Back in February, I was contacted by the costume designer for Six Flags Chicago’s Ignite program, and asked if I could sew, oh, about 30 Victorian dresses for the first section of the performance, which was set the night of the Great Chicago fire in 1871. Over the next few weeks, I waited with baited breath to see if this designer would get the contract, and when he did, I was finally able to start ordering in fabric and start sewing in late March!
The basic parameters were this: The dresses needed to be “quick-change” dresses, all velcro closures, skirt and bodice, and in varying shades of cream and neutral tones, to make the wearers look like they stepped out of a sepia photograph. They needed to have bustles built into the skirts of the dresses, and bascially reflect the styles of the 1870’s. Once all of the casting was done, the final count was slimmed down to 21 dresses that I would have to sew, but an accident with a drunk driver (in which I could have died) close to the final deadline caused me to have to bow out on the last two, which the ladies at the costume shop at Six Flags did. So, I sewed 19 different Victorian dresses in total. I am going to only very briefly summarize them, because if I went into deep detail, I would most likely bore even the most avid costuming fans among you to tears. Also, I am still waiting on the professional photos of the actresses wearing these costumes, so I only have the pictures I took in my sewing room. Please excuse the poor lighting.
The first set of dresses I finished were for the “Vendor Girls”. These were supposed to represent poorer working class girls selling, well, whatever vendor girls would sell on a fine summer evening in Chicago in 1871. (And yes, everyone is fully aware that the Great Chicago Fire occurred in the fall. It was important to the musical story line that the fire be in the summer.)
This is the dress for Vendor Girl #1. It is made of off-white linen and trimmed with lace and yellow linen. It was also the first dress I made. I didn’t like the pattern I used for it very much, so it didn’t get used again for any of the other dresses.
This is the dress for Vendor Girl #2. I might have gone a little bit crazy with the ruffles, but hey, it was fun! Again, all linen.
Vendor Girl #3. Again, very simple, 3/4 length sleeves, but this time I added buttons on top of the velcro closure and a sash, instead of ruffles or a collar. And in the back of that sash…
I put a ginormous bow. I used the wonderful bow making tutorial over at Historical Sewing to get me started, and let me tell you– I am now addicted to making big bows! They are so fun and add such a wonderful pop! Plus, they are all sewn, so they can’t come untied! Linen dress, with a cotton sash and bow.
After the vendor girl dresses, there were the dresses for the Dance Hall Ladies. There were supposed to be six of them, but due to the aforementioned accident, I only made five. Here they are, in all their glory.
Dance Hall Lady #1: This was one of the only dresses I managed to sew in only one day, cutting to finishing. And yes, I did flatline the bodice, and finish the seams, and do my best, if my best rushed, job. And I ruffled up about 5 yards of can-can netting for that bustle.
I adore that peplum. I think the peplum is a far-too-often forgotten detail in Victorian clothing, but it adds just such a nice touch to this dress.
And the collar. Lace!
Dance Hall Lady #2: This dress was done on the last day of the big stretch, and was made of this material that, well, I can’t say it was my favorite. The gold was a strange stiff grosgrain type stuff that was not much fun to sew, but did have nice body and hold its shape well, especially in the sleeves! The green was a very thin polyester satin that was a bit slippery to sew down.
There is no netting or lining or stuffing in that sleeve. The fabric does that on its own. Wow!
Dance Hall Lady #3: Again, all linen, with an apron drape on the skirt and another bodice with a peplum. I really liked the teal striped linen, and actually have a bit leftover that might find its way into a future project. You never know!
Dance Hall Lady #5: Linen, white with a grey pinstripe, with lavender trim. This dress was fun, and unusual. It was based on an original that was all dark grey and lavender, if I remember right, and had the most unusual collar! Of course, I had to make that collar.
The original also had a very strangely shaped bustle. To add some variety, I went ahead and made that strange shaped bustle too!
I am really not sure I ever want to do that bustle again.
Dance Hall Lady #6: This has got to be one of my favorite dresses. I searched high and low for an appropriate colored lace I could use to trim this dress. It is based on an original, but the original was dark teal satin with black lace. Oh-la-la! This one is the same shape, with shorter sleeves and a color change.
Two drapes over the back of the skirt, and the bodice has a tail!
Now THAT is the kind of bustle I am talking about! I think this bustle was so successful because the fabric was light and had body, I flatlined it with netting, ruffled lots of netting to poof underneath, there were a lot of layers, and also the lace stiffened the edges. I started with eight yards of lace, and had about… 6 inches left?
After the Dance Hall Ladies, there were the Fancy Ladies. Three of them, in fact, and I went all out on the sumptuous fabrics and trimmings. Everything was high fashion with these ladies!
Fancy Lady #1. Rich satin, lavender brocade for the trim and drape, and of course a big bow at the waist and two smaller bows at the elbows. This is the plainest of the three fancy lady dresses.
Figuring out the drape for this one was difficult. I had a sketch that I was supposed to follow, but… it only showed the front of the dress, not how the drape was finalized in the back. So I played until I liked it.
Fancy Lady #2. This is the only Polonaise-style dress in the whole batch. They take just too much darn time. And this one had a lot of ruffles too! And my sewing machine broke midway through. Boo! Then on the next dress, my ruffler foot broke. (I can’t remember which dress that was…
See? There are ruffles on the back of the bodice too!
Fancy Lady #3. This was getting close to the end of the sewing rush. This dress was made of not fewer than three fashion fabrics. The skirt was a deep gold tucked taffeta, the bodice was a light gold satin, and the apron drape was a very soft rose charmeuse (all polyester.)
Then there were a couple of non-numbered dresses.
The Young Mother, which had a lovely gold bodice and a cream skirt, with a ginormous bow at the neck.
This dress was nice, to have a simpler dress for a change, right in the middle of the fancy lady dresses. Also it is the same gold material as Dance Hall Lady #2.
The Pigeon Feeder. Yep, that was her actual character name. I wanted to make this dress quite a bit more elaborate, but it was made on the last day. You do what you can with the time given.
It did have a nice bustle, though! (Again, thanks to lots of ruffled netting. I went into Hancock’s and cleaned them out, about 20 yards. The ladies asked if that was too much, I said, probably not enough. I used that up and bought 30 yards online. Used all of that. Went back to Hancock’s, bought another 20 yards… I have maybe 5 yards left right now.)
After the assorted dresses, there were the Teenage Girls and the Little Girls. Their dresses were so fun, because they got to be super young and flirty!
Teenage Girl #1. I made all the teenage girl dresses slightly short with a flounce at the bottom edge, to reflect the fashion of the time which had teenage girls wearing dresses shorter than adults. Then I filled in the rest of the distance to the ground with a flounce of lace, to look like petticoats and hide their modern shoes!
I just love how sweet this bodice turned out. It’s just lovely.
Teenage Girl #2 This dress is all linen, except for the cotton eyelet lace.
Teenage Girl #3. Based on an original dress, the original was red with white trim, but I thought pink would be cute. Also I thought that the sleeveless look could be very cute on a young girl.
I didn’t give the teenage girls very large bustles. I thought that would be a little too adult for them.
We have another sash with a bow. Bows are just adorable.
Little Girl #1. Here I was faced with an interesting challenge. Adult women were playing the little girls. I needed styles that would fit an adult, but definitely look “little-girly”. Also, I needed to reduce the bust. I made the bodices nice and loose, and gave them full poofy skirts, with fullness all around! And lots of bows. This dress had six bows around the skirt edge, and a false pinafore, with bands of trim going from the sash over the shoulders and into a bow in back.
Lots of lace and bows are a good thing on little girl dresses!
Little Girl #2. The actress was so tiny, at 5’1″ or shorter, that the dress wouldn’t quite fit on my dress form. The yellow around the bottom of the skirt was just on the fabric on the bolt, and was too awesome not to use!
Of course I gave her a bow in back…
And two little bows on top of the sleeves!
Little Girl #3. For the last little girl dress, I had another conundrum. The “little girl” was 5′ 7″! I didn’t think I could make her very believable as a very young child, and I didn’t want to make her feel ridiculous, so I decided to go with an adolescent style. Slightly bustled, but still short-ish, and little girly and frilly and pink. I think I succeeded.
I actually really like how the bustling turned out. It was cute!
So there ends my tale of sewing for Six Flags. It was a great experience, but it will take a lot of convincing to get me to sew that many dresses on such a short deadline again. As it was, I had to call in a friend to help on the last day of sewing! It was very stressful, and just too many weeks of overtime sewing to really be worth it. But, I’m finally back on my normal schedule, and able to work on my own projects on weekends and evenings again, and I would call it a success!
Thanks for reading!