From Page to Seam: A “Mysterious” Outfit for Caroline

I have a new miniature Victorian costume to share! This one was inspired by a fascinating photograph I found—a spirited Young Lady of Quality in a striking and unusual ensemble. Read more to learn what a little sleuthing revealed about this outfit.

The outfit in this photograph is a bit of a historical costuming mystery.  You can learn a lot about historical photographs and fashion plates with a little close study, such as the approximate age of the subject and the garment’s era, from several factors: How long is the hemline? When was this style popular? In what decade were the colors trendy? But sometimes garments try to trick you. This ensemble is pretending to be something it’s not: a look popular during the 1860s, with a cropped jacket, full skirt, and wide belt.

Back in the day, the look was sported by both girls and boys

And was popular for all ages. (This young woman is the spitting image of my friend Jenn!)

But the clarity of the photograph, the model’s hairstyle, and the overall silhouette of the ensemble feel much later—more 1890s-1900. You can see that in our Inspiration Photo, all the Civil War-era parts are there: Cropped jacket, check. Full skirt, check. Belt, check. But the proportions don’t look exactly right for the 1860s. The skirt is narrower at the hips and with less bell-like volume. The half-up hairstyle feels out of place. Even her posture looks different (implying another era’s undergarments). What’s going on here?

That’s right: this is a Civil War Revival style! Just like today, fashion repeated itself, drawing inspiration from earlier decades. These elements enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity at the end of the century, but they adapted the vintage looks to current tastes. Victorian fashionistas wanted to look modern and trendy, not dated and old-fashioned.

This 1896 French fashion plate shows the influence in its short jacket and corset-shaped belt, but with the up-to-date silhouette. These belts were known as Swiss waists or Medici belts, and in turn took their inspiration from earlier styles (like the Italian Renaissance from which they borrow a name).

Catherine de Medici by Claude Corneille de Lyon, 1536. (Where’s your belt, Cathy?)

Historical costumers become practiced at sleuthing out these clues and recognizing the silhouettes popular in various decades of the past. When I spotted this photo, I was immediately captivated. I could tell it was from the last decade of the 19th century—Myrtle and friends’ era—but the overall look was unlike most girls’ outfits of the day. I wanted to know what was going on… and, of course, recreate it myself!

Caroline on her first day home, transformed from the 2020s to the 1890s. A new doll, she was barely played with (her original clothes were still sewn to her cloth body), but her hair still needed some TLC. I brushed it smooth, although the tight curls can be restored with boiling water and curlers.

I had a particular doll model in mind for my replica, Myrtle’s friend Caroline Munjal, who joined the fold last year (my husband, who has picked up a few things while married to a crime writer, spotted her stockinged feet peeking out from a pile of toys at a thrift store!). I’ve not had a chance to sew something specifically for her, and her resemblance to the model in this photo made it seem fated.

The first step was getting as close a look at the image as I could. Zooming in on the photo revealed the first fascinating clue: there’s a distinct dotted pattern to the fabric of the skirt and the jacket. That could be polka dots, which first took their (completely random) name in the 1850s, or it might be a woven-in texture. I liked the idea of a dot print, so I started my hunt for dots that looked Victorian.

This pretty burgundy foulard print cotton recalled fabrics from the Victorian era.

This French textile sample book would have been provided to drapers or dressmakers to choose fashionable fabrics for their clients. (In my novel A Curse Dark as Gold, protagonist Charlotte spends time pasting samples of her own mill’s wares into just such a book.) These small repeating prints on solid backgrounds became known as “foulards.” The style survives today, especially in men’s neckties.

The color was close to Caroline’s skintone, so I departed from the inspiration image to brighten things up and bring contrast with some royal blue trim and accent pieces.

The second surprise came as I was studying her jacket. What I first thought was wide ruffly lapels and a sporty necktie revealed itself to be a capelet—an unusual feature that appears to be all this outfit’s own. We do see large ruffles near the shoulder on some girls’ dresses of the age:

And some doll dresses!

And neckties of various sorts jazzed up shirtwaists:

And look: polka dots!

So you can understand how I was misled. But the more I studied the clues in our Inspiration Photo, the better I understood what she’s wearing. A capelet it is!

Capelets, while popular, were usually seen in outerwear:

A girl’s Ulster style coat from the 1880s. Read more: Dressing the Victorian Detective

The crisp skirt with its two box pleats was the clearest element in the photograph. The wide belt and the V-shaped seaming of the skirt yoke echo the Medici style belts.

In the pictures of the full ensemble (with the desk and the rug), she’s wearing a petticoat, and you can see what a big difference the proper undergarments make to fill out the skirt (it’s a wee bit droopy here).

The last element was the lovely shirtwaist, with its dramatic, flowy cuffs. It’s harder to make out the details of the blouse’s front, but it appears to have some lacy trim, fluffing out over her belt. I auditioned various styles of shirtwaist and iterations of those flowy sleeves (remember the recent cat surgery? While hanging out with Leo during his recovery, I looked at hundreds of shirtwaist sleeves!) before settling on simple gathered lace trim. Her shirtwaist fabric is a pale blue pinstriped shirting, and it coordinated beautifully with some lovely antique lace with soft blue accents in my stash. This simple treatment keeps the spirit of the original garment without trying to replicate it exactly. Some bias trim and pearl buttons add the perfect finish.

Studying the history of science late into the night…

To further connect Caroline’s costume, the inspiration garment, and the historical origins of the style, I adapted a pattern for 1860s-70s era doll garments for the skirt and jacket, and used a later-era shirtwaist pattern for her blouse. The Medici belt was drafted from scratch.

Patterns from Butterick and Flossie Potter

I am just delighted with how well this whole outfit turned out. From mentally dissecting the inspiration photo; to tracking down just the right patterns, fabrics, and trims; to tweaking the patterns to replicate the original garment; to the final photoshoot, Caroline’s Mystery Outfit has turned out just exactly as I envisioned!

Even the back view looks good.

From Page to Seam: An 1890s Civil War Revival Style Ensemble for a Young Lady of Quality

You can enjoy more sleuthing with Caroline Munjal in the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries!

While we’re at it, Peony and Little Myrtle show off some hometown spirit. Go Chiefs! Read More: Sports for Victorian Girls

2 Responses to “From Page to Seam: A “Mysterious” Outfit for Caroline”

  1. J. Hyde

    Love Caroline’s outfit and the research that went into it. Great work! <3

  2. Debby Chase Putman

    Elizabeth, I loved this blog! I am my family’s historian and often track photographs just as you described. Beautifully told in a way that makes the arduous quest romantic and charming. The outfit you created is perfect and very much fits Caroline as I envision her as well. Thanks for the treat this morning!