Our Design Process Or How Do Gowns Get Created At Lily Absinthe?

Strathern Ranch Dress

Often, we are asked just exactly how we go about developing our various dress designs. The short answer, of course, is that we get our initial inspiration from history itself through a variety of media to include paintings, photographs, illustrations, and various extant examples found in museums, private collections, and most importantly–our private museum collection.However, this is only part of the equation- we also draw upon the world around us. Whether it be colors of a certain variety of flowers in a garden, an Arizona sunset, or even a piece of music, these also go a long way in the design process. Designing historically-inspired clothing is not the same as simply creating line-for-line reproductions of historical examples, but rather it’s using what came before to build something completely new. Creating line-for-line reproductions has its place (like recreating a dress for a museum display) but for us it offers little inspiration.

So, just what is the process? Well, there’s no “one” method but broadly speaking, here’s a rough outline of what we do:

  1. Discuss with the client what sort of a dress they desire (eg., day dress, evening dress, ball gown, etc.) and what specific period are they looking at.
  2. Discuss with the client their likes and dislikes and basically determine what sort of vision they have for themselves- in short, how they see themselves.
  3. Assess the client’s skin tone and hair color and crate a palette of complementary colors and review with the client.
  4. Based on the above, work up preliminary sketches and review with the client.

This is a continuous interactive process and in reality is as much a matter of art than scientific process.

However, it must be noted that the above process is also informed by our knowledge of historical styles and textiles because each plays an important role in achieving the most optimal design that is not only historically accurate, but also harmonizes with the specific client.

Now let’s take a look at a specific example…


Inspiration is the starting point for any design and it often comes from unexpected sources and often quite suddenly. This project initially started with the vague idea of wanting to design a fairly simple early to mid-1880s day dress in a style that’s not often recreated. While our reference library and the internet provided a wealth of ideas, nothing was really clicking (it happens, even with us. 😉 )

Then one day we found it! Through our Facebook feed, we’d received some images of a dress on display at a small museum. The two things that stood out were the clean lines and the use of pale greens- shades of celadon, you might say. The lines especially caught our eye in that the utilize a pseudo-jacket with large revers, a style that one rarely sees replicated these days. Eureka!  🙂

After a little close-up photo research, we determined that the dress was held in the collection of the Strathearn Historical Park and Museum in Simi, California. This was even better- we’d be able to get a look at the dress in person and not have to rely on pictures alone. 🙂 A quick 40 minutes later, we arrived at the museum and were able to get a good look at the dress even though it was behind plexiglass:

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The dress dates from the late 1870s/early 1880s and is characteristic of the Mid-Bustle period, especially with the cylindrical skirt silhouette and minimal bustle. The material appears to be either a silk or silk/cotton faille and the color is a light celadon (or gray, depending on the light).

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From the above pictures, it would seen that the dress colors are almost shades of gray. When we initially viewed the original pictures of the dress in the Facebook feed, it appeared that the dress color was more of a gray. However, when we had a chance to examine the dress in person and to take our own pictures, it was obvious that the dress was of a celadon color with ribbons of a lighter shade of celadon. It just does to show that lighting can make all the difference in a dress color and it’s one of the pitfalls of doing dress research purely online.

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Nice close-up- the sleeve fabric appears to be a silk faille.

Now for a little historical background starting with our old standby, fashion plates: 🙂

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Revue de la Mode, c. 1879

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Revue de la Mode, c. 1880

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Journal des Demoiselles, 1882

The following dress is a good example of the pseudo-jacket bodice style although it’s from the Mid 1880s:

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Day Dress, c. 1883 – 1886; Manchester City Galleries (1936-61)

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Close-Up Of Bodice

And just to be complete:

With all of the above in mind, we set out to create a design for an early 1880s day dress that would incorporate defined lapels (or “revers”) along with a two-tone color scheme of lighter greens. As can be seen below, we opted to use a dark gray with green undertones for the lapels, collar, and an outlining strip that would run along the hem of the overskirt. Here are some views of the dress under construction:

1880 Day Dress Strathern Ranch

Strathern Ranch Dress

Below is a more complete side profile view of one sleeve and the skirt. We opted to put four rows of knife pleating on the underskirt, made from a silk dupioni.

Here is a closer view of the lapels:

1880 Day Dress Strathern Ranch

And yes, there’s definitely a range of green shades going on…here we see Adam’s shirt and vest next to the dress. It’s interesting to note that the greens on the shirt and vest are “warm” while the shades on the dress are “cold”. 😉

When the dress was finally completed, Karin decided to unveil at the Helldorado Days event which is held every October in Tombstone, Arizona. Here are just a few pictures of the completed dress: -)

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Strathearn Ranch Day Dress 1880s Karin

The Final Touches…

Strathearn Ranch Day Dress 1880s Karin

And Of Course, The Obligatory “Selfie.”

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And Here We Are!

And so the it is! This is just one example of how our design process works. What really surprised us about this project is how a simple off-hand picture posted on social media lead us on a path of discovery that ultimately led us to bringing an early 1880s dress style back to life. We hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey through the creative process and we hope to be able to design a dress for you.

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Mac, our creative consultant, has decreed that there’s been enough fashion for one day and that he’s ready for dinner.

More Color Building Blocks…

Today we look a little more at color and shape only this time, we’re looking at colors that are harmonizing rather than contrasting (i.e. complementary) than the example that we last posted. First, as described previously, we have contrasting colors which are colors opposite of each other in the color wheel:

Contrasting Colors

Next, we have harmonizing colors which are colors that lie between two primary colors. In this case, the arrow indicates colors between the primary colors of blue and yellow:

Harmonizing Color

In practice, the use of harmonizing colors can sometimes produce suboptimal results so often times, it’s a matter of seeing what works and what doesn’t which can be very subjective. Admittedly, the above explanation is somewhat of an oversimplification but it does illustrate something that we do almost unconsciously whether we’re selecting a color scheme for painting the house, new bath towels, or even fabrics for a new dress. Of course, what specific colors we each choose are completely subjective… 🙂

Turning to fashion, here’s an example of the use of harmonizing colors with this dress from circa 1885 – 1886:

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Day Dress, c. 1885 – 1886; Goldstein Museum of Design (1961.003.006)

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Three-Quarter Left Front View

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Right Side Profile

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Rear View

In terms of silhouette, this dress is relatively simple, consisting of an underskirt and combination bodice/overskirt/train (which appears to be a one-piece construction from examining the pictures). With a short bodice front, the bodice is reminiscent of a tailcoat and it presents a dramatic vertical sweep that shows off the fashion fabric to its best advantage. Interestingly enough, the dress is dates as being c. 1885 – 1886 but we would be inclined to think that it’s actually earlier (i.e. more Mid-Bustle Era), judging from the minimal train and cylindrical silhouette. Of course, there’s also the possibility that it was staged without the requisite underpinnings; sometimes it’s hard to tell only from photos.

As for colors, we see the use of a burgundy/wine silk for the base underskirt covered by a patterned silk brocade bodice/overskirt. The pattern itself is a burgundy/wine color that matches the underskirt and the background color is a light rose/gold. Below are some close ups of the bodice and skirts where you can really get a good look at the silk brocade pattern:

As can be seen from the above, we have to basic harmonizing colors, burgundy/wine and rose/gold and these can all be found in the color wheel between red and yellow. This is only one example but we thought we’d showcase it a bit simply because it’s a very dramatic illustration of this effect. Also, the combination bodice/overskirt further enhances the effect since it flows uninterrupted. Finally, we chose this dress simply because we love its aesthetics. 🙂

Stay tuned for more!

The Building Blocks Of Fashion – Contrast Colors

Over the years, we have found that it’s easy to get lost looking at the various styles of Victorian clothing and the tendency is for it all to blend together into a massive collage of “stuff.” What’s a lot harder is to “get under the hood,” so to speak, and attempt to determine the logic of specific style choices. So, in an attempt to shed some light on late Victorian style, we have decided to hone in on one of the most common features in the styles of the era and that’s the use of colors and textures in a deliberate manner to create a specific aesthetic effect. We hope you enjoy our small excursion.


The use contrasting colors and textures was a major element in late Victorian Era fashion and as such, it offered a wealth of style possibilities. During the 1880s, the use of contrast was especially in vogue and there were endless variations on this theme. The use of contrasting colors is an effective method for breaking up what would otherwise make for a plain, monochromatic appearance.

So what are contrasting colors? Simply put, they are colors that are separated by one or more colors on the color wheel and the more colors that stand between them, the greater the contrast. Looking at the color wheel below gives an illustration of this:

Color wheel

Or, to put it another way, the color combinations below would be considered to be high contrast:

 Color Contrast1

Color Contrast2

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Granted, this is somewhat of an oversimplification but it conveys the basic idea. 🙂

So, turning to fashion, how does this translate? For the late 19th Century, we see an assortment of contrast colors and one good illustration of this is with this circa Mid/Late 1880s dress that we found on the August Auctions website:

Here we see these basic contrast colors:

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Here are some more pictures:

In terms of color, what is also interesting is that celedon is a cool color while the burgundy, and the yellow gold to a lesser extent, are warm colors and this serves to only intensify the contrast. Also, the cut of the overskirt draping over the underskirt is also dramatic and it further emphasizes the contrast. When looking at this dress, eye is immediately drawn to the skirts.

The contrast in colors continues up the bodice, given an enlarged “canvas” to the design and from a distance, this dress could almost be a princess line. Below are some close up views:

Texture also plays a role here in that one can see three different textures at work: a burgundy-colored silk velvet; an overskirt/over bodice of celadon silk brocade; and a yellow gold box-woven silk or cotton.

The above has been a somewhat oversimplified examination of the use of contrast colors in late Victorian fashion but it illustrates one of the basic building blocks of fashion during this period. Stay tuned for more in the future. 🙂

The Seaside Lady

This little 1879 Seaside Lady went to her new home last week, sharing the girly glory one last time. ❤

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Satin piped self-fabric bands for trim, taffeta knife pleats, French Net shirred skirt front and origami pleats at the front with contrast facings..girly enough for you? But there’s more…

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This is an 1879 Seaside Gown, straight from a Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Vintage deep teal velvet cuffs and front plastron, French Net shirring, satin piped self-fabric bands, taffeta knife pleating, origami pleating, and contrast bayleuse for skirt fullness. And hand finished, of course…from our Camille design, a Lily Absinthe exclusive.

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Of course the stripes match! Pretty dyed to match fringe gives a little “waggle” when her owner walks. I love the origami pleats- they’re irresistible! ❤

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What’s underneath to give our skirts that amazing authentic movement? A built-in bayleuse (dust ruffle) that allows the pleated skirt to glide on top as the wearer moves…and it gives a pretty glimpse of something shocking if the breeze should blow a bit. ❤