#MyrtleMondays from Page to Seam: Making a Victorian Fancy Dress Costume

Last week’s post took you on a tour of 19th century fancy dress masquerade costumes. This week we take a deeper dive and look at one that I made!

Little Myrtle’s seaside holiday ensemble from How to Get Away with Myrtle

When the Westport Historical Society invited me to come talk for a Halloween Myrtle event, I knew that I had to bring my custom Myrtle Hardcastle doll (my gift from World Doll Day)—and that since it was a costume party, she had to come in style!

1890s French fashion plate showing fancy dress costumes: Harlequin, historical 1830s dress, and a gypsy-inspired ensemble.

Trolling Pinterest, I found several enchanting Victorian costumes, but a couple of them really caught my eye. For Little Myrtle (the 12″ model), I fancied this little Harlequin ensemble. From her diamond-print skirt to her ruffly clown collar to her Napoleon hat, I was totally smitten.

Having now brought several Victorian fashion plates to life in miniature, I am familiar with the limitations of recreating artistic representations in real-life three dimensions. This would also be the first time I was sewing for this particular doll—made even more challenging by the fact that there are no commercial patterns made to fit her figure. I was going to have to draft everything from scratch.

I began by making her a custom sloper—a pattern block fitted to her body measurements/dimensions. I removed her wig and wrapped her body in cling film to protect her, then used small pieces of tape to replicate a bodice shape for her. Marking in reference lines like the bust, waist, hips, and center front/back allows you to make sense of what you’ve done once it’s cut off her body!

A few mockups and dart adjustments later, we had a sloper!

The sloper represents a basic bodice pattern, but stylistic tweaks were necessary to replicate the darling fitted black V-neck bodice in the fashion plate. Working in felt allowed me to minimize bulk and work with tricky shapes like those tiny tabs at her waist.

Whoops! Somebody needs to trim off those loose threads…

One of the most fun challenges of sewing for dolls is finding fabrics that work with the smaller scale. In this case, I couldn’t find a perfectly-matching harlequin print fabric… so I made my own. I happened to have a white-on-white diamond-print fabric in my stash (as one does…), and set about coloring it in to match the inspiration image as closely as possible.

After several tests of various markers (including Crayola and Sharpie), Pentel fine-point markers worked best, filling in the diamonds with bold, bright color without bleeding around the white print diamonds.

I have a lifelong affection for Pentel markers: they were used in the Writing Center at my elementary school and my earliest books were illustrated with them.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Pentels aren’t colorfast (not surprising), nor do they heat set.

One spritz of water, and voila! This splendid and dramatic effect (although not exactly what I was going for). Thankfully this was just a test—to see if I could iron with steam—and the actual skirt was not damaged. So… no trick-or-treating in the rain, I guess!

Undaunted, I merely resolved to keep the skirt well clear of water.

The little fashion plate’s skirt is somewhat fanciful—that A-line shape is not really possible to achieve with a straight-across hem and perfectly-matching diamonds. In a necessary compromise, keeping the red diamonds even along the hemline required a skirt shape that was a simple gathered rectangle. To make sure there was enough fullness, I added two layers of tulle petticoat lining. (A Victorian girl would have had at least a couple of petticoats.)

Finished skirt and petticoat lining

With skirt and bodice complete, it was on to the accessories: black tights and slippers, ruffly collar, and a felt Napoleon hat (technically called a bicorn, and a traditional part of Harlequin and Columbine’s costumes).

I studied, considered, worked through, and discarded several ideas for the ruffle collar—including making it in color to match the skirt:

The rainbow organza ribbon was a little too wide, alas. (And a little too pink.)

It’s the details that make an ensemble, so I rounded everything off with Harlequin’s two little props: her beribboned staff (this seems to be a necessary accoutrement of Victorian fancy dress) and mask. And she would like it to be known that she can wear the mask:

Best for going undercover…

Of course, it’s no fun to make a costume unless you have somewhere to wear it!

At the Westport Historical Society to talk all things perilous, spooky, and mysterious!

Presiding over the Myrtle Hardcastle Detective Society display at the event (she’s sitting on an 1890s microscope case, which is apropos!)

While Little Myrtle worked the crowd, I gave a presentation on the historical inspiration behind some of the events in Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #4, In Myrtle Peril: the mysterious vanishing of the crew of the ghost ship Mary Celeste.

The setting—a Victorian mansion—was the perfect backdrop for some ghost stories, so after my presentation we all swapped our best spooky tales. Thanks to the Westport Historical Society and the Harris-Kearney House for hosting such a wonderful Myrtle Hallow’s Eve!

Getting into the spirit of things…

Whatever you’re doing for this All Hallow’s Eve, I hope you have as much fun as C.J., Myrtle, and I did dressing up and visiting the Harris-Kearney House in Westport, Kansas City!

Happy Hallowe’en!

One Response to “#MyrtleMondays from Page to Seam: Making a Victorian Fancy Dress Costume”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)