Costume Society, News  |  December 30, 2017

Reconstructing Historical Dress

Viviane Chen


I am a historical costume interpreter from Taiwan. I have always been very enthusiastic about Western historical clothing from the 14th century to the 1920s and have been fortunate enough to assist in a wide variety of projects involving museum textile collections, from care and mounting of antique garments, to exhibition installation, to costume production.


Collaborating with museums has provided me with hands on experience of historical garments not normally accessible. This has enabled me to study the construction of clothes from primary sources, building up first-hand knowledge of sartorial techniques. This experience is extremely useful when working on historical costumes, either for theatrical plays or for reproduction/study purposes. In addition, historical dressmaking and tailoring skills allow me to recreate the authentic shape and structure when mounting extant clothes.


I believe the only way to understand and recreate historical clothes properly is to see the garments from a historical perspective (with minimum contemporary influence) and to learn the original sewing techniques and construction methods. Since my degree and training I have continued my professional development by undertaking programmes at The School of Historical Dress to further my skills and knowledge.


I would like to share with you my recent experience of sewing an 1860s skirt for display in The Bowes Museums Fashion & Textile Gallery, part of the exhibition; ‘Joséphine Bowes The Woman of Fashion’ (26 August 2017 – 10 June 2018). (Images 1 and 2)


This project was the brainchild of Joanna Hashagen, Curator of Fashion & Textiles at The Bowes Museum, and historical clothes expert, Luca Costigliolo. Joséphine Bowes bought her clothes from Worth and was an exceptionally fashionable woman with a unique sense of style, influenced by the 19th century Parisian fashion scene. The exhibition of garments from her exquisite personal collection includes a beautiful purple bodice dating from around 1862; part of an evening dress of which the skirt is now missing. Using authentic mid 19th century dressmaking techniques, we were able to reconstruct the skirt so that visitors to the exhibition could appreciate the whole ensemble and gain a better impression of her precious wardrobe. 


The aim was to ensure that the garment was as authentic as possible. Reproducing the brocaded silk to match the bodice was the first challenge. Luca found a specialist silk weaver in the city of Como in Northern Italy to weave a silk taffeta to match the weight and colour of the original. The repeat of the brocaded pattern on the bodice was created and drafted by Leon Maurice of Northumbria University and was then sent to Switzerland were Joanna had it machine embroidered onto the silk to mimic the brocaded motifs.


Once the fabric was ready it was sent to Genoa in Italy, where Luca made a reproduction crinoline and petticoat and designed and cut the skirt panels. These elements were then transported to The Bowes Museum where I was responsible for constructing the skirt under Lucas guidance and to his specific step by step instructions. (Image 3)   


Before embarking on the sewing I studied Luca’s instructions thoroughly as well as undertaking my own independent research in order to understand each stage of the process. Although at first glance the skirt looks simple, its construction is quite intricate requiring a series of professional skills to precisely match the pattern of the fabric and pleats (Image 4). Every stitch had been carefully planned by Luca to strictly follow 1860s dressmaking techniques and part of my challenge and responsibility was to always ensure that I remained true to this construction (Image 5). Another delicate and time-consuming task was to create the pleats at the waist; a crucial step that gives the skirt its accurate 1860s shape. It took me a full day with several fittings on the mannequin to ensure that the pleats sat in the correct position and that the skirt was hanging properly over the crinoline.


From my study of historic dress, I have learnt that these garments are not always made as we might expect, with much variation in the quality of the workmanship. Although the bodice was well made, some rough details in the construction (such as the pattern not matching at centre front) reveal that it was unlikely to have been the work of a Parisian haute couture house. This led Luca and Joanna to believe that it was possible made for Joséphine by a local dressmaker on one of her annual visits to Barnard Castle. Not elegant enough to be worn in Paris, the dress was probably left at Streatlam Castle, the ancestral home of John Bowes, near Barnard Castle, once Joséphine returned to France.


The fashion scene in Paris during the 1860s changed at a rapid pace.  The precise date that the dress was first created was previously unknown and therefore it was important to undertake thorough research to contextualise the garment. Through the examination of multiple resources, including magazines, paintings and authentic 19th century garments, we were able to date the dress to between 1861-62. This source material has in turn contributed to my understanding of the dress’ silhouette from a historical perspective.


The whole project has been incredibly rewarding, however, for me, this research and investigation was the most fulfilling part of the process as it allowed me to travel back in time and view the dress in its historical context.


Further Reading:

1.     Patterns of Fashion 2, C. 1860-1940 by Janet Arnold (1982)




  • 1860s Bodice from Joséphine’s Wardrobe, Skirt Reconstruction: Luca Costigliolo & Viviane Chen, Print Design: Leon Maurice © The Bowes Museum
  • 1860s Bodice from Joséphine’s Wardrobe, Skirt Reconstruction: Luca Costigliolo & Viviane Chen, Print Design: Leon Maurice © The Bowes Museum
  • 1862 Day Dress Made by Luca Costigliolo, Photographed by Stefano Lacchetti
  • Matching the Embroidery Pattern on the Skirt’s Seams © The Bowes Museum
  • Reconstructing the Waistband of the Skirt © The Bowes Museum