Sewing · Victorian

The Shippensburg Bodice

A couple of years ago, thanks to Pinterest, I stumbled across a blog post about a dress held by the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum. I think it was pretty much love at first sight – there was definitely something about the bodice that made me just want to sit and look at it. Then, as I did back then with almost every Victorian era dress I came across, I pinned it to my board and there it stayed, getting lost amongst all the other pictures.

At the start of last year, when I was trying to decide what sort of bodice I wanted to make along with my black four-gore underskirt and asymmetrical overskirt (thanks Truly Victorian! I love your patterns) I ventured into the depths of my Pinterest board and began to sift through the images. I didn’t find the Shippensburg bodice picture straight away, but found some others that I quite liked, like these two:


Close, but no cigar… I liked both of them – I still do, but I just wasn’t 100% convinced that I wanted to replicate either of them. While I was looking at them and contemplating I suddenly realised that I had seen a similar bodice before and hunted through all of my images to find the picture of the Shippensburg bodice.

To my relief, I found it and I still liked it as much as I did when I first saw it. That was it. Here was the bodice that I wanted to base mine on. The only problem was… I didn’t have a clue how to do it! I was still learning to sew and trying to draft my own pattern pieces was uncharted, ‘here be monsters’ territory. I knew that I could use the French Vest Bodice from Truly Victorian as a base but from there on was a complete mystery. I tried to figure it out from looking at the two photos that I had found and came up with some sort of plan but I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew.

One day I was sitting on the train and I had a lightbulb moment. What if I emailed the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum and ask them some of the construction questions that I had? They probably wouldn’t reply – why would they, I’m some random person from the other side of the globe and of no real importance. Surely they had better things to do?

Karin Bohleke, the director of the Archives and Museum replied and I was floored. She didn’t answer my questions but took her reply one step further and sent me a description of the dress, a couple of photos that were in their system, and promised to send me more in depth interior photos of the bodice within the week. How amazing was that?


I was so excited when the photos came. All 27 of them. Twenty Seven! I thought that I might get four or five, not 27. Wow. Once again, I was completely floored by the generosity of Karin and her student Emily, who took the photos for me. Everything, the entire construction of the bodice was made so much clearer and all of my questions had certainly be answered. And, I found that it was a lot more straightforward than what I had been trying to do with my mockup (I was tying myself up in knots trying to do it on my own).


The pleated ‘vest’ is attached to the bodice and ends just below the top of the ‘flap’. And the lapels are basted to the bodice to stop them flapping about:


With a clearer idea of what I needed to do I set to with my mockup, drawing all over it and making notes with a pink marker. When my brother-in-law saw me wearing it he said it looked like I was about to have plastic surgery! It took a bit of trial and error to draft the lapels, ‘flap’, and the pleated vest portion but I felt like I ended up with something useable.

The lapels and cuffs on the original bodice have a beaded trim so I decided to follow suit and stitch beads on the edges on mine as well. I’d never sewn beads onto anything before and had to turn to youtube for tutorials. I found Angela Clayton’s beading tutorial helpful and watched that a few times.


Unfortunately, I had underestimated how long this whole process would take and with a week to go before the Oamaru Heritage Celebrations I succumbed to some horrible, nasty bug that knocked me off my feet for a few days. Despite gaining two days of sick leave, I could barely function and it took all of my energy to slowly tackle the buttonholes, make the pleated vest sections and sew them on, sew on the lapels and the flap. I think I was sewing the buttons on the day before I flew down.

I actually did it, despite being sick, I crossed the finish line…

I was so proud of myself, wearing this outfit in Oamaru. I had set out to teach myself how to sew and to make my very own Victorian dress and I had done it. I kind of wish that I had recorded just how many hours it took me but all I know is that a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears went into it. No matter how hard it got, or how often I asked myself just what had I gotten myself into, I stuck with this project from start to finish. And I learned that there are some amazingly kind people out there in the world who will do what they can to help you if only you ask.


Wearing the Shippensburg dress alongside some talented historical costumers that I am so lucky to call friends. Photo thanks to my Dad =)


4 thoughts on “The Shippensburg Bodice

  1. WOW!!! What an awesome accomplishment!!!! It came out just fantastic :))

    Funny thing, our obsessions with previous periods of history. I was obsessed with horses from the first time I saw one, as a very small child. I had oodles of plastic Breyer horses as a kid (34, to be exact . . . ) My Dad worked as bandleader at Disneyland, so I had lots of chance to travel back in time down Main Street, USA — not only to the costumes and old fashioned store fronts, the popcorn and unicycles used by street performers, but the horse and carriages — all from an era gone by.

    Back home, at our Malibu beach house, I would sit on the floor, surrounded with my herd of plastic horses, and hook them up to imaginary buckboards. In my mind, we would trot down country roads; call on rural neighbors; haul goods to town . . .

    I also learned to sew, and made all kinds of things (When I was 19, I sewed my first house!!! An 18′ American Indian Souix tipi!!!) But my daughters are the true seamstresses — sewing their own patterns and creating fashions, costumes, outfits . . . for a living!!!

    Thank you for this wonderful post, and the others you have posted (LOVED the train pics, and horse carriages!!!)

    Last night, I hitched my big beautiful homebred horse, Laddie, to his harness and line-drove him down our rural country road. In the next few days, I’ll put the carriage back to him, for the first time this season. (He was sent for carriage training last year, and he’s now my 3rd generation of carriage horses I’ve raised!!!)

    I’m on a horse high right now. And I love reading about your creative venture into times past, keeping the vision alive of bygone times. Someone has to, right? Might as well be you and me :)) Dawn


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s