1860s Research and Costume College Gala Plans


One of the projects on my to-do list this year is an 1860s gown, inspired by Costume College’s Gala theme: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Actually reading the play is also on my to-do list, lol, though I’ve seen it before.) Since I haven’t had time to move ahead in my other big CoCo project (my 1790s Charlotte Corday recreation), I’ve been researching the 1860s like crazy.

I feel like I have to start with how much I love the 1860s. You know me—I really love poofy skirts (example A). The 1850s definitely have the poof, but the 1860s’ conical shaped skirts … *swooning*

V&A crinoline

(crinoline from the V&A collection, 1860-5, UK)

Some of my favorite extant garments are just too beautiful not to share, and they’re a meaningful part of my research, so they’re even applicable.

This blue floral gown is a personal favorite of mine because it has all the elegance and grace of the mid-1800s without too much embellishing. From the standpoint of someone looking at a super busy summer, the possibility of skipping hand-sewing embellishments on sounds … kinda great. As someone who’s always broke, trying to find and pay for a silk this beautiful is … worrying.

(Philadelphia Museum of Art, c. 1850, US, silk and cotton)

blue floral 1860s gown

My absolute favorite gown from this era has the same appeal. I mean, just look at it. It’s skirt shape is a little unusual too, but I just love the way the pleats fill it out. Gah. It’s like 1860s Cinderella on elegance steroids.

(Met Museum, c. 1860, US, silk and cotton)

blue 1860s dress

Though I love a good silk as much as the next 1860s nerd, I have to say that this sheer cotton gown really inspires a suitable fairy feeling. Can you imagine it in a light magenta? So beautiful and fairy-like. And those ruffles …

(Charleston Museum, 1865, US, organdy)

cotton 1865 dress

But then again, the 1860s has some real talent when it comes to embellishing. I mean look at this orange gown. The color is weirdly modern (or is that just me?) but it totally works. Anyway, I just love the embroidery, though there is literally no universe in which I have enough time to do something like that.

(couldn’t find a museum and all the pictures are tiny and low-quality (help wanted), 1864, made by Charles Worth, silk)

orange 1865 gown

Back to beautiful Disney-princess-worthy sheers, look at this beauty. You will never convince me this isn’t Aurora in disguise. It’s a little too pink for me, but I love the draping and the feeling.

(Kyoto Costume Institute, 1866, France, silk taffeta)

pink 1860s gown

And then there are the gowns that really show the transition into the early bustle Victorian era. I just love the stripes in this one, and I can’t get enough of the draping. I feel like this dress says I’m confident so get out of my way. It’s not very Shakespearean though.

(honestly no clue on more details, I’m guessing post-1867?)

1860s gown stripes

For actual A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspiration, I have this fashion plate.

I know I want to incorporate flowers, though I don’t know if I like the simplicity of the one in the back more or the embellishments of the front one more. I think I’m leaning toward the light purple gown because it will be simpler to recreate while still honoring the theme.

The light purple gown feels magical and special and very Shakespearean.

fashion plate 1860s

I also kinda want to work in some quotes from the play into the gown somehow, either embroidered in or just referenced—time will definitely decide how. But I just love these quotes…

In terms of undergarments, the 1860s are annoying lacking in corsets. Where are all the 1860s extant corsets??!!!

Seriously, it’s like they just decided to keep all the 1880s corsets and throw the 1860s-lovers to the wolves. But, there are these three examples that I love and work together for a useful reference (the 2nd and 3rd more than the 1st).

white 1860s corset

(from Augusta Auctions, I’m guessing 1860s because it’s so short (they date 1850-1900, so not very useful))

orange 1860s corset

(Manchester Art Gallery, 1860-1870, cotton sateen with padding and embroidery)

blue 1860s corset

(V&A, 1864, UK or France, silk)

I love the seaming and patterning and flossing of mid- to late-Victorian corsets. To put that much time and money into something that never saw the light of day is just crazy to me, but crazy in an amazing way.

I can’t get over how much I love this blue corset. The V&A has a ton of pictures of it also, so it makes a great reference tool. I’ve sketched out some interpretations of its patterning, though I think I’m really off.

It feels like there’s always more research to do, right?

This project is still definitely in its infancy right now, but I hope you enjoyed this planning! I have a lot of random sketches for it in my sketchbook, but none of them are really sticking with me so … back to the drawing board! It will be a while before I actually start the gown, though I might start a corset soon.

Is it weird that I’ve actually been really enjoying just making undergarments (exhibits A, B and C) for the last few months? I feel like it’s less stressful because you know none of it is going to show. I’m actually looking forward to making more petticoats.

Do you enjoy these research posts or are you bored and want more actual sewing? (I hope not, but better to know than not, lol) What do you think of my CoCo Gala plans? What are yours?

Thanks for reading, as always. You all are the best 🙂

Samantha 🙂


4 thoughts on “1860s Research and Costume College Gala Plans

  1. Hi that photo of the two ladies sitting at a piano put me in mind of a figurine I have. Remarkably similar dress. but different era.. look for ROYAL WORCESTER FIGURINE QUEEN OF HEARTS (SPECIAL LIMITED EDITION) as it may help with a more 3D look. Funnily enough the other lady looks similar to THE LAST QUADRILLE of the same series of figurines 🙂


    1. Aww thanks!! I love making them for that same reason (and so I force myself to put the jumbled mess in my head down onto “paper”). I love the orange dress too! It’s just so unique and modern 🙂


  2. You probably figured this out already but the orange gown is in the collection of the Kent State University Museum and it’s a labeled Worth. They have some great high-res pictures on their website. Good luck!


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