blue velvet dress

Discovering a Silk Velvet Regency Gown (or the Venus de Milo Dress)

A Spectacular Fabric Stash Mystery

(Or is it a silk velvet Regency gown?)

Have you ever been to Taft, California? Probably not. Downtown Taft spans about two blocks at most and has one landmark worth noticing: an old Fox theater. Hamburger stands are the best choices for dinner fare. But you can’t beat Sno White’s fries and a good ole American burger with shredded iceburg lettuce. But I did happen to find something spectacular in an antique store there. A spectacular mystery. I pulled out a large piece of blue velvet from an old musty cardboard box filled with various fabric scraps. I looked at it, thought: “Yep, I’ll take this if it’s cheap enough. Might be enough here to make something. Maybe it’s silk.” Got it for $5.00.

If you like vintage fabric and textiles, or if you like to sew with vintage patterns, or if you are fascinated by antique gowns, you’ll want to keep reading!

The Discovery

When I got home with my large vintage fabric “scrap,” I looked at it closely and realized it was still a dress, albeit not a whole dress. But there was enough of it left to pin to my dress form and see how it looked when it was new and complete. Regency! Nah – couldn’t be an authentic silk velvet Regency gown. Could it?

blue velvet dress
blue velvet dress

The Mystery

Now to investigate this spectacular silk velvet mystery. Was the dress really made over 200 years ago, or is it a newer costume piece? It is obviously not modern. Just looking at the fabric, construction and the age-wear, it is most certainly no newer than early 20th century. In fact, it was suggested by at least two people that perhaps it was a 19-teens empire revival costume. If you’re an expert in antique textiles, please weigh in!

The Idea of its Being a Costume

Constructing 100% historically accurate costumes for period movies or theater is a relatively new practice from what I have seen. If you don’t believe me, check out Sergeant Troy’s bell bottoms in Far from the Madding Crowd from 1967, which takes place in the late 19th century.

Or look at the ladies’ dresses in Quality Street filmed in 1927, which takes place in 1805. In fact, I would guess that the practice of paying more attention to historical accuracy in film costuming began in the 1980s with movies like A Room with a View. I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Check out these quotes from Historic Costume for the Stage by Lucy Barton, published in 1935 .[1]

Some cheap goods can be treated to give the effect of expensive fabrics……. Velvet is most satisfactorily “faked” by an uneven, spotty dyeing of flannelette or terry cloth…

Barton, Lucy. Historic Costume for the Stage. Boston, Walter H. Baker Company, 1935.

Many garments need to be lined.

Except at skirt-hems, machine-stitching should be employed whenever possible, for greater security.

velvet dress

The Stitching

The silk velvet dress is entirely hand stitched and the stitches are a bit sloppy. The dress is not lined, nor is there any sign that there ever was a lining. There is no self-facing at all either. All of the velvet is a single layer. There are two small places that are faced/lined with white silk: the shoulders and the waist drawstring casing. All seams are sewn with a running stitch or back stitch with about 1/4 ″ – 3/8 ″ seam allowance. I found two types of thread. One looks brownish in color and is a sturdy thread. I burn-tested this one and believe it to be silk or cotton.

Another lighter weight black or dark blue thread was used on the hem. It is possible that later repairs were done, and it is possible that the original maker used two different types of thread. I ran across a blog “A Frolic Through Time” that dissects Regency gowns and quotes Jennie Chancey of Sense and Sensibility who said this of Regency era extant garments:

One of the most eye-opening revelations to me when I began studying extant garments from this time period was how “un-standard” the seam finishes were!

With all the careful, intricate embroidery on the outsides, I’d often turn to the inside of the gown to be shocked by what looked like really sloppy hand sewing – long running stitches, raw edges left unbound, odd shortcuts taken.

velvet dress

Bodice Design and Construction

The bodice is only 4.5″ vertically from the waist seam to the top edge of the neckline. The neckline is a narrow self-casing with a drawstring that is a pink raw silk ribbon. The ends of the ribbon are attached at the side seams and the ribbon is pulled and a loop is tied in the middle of the bodice on the inside of the dress. There are two bust darts. There are drawstrings that attache at the sides of the bodice back and waist and tie the bodice back together. These drawstrings are black raw silk ribbons.

The armscye seems to follow the natural form of the shoulder without curving toward the center back like you see in early Regency styles. There is a curved side seam in the back that is typical of the time period. There is a separate shoulder piece that is faced with white silk. The sleeves are sewn with two pieces, and upper sleeve and under sleeve. The upper sleeve is full 19″ width of fabric with selvages intact, so that may be the reason the sleeves are in two pieces. The sleeve cap has a decorative detail where an oval was cut out of the sleeve cap and another piece of fabric was pieced in.

Take a look at my Pinterest board “The Velvet Experiment” for extant pictorial references.

velvet dress

Skirt Design and Construction

The selvage edges are intact on the silk velvet fabric wherever possible. The skirt front panel is a full width of silk velvet 19″ wide with selvage edges on each side of the fabric. The back has five pleats at the waist. There are two triangular gores on each side of the skirt back that provide fullness to the back of the skirt. The two larger gores are sewn in with the velvet pile going the opposite direction than that of the rest of the dress. The skirt is trained. The train is not a continuous curve to the front of the skirt. It is almost a square train that begins at the side seam. The hem about is 1/4″ – 3/8″.

velvet dress train

The Velvet Experiment

The exquisite fabric. Thanks to the discovery of this dress, I am now obsessed with silk velvet. It is so lovely. The drape of the velvet that makes up this dress is truly unmatched by anything I have yet to find. The color is difficult to capture with a camera. It is a dark steel navy blue with striations of light and dark and a goldish undertone. As noted above, the fabric is 19″ wide with selvage edges intact.

How do I know it’s silk you ask? Good question.

I decided that the best way to figure that out was to burn-test not only the dress velvet but also other velvets of known fiber content. I burn-tested 100% silk velvet and also silk/rayon blends. Check out the videos of the burn tests on Youtube and tell me what you think!

If you’re someone who appreciates the best natural fiber textiles, you might be wondering where on earth I found 100% silk velvet. Well it wasn’t easy! And buyer beware! There are many stores and vendors who will tell you they carry “silk velvet” when they really have velvet that is 82% rayon and 18% silk (for example). Some of these blends are still quite lovely, and they don’t cost as much as the real deal.

Of course, you may be a little hesitant to buy velvet from online fabric store. Well, keep an eye out on Sew Vintagely’s dressmaker collection for some exquisite velvet that might appear there in the fall.

Mystery Solved?

Yes, I believe the dress is authentic Regency. A beautifully simple blue silk velvet Regency gown made sometime between 1805 – 1815.

The nice man who sold it to me only knows that he probably bought the box of fabric scraps from an estate sale in Taft. I wonder what life this dress lived before it found its way to the Petroleum Highway, or to California for that matter? I wonder if it was inspired by Dolley Madison’s red velvet dress?

Or did it come all the way from Europe, having been inspired by the reports in The Lady’s Magazine about the velvet dresses worn by the royal family. In 1810 Princess Mary wore “a dress of garter blue velvet.” Hmmm….

What do you think?

velvet dress

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