In May 2021, one of my most loyal clients and a sewing enthusiast, Kim, who lives in Los Angeles, California, asked me to make the dress of her dreams. She wanted a reproduction of an existing 1830s romantic dress held in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I was thrilled when Kim approached me with this special project. It would force me to step outside my normal 18th-century focus and tackle new techniques from the pre-Victorian era. Recreating museum pieces allows me to flex my skills and take on exciting new challenges.
Though daunting, I was eager to accept Kim's request. I knew it would expand my skills and knowledge into unfamiliar territory. The pre-Victorian period has distinct differences from the 1770s and 1800s fashions I typically recreate. The bust shape is much more triangular, the sleeves are puffy, and the necklines are flat. This project would push me creatively.
Kim and I have built a great client relationship over several commissioned pieces. Her trust in my work gave me the confidence to take on this 19th century dress. I was honored she approached me for such an important, meaningful project. Though nervous, I felt ready to deliver Kim's dream dress.
After receiving the request from my client Kim for a reproduction of an 1830s romantic dress, I knew I needed to gather images of similar dresses from the era for inspiration and reference. Since this style of dress was slightly out of my normal 18th century wheelhouse, researching period-accurate examples was crucial.
I spent time searching museum collections and fashion history books to find dresses with the key features Kim was looking for - a triangular, corseted bodice, puffy gigot sleeves, and a flat neckline. The Victoria & Albert Museum had some beautiful examples, as did the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I made sure to compile images showing both fashion plates and extant garments, to understand both the idealized and realistic silhouettes.
Seeing the consistent style elements across multiple examples helped crystallize what made 1830s romantic fashion distinct from earlier decades. The exaggerated sleeves, pleated skirts, and bold floral prints created a youthful, romantic look that was quintessentially early Victorian. While still drawing on 18th century style lines, these dresses had a softness and dreaminess that looked towards a new era.
My inspiration images not only provided design details, but also revealed the lush fabrics and ornate trims used for these delicate gowns. I felt confident that between the images and my knowledge of historical construction, I could recreate the romantic essence Kim was looking for in her custom dress. The research phase is always my favorite part of a project, sparking ideas and possibilities before the hard work of sewing even begins!
Choosing a Pattern
After spending time gathering images of romantic dresses from the era, it was time to find the right pattern that would match the original dress design. The main priority was finding a bodice that closely matched the chest and back contours, with the option for a bateau neckline.
I browsed through several historical pattern stores, comparing their offerings to the inspiration images I had gathered. Ultimately, I decided on the TV455 pattern from Truly Victorian. This pattern provides the perfect bodice shape I was looking for, with the bateau neckline and proper bodice shaping. It also offers two different sleeve options - a gigot sleeve for day dresses and a beret sleeve more suited to evening. While neither was exactly what I wanted, I knew I could draft my own sleeve pattern to match the inspiration.
The TV455 pattern from Truly Victorian Store allowed me to print it out right after purchasing, making it very convenient. With the ideal bodice shape secured, I could move forward confidently with the rest of the dress construction. Choosing the right foundation pattern was a crucial first step in bringing my client's dream dress to life.
Selecting the Fabric
Once the 1830s gigot sleeve pattern was chosen from Truly Victorian, my client Kim and I searched for a suitable fabric that would match the tones of the original museum garment. We needed a beige background with red floral motifs, preferably cotton to keep costs down. After much hunting, I found the perfect 8 yards of floral chintz cotton from Historical Fabric Store. The print had stylized roses and leaves on an ecru background, beautifully evocative of the romantic era. With 4 yards allocated to the full skirt alone, there would be plenty of fabric for this project. Chintz cotton offered an authentic look and hand, without the expense of silk. Ordering the material was exciting, as I could envision how the painterly red roses would ensemble into our pre-Victorian dream dress.
Constructing the Sleeves
The sleeves were the main challenge for this dress. The beret sleeve pattern from Truly Victorian provided a good base shape, but needed to be modified to match the voluminous gigot sleeves of the original dress.
I started by sewing the beret sleeve pattern as instructed. This created the fitted sleeve shape.
Next, I gathered long strips of the cotton fabric, each about 30 cm wide. I gathered one strip at the top and bottom and sewed these to the fitted sleeve piece to create volume.
To taper the sleeve shape, I added rings of interfacing at the top and bottom of the sleeve. The gathered fabric was sandwiched between the interfacing rings.
This process of fitting the beret sleeve, adding gathered strips, and shaping with rings allowed me to recreate the unique romantic gigot shape of the original 1830s dress in a structurally sound way.
Assembling the Dress
Once I had all the pieces ready - the bodice, sleeves, skirt, and lining - it was time to assemble them into the complete dress.
The first step was constructing the fully lined bodice. I sewed the outer fabric and lining pieces together at the shoulder seams using a french seam. This encloses the raw edges inside the seam for a clean finish. I then attached the outer fabric to the lining along the neckline and center front, turning it right side out through the opening left in the side seam. After pressing, the bodice was ready to attach the skirt.
For the skirt, I cut a single rectangle of fabric 4 yards long. I gathered the top edge by machine or hand and stitched it to the bottom of the lined bodice. With the fullness of the gathers, the skirt takes on the distinct romantic silhouette.
Once the skirt was attached, I sewed the sleeves into the armholes using a combo of machine and hand stitching. Finally, I slip stitched the side seam and arm openings closed. Hooks and bars were added at center front to allow for wearing over undergarments.
After many hours of work, the romantic gown was complete! It was so satisfying to see the fabric print and style come together just as envisioned. My client would be thrilled with how her dream dress turned out.
The Finished Product
After many hours of careful sewing and construction, the end result was a stunning historically accurate reproduction of the 1830s romantic dress. While challenging at times, especially creating the unique sleeves, the entire process proved rewarding. Seeing the finished dress for the first time, I knew that all the hard work and dedication to matching the original was worth it.
The floral chintz cotton fabric draped beautifully and captured the essence of 1830s style. The bodice fit my client perfectly, showcasing the triangular bust silhouette of the era. The full gathered skirt billowed elegantly with each movement. The pièce de résistance was the puffed gigot sleeves, echoing styles of the late Romantic period. I felt immense satisfaction seeing the vision brought to life so exquisitely.
My client was overjoyed with how the dress turned out, and rightfully so. It exceeded both our expectations in terms of historical accuracy and wearability as a stunning garment. This project expanded my skills and knowledge into an earlier time period while also creating a breathtaking reproduction dress. I gained valuable experience that I can apply to future pre-Victorian sewing projects. Most importantly, I had the honor of making my client's dream dress a reality.
Taking on this 1830s romantic dress project taught me the value of stepping outside my comfort zone as a historical costumer. My expertise until now has centered around 1770s to early 1800s fashions. While I love that era, exploring new periods expands my skills and knowledge.
The 1830s presented unfamiliar challenges compared to my typical projects. The bodice shape, sleeves, and other details marked a noticeable departure from earlier decades. Yet finding solutions and references to recreate an authentic pre-Victorian look proved highly rewarding. I gained greater insight into how fashion evolved in that transitional time.
Pushing past my early 19th century familiarity brought welcome growth. Adaptability is so important for a costumer. Now I feel more confident about tackling diverse historical styles. The project showed me that with diligent research and patience, I can recreate looks from eras I have not sewn as much for previously. What seemed daunting at first turned into an enriching, horizon-broadening experience.
Stepping outside my comfort zone taught me not to avoid unfamiliar eras. Now I'm newly excited to expand my repertoire beyond my core 1770s-1800s specialization. I'm eager to take on more early Victorian and 1830s commissions. It will strengthen my skills and deepen my knowledge as a historical costumer.
While this romantic dress project took me out of my comfort zone of 1770s and 1800s fashion, I found the experience incredibly rewarding. The 1830s present new and exciting challenges with their fuller skirts, embellished sleeves, and distinctive silhouettes. Though the period differs greatly from those I typically work in, I'm eager to continue expanding my skills into earlier Victorian styles.
After completing Eugénie's stunning ruffled chintz gown, I'm passionate about making more 1830s creations for clients interested in the era. The triangular necklines, puffed sleeves, and lowered waistlines provide such a dramatic yet elegant look. I can't wait to experiment with more patterns and fabrics to capture the lush, romantic essence of early Victorian style. My skills grow with each new commission, and I relish the opportunity to research, plan, and construct dresses from the dynamic 1830s. Expect to see more gorgeous chintz confections and richly hued day dresses as I dive further into this enthralling period of fashion!