Victorian Dress

Like all good sewing projects, this one sounded fun at first. It seemed like an innocent enough idea, essentially a skirt; but, like all paths to hell, you start with good intentions.

The plan was to have a victorian themed Christmas. With a PBS fueled mania for all things Downton Abbey; large skirts, lacy focks, and enormous hats which would shame a Derby Day Doll were to be the order of the day. Men would be top hatted and pressed within an inch of their lives. But for my mom, I wanted to make her an authentic victorian skirt myself.

Poor woman, years after grade school, and she still has to walk around with my homemade Christmas presents and show them off as the obligingly proud parent. At least there was no glue and macaroni…yet!

I decided to start with research. What better way to procrastinate than to read? A quick spin around Amazon lead me to:

Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns

59 Authentic Turn-of-the-Century Fashion Patterns

Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques

What I quickly learned was that the Victorians must have had lots of time on their hands…and lots of extra hands too! Being short on spare street urchins to do needle work, not to mention not having a seamstress and lady’s maid; I would need to simplify. I am starting to understand how a single family employed a such a large staff on Downton.

Upon seeing the patterns, my mom declared: “No Bustles! No Corsets!” She has a dogged obsession with being able to breath in her clothing. So much for historical accuracy.

The Pieces

I took one of the apron dress patterns and removed the entire bustle section. Essentially my plan was:

  • Two large pieces for the front and back of the skirt: 45” by 48”
  • One long piece for the waist: 22” x 45”
  • Two long pieces for the ties: 45” x 10”
  • and a zipper and pockets

Start in the Middle


First I started with what would become the middle of the dress. I folded the 22” x 45” strip in half, lengthwise, ironing in the crease. I then sewed along the dotted lines, leaving only one side open. Then I turned the whole thing inside out and tucked in the raw edges and top stitched it shut. This left me with a 10.5” by 43” closed strip.

I have not be written out of the will yet, and I don’t intend to be; so, I won’t tell you my mom’s waist size. Suffice it to say that the 43” strip will be plenty long. I folded the strip, length wise, again to give me a roughly 5” x 43′ strip which is four-ply thick. At this point, you could put in interface to make it even stiffer. I was working with a heavy shunting silk, so it already  had plenty of body.

Pockets Rock It!


No proper victorian woman had pockets. The poor dears must have had street urchins to carry their keys, change, and other sundries. My mom is sans-lady’s maid and would need some storage. So I had a front and back that are identical, with pockets sewn in at 2” below the top.

I found this handy guide to sewing in pockets to the side seams. I only sewed up one side though, as I wanted to have the whole 8 yards of the dress as a flat piece of fabric for the next part.

This means that I ended up with two half pockets hanging out on each side and a nicely finished on in the middle.

Pleats Can’t be Beat


My friend Sam, who bested me at quilting, showed me this trick for draping pleats. I marked my belt with the correct waist size and left equal excess on each side. Then with the dress and belt flat, I started experimenting with where I wanted my pleats.

Fro my dress, I wanted the back to have full pleats to give the impression of a bustle. In the front, I wanted the center to be flat with pleats starting small and growing to the 5” pleats in the back.

This allowed for the front pleats to also fold over the side pockets, hiding them.

I ironed in each pleat and then stitched 1”-1.5” vertically down the pleat line from the top. This holds them into their shape. Then I flipped the belt down so that the two wright sides of the dress were facing each other and stitched the belt to the top of the dress. This cover the top inch of the pleats, and gave the top of the skirt a clean even line.

I folded the belt back in half (so it was 5” wide) and hand stitched it into the skirt, being careful so that the needle never went through all the layers, as if your were stitching up a tie. This means that there are no visible stitches in the top of your dress.



I then sewed up the remaining side, putting an invisible zipper and eyelet hook  into the top of the belt.

Finally, I took the two 45” x 10” strips and folded them into 5” wide strips, sewed them up on one side and length wise. Then I turned them inside out to end up with two 5” strips. I took the open side, folder it back inside itself and top stitched them shut.

Then I made mitered corners, and hand stitched then to the belt, just behind the side seams. These become the back-ties, which allowed my mom to make the dress tighter and to give her a bustle like bow.

I did a simple roll hem at the bottom, which allowed me to adjust the length of the dress to my mom, once I got a fitting out of her. This had to be stitched by hand to make it an “invisible” seam. With 8 yards of hem, she helped out.

Beads and Feathers




The dress was sewn, but not finished! I embroidered 47 white peacock feathers swirling down from her hip to the middle of the back. The feathers started tightly clustered and got looser as I went. By the back, there are just a couple and more scattered. Then I hand beaded 235 clear and red crystals into the feathers to make the skirt sparkle…it was for Christmas after all.

She made a matching red ostrich feather hat and was ready to be a holiday hostess from a bygone era. The entire time, she gushed over it just like she did all those other terrible school projects I used to foist upon her. We’ll see if she ever wears it again, or if it ends up in the box with the clothes-pin reindeers and macaroni collages.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I love how much effort you put in. Amazing! I like the way it looks and I imagine that you will always remember the treasure you and your mum made together.

  2. Paula says:

    That’s wonderful! I am now very tempted to try myself. I just love Victorian dresses!

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