The fun and challenge of Victorian dress construction – by Joanne Cunningham
This season I have the opportunity to do something I’ve never done before – design costumes for shows that take place at the end of the 19th century. I have never before attempted to construct Victorian-era dresses, and am learning so much as I tackle this new challenge. Come on along to a time when clothes were far more complicated than they are now!
Victorian fashion came from trends that were popular in England (think Queen Victoria) from the 1830s to the early 1900s. With the increasing use of sewing machines starting in the mid-1800s, it was easier to make elaborate, lavish dresses that featured an extravagant amount of lace and other trims.
The most important feature of dresses of this era was the hourglass silhouette that women desired. Skirts were large – the use of hoops, crinolines and bustles helped to make waists appear small in comparison. In time, as skirts got progressively smaller and tighter, bodices and sleeves got larger to help accentuate the hourglass figure. Much use was made of boning to hold the shape, and lace and other fancy trim to embellish dresses. New dyes in bright colors were being developed to replace the old vegetable and animal dyes that had been used in the past. The result was dresses that were lovely, extravagant and fantastic.
As I am starting to build some of these dresses for SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE FINAL ADVENTURE, I am learning that it takes miles of fabric to recreate the true Victorian style. The pleated ruffle at the bottom of one skirt took no less than 30 linear feet of fabric to make the finished 12′ long ruffle! The patterns are complicated and take some trial and error to understand, but as dresses begin to take shape I am excited by what I see.
The lead actress in our show will have four different dresses, and I am eager to see how they all come together. I have some incredible volunteers who are helping me this time around, which is wonderful. (I can’t imagine having to build four Victorian dresses on my own in the limited time I have between when I first meet the actors for a show and our first dress rehearsal!)
Be sure to come to SHERLOCK HOLMES and see the sorts of costumes rarely seen on our stage…amazing dresses in the Victorian style!