Wednesday, January 2, 2013

1840s Day Dress

Laughing Moon 114 1840s Fan Front
Please ignore the terrible background in these pictures...

I made this dress in November 2012 to wear to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. The outfit I had worn for two previous years was mid-1860s, which is a little late for the time period established for the Fair (1842-1863). This year I wanted something earlier, something more typically Dickensian. I've never been a huge fan of the 1840s, but I like the 1850s even less, so 1840s seemed the lesser of two evils. To my surprise, the more I researched the time period, the more I got into the Gothic aesthetic.

The Inspiration

The recent movie version of Jane Eyre really helped me warm up to the 1840s styles. Those sharp, tailored bodices balance nicely against the soft femininity of the rounded bell skirts, and the somewhat austere outlines of the dresses are softened by delicate details in the trimming and hairstyles. My two inspiration dresses from the movie:

See how her dress is fairly short -- a carryover from the Romantic 1830s. 

This is the dress that made me fall in love with this time period. Everything is so tidy and neat, yet still soft and feminine. 

Now that I had an idea of the general look that appealed to me, I spent more time looking at fashion plates and photographs from the period, and of course, as many original dresses as I could find. I quickly learned that the mid-1840s was the heyday of the fan front bodice. The fanning v-shaped folds of this style are created by adding extra width in the bodice front that then is controlled at the waist and shoulder seams with pleats and/or gathers. You'll see this style in the second Jane Eyre picture above, and in the following period images:

Here's a fan front in plaid, 

and one in a solid color, 

and a plaid one from a fashion plate dated 1844. 

 This dress from Augusta Auctions is a great example of a real fan front from the period. Although fan fronts are not very well-represented in museum collections or fashion magazines of the period, they are incredibly commonplace in photographs of real people. My goal for this costume was to make a basic and typical dress of the period, something that wouldn't stand out as elaborate or high-falutin', so the fan front seemed perfect. 

Pattern and Fabric

Luckily for me, they are several well-regarded fan front patterns available (Truly Victorian 454, Past Patterns 801, and Laughing Moon 114 were the ones I found). After much consideration, I chose the Laughing Moon pattern because the particular details of its construction best suited the vision that was taking shape in my head. 

I had decided that the dress needed to be wool in a dark color. Anyone who has spent any time at all at the Dickens Fair will understand why this was important. The Cow Palace is filthy, and my pretty silk dress from last year had an unfortunate run-in with a glass of mulled wine. This year, I wanted a dress that would hold up to a few years of abuse and dirt, and would disguise any potential stains. After much hunting, I decided on a lovely lightweight worsted wool in a dark greyish brown, purchased at Britex Fabrics. I lined the bodice with a sturdy (read: cheap) linen from Joann's, which I also used for a nice deep hem facing. I bound the hem edge with a black worsted wool tape, again to improve durability. 

This was my first time working with a Laughing Moon pattern, and I was very pleased with it overall. It fit very well, with only a few modifications. I made three main fitting changes to the bodice:

  • I cut a larger size to accommodate my large bust region, but it was a little loose in the ribcage and waist. I adjusted this by pinching out excess fabric in the side seams.
  • I had to shorten the bodice length by an inch or so, but this is a normal pattern adjustment for me since I'm rather short-waisted. 
  • I raised the armscyes by an inch or two. As drafted, they hit me much too far off the shoulder. Combined with the extra folds of fabric across the chest, they made me look like a line-backer. I'm not sure if this was because I cut a slightly larger size, or if the pattern was drafted for someone with much broader shoulders than me. Whatever the cause, it was an easy problem to fix. Even after raising them, the armscyes still hit me well below my shoulder point. 

Laughing Moon 114 back view
The back view shows how nicely the bodice fits -- I probably could have taken off another half-inch of length from the back to smooth out those wrinkles, but I think it looks pretty good as it is. 

Once the fit was where I wanted it, I realized the fan needed some adjusting. I shifted the shoulder seam gathers a little bit closer to the shoulder point to accentuate the V-shape, and then added about ten more rows of shirring stitches at the center front than the pattern called for. These changes helped minimize the bulky look of all that excess fabric. 

Here's a closeup of the fan:

This picture also shows the skirt gauging at the waist. This was the first time I've gauged around a curved waistline -- it took some math and careful measuring, but it made for a very satisfying result. 

I changed the sleeves considerably. As drafted, they had a lot of extra fullness which looked a little frumpy with the extra fullness in the bodice. The sleeves were cut on the bias, which meant they could be a lot more snug and still have enough give for comfort. I took them in quite a bit, changing the shape as I went. They're still not as tight as some dresses I've seen, but they are much more balanced and flattering. 

The skirt was three panels (probably a little wider than strictly necessary for this period), with a nice deep pocket set into a side seam. 


The collar and cuffs are made from some antique whitework edging, and the the brooch is an antique cameo that belonged to my grandmother. 

Laughing Moon 114 closeup
You can see how low the armscye is even after I removed 1-2 inches. 

The shoes are a lucky thrift store find: black, square-toed, lace-up ankle boots that look historically accurate enough to fool some very trained eyes at the fair. No, they're not expensive hand-crafted reproduction boots, they're just some small-footed man's shoe from the 1990s.  

1840s Dress Front View
The brand name is "Bootalino's".  I kid you not.

To brighten up this somber, dull dress, I made a garish and frilly bonnet with the Louisa Ann pattern from Timely Tresses. This is the second pattern of theirs that I have made, and I can't say enough good things about the comoany. Their patterns are well-researched and well-drafted, and the instructions are very helpful. 
This bonnet is possibly one of my favorite things I've ever made. It is covered in a dark seafoam green silk faille (also from Britex), and trimmed with a delicious vintage ribbon from Hyman Hendler in NY, some paper flowers and velvet leaves from my stash, brown silk taffeta ties, and a few jaunty pheasant feathers. 

Timely Tresses Louisa Ann Bonnet
How's that for a color pop?

Timely Tresses Louisa Ann Bonnet Side View
A better shot of the trimming. 

I finished off the outfit with a grey/brown plaid shawl (another wool from Britex) and some decent-looking leather gloves from Macy's. 

The completed ensemble! 


I should say a word about the underpinnings. I will likely write a more detailed post about them later, since they were an odyssey of their own, but here's a brief run-down. 

The corset is a heavily modified version of Simplicity 9769, which I made last year and wear for all of my mid-19th century costumes. It doesn't fit as well as I would like, and probably needs replacing. 

It is worn over a chemise that I hand-sewed from instructions in The Workwoman's Guide (I will definitely post more info about this -- one of my other favorite things I've ever made). 

Part of the reason I chose to make an 1840s dress was to avoid having to wear hoops at fair. I know most people do, but I can't stand it. The shops are too small, the crowds are too large, the opportunities for knocking over expensive or stain-producing items are too frequent. This year I wanted to have a smaller and more compressible footprint, so I went with several heavily starched petticoats. There is a short and smallish modesty petticoat, a larger heavily corded petticoat, and two outer petticoats with tucks and deep hems. The petticoats were all sewn by hand. Underneath them all is a small bum pad to give the back waist a little more oomph. All those layers, plus the gauged wool skirt, provided ample poof that made it hard to miss my hoops. 

Update 03/06/13: I finally photographed and wrote a blog post about the underpinnings for this dress.

Look at that shirring!
Looks pretty good to me!

The dress wore very well, twirled beautifully on the dance floor, and was admired by several people with taste and knowledge of the period. So all in all, I consider this costume a success. Now to see how many years I can wear it to the Fair!


  1. Oooh that smocking is exquisite! I really love how this dress turned out. I wish I could have seen it in person at the Dickens Fair!

  2. Wow... that's crazy-cool!! I'm looking forward to following your blog!! Mother's must be pleased, it is a known fact. - Laura, of the clan of Mike & a (obsessive) book blogger. :-)

  3. I love this dress! It's just what I want to make for myself :)

  4. Absolutely gorgeous!!! I'm planing on making a fan-front bodice for a late 1840's, early 1850's impression and you have inspired me!! Well done!!!

  5. I think the lady in the photo wearing the fan front plaid...she's holding a flutina...its and instrument distantly related to one I play. How unusual.

  6. A very accurate study- reference to the girl's own-made house-frocks of 1838, drawn by their friend (until 1839) Landseer illustrates and corroborates your description., James

  7. Perfect impression head to toe. Thanks for sharing