Lessons from the Past on Making Ballgowns

It occurred to me the other day that we really don’t make ballgowns like we used to. And I’m not talking about my nostalgic feelings of the Edwardian days and earlier, where I think the style was so much more elegant and tasteful than it is today– nope, I’m talking about the raw practicality here. How to make ballgowns easier and more comfortable to wear and avoiding wardrobe malfunctions. Since the ballgown silhouette was extremely common in the 1860s, they developed some good old fashioned techniques on how to make ballgowns easy to wear. I think we would do well to relearn some of these techniques today.

First of all, in the 1860s, a decade of extremely full and heavy skirts, the bodice was always made separate from the skirt. Here’s an example of how this works.

One common complaint about modern ballgowns, especially strapless ones, is that the weight of the skirt pulls down on the bodice, which can obviously lead to VERY embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions! The Victorians had the solution a long time ago, and it’s really simple. Make the bodice and skirt separate. That way the bodice holds itself independently and isn’t pulled down by your skirt. I think they made evening gowns two-piece all the way through the 1900s, and stopped at the 1910s, where evening dresses became so light and narrow that the separate bodice and skirt system was not needed. And thus, the poofy princess ballgown wasn’t really used again much until, like, the 1950s. And then people must have forgotten that it’s a good idea to make the bodice and skirt separate.

Next, a hoop skirt is actually much more comfortable than modern methods used to fluff out ballgown skirts, such as gathering up large volumes of net or tulle.

I can’t attest to this personally because I have not made a hoop skirt, but I have read from a lot of Victorian costumers who have. The argument I’ve seen is that our net and tulle is scratchy, whereas a hoop skirt is not. Gathered net tends to cling to your legs, while a hoop skirt swings freely away from your legs. Plus, a hoop skirt literally gives you a circle of personal space, lol!

Related, the Victorians and Edwardians used separate petticoats to add fluff to their skirts. This is another concept on issues related to the weight of the skirt. Modern ballgowns usually have the outer skirt, gathered net, and a couple of petticoat-ish layers all attached to the bodice. That makes the whole dress very heavy! Whereas in the 1860s, your bodice, hoop skirt, and petticoats each come on separately. They each carry their own weight.

Finally, the Edwardians in particular added weight to the hem of the skirt to give it a better drape.

This might involve turning the bottom hem edge up about two to four inches, instead of stitching the hem really close to the edge and cutting it all off. Or it might involve adding a heavy trim like what we see in this picture. I tried this technique (turning the bottom edge of my hem up four inches) when making the train of my 1912 evening dress, and I was amazed by the difference it made! The train had not kept its shape very well as I walked in it before it was hemmed, but after I turned the edge up a lot and basted it, the train laid flat on the ground and kept its shape so nicely. Anyone who makes a drapey or trained skirt should really try this technique.

That’s about it! I have always loved a good ball gown, whether it’s historical or modern or fantastical. And these are just sensible tricks that can really improve the function of a ball gown.

One thought on “Lessons from the Past on Making Ballgowns

  1. Pingback: Analyzing a REAL 1910s Tea Dress!!! | aurorascostuming

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