Saturday, April 20, 2019

Twice Sewn, Once Worn; or, A Spangled Regency Ballgown

There is a local fabric store that gets leftover bolts from warehouses of designers, upholsterers, and quilters, and thus sells everything at pretty good prices...but you never know what they'll have. This past winter I popped into their larger location on my way home from sewing with a friend to pick up a bit of fleece, and walked out with materials for a new Regency ballgown. It happens.


The lovely purple silk and embellished gold net burned a hole in my sewing stash for weeks while I worked on other things. I'm trying really hard to finish projects before starting the next thing (because I am notoriously bad at going back to the UFO pile), and I wanted to be good. And then I also had another Regency project on the list, and I waffled about which to do first. With some help from my Instagram followers (thank you for responding to my poll and ending the waffles!), I settled on starting the ballgown...and then realized I had just about a month until the ball.

And that actually seemed like enough time! I had a pattern ready to go from my last foray into Regency sewing in 2017. Cutting took no time at all, because the pieces are tiny compared to my recent projects. I was going to make it, no trouble at all. I fantasized about spending a luxurious few weeks appliqueing bits of embellished net onto the dress by hand on the couch. It was going to be glorious.

a closeup of some of the gold net on the bodice, and an appropriately skeptical face because this did not go as planned!
Except it turns out that Regency is still very much my Achilles heel of historical sewing. The geometry just doesn't naturally make sense in my head, and my body is so not shaped like a Roman column that I can't try anything on without stays, which I can't lace up myself...I just struggle with it. But I love Regency dancing so much! I'll never give the period up, so carry on I shall (although keep calm I did not, I will admit).

Not to mention work has been kind of brutal recently, which didn't help. In the end, that's where the name of this post comes from: I am pretty sure there is not a single part of this dress that I did not have to rip out and start again. (Sometimes twice, when I sewed something, looked at it and thought "oh no! that's wrong/upside down/inside out!", ripped it out and did it again...and then realized it had been right the first time. Sigh.)

But there is a happy ending to this! Not only did the dress get finished (with closures!), but it was a lovely reminder that I really have the best friends in the world.

(not everyone is pictured, but I still love this shot!)
Let's rewind a minute. After making out with a wonderful bounty of fabric, I decided I wanted to applique the net onto the silk as faux embroidery rather than using it as an outer layer of dress. I had a few extant dresses in mind as inspiration:
Creeeo que esto será de 1815-1820 bc no tiene mangas anchas pero ya es más corto, vestido de fiesta
beaded and spangled silk evening dress, Italy

Dress worn to the wedding of Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie-Louise, 1810 France, Musée d’Eckmühl
court dress worn to the wedding of Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie-Louise, 1810

Gold embroidery on a court dress and train | Kent State University Museum
moire silk and gold evening dress, 1815
And then I found this dress:

Dress worn by Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, 1817 England
evening dress belonging to Princess Charlotte, 1817 (via In Royal Fashion by Kay Staniland)

I loved the jumper-y look of it, and the embroidery layout emphasizing the bottom of the skirt. At the time I only had the one image above to go on, and I decided that it was reasonable to make a sheer underdress and a sleeveless silk overdress rather than sewing sheer sleeves, hem ruffle, and neck ruffle directly to the silk. I thought it would be good to have the cotton bits be easy to wash, and it made sense to me historically to layer that way. While more detail images I've found for this dress lead me to think that's not what's going on here, I still stand by the approach as potentially historical, and it's definitely easier for me given how much I sweat in this dress the first time I wore it!

I started with the same darted bodice pattern I used on my 1817 ball dress, but finished the sleeve straps rather than attaching sleeves and bound the underarms with silk to finish them. For the underdress I traced the outline of my chemise onto sheer cotton left over from my mameluke-sleeved day dress. My initial plan was to put a drawstring at the neck and bust, but with the time I had I ended up only putting in the neck drawstring. You couldn't see the rest anyways, so it was ok!

Then, once both dresses were finished but plain, I started carefully cutting up the embellished net and pinning it in place on the silk overdress. I had initially planned to use the border on the hem and the medallions on the bodice and up the front of the skirt...but I discovered I liked the scale of the border much better for the bodice. So I ended up piecing bits of the floral embroidery to form the neckline and top of the back, and using two of the pointy bits from the border as the main back pieces.


I got it all placed the night before I left for our annual Regency Weekend, and planned to sew it down when I could. And that's where the friends come in...because I was exhausted, and stressed, and shouldn't have been trying to pull sewing all-nighters. But while we gossiped after the ball on Saturday night, a friend worked on pinning the hem while I sewed down all the trim on the bodice. And then on Sunday morning before breakfast, I worked on stitching the hem while another friend sewed closures onto the now-trimmed bodice. And then at tea on Sunday another friend and I both worked on stitching the last bit of hem. So I got to wear the dress to the ball, and I still got to sleep!

stitching the hem at tea (photo courtesy of Bonnie Britz)

sewing is always better with friends! (photo courtesy of Bonnie Britz)

And then of course, another friend took photos of the finished article while I wore it :)


evidence that I did in fact dance!


I'm immensely pleased with the overdress. The beaded and spangled embroidery on the net shimmers in the ballroom, and the weight it adds to the hem feels so satisfying when I dance. I'm already looking forward to wearing it next year with a lot more trim (which I'm enjoying sewing on leisurely this week!), and an improved, ruffled underdress.

I also wore new earrings by Dames a la Mode--I was super excited, because often large period-looking earrings are pretty heavy, and I can't dance in them without the weight hurting my ears. But these were so light I did fine! It definitely helped complete the look to bring the bling all the way to my head.


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