The tea gown: draping the bodice

With my design worked out and my fabric sorted, it was time to drape a pattern for my tea gown.

First though, I had to figure out how it was going to go together and fasten.

So here is my basic design (on the right):

Tea-gown of light silk with lace front (on the right). (1899) via the NYPL digital gallery

After confusing you all by asking how you thought the one on the left got put on (that’s easy – under the flap on the PL front) when I meant the right, and getting every possible suggestion on how it might go together, (my favourite being “drink the bottle labelled ‘drink me’, shrink to size, climb into the dress, and then eat the cookie labelled ‘eat me’ and grown until you fit it again”) I decided on what I thought was the most likely historically-accurate option.

My tea gown will have a basic bodice support which will fasten up the centre front with hooks.  The lace overbodice will be sew into the gown on one side, and will wrap over the bodice support and fasten on the other side with hooks, just under the edge of the over robe.  This is a very common construction technique in turn-of-the-century garments, you can see a similar example (though not a tea gown) here.  The strong under-structure will support the weight of the robe, and the lace over-bodice will hide all the fastenings.  The petticoat/skirt will be a separate piece, and the sash will hide the join of the two garments.

Is this accurate?  I think so.  It matches what is shown in fashion plates, it matches what I can see of extent garments, and it fills the essential tea-gown requirement that it be put-on-able with minimal help.

What about that separate petticoat?  I’ve read of tea gowns that were in two parts, with a skirt/petticoat, and a separate bodice with attached robe.  Constructing my tea gown in this way has two massive advantages (besides historical probability).  It makes putting the outfit on and fastening it very simple (put the skirt on, then the bodice, no tricky reaching around behind under the robe to do the skirt), and it means there is a possibility that I could make an evening bodice to go with the skirt later, thus getting the maximum use from my sewing time and the fabric.

Making an evening bodice and a tea gown at the same time probably isn’t historically accurate, or at least I know of no extent examples where this is done, but re-making garments is very historically accurate.  It is entirely probably that there were women who had tea gowns made of sumptuous fabric converted into an evening wear after a few years of wear as a tea gown.  I’ll just be compressing the process.

Right!  Thinking done, time for some draping.

First I draped the under-bodice, basing my seamlines and general shape on extent garments I have studied (alas, no tea gowns) and patterns in Janet Arnold.

Two front darts

I started out draping a high neckline, and cut it down later.

Curved back seam

Front darts and side-seam

With an under-support perfect, I draped a slightly pigeon-breasted bodice front pieces to go over it and cover the centre-front fastenings:

A little-bitty pigeon breast

You can see that I draped it right over my under-drapings.  That helped me get all the neck and sleeve lines to match up.

Matching side-seams. On one side it will be sewn-in, on the other it will fasten with hooks and eyes

Felicity found the whole process quite boring, but she was aware that she made the pictures more interesting.

So, drapings done, time to toile them up and see how they fit!

The 1900s tea gown – fabrics

When I decided to make a 1900s tea gown I also decided that I didn’t have the budget to go buy fabric for it.  Whatever I made was going to have to be stash-based.

I kept what I had in-stash in mind as I looked at designs.  My primary inspiration is this satin and lace extravaganza from 1899:

Tea-gown of light silk with lace front (on the right). (1899) via the NYPL digital gallery

I bought almost 15 metres of a really amazing poly-cotton sateen with a little metal woven through it in ivory last year.

Ivory poly-cotton-metal sateen

I know you are all gasping in horror and thinking “poly-cotton!?!  Ewwww!!!”, but really, this fabric is fabulous.  I’ve had dozens of fabric snobs inspect it, and not one has guessed that it has a synthetic content.  Most guess silk, or a silk-cotton or silk-linen blend.  I looks rich and sumptuous and not at all synthetic-y, and it acts rich and sumptuous and natural and not at all synthetic-y.

When I bought it I first bought 3 metres, and took it home and ran it through a number of tests, determined that it fits my exacting standards, and I could even dye it – granted only pastel tones, but I’m happy with that!  So I raced back to the shop and bought the rest of the roll at $10 a metre.

Metal lines running through the poly-cotton-metal sateen

The only thing I don’t love about the fabric is the metal content.  Because of it, the fabric never properly smooths out.  It doesn’t really wrinkle or crease (thanks to the poly-cotton), but it doesn’t press smooth.

I’m calling it a sateen for now, but you could call it a satin, because of the polyester.  What do you think?  Sateen because of the cotton, or satin because of the polyester?

Right.  So that sorts the over-robe.  I’ve been criticised in the past for sewing with too many whites and barely-there tones, so I wanted the front of the gown to be an actual colour, even if only a pastel.

I bought an amazing robins egg blue silk razimir at a 40% off sale at Global Fabrics a few years back.  I only bought 2 metres (they gave me an extra 20 centimeters, because they are wonderful) because it was so expensive, even on sale.  I’ve regretted that I didn’t buy more so many times since.  It would have been the perfect fabric for Emily’s dress, and a dozen other projects.  But I thought that I could just squeeze the front of a petticoat and a bodice out of the fabric, and it would be perfect for the front of my tea gown.

Robin’s egg blue silk razimir

It’s gorgeous fabric.  Soft and buttery with a slight rib and a delicious sheen.

My decision to go with it was made easy by the discovery of a few metres of vintage kimono silk in the same shade of blue.  There wasn’t a lot of it, and it wasn’t in perfect condition, but I thought I could get a lining for the robe out of it, so that you would get delicious glimpses of blue when the robe fluttered open.

Vintage robin’s egg blue kimono silk

I like the faint stripes and brocaded patterns in the kimono silk: just another bit of interest to the lining.  And Japonisme is so very appropriate for 1900s and tea gowns!

Stripes and patterns in the kimono silk

Finally, I needed some truly gorgeous lace to finish the tea gown.  Darn.  I do have some fabulous vintage spider-web patterned lace, but it is far more 1930s than 1900s.  It didn’t seem right for this, and I love it too much to commit it to something it isn’t right for.

Then, on a trip to the Fabric Warehouse  I found the perfect lace.  Darn.  I was not supposed to buy fabric for this project!  But it was so perfect, and I found everything else in the stash, and it was very reasonably priced (for lace).

Isn’t it perfect?

Embroidery on net cotton lace

Yum!  I love it!  And it has a border on both edges, which makes laying out the pattern pieces much easier.

The cotton embroidery

The embroidered motifs that covers the body of the lace

So, that’s my fabric.  It’s good to have a design come together!

 

The Raspberry Swirl at tea

I loved the chance to get the Raspberry Swirl out for the Afternoon Tea talk at Premier House.  It’s had so few proper outings, and I still can’t decide if the evening bodice is actually ‘finished’ or not.

Does it need a bertha?  I’m beginning to think not.  As a cotton dress, an evening bodice is never going to be properly historical, and there are examples of plain evening bodices, sans berthas and much in the way of trimming, in the 1850s.

So then all I really need to do is actually make the day bodice that was always meant to go with this skirt!

Some of you may be wondering what a paisley evening gown has to do with afternoon tea.  It gave me a chance to talk about the continued links between England and India, and the cultural cross-pollination that characterised Victorian England.

It also gave me a chance to talk about the re-thinking of manners and mores in the mid-19th century.  In the 1850s Queen Victoria attended official day events in evening wear.  Why?  It was a carry over from standards of court dress set out by Louis XIV in 17th century France.  Talk about outdated!

Throughout the 19th century Victoria and Albert, and then Edward and Alexandra, with varying degrees of forethought, intent, and success, re-wrote the standards of behavior and dress at the British court and in British society.  British society was the society of the 19th century, so what they did, the rest of the world emulated.  In a convoluted and straightforward way this led to garments like the tea gown, that presented a sense of ease, but within strict societal restraints.

Anyway, I digress!  Here are some pretty, pretty pictures of the ever so sweet and appealing Raspberry Swirl.

And a final photo that really encapsulates how lovely and sweet and mid-Victorian this dress is:

 

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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