1850 ballgown prototype The pattern

This was a prototype for an 1850 ballgown. It went a bit wrong. I had been planning it for months but ended up making it in a rush over 2.5 days as I thought it would be fun to trial it at an event. I made the event, but it was a mistake as when you are learning you take a confidence knock whenever something goes badly, and a 4 day dress made in 2.5 days is never going to go well.

I used a bunch of Victorian pattern books for reference, but they all concentrate on the Victorian era and they don't mention that all Disney dresses are based on dresses from around 1850, and that all little girl party dresses are based on Disney dresses and are knee length. If you happen to be patterning an 1850 ballgown but only have 2m of material because it is only a practice you'll end up knee length. Little girls own that corner of fashion.

But I am delighted by it. It is comfortable and the weight is surprisingly pleasing. This was an adventure. At the time of writing I was trying to make Victorian garments without using corsets underneath but have found they work much better with corsets.

The inspiration

The design is roughly based on an 1850 ball gown and the seam lines were influenced by the blue Alice 2010 dress. It was custom draped on my dressform working from pictures. The draping is the first photo. The skirt is short for a ball gown as I only bought 2m of fabric. This was an experiment intended as a learning experience.

The advantage of the 1850 period is the waistline sits at the bottom of the rib cage, so any belly that might have developed since you last cycled will be hidden by the full skirt.


Bodice Construction

Victorian bodices were flat lined and boned and they didn't really have much work to do as they lay above corsets. Without all that you'll get the folds and wrinkles common with modern fancy dress. I followed ideas from a Bernadette Banner summer dress and used a cotton canvas lining with woven interfacing ironed to it (but not extending into the seam allowance) to add extra stiffness so I could avoid making a corset just yet. Flat lining is where you attach the lining to the panels before sewing them together. It worked really well. The bodice doesn't wrinkle but doesn't feel stiff - it just has an unexpected weight to it and is very comfortable.

Turns out when you flat line all the seams and edges need to be finished by hand stitching. I was new to hand stitching and also in a hurry. Three layers of the seam were cut short and the remaining one folded over itself and the other seams and whip stitched to the lining. You need a seam allowance of at least 5/8 inch to do this.

Being very new to dressmaking I did a fine hem binding around all the other edges. That made life very difficult on the arm holes and pointed corners, and I should have used a thin facing or edge binding. I used a marker pen and a lot of hand stitching where the lining ended up too close to the edge.

Attaching the skirt

Skirt construction

The skirt is a rectangle cut from the remaining fabric. I was very short of fabric and cut the remaining fabric into 3 pieces, then sewed them together to make a long rectangle that ended up about 92 inches long and 24 inches wide. The seam positions ended up where they ended up. It was supposed to be cartridge pleated to gather the waist but I didn't do it very accurately. Turns out the trick is to roughly pleat and trial fit to the bodice, then mark the edges of the bodice then pleat on that line. Larger pleats seem as common as cartridge pleats by the 1850s.

Victorian skirts were not normally attached to the bodice, but I decided to use a hidden zip at the back so had to attach mine. It was a bit tricky to organise the transition between bodice and skirt. I ended up hand stitching bodice to the skirt.

Hemming the skirt

Deviation from historical accuracy

Apart from the short skirt I went Disney. They spend all day dressed in 1850 ball gowns, but their cut is different and I think I figured out why. In 1850 the bodice would have darts only under the bust. The upper part of the dress was covered by trim and didn't need to fit. Disney dresses don't have these trims so they use princess seams over the bust to smooth the fabric. I followed suit mostly because I also wanted to end up with a pattern for the 2010 Alice in Wonderland dress.

Victorian gowns have sleeves. I did try patterning a sleeve but didn't like it, and was in too much of a rush to spend any more time on it.

1850 bodice pattern

The pattern

I've linked a printable pattern below. You'll need to make a mockup and adjust it to fit you. It is based on male dimensions wearing C-cup breastforms of 42 inch bust, 38 inch underbust, 37 inches belly (measured at the widest point). It came out roughly UK size 16-18. There is no seam allowance in the pattern.

You are welcome to print out the pattern and use it in your own work. The pdf pattern can be printed, then the pages taped together to allow the pattern to be cut out.

It won't print from the internet. After clicking the pattern link save the page from your browser then open it in Adobe Acrobat viewer (free). Press print, then under paper size select poster and 100% scale. It's worth printing a single page first to make sure the grid marks around the edges are 1 inch apart.

Download the pattern here: 1850-bodice-pattern.pdf For copyright please try to throw me a link if you reproduce the pattern, otherwise use is as you like.


Things I like or would do differently

The dress fits comfortably and I love the weight of the fabric. The pretend wool is quite light, but the cotton canvas adds a great deal of weight making the dress drape very well. Despite the interfacing it doesn't feel at all stiff, it just has a lovely thick and heavy feel.

The bodice shape worked out well, but looks a little square. Also there is too much ease. It would have been better with a corset, but I could probably have made it a lot tighter with the existing construction for a more tapered shape towards the waist without risking a belly bulge. The neckline and back line would have been better an inch or two lower and that could have been done without exposing anything.

The skirt flare starts from higher at the sides, and by the time it gets down to the pointy bits at the front and rear of the bodice the wider sides push the front and rear of the skirt inwards. I might yet try distributing the pleating more to the sides. It might be the skirt lining it too heavy for the petticiat used.

The rear zip meant the skirt had to be attached to the bodice which didn't work well. Next time the skirt will be separate and I'll use more authentic fastening techniques. I don't have the Victorian waist to hold up a heavy skirt, but have noticed others sometimes use hook and bar fasteners to clip the skirt to the bodice so much of the weight of the skirt is still supported by the shoulders.

The proportions didn't quite work out. The bodice is too long for the skirt resulting in an overgrown pixie look. It might have worked with a floor length skirt. The pointy bits front and rear could have been shorter.

Despite all that I'm really happy with it. It was a learning experience.

1850 prototype-back


Real ballgowns were normally made from silks and are a lot longer. I used 2m of polyviscose tartan 'wool' which turned out a bit thin and nasty, 2m of cotton canvas for the lining, and 1m of medium weight woven interfacing for the bodice lining. It turned out wearable and I wish I had spent $20 more on materials.