An 18th Century Inspired Gown for Venetian Carnevale

I still remember the first time I went to Venice.  I had saved my pennies for a three week trip to Europe that I took in between completing a two year position post grad school and the start of my next job.  The first week I spent in Paris, followed by a Eurrail jaunt (the best rail pass ever!) around to a bunch of spots I had always wanted to go.  This included two nights in Venice, Italy.  My sister was able to join me on the jaunting about part.  There were so many lovely experiences on this trip, but one that really stands out was our first taste of Venice.  We had taken the train from Milan, and arrived at the station in Venice.  We were staying at a small pensionne just off St. Marks square.  This was 25 years ago, back in the day when to make reservations at such places you called on the phone because email was really a new and little used thing.  We knew from reading guidebooks that we should take the Vaparetto, a lumbering boat that in Venice is a bus, and try to sit in the front so that Venice would reveal its first secrets to us as we rode down it’s Main “road,” the Grand Canal.  As we embarked my sister gave one of the best descriptions of Venice that you can give to an American newbie – “it is like Disneyland, only it is real.”  It was a delicious fantasy unfolding before our eyes – the beauty combined with decay, and the sheer audacity that anyone ever thought to build it; that they created this place like no other; and that it still stands.  I was awestruck and in love.  I’ll devote many posts to my Venetian Carnevale adventures, this post is about my 2018 costume creation for Carnevale—and I just plain love what I created.

Before getting into my 2018 creation, I need to say Carnevale is just delightfull. Carnevale is the Venetian celebration before the beginning of lent and It has historic origins, from when Venice was a city-state filled with power, intrigue, and decadence.  Today people from all over the world come to Venice to celebrate in costumes.  (Most Venetian leave).  There are two basic styles of costume -fantasy costumes and historic costumes. (There is also a hybrid, historically based costumes that dip into fantasy).  Both are quite fun.  Part of the fun is selecting or creating your costume (in addition to making your own costume, there are ateliers who create costumes as commissions for people and there are costumes that can be rented.  Even when one has someone else make their costume, there is so much creativity involved in working with then to get exactly what you want).  The second part of the fun is wearing your work of art costume in such a beautiful city.  Some of my dear Carnevale friends and I call strolling in our costumes “swanning” because it is just plain wonderful and  performance art to wear them and walk around, striking a pose.  Seriously it is performance art and ridiculous amounts of fun.

I really like the historically based costumes, but in Venice, more is more.  Costumes are over the top filled with bling; the more finery, the better.  So you can play with your historic costume, trick it out a bit, and no one is going to criticize because you used a non-historically accurate trim or technique—they are going to love it for the artistic creation you have dressed up in.  I like doing an 18th Century inspired outfit for Venice, and so wanted to do another robe à la française for 2018 also sometimes referred to as a sacque back gown or a sack back gown.  I think sacque back gowns are so elegant—and as a bonus, the laces are hidden so there is room to expand and contract ones physique without having to alter the gown; it is forgiving.  This also makes fitting yourself easier as you don’t have to be quite as precise, the laces are the final fitting step.

I took my color combo inspiration from some of the amazing work Terry Dressbach did as costume designer for Outlander in season 2. Seriously her stuff is amazing.  I loved the combinations of brown and gold she did in some of the dresses for the character Claire in Paris.  If you are into Outlander you know the dresses I mean, but these are the ones:  the brown embroidered overdress “Claire garden dress” with Gold you can see here

and the gold dress in the back corner of the first picture in this article

Now mind you I didn’t want to recreate one of these costumes—that is all fine and good—but for Venice I didn’t what to pretend to be Claire in Outlander, I wanted a gorgeous 18th Century gown to swan around in as ME, and was looking for inspiration.  I started searching for fabrics and found a scrumptious silk cut velvet in just the precise gold color of my inspiration pieces.  

And this amazing embroidered brown linen.  The linen was in two pieces, 1 3/8 yards and 3 yards – thank goodness it would be at least enough for the petticoat and I could probably get the stomacher out of it, too.

I found the fabrics on eBay, and both were suggested for upholstery.  I ordered them and hoped.  When they arrived, the hand on them was absolutely lovely.

Of course, being the procrastinator that I can be, I bought the fabrics in October for the February Carnivale.  Plenty of time.  Well, at least I didn’t wait until the last minute, but I didn’t decide to buckle down and get down to creating until  mid January and my flight to Venice was February 7!  Time to get cracking.

I had intended to base the gown off an old out of print Simplicity pattern that I had made another gown from a couple of years earlier SImplicity 3637. (If you ever want to use this pattern, don’t fall for exhobinant prices on eBay or Etsy for this pattern. Although it is out or print, you can buy it from Simplicy for $25 through its print on demand service.  It is not an easy pattern as I never did quite understand how the one back section was supposed to go together, but the dress looked great finished, so I was ready to tackle it again.  This was the previous dress I had made with Simplicity 3637

The red one on the right is me.  I’m with my dear friends, Dominika and John, we have had some grand times Swanning in Venice.  Looking at this photo, the red dress I didn’t fit the bodice as well as I should have and the center stomacher piece is too high. I altered it before I wore it again

But, just before I was about to make it, a new Simplicity 18th Century robe à la française pattern came out, this time from the lovely ladies at American Dutchess.  I was excited to try their new pattern.

So armed with the pattern, I set out to sew.  After cutting it out—my very least favorite part of sewing—I dove in, starting with the velvet over dress first.  The pattern sewed up beautifully.  I changed up a few construction details from how they were intended, but I pretty much do that with most patterns.  Here is the in-progress dress, the day after I cut it out.

It look a little sad here, no trim and the interior lining of the bodice isn’t sewn in so it looks baggy at this point.

Next I turned to the petticoat.  I used the pattern to cut it out, but then basically scrapped the construction,  I left open places on both sides to be able to reach into the pocket hoops as on the pattern, but instead of the ties, I added a waistband. Yes, modern construction but no one would see it when worn.  (I know those who only do 100% historically accurate are probably clutching their pearls, but I was alreeady machine sewing this baby and so I just went for a waist band).

Looking less sad now that I’ve added the petticoat under the shell of the gown

A week later, I went shopping for trim.  I knew I could make trim for it from fabric, but I wanted something special.  And lucky lucky me, I found this great trim at Hobby Lobby on the clearance rack—a whole bolt for $10.00!  And it could not have been more perfect.  I was giddy!  

Delicious!  Just the colors I want and flowers!

I applied it to my dress and added the stomacher.  I then got distracted thinking that I needed a cape.  I’d be wearing it in Venice in February – and some days are really nice that time of year and some days are really cold.  And since I’d be wearing it to parties at night, I wanted to have a matching cape that could really keep me warm.  After all it is the accessories that can really elevate your look from good to fab.

I took an elbow length cape that I had and laid it on the gold fabric to cut the general shape.  I bought brown velvet to serve as a lush coordinating lining.  I had a vintage brown mink fur collar to use at the neck.  It is a free standing piece that attaches with clips, so perfect for the cape.  But I wanted it warmer than just two layers of velvet.  I bought an inexpensive down filled throw off amazon.  I cut it and used it as an inside layer  when constructing the cape.  Such fun.  And then I remembered when doing a Costuming for Venice, More IS More.  I decided to bling the cape, by putting rhinestones on it.  I tested several different rhinestone options.  

I decided that I liked the golden ones best, but wasn’t satisfied as it really didn’t look as good as I wanted.  Then I got inspired – the rhinestones should go on the fabric between the squares, not on the squares themselves.  I loved it and was off and running.  It took me three evenings to bling out the cape.

I used Swardovski Golden Shadow rhinestones and glued them on using Gem Tac glue and placed the rhinestones with tweezers on the dots of glue. The glue is still wet in places in this picture.

And once I got going making the cape fancy, I couldn’t stop.  I decided I wanted fur trim at the bottom to really set it off.  It was now getting way to close to when I was leaving, so I couldn’t search ebay for vintage fur scraps (with fur I never use anything new, only vintage for recycling) that I could get in time.  I went to a local antique mall and got really really lucky when I found this very old fur trim – I think it is fox and by the styling, I think it was on a coat probably at least 60 years ago.

It appeared to be  a partial collar and tuxedo that had gone down a coat at one time.  I thought if I cut it into strips and lined them wiht the brown velvet, it could turn into fabulous trim for the cape.  I laid it next to the cape and knew I had a winner.  

Having finished off the cape and being IN LOVE with the bling, I wanted to add more shine to the dress.  I didn’t want to glue rhinestones to the dress, because if they fell off, you’d have unsightly glue residue.  I didn’t have time left to do the whole thing, but I thought if I got beads the same color as the rhinestones, I could sew some beads to the bodice and elevate the look.  I ordered 6 mm swardovski beads in golden shadow. 


A few things to finish the gown—adding gromets to the inside back lining to lace it in snug (I used grommet tape to make this go quickly), sewing the bottom of the back lining to the sides until the space where the pleats of the Sacque back flow out and, finally, adding lace cuffs.  I had this wonderful lace I’d bought off a sale rack at Sposabella in New York when I was there on a business trip.  

The dress and cape were now done and I was ready to go.

One of the grand things about costuming is sharing your ideas and the progress on your ensemble with friends.  during all phases of construction of this dress and while  planning for the trip I’d been communicating with my dear friends that I have been meeting in Venice for a few years.  As our ensembles came together we got more and more excited.  Finally the day came, we met at Florians (an 18th Century cafe that is THE place to see and be seen in your finery) in costume, ready to swan in our finery, and it was the qqdebut of my new gown.  Below are some pictures of the adventures this gown had in Venice.

The final completed gown:

I felt that if there had been a Vogue magazine in the 18th Century that I would have wanted to try and be on the cover. This picture made me so proud of my creation!
Having ciocolatta at Florians

Gown and cape:

Swanning with John and Dominika:



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