Regency Week

Costume Construction, Costume History, Fashion History

Remember Lucy from the History Wardrobe? Well, she’s developing a new show all about the “old maids and matriarchs” of Jane Austen’s novels, and so needed some Regency costumes making. Pauline very kindly invited me back to York for a week to make one of the pieces, a spencer jacket. Here’s how the week went…!

The Final Products


I suppose it’s only fitting that I got around to writing this post after (finally) adding those last two snaps onto my 40s dress and extracting the two pins I had unknowingly sewn into the cuff of Ben’s jacket. It’s about time as well – just about a month since the exhibition!

So without any further ado, here are the photos of my finished costumes from the shoot:

I’m a little disappointed with how the Liberty silk looks on camera – a bit washed out and murky. But hey ho – that’s something to consider for future projects.

And then, the exhibition! This is what my space looked like:

You can just about see my (nearly) finished tutu at the back.

The exhibition was a success – I had 50 business cards at the start and 25 at the end, which I think is a good sign. Had a few CVs picked up as well, so we’ll see what happens next.

So, what exactly have I been doing for the last four weeks, you wonder? Dressing at the opera, of course! Also sending a lot of emails, working at Eureka!, and catching up on sleep. Though it’s going to get busy again soon – in November I start a three-week work placement at the Library Theatre in Manchester, working on the Wind in the Willows. Stay tuned!

The Great Cover Button Battle


If I may quote myself, this was the state of my bodice to-do list by the time it was meant to be finished (i.e., the Friday before 1940s toile week):

1. slip-stitch bias binding around armholes
2. slip-stitch piping bias around cuffs
3. slip-stitch bias binding of front panel
4. slip-stitch collar of front panel
5. hand sew 36 hooks to bodice
6. hand sew 36 14 bars to front panel
7. cover 42 buttons
8. sew on 42 buttons

As I didn’t have any more time to do the work at home, my plan of action was to work on the bodice until about 10.30 every morning before cracking on with the 1940s dress, and then going back to the bodice in the evenings. Sewing the last of the bars on wasn’t so bad, but then came the time to, *gulp*, cover buttons.

That first evening, I spent about two-and-a-half hours messing around with cover buttons. Guess how many buttons I covered, and rather sloppily at that? Three. Yes, three buttons in nearly as many hours. With 39 more to go. I was not a happy bunny.

But, as ever, I was determined. I accepted defeat that first night, and resolved to come back the next day and tackle those buttons with fresh eyes and a good night’s sleep behind me.

And lo, by about button #5 the next day, I had cracked it! Once I got the hang of button-covering it became more of a stop-and-go project, a few here and a few there in between making the 40s dress. Eventually I had 42 covered buttons.

At that point I left the bodice and focused on finishing the dress, which I did by the end of the day on Friday before the photo shoot (I think). Actually, those last two days have gone kind of blurry in my mind, but I seem to recall getting 18 buttons sewn on by the end of the night on Friday and going in on Saturday afternoon to sew on the other 24. In the end, I had my last button sewn on by 8.30 Saturday evening, an entire 36 hours before the photo shoot! Et voila:


And that was that. Coming up: the photo shoot!

Liberty Silk


Right then, picking up where we left off! Here’s the dress, in progress:

The entire thing is only five seams (bodice front and back, skirt front and back, bodice to skirt, oh and the facing so I guess that’s two more), but the silk was pretty slippery and tricky to work with. A week was just the right amount of time to make it, because even though the construction was quite straightforward, there was a lot of hand-finishing to do.

The hardest part, would you believe, was sewing the armholes! I mean sure, draping the skirt onto the petersham waistband so the folds fell exactly right wasn’t exactly easy, but the armholes were another matter entirely. I ended up doing them three times each, sinking about six hours into the damn things. As the bodice was cut on the bias, I didn’t need to sew on separate bias binding for the armholes and could fold and roll over the raw edges of the armholes to bind them instead. I thought this would be simple. It wasn’t. The first time I did it (which took AAAAGES), they ended up too bubbly and warped because I’d rolled back too much fabric (about 1/2″ in total). So then I had to go back and do them again turning them back even less, ultimately dealing with 1/16″ at a time!! Arrgh.

But I got there in the end.

After the armholes I had to delicately hand-sew tiny little stitches all along the facing to keep it from flapping around unpleasantly, and to give the neck and back a nice, clean edge. That took a while, but not as long as the armholes and not as long as the hem. I hemmed it with a flat-catch stitch (or herringbone stitch, as they call it over here), but it was sewn just onto the seam allowance of the hem and not the outer fabric of the dress which was a bit awkward at first, because I had to work out the best way to hold it. It didn’t occur to me at the time to take photos of all these little details, but if anyone desperately wants to see them do let me know and I’ll whip the dress out and post some snaps.

The placket took a while as well, mostly due to sewing on all the snaps (or “press studs” to the Anglican folk) as sturdily and at the same time as delicately as possible. No one wants unsightly stab-stitches on the side of a lovely gown, do they?

The last step was… the belt! Just a nice little feature to finish it off. Pretty quick and easy to do; sew a rectangle, turn it inside out, attach a nice buckle, ta-dah!!

And here’s the finished, belted product:

It’s not a great photo, but sadly the best one I have that shows the back as well because the ones from the photo shoot just didn’t do anything for me or the dress. This one, though, isn’t bad for detail:

Can you tell it fits me a bit differently than the form? My natural waist is a higher, so the bodice blouses out a bit more when I wear it while it hangs down straighter on the form. Although, we were lucky to have gotten it on the form at ALL! We just about squeezed it over the shoulders of the mannequin, and that was after I’d extended the placket by a good four inches. Nightmare.

But, if we’re giving out awards to the most fraught moment of the final project, then the accolade definitely goes to my Being an Idiot When Trimming Down Seam Allowance Around the Petersham and Cutting a Hole in the Back of the Dress moment.

Oh my god, I very nearly had a breakdown when I realized what I’d done. I swear by all the Liberty silk in the world that I’ll never make that mistake again. I almost started crying. I panicked, knowing that while I had enough fabric to make another bodice, I most certainly didn’t have the time.

BUT! Level-headedness and problem-solving prevailed. There were a few things that were in my favor when solving this problem:

1. The hole was in the back of the dress, not the front
2. It’s very nearly hidden by the cowl back
3. It wasn’t really a hole, rather a V-shaped cut about an inch deep (so not as massive as it could have been)

And, my saving grace…
4. The print of the fabric is relatively small-scale and complex, so it disguises mistakes well

So, what’s a girl to do? Match that flappy V back up to the surrounding pattern and whack a bit of interfacing on, of course!

I wasn’t hyperventilating by the time I got to the ironing board, but I was shaking and had to give myself a serious pep talk before working up the courage to gently, s-l-o-w-l-y, c–a–r–e–f–u–l–l–y press the interfacing on to patch it up.

And it worked! I showed the patch job to all the girls, holding it right under their noses, and they had to properly search the fabric before they found anything untoward. Even Pauline didn’t see it right away, and when I did point it out to her she congratulated me on a brilliant piece of engineering. Aaaand letting out a massive sigh of relief in three, two, one…


Coming up! The Moment In Which Rebecca Is Very Nearly Defeated By Cover Buttons. Stay tuned!