Making It Regency: Altering a modern “Empire” bodice

Things have been busy around here lately…

But today I finally get around to sharing with you this little “tutorial” on how to frighten… no, wait, alter a modern Empire-style bodice into period correctness. I am still a bit apprehensive about drafting my own bodice patterns entirely from scratch. So, Frankenstein-ing a modern bodice that fits my measurements, has been my shortcut. Perhaps some of you are in the same fix when it comes to self-drafting period patterns. In that case, this quick-and-dirty method might come in handy.

This post will walk you through the alterations I have made to create my very own period-appropriate Regency bodice. They are loosely based on Hope A. Greenberg’s “Cutting and Sewing Tips” for Regency gowns. All in all, I am fairly happy with the outcome and rather excited to see what the finished petticoat bodice for HSF #5 will look like. :) Here is the gist of my five steps to bodice happiness:

1. Changing the Armscye

The first thing I did after tracing the bodice front and back pieces to pattern paper was to deepen the back armscye. This adds the extra ease needed to compensate for the use of princess seams, instead of darts. For this, I cut off the seam allowances at the top edges of the shoulder strap. As the pattern I used had an allowance of 5/8 inch (1.5 cm), this was the amount I took off on either side of the shoulder seam.

Cutting off the shoulder seam allowance on the bodice back.

After snipping off the allowances, I aligned the two bodice pieces on a big sheet of brown paper, matching them at the shoulder line like so:

Aligning bodice front and back at the shoulder.

To deepen the armhole, I used a period sleeve pattern from the Colonial Williamsburg online collection as a visual guide. I then bent my flexible French curve into the right shape and drew a  line for the new back armscye. The whole process looked about like this:

Adjusting the back armscye to a period sleeve.

2. Dart Removal

Now that the armhole looked a lot more like it should, I turned to removing the front and back darts. Luckily I found this awesome tutorial from A Fashionable Stitch. It shows you how to create quick and easy princess seams from waist darts. As my pattern only had waist darts front and back, the method Sunni describes for the back dart, would work for both sides of the bodice. Theoretically that is. In the end, I only created a princess seam in the back.

With the front dart, I got a bit lazy. ;) Since the petticoat I am replicating has under-bust tucks at the bodice front, no princess seam was needed. Instead I just converted the dart into a tuck. And that is really easy. First I cut off the funny triangular underneath the dart:

Cutting off the bottom end of the front dart.

Then all I had to do was to align the dart’s two bottom points (where the dart is the widest) and fold them onto each other. Where they met, I drew two straight lines, about as long as the dart. You can also make them a little shorter, depending on your bust size, but I would not recommend making them any longer. Things might get a little tight that way *gasps stagily*.

If you would like some extra info on how to create the tuck, Colleen has made a handy little video tutorial about it.

3. Changing the Shoulder Strap

Next I simply changed the location of the shoulder strap’s back seam to where it would have been in the Regency “diamond back”. For it I marked a new cut line, close to the bodice back pattern piece. This pretty much took the shoulder seam to a place very near the back of the armpit. You can see the new seam line in this overview of the alterations so far. Please excuse the messiness of my markings. It was pretty late when I got there. ;)

The pattern alterations so far.

4. Thinking about the Closure

Now you will have to decide how your Regency bodice will be closed. The pattern I used already included a zipper allowance at the back. I you would like to close the bodice with a drawstring, you can simply keep all as it is and just hem the two sides so that they are touching when closed.

Back closures that overlap lots are a very modern thing. In Georgian times, they were somewhat rare. Yet my petticoat will have a button closure. So I added the necessary amount of fabric for the button placket to the center back seam. But that was it, really.

5. Making a Muslin and Creating the Final Pattern

Cutting out the muslin.

To make a deeper Regency-style neckline that fits your needs, the muslin is the best thing you can do. But it is also very important to make sure the altered seams fit as they should and are just as tight or loose as you need them. The fit of these seams has some influence on the overall length of the bodice, as well as on whether the back closes up nicely, or not.

I then took apart the changed muslin and made my final bodice pieces from it, copying the outlines to pattern foil. Because it is always a bit easier to cut out on its own, I clipped off the strap and made it into a separate piece, to be cut out on the bias. The finished muslin pieces looked like this:

The finished pattern pieces.

And that is all there was to changing a modern Empire bodice to its Regency-appropriate counterpart. I think we can go and sew it up now, just in time for HSF #5. The supplies are already waiting :

Love, Nessa

Useful links:

Making a Regency Ball Gown by Hope A. Greenberg.
Princess Seam Tutorial by Sunni (A Fashionable Stitch).
Turning Darts into Tucks a video tutorial by Colleen G. Lea (Fashion Sewing Blog).

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