Sewing Project: 1880s-1890s Corset and Dress

With only three days left in the year, I have a lot of catching up to do if I want to cover all my 2012 sewing projects!

Today’s entry will focus on an 1880s-1890s corset and dress that I made for historical reenactment purposes. My character is a fictional 1890s schoolteacher from Illinois who travels to Oklahoma to participate in a land run. She stakes her own claim and manages a small farm while teaching school in a nearby town. Bonus: she carries a revolver for protection. She’s based on a real person named Elizabeth Cunes, and you can read her fascinating story here. It’s a lot of fun to pretend to be this character and entertain groups of children and adults with the story.

First, let’s look at the corset. I used Laughing Moon’s Victorian underwear pattern and made the Silverado corset, which has bust gores and a longer line. My research indicated that this is the correct style for the 1880s-1890s. I had never made a corset before, though I knew a lot about corset styles and construction. Fortunately, this pattern is excellent. It fit me perfectly so I didn’t have to adjust it, though I removed two of the four bust gores. Using all four gives you a LOT of room, which is great if you need it, but I’m rather well-endowed and I didn’t need them.

In fact, the only problem I had was with the boning that I purchased and it was partly my fault. I purchased my supplies from, which has got to be the best corset supply website out there, but I followed some bad advice I read somewhere about it being OK to use plain steel boning throughout the Silverado. Bad, bad, BAD advice! If you are making this corset, don’t use plain steel boning throughout the entire corset! It’s fine for the four straight boning channels at the back along the lacing grommets, but the rest of the corset needs spiral steel. Plain steel boning bends in two directions: front and back. Spiral steel bends in four directions: front, back, right, and left. Some of the channels in the Silverado wrap around the body (see photos below) and plain steel just doesn’t bend that way. Spiral steel will.

I’ll say it again: use spiral steel. Got it? Good! And make sure you use a really sturdy fabric like coutil or twill. Don’t fall for the idea of a corset made in pretty lightweight cotton fabric. It will rip. I have another corset made from plain cotton and it’s already ripping apart along the boning channels. That said, lightweight cotton is fine for the corset lining, which won’t be as strained as the exterior. For this corset, I used off-white twill for the exterior and quilter’s cotton in a pretty rose print for the lining.

Let’s look at the corset.


Front view. For some reason, there are ripples on the seams. I think it’s because the bones are slightly shorter than the channels — it’s nearly impossible to make them fit exactly — and the corset is scrunching a bit along the bones. This corset also doesn’t fit very well on Joan because her body isn’t as squishy as mine. She’s made of a very sturdy foam instead of flesh and blood, so I couldn’t lace her up properly. Oh well. What really matters is that this corset fits me perfectly. It molds my figure into the correct shape for the time and it’s comfortable. I know, I just put “corset” and “comfortable” in the same sentence. It’s true! A well-made properly-fitted corset feels comfortable. It hugs your body without squeezing your guts and it provides excellent support for your bust and your back (which is great if you get back muscle spasms like I do).


Side view. Note how the spiral steel bones wrap around the body.


Here’s a view of the lacing in the back. I love how this corset creates a lovely curve down the back!


Inside view of the rose print lining. This print is very similar to some other prints I have seen from the 1890s.

Now for the dress. I used Past Patterns 903, which is also an excellent pattern with good instructions. The dress is accurate for the period and it’s nearly identical to the dresses seen in photographs from Oklahoma’s land runs. The only alteration I made is that I skipped adding the pockets because I had a pressing deadline. I chose an 1800s reproduction print fabric for the dress and lined it with plain white muslin. I also selected mock mother-of-pearl buttons with tiny floral carvings that were similar to buttons I saw on dresses from the 1890s. I also bought a late 1800s carved shell cameo and used it to fasten the neck closed. It’s a lovely piece that can also be used as a pendant, so it’s highly versatile!


Front view. The skirt is a bit limp because I no longer have a petticoat for this dress. I guess I need to make one!


View of the bodice. There are some fitting issues due to the fact that I had to fit the muslin on myself in front of a mirror instead of a dress form. I’d like to go back sometime and refit the bodice by adjusting the darts and side seams. Fashion in the 1880s-1890s dictated that bodices must be snug! Also, in hindsight, I almost wish I’d cheated a bit and put some light interfacing into the collar so it wouldn’t start to droop from wear. On the other hand, I guess it’s more accurate this way.


I love these sleeves! Sorry for the wrinkles. I’ve worn this dress a few times and the sleeves are very difficult to iron.


Back view. Note the fitting issues around the lower back. Again, I can go back and fix this. The shoulders fit perfectly though.


A peek inside the bodice. Scandalous!

Fitting issues aside, it’s a lovely dress and it looks much better on me than it does on a dress form, especially when I’m wearing a jaunty straw hat and carrying a revolver!


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