The Amateur Fashion Sleuth: All the News That’s Fit to Wear – 1866 Fancy Dress

It’s not strikingly beautiful, the colors aren’t unusual or even necessarily arresting and the style isn’t much to write home about. But I’ve never seen anything like it before – have you?

I thought of the Victorian’s love of allegory and messages in fancy dress, but surely dressing as “The News” would have been entirely too mundane. Neither grand nor worthy enough for this kind of expense. Why is the bodice so plain while the skirt is definitely not? And what’s going on with the headdress?

I encountered the image on Pinterest. The description was, of course, brief. But the gown is so incredibly unusual I had to know more. Surely there must be a story behind this tour-de-force creation. As it turns out, when I looked for more information about this gown I discovered the pin’s original information is a bit misleading.

This is the information from the Pin:

1866, Mrs. Dobbs, Melbourne. Cream-colored silk satin, lined in cotton, and has a linen pocket. White satin panels of skirt printed with pages from 13 Melbourne newspapers, including the Age, Argus, Herald, Australasian, Leader Illustrated Australian News and Punch. Slips inserted between panels show titles of all the newspapers. Metal trim or ribbons were used to cover the skirt seams. Ribbon trim cotton warp and gold alloy wire weft.

I couldn’t help thinking this must have caused quite a stir in 1866. It would not have been worn by “just anyone.” Metallic ribbon with gold alloy weft? That must have cost a fortune. And the custom-printed satin would have been pricey as well. The entire gown must have glowed in the candlelight. Surely there had to be more. And there was.

Here’s the real story, from the Australian Dress Register:

fancy dress

This dress belonged to Mrs Matilda Butters, second wife of colourful Melbourne politician and businessman James Stewart Butters. It was first worn at the mayor’s fancy dress ball in September 1866, held to celebrate the arrival of the new governor of Victoria, Sir J Manners-Sutton.

The dress was constructed from panels of silk printed with the front pages of Melbourne newspapers. The panels were sewn together to form a bodice, sash and full-length crinoline skirt with train. The skirt, which measured more than five metres around the bottom edge, was made up of 14 panels, each of which were separated and edged with gold braid. The front panels showed the new design for the Town Hall, a portrait of the just-appointed Victorian governor Sir H Manners-Sutton, and Mr Punch as portrayed on the front page of Melbourne Punch. 

To complete her costume, Mrs Butters wore a coronet headdress proclaiming, ‘Liberty of the press’ and carried a staff with a functioning miniature printing press. Throughout the night she used this press to print lines from Lord Byron’s poem ‘Lara’ onto satin ribbons. [That is just the kind of Victorian allegory and excess that makes my day.] The dress was in fact such a hit Mrs Butters wore it on a number of subsequent occasions.

The dress was made by Mrs William Dobbs of Gardiners Creek Road, South Yarra, about whom little else is known. The papers featured on the dress were The Age, Argus, Weekly Age, Leader, Australasian, Herald, Bell’s Life, Spectator, Journal of Commerce,Government Gazette, Dicker’s Mining Record, Illustrated Australian News, and Punch.

The majority of the panels for the skirt and train were printed from the actual plates and type of the newspapers by Blundell & Ford, a well-known Melbourne printing firm. The exceptions were the Argus and Government Gazette, who printed their own panels.

Widely regarded as one of the great 19th-century printed works in Australia, the silk panels of printed newspaper are still readable – testament to the skill of the printers.

Today all that’s left of the costume is the skirt and part of the sash. Thanks to funding from the Violet Chalmers Bequest, the dress has undergone extensive conservation treatment in 2006.

The bows on the shoulders seemed a bit much to me and out of scale with the rest of the dress and I wondered if some museum curator had gone just a bit overboard. As it turns out, the bodice currently displayed with the skirt is a reconstruction made from newspaper images of the time. My bad.

The provenance is pretty unbeatable, too:

Dress owned and worn by Mrs Matilda Butters at the Mayor’s Fancy Dress Ball on 20 September 1866, again 14 days later at the Return Fancy Dress Ball 4 October 1866 and 23 December 1867.

Illustrated in a wood engraving by Samuel Calvert in: The Illustrated Melbourne Post 27 October 1866 page 357. The dress is described in The Age 21 September 1866 page 6, column 2. A description also appears the following year in the Argus 24 December 1867 page 5 when Mrs Butters wore the dress again at the Mayor’s Fancy Dress Ball.

So there you have it. Lessons learned: 1) take what you read on Pinterest with a grain – or bucket – of salt, 2) if what you’re seeing doesn’t make sense there’s probably a reason, and 3) there’s often more to the story than meets the eye. Get curious and dig deeper – that’s where the real treasures lie.


Caveat Emptor – Let the Buyer Beware.

I want to make a pinner apron for one of the HSM challenges. Simple. Straightforward. Relaxing. Advanced engineering degree not required.

Fabric, however, is required and there’s not a lot of it around here. I’ve been loathe to jump into the car and drive an hour (or so) to shop in person, especially for apron fabric, so I looked at the offerings online and though I’d found the perfect deal.

This is meant to be a working apron, so I want to use homespun. Good news, since homespun is pretty inexpensive. And there’s a relatively decent selection of colors and woven patterns. I want a subtle pattern in a color that can hide a bit of grime. So I was delighted when I saw “Robert Kaufman Quilters Homespun Checkerboard” in colorway “Country” and ordered 2.5 yards.

Here’s the photo (enlarged version) – looks like a textured, homespun weave:

(photo by

(photo by

Here’s what came – a print that looks as flat as the plastic in which it’s wrapped:

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I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. What a disappointment! How…why…huh? I went back online and figured out what happened. I saw “homespun” in the title and thought “yay, homespun!” Silly me. The full online description is: Designed by Studio RK for Robert Kaufman, this cotton print fabric is perfect for quilting, craft projects, apparel and home decor accents. Colors include black, tan, shades of red, and shades of blue.”

Cotton print fabric. Well, jeeze. Hoping to save others from making the same mistake I did, I left a review cautioning potential buyers that this is a printed fabric that’s supposed to look like homespun, not actual yarn-dyed, woven homespun fabric. Great quality, like all Robert Kaufman cotton, but not homespun.

So it’s going back to, thanks to their generous return policy, and I’m going to the fabric store to buy real yarn-dyed homespun.

HSM #2 is Done – and it’s not what you’re expecting.


Historical Sew Monthly Challenge #2: The Blue Housewife.

A “housewife” is a portable sewing kit that folds or rolls into a small size, therefore making it easy to carry. The sizes and dimensions varied, but the basic design featured small pockets for thimble and thread, plus a fabric “flap” that held the needles and pins.

Using the term housewife to refer to a sewing kit appeared in print for the first time in 1749. But they were also known as huswife, hussive, or, most commonly, hussif, which appears to be the contraction of the word “housewife” in the dialect of Lancashire.

My housewife for this challenge represents the years of the American Civil War, hence the name “The Blue Housewife.” It has four cotton pockets and two flaps of boiled wool (for securing needles and pins). It folds into a rectangle of 4 1/4 inches x 3 1/4 inches and ties with a thin black ribbon.

Please note: the colors of the red wool flap and the pink fabric on the inside ends did not photograph well. They are not neon, but that’s how they came out. In reality, they are deeper and more subdued shades.

Outer Fabric

Outer Fabric

Blue Pinwheel lining fabric

Blue Pinwheel lining fabric

Inside, opened

Inside, opened…









HSM #2 – Colour Challenge Blue: Make an item that features blue, in any shade from azure to zaffre.

Title: The Blue Housewife

Fabric: 100% cotton, boiled wool

Pattern: My own creation

Year: 2015

Notions: Thread and a bit of ribbon for tying

How historically accurate is it? Very. For this “housewife” I used 100% cotton and boiled 100% wool. It is hand sewn. The cotton fabrics are reproductions of American Civil War era prints. The patterns in the wool would also have been available at that time.

Hours to complete: about 4

First worn: Not yet used.

Total cost: $1.00 for the spool of ribbon. Everything else was in my stash.


(I’ll be brief – I abandoned the reticule. I couldn’t get it to hang straight and it was driving me nuts. So I set it aside until sometime down the road when we’ve both had a chance to take a deep breath and settle down a bit.)

A Revelation About Late 18th Century Dress

I’m still looking at the late 18th century for an ensemble. I wanted to go with common dress, not the upper class stuff. But the colors I kept finding for the very low classes were so…blah. Then, last night – a breakthrough!

After finding the cotton twill tape I want on (I’m getting a 55-yd roll at a great price – yay!), I Goggled “images of 18th century dress” and nearly fell over when I saw this:

1770s - 18th century - woman's outfit with mixed print fabrics (jacket, skirt, and apron are each a different floral pattern)

1770s – 18th century – woman’s outfit with mixed print fabrics

Prints! Colors! Nothing blah about it! Where has this been hiding? It’s from “An album containing 90 fine water color paintings of costumes.” Turin : [s.n.] , [ca.1775], in the collection of the Bunka Fashion College in Japan.

I realize they are Italian, not American. But I love them. They speak to me. So I’m going with ’em. My rationale? Italians were living in colonial America and had been for a few decades before the Revolutionary War. Hundreds of Italians fought alongside the colonists, too.

And then there’s this bit of trivia:

“The official seal of the state of Maryland reads Fatti, Maschii, Parola Femine, which is Italian for “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words.” It is the only state motto written in Italian, and Maryland also was the only state that was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was of Italian heritage.”

So I’m feeling good about deciding to go this way. I know I’ll be much happier with the outfit when it’s done and more comfortable wearing it, too.

Even better, I already have fabric that will work for either the jacket or the petticoat (skirt). It’s 100% cotton with a woven-in design and a nice mid-weight that drapes nicely.

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back of fabric

back of fabric

In the meantime, it’s probably going to take a while for the Amazon order to get here, what with all the mountains of holiday mail, so I’m going to cut out my Regency day cap and see if I can get some more hand sewing done.

A Brief Diversion Back to the 18th Century.

It seems like forever since I’ve been able to start and finish a project in one clean swoop and it’s getting frustrating. I want to get something done. So, since fiddling around with the Great Regency Armscye Debaucle wasn’t getting me anywhere, I hopped back a decade or so to do more work on my 18th century things…the pockets, to be specific.

2014-09-30 09.39.26As you may recall, I was drawn to this fabric, which I thought would make a fabulous 18th century apron. I was informed advised that it wasn’t right for the times (BTW – the advisers were correct) and I’d set it aside. But I still like it and was hoping to use it for something. Then the pockets rotated into production and that’s where the orange is going. I get to use it and no one will see it – a win-win as far as I’m concerned.

I do like this orange. The major benefit: if a pocket falls it will be easy to spot. In the dark. Without a flash light.

This fabric is a lightweight cotton. When I held the front and back pieces together it seemed a bit flimsy. Those pockets have to carry my keys, cell phone and change purse at the least: not exactly a ton, but too much for the fabric alone. Even doubling the fabric wasn’t sufficient.

I have absolutely no clue as to whether this is period-correct or not, since I made it up on the spot, but I decided to make a lining of heavy twill. It only goes as far at the center pocket slit, so the pockets will hang smoothly from their waist ties, but leaves enough supported area for the things I’ll want to have with me.

To avoid bulky edges and keep the outside line clean, I used the selvage for the top edge of the liner. Then I whip-stitched the top edge of the liner to the inside (wrong side) of the pocket using matching thread and tiny stitches. A few extra tacking stitches went to the bottom of the pocket slit, since that’s where most wear and tear occurs. From the outside you can’t tell it’s there, which was the goal.

Pin shows stitches from attaching the liner as they appear on the right side (outside).

Pin shows stitches from attaching the liner as they appear on the right side (outside).

I applied the lining to the wrong side of the other pocket piece and pinned them together. Yes, it does make the pocket a bit heavier. Fortunately, since the pockets tie around the waist the weight will be resting on my hips. (No comment.)

Next step is sewing around the outside edge (machine), turning the pocket right side out, then sewing around the edge a second time (by hand) to conceal the raw edges on the inside.

As for the sleeve cap, I’m deciding what I want it to look like so I’ll be mulling that over for a day or two.

Curses, Foiled Again!

Labyrinth - 19th Century Board game 'The Mansion of Bliss' . Created by Thomas Newton.

Labyrinth – 19th Century Board game ‘The Mansion of Bliss’ . Created by Thomas Newton.

It is now quite clear to me that I cannot fix my bodice issue without help from someone who knows how to “see” what needs to be done. If the sleeve cap was too big for the bodice, all I’d have to do would be pleat it at the back bodice armscye and call it done. No such luck.

The problem is that the bodice is too big for the sleeve. In a ridiculously overemphasized 3-D view it would look like a mixing bowl set upside down over marble. The curve of the sleeve being the marble, and the mixing bowl being the way-too-big bodice armscye…and I can’t gather or pleat the bodice to bring to down to the match the sleeve cap.

I’ve put this bodice through all manner of tortured origami with no luck. When I used my original approach it distorted the bodice armscye to the point where I would have needed to go back to the original sleeve (before trimming down the cap) to even come close.

Yesterday, I spent nearly four hours fiddling with this problem and getting nowhere. One obvious solution is to just cut another bodice and/or another set of sleeves, but there’s no more fabric left. I bought it years ago and that fabric run is long gone: I had just enough to cut this one garment. (Which serves to reinforce the value of making a muslin for everything first, which there wasn’t enough class time to do.)

So, it’s time to call in the pros. Fortunately, the next SITU sewing circle is in a couple of weeks and I know Bobbie Kalben will spot the problem in an instant.

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As I see it, the worst case scenario is that I end up ditching the bodice and the sleeves and turning the skirt into a “petticoat” with shoulder straps. Then I could make a spencer to go with it and not lose this beautiful fabric altogether.

(Lemons…lemonade…you know.)

A Quick Round Gown Update

close-up of Round Gown fabric

close-up of Round Gown fabric

Kleenex Expressions Oval CollectionThis cold is beginning to release it’s grip a bit, so I’m planning on sewing and seam ripping today. Amongst doing the laundry and whatnot, that is. The house I’m renting is up for sale. A potential buyer is coming for a walk-through on Thursday afternoon and there’s a lot of “whatnot” that still needs doing. This cold is not helping. (Do they ever?)

I discovered why my skirt looks so wimpy when I read the directions this morning – it was supposed to be a 3- to 4-yd length with a single back seam so that the selvage edges of the fabric are at the top and bottom edges of the skirt. I’d missed that part because I got there late.

I don’t feel so bad about it, though, because that won’t work for my decidedly one-way print fabric. So I’m doing it in panels and that’s just the way it is. Fortunately, I have enough to make a third panel, which will give me more than three yards of circumference to work with. There may be seams, but at least the volume will be correct. Thank goodness for that.

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The cold has me pretty well sapped of energy but I want the bodice finished tonight – all I need to do is stitch down the casing for the drawstring – unless I collapse first, and pick open the skirt’s side French seam. Happily, it’s all sit-on-the-sofa work which pits me in close proximity to the trifecta of relief for the common cold: tissues, TV and hot tea.

All in all, not so bad.

Regency Gown Workshop and a Great Fabric Info Link

It’s time to shift gears and head back to Regency fashions. Flipping back and forth through the centuries like this can make my head spin, but it also makes for variety.

This coming Saturday, I will be attending a SITU-University Round Gown Workshop. Somewhere in Time Unlimited – Seattle is a great costuming group and our members’ interests cover all aspect of costuming genres. The University meetings are instructional and cover a range of needs and interests. And they’re always great fun.

Nora Azevedo in her Regency Round Gown pattern. (Oregon Regency Society)

Nora Azevedo in her Regency Round Gown pattern. (Oregon Regency Society)

On Saturday we will have Nora Azevedo, from the Oregon Regency Society spend a day teaching us the ins and outs of making a Regency gown using a pattern she’s developed. Just the tutorial I need! The instructions are to bring you Regency undies (so we will be dressed for proper fitting) and at least 5 yards of 45″ fabric.

As for determining which fabric, I found a fabulous resource. The Oregon Regency Society has a Northwest Chapter and I’m a member. The latest entry in the chapter’s blog is “Telling your Regency story with colour (sic) and fabric.” It covers colors, tones, prints – the works.

Best of all, it is chock full of visual examples: color palettes and prints and all sorts of visual references. No more wondering what “vibrant rose” or “muted greens” mean – you can actually see the color. Not only is the range of colors is much larger than I’d imagined, it contains some colors I love but thought were excluded. Yay!

The elbow is still pretty achy at times, but this is an opportunity I don’t want to pass up. (Note to self: throw some aspirin in the bag, too.) Photos and report to follow.

PS – My 18th century outfit hasn’t been put aside. I just need to go slow because my elbow hates staying tightly bent and pretty stationary while I do the handwork.

Your Weekend Wow!

vintage Butterfly Pumpkin Crate Label

Halloween is on its way, preceded (unfortunately) by the mountain of commercial knick-knacks that have become associated with it. So rather than resorting to plastic glow-in-the-dark pumpkin necklaces, consider turning to a more fashionable statement in the holiday’s favorite color. It’s often said it is the hardest color to wear well and it’s truly not for everyone (including me). But it’s been around for a long time, it certainly has its fans and it’s a knockout when done well.

200 years of orange, from the 1740’s to the 1940’s.

18th Century Apron Color Resolved

Most of you will probably be thrilled to hear that the orange is out. (I have this thing for bright colors – what can I say?)

So instead of absolutely glowing in this combination:

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I’ll be wearing something a bit more subtle and suitable, like this:

The brown is actually a deeper, richer, "earthier" brown.

The brown is actually a deeper, richer, “earthier” brown.

Or perhaps this:

This is actually a "pea soup" green, not this Granny Smith apple green.

The green is really a “pea soup” green, not this Granny Smith apple green.

If I have the time I just might make both and take a photo of the outfit showing each of the aprons.

By the way, I forgot to mention that inspiration for the blue and white fabric I chose came from a couple of extant pieces. Here’s my choice next to an original:

As I said, not at all perfect but it will do for this event. And hopefully there will be so much ale passing around that not too many folks will notice.