Over the years I have received several requests for how to easily make a costume- especially Victorian costumes. Usually, the need is for a school play or one time event so the budget is very small. The least expensive ready made Victorian dress costumes runs at least $100. You don’t have to spend that to get a good dress costume using clothing you may already have. With some items in your closet, from a thrift store or a with a little sewing know how you can make a Victorian outfit very easily. I will warn you that homemade projects often turn out to be just as expensive as ready made costumes once you start buying nice fabric, trim, and Victorian accessories.
Victorian Costume Dress
The simplest dress for Victorian women was a skirt and blouse. Women wore this combination for the entire duration of the Victorian years. The change in silhouette over the years was with the type of skirt. Very large round skirts of the 1860s (Civil War) embraced the early years while the narrower A-line skirts of the late 1890s to 1910s were in full fashion during the Edwardian era.
The easier skirts to find are the A-line skirts associated with the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The picture on the left is of a black polyester, 6 panel A-line skirt I found at a thrift store. The skirt on the right is a 4 panel A-line with a brocade texture. You want as much volume at the bottom as you can find so that it sways as you walk.
You can find fuller early Victorian era skirt attached to prom and wedding dresses simply cut off the top. I also find full skirts online usually targeting boho or hippie fashion markets. There are also Steampunk or gothic skirts with bustles and patterns that work well for a saloon girl costume.
Next you need a petticoat. Wearing another skirt with volume underneath will give you enough poof. Add two or three skirts for more volume. I like Bohemian style skirts made of very light cotton. They add volume but not weight. To get a bit more puff at the bottom you can sew on a wide ruffle all around the skirt about 8-10 inches above the hem. Add more ruffles for more volume. Tulle netting ruffles adds volume without weight. This will give the outer skirt a flared effect. An A-line or trumpet shaped petticoat made for wedding dresses also works very well just be sure you can move comfortably in it.
Victorian Blouse- I take every opportunity I have to pick up a white or ivory lace blouse. Traditional Victorian blouses buttoned up the back with a high round collar or classic pointed collar in the later years. The back button blouse seems to be back in fashion this year. I found two at Forever 21 last week (photos above). If you can’t find a back button blouse you can use a classic front button blouse. Look for blouses with inset lace, lace trim, pintuck pleats, or gathers at the sleeve and bust. Also, long sleeves are preferred over short. Never sleeveless.
Skirt Belt- You don’t have to wear a belt but I think it looks better with one. A black leather or fabric belt is all you need. Two inch belts gradually grew to six inch belts by the end of the era. If the buckle looks to modern I sometimes will buckle it at the back and add a Victorian brooch pin to the front (like I did above.) For a softer Edwardian style use a folded or gathered scarf and tie it around your waist. The skirt and belt should sit on the waist, above the belly button.
That is all you need for an easy Victorian costume. Read on for more skirt variations and tips to accessorize.
Civil War Skirts
To make a large Civil War skirt using your sewing skills you can follow these simple directions here. If you have no sewing skills you can use a large ballgown skirt from your local thrift store. These are usually made of taffeta or shiny satin which is not period accurate but it really doesn’t matter for most occasions. Colors were muted lighter colors or dark saturated colors and even patterns like big plaid and stripes. Don’t get tulle ballgowns. Formal ballgowns made of satin are great but net or tulle will not work as an outer skirt (although it works well as an underskirt to get the full volume.) Ball skirts / ballgown skirts are another option that is usually full and made of taffeta or similar shine material. For day wear a very full boho 70s skirt can also work nicely when layered over petticoats.
Sometimes you can’t find a separate skirt in which case you can cut off the bodice from a ballgown dress and add a simple waistband. Replacing zippers with hook and eyes will make it look even more period accurate.
The fullness of your ballgown skirt will depend on the petticoat underneath. A hoop shirt is your best choice if you have the budget to buy one. The ones designed for wedding ballgowns or quinceanera dresses are good but can be made better if you reduce the lowest hoop circumference a few inches so that the overall effect is round on top and straight to the floor instead of flared out in A shape.
Without a hoop skirt you can use a full tulle skirt, layers of lighter skirts, wedding petticoats, or sew one. You can also buy cheap hoopskirts and petticoats that are ok for light skirts and dresses but not for heavy gowns.
More Victorian skirts
Adding some good accessories can transform your simple costume dress into an amazing Victorian outfit. I recommend buying a Victorian style brooch, necklace, shawl, hat, gloves and shoes.
Necklace- Wearing as much jewelry as you can was a sign of your wealth. A filigree Y shape necklace or pearls with pendant are easy to find and can look very Victorian. Add matching earrings if you wish.
Shawl- A fur, knit or crochet shawl wrapped over your shoulders bring you back to the feeling of living in the VERY cold Victorian London. A Lighter lace wrap or chiffon shawl is perfect for summer events or indoor tea’s
Hat- Victorian hats came in all shapes and sizes depending on the decade. Small straw plate-shaped hats can be curved and bent into cute perch hats, while large straw brim hats can be decorated with feathers and flowers for the Late Victorian and Edwardian look.
Shoes– Lace up boots in black or brown are the most accurate. Otherwise, black oxfords, Mary Jane’s, mules, and simple flats will work too.
Makeup– The use of makeup , or not, is one every Victorian woman had to decide. Read this article on the history of Victorian makeup and how to apply it for a natural Victorian look.
More Costumes ideas:
Read the 1840s-1950s “Dickens Era” clothing and costumes guide for more Victorian costume tips. Also the Bustle Era costume guide for 1860s-1880s costumes.
This article on DIY Victorian dress making will give you ideas on how to make a ballgown dress, without sewing, from clothes you may already have.
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