From the first moment I laid my eyes on a picture of James Tissot’s painting Still On Top (which is held in storage at the Auckland Art Gallery) I was absolutely smitten with the amazing striped dress featured. I wanted that dress in my wardrobe so badly – and I first saw this dress five years ago when I had just started teaching myself to sew.
I thought it would be years and years and years before I had learned enough, felt confident enough, and would finally consider myself capable of doing justice to such a wonderful work of art (because that dress is truly a work of art).
Last year I finally found the perfect fabric to use for my Dream/Bucket List project – the Striped Tissot Dress. I just had to get it, despite wondering if I was indeed ready to attempt this project.
This dress features in a few of Tissot’s works, which is an absolute benefit since it offers different views of the dress, leaving very little guesswork. It appears in Still On Top, 1874, Preparing For The Gala, 1874 , Boarding The Yacht, 1873, The Captain and the Mate, 1873, The Return From The Boating Trip, 1873, and Portsmouth Dockyard, 1877.
Before I even dared start cutting into the fabric I had to sit down and really study the paintings that the dress features in to get a good idea of what was happening when and where, and how best to plan this project from start to finish.
The first thing that informed my choices was the fact the majority of paintings were completed in 1873-4 so that narrowed down the silhouette and my choice of undergarments and patterns.
It is absolutely incredible to study any of the dresses Tissot painted because he exercised such attention to detail when painting them. And, the more you study them, the more you see.
The Striped Dress is a perfect example of this: at first glance it is a simple dress with three rows of pleats on the underskirt, a row of pleats on the overskirt, and some pleats on the bodice hem and sleeves as well.
Look a little closer and you will see the bias trim above the pleats. And another trim above that cut on the straight grain.
Okay, so have we broken it down enough to get started cutting into the fabric? Not yet – at least not if you’re me…
Take another look at the underskirt – those pleats in particular. We’ve already noted that there are 3 rows, but guess what I’ve discovered…
None of the rows are the same height.
The bottom two rows look almost the same height but I didn’t trust my judgement by just looking and am guilty of using a ruler against the images I have to confirm that the lower row is just a wee bit longer.
The third row is roughly half or just over half the height of the bottom row.
So now the overskirt is sussed – the Truly Victorian 1870s Underskirt pattern will work well as a base, and the rows of pleats will be different heights – a one inch difference between the lower and middle rows, and the upper row will be shorter.
Splendid. Now, let’s look at the bias and straight grain trims. I noticed something else when paying particular attention to these. The straight grain trim looks to be about half the height of the bias trim so that seems straightforward enough. But… the height of the bias trim on the underskirt and on the overskirt are different. The overskirt’s bias trim is also roughly half of that on the underskirt. From what we can see of the bodice, the trim on there looks the same as on the overskirt.
The bodice front is, unfortunately, obscured in the front-facing paintings but from what we can see and what is visible in Still On Top there’s enough to go on. The collar and cuffs have what appears to be lace and there are cute little black bows on the backs of the sleeves.
Phew! That’s a lot of breaking this dress down – what have I got myself in for?
The Project Posts
I’m not the only one…
Other historical costumers have made their own interpretations of this magnificent dress: