Portfolio: 1880s Polly Oliver military inspired ensemble

The Idea and Inspiration:

The idea for this gown was sparked by a Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld themed ‘Unseen University Wizard’s Ball.’  Polly / Oliver Perks, from Monstrous Regiment, is my favourite Diskworld character.  Or at least tied for favourite with 72 other characters.  But she definitely has the best clothes!  As it happened, I didn’t end up wearing the ensemble to the ball, and it took me over 4 years to get it done.

Spoiler Alert: Polly / Oliver is a girl (Polly) who dresses up as a boy (Oliver) to go to war to rescue her brother.  So she wears a uniform.

Major Spoiler Alert: At the end of the book, Polly gets a ‘girlie’ military uniform, with a skirt instead of trousers, a tailored jacket, and lots more gold stuff all over the jacket.

I decided to make Polly’s dress military uniform from the end of the book.  Pratchett’s books are a bit vague on clothing details, but there are mentions that bustles are in, and Polly Oliver’s story has hints of 18th century design.  Would it be possible to make am outfit that both honoured Diskworld, and stuck to a reasonably accurate historical precedent?  I settled on an 1880s military inspired, 18th century-influenced walking ensemble/fancy dress.  With lots of gold stuff on the jacket.

My original inspiration sketch looked like this:

My design sketch

As it happened, the design morphed a fair bit over the four years it took me to finish it, and I ended up drawing on a wide range of inspiration.

Inspiration Gallery

La Moniteur de la Mode, 1887 Dighton, Robert Title- October 1784 Actress Jean Alwyn
Moniteur de la Mode, 1887 Oct 1784, Robert Dighton Actress Jean Alwyn, 1890s
Journal des Luxus, 1791 Photo of a woman, ca 1883-90 Walking dress House of Worth  (French, 1858—1956) Designer- Charles Frederick Worth (French (born England), Bourne 1825—1895 Paris) Date- ca. 1885 MetM
Journal des Luxus, 1791     Woman, ca 1885 Dress, House of Worth, 1885


Fabric and Materials:

Jacket of scarlet cotton jacquard, flat lined in ivory sateen, with a false waistcoat of ivory sateen.  Antiqued gold buttons to trim.

Skirt of ivory cotton sateen with gold braid cornelli-work trim

Research and Resources:

Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1860-1940.

Jacket adapted from extent 1880s patterns

The Dress Diary:


Introducing the project

Being sensible about the ensemble deadline

Picking buttons

Waistcoat piping (a tutorial)

Lining the waistcoat (a not so brilliant moment)

Fitting issues and re-thinking the bodice front

Pulling apart and flat-lining the jacket

The design sketch


Thoughts on Polly / Oliver, and combining fantasy & history

Inspiration and pattern drafting

Constructing the waistcoat

How to ‘antique’ gold buttons

The jacket, sans sleeves

The finished jacket (hurrah!)

The skirt, construction beginnings and inspiration

Finishing the skirt, and cornelli work

Announcing Polly / Oliver – the finished outfit, finally!

 A hat for Polly / Oliver


  1. Hi
    Just wanted to say that the idea of a dress inspired by a Pratchett character (and Polly is such a good choice) is brilliant. Don’t forget to keep us updated.


  2. Meg says

    youtube.comyoutube.comI think Terry Pratchett possibly had a traditional folk song like this in mind when he created the Polly Oliver character. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5SRlBEc5nc

    It’s hard to say when any folk song is from (they’re often amalgams of many songs from varied eras, and there are often numerous, slightly different versions), but there are a number of songs of this genre where a woman dresses as a man to gain access to a male environment. She generally always gets unmasked (as in this, “all my clothes fell off…”) often to the hilarity of the men involved (as in this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDn_3VysILs). But I particularly like this version of William Taylor because the woman actually gets something out of the situation (unlike other songs where she dies or ends up with an illegitimate child), although her becoming a ‘commander of the captain’ is possibly a euphemism…

    Sorry, I know this is a sewing blog, but I thought something relevant from a genre related in culture but not in media might be interesting. And I certainly found it interesting that there is a high-art/fashion/portraiture representation of the themes explored by some of the popular music of the day. In our androgynous era it’s hard, but interesting, to imagine what statement a woman is making by wearing male clothing or incorporating ‘masculine’ elements into an otherwise female mode of dress.

  3. Sorana says

    I know I’m commenting 2 years late but in my meanderings online I came across your website – specifically this costume. It is fabulous! (I didn’t know Terry Pratchett either – and never will :'( – but I think he would have loved this – the care and detail you put into it is the wonderful part) …..so as I was admiring your costume in the pictures, I started to notice the background and it was familiar. Really familiar. Then I read your bio – Wellington! I live in Nelson and it made me smile that I found another fan in NZ. Just thought I’d let you know that it all made my day! Thanks 🙂

    • Always lovely to hear from a kindred spirit! Especially one so local! If you poke around in my photos a bit more you’ll find that you REALLY recognise some of the backgrounds. Mr D is a Nelson boy, so we’re down a lot to visit family and I’ve done photoshoots at Isel Park etc. 🙂

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