Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on November 17, 2013
Since the moment I found out I was going to England, my first thought was, “The Regency ball gown I make is going to have to be the most detailed costume I have ever made!” I knew that this would be one rare opportunity when there was a legitimate reason to really go “all-out” on a costume, and I also knew that some ladies sew for months on end to make their ball gowns their best outfit of the entire year. I had seen photos of the gowns at the Grand Ball that were just dripping with seed pearls, tiny ribbon flowers, and ornate embroidery. There were brightly colored silks and regal velvets, flowing batiste gowns and frothy lace overlays. Some were fashioned from yards of silk tulle, and hand embroidered with every trim imaginable. So since I didn’t want to be underdressed for the occasion (goodness, no!), I set right to work in designing a gown that would ultimately take eight months (on and off) of hand sewing to complete. And yes, I sewed every single stitch, seam, and flower by hand! This dress did not come within ten feet of my sewing machine, and all interior seams were finished by hand stitching as well, whether French seams or overcasting.
I knew I wanted something really elaborate, so I took my inspiration from fashion plates and dresses such as these that range from circa 1818-1822. I decided that I would make puffy sleeves with lots of detail, trimmed with gathered English netting lace trim at the sleeve hem. The bodice would be puffed and smocked in the same way that the sleeve was, and the skirt would be overlaid with ivory lace to the mid-calf. From below there the silk underskirt would be trimmed with dozens of ribbon roses, and swags of gathered satin ribbon. A wide, peach ribbon would tie directly under the empire waist line, and there would be gold and pearl accents throughout. Over all, I wanted the feel of the gown to be sumptuously elegant, yet with a sweetness to it to distinguish it from anything that “Caroline Bingley” would have worn. Meticulous embellishments and creme de la creme materials? Yes! Garish colors and gaudy trims? No.
Once I had my materials chosen and ready to go, I began by drafting the sleeve pattern piece which I knew I wanted to ornament with puffy “smocking” of sorts that was really just hand-stitched circular gathers laid out in a honeycomb pattern. In between each triangular “smocked” portion I sewed an ivory pearl to add some sparkle and interest to the design.
Once this initial embellishment was done, I could then French seam the sleeve side seam and sew the sleeve binding on.
After months of using up my spare time in the evenings to hand sew this garment, the pieces were all finally in one piece and all that remained was to trim it. Using yards of ivory satin ribbon that was gathered by hand to resemble a double-ruffle, I created a swag that mirrored the lower curve of the lace overlay. In even intervals in between each curve, I stitched one of the hand-sewn ribbon flowers, sincerely hoping that the flowers would stay in place while I was dancing!
Once all the ribbons and roses were attached to the lower edge of the garment, I proceded to trim the bodice of the dress – because I just couldn’t wear a “plain” dress to the ball!
So the neckline was spruced up by a panel of English netting lace at the neck front, ribbon flowers were added to the shoulders, and peach ribbon cockades at the back shoulder seam… At this point the gown began to look like an elaborate wedding cake!
After hemming the dress with tiny hand stitches, I then applied a lovely delicate peach Venise style lace trim. I had not intended to use this trim for the gown, but I already had it in my “stash” of trims and it matched perfectly.
When at last the gown was completed, I laid it carefully on my sewing table so that it could remain wrinkle-free and stress-free until the last possible minute when I would pack it. I had a special compartment in my suitcase where it was stored with other soft items, and I carried it on the plane with me when I flew off to the UK because there was just no way I was going to let this gown out of my sight! After all, I had put literally hundreds of hours into sewing it, so the last thing I was going to do was risk losing it.
At last the evening arrived when I was finally going to wear this dainty creation! In my hotel room in Bath, I could hardly believe that I was truly going to the grand Regency ball at the very Assembly Rooms that Jane Austen wrote of in her novels. Gold slippers and a Swarovski crystal tiara topped off the ensemble, and of course no Regency outfit would be complete without long, ivory gloves.
From the moment we stepped into the horse-drawn carriage to be taken to the ball (because one doesn’t arrive at a ball by car, for heaven’s sake!), it truly felt as if we had stepped into a Jane Austen Netherfield Ball, with a hint of “Cinderella” thrown in for good measure. There we were in our long gloves, tiaras, and ball gowns, sitting in an old fashioned carriage that was parading through the historic streets of Bath. Everywhere we went I heard little girls squealing, “Mommy, look!” As much as it was a little girl’s dream evening, it was very much for real and very much for grown adults who were still sufficiently sentimental enough to believe that an evening like this was not to be relegated to storybooks.
The ball went off without a hitch, and the dress was perfectly wonderful to dance in. I had been concerned that the flowers might get pulled out of shape, but everything was marvelous and the gown was quite easy to move about in.
This was the event I had thought of all those long evenings of hand sewing a seam, or of intricately making dozens of flowers! And I was glad that I had put so much work into it. Lots of folks commented on my dress, and a couple of people said I had the nicest dress in the room. I’m not sure about that, but I think it was in the top two or three as far as detail goes. (Most the other ball gowns were much simpler and less trimmed.)
From seven pm until midnight we danced and danced and danced, having so much fun that I wanted to stay and never leave. We skipped through the same English country dances that Lydia did in Pride & Prejudice, dined in the same room where Miss Elliot attended a concert in the 1995 version of Persuasion, and enjoyed our ball in the same room that Jane Austen’s heroine did in Northanger Abbey. It was glorious! (Here is a video that contains dancing from that evening in the middle of the video, and there’s a much longer video clip of the dress in action on the Edelweiss Facebook page.)
The food was sumptuous, the live string orchestra was fabulous, and the whole atmosphere was more elegant than any wedding I’ve ever attended. And I danced every dance except one! Oh, it was such fun. The long hours of sewing definitely paid off in this spectacular evening! When midnight came and it was time to go, I reluctantly bid “farewell” to the most beautiful occasion I’d ever been to… (My videos here and here have some dancing from the evening.)
My gown now lays in my sewing room, carefully stored for years to come. But my ball gown days are far from over! Having been invited to a Victorian Masquerade ball at the start of the holiday season, I will soon be going to another grand and glorious occasion right here in my own state! But this time, I won’t have to sew my gown from scratch – I’ll be wearing the red velvet ball gown that I stitched last year for Christmas. And speaking of which, I’d better go put some last minute touches on it!
Happy, happy sewing,