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Q and A Article, by Lisa Schnapp (bonnet) of Bustledress.com. All original, written content and photographs are all copyrighted personal property of Lisa Schnapp, and are not to be reused without permission.
Q: What elements do you feel produces the best reproduction Victorian gowns that create your term, "Costume Couture?"

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A: LS: Having 28 years experience dealing with authentic Victorian and Edwardian clothing, besides running my specialty antique clothing website, so although I am not a seamstress persay, but a self-taught sewer, I feel as though I have plenty of real world credentials to be able to answer this question with credibility...Although there are many ideas, opinions and beliefs in the matter, it is my conviction that the most realistic, least "costumy" Reproduction gowns are actually all about what's on the inside... Stable inside structure components are what gives a period correct "silhouette" to transport a wearer to the fit of another era. And this precise fitting just dosen't just mean the line of your corset! Of course, that will help, but that is a fraction of what goes on behind the seams as any runway clothier will tell you! Here are some of my previous one-of-a kind creations with some of my thoughts on what helps to create a wonderful and unique, artistic, old-time gown experience, with "Costume Couture," a term coined by my husband to describe bustle gowns that should be catwalking the runway in the Paris shows.


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So how do structure components to give a period correct "silhouette?"

A: LS: Each gown bodice has an inside core construction for strength and "body form." This inner foundation work is the integral basis for how a structural gown will shape your body. And yes, I said shape your body. Similar to how a well-constructed girdle responds to bodily curves. Clinging in the right places. Inner layers should be natural and breathable fabrics whenever possible. They should hug and move harmoniously, comfortably to the form. Curved areas should never bag, bunch or pinch. Inside boning helps to assist to support seams from collapsing and wrinkling and stay upright, but many gowns are made without bones, and still have plenty shaped support. It's the integrity of each fabric layer, and how each piece fit together as a whole that I believe is the most critical aspect of antique dressmaking.

Below is a flat-lined Victorian style evening bodice, as you can see, in Victorian fashion, the silk seams and layers are all neatly treated as one piece each, and the bones are sewn close to the body, not bagged and encased in layers. By "flatlining," a seamstress must finish seam edges as they are not encased inside another lining. What is nice is that this treatment makes future altering easier to get to. Note the correct use of underarm guards...bustle gown

This is why I believe in flatlining, interlinings, and using tailor's pads whenever possible--but not every gown requires such support, nor should it be used every time. I rarely use floating and bagged inner linings as I feel they usually do not add much internal integrity and overall wearing strength, but occasionally I like to try something different. I make my outfits so they are "apparel grade" quality so they will last a long, long time.

In my own handmade gowns, I make sure each garment is firmly sewn together, often with twice sewn seams. I frequently perform much additional hand sewing, especially on special details such as handmade appliques', lace, special trims and pleats, so this extra strengthening can occasionally make some alterations a little difficult to take apart layers, etc. I never suggest interior alterations more than 2" larger or smaller in any case- such large amounts of altering often can skew any garment's built-in shape. Also, depending on the garment, occasionally alterations may not be advised or suggested at all, due to elemental concerns, such as: scarring silk, damaging a Victorian handbeaded applique' or making patterns not match up, rear drapery become unbalanced due to making longer, etc., unless I advise it.

I have often been told that even without wearing the proper undergarments my gowns look good on. I take that as a huge compliment. It is my experience that even with a corset and underneath foundation petticoats, a poorly constructed gown will not look as wonderful as it could if it had just a bit more structure, or even weight balancing the different fundamental constituents of the garment, especially hems. This is where tailoring effects come into play, such as precise fabric seam pressing, the use of dry steam and sewn-in woven interfacings, dress weights and weighted pleats. I cannot make any alterations, but I can put you in touch with someone who can.bustle gown


With all of the good patterns available now, why don't more of todays Reproductions look more realistic, and less costumy?

A: LS: My favorite Reproduction gowns are the ones that you almost mistake an item as being a true Victorian item. Problem is, I believe there are many challenges for a modern sewer to bridge the era gaps before that can happen.

Even in the Victorian era, patterns were scarce until the turn of the century. Many home seamstresses copied gowns they saw in fashion plates and what they often saw on the street as many could not afford a seamstress or travel to the nearest town to find a needle woman or tailor. Many ladies were taught to sew as soon as they could hold a needle, so clothing alterations besides embroidery could be utilized, except for the high born and upper middle-class. Often, the middle to lower classes took to making their own garments and pieced apart old gowns to use as a general pattern. What I have found studying the innards of thousands of old garments is that well thought out foundation layers are one thing most of these old beauties has in common. The less foundation, the less structured and stiff the gown, also making it less formal. Again, softer, less shaped gowns did exist, but less found made for interactions with others for the moneyed market.

Some modern reproduction patterns take shortcuts, omit period details, and or, just do not go into enough detail about small things that make a big difference in the overall effects...such as the importance of structure, well-chosen linings and interfacings, or wired areas such as a Revers collar or using bias strips on edges, besides many others. They just expect all sewers to know innately what they need to do. If a good seamstress who has never seen or studied the insides of authentic Victorian gowns before beginning a Victorian project, I feel it can be difficult to understand what methods and fabric types actually were employed then. Or, if a detail actually existed generally in each progressive era.
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Is fabric type important? You say you often use vintage parts?

A: LS: Fabric choices are supremely important! Both in gown fabric drape and overall effect. Synthetics often pill more, especially under arms and many do not breathe well. Biggest difference between old fabrics and modern fabrics is nowadays I think is that modern fabrics are rarely woven the same or made of the same 100 percent natural fibers throughout. Or, if they are found, prices can be price prohibitive, especially when a gown requires 10 yards or more. So, a dressmaker is constantly on the prowl for the most exquisite fabric choices possible. Silk, cotton, wool, and natural blends are usually my first choices for gowns or items, besides being beautiful and breathable, Poly, acetate, rayon and acrylic blend fabrics didn't exist in the day. It is my experience most modern synthetics or blends do not lay or drape properly. Most contemporary fabrics have too much buoyancy in the weave- and not enough crispness to make a garment crinkle in the right areas. There is often a plasticity in the fabric face that often comes across as glaring with these fabrics, so I feel that often times they are best for certain trims, not most dress bodies (but, there are always exceptions.). I find these to often tend to look plasticy, or with shiny faces that can be distracting in the light of day, so I am very careful where/ when/ if they are implemented. For instance, for lining a train one of these fabrics may be strong and stain resistant... much thought is exercised when such fabrics are utilized in a gown design.

I also prefer vintage fabrics, or modern fabrics that are usually not overly busily patterned, bright, or too modern or "new" looking. I prefer antique colors such as jewel tones and some light-tones, like "candlelight." Sometimes these great old, strong fabrics give such great effects, they may have tiny flaws like a tiny spot, or a pinhole, which I fully disclose in the auction listing. I consider it a small price to pay to be able to find and use such delicious fabrics. I guess I have kind of a "Shabby Chic" kind of preference. Too-new looking items often stand out to me as a reproduction usually straightaway. I always make sure they are strong enough to handle wearing.

For myself, I prefer a gown that looks more like the real thing, so I often dye my fabrics/ trims/ laces and frequently make my own patterns to achieve this effect! I'm not opposed to using already made patterns (and there are many fabulous ones out there...) but more often than naught, I just want to implement my own original ideas.


Do you ever restyle old or new costume pieces?

Absolutely- It was very common to alter garments through the ages. I have even seen authentic Victorian gowns made from 17th century fabrics, made in the 1860's... altered in the 1870's, then changed again one last time in the Edwardian period as well! I will always let you know if I have altered a costume garment or if it was previously an altered item before coming into my care. I never alter an authentic gown, except for subtle mends, and always will mention any such treatment.

Sometimes, a costume gown may have great "foundation bones" but I feel the need to restyle an existing garment, or add a vintage pieces such as lace, appliques, ribbons, fabrics to a new gown to give it more of an authentic period flavor... Sometimes the "Inspire" bug hits me when I see a fabric, look at a photo, or an antique gown or vintage periodical, and I recieve the call to create a certain gown! You never know when the inspiration or desire's going to strike.


So, if a bodice has to have "body," does a skirt have structure as well?

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A: LS: Preferably speaking, yes! Generally, if a gown has a very structured bodice, the skirt should also generally have lining and a structured hem. It often will have caged under bones, inner-foundation ruffles, dust ruffles and dress weights for weight and overall gown balance. These additions also help keep the wind from kicking up your skirt at an inopportune moment!

Of course, there are many exceptions to this loosely applied rule, especially when using super lightweight fabrics such as, gauzes, batistes, voiles and silks that do not utilize a firmly designed body, such as morning wrappers, Watteaux front or backs, or gowns with a purposefully flowing, loose, non-weighted hem. Or, sometimes the hem effect is purposely meant to be flowing such as a loose flounce or ruffle. Often, there may be other elements that are "breezy" and look unstructured as well...like pinked ribbons, airily ruched gathers, ribbon loops handmade flowers and many other treatments. I try to experiment with variations of different ideas, so each item made by me is one-of-a-kind. I do not duplicate gowns. Each is a separate, stand alone, work-of-art.
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Most Victorian bustle gowns are known for the look of structure and control so, I like to think of these gowns as fitted drapery. Controlled cascading lushness. I use as many as these old techniques as possible, as they really give a vintage feeling to the overall effect like the striped gown, which displays loose ruffles at the bottom, plus a looser apron bustle drape built on old style tapes. These types swing and swirl loosely around a lady's ankles as a garment is worn. A ruffle edged petticoat helps to give the flowing aspect support.

What kind of gown details do you use?

A: LS: I particularly enjoy gowns that are "over the top." Meaning with all the fancy yet tasteful "bells and whistles", dangle balls, passementaries, thing-a-ma-jigs, thingy-boppers...I want them all! And my own gowns reflect this taste for the unusual and lush trimmings. I prefer real silks, velvets and soft fabrics and use antique, vintage and modern parts, and dyes and paints to create these effects. I love unusual collars, cuffs, poufs and panels. The Victorians rarely shied away from classy, eye turning embellishments. I often hand bead appliques, or use beading panels, Victorian appliques,' handmade laces, pleats, vintage or handmade flowers, hand-dyed or hand-made ribbons. I also use Victorian Mother-of-pearl pieces like belt buckles and mine-cut rhinestones. More often than naught, authentic Victorian or Edwardian metal or glass buttons with metal shanks. So, basically anything that looks real that I can get my hot little hands on.

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The Victorians were experts at giving clever secret messages with the languages of giving flowers and in their the sign language of using fans. In this fern green gown shown, there is a secret message hidden here that you may not realize at first glance. The message is "Rebirth."

To explain; the green silk dress body is embroidered overall with small, silk satin flowers falling into the iridescent green background. The golden-brown panel ruching signifies rich soil, and the gold applique drape shows the old flowers that had fallen before. The red flower has risen through the pleated layer of greenery to become richly colored and full, and larger and full of life than ever before.

I'm also fond of making secret pockets, lover's knots to signify days and years, and adding handsome small watches, fobs, handmade pins, bodacious bonnets or feathered hats for my auctions, but that is another section in this article in itself. I often give small unexpected surprises as well. I cannot tell you what they may be on this page, you have to win an auction and then wait and see!

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Do you ever make any other gowns than bustle gowns?

A: LS: Oh yes! And I make sure they are made of fine fabrics, with rich trimmings and lots of period sewing details. You can be sure there's lots of inner structure too!

Shown below are an "Elise Mc Kenna 'Somewhere in time'" style silk parachute gown, a 1912 silk cabbage gown (made for and worn by my grandma for her 90th birthday.
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After she was all dolled up, she exclaimed, "Honey, I feel like a Countess!" Wasn't she a hottie? So sadly, she passed away late last year at 95...We will miss her sweet spirit always. If it weren't for my dear Gram, I would never have a love for fine fabrics as she was an avid quilt maker. I will always be grateful for her instilling that love of fabric inside me.) There's also a Scarlet O' Hara type barbecue gown, made from Emerald green toile and black velvet.

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You make your own bonnets and hats?

A: LS: LOL, every chance I get! I make them to match my gowns, and frequently add beads, sequin trees, antique feathers, vintage or antique silk flowers, and silk variegated ribbons and velvets among others.bustle gown

So what prompted you to make the switch from selling all those authentic Victorian gowns to making your own?

A: LS: No switch... I still sell authentic Victorian items on Ebay plus have a website that I feature some of those great items along with reproduction and Victorian "inspired" reproduction items. Check my "About Me" to see the site. I do have kind of a funny story that signalled my rising interest in reproductions though...funny at least to me anyway...I was tapped to be a judge in a Victorian clothing contest some years ago at Lakeport 1888, Northern California. The temperatures that time of year usually tipped the 100's, and I began to panic, having nothing that could be comfortably worn outside for hours in that kind of grilling heat. (I would never wear an authentic gown in heat, even with underarm guards and layers.) So, although I had little experience making gowns, the goal was to create an easy-to-wear summer gown that was lightweight, heat resistant, and breathable! If you have ever been at a "hot" event wearing a synthetic fabric gown, you know EXACTLY what I mean. This outfit had to be washable, and didn't require an added corset or bustle, which eventually I fashioned completely out of cotton gauze ruffles, with added pink side bows.

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Now, this was quite a challenge for someone who had never made a gown completely from scratch at this time before. I pulled out a hoarded box of white cotton gauze lengths I'd Shopd away for 20 years, along with assorted embroidered pieces and begun to layer pieces upon pieces imitating elements of French gowns in my possession, until the pieces began to look like a gown. I decided on a low, cool, rectangular neck, 3/4 sleeves for movement. Short, crocheted finger-less gloves to be able to function normally. Ruffles lined the long front Basque panels, and found cotton underarm guards and used a lightweight cornstarch powder with powdered rice to help keep cool. The skirt had a round, walking skirt length all around the ruffled hem, in case we had to walk... which turned out to be very inspired thinking-- as there ended up being miles to walk-- in tall Louis heels. Good thing I had on fine, all cotton trouser socks, and thought to use the thickest foot cushions that could be found!

As events would play out, our Victorian group had a "run-in" with the "Black Barts" shooting club, and became an unwitting '"fancy lady" hostage' in a staged stagecoach "robbery." We participated in a wild, bumpy carriage ride through a parade, and walked 5 miles in the heat of noon to a restaurant with broken air conditioning. And yest, miraculously, was still comfortable! In the years since this event, I can only say it pays to sketch and plan out the comfort elements, besides the beauty of your toilettes, thoroughly. This is the difference between whether you think about saving your gown all day from stains or tearing, or you join full-heartedly in the fun for easy cleaning and care for later.

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For trims, I used pink chenille balls and pink silk bows were used as they were lightweight and soft when pressed against. I could hand-sew, mend and embroider for many years, but had no idea how to make a gown that had its own support built in, so I studied the gowns I had on hand to solve the problems that inevitably cropped up. The embroidered white lace and pink buckram bonnet had a gorgeous baby pink feather and silk ribbons.

The result took 3 long, excruciating, learning curve months to finish the outfit. And it turned out a completely handsewn gown that I was completely thrilled with. As it turned out, the tempature was 111 degrees that day, and I was as cool as one could ever hope being fully clothed in that kind of weather.

I had even spilled water on my bodice without staining it! Later, handwashed the garment without mishap. My poor compatriots were miserable in their heavy layers, thick corsets and bustles. I was so happy and cool, and received many compliments and questions asking if my gown was real. I begun to realize I could make a tasteful, realistic looking bustle gown that wasn't too "costumy," one of the main criteria that we were to base judgements on in the costume contest for "Best costume" and still be comfortable too. I was hooked!
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My friend Kate liked this white gown so much she asked to wear the white gown the next year to the next 1888 event. As you can see, with her pretty dark hair in the larger photo, she looked wonderful in it too! And of course, it helps that Kate looks both beautiful and startlingly Victorian in anything she wears!

That lace and cotton gown changed my life and how I felt about top quality reproductions ever since, years later! And now I can bring my own brand of unique, original artistic gowns in unused condition or sometimes gently worn, for to you to enjoy! Thanks for visiting!
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Q and A Article, opinions by Lisa Schnapp (bonnet) of Bustledress.com. All original, written content and photographs are all copyrighted personal property of Lisa Schnapp, and are not to be reused without permission. It is requested that you please respect the copyright. Thank you.Lisa Schnapp All
Antique Items
Victorian Costumes
Dressmaker Supplies
Articles
Victorian Steampunk Costumes/ Accessories
Victorian Steampunk Jewelry
Victorian Steampunk Costumes
Lisa Schnapp Victorian Costumes
Victorian Style Recipes

  How to take Victorian photos of your own Victorian Costume. Abigails Ateliers interview by Lisa Schnapp 09-25-2010
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1879 Victorian Natural Form Bustle Dress Fashion Plate for Study or Art 5 by Lisa Schnapp 03-26-2009
1879 Victorian Ball Gown Dress Fashion Plate for Study or Art 4 by Lisa Schnapp 03-26-2009
1879 Victorian Wedding Dress Fashion Plate for Study or Art 3 by Lisa Schnapp 03-26-2009
1879 Natural Form Bustle Dress Coat Fashion Plate for Study or Art 2 by Lisa Schnapp 03-26-2009
1878 Natural Form Bustle Gowns Fashion Plate for Study or Art 1 by Lisa Schnapp 03-26-2009
  Date of your Antique Dress ARTICLE 2 Fabulous Fakes by Lisa Schnapp 03-26-2009
  Date of your Antique Dress ARTICLE 1 Edwardian Couture by Lisa Schnapp 02-26-2009
Antique Victorian Bustle Dress Hem Pleats to study by Lisa Schnapp 02-02-2009
  Date Your Victorian Photo ARTICLE 1 by Lisa Schnapp 02-01-2009
  1870s- 1920s Beauty and Cosmetic Timeline ARTICLE by Lisa Schnapp 01-14-2009
Vintage Clothing Storage and Display TIPS by Lisa Schnapp 01-06-2009
Correct Fit and Wearing of Antique Clothes TIPS by Lisa Schnapp 01-06-2009
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Email Proprietress Lisa Schnapp at: bonnet@interx.net