The First Lady dress

So, that 1890s outfit thang. I finally know what I want to do.

So turns out, seems like everyone in DL is having an evening look made, and they seem to be early 1890s rather than late 1890s. Can I get a skirt and bodice done in a month, when a full 1850s dress took me 4 months?

Hugely questionable, but let’s see how far I can get. At the very least, I can get a skirt done, wear it with an edwardian blouse, and actually be dressed on stage (albeit not matching the rest of the group)

Inspiration – The dress and skirt worn by Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland, giving this dress its name of The First Lady Dress.

(All following pictures and information from this site)

The original floral chine skirt and peach velvet bodice were probably made around 1895 by the House of Doucet of Paris. The floral bodice was created later from fabric taken out of the skirt. Baltimore dressmaker Lottie M. Barton made the green velvet bodice.

Unfortunately there are no closeups of the floral bodice, only the other two.

I heart the mixing and matching going on here! My favorite is the dark green bodice, but the matching floral bodice would be a lot easier to make, so I’m going with that.



While I’m kinda into this floral georgette, I’m not sure how well it would read on stage. It would need to be lined, since it’s sheer. Additionally, since everyone else is doing a solid color, a print might be a little too different.

Instead, I’m feeling this purple silk-cotton blend from StoneMountain & Daughter (especially if they will let me use an old 20% coupon from when I took a class there. But it may be expired…) I’ll look for a darker purple to peek out under the skirt, and some super wide lace for the two tiers. There is no way I can find that dress trim (and I’m not about to make it), so I’ll just go for something wide and pretty.


Skirts are gored, with more fullness at the back than the front. A friend in Danse Libre has a Folkwear Patterns skirt pattern she can lend me, or I may try and scale up this 1895 pattern.  I can easily cut out a chunk of the bottom to show an underskirt (aka a plain muslin skirt, with a bit of purple at the bottom where it will show. Yay cheating!)


I think I’m seeing a bodice with a front seam, and two darts on each side. Huzzah, I can use Truly Victorian 1892 Ball Gown Bodice for this. I’ll sew the back seam, and move the opening to the front side to be hidden under the trim.  Never underestimate the power of being able to dress yourself. The closure will either be hooks-and eyes or snaps. (Did snaps even exist in the 1890s? According to the internet they were patented in 1885, but not in wide use until the 1900s. So this is a bit early, but wevs)


My 1850s corset. It’s really too early, but no way in hell am I making a 1890s corset, since those are about as complicated as they get. I should have a chemise, or combinations, and probably a corset cover but HAHAHAH no time for that. Tank top it is!

And a petticoat? Uhh, we’ll see. I need something to hold out the skirt, but I may just hit up the thrift stores for a long skirt or two and hope for the best.

And now for the panicking – WTF what are Belle Epoque construction methods?

Sewing machines were obviously A Thing by then, so I’ll do as much as possible by machine. But how were bodices finished? Raw seams, finished seams, piping on the edges? How many layers? How many petticoats? Unfortunately, Belle Epoque is not a hugely popular time period in the historical costuming world (greatly losing out to the bustle era before, and Edwardian after) so there are less internet resources around than I would like.

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2 Responses to The First Lady dress

  1. Cassidy says:

    Generally seam allowances in very nice things are pressed open and each side bound; if less nice, just overcast. No piping unless it’s a design element. Edges tend to be encased with collars and cuffs, or faced. I can’t say how many petticoats – that’s not really a thing you can tell from patterning! – but my suggestion would be to make the skirt first and add petticoats until you have the look you want.

    I have seen snaps on an 1886 dress that looked original to me, and on some others from the 1890s – just not for the full closure. But they were definitely in use, so you can justify it.

    I don’t know how helpful this pattern will be for you since you’re going earlier than that, but maybe the text will be useful?

    • avantgarbe says:

      Thanks for the info, this is really helpful!

      I’m actually unclear as to whether I’m aiming for early 1890s or late 1890s (the only thing I know is no mid-1890s, since ginormous puff sleeves have been vetoed by the group) so that pattern could still be useful.

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