The ‘Here’s to the BBC’ Tea Gown

I’m not a big TV watcher. I grew up without any television (my parents don’t have one to this day), and there aren’t a lot of TV series that I rate. What I do love, however, is the BBCs costume dramas. All those gorgeous adaptations that bring beloved books to life. From Pride & Prejudice, through Bleak House, Wives & Daughters, The Mill on the Floss, and all the way back to the Forsyte Saga – they are all wonderful. New productions are eagerly anticipated (especially since I have to wait for them to debut in New Zealand) and classic productions are like old friends. I watch them as I sew.

So rather than referencing one TV series, this dress is my toast to the BBC costume drama – to the lush settings, gorgeous houses, thoughtful adaptations, iconic moments, and most of all, to those fabulous, drool-worthy, luscious costumes.

There isn’t a particular BBC costume that inspires me, and I didn’t want to focus on one programme over another, so instead I picked a garment for the whole genre. What could be more British, more BBC, more period drama, than a tea gown?

After last week’s very modern take on a historic gown, this week I went full historical. It feels like coming home!

After looking at a bunch of extent tea gowns, and period fashion plates, I based my tea gown on two gowns. First, this 1899 fashion plate – specifically the dress on the right. I love the historicism on the design – the obvious reference to 18th century fashions in the Watteau pleats and open robe shape ties the whole theme together beautifully for me. My other inspiration was this extent gown at the V&A.

I really like to work from both fashion plates and extent garments when recreating historical fashions. It lets me see both the possibility of design and imagination and the desired aesthetic and effect in the fashion plate, and the reality of the ideal in the extent garment.

The rest of the basis for my tea gown was available fabric. Though the total cost of the dress is rather extravagant, all the fabrics but the lace are items I bought very much on sale, and stashed for just such an opportunity. So when I had the idea, I rummaged around, found the sateen, found the razimir, found the kimono, and had a little happy fabric matching moment. Then I saw the lace in the Fabric Warehouse, and the whole idea came together.

The dress came together almost as easily. I based the pattern on extensive research on turn of the century gowns. The dress is built in two pieces: a bodice, with the jacket and train attached, and a separate skirt. The bodice/jacket piece gets put on, and fastens up the centre front with hooks and eyes under the lace bodice front. Then the skirt goes on, with the waistband over the bottom of the bodice and under the jacket. Finally the sash goes on to tie the whole thing together, and to keep it from being too pale and pastel-y.

Of course you are wondering when I have the occasion to wear a completely over the top, frothy, feminine, impractical, historically accurate ca. 1900 tea gown? Well, that’s not me in it. It’s being modelled by a dear friend, whose classic blond beauty suits the look better than mine.

And where is the setting? Ah, that’s the fun part! I took my pictures at Premier House (yes, that’s the Prime Minister’s residence!) before and after giving a talk on the history of tea and the way tea has influenced fashion at an afternoon tea fundraiser for Save the Children. The BBC Tea Gown was the perfect way to illustrate the talk (with help from a couple of my other historic gowns), my model looked fabulous, I love the dress (though it does suffer from a little bit of ‘sew in haste – unpick at leisure’ syndrome), and we raised quite a bit of money for Save the Children.

So here’s to the BBC! May they produce many more deliciously costumed period dramas for me to enjoy as I sew more ridiculous historical fashions!

Just the facts, Ma’am:

Fabric: 2.2m brushed silk razimir in robin’s egg blue (skirt and bodice) @ $15 per metre, 4m poly-cotton-metal sateen in ivory (over-jacket) @ $10 per metre, 3m embroidered cotton net lace (overskirt and overbodice) @ $15 per metre, one recycled silk obi in robin’s egg blue (jacket lining) $5, one vintage cotton sheet (jacket interlining and bodice support) $2 at an op shop.

Pattern: My own, based on historical examples

Year: ca. 1900

Notions: Hooks & eyes, german plastic boning, bias binding, bias hem tape.

Hours: 32 hours, spread over 4 days (yes, I really put in 11 hour sewing days to get this done in a week!)

First worn?: Monday 11 June for a Save the Children talk and afternoon tea charity event. It couldn’t possibly have been worn sooner – I was sewing up until the very last minute!

Wear again?: Yep. I have a photoshoot planned, I’ll use it for other talks, and well, if I ever get invited to the Oscars I can channel Clair Danes and pair the skirt with a cashmere sweater ;-). And my model already wants a slight modernized version of the over-jacket for daily wear!

Make again?: As much as I love it, I’m pretty sure I only need one of these!

Total cost: Oh dear. Somewhere around $130. Historical accuracy doesn’t come cheap. Worth it though!

And, if you want to know more, I’ll be discussing the construction of the gown in extensive detail over on my blog in the next few weeks.

Author

Leimomi Oakes - The Dreamstress

Leimomi Oakes learned to sew as a child in Hawaii, and hasn't spent a day without doing it in the-more-years-than-she-would-like-to-admit-to since. When she was 18 she was nicknamed 'The Dreamstress' and bought the domain name, and now she's stuck with it. After getting degrees in Art History, Costume Design and International Relations she worked in a number of fabulous museums before going freelance as a textile and fashion historian and historical seamstress. She lives in Wellington New Zealand with a lovely husband and a world-famous cat.

20 Comments

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  1. Great dress, amazing, the over jacket is gorgeousness with a big G. You are so talented.

  2. Don’t you just LOVE Watteau backs? Sigh… Beautiful job, and isn’t there something particularly satisfying about sewing for several days straight and then seeing a wonderful outfit come to life?

    • Watteau backs are wonderful (even if it isn’t a precisely historical term – I just wanted to use a word everyone would recognise). I wish I could just dig in and sew for days on end on a more regular basis. Instead I have to do boring stuff like keeping the house clean and taxes and work :-P

  3. WOW!!! That is GORGEOUS!!! What talent!!!

  4. So lovely to see and also wearable – it doesn’t look too ‘costumey’ and I would wear that blue dress on its own for a special event. (I don’t have a telly either …)

    • Thank you! The blue dress isn’t actually wearable on its own – it’s a separate skirt, and than the blue bodice is built as one with the white over-robe. I’ve have saved every last scrap of the blue silk razimir in the hope of making a 1900s evening bodice to go with the skirt. I have enough of the lace to cover it, but very little silk.

  5. Wow, really great job! Even the shoes match perfectly! Love it.

  6. This is wonderful! I’m quite a fan of BBC period dramas too and you’ve captured them beautifully. Congrats on a successful fundraiser as well.

  7. I’m in awe. Sounds like your talk was a wonderful event and a big payoff for the long days of sewing this amazing gown.

  8. Oh my! That looks so elegant and detalishous! I love bbc dramas, especially the historical ones. They may not always be historically accurate, but they sure are filled with beautiful period piece costumes. Right now, I’m stuck on “The Tudors “. But back to you, that coat and jacket are so impressive. I hope you have occasion to wear them because they need to be seen. Great work, Leimomi.