Of all the Victorian era events I have attended, dancing the night away to a live brass band at a Victorian ball is my favorite! Dancing among elegant ladies’ Victorian ball gowns and gentlemen’s tailcoats is heaven to me. It is how I got started in historical costuming in the first place. After attending my first Victorian dance, I spent the next 2 months sewing a new Victorian ballgown to wear. I went to the fabric store, picked out a ballgown pattern, fabric, and trim, and dusted off my sewing machine. It was beautiful! It was unique! It was 18th century! — And as it turns out, I didn’t know my history and chose an 18th century (Marie Antoinette / Outlander era) pattern instead of a 1840s to 1901 Victorian ball gown. Big oops!
Luckily, no one called me out on it at that dance, but it did encourage me to go back to the sewing table and make a Victorian ball gown. However, I don’t like to sew if I don’t have to. Could I make a Victorian, Southern Belle, or Civil War ball gown without sewing? Could I adjust a dress I bought at the thrift store into a fancy ball gown? The answer is YES! Very easily, too.
DIY Victorian Ball Gown – The Dress
The trick with any DIY costume is finding the right thrift store dress to use as your base. In my DIY Victorian day dress guide, I suggesting pairing a full skirt with a blouse for a simple no sewing costume. You could do the same for an evening look, but mismatched tops and bottoms were not common with ball gowns. For a Victorian formal gown, look for a thrift store dress in the following:
- Strapless or off the shoulder. Short puff or long sleeves are ok too.
- Fitted in the waist.
- Full skirt (as big as you can find to fit over a hoop or large petticoat).
- Solid color (jewel tones and pastels are best).
- Has lace, lace, and more lace. Old Wedding gowns are great. Taffeta, velvet, cotton, damask, silk, and satin are good too. Avoid tulle/net and metallics.
- 1980s prom dresses.
- A plain repro/inspired Victorian dress (just needs trim).
- A cheap Southern Belle Halloween costume – these can be good as is or redecorated into something unique to you.
My recent trip to the thrift store left me with few dress choices (it was Halloween and all the good dresses were gone). However, I managed to find a black velvet dress, satin ’90s prom dress, and a red peasant dress. I chose each one because of the full skirt and low or no straps. I also had an 80s prom dress in my closet just waiting for this day. The only issue with it is it had sleeves (most ballgowns don’t) and it was too short (knee length instead of floor length). Even with these faults, it was still usable.
For the basic Victorian ball gown above, I layered the 80s prom dress over another Victorian skirt I already had. You could use any full skirt you can find at the thrift store. You could also find another ball gown or wedding dress with the wrong style of top and just cut off the skirt. A white Victorian petticoat would be fine too. And if all else fails, sew a simple skirt. Don’t worry about matching colors. The best Victorian dresses I have seen have had wild color pairings. Teal and blue? Orange and purple? Red and yellow? You would be surprised at what looks great together.
A hoop skirt or petticoat adds volume that is critical to the Victorian silhouette. The biggest hoop was worn during the Civil War times while the end of the Victorian era had slimmed down to an A-line with only one or two light petticoats underneath. Old wedding dresses often come with a hoop or crinoline to create volume. I bought a cheap hoop on Amazon for these pictures. It is 120 inches wide, which is huge. Some of my dresses/skirts did not fit over it, so I narrowed the hoop by cutting the boning and taped in back together smaller. It is still too long for my 5’3 height, so in the future I will need to take a hoop out completely.
While the DIY ball gown above is fine as is, it lacks the fussiness that authentic Victorian ball gowns had. Lace trim, big sashes and bows, and flowers (real or fake) were common details added to Victorian ball gowns. I looked through some old pictures and illustrations and then raided my stash of trim to see what I had to work with. Here are some options I came up with:
As you can see above, a little trim can take a plain dress from simple to elegant. A wide, long satin ribbon (blanket binding works too) can become a belt, sash, or big bow around the waist. A scrap piece of wide lace trim can be gathered and pinned to the inside of sleeves or along the neckline. I even found a lace window curtain that, when wrapped around the bodice like a shawl, transformed the dress into a romantic Victorian gown. Another option is to tie a light lace shawl around the neck or shoulders.
Besides the bodice, you can decorate the skirt like these:
Adding ribbon to hang down the skirt with flowers to add weight was an idea I borrowed from a Victorian fashion plate. If you want to sew or use a glue gun, you can create a hemline border on the underskirt with ribbon, ruffles, or lace. For the overskirt, try gathering it up in swags – one, two, three, or all around. Accent with flowers or bows and you have yourself another easy ball gown.
There are many possibilities, and none of them require sewing — just a box of safety pins.
More DIY Victorian Ball Gowns
All of the above is a variation on one dress, but what about the other dresses I thrifted? Well, this black velvet gown was good as is, but I added a lace belt in one picture and lace window curtain around the neckline in another. Both are simple and effective.
The red peasant dress worked best when layered over the black velvet dress. I gathered the skirt on both sides and added a wide black beaded belt that is the same shape as a Victorian Medici belt. In the second picture, I added a short velvet jacket (a bolero jacket would be better) to show you that you don’t have to have bare arms to go to a Victorian ball. This day to night look reminds me of a saloon girl or Spanish señorita.
Finally, I had one more ball gown. I turned a newer satin prom dress into a Victorian inspired ball gown. I loved the floral embroidery on the dres,s so I found a pink scarf to match and used that as the bodice neckline. In the second picture, I used a stretchy piece of scrap lace as the neckline. The original dress had a partial layered skirt that I wasn’t too wild about, so I gathered it to the side and placed some flowers cascading down the gathers. Now that I think about it, I could have left the skirt down and ran the flowers along the edge. That would have looked fabulous as well. Play, play, play until you find a look you love!
Have you made a thrifty Victorian ballgown? Share your tips in the comments below.