The Dress: Episode 1

The idea of wearing a Regency gown to the Romantic Times Book Convention (as well as book signings and other events) originated with my friend Ellen, who has lots of experience promoting her teacher books in conference exhibit halls. She said I should stand in front of the table, not behind it, wearing a period gown, and have a list of questions about the Regency period to ask in exchange for prizes. Wow, that sounded like a lot of fun to me, so I started looking around for gowns.

regencypatternI found a pattern on etsy.com and ordered it (have since found you can get it at Jo-Ann’s in the Butterick catalog), and my mom, who is a superb seamstress, offered to make it for me. (Actually, it’s a gown and coat both.) I don’t think at the time she realized how complicated it was going to get, but she is a woman of her word and determined to see it through.

The first obstacle was shopping for materials. For one thing, fabric has changed a great deal in 200 years. While there are many beautiful fabrics today, many with sparkly threads and sequins that would look great on me, we had to bypass those and look closer to find fabrics that might at least resemble a Regency-era fabric. It was a painstaking process, because as soon as we found something we thought would be perfect, we’d discover there wasn’t enough fabric on the bolt, which turned out to be a constant problem. For some reason, fabric manufacturers have started putting less fabric on the bolts, so unless you find a brand new bolt, chances are there won’t be enough fabric for a long gown on it. Rats! We had this problem with the lining fabrics as well as the gown and coat, and had to find another Jo-Ann’s Fabrics in the next town to get enough. And buy a yard or two extra to make sure we had enough for the extra-long skirt pieces.

Eventually, we ended up with an off-white pintuck taffeta for the gown and a blue satin for the coat.

fabric2smBut that wasn’t the end, because these garments require lots of decorative trim. The coat has an organdy trim at the neckline, but the clerk at the fabric store had never heard of organdy! But we found something that seemed like organdy that will work. Then we needed several kinds of trim for the sleeves and empire waist for the gown and for the coat as well. The problem with this was that it couldn’t be anything too white, and it had to be a specified width. Inevitably we’d find the perfect trim and find that it was too wide or narrow.

As far as the cost, well, that could not be a concern. It was hard enough to find something that would work at all. There was no way I was going to take the time to shop around all the fabric stores in Central Florida to find stuff on sale. Not when this project has to be finished before I leave for RT on April 28! Thanks to Mom, we did have a 15% off coupon, though!

In case you’re wondering, this is definitely not an economical project. I have already spent quite a bit on Regency shoes from American Duchess (with beautiful shoe clips), period stockings, a ringlet hairpiece, and gloves, in addition to the fabric and notions that were so hard to find. (Obtaining the proper undergarments to give me the right shape was also quite costly.) My philosophy is you either do it right or not at all. So I’m not sweating the small (or the large) stuff. And it’s all tax-deductible for a Regency author, right?

So this week we got all the materials and started pulling out the pattern pieces and laying them out on the fabric. We started with the lining, moving the kitchen table in my folks’ house so that we could cut on the floor. NOT a great idea at all! We both ended up with aching backs from maneuvering ourselves into uncomfortable positions and having to get up and down off the floor so many times. After that, we decided to take everything down to the clubhouse (we live in a retirement community in Florida during the winter), move a few tables together, and do our cutting there. Voilà! SO much better. So now we have the lining and dress pieces cut out and ready to put together.

And a few people came in to get their mail and wondered what we were doing, so I took the opportunity to give them a bookmark for Treasuring Theresa. All good!

mom_smile_edited-1One thing that rather astonished me is the need for proper fitting. My own feeble sewing efforts have involved buying the fabric and the pattern and hoping it would fit by the time I was done. That might work with knits and stretchy fabrics, but not with Regency-era fabrics. No indeed. The bodice and the sleeves, at least, have to be fitted closely to the body, and it’s a painstaking process that I couldn’t do in a million years. Thank goodness I have a mother who not only knows how to do it but is willing to put in the hours and hours it takes to make things work!

First she worked on altering the pattern; in spite of having lost 30 pounds recently, the pattern still needed to be made larger to fit properly. Somewhat humiliating, but there’s no point in having a gown that won’t fit! Once she had the pattern right, she could cut out the lining and make a few more adjustments. Now she knows exactly what needs to be done with the bodice of the dress too, where there’s less room for error.

It turns out Mom and I make a pretty good team. She’s the brains and I’m the brawn. And the cook. I provide lunch every day and help her with simple things in the afternoon, like pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric, moving around tables and chairs, cleaning up afterward, things like that.

This is all great research, by the way. Whenever my heroines have to have dresses made, they go to the modiste’s and stand there for hours in their underwear while having pins stuck in them. Now I have a good idea how that feels! Ditto with searching out the right trim, ostrich feathers, etc. (Oh, should I look for an ostrich feather or two?)

My mornings are devoted to writing. I’m hoping to finish the first draft of Cherishing Charlotte in the next few days and then go over it and add some final touches before sending it off to my wonderful critique partners. Then I have another novel to finish, plus a Christmas story to submit for the Ellora’s Cave Christmas Cotillion anthology. Would like to finish all three projects before heading to Scotland on June 20!

Oh, by the way, my sister Gloria (aka Letitia Beauchamp) also has a Regency gown that she had made. She’ll have to come to some book signings with me to wear it. I wonder if her husband Mike (aka Lord Beauchamp) would consent to having a Regency outfit made for him? Sounds like a plan to me!

Stand by for further reports on the progress with “The Dress.” The deadline approaches, but I have perfect confidence in my mother’s abilities.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: she is NOT interested in taking this up as a profession or a hobby. Being retired in itself is a very time-consuming activity. Once is enough…and I’m the lucky one!

8 thoughts on “The Dress: Episode 1

  1. Now, not having a mother who sews beautifully, and being less than perfect myself, I do allow for going ahead with less than perfect.
    The material and patterns were the least of my problems. No talent in cutting out the pieces is a bigger one. Still, I am determined to make another dress. I once made two gowns about twenty years ago but haven’t been sewing since.
    I am working under handiicaps of no dress form, no help with fiitting, and no talent, but an trying to start with the pattern for shift and short stays and then go on to the gown. I have started a couple as trials . I have to finish the bodice and join it to the skirt.
    I say I am a poor widow woman who has to make do with the less than excellent work of the village dress maker.
    I have worn my old dress to several activities of the local chapter of the Jane Austen society (JASNA) and hope to have a decent enough dress to wear to the BeauMonde AGM in Atlanta this summer.
    We need more pictures.
    Do convince your B-i-L to get an outfit made. The men look gereat in Regency clothes and here usually aren’t enough of them.

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    • I can’t wait to see your gown in Atlanta, Nancy! I’ll be wearing mine there too!

      We are also making a shift, which looks pretty easy, not being fitted and all. It as a drawstring neckline! I think I can probably manage that one myself. Yesterday I got all the pattern pieces out and I think we’ll cut it out today. NOT on the floor!

      I’ll get some more pictures for you. She’s doing the sleeves right now. Unbelievable how much time it takes to make one sleeve…like a whole day! But it looks fabulous with the trim!

      As far as my BIL Lord Beauchamp, not sure there’s any hope for that. But he WOULD look good in Regency costume! I’ll keep working on him and Gloria (my sister).

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