Inside an extant bustle era gown

Maybe someday somewhere someone will publish a book documenting the inside of period garments- the parts that get overlooked- the parts that are so very valuable to historical seamstresses everywhere. A book something akin to Fashion in Detail except it will feature detailed images of seams, stitch techniques, and structural applications. But alas, until then, one will only gain this knowledge by examining original garments in person- making mental notes or sketching it out in a notebook.

In the past, I have been fortunate enough to have been allowed to view small collections around the South. Garments ranged from the early 19th century to the 1920s. And whenever possible, I have acquired extant garments for my own personal collection.

Recently I purchased a bustle era gown from Past Perfect Vintage in Kentucky. It most likely dates to the 1880s and was definitely reworked about 10-15 years later to reflect the silhouette of the fin de siecle.

When looking for period pieces, I am drawn to everyday garments- pieces that were worn on a day to day basis. To me, these garments tell me the most about the past.

Fully lined bodice with no boning

The bodice of the gown was originally hand sewn. There are approximately 5 different type of stitch applications and threads used throughout this gown. This tells me not only was this gown reworked but also repaired (and possibly sized down) over the years.

Repair work
Curious thick red threads hanging at side seams
Hand stitched button holes

The hand sewing on this gown is impeccable. Whoever made this (original) gown was a very talented and meticulous seamstress. Not only are the button holes flawless but all the hand stitching is uniformly applied. The inside seams are whip stitched with the tiniest little stitches- one almost needs a magnifying glass to see them.

Sleeves may have possibly been reworked at a later date.
The armscye has a hand sewn binding.

However, whoever reworked this dress was not quite so fastidious. Most of the restyling was done to the skirt. And it has a lot of issues.

Very crudely cut edge

A variety of machine stitches on the reworked skirt

More possible repair work
Combination of hand and machine gathers
Definite machine sewing

The skirt length was let down- meaning, the original skirt was probably 2″ shorter than it is now. This is consistent with the preference for shorter hemlines in the 1880s. One can see the original hand sewn hem and the line where it originally was.

Comparison of the original hem

I estimate whoever wore this gown was probably 5’7″ or so based upon the current skirt length. I inquired about the provenance of this gown and the owner of Past Perfect Vintage stated the original owner of this gownpurchased it in 1994 from the Bunker Hill Trading Post (near Connersville, IN). Connersville is a small city in rural SE Indiana, about mid way between Indianapolis and Cincinnati. So it is most likely a southeastern Indiana or possibly southern Ohio piece.

Wherever this dress originated, it was definitely meant to be worn- and it was… for many years! A great example of how “old” garments were restyled and refashioned as silhouettes changed.

About Susan

Hi! My name is Susan and I am a historian, seamstress, teacher, mother, and wife. My passion for history has manifested itself in the art of recreating clothing from different periods of time. Growing up in the American South, I am heavily schooled in the art of recreating clothing from the 19th century. After nearly a decade of immersing myself primarily in the Victorian period, I found the need to branch out and explore other periods of time. However, it is my connection with the American South and the clothing of rural America that continues to be the driving force behind my designs.

One thought on “Inside an extant bustle era gown

  1. Dear Susan,

    what an interesting post. I love to learn more about techniques used on original garments, so I second your demand for a book about it:)
    I’m alaways amazed about the variety of stitches and I love to see how pieces have been altered with the years – this really tells a story and connects us with the past.
    Thank you very much for sharing and especially showing the detailed photos of your purchase!


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