Thursday, April 18, 2013

Historical Sew Fortnightly: By the Sea

As soon as I saw the "By the Sea" challenge, I knew that I wanted to make a Victorian/Edwardian bathing suit, i.e., the ubiquitous be-sailor-collared dress with the lines of trim all over the place. When I first started sewing "for real," I actually made a similarly-inspired nautical dress (coincidentally, also for a Sew Weekly challenge!) which is one of my favorite early makes, but it's quite dark and, being a 50/50 poly-cotton blend, is quite warm on sunny days. I knew it was time to give the sailor collar another chance, and this was the perfect opportunity.

Now, me being me, you already know my garment is going to fail the historical accuracy test on a couple of counts: 1) machine stitching instead of hand stitching, and 2) made from bedsheets. This dress is no exception, as it's actually made from a 1970s dress pattern, Simplicity 7439, which was gifted to me by Meg the Grand last summer. Still, the differences between the authentic historical look and this modern adaptation are pretty minimal, at least in my mind; the same elements get used over and over again in nautical-inspired dresses, which is probably why people can sell generic versions.

After looking through loads of extant garments on Pinterest and museum sites, as well as fashion plates from the era, I came away with:

1) Light colored bathing suits are rare, but still possible. They don't all have to be dark blue!
"Women on the beach," by Maud Stumm, 1904. [source]
Thanks to The Dreamstress for sharing these images from this 1906 Girl's Own Paper! Check out the girl on the right.

2) They were not afraid of red.
Edwardian bathing suit, c. 1910 [source]
3) The sailor collar can start higher up; it doesn't have to dominate the front bodice.

4) Yokes, tucks, petal sleeves, and a waist sash are all design options.
Petal sleeves galore! Also yokes and tucks/pleats. Lastly, note that they don't all have to be super-puffy in the bodice. c. 1883. [source]
On the very left: petal sleeves with trim, and a sash at the waist, c. 1873. [source]

5) Trim on the collar, sleeves, and skirt bottom are pretty common.

Two bands of trim at the bottom of the skirt, as well as a yoke and pleats.  Also see #3.

6) Most bathing suits from the era are actually a jumpsuit-type deal with a bloomer bottom, and then a skirt is worn over the bloomers to create the "dress" look.

Buttons disappearing into the skirt! Also see the previous picture and picture #3. [source]

7) Bare feet is okay!
Well, I guess bare feet are only allowed if you're wearing full-length trousers too, but...ummm....yeah. c. 1868 [source]

So add up all of those elements, throw in a dash of 1970s, run it all through some old-timey filters, and this is what you get:

Okay, enough of the antique effects, here's what it really looks like:

It was ridiculously bright out. 
The bodice with its non-functional buttons disappearing into the sash so as to look like the inspiration garments.
It was also way too windy for my hat to stay on.

Since I wanted to work only from stash, I had to settle for the lightest-colored sheet I had, hence the totally anachronistic print. I go back and forth between thinking it looks vaguely science-y and thinking it looks like a hospital gown. At any rate, the light blue was begging for some vibrant pop of color, and hey, guess what, April is Vibrant Color Challenge month! When I first started sewing, I bought, for some unknown reason, something like ten packs of bright red bias tape. I'm really not sure why. Three years later, I've still got two packs left, so I figured I would go ultra-preppy and do the light blue and red combo. I guess I'm all set for July 4th celebrations this year?

To make the petal sleeves, I started off with this helpful picture tutorial from A Sartorial Statement, but I ended up doing lots of basting and trying on and taking off and seam ripping to get the shape and size right. I'm really pleased with the final look, though, so it was worth it!

A better look at the petal sleeve.

The insides -- you can see the yoke and the elastic across the back. Also,
I used a tan-colored bias tape for the neck binding, the better to hide dirt from
 wear. Hah! Actually, it was just because I wanted to use up that scrap.
Fabric: 100% cotton twin flat sheet, thrifted (by Emily, then gifted to me), part of a white thrifted sheet for the collar.
Notions: Six yards of red bias tape and five buttons, both originally from Joann's. More bias tape for the sleeve and neck facings. Elastic for the back, and seam binding on all the insides.
Hours: At least twelve...all that trim took forever to apply, and those sleeves weren't helpful either!
How historically accurate is it? Kind of? I mean, minus the construction and materials, it's got all the right elements.
Will you make it again? Probably not. I've already got way too many nautical things in my wardrobe!
Total cost: less than $10? I don't know how much Emily spent on the sheet, but the notions were about $5.
First worn: To lunch with Mr. Cation on my day off, then for a walk along Venice Beach (possibly the most un-Victorian beach ever). It felt so incongruous to be taking pictures for the HSF while surfers were wandering around and hip hop music was blaring from the Muscle Beach Gym. Didn't Mr. Cation do a great job snapping photos at opportune moments so as to avoid too many obviously anachronistic elements?

Black and white, now, because that's really Victorian.
It's too bad I don't know how to photoshop those sunbathers out of the picture!  

Although my materials weren't originally included in my stashbusting fabric list, the sheet and the notions have both been in my possession for over six months, if not more, so I'm counting it as a stashbusting project!


  1. I really love it! You look too poised to be a confused time-travelling Victorian Sunbather, but otherwise that's what it makes me think of seeing you on the beach with the rest of the Venice Beach crowd.

  2. Too cute! It really is amazing how far we've come - consider that what used to be a skimpy swimsuit is now a rather modest dress. Thanks for the history lesson in pictures!
    Also, pintucks are awesome. Every time I see them I'm reminded of how much I like them. If I ever sew a woven fabric again I'll have to do pintucks...

  3. How cute, you make the best Victorian Beach Postcard. Your review of old bathing costumes was very entertaining.

  4. The sheet and bias tape were put to good use. And, ooh, sash!

  5. This is so cute! I was expecting something very costume-y and not wearable in daily life, but you really could wear this as a summer dress. Well done!

  6. Great dress with a good beachy/sailor vibe! Mission accomplished! =)

    I just bought a vintage '50s middy dress pattern that I'm looking forward to making at some point.

    ~ Brooke

  7. the petal sleeves are, in my opinion, perfection. what a great detail to include that takes the whole ensemble (already awesome) to a new level.

  8. It looks lovely! I love the petal sleeves and the trim. You look so cute walking along the beach!

  9. The dress looks absolutely lovely! I really like the petal sleeves, I have never seen those before!

  10. You're so cute! I love the red and white and the petal sleeves.

  11. What a lovely take on a classic! This is one of my all-time favorites of your projects!

  12. This is amaaaaazing! I love the history lessons with the garments :) I would wear that dress every day of summer!

  13. I love those sleeves. I think the Victorian women must have only got wet to their ankles. It most certainly could be worn as an everyday garment. Very classy.

  14. It's so cute! I love red and white together, so this is automatically a win for me! I also really enjoyed your collection of historical inspiration!

  15. Cute! Really like the petal sleeve detail. You just need a cat in the photos tho!

  16. Awesome outfit! I love all the authentic elements that you incorporated into your design and the fact that you made it all from your stash! It looks adorable on you and very wearable in today's time. You are an inspiration!

  17. This is CUTE! I LOOOOOOOOOVE it! Way to make something so authentic that's totally wearable today! You, miss, are made of win!

  18. Cindy, this is AWESOME! While this be all kinds of ye olde rad-e it's also totally wearable today... though as a cool dress. Swimming would be touch in that number...

  19. Super cute! I've always wanted to make a Victorian swim outfit (kind of like the one Helena Bonham carter wears in Sweeny Todd)...

  20. It's charming, really fresh and summery. Gorgeous!

  21. I love it! Your petal sleeves are perfect!

  22. I love this!! It's perfectly summery, not over the top, and those petal sleeves are just so pretty!

  23. beautiful!! I haven't seen this kind of sleeve very often, is it typically Edwardian?

  24. I really love this and I'm not a fan of sailor collars usually! But the higher start you identified is what makes it. I love the colour combo and the lovely sash too. Gorgeous!


Thank you for taking the time to tell me your thoughts! I appreciate reading them and I try to reply to most, if not all, comments, especially when they are questions. I ask that you keep your comments polite, and if you're a spammer, don't bother because your comment will just be deleted! Also, if you're commenting on a post that's more than two weeks old, it will be moderated.