Dragonfly Designs by Alisa




1850s Beetlewing Dress

I’ve been utterly enamored with beetlewing embroidery for a long time now. When I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, I requested they pull out all their beetlewing embroidered items for me to examine (as well as a bunch of 1830s dresses). They had three beetlewing items, and the most impressive was this skirt.


It was an amazing experience to pull on those white gloves and handle these historical items!





And one from the back side:


Beetle wing embroidery uses the actual wing casings from real beetles. These beetles are extremely short-lived, and after they swarm to mate, they die, and the wings can be swept up and used. They are extremely beautiful; the glint and shine of them is hard to capture in photographs! It’s not surprising the Victorians were captivated by using them on dresses.

I’m finally sewing one of my own, using sheer cotton voile as the fabric, in a light beige. The crinoline period of history has never really been my thing, but I really do want at least one proper hoopskirt gown, so after browsing Pinterest for literally weeks, I chose a basic dress design. It’s going to be roughly modeled after Queen Victoria’s 1850 dress, shown below. I also had a chance to see this one in person, so I have a particular fondness for it.


I will be changing it slightly, however. As a beginning, I’ve been embroidering the middle panel of the skirt, which will be the most heavily embroidered. Although it’s not quite finished, here’s what I have, so far:



It is going to be wearable by December 17th, for a presentation I’m doing on the stranger aspects of Victorian clothing. Hopefully, it will be completely done, but as I’m intending to put embroidery all around the bottom hem of the skirt, I’m not sure I have time to completely finish. I can always add that after the event – they people attending will be mostly looking at the front, anyway!

Update: 1/6/2020

I have now worn the dress for the first time! As I suspected, I did not finish the embroidery around the hem of the skirt.


Besides that, I need to adjust the fit of the shoulders…the straps had a tendency to want to slide off. But that’s easy enough to fix. I also want to stitch over the metal grommets with thread so they appear handsewn. I know I should probably done spiral lacing on the bodice, but I frankly dislike the appear of spiral lacing, so I never use it.





I wore it to a presentation I did at my local library: Arsenic, Corsets, and Flaming Hoopskirts, the Myths and Realities of Victorian Fashion.




1912 Champagne Dress

Wow, it’s been an age since I worked on a new costume! But my library workplace had a Downton Abbey Celebration, and I did a 20min presentation on post-Victorian undergarments called “What Did They Wear Under There?” I did make a 1912 dress before (which I completely love) but I’ve since gained a few pounds, and it doesn’t fit. Rather than go on a diet (I also love my new weight) I decided to make a new dress – especially since I’ve long had this wonderful beaded vintage sari that I wanted to repurpose.



It was also a happy accident that I had the perfect matching faile/bengaline laying around.


PLUS…it was chance to wear a tiara!



On me, the skirt is a wee bit longer, so that I have a tiny sweep of a train behind.



The thing that I love about using vintage saris in historical costuming, is because they give the whole outfit a vintage feel…as if it’s actually a real 1912 dress instead of one I made!




How Did I Learn to Do This?

This blog entry is for Nicole, who left me a lovely guestbook signature (thanks, Nicole!) and also asked me a question that others have asked.  Namely: “How did you learn to do this?”

Well, the most honest answer is, I don’t know. I fell into costuming pretty much by accident. I’ve always been a ‘creative person’; I’ve dabbled in just about every type of craft there is.  I was one of those kids who would rather play alone in her room with scissors and glue than play ANY sort of sport.  (And yeah, I really never grew out of that…)  I’m also a writer, and before I learned to write the stories in my head down on paper, I would enact elaborate fantasies with Barbies.  These elaborate fantasies required elaborate costumes, and since my grandmother sewed, I never lacked for scraps of fabric.  Starting with strapless gowns (a square of silk wrapped around a doll) I worked up to sleeveless (squares of silk with two holes cut for the arms), to something resembling actual costumes.  It took me a LOT longer to grow out of “playing” with my Barbies than most girls, because after awhile almost all the “playing” was actually costuming.  I have a friend who recently re-created all the historical portrait dresses from King Henry VIII’s court – well, I did that when I was fifteen.  For my Barbies (although I will admit they didn’t turn out nearly so awesome as hers).  The good ol’ King and his wives spent about two weeks clustered on top of my dresser, and I wish now I’d gotten a picture.  Throughout all of this, I never had a clue what I was doing.  I just tried doing stuff, and if it worked, I was happy, and if it didn’t….well, at least I knew what NOT to do!

It never, ever occurred to me make a costume for myself.  I didn’t ‘do’ Halloween anymore, and Halloween had never been all that big in my life anyway.  So when I got my first job at a library when I was sixteen, and was told a month later that we “dressed up” for Halloween, I wasn’t actually interested.  I said I’d pass.  But my co-workers insisted, and so I went to the thrift store and cobbled together a pirate costume of found things.  The only sewing was a few colored patches I put on the pants.  And it was FUN.

The next year, I was ready.  I’d found two velvet dressing gowns at the thrift store, and I cut them up and re-modeled them to make a “Juliet” style gown.  And it was even MORE fun.  Heh.  The third year, I actually sewed a gypsy costume entirely from scratch – even though I was scared silly without the existence of pre-existing sleeves!  Every year, my costumes got more and more elaborate.  Most of my finished costumes were way different than the original concept, though, because I still didn’t know what I was doing, and stuff went wrong.  I learned a valuable lesson though – if you accidentally cut your hem too short, there’s nothing wrong with pilling on lots of fringe and trim and distracting people with the pure power of bling!

For a long time, my costuming was only a Halloween thing.  But then, I discovered Renaissance Faires!  And Cons!  And people like ME who actually wanted to dress like pirates and fairies and Jedi more than once a year!  I love you people.  :)  You are made of win and awesome-sauce.

So how did I learn to do this?  I just did it.  I didn’t worry about messing up or not being good enough.  I looked my fear in the eye, said “frig you” and cut into that scary blank piece of no-pre-existing-sleeves.  It’s been a long, steep learning curve from that to where I am today, but the whole journey was fun.  And fun is the only reason to do something like this.  Unless you’re  going to make a life’s work and a living out of this, it’s ALL about the fun.  There’s enjoyment in the puzzle-solving process of figuring out a new costume, in the delightful smell and texture of new fabric, and most of all, joy in that moment when it starts to all come together and look like something good. If you’ve never costumed before (or never even sewn before), that’s no reason not to do it.  Just don’t buy $50 a yard fabric and an advanced pattern!  Start small.  Make something for Halloween, or your local renfaire, from a simple beginner’s pattern and using inexpensive fabric.  I guarantee you that the joy you get from wearing that costume will be worth it – and probably, before the day is over, you’ll be collecting ideas for the next one.   But whatever you do, don’t let yourself be intimidated from beginning by someone who’s been doing this for years.  I’m still a beginner myself in LOTS of ways, and there are costumers out there on the internets whose work both inspires me and makes me weep fray-check tears that I could be so awesome.


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