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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

It's All About The Dress

Part of the reason I love to write historicals is because of the lovely ball gowns I get to describe in glorious detail. I blame my mother for my obsession with 19th-century attire. Her housewarming gift to me when I purchased my first home way back when was a framed fashion plate torn from the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book. I began haunting antique shops along the East Coast, adding to my collection of prints until I ran out of wall space.
My first fashion print

In Book Four of the Cotillion Ball Series, The Tempestuous Debutante, I take this obsession one step further and give my heroine, Jasmine Fitzpatrick, the profession of dress designer. At the time of my story — 1857 — it was highly unusual for women, regardless of their rank in society, to be shop owners, much less fashion designers. That occupation was reserved for men, most notably Charles Frederick Worth in Paris. To be wealthy enough to own a Worth gown was something all of society on both sides of the Atlantic aspired to, and there are a few of his breathtaking gowns remaining to this day, most of them in museums. The amount of work each one entailed is amazing, and when you see one of his dresses up close and personal, you can understand why they were so valued in the 1800s, and why they are so prized today. They weren’t merely dresses, they were, and are, works of art.
Worth Gown
In The Tempestuous Debutante, Jasmine designs a peach gown for herself, which she believes will be the dress she will wear when her suitor proposes to her. I spent hours, days even, researching the finer points of dress design while crafting the scene, and fell in love with my, or rather, Jasmine’s, creation, I fell in love with this peach gown. When it came time to destroy the dress in the book, which was necessary for the plot to move forward because of its symbolism, I cried. Jasmine, by that point, didn’t care if the dress was ripped asunder, but I felt every rip, every lost bead, every mark, as if it was a real, living, breathing thing. It was a painful scene for me to write.
Beautiful Worth Wedding Gown
Then, I went on a field trip with some fellow romance writers, to view a display of wedding gowns from the 1830s to modern day, and saw the jewel of the collection — a Charles Frederick Worth wedding gown. My obsession with the peach engagement dress faded into nothingness as I took in the details of the wedding gown. No dress, regardless of when it was crafted, began to compare with the Worth gown. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe it. Suddenly, I had a new obsession. I wanted to create, on paper, a wedding gown for Jasmine to wear.
It’s all about the dress, isn’t it?
Here's an excerpt from The Tempestuous Debutante
         She glanced up from the worktable and surveyed her surroundings. Satisfied with the way things at the shop were proceeding, she turned her attention to the dress she was remaking to wear at tonight’s birthday party for Amanda. Since this was to be her betrothal gown, she wanted it to be spectacular. Colleen had sewn the last few embellishments on it this morning and they now closed the curtain to the fitting room so Jasmine could be laced into it.   
        Colleen pulled the bodice tight before she stepped back to get the full effect of the dress.“Lordy, me, lass, but this is the most beautiful creation you’ve come up with yet.”
        “It is lovely, isn’t it?” Jasmine ran her hand over the rows of glass beads that Colleen had meticulously sewn onto the bodice. She shook out the skirt over the padding which created the slight bustle and turned sideways in the mirror, enjoying the swish of the lush fabric as she moved.
        “I want to check it over from all angles, Colleen, so you might as well get back to work on Eliza Logan’s gown.”
        “Aye, I do need to get going on that dress, if she’s to have it in time for her new show. If you’re sure you’re all right here…”        
        “Yes, yes, go on with you. I’ll call out when I want you to unlace me.”         
         Since merely looking at the fabric chosen for Eliza’s gown brought Parr’s eyes into her head again, she had no desire to oversee Colleen’s work on the dress. What she needed to do was to make certain hers was perfection. For Alistair.         
         She stood in front of the cheval mirror and stared at her image with a critical eye. She pinched her cheeks to bring color into them and ran her fingers down the gown. She brushed her hair from off her shoulders. The pale peach shade was close to her own skin color, presenting the illusion that she was nude. She smiled at her scandalous thoughts. That image would suit nicely. But, if one were to examine the dress more closely, they would begin to notice the details. The entire bodice was overlaid with lace, to which were sewn thousands of peach-colored glass beads, which caught the light, shooting off sparks as she turned this way and that. She spent several minutes turning back and forth, to make certain the light caught the beads regardless of her stance.         
         The bodice was dramatically cut into a deep V in the back, with  a band of silk ribbon a shade darker than the dress lacing up the back. A slight bustle took shape from the matching V shape at her hips. She adjusted the shoulders of the dress so they were almost off the shoulder and peered into the mirror again. Yes, slightly off the shoulder would do. The beads were sewn side-by-side for about an inch and a half around the cuff of the sleeve and around the edges of the bodice, adding a considerable weight to the fabric.  


  1. Your love shows through. I can see why the Worth gown is so adored. Oh My. Doris

  2. What I really like about these fashions is the intricate details that were put into each of them. Can you imagine anyone embroidering or tucking their clothing these days? If it's not a hoody and jeans, it isn't going to happen. Even their handkerchiefs were detailed. I still don't get the attraction women had for bustles though. Maybe they could hide stuff in them. I don't know. I any case, I think those gowns were absolutely beautiful.
    Great post. I loved the photos.

  3. I share your love of historical clothing. What a great article. The amount of detail and work which went into them was phenomenal. The wedding dress sounds sublime!