Making a Mid Victorian Ball Gown

In the previous tutorial we dealt with undergarments (drawers, chemise and a petticoat), and the crinoline cage is explained here). So, it is now time to tackle the gown itself! Again, since this series is mostly dedicated to the guests of … Continue reading

Bath Victorian Ball 2015 – and what a ball it was!


 Amazing memories from the evening – and not only evening, the whole weekend was  a whirl of activities, pretty frocks and splendid food, all in even more splendid company!

 We started on Saturday afternoon arriving in Bath a tad later than expected ( the traffic on the slip road was very bad and many of us were stuck there – in fact, so many that we were considering a picnic on the roadside….), but unpacked, changed and  walked over to the Crescent for  a few relaxing hours of picnicking…. The weather was perfect, food lovely, and  as a perk we got to witness the balloon take off…. and  of course we took photos….


lovely original napkins were used..

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I wore my reversible Ripple Jacket and Ripple skirt:-) perfect for the picnic!

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 The next day saw us making last minute preparations, strolling around the town and slowly getting ready,,,

 The workshop started at 3 –  and we  practiced our quadrilles, lancers and waltzes for good 90 minutes – the practice was fun, but also cane in handy at the ball –  you not only know the basics of the dances, but you recognize the people, so you are able to relax in a more familiar environment.  our Dance master, Stuart Marsden,  kindly provided Carnet de Ball tickets – beautifully made, and very practical – at the end of the practice people were   making arrangements which dances they were to dance with who – really cuts on the chaos on finding a partner in the evening!

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 We will be using them next year as well, an excellent idea!.

 After the practice there was time to go and have a cuppa and a rest ( and for us organizers to get the photographers, musicians etc set up and ready), and then time to change into the evening’s finery….


Steaming my frock. Alas, I didn’t manage to get a new gown sorted due to an avalanche of orders, so had to make do with my old on – more on its creation here

Then it was time! The doors opened at & and the  guests started to arrive, dazzling us with their lovely creations. Drinks, chatting and photos made for a relaxed atmosphere – and since almost all the ball participants had been at the practice, people relaxed and chatted with their old and new dance partners. Traditionally, we started with a polonaise… It was a bit crowded, once all the people filled the  Grand Ballroom, but  Stuart managed to direct the dance nicely ! 150524-iz-001 150524-iz-003   And from then on, it was all dancing….. Spanish waltz was great to  get everybody  relaxed as you change partners a lot and get to know people, and then it was the amazing Lancers,  Quadrilles and Waltzes galore…. My personal favourite was the Cotillion waltz – simple, yet amazingly romantic, danced the the sweet notes of the waltz from the Merry Widow. Dimmed lights, romantic music, swaying on the dance floor in flowing silky gown – breathtaking.   10403574_10205243045328810_8612198867552845143_n 10641181_964655256900145_6214035122686672646_n 10404446_964657950233209_4098195498982672898_n 11329879_964655373566800_1271788064380533355_n 11350509_964655706900100_8438738575796585017_n 11351265_10205243045928825_6327791906229480019_n   150524-iz-014   11329879_964655373566800_1271788064380533355_n The  buffet break arrived  just in time to rest our weary feet and  get some sustenance for more dancing. And food, provided by Searcy’s was glorious –  beautifully presented, abundant ( and there was lots left!) and yummy – I must admit loved the desserts particularly… Then more dancing followed –  with a few  spontaneous waltzing breaks when folks just kicked their shoes off and took to whirling Viennese waltz at a moment notice ( our own Sissy here was the main culprit – though quite a lot removed their shoes at that point, myself included…). The evening ended with a Flirtation finale – lots of fun! And all that fun was mostly due to the  utterly amazing musicians – Alexis Bennett and the Liberty Belles, and our talented Dance Master, Stuart Marsden ( yes, the same one who has worked with BBC on Poldark, and many other projects…). The event would not have been the success it was without theses guys – so a huge thank you! musicians 11168031_10155795156300643_4697889363761570401_n   And while all the dancing was taking place, our photographers, Mockford Photography, were busy taking photos…. 10828141_10152878200577592_7286730915004478194_o 150524-iz-018 150524-iz-017 150524-iz-015   And did I not mention that there were some spectacular frocks  and very dashing gentlemen around?


Yes, we had Sissi too…


And a Dark Sissi too…

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oh yes, and, rather surprisingly, a 4 month old baby. That slept ( like a baby) all the way through…

11145192_10152878091267592_8419642355183554815_n     150524-iz-006   11219086_10152878091177592_446625806833074319_n bath-15-0952   Needless to say, by the end of it I could hardly walk ( need better shoes for next year….). but somehow I made it to the hotel, and although exhausted, I was still buzzing with the excitement – the night  was so much better than I had hoped for! there was just enough time to have a mini after party for the staff ( amazing how many people you can squeeze into a single Travelodge bedroom) and then it was time for sleep. IMG_20150525_010756 IMG_20150525_010807 And about 4 hours later we were up again and getting ready for our breakfast at the Pump Rooms….. IMG_20150525_103357 Victorian Ball and Picnic-117 Victorian Ball and Picnic-122 Victorian Ball and Picnic-124 The yummy breakfast ( and live music too!) was followed bu a short wander around town and some photos…. Victorian Ball and Picnic-128 Victorian Ball and Picnic-130 Victorian Ball and Picnic-136   Then it was time to go home and  tend the very sore feet….   Altogether, I must say the event fr surpassed my expectations. Music was delightful, fool glorious, venue splendid and the people – well, let me just say that you were all such a friendly and polite bunch of folks!  Everybody was relaxed and yet on their best behaviour – and that makes such a difference! it was also a good call to go for historical rather than an eclectic affair like the previous one –  since most of the dances were called, the dance floor was always busy, only clearing  up a bit at the end, as the pure exhaustion took over (  it was quite an exercise , especially the few more energetic dances…).  So thank you all, staff and guests alike for making it such a wonderful occasion! Also, many thanks to all the people who sent their photos:-)   And, guess what – we are having another Ball next year! The venue and caterers have already been booked and the tickets are on sale ( early bird  prices valid till September), so put the date in your diary – 7th May. We have the same set of musicians and Stuart booked too – and next year  we have an optional  dress sub theme – Crinoline.  We are already working on different offers  for the ticket holders ( discounted rates from dressmakers and product suppliers, or, for those who make stuff themselves, special offers on corset, crinoline and Victorian patterns and kits from one of our providers too). You can follow the news  on the facebook pages:

The event per se – Victorian Ball 2016

Page : Prior Attire Victorian Ball 

 Tickets and more info here  – Victorian ball tickets

 and the previous ball  Spectacular!


Looking the Part 1: Undergarments


 OK, so I have been in the business for a while.  I have been re-enacting even longer –  my first gig was in 1997 if I remember well, and I got into costume making almost straight away. True, I was lucky – my first contact with historical interpretation was  guys from Past Pleasures, and after spending a summer travelling with them, observing knights at work at the Tower of London, or strolling alongside 18th century clad characters during the Pantiles festival at Tunbridge Wells, you do learn a bit.  When the summer ended and I returned  to Poland where I lived at the time, I joined a historical fencing group. When told that for Christmas party I need to have a medieval gown, I had at least some vague idea where to look for sources ( well before the internet era!) and  came up with a dress. It was awful – cotton velvet, lacing at the back, no overgown –  but it was a sensation, mostly because I wore proper headwear- veil, fillet, barbette and wimple.  Every girl wanted it –  and so my adventure with costuming started.   Over the years I studied, researched, learnt ( mostly on mistakes, mostly my own) and learnt more and more, gradually expanding  my range. Now,years later, I have been running my professional costuming and interpretation business for a few good years, turning a hobby and passion into a profession.


some of my very first outfits… yeah, I know, pretty amusing ( rather horrifyingly so), but we all started somewhere…

 One thing I have learnt over the last 15 years or so is the fact that no matter how perfect the frock, kirtle, habit etc is,  the whole image can be badly marred by  just a few, seemingly secondary factors- namely hairstyle and make up; lack or inappropriate foundation garments;  badly chosen shoes and accessories.  In this post I will discuss the undergarments issues, subsequent posts will deal with the other two.

 Obviously  one has to consider the issue of purpose as well – some people  are professional re-enactors, working for museums, stately homes, castles etc.  For some it is a hobby they indulge in at the weekends; some of you simply like a good dress up party a couple of times a year.  some of you are able to afford original items or best fabrics, some of you are on a very narrow budget – but if in your historical costuming you aim to produce a period correct silhouette, this article is for you.

  There is nothing sadder than  seeing a lovingly stitched dress  hanging shapelessly on the body, worn without  period correct support garments – Victorian bodices worn just on a bra look crumpled and shapeless; bustle skirts without the pad or cage display  all that lovely fabric hanging floppily in disarray,french gowns without panniers, dragging the too long sides on the ground… At the same time it is just as inappropriate to see medieval frocks with bra straps showing or, even worse, worn on corsets; or Tudor gowns  displaying way too much cleavage…  again, if you are not concerned with authentic look, that is all fine – Fantasy, Steampunk or Pirate conventions etc are great places to mix modern and traditional styles and nobody will bat an eyelid. However,  if you do strive to ‘look the part’,  correct undergarment is essential.

  Here’s a quick guide of dos and don’ts  through the time – not an full list, but just a basic point of reference, somewhere to start with.

   All periods: wear a chemise! or a smock, a shift – correct for your period.   They were the garments that would be washed, they protect your  clothes from  sweat etc. Yes,  it may not be visible much – or at all, but it will make a dramatic difference in how you wear your kit.  If it doesn’t show, and you are not a purist, wear cotton instead of linen,  of mixed fibers if you are allergic, just make sure the fabric breathes well – polyester silk chemise will make your kit into a mobile sauna, natural fabric will make wearing a wool kirtle  much cooler in the heat of summer. If any part of the garment is on show –  make sure it at least looks correct.

Pants, knickers etc – up to you,  ladies, most of the events we do not display such items publicly so  up to individual preferences. Do bear in mind however that some period underwear was rather specific  and fit for a purpose – split drawers are not split for nothing – something you will soon discover if you wear modern underwear under a french or cage crinoline….:-)


Blast…. maybe wearing pants and tights wasn’t such a good idea after all… oh dear….


1. wear your smock

2. Unless you are Agnes Sorel, posing as a Madonna, do not flash your boobs…. If there is even a glimpse of cleavage, it is a glimpse – but most often even that is covered.  Late medieval ladies sport high breasts – but without any ‘spillage’ visible – high, yes, but also contained…

3. Unless your assets are the perfect perky apple shape, you will need some help to achieve the look.   Well cut and fitted kirtle will go a long way, even on more generously endowed ladies. If more support is necessary, you can bind your breast with straps of linen – it does offer a bit of support and for some looks ( Italian 15 the cent)  it  does provide the perfect means to achieve the silhouette. If you have to, wear a bra, but make sure the straps are not showing, and the contours are not visible – seamless bras, just retaining natural shape are great; push up bras –  very rarely so…  Corsets, especially the modern ones – just don’t even consider the possibility… look awful, artificial, modern – and completely unnecessary


15th century kirtle over a chemise – no bra. I am 34 F, so can only dream of the high perky assets, but the fit of the kirtle provides enough support to keep things in place, contained and comfortable. The secret is to lace from the bottom up!

4.  leg wear – wear period hose and garters, if possible. Still, a glimpse of the leg would be  highly unusual unless you are a field labourer, so if you are not flashing your ankles too much and nobody inspects your hosiery, you will be fine with longer cotton socks in muted colours .  For purists  hose and garters are a must – and they do look sexy!


armour may not be the best choice…

5.  Layers – do not skip the kirtle if it is hot and you want to wear just a posh gown.  Bare calves visible through the thin silks are not posh…Want to be posh, well, sometimes suffering is involved too…

Tudor, Elizabethan and Stuart

1. Same remarks about cleavage apply…. The boned,stiffened kirtles and later stays were there to smooth the contours of the body, provide the support and contain your assets. A hint of a cleavage is fine, over-spilling boobage is not.  Yes, the stiff bodices and stays  do push things up a bit – but  the gowns, shifts, partlets etc do cover most of it. Well, unless you are a noble Jacobean lady going to a masque or posing for a fashionable  portrait in a court attire – some of them tended to be a tad revealing…. 🙂 like this one..  An excellent article on the masque costumes and the dancers going topless ( well, almost) is here….


Tudor kirtle with bodice stiffened with reed

During the Restoration it was fashionable to pose for a portrait in your unmentionables – or without them. If you re-enact Nell Gwyn as Venus, that’s fine – but remember that everyday costume did involve a tad more 🙂  The bodices were  more revealing, true, but still on a tasteful side.

3. For late Elizabethan/Stuart wear either stays  or boned bodices. A bra will not do. Modern corset will not give the period shape. if you are on a budget, boned bodice can be the perfect solution.  Stays and bodices were at that stage mostly boned with reed –  and reed is fantastic- it breathes well, it is flexible and adapts to the body – very comfortable. Remember that the reed found in the garments were mostly bundles of thin reeds – not chair cane! nowadays you can obtain either  thing oval reed ( Farthingales used to have them, USA) or  flat/oval reed from Vena Cava Designs – and it doesn’t cost much, the whole bundle is enough for several items!


reads and busk enclosed in 1660 bodice


the finished bodice


early mantua ( 1680-90) worn on boned stays

 4. Skirt supports. If your style calls for a Spanish farthingale, or a french one – wear it, no excuses.  If you are on a budget, you can sometimes get bridal petticoats  that can can be used as a farthingale and are cheap –  not perfect, but better that than nothing. All kind of bumrolls, pads etc here come into play as well – easy to make, they will make a tremendous difference  to your silhouette.

5. Wear your petticoats.  I know, it is yet another layer, but can be made quickly and don’t have to be made in expensive fabrics.  Also, they will cover the shape of the hoops in a farthingale if your kirtle/dress fabrics are not sufficient. It is a good idea  to wear one in low quality fabric petti as well, under the farthingale ( as a second layer on the chemise – this is the garment which will absorb most of the dirt and dust stirred up by the skirts dragging on the ground …

 6. hosiery –  especially with hooped skirts, or shorter late Elizabethan or Jacobean outfits you can get a glimpse, so make sure your hose or stockings look correct. in colder climates nice woolen stockings are a godsend.


getting ready – and flashing my lovely woolen stockings from Sally Pointer


1.  do use skirt supports  suitable for the style of the gown you are wearing: pocket hoops, panniers,  bum pads of all kind – they make the dress look good, without them, silk or not, they just resemble sad rags. Great  source of inspiration and knowledge can be found on the American Duchess website – Lauren specializes in the period and her tutorials are extremely helpful.  Do not be afraid to experiment with the shape of the support, it is worth it.

2. ditto – petticoats,

3. ditto stays.  More and more styles were available, and although more cleavage was sometimes seen, peaking from under a fishu,  overspill was generally avoided. Do choose stays suitable not only to your style but your body type: half boned stays with some horizontal boning at the breast will create more cleavage and are great for ladies with smaller assets, but may  not be sufficient to contain bigger volume. Fully boned stays  will flatten fuller bosoms and keep the puppies under control. Later styles call for the famous pigeon breast silhouette: shorter, half boned stays are perfect here . 

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with stays that shape the chemise ( here just trying out on a normal top) also has a role in containing things…. half boned stays in silk

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fully boned stays – ultimate control, made comfortable with the use of reed

For stays, it is still ok to use reed – whalebone started to be used too, I believe, but nowadays not available, and not ethical.

With the stays and skirt supports, you will get the fashion plate look spot on!


boobs up high, bum sticking out in all directions… perfect 🙂

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-26

stays and hoop panniers underneath all that silk brocade…


1. petticoats, stays, hosiery etc, all apply. Many ladies believe that the high waisted styles mean stays are out and bras are fine – alas, this all to often spoils the effect. If you are lucky and  sport firm high breasts, yep, you won’t need  much. However, if you fall into a curvier category, you will need some help. Remember, if the bouncing continues after the dancing stops, you’s better invest in proper undergarments 😉

 Regency stays are there to hold your assets up and usually separate them ( divide and conquer style 😉 ). The cups come up mid bust level, and the breast are contained within the chemise. They do look very unnatural and high – but once you get the frock on, it all pays up.  The longer stays are comfortable and smooth the body, so the dress flows uninterrupted from the high waist.


regency stays, riding style ( not finished, couldn’t be bothered with the lacing at the hip at the time…). note the busk separating the breast and seemingly shallow cups. surprisingly comfortable too


it is the stays underneath that make the style at least remotely elegant for me – the dress simply flows so much better!

Brassieres are also surprisingly effective, though tricky to put on – and  they also seem to be working quite well for bigger bosoms.

Stock Regency & WWI-5

the kyoto brasierre

Victorian and Edwardian

1. Wear all the layers.  If you can skimp on one petticoat without compromising the look, fine, but do wear a proper corset, wear a proper skirt support for your period.   Corded petticoats  and sleeve supports for the romantic era, crinolines, bustle cages, bust improver, bustle pads etc – they were all there for a reason.  If wearing a crinoline, remember the petticoats will help you hide the outline of the hoops – and make sure your bottom hoop is not visible!


Mid Victorian undergarments – chemise, pantaloons ( long drawers) corset and a cage crinoline

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Petticoat on….

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the dress on crinoline cage and petticoat

18. bustle worn, side view

bustle cage


and a flounced petticoat

2. When planning an outfit always start with the foundations –  bodice made to fit a modern body will not fit over a corset.  skirt cut without taking the supports into consideration will be too long or too narrow.

Undergarment comparison

3. If you can, get the corset bespoke made ( or make one yourself).  If you will be wearing the clothes for some time, you will need a decent, bespoke corset made to you. In my corset I can move, can dance, can ride, can wear it all day long, working away, and I can breathe without any problems ( my rib cage is not crushed). Modern corsets off the peg may feel great for a short time, but  fail miserably  for longer periods of time. Bespoke is not cheap, but it is well worth saving. having said so, if you find an off the peg  Victorian or Edwardian corset ( not modern overbust though), that fits you well, you are lucky – very lucky, so enjoy, it will be usually less  than half the price of a bespoke one.

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corset provides the silhouette but remains invisible.

4. Wear corset cover. It is a pretty flimsy thing, bit it protect your nice silk dress from the corset, and also hides the outline of the corset a bit.

5. Wear Edwardian corsets for Edwardian  dresses and Victorian ones for Victorian frocks – don’t mix them, they do produce a very different silhouette and  Victorian corset with Edwardian gown is simply wrong. Modern overbust corsets  are not a good choice – overbust will push your assets a bit too high, creating  a very high bust shelf – not very comfortable and period… Victorian/Edwardian corsets are usually mid bust.


Edwardian corset


Edwardian corset, back view

For late Edwardian/ WWI costuming, corsets are still necessary! nowadays you see so many lovely frocks of the period, with the look ruined as women either don’t realize that corsets were still worn at the time – or choose to ignore the fact. Yes, the function of the corset was changing – here they were used not to support the breast so much as to smooth the silhouette, streamline it, so that the narrow style clothing looked good – and as they were not designed to cinch your waist a lot, they are very comfortable to wear too.  Later on this style of corsets changes onto girdle and brassieres are starting to appear:)


WWI style corset

6.drawers –  up to you, I love mine, and they make going to the toilet a much less daunting prospect!

46. Stocking, drawers, corset and the petticoat, worn on the bustle pad, at trial riding

checking how the Victorian underthings work on a horseback. the worked well…

48. back view - note the unbuttoned petticoat

a bit more ladylike…. 🙂

7. if possible, wear correct style petticoat for your dress. Natural form petticoats can differ from the bustle eras –  1870 petties are different from 1885. Sometimes you can cheat a bit, sometimes  not, so plan your outfit carefully.

8. cleavage – again,  very subtle, if ever.  Flout your curves, but tastefully, tantalizingly hidden in lace and silks .

 Again, American Duchess  is a good source, as is  Historical Sewing – great  tutorials and much more detailed information and advice on 19th century styles, from Regency to Edwardian – do check them up!. Historical sewing also offers online courses – very helpful!

 For corsetry supplies and corset making courses – check Sew Curvy

 Well,  I think that’s about it – just skimming through the centuries, really, but i think i covered the most important points – hope you have enjoyed it, or at least found the information useful!  For more pictures  of garments across the centuries, please visit my page, or my pinterest boards!

 the other post on Looking the part series:

  looking the par – 2 –  Hair and make up

 looking the part3 –  accessories