After a full year of doing on-and-off work on my 1912 gown, I was starting to doubt my ability to get it finished- and now, it’s actually done! Imagine that!
That doesn’t mean the whole project is done. I still have yet to make the petticoat; I wanted to have the circumference of the skirt finalized before making the petticoat for it.
Read on to hear about the research and making of this costume!
The Style and Proportions of 1912 Evening Dresses
Before I got started, I wanted to know some basic things about the colors, fabrics, construction and proportions of dresses between 1909 and 1914 (more specifically in 1912). This is one of those cases where pictures are worth thousands of words, so here are some of my favorite fashion illustrations and photographs from the time period. If you want to see more pictures than seen here, visit my Edwardian Fashion board on Pinterest- particularly the 1909-14 Photographs and 1909-14 Fashion Plates subsections.
From this (relatively small) selection of photos combined with all the other research I did, I observed several things, including and not limited to:
- The skirt is narrow, but loose and slightly gathered; it isn’t tight around the hips the way 1930s dress skirts are.
- The emphasis is not on creating an exaggerated hourglass figure. Instead, it’s about having slender hips and a full bustline.
- Skirts can be draped in a variety of ways- they can have unusual shapes, they can just be plain and cylinder- shaped, or they can have a train.
- The waistline (where the bodice and skirt connect) is a little bit higher than the natural waist, but it isn’t like 1810s dresses where the waistline is REALLY high, right under the bust. Take this as an example- 1910s dresses don’t have quite this high a waistline.
- Necklines are most commonly square or square and V-neck combined.
- Unlike today where everyone wants to have a very high bustline (think like super-padded push-up bras), in the 1910s the undergarments supported a low bustline (more of a natural position for the bust).
- In the early 1900s, corsets produced an exaggerated “S-bend” figure, meaning you lean forward, your chest sticks out in front and your booty sticks out in back. 1910s corsets still had a slight trace of that, but not quite as exaggerated. Dress skirts were slightly concave, curving inwards towards you, in the front while the back was fuller and curving outwards.
I also did some research on colors and fabrics used during this time period. There weren’t any strict rules for colors- only general principles. For example, women in their 40s or older would wear darker, intense jewel tones like emerald green or navy blue, and wear heavier fabrics like brocade. Young, single women would wear lighter colors and lighter fabrics like satin and chiffon. Black was reserved for mourning. It’s also interesting to note the intense colors they had access to in the 1910s. Check out the bright magenta of this 1910s dress! And that’s after 100 years of the fabric potentially fading.
Period-Accurate Construction Methods
For 1910s dresses, some of them look very complicated to make. The beginnings of the art deco/art nouveau era brought a lot of interesting shapes to fashion- leading to dresses that give costumers a headache when we try to analyze them! For example, this dress can be a bit confusing because it’s hard to try and figure our where the pink chiffon is stitched on, where the ivory lace is stitched on…. it all kind of snakes in and out and intertwines.
As it turns out, you only really need to know one important principle in order to draft oddly-draped 1910s dresses: how to use the waistband. In order to achieve that deceptively-simple, flowy look, you need just enough structure and support to make it work. The solution to this is to mount everything on a strong waistband inside- this waistband can be made of something thick like grosgrain ribbon. See the thick ribbon inside this 1912 dress? The idea is to attach everything- the base bodice, skirt and all the flowy chiffon layers- to this sturdy waistband.
Usually the bodices of 1910s dresses had boning, which may sound confusing since you’re already wearing a corset with it. But sometimes 1910s ballgowns needed a bit of extra support to retain their unique shapes.
Once you have that supportive waistband, you can pretty much just play with the fabrics and pin them to the dress in different ways, and that’s how you get dresses that look complicated if you overthink them.
Another trick I found out about that really helps with making Edwardian dresses (or any trained skirts in general) is the concept of turning up the hemline really far. That means when you’re hemming the skirt, you pin up like 2 or 3 inches of excess to the bottom of the skirt instead of trimming it all off. This gives the hem of the skirt weight so that it can hold its shape better, and make trains lay more flat. Check out the bottom edges of the skirts on these dresses.
Do you see how the hem is stitched 3 or 4 inches up from the bottom? How the hem is turned up really far? That’s what I’m describing. I found out that doing that makes a world of difference in helping a skirt hold its shape.
Lastly, here’s an odd little quirk in Edwardian costuming. Check out the back of this 1910s dress.
It has three layers of hooks and eyes or snaps! My antique tea dress that I own is the same way. It’s one layer of cotton voile and one layer of some kind of silk fabric- and there’s a separate closure for each layer. This seems redundant to the modern eye. Wouldn’t it be easier to stitch all the edges together and just sew on one layer of hooks and eyes or snaps? I’m not exactly sure why they do this. Maybe it’s because the layers are supposed to have different tensions (some may be tight while others may be loose), or because the fabrics are all so delicate, it’s safer for them to have one closure per fabric.
~My Concept Sketches~
I believe I may have posted my concept sketches for the ballgown sometime last year, but it’s been such a long time, I’ll post them again.
These were my very very first sketches after spending several hours doing research on Pinterest.
With this first one, I was trying to imitate the sheer layers and odd skirt shapes I saw in some of the extant garments.
The second one was playing with more oddly-shaped skirts, and an interesting sleeve shape.
This third one was based off a couple of 1912 dresses and fashion plates. It’s not actually the final sketch, lol.
This was the official version for a while, with some minor modifications, before I came up with the final design sometime in the spring of last year. This is probably the most historically accurate out of all of them, and the one I ended up using.
Ironically enough, it took me a solid year to get this part of the project done. Not because the dress itself is so terribly complicated to make, but because I worked full time during the summer, and I’m a full time college student during the year. If I worked full time on sewing, it probably would have taken a week or two at most to get it done. I also took on some side projects such as the modern corset and the school fashion show.
In April 2017 I received the silk charmeuse and silk chiffon. The cherry trees at my house were blooming right around that time, so if you follow me on Instagram you saw my photos of the silk with the cherry blossoms!
From there I dyed the charmeuse pink to use as the base layer, and left the chiffon white. I used about a half-and-half blend of tan and light pink Rit dye. It came out just the most exquisite color- a delicate blush pink.
In April of last year, I was in a hurry to get the dress wearable so I could wear it to a Victorian themed spring party my friends were having- so I worked nonstop for a few days after school ended. As a result, I constructed the dress somewhat sloppily.
The top half of the dress came out pretty reasonably. I made it of basic rectangles and added some darts to the front to add shaping to the bust.
Surprisingly, it took a really long time to make that piece because it was lined. Originally I had the front boned with spiral steel, but later took it out because it flattened out the bodice too much, and the bodice was holding its shape pretty well anyway.
The frustrating part was when I realized that the back pieces were way too short and the back of the corset totally showed through. There was no way to fix it, so I had to remake the entire back. That’s sewing…. -_-
For making the skirt, I think I cut the pieces really late one night (like at 1 AM) and I hadn’t put a lot of effort into drafting the pieces beforehand, so I just sort of haphazardly cut it out. Amazingly, I found later that the skirt came out quite perfectly, exactly the way I wanted.
I made a waistband out of the silk and mounted both the bodice and skirt pieces onto it. This was a really helpful technique!
The dress was in pretty poor shape when I wore it to my friend’s Victorian party. This picture was taken after I had taken it apart a little bit, but it almost looked as bad as this!
The rolled hems on the chiffon are uneven and sloppy, the sash has exposed raw edges, all the interior edges are unfinished…. yep.
This reminds me of Cinderella’s pink dress that her stepsisters ripped it apart. And, after the chemise was finished sometime around July 2017, I pretty much had to take it all apart and redo it. The side seams had to be ripped out so I could turn them into French seams, the rolled hems had to be undone so I could redo them in a neater manner, and I had to take off the shoulder pieces and replace them.
I added some finishing touches to the back by making some nice facing around the closure, and a “modesty panel” to cover gaps.
This way, if there are gaps when the hooks and eyes are closed in the back, that facing panel is what shows up underneath. It adds a nice professional touch.
There were also some fitting issues with the pink base layer. Here are the fitting issues I recorded and resolved:
- The neckline was too high and had to be lowered.
- The bodice was too tight all around, so I had to add ease (extra space) to the side seams.
- There was a strange diagonal crease by the back closure when I wore the dress, so I shifted the facing around to even it out.
- The dress kept falling open at the back waist because it was too tight at that particular spot, so I took it in there.
After I completely fixed the base layer, it looked gorgeous!
It is shown here worn over the corset and bust improvers. I was quite pleased with the position of the waistline and the ratio of the skirt to the overall length. It looks like the actual dresses from the time period!
Reattaching all the chiffon was time consuming, but very satisfying.
You can see that the seams and edges are much tinier and neater.
Next, I added the final design elements: beading the bodice (all by hand) and pleating the sleeves.
Yes, I did do embroidery work on this one time while watching Revenge of the Sith, my favorite Star Wars movie!
The last thing to do was to attach the shoulder pieces and hem the sash. If you follow me on Instagram, you probably saw this picture I took for the Edwardian Spring photo challenge- it had one shoulder piece attached at this point.
Here are some more detail shots.
For now, there are no photos of me wearing it because I have to finish the petticoat in order to experience the full ensemble!
My only complaint with the dress is that the back panels came out too short and the interfacing looks ugly. But it’s okay because the beading, the skirt, the sash, and the front of the bodice all came out beautifully.
Making this dress was a literal voyage, and it really taught me a lot about proportions, correcting fitting issues, and seeing a sometimes-unfun project through to the end. Because the satisfying result makes it all worth it.
If you have any questions about making 1910s evening dresses- whether it be historically accurate sewing techniques, where to find research, if you need any of my sources of information, please leave a comment or DM me on Instagram! I’ll be happy to help!
3 thoughts on “Making a 1912 Titanic Era Ballgown”
This is absolutely sumptuous! I love the beading!
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I love your dress and I’d like to have help to make one.
I tried to purchase a pattern.but i don’t understand it.