The Edwardian Fishtail Dress – Part 1

Over  half a year ago, my sister asked me to be the Matron of Honour at her wedding. The trick? The trick was it was an Edwardian theme, and I was going to make my own dress.

To be honest, if I had known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have dived into it. It was a grand effort of pain, beauty, sweat and tears. And looking at it from the other side, it is a journey that I am glad to have done, but I’m not sure I’m ready to do it all again – yet!

I can tell you though, that I now have no fear about designing and making anything to do with cloth. Because I do not think anything can equal the challenge this posed. So here goes with the story of …. the Edwardian Fishtail Dress.

Research … research… research
What is Edwardian? It’s the period of time defined as the time of the reign of Edward the VII, from 1901 to 1910. It’s also part of La Belle Epoche ( though that covers a broader time range, 1870 – 1914).

A great website that details the various styles that cover this era can be seen at
Historical Sewing. Jennifer Rosbrugh is an inspiration. As is Leimomi Oakes at The Dreamtress.
After looking through countless searches for dress designs, I felt confident enough to design the type of dress I wanted.

From Design Concept

Edwardian Dress Sketch

The colour theme of the wedding was antique gold – so I knew the colour palette I was working with – this was a blessing, as it was one less variable to consider. I also knew that my sister’s wedding dress would also be silk with a cream lace overlay. So I needed a design that would complement – but not compete.

The design was simple. As I was still breastfeeding my baby girl, I would need a design I could easily undo at the front – so a wrap dress was ideal. Edwardian design also meant it had to be buttons – no zips.
The dress would have an Edwardian sillouette for the bodice, and a swirly fishtail skirt with no train – no dragging along the ground!
A simple v-neck at the front and a square collar.

Finding a Pattern
Of course – there was no pattern. I thought there might be something out there that would come close, but no. Even the vintage Edwardian patterns didn’t allow for small and petite – far too busty! So I was back to drafting my own. But I had no idea where to start!


Iterations on the design

Luckily, there was an answer – Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, Part 2. Even better, it was available on an inter-library loan – yay! It’s a truly awesome book, that details different frock designs from all different eras – embracing several Edwardian and late-Victorian outfits. It also has scalable patterns that I could use to draft up a pattern in my size.

Silk underdress

The important thing to remember when scaling a pattern is knowing your own dimensions –
For a bodice:

  • waist,
  • hip,
  • chest,
  • shoulder width,
  • neck circumference,
  • drop from shoulder to waist,
  • distance from waist to hip.
  • Bust point to bust point

For a dress:

  • Again waist
  • hip
  • distance from waist to hip
  • distance from waist to ground (or ankle, depending on where the hem sits)

Also – do the measurements in the undergarments you will wear!
I was using an old silk dressing-gown up-cycled into a beautiful silk under dress, plus my lovely white corset. This naturally changed my figure – and the measurements! Without them, it simply wouldn’t have that Edwardian silhouette.

1898 Dress from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 2

The Final Pattern Selection
Even with Ms Arnold’s patterns, no one dress had exactly what I needed. Eventually I picked the bodice from the 1898 pattern, and a sketch of a fishtail skirt from the introductory section.
Even so, I still used the front panels of the 1898 dress skirt – so that I’d get a flat skirt at the front, and a fishtail at the back. Lovely.

‘Mermaid’ pattern from 1903,
Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 2

Drafting and creating the Muslin

The bodice was easy to scale up – I traced the pattern onto some baking paper and then drafted squares all over. Then I created a large square version at the correct scale ( as detailed in Ms Arnold’s book ), and carefully noted the mm measurements of the small scale and multiplied them up to the correct square size – I got pretty darn good at multiplying by the end of that! Each pattern piece would take about 100 measurements. As I was also doing a side fastening style at the front, and the bodice pattern was front fastening, I had to redesign the front completely while keeping the same silhouette.

Scaling the patterns

The skirt – was more difficult but followed the same process for the drafting. The main problem was that the original sketch was designed for a bustle!

Small amount of the pattern pieces drafted
I didn’t discover this until the muslin was sewn together – and discovered it was more likely to fit a large elephant! Then began the rather laborious process of resewing and cutting…and resewing and cutting, …and still more resewing and cutting.

Muslin waistline- each seam was
sewn at least 4 times!

Each seam in this 8 gore skirt was probably resewn at least 4 times! Then the changes were carefully transferred onto the pattern pieces.  I finally had a pattern that worked!

Creating the black and white version

After the headache of the muslin ( at a very cheap $3 per metre), I wasn’t so fussed on immediately diving in to make the silk version ( $30 – $60 per metre). So I decided to go with an in-between option – a cotton version where I could try out the finishes and collar to make it all work.
My hubby suggested white and black – for a Bleach Arrancar look. Personally, I think it looks more like it would fit into My Fair Lady’s Ascot Opening Race.

Triangle Collar with hand-stitched black satin ribbon.

Either way, I created a white cotton dress, with a triangular collar, ( square collars just Did. Not. Work.) with a black satin ribbon trim.

Double black lace sleeves.

A double black cotton lace trim on the sleeve edge, and a single black lace edging from the collar down the front seam and around the hem (Double didn’t work there either – too bulky).

The waistband was a Japanese-style black polyester satin with red flowers. It ties at the back in a rather nice big bow that then drapes over the fishtail at the back.

Big black buttons and single lace trim.

The dress is finished with some simple big black buttons for the bodice.

I also needed to add fabric at the front – all the alterations on the fishtail changed the side seams – so I needed more fabric at the front! Now I could have done more unpicking and added it to the sides – instead I just added an extra panel to the front. I felt that with all the black trim, it wouldn’t be that noticeable. And I was well and truly sick of that darn skirt!

Originally, I sewed the lining to the dress all the way around – including the hem, but after the first wash (And yes, I did pre-wash all my fabrics before I started sewing!), the two cotton fabrics shrank again – and bunched. So it was unpicked along the hem and sewn separately so that it had the correct fall.

All the little things made me very glad I’d made an inbetween outfit. Material-wise it was cheap, but all the trim added up to a hefty price tag – about the price of a low-range formal dress.

Just to finish off the outfit, I then made a fun papier-mache mask (the photos don’t quite do it justice)- so here is the outfit in all it’s Arrancar glory.

Back of the dress Showing off the fish-tail


Front of the dress – almost sitting right!


Side of the dress – lots of fun photographing this.

To get to this point only took 4 months….

Now on to the wedding dress…. but I might leave that for part 2!

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