My children had a school concert recently. It was a weird and wonderful story that they had concocted themselves based loosely upon the school values and presented in the form of an epic journey, Greek mythology style. After putting together my daughters vintage inspired circus outfit that was required I thought that perhaps I should just check in with the Performing Arts teacher to see if he needed any help with costume. He seemed to have everything very much under control but I thought that perhaps I should offer.
“Yes!” Was the answer…”Actually we desperately need a Victorian era gown to fit two different nine year olds. I believe you can sew?”
Hmmm Victorian era gown and I have approximately a week of evenings and a small amount of weekend time to do it.
“Yes I can do it” I say. “But it won’t be original and it won’t be a replica of an original.” “It will be a squint at it from a distance and it looks sort of like it?”
“No problem!” he says. “Any budget?” I ask “Not really” is the response. hmmmmm
So I began problem solving. I was in luck. I was fortunate enough to be offered an original dress that was in a rubbish bag to be disposed of. It was in terrible condition. The bodice completely disintegrated in my hands as I picked it up. Many other parts of the dress were also beginning to disintegrate but there was enough to them that I could pull it together to be viewed from a distance. The dress was in far too poor a condition to be displayed, or sold or conserved. Very very sad. So with my heart in my hands, as it feels terribly wrong to touch an old dress, I began to get creative. I have saved it from the rubbish I keep telling myself.
The only before photo I took was so awful I can’t post it here. It was taken with my in a terrible rush just to show the teacher. “What do you think of this?” “I love it”, came the response. Ok. Good.
But of course being under so much time pressure I neglected to take another better photograph. My apologies.
The dress was falling apart around the waistline, and areas of the skirt were sun bleached almost white. So I carefully cut the sleeves and dress from the bodice. Firstly I needed to see how much handling the fabric could withstand. I also removed the trims from the bodice to reapply later.
My second challenge was to see if the fabric would take dye as I needed to even up the colour of the dress. If I couldn’t do that it would be back to square one. So here I am playing around with dye.That seemed to go ok. So I decided I needed an opshop shirt that had a convertible collar that I could remove the top section and be left with a high button up neckline. I also needed a neat on the shoulder sleeve and shaping through the body. The safety pins below are post meeting the girls for a quick fitting.
So now for the crucial evening up of the colour. I couldn’t actually immerse the dress as you would normally do when dyeing as the fabric was far to fragile to take the weight of the water. So I had to sponge the dye on carefully with it lying horizontal.
Now to dye the shirt. It looks a different colour here but never fear it was better in real life. However that was one of my primary concerns. Different fabrics with different colour bases will react differently to the same dye. So it could have gone horribly wrong, particulary under stage lights.
So after dyeing I had to reconstruct it. I used the original trim to decorate the shirt, although I had to alter the design. I used jet beads as buttons, adding extras between the modern ones to give a more authentic look, which worked surprisingly well. I stitched the old sleeves over the top of the shirts sleeves as I needed the fabric of the new shirt to reduce any pressure on the old fabric when the girls moved. I then dyed some plain cotton lawn to create a new waistband and give me something to stitch to in order to reinforce it. I then needed to make it adjustable to fit the two different girls.
Lastly, I added a simple broach at the neckline to conceal the fact that there wasn’t quite enough of the original braid to go around the neckline.
So here it is.
The girls also wore a petticoat underneath which gave more volume but it wasn’t really the correct shape for the period, so I have photographed it without. It is no work of art! But from the audience it worked very well, and certainly fine for a primary school production. I’m not expecting to win any awards for it though.
I have now sent the dress for a new life as something that kids can play with and dress up, getting up close with history. It won’t last long but hopefully will provide some fun and education. Better than the rubbish bin anyhow.