Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Hungarian Coronation Gown: a quick n'dirty runthrough.

For Costume College 2017 Gala I recreated the Hungarian coronation gown of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (a.k.a. "Sisi"). Since a few people have expressed interest in the research and construction process, I've written up a quick summary. I have no plans to make detailed blog posts about the research or construction - unfortunately I just do not have the time. But hopefully this will at least be helpful to those who wish to recreate the Hungarian coronation gown, or a gown made of similar materials and construction techniques.

Note, I am not directly linking to every possible source because 1. I'm lazy and 2. it's easy for you to find most of these on your own with a simple Google search.

Wait Up, What is This Thing?
The Hungarian Coronation Gown of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, worn at the coronation after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Designed by Charles Frederick Worth and based on traditional Hungarian costume.

Naergilien’s excellent site:

Historical Sewing - too many articles to list but especially:

Full Inventory of Components:
  • Elliptical hoop made of steel hoop wire (the old fashioned kind which disappeared for awhile but has recently started to be made again) and cotton bone casing. Pattern: Truly Victorian elliptical hoop.
  • Petticoat made of cotton muslin and covered in stiff cotton organdy ruffles. Muslin from Joanns, organdy from Puresilks. Petticoat started life as a full mockup of the skirt, in order to get the train length/shape and waist pleats perfect. Petticoat was then covered with cotton organdy ruffles (fork pleated, I love pleating with forks), which are not sewn, but safety pinned onto the petticoat so that they can be taken off and safety pinned onto other petticoats later.
  • Hip padding made of cotton muslin bags stuffed with polyester pillow filling and attached to grosgrain ribbon ties. These were affectionately referred to as the "assbags" and served the purpose of 1. filling out the slight hollows that the elliptical hoop creates at the sides of the hip and 2. making the center back even poofier.
  • Skirt.
    • Base of skirt is white silk taffeta ("diamond white" from Renaissance Fabrics), fully flatlined with white silk organza from Dharma Trading. Yes, the original skirt was probably made of silk duchesse. I sourced several samples of silk duchesse from Puresilks, but decided that it was outside my price range and I would rather support a local woman-owned business (Renaissance Fabrics) which sells truly fantastic stuff. Lining it with silk organza gave it a heavier feel, like duchesse.
    • Pattern for both skirt and petticoat is a modified version of Truly Victorian elliptical skirt. Each gore was widened, and a approx 3-4 foot train was added (by lengthening the center back piece) to create a skirt of approximately 25 feet circumference at the hem.
    • Skirt has a deep pocket in a right side seam. Even empresses need pockets.
    • Skirt has three layers of trim:
      • 5" high row of silk knife pleats at the hem. Made of the same taffeta as the base of the skirt, pleated using two strips cut from a manila folder. Pressed and set with a vinegar solution spray and hot iron.
      • Graduated row of slightly gathered lace angling down from approximately 30" from hem at center front to 10" from hem at the train. Lace was the White Longueville lace from Renaissance Fabrics, split down the middle to get approximately 30" wide lace trim with a finished scalloped edge.
      • 1.5" wide silk trim, pleated into wide knife pleats using a fork, sewn on top of the graduated lace seam. 
  • Apron: approximately 1 yard of lace gathered onto a 8" section of a grosgrain tape waistband, finished with hook and eye at the back. Lace was the same as used on skirt trimming.
  • Bodice.
    • Pattern for bodice: front is a highly modified version of Simplicity 5724 (out of print). Back is from Truly Victorian 1860s ballgown bodice. I have no idea where the sleeve pattern is from anymore...probably from one of those two patterns.
    • Back, side back, and side front pieces of bodice are made of midnight blue silk velvet, flatlined to 1. silk organza and 2. cotton twill. These three layers were hand basted with diagonal stitches to prevent shifting, then treated as one. 
    • Front piece of bodice is made of the same white silk as the skirt.
    • Bodice is piped at the top and bottom edges with white silk piping made of the same silk as the skirt.
    • Bodice is boned with straight and spiral steels. 
    • Sleeves are made of the white silk and finished with a band of the silk velvet.
    • Lace for bodice and sleeves was found at Lacis in Berkeley.
    • Pearls are a 54" strand of freshwater pearls.
  • Crown
    • A lucky find on ebay.
  • Veil
    • Downton Abbey brand lace curtain, from Lacis in Berkeley. Had some weird fringe which I cut off. Gathered the top of the curtain to two hair combs.
  • Gloves/shoes
    • I have had these for awhile - I do not remember the source of the gloves. The shoes are Victorian-style leather boots with approximately 2.5" heel, from Oak Tree Farms shoes. They are the same boots I wear to portray Queen Victoria at Dickens Fair.
  • Bling
    • Diamond collet necklace, diamond sunburst necklace, and pearl earrings all from Dames a la Mode.
Construction Notes
  • Silk velvet is not as terrible as its reputation suggests. These are the four most important things I discovered:
    • A rotary cutter is essential. Do not try to use regular sewing shears. The fabric will shift too much from the slight lifting of the shears.
    • Flatline your silk velvet pieces to a stiff fabric, like twill or even coutil.
    • Hand baste the silk velvet pieces to the interlining pieces with a DIAGONAL basting stitch. Straight hand basting will allow too much shifting.
    • If you're making a structured bodice, bone the crap out of it.
    • Once I followed these steps I was able to machine sew the main bodice seams without too much hassle. Resist the urge to rub the silk velvet all over your face and body. This is difficult.
  • Huge skirts will make you want to scream, cry, and/or pour gasoline over the whole thing and set it and yourself on fire. Pace yourself when wrangling enormous skirts, especially if your sewing space is as tiny as mine.
  • Few things compare to the tedium of creating 40+ feet of handmade trim (that's the finished length - since it was pleated, original length was thrice that). Intersperse mind numbing tasks with fun, easy ones to avoid burnout.
  • Sewing a white dress is nerve wracking. Designate "safe zones" in your home or workshop for the in progress project, where no children, animals, food, beverage, clumsy people, or dust bunnies can find it and ruin it. 
Wearing Notes
  • The skirt is incredibly heavy but the hoop was sturdy enough to hold it up and make it feel much lighter than it was. Of course, a lot of that feeling was also a rush of adrenaline and bliss at finally wearing the damn thing, so take that with a grain of salt.
  • The bodice is very restrictive. We're talking beyond T rex arms here. 
  • Going to the bathroom without a helper is not really an option. Plan ahead. 
  • The veil will not want to drape nicely over your skirt. Consider having a friend tack it down in a couple places to the skirt once it is on your head.
  • The train is sadly not really part of your body and therefore not under your control. You can swoosh it around when walking (which is fun) but you do need help to arrange it nicely.
Miscellaneous FAQ:
  • How much?
    • Materials cost alone (including bling) was probably around $700. Let's not even talk about the amount of labor. Suffice to say, if you wanted this dress made by a professional costumer (which is should emphasize, is not me - I have a day job) you would pay upwards of $2000. 
    • You could use cheaper (i.e. synthetic) materials to cut the cost...maybe in half? But why would you want to. If you're going to mortgage your life to this dress for months (please don't kid yourself that that won't be the case) then get the good stuff.
  • Why?
    • Sometimes you just fall really hard for a dress.
  • When will you wear it again?
    • Hell if I know. Not sure where else I could wear it where it wouldn't get totally trashed. I did seriously have a moment where I wondered if I would end up wearing it for some eventual future wedding. Who knows.
  • Are you going to cosplay Sisi or play her as a role?
    • Nope. I love this dress (and a couple others of hers) but I am not anywhere near Sisi's height or weight and my facial resemblance isn't strong enough.
  • Where did you make this?
    • In a tiny San Francisco apartment, on a loud, old, crappy Singer machine from Costco.
What's the moral of the story?
There is no magic to creating an outfit like this. You can do this even if you:
  • have a full time job
  • have a tiny space
  • have a crappy sewing machine
  • feel ambivalent about whether you really like sewing
What you do need is:
  • time
  • money. You can get away with less money if you have more time - since then you can take more of it to source good + cheap materials, which are never found fast. Conversely, more money will not mean that you need to spend less time. Silk taffeta doesn't sew itself any faster than poly taffeta.
  • caffeine, or other mind altering food/beverage of choice
  • just the right dose of insanity.
Thanks for reading, y'all. Go forth and DO THE SCARY THING. It's beyond #worthit.

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