dress itself is really just icing on the cake. I know some out there try to build the shape with the dress itself by stuffing tulle under things or gathering more and more fabric into their creations to try and mimic the shape of the era without all the layers – but honestly, if you’re looking to get it right you can’t really skip out and everything that goes into it. Without the hoops and the petticoats and the corset chances are the gown is going to be ill fitting, uncomfortable, and limp. 

 

Overall the shape is fairly simple and you can make almost all of this stuff at home if you have some moderate sewing skills and a lot of patience. This was our first attempt at the shape and while we can see now where we made mistakes and where we can improve, it’s still one of my favourite dresses to date and I’m looking forward to making a few more.