1880s French Ball Gown Challenge

1879 Berthe MorisotI love a challenge, especially when it combines beautiful fabrics and Impressionist paintings!  For a Time Travelers’ Ball in October 2010 my daughter Suzannah and I selected this 1879 Berthe Morisot image of a young woman waiting for a dance partner (right).  We loved the soft color against her pale skin and the luscious froth of silk flowers along the neckline.  I already had a lightweight, shell pink silk taffeta fabric that captured the delicacy of the original.

We wanted the entire dress to be authentic for the time period, but the inspiration painting didn’t show us the skirt.  So we turned to another French Impressionist, Auguste Renoir (below left), for a back view of a pale ball gown, painted in 1883.

RenoirThis painting showed us an overskirt, short and pleated in the front and long in back, draped over a long, slim skirt with a slight train.  I then found another image, a cartoon from 1883 (below right), which gave a clear illustration of a similar ball gown.  This drawing helped me to see the fit and length of the bodice, as well as more detail in the skirt.

1883 cartoonI used an 1880s Ball Gown pattern, #711 from Rocking Horse Farms, as my starting point.  However, their bodice was shorter than what I wanted, and the neckline didn’t have the graceful off-the-shoulder line or tiny puffed sleeves that we were trying to copy.  I cut out the white cotton lining first, adding the length and fullness at the bottom to cover the hips. I basted the lining together and fitted it on Suzannah over her late 19th century corset.  After much pinching and pinning, we had the shape I needed for the final bodice.  I then trimmed the seams and removed the basting stitches so I could use the lining as my pattern for the fashion fabric.

Jason & Suzannah at Time Travelers Ball 2010I drafted and cut the skirt without a pattern; I have made so many late 19th century skirts by now that I know the shapes by heart!  Again, I cut out the lining first and checked to be sure it was the correct shape and length before I cut into my silk.  I created a hem facing of organdy about 10” wide and sewed it to the lining fabric before assembling the skirt pieces.  I used the lining as an inter-lining, meaning that I layered it with the fashion fabric and sewed through all the layers at once.  I finished the hem with a bias strip of shell pink wool as a hem saver.  Then I trimmed the skirt with a pleated silk flounce.

The overskirt was made of two sections, a shorter front pleated to the mid-thigh length and a very long piece in the back.  The back section was tightly pleated to fit into a tiny section of the waistband.  Then, with the overskirt on a mannequin I played with the draping that gives an 1880s bustle its distinctive look.  Once I knew where I wanted the drapery to lie, I attached cotton twill tapes inside the overskirt back.  When these are pulled up and tied to the waistband tapes, the skirt hangs in puffs.  If we ever need to iron the overskirt, we can untie them to regain the flat length of fabric.

Suzannah as MorisotOnce I had finished the bodice, I turned it over to Suzannah for embellishment.  She used off-white silk organdy, pale sage green silk dupioni, and some of the pale pink fashion fabric to create large, lush three dimensional roses.  We sewed these onto the bodice front by hand, following the pattern on the original design.

Suzannah wore the gown at the ball, and she looked fabulous! She and Jason are shown in the image above left.

A few days later she graciously modeled it for me again, this time in the pose from the 1879 painting (right).  It was a thrill to recreate the image in the dress, the model, and even the flower arrangement!

Since the Time Travelers’ Ball, I have had a chance to make this style again, this time for a customer in Northern California.  This time, I used off white silk taffeta and a slightly different arrangement of flowers on the bodice.  Again, it was a thrill to see the finished gown!

We can custom-make many other beautiful styles for you. Please contact us with your ideas!

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