Sunday, October 27, 2013

Manhattan 1950s Ballgown

Hey look! I've been sewing! Yeah, go ahead and say it: "what, you still do that?!"

Yup, I had a good excuse. I got invited to a swanky, black tie wedding in New York City, and decided I should go 1950s, full, bell skirt and all. Or at least 1950s-inspired, since I don't really know that much about the 1950s. I really didn't feel like going shopping for something new, and equally didn't feel like just pulling something out of the closet. And what the heck, I sew, so off I went. Now, I've known about this wedding since March, and, of course, only really started planning about a month and a half beforehand. And stitching? Started about three weeks beforehand. But I got on the plane to NYC with a wearable gown, only plus some basting stitches that you can't see anyway (and less a whole lotta sleep).

Below is the story of this gown, from the initial design to the wearing, including some serious dressmaking drama that I know all of you that do this sort of thing are intimately familiar with. This is a very long post, so grab a cup of coffee and get comfy, or just skip ahead to the photos.

The Design

After some surfing I decided that I wanted a gown that looks like a certain Lyn Ashworth wedding gown, dissected here by me (you can find a photo of it on one of my Pinterest boards here):
Analysis of a wedding gown by Lyn Ashworth. The gown consisted of a satin bodice with a dropped waistline, gathered chiffon skirt over at least one additional layer of skirt, and a sheer overbodice down to the mid-torso and with forearm-length sleeves. Not illustrated are fabric flowers at the waistline and on the shoulder.
I decided to go with navy, appropriate for an evening wedding in a hotel and in stark contrast to bridal white. Fabrics were easy: duchess satin for the bodice, chiffon for the outer skirt layer, taffeta for the under skirt layer, and organza for the overbodice thingy. Trick was finding all those different fabrics in the same shade of blue. I lucked out at Thai Silks, which had the navy blue I was looking for in chiffon and charmeuse (which isn't satin but has the same shine and when flat-lined with organza would have similar body). I went with their navy taffeta also, though it has a noticeable yellow cast that isn't present in the other fabrics -- under the chiffon it wouldn't really matter. The organza I knew I could get from Pure Silks.

But I wasn't done yet with the design. I've had in it my head for a while to do something in the vein of this Alexander McQueen gown, worn by Jessica Chastain at the 2012 Oscars:

Jessica Chastain in Alexander McQueen
at the 2012 Oscars.
Photo by Glamour Magazine.
McQueen did a whole line in this style, which you can see most of in one of my Pinterest boards (just scroll, you can't miss them). But that's a lot of embroidery, even by machine, and I had limited time. Not to mention that I was just going to a wedding, not the Oscars. And you can see there's an obvious clash between this look and the design of the gown.

But I wanted embroidery, so I figured I'd do the embroidery first and then decide what exactly I'd do with the overbodice thingy. For the embroidery I went with patterns by My Fair Lady, who sells through the website Secrets of Embroidery. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I rarely digitize embroidery from scratch. That just takes too much time, and it's a lot faster to just work with designs digitized by someone else. Granted, it's tough to find period-appropriate designs that can pass for hand embroidery (depending on the embroidery technique, it's sometimes just impossible). But for this gown it didn't really matter.

The Undergarments

Strapless gown means some kind of strapless support. Frankly, all the strapless and/or backless bras I've worn in the past kind of suck. I debated corsetting (not quite the right silhouette) and building a foundation into the gown (didn't really have the time for that). I decided to just see what I could find online, and happened upon What Katie Did, a shop that reproduces vintage undergarments. Their "Glamour Merry Widow" was just what I was looking for:

Postcard courtesy of What Katie Did, showing the merry widow similar to the one I bought from them (mine isn't as long). My figure isn't as "vivacious" as the model's, but the merry widow sure does show off what I have!
The full skirt I was shooting for also required some kind of support. I figured, heck, I should be able to buy a crinoline petticoat; after all, there are plenty of folks who dress in vintage, and plenty of modern bridal gowns call for skirt support.. So I tried and tried to find a ballroom-length crinoline petticoat. I found plenty of bridal petticoats, but the ones that had anywhere near the shape I was after all had hoops. I even bought one, and it'd be great for doing an 1860s era gown, but it was just WAY to full for what I had in mind.
A four-hoop bridal petticoat I bought on eBay. It has a great shape for the 1860sbut it's HUGE and too rigid for the 1950s.
So, I gave in and made a crinoline petticoat:
Ballgown length crinoline petticoat I made in a day. The first layer is a cotton A-line skirt with three rows of nylon net ruffles, gathered to the yoke. The second layer is about 215 inches of nylon tulle, also gathered to the yoke. The hem of the first layer has nylon horsehair braid in the hem for additional uumph.
I quickly drafted up a yoke from a skirt pattern I had laying around, and used a shorted version of the lining from the Vogue pattern I discuss below to make an under layer. I gathered three rows of nylon net with the gathering foot for my sewing machine and attached them to the under layer, which I did in cotton to avoid having anything scratchy around my legs. I then gathered about 215 inches (in circumference) to the yoke, both for more fluff and to soften the humps from the net. The cotton under layer also has nylon horsehair braid in the hem. The end result is floof but with softness. I'm pretty happy with the result.

The Pattern

I could have patterned this gown from scratch, but again, I really didn't have the time. Conveniently, Vintage Vogue has a pattern that was almost exactly what I needed, except the neckline, which was easy to change:
Vintage Vogue 1094
I modified and mocked up just the bodice, and here is where I have to tell you: it is NICE having friends who sew. I had a great deal of difficulty getting my dress form into the merry widow at the same proportions as myself. The dress form, a Uniquely You, and I have -- ahem! -- strayed from each other in size over the course of the last decade. I ran over to Ms. G's house and she and Ms. H did an excellent fitting. A week later (and one week before the wedding) I did a second fitting in the gown's lining with Ms. H and Ms. S and BAM! had a perfect fit. Or so I thought.

The Drama

In my rush to finish this gown I made an essential mistake. For the gown's lining I used a linen-cotton blend for its weight and breathe-ability. But guess what? Linen and cotton, alone or in combination, stretches a bit on grain. Silk, especially organza, DOES NOT.

With a zipper pinned into the left side seam I could squeeze into the lining after the second fitting. So, I went ahead and embroidered the front and back pieces (stitching through both the charmeuse and organza as well as heavy tearaway stabilizer -- I did NOT want any puckering in the stitches!); basted the charmeuse to the organza; cut out the pieces; sewed up the darts; attached front to back; attached both skirt layers; set in the zipper; and tried it on...

...and it didn't fit.

It didn't find by a lot. I was at T-minus two days before leaving for NYC, and there was no way I could make the bodice fit, even by letting the side seams out as much as possible. Though now would have been an appropriate time to throw the damn thing into a corner in utter frustration, I calmly evaluated the situation. The front fit great, with the side seams in the right place. The back (which went through the most fitting changes) was just too narrow from the waist up. I was starting to see how the gown would look when finished, and I just couldn't give up. There was nothing to do but to redo the back.

I added nearly two inches to the side seams, in an angle from the waist. I cut out a new lining first, to make sure the back still fit smoothly. It wasn't really a big deal to re-embroider the back, and once again baste the organza and charmeuse layers together. The tedious bit was detaching and re-attaching the gathered skirts. That done, and zipper pinned in, I tried it on again...

...and it still didn't fit, but this time it was only by barely half an inch. I let both side seams out as far as they'd go, keeping in mind that I still needed to put in the lining, and tried it on again...voilá, it fit.

The lesson learned here is this: do your fittings in fabric with the same amount of stretch as your fashion fabric. Or don't, but add ease to your finished, fitted pattern, or plenty of fitting allowance in the seams of the exterior of the bodice. I knew all of this, but in my rush figured things would just work out. Things did work out, but backtracking and redoing cost me many hours of sleep.

The Evolution of the Design

Even though I love the look of the McQueen gown, I decided to go with a much less ostentatious amount of embroidery. That amount of embroidery just wouldn't have been right for this particular gown. Along the way I also decided that covering the embroidery with a sheer fabric was silly. My sewing buddies agreed, and the overbodice disappeared from the design.
But I didn't want a purely strapless gown. It would've looked fine, but just wasn't what I was going for. So, while the above drama was going on, I patterned out and stitched up a sleeveless, crew-neck bodice that only went down to the underbust line and opened center back. I wanted the center back to gap, and so closed it with only one button at the top, with a second false button for symmetry. In an episode of min-drama, it took me an hour to make both covered buttons; I put a layer of cotton under the organza exterior, to hide the shiny button dome, and all that fabric is a tight squeeze behind the button back.

The Accessories

The complete ensemble must have accessories, of course, starting with shoes.
Satin pumps by Nina.
I found a just PERFECT pair of satin pumps, which were pretty darn comfortable and in a height that I'm pretty used to wearing.

I also needed a clutch, just something large enough to carry my cellphone, a room key, and lipstick. I found this on Etsy:
Purse by RokkiHandbags on Etsy.
The purse is lined with cotton, closes with a magnetic snap,
and has a number of card pockets.
Yup, it's an old book cover converted into a clutch purse. The book here is The Ruling Passion by Henry Van Dyke, copyright 1913, which I have never heard of, but I thank his publisher for the color and layout of the cover, which now has a new life as a purse.

And I absolutely ADORE it. Not only does it match the dress just right, and not only is it just the right size for what I wanted to carry -- it's funky, clever, and unique. I love products that have a flair of different about them, that take a wild detour away from mainstream. This purse is exactly my style.

The Finished Ensemble

The evening before I had to get on the plane I did the hand-stitching required to set in the lining (but left behind some basting stitches) and wrestled a hem onto the taffeta layer (the chiffon layer got its hem earlier, accompanied by a great deal of swearing). I even managed to pack before collapsing into bed.

Here's the finished gown, photographed after I got home:

And here's the dress in action. I had my hair and make-up done at a local salon, with astounding results: my hair remained perfect and comfortable for over 10 hours! I also had a fun game of "find the bobby pins" at the end of the night; I pulled 29 out of my hair. The salon was Miano Viel, if you're interested, and my stylist's name was Rebecca, who gets my hearty recommendation.

The dress has quite a few "oh well, I'm just going to have to live with thats" but as far as I'm concerned, the dress was a success by virtue of having been wearable by the time of the event. I did receive quite a few compliments, so I must have done good. Best of all: it felt really good to be stitching again! So, stay tuned for more to come.

P.S. if I ever, propose working with chiffon again...just shoot me quickly and put me out of my misery.


  1. Love your dress and the guts you have to try and succeed.
    Nice job.

    1. Thank you, VK! I refuse to be defeated by my own mistakes!!

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  3. These are such cute dress . I have been looking for dresses for an event, hope France was amazing, can't wait to hear all about it!. Thanks so much for these ideas.

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