Wednesday, 27 July 2016

A monochrome Delphos, colonial style

Leimomi of The Dreamstress spent the first two weeks of July living in 1916 (well, as close as it's possible to get).  If you haven't read her blog posts about it you should; go ahead, I'll wait.  On the 16th Leimomi was kind enough to invite a few of us Wellingtonians to a ladies' afternoon tea in 1916.

This meant I needed clothing suitable for 1916.

The obvious solution was the Delphos dress, created by Mariano Fortuny in 1909.  The Delphos has a number of attractive features from my perspective.  It's quick and easy to make.  It does not require any pattern drafting or fitting.  It does not require period underwear.  In fact it was meant to be worn with no underwear, which is still a bit risque a hundred years on and must have been downright scandalous in 1916, but it also works well with 2016 underwear.

By happy coincidence this month's Historical Sew Monthly theme is Monochrome, and I have some pleated black cotton in my stash, as well as white glass beads.  The original Delphos dresses were available in "black, gold, and the tones of old Venetian dyes", so black is quite appropriate for a 1916 Delphos.  In fact monochrome became rather fashionable during WWI, in response to dye shortages.

Monochrome Delphos in black cotton with white glass beads.

This isn't a very convincing replica of a real Delphos, because the fabric is quite different.  Delphos dresses were made of silk, whereas this is cotton.  However, it is entirely plausible that a kiwi woman who couldn't get a real Delphos would make an imitation like this one.  It's a very kiwi thing to do.  In the 19th and 20th centuries many things weren't available here in the colonies, and fashion-forward New Zealanders often had to improvise.  Eve Ebbet's book In True Colonial Fashion contains a particularly memorable account of a woman who made a bustle pad by stuffing her skirts with straw.  Unfortunately, the wind blew her skirt open and the straw was revealed.

The Delphos is a very simple thing, and very easy to make.  Fortuny patented the design, and the patent diagram shows how it was constructed.

Patent diagram for the original Delphos.

Item F on the diagram is a gathering cord under the arm, and this is the key to getting the sleeves to sit right.  There's also a gathering cord at the neck, which strengthens the neckline and allows it to be adjusted.

The Challenge: Monochrome.

Fabric: 3 meters of crinkled black cotton.

Pattern: There isn't one.  It's a tube.

Year:  Early 19-teens through 1920s.

Notions: Cords made from black crochet cotton, white glass beads, and a belt made from grosgrain ribbon with two thread buttons.

How historically accurate is it?  As a Delphos replica, 50% at best, but as an example of colonial ingenuity it's probably a  bit better.  The construction is certainly feasible for 1916 and is based on photos of Delphos dresses as well as the patent diagram.

Hours to complete: About 8.  The side seams are machined, but everything else is hand stitched; because of the way the dress is constructed, it really needs to be hand stitched.

First worn:  On the 16th of July, to Leimomi's afternoon tea in 1916.  It's a great dress and I want to make another one, in a shorter length.  The long, slightly-more-than-floor-length skirt is period, but it is also impractical.

Total cost:  I suspect the fabric cost something like $8/meter (everything came from stash and it's been there a while), and I have no idea what I paid for the beads.  So, maybe somewhere around $40.


  1. I would love to see a picture of you wearing the dress. Because it's so black, it's hard to see the pleats in the picture, and also hard to imagine what it looks like in wear. Still, this is a neat idea.

    1. Yes, unfortunately the dummy doesn't quite indicate what it looks like on a human.