Thursday, November 8, 2018

My Dream 1865 Pink and Lace Ball Gown - Obstacles

I don't remember exactly when I saw this dress, but I do remember I fell in love with it immediately.

1865 Countess Wilhelmina Von Hallwyl Dress 
(Click on photo to go to museum listing)
Instantly I wanted to recreate it, but there were a few obstacles in my way.
  • First, when I saw this dress I was quite new to making historical clothing and had no idea how to go about making it.
  • Second, where would I find the materials for the dress at a reasonable price? Silk Moire is expensive and not readily available! Same with nice lace.
  • Third, I really had no reason to make an 1865 ball gown.
In the past few years, that first obstacle has completely fallen away. Over time, several historical dress projects have given me the skills needed to make the dress.

The second obstacle mostly stayed the same, but began to fall away two years ago.

And, as for having no reason to make the dress, that actually become a bigger obstacle in the past couple years. You see, I made an 1860's ball gown. And I've never had anything to wear it to (though I have loaned it out a time or two for highschool girls to wear to school history events.) I could see no reason to make a second 1860's ball gown, when I already had one I didn't wear.

Despite my concerns for the, umm, practicality, (for lack of a better word?) of making another 1860's ball gown, two years ago I sealed my fate when it came to this dress. By spending $12, I declared I would be making this dress! Eventually.

While at a fabulous little fabric store in the middle of a Mennonite community in rural Missouri, I happened across a bolt of Moire fabric, in the exact same shade of pink as that ball gown of my dreams. For only $1.50 a yard. No, it wasn't silk, it was a blend of either rayon or cotton, and something else, but it was still just what I needed. I could overlook the less than historically accurate fiber content for the perfect color and texture of this fabric. 8 yards came home with me, for a grand total of $12. 

There was now only one and a half obstacles in the way on making this dress - lace, and an excuse to make the dress.

The lack of excuse was the next obstacle to fall away. My siblings decided to take part in a Jr. High and High school production of "A Christmas Carol". My sister got cast as Mrs. Fezziwig, the host of a ball. Clearly, she would need a ball gown to wear. 

Once the play was cast, it was quickly decided that my existing ball gown would be worn in the ball scene by the girl playing "Belle", Scrooge's lost love. Thus, my sister would need a different dress to wear, and here my excuse to make my dream pink and lace ball gown was found. 

My sister and I are about the same size now. She can wear my historical dresses, no problem. So, I would make the ball gown according to my corseted measurements, and my sister could wear it in the play. 

I presented said little sister with this idea, and the picture of the ball gown I wanted to recreate. She heartily agreed to the plan, falling in love with the dress, just as I had done.

The skills were developed, main fabric was acquired, excuse was found. There was only one last partial obstacle left to overcome - the lace.


As much as I would have loved to find historically accurate silk or cotton lace, that just wasn't feasible. I didn't have the budget for it. A more modern, synthetic, alternative would have to be used. So, I went to Joann's, armed with a 60% off coupon, and set about picking something out from their bridal laces.  I wanted a net lace, with an identical wide scalloped border on each selvage edge, no beading, and no random appliqued-on 3D flowers. I found the lace you see above. Unfortunately, it does have sequins, which I really didn't want, but it ticked all the other boxes - and non-sequined lace meeting my requirements just wasn't to be had! With my cupon, the lace came out to $12 per yard - as much as the entire 8 yards of moire cost me - definitely the most expensive part of this dress, but also the most eye catching part.

The wide bridal lace would be used to trim the ball gown skirt, but I needed a narrower lace and an unadorned net to trim the bodice. 
In the Joann's special occasion fabrics I found a nylon net. While it's not silk, it does have a better drape, and is much nicer, than polyester tulle. So a yard of that came home with me for the bodice adornments.
The lace for trimming the bodice came from Hobby Lobby - it's a net lace with cotton embroidery on a nylon base - still not perfectly historically accurate, but much closer than my other trimmings!

Close up of the bodice of the original gown.
Click on the photo to go to the museum listing.

Once that net lace for trimming the bodice was purchased, I had all my materials. I could finally begin constructing this dress I'd admired for years.


  1. Wow, your sister is so lucky. That is so beautiful.

  2. Ohhh! can't wait to see! I know what you mean about the time between ideas and making. I call it the hunter gatherer stage. You have your radar out for when and if you come across something that will overcome those obstacles.
    I don't know how much time you will have, but I worked on a wedding dress that had similar lace, with sequins and beads. Part of what I had to do was replace alot of that which had come off because it was a shop dress. IT was super easy to lose the embellishments because the thread between embellished sites were left long and not anchored down. So, in this case, a heel caught would pull then break the thread. It lost embellishments with every movement!
    So, see if you can just tug some of those threads to find out how easy it would be to remove the sequins. (and then save those for the future because there will be a job they are good for!)
    Sandy in England

    1. Thanks Sandy! I have considered attempting to remove the sequins. I think I'm going to leave them for now, as they will look lovely on stage, but possibly remove them once the play is over.

  3. What a lucky fabric find! I look forward to seeing the finished dress.

  4. I had a question about the making of the dress. How did you close the back? Was it buttons or something else?