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  • Writer's pictureAisha

Halloween Special! Victorian Fancy Dress Ball Costume- Champagne

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

Dear Reader,

As some of you may know, I wrote my dissertation on Victorian Fancy Dress. And no, this doesn't mean wearing a shawl and mob cap in primary school. I'm talking about the Fancy Dress Balls of the era, where wealthy Victorians would gather and dress up in elaborate (and expensive!) costumes.

I adore the concept of dressing up, and period examples of this is even more fascinating to me. They all draw from the same wells of knowledge, from Greek myths to nursery rhymes to romanticised professions, but these costumes are always filtered through current clothing trends. Therefore, there's a very interesting blend of the original influences and modern tastes when we wear costumes.

If you would like to read my dissertation, please drop me a message because I'd love to share it! It's not my best work, but I do find the topic fascinating, so hopefully some of you out there do too.

Anyway, this was a long preamble to get to my latest project. I've been looking for an excuse to make a Victorian Fancy Dress costume for ages, and I thought that the spooky season was a good enough reason! When doing research for my dissertation, I came across a couple of favourites, namely 'Champagne' and I also enjoyed 'The Hornet'. I already had a lot of gold fabric in my stash from previous projects, so I decided to make Champagne this time around. Maybe the Hornet will be next years!

I used Ardern Holt's book 'Fancy dresses described: or, What to wear at fancy balls' as a jumping off point. They wrote several versions of this book over the years, each version getting less and less conservative as the era progressed. Nevertheless, Holt was still very prescriptive in what you were allowed to wear, from blonde to brunette, old to young and he even insists your costume has to match your personality.

"It behoves those who really desire to look well to study what is individually becoming to themselves, and then to bring to bear some little care in the carrying out of the dresses they select, if they wish their costumes to be really a success. There are few occasions when a woman has a better opportunity of showing her charms to advantage than at a Fancy Ball."

Ardern Holt

Holt specifically states a 'bodice of old gold satin', but I had some silk dupion leftover from my Regency pelisse so I'm using that instead. The darts on the photographic example are very interesting and they work well with a Victorian style corset, so I tried to replicate the curved lines in my own bodice.

Draping front.

Draping back.

First fitting!

I found an appropriate Champagne label online, but I decided to replace 'reims' with a date (1795) to give it a more historical feel. I also found some calligraphy scrolls to put around the top of the 'bottle' that I thought would give the costume some more dimension.

I don't normally drape skirts, but I thought I'd make this one from calico first so I could play around with the label placement and also test the shape of the skirt.

Once I had draped everything, I started work on the labels. I bought some gold lame fabric and black fabric paint online and used a very professional setup of some masking tape and a window!

A light box would've been better, but I don't exactly have the money to buy one right now! It was a pretty painstaking process, and my damned shaking hands weren't doing me any favours (I could never be a surgeon), but I'm actually so happy with the results. Despite straying from the lines occasionally and making a few mistakes here and there, the end look is very effective.

For the skirt, Holt specifies a green satin. I had a greenish-gold taffeta in my stash which actually turned out to be perfect for the job! I also attached some velvet along the bottom to simulate the bottom of the bottle.

I made the sleeves out of net to copy the example. I also ordered this online, and despite it being called 'gold', when it arrived it was a sort of orangey-browny colour and had absolutely no shimmer! I may tear it off at some point and replace it, if I can be bothered. I also played around with some net at the neckline. The net on the extant example was a little ugly, so I decided to take a little more inspiration from the photographic example. Instead of simply stretching it across the neckline, however, I pulled it down at the middle to create more of a 'sweetheart' shape, which complimented the neckline I had created.

Once the main body of the dress was assembled, now was the time for a lot of hand stitching! I hand stitched the back fastening (hook and eyes), the labels onto the skirt and I also stitched two layers of ruffles onto the sleeve band to disguise it.

Mini Muddling Through Millinery

This dress requires a mob cap and despite not making too many of these myself, I have seen others make them. A lot. So with that preliminary knowledge, I set about making myself a champagne cork mob cap. I cut a large circle from my silk dupion, bound it in bias tape and pinned cotton tape to the inside.

Black tape probably would've been less obvious, but I only had white to hand. Once I had bound the outside, I stitched the tape to the cap.

(Wow... what a neat circle...)

I had to move the tape around a couple of times to get the right cap size and brim length. I initially wanted a large cap filled with stuffing, but it looked silly with my little head, so I scaled it down to make a dainty little cork hat for my small head.

To finish, I measured some elastic to my head size. It has to be a little tight to stay on your head, but once you've measured it you can cut it off and thread it through the cotton tape using a safety pin and stitch the two ends together using a machine.

I added some spiral bones to the inside of my bodice to give it a proper period shape.

To finish, I bought some thick gold braid and I also bought some gorgeous shoes to wear with it. My sister said they were very witchy, which is very appropriate!

And voila! The finished Victorian Fancy Dress costume, 'Champagne', after the description written by Ardern Holt in 1896.

If you want to see all of the photos I took in my dress you can check out my pinterest. If you want to peruse some examples of Victorian Fancy Dress costumes, the National Portrait Gallery has a lovely collection of photographic examples, or you can check out Ardern Holt's book.

Until next time,

Aisha x

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