I just love the Victorians. I love their innovative technology, their infant-stage science, their burgeoning middle class, their emerging social conscience, and perhaps most of all, I love their clothes.
Bustles! Lace! Peplums! Fringe! Hat pins! Leg o’mutton sleeves! Bonnets! Layers of coordinating fabric in lush velvets, shimmery brocades, and silks all in the same dress with a gazillion buttons down the front or back! I am breathless and dizzy with the sartorial possibilities. Such dresses were beautiful masterpieces of the seamstress’ art. So beautiful, and yet so restricting, because to support the weight of a dress like that you’re wearing a corset, a steel cage, a horsehair bustle and probably two petticoats. No wonder women fainted. I would too, if I had to put all that on first thing in the morning. Can you imagine trying to do anything wearing that?
Fortunately for us, the steampunk movement has arrived! Now we can freely incorporate the luxuries of Victoriana into our everyday lives and it’s considered cool. Not since before World War I has the world seen so many top hats and corsets. So I decided to embrace steampunk for my costume this Halloween. Unfortunately, a couple of image searches generated women’s costumes that all looked like this:
b) Top Hat
c) Short skirt with ruffles
d) Corset worn over chemise
I find it somewhat maddening that for such a creative style where one can access the entirety of the fashion history from 1830-1902, there is a staggering amount of homogeneity. I mean, you’ve got about 70 years of sleeves, silhouettes, and hats to play with, why make your costume like everyone else’s? Believe me, every decade of the Victorian era was different in terms of dress. In the 1830s you start with huge sleeves and a gathered skirt, but by the 1860s the sleeves are tiny and tight and the skirt is enormous and by the 1890s the sleeves are poufy again and the skirt is narrowing down to the hip hugging flared gores that begin the next century.
These lovely ladies below are courtesy of Nineteenth-Century Costume and Fashion, Norris and Curtis, 1998.
In light of this historical bounty, I’ve decided to have a little steampunk sewing challenge for myself! I’m going as a time traveler this Halloween. I plan to borrow heavily from the 1880s-1900s using my awesome costume history resource books to create basic pieces that I jazz up with a few steampunk elements.I chose to use Simplicity #9796 from 1980, Simplicity #2410 from 2010 and McCall’s #M7335 from 2016 for my patterns.
My first goal is not to buy anything for my costume if I can make it. I want to use fabric from my stash and patterns I already have and give them a steampunk makeover. My second goal is to stretch my creativity and my third goal is to force me to cut back on my fabric buying addiction. I confess, I might not be able to do it. The siren song of the perfect fabric is tough to resist, especially when they’re all so pretty!
The second half of my challenge to myself is to make at least half of the costume a wearable part of my everyday wardrobe. I think the blouse and the skirt will work, but not so much the hat or the petticoat. When was the last time you wore a petticoat to do errands? Never? Exactly. Unless you’re a reenactor, in which case, it was probably last week.
I’m opting to use a palette of brown, grey, and metallics. The neutral palette appears to be de rigueur for steampunk, but coincidently, it is also easy to work with when mixing fabrics and patterns.
From my stash, I selected 2 yards of brown shirting with metallic stripes. I have a remnant piece of stretch grey poplin from some pants that I know will make an incredible skirt. I’ve got muslin scraps I can use for a petticoat, plenty of brown lace fabric, and lace. I also have some synthetic fringe I tried to dye brown but it turned grey instead, I’m guessing because the fibers were made of something the poly dye didn’t take to. I have an old eyelet nightgown that I took apart for the fabric that will make a great overskirt. Any fabric scraps leftover can become rosettes, bows, hat trimming or whatever details I think I need. I also bought new curtains at Target, and the packaging had a lovely wide grosgrain ribbon in grey. So I’ll use that, too. It’s recycling!
Note the (vintage 1980s) modern designs featuring Victorian influence: puffy sleeves, lots of buttons, a yoke and dart shaping to create a modified Victorian blouse. I played with two fabrics here, using a brown nonstretch corded lace and my striped shirting. I had a lot of these little filigree metal buttons I had bought but didn’t use for an earlier project because they were too small. The blouse pattern was one of Grandma’s, and she must have made a version for my mom, because she had drawn a new small yoke for it that was just perfect for lace. It was clearly meant to be! When I did the button placket, I turned the stripes sideways as shown on the pattern illustrations and I loved the visual interest it created.
The main skirt was made in a slightly stretchy grey poplin. It features a yoke with 6 panels and optional ruffles. It reminds me of the gored skirts of the 1890s and 1900s. To make it more steampunk, I decided to use a mock felled seam in a contrasting thread on the panels. It’s very much like the seams on a pair of jeans. I’ve been seeing this look on A-line skirts this summer, and I wanted to try it out. I must say, I really like it!
To make the petticoat, I used the same pattern in unbleached muslin. I added the ruffles using the same brown shirting fabric as the blouse to the bottom edge. I had cut up an old eyelet nightgown that was too small and dyed it dark brown. I used the nightie for my first apron, with the ruffle in the photo. I gathered the side seams up to make the nice draping effect. I felt it wasn’t Victorian enough yet, so then I used a leftover rectangle of shirting to make another small apron over it in the front, and applied some fringe. Now that’s more like it!
Then I did the same thing at the back. It was still a bit lackluster, though. I used a few more scraps and created a bustle with a bow at the small of the back and a train.
I didn’t want to alter the main skirt too much because I want to wear it as an everyday item, so I combined my petticoat with the overskirt. This way I can slip the skirt on over the petticoat and pull the overskirt out over the waistband without fussing with a lot of closures.
To finish the skirt, I decorated it with my ribbon and some rosettes from a long piece of selvedge scrap. Pretty! You’d never guess those were leftover packaging materials and scraps, would you?
I also used a hat pattern, and it’s the only one I purchased for the costume because it is intentionally steampunk. I don’t have a lot of hat patterns that would look right, and I wanted to give it a try. Let me tell you, hats are not for wimps! This one has six pieces for the crown, with interfacing, and they need to line up. Attaching the crown to the brim was rough going because I had to keep enlarging the hole to make it work. Somehow the crown was too wide for the brim, probably my error rather than the pattern design. Fortunately, hat trimmings cover a great deal of the crown and conceal my rougher patches. I especially like my striped bias tape I made on the brim.
I made the ornament with the little gears from a tube of watch parts bought at a craft show, and I used a beadwork perforated pin base I had that was lacking a back. I attached the gears and such with thin wire, layering them on top of each other. Then I stitched it in place through a few holes on the back. Nifty!
The feathers are just some peacock feathers I had hanging around that I stitched in place when I attached the decorative holder to the hat band. Yep, I’m the kind of girl who just happens to have peacock feathers. I actually couldn’t find the brown feathers I was going to use, but I think the peacock works very well, don’t you?
I love how this costume turned out! I do believe this is the most complex project I have done to date. I began work in August and finished the costume in mid-October. Keep in mind that I’m not a very fast sewer. For me, two and a half months to finish a four-garment ensemble is lightning fast, pathetic as that sounds! Especially since there was a hat involved. As you know from an earlier post, hats are not really something I’m good with. In spite of my lack of millinery talent, I think it looks pretty good. I’ve gotten several compliments so far, which is always nice after you’ve worked on something for two and a half months!
So, let’s see how I did with my challenge!
Purchased items: hat pattern, thread, goggles.
Stash items: grosgrain ribbon, eyelet fabric, brown lace fabric, brown shirting, grey poplin, tiny gears, interfacing, filigree buttons, peacock feathers, zipper.
Already owned: boots, knee socks.
Wearable as everyday wardrobe: grey skirt, brown blouse, knee socks, boots.
I give myself an A-. I probably could have modified a hat pattern I had, but the steampunk pattern was sooo much cooler. Overall, a very good project. I have a stylish neutral skirt to wear this fall, and a pretty blouse I could pair with jeans for casual prettiness.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what that antique key in this last photo is all about…it operates the time machine, of course. Let’s take it for a spin, shall we? Where would you like to go? I hear the 1920s were a lot of fun. How about the Renaissance? Or maybe you’d like to see some dinosaurs…? I know I would.