Dawn's Costume Guide

Altering a Princess Seamed Commercial Pattern

What is a princess seam, or princess line gown? It's that one with a seam line that goes over the bust. This seam is curved to make the bodice fit smoothly over a woman's figure. The seam can begin at the shoulder or in the armscye, but it always travels over the bust before continuing on. It's used to shape the gown to the bust. It's a classic, popular, and very flattering style. And it's modern.

Shaped seams were used in Renaissance Europe as early as the 14th century, but they were under the arm, or in the front or back seam, not over the bust. For the most part,this shaping was intended to make the body conform to an ideal, not to shape the dress to the body. Unfortunately princess seams are the most common cut for the current selection of "renaissance" bodice patterns you can buy today. It's also one of the major reasons those patterns get rejected by the costume police.

If a little bit more historical authenticity matters to you and you haven't already hit the back button on your web browser, then here's how you go about altering those princess seam bodices to be more correctly cut for Tudor and Elizabethan styles.

An overview

Let's have a look at the shapes of the pattern pieces we're talking about. That pattern you bought probably has shapes like this:

Or like this:

You have a back, possibly a back side, a front side and a front.

Whereas a 16th century pair of bodies looks like this:

Let's take a look at how they are similar, and where they differ.

You can see where the shoulder, neckline, and armscye are all sort of in the same places. The difference is in the side seams and how it will shape the garment on your body. And THAT is exactly the point here. The 16th century fashionable shape was a cylinder or slight cone. Curves were "out". The natural shape of the body was quaint, primitive, and undignified.

There are differences of note in the neckline as well. Both the back and front neck lay higher on the torso than modern patterns. Great displays of flesh were considered vulgar. Additonally, without the availability of SP 45 sunblock, clothing was the only way a lady could protect her skin. What often does not show in reproductions of portraits of Elizabethan ladies with low necklines is that they are covered by a sheer partlet or gauzy scarf. What you can see is that they are all formally dressed and indoors.

What you need

your pattern
tracing paper, newsprint, or old giftwrap
pencil or marker

First off, copy your tissue paper pattern onto the tracing paper. It can be newsprint or butcher paper, or whatever you have, but you need to make a copy of your original.

Work from the copy, then if you mess it up you can start over fresh and not have to wait until the next morning to go buy another copy of that pattern.

When you've copied your pattern lay the pieces out like this:

If you have two back pieces match the curve as closely as you can, keeping it flat and tape together. The front side usually has a large curve in it which you will overlap *slightly* in order to match up the pieces. Begin at the armscye and line up that curve first, then match along the side seam. It's okay if there is a gap at the waistline, but it shouldn't be more than an inch. If it is, move the side piece over some more.

When you have the pieces placed and taped, copy them one more time onto another piece of paper, this time straightening the waistline and side seams. (Indicated by blue lines). You may need to smooth the armscye also.

At this point you pretty much have your pattern. You want to check it against your real life measurements, and make a test garment out of muslin or cheap fabric.

If the garment is too loose around the waist you remove from the side seams. Similarly, if it is too small, add to the side seams. Check your measurements in the bust and at the waist, as they may be significantly different.

Due to the way this garment is shaped you will need to add stiffening to keep the bodice in a cylinder shape. This can be done with plastic or metal boning, or with a layer of stiffer material cut from the pattern and applied inside a lining. This could be a fusible product, buckram, or even plastic needlepoint canvas.

All text and artwork copyright 1990 - 2001 D. Duperault. NOTHING on this site may be reproduced or distributed by any means without my written permission. This information offered in good faith, and worth only what you paid for it.
Send me e-mail

Help Keep this Site Online