Introduction: Home-made Ball Gown, Prom Dress, Bridal or Party Frock for Pennies Including Accessories
Well maybe not quite pennies but it's very cheap for what you get, a unique piece of wearable Arts and Craft. Even if you had to buy all the fabric new and off the roll, it would still not cost much more than 10 Euros/Dollars/Pounds. It was originally designed and made for a small independent film company with a minuscule budget. The brief was for a golden ball gown, thus, a real challenge to make on such limited funds but inspired me in my quest to refashion!
The major outlay for this frock is time, that is the labour (and fun) involved in creating it. I also obviously hand-sewed parts of it, although the main seams of the bodice and skirt of the dress, plus the putting in of the zip were all done on a sewing machine. The material I used was low-end lining fabric and what might be classed as cheap but very cheerful organza and tulle. So, lots of sparkle and not much solid substance but ironically the decorated appliqué sections of this gown can not be made with anything but light-weight, artificial fabrics. I'm also using the technique of fabric manipulation to turn a very ordinary lining fabric into something richer and textured. I liked the wispy look of the final ensemble, it had an ethereal quality which so suits a special occasion, it should be magical.
The inspiration for it was, as you might have guessed a swan, the ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova and the diaphanous draped dresses of the late 19th century.
Step 1: MATERIALS
To give you an idea of fabric, for this dress, which was made for a size 6/8 UK, (US 4/6), I bought 3 metres of lining fabric at 150cm (60") wide and half a metre of organza to make the fabric flowers, plus half a metre of gold metallic 'spider web' tulle for the wrap. By the time I had finished there was hardly anything left. In general for a long shift dress you will need enough chiffon to go twice around yourself. This to allow for a skirt that gathers well at the waist and doesn't look as if you skimped on fabric. If the chiffon is sold in short widths, as will be the case for sari scarf material, then you can do as I did and make 2 tiers of fabric. I also wanted the rich gold lining fabric of the skirt to show through when the light was on it, thus turning what was essentially a very modern and artificial looking fabric into something more subtle and interesting. The gown above on the left, I refashioned from an embroidered silk dress I had made and worn myself at a wedding. It was a Georgian style, A-line and fitted well with the Estonian influenced Faerie Queen
I also used a remnant of fake fur, I had left over from making a hat, to create the faux ermine band for the tiara and an assortment of broken necklaces and bracelets (all mostly modern costume jewellery both glass and plastic). I recuperated buttons and beads from a defunct beaded cardigan, a chain and bead belt and a hideous late 50's bodice. However, by the time they're refashioned, they should at least look like glass, if not quite semi-precious! I particularly liked these metal bead caps, which I opened out to make the centres of my flowers.
I also bought some Christmas decorations and garlands in a final 'everything must go' sale. These were made of really good quality ribbons, feathers and tassels, which were marked down firstly to -70% and then to a further -50%. This is the sort of stuff that ends up in thrift shops about - now.
It is a good idea to have a dress form aka dummy of some sort. This is because of my use of the technique of fabric manipulation to create a sculptured line around the figure. It also is much easier to work using a form, particularly with embellishments, so as to see how and where they should be placed. There are many tutorials on line and on here of how to make a simple duct tape and paper dress form and we have an adjustable pallet wood one on Organikmechanic's Instructable page too.
Step 2: CUTTING OUT THE BODICE AND PLANNING THE FABRIC FLOWERS
Choose a pattern or garment you really like the shape of, I modified the one I had, making it longer at the front and also shaped in a curve to give it a draped look.
With right sides together, fold the lining fabric in two, lengthways. Pin the pattern for the bodice front to the fabric with the centre line of the bodice to the centre fold of the fabric and cut out, preferably using pinking shears as this fabric frays.
Cut a second bodice front in the same way, this will be the lining. When you come to put these two pieces right sides together and before sewing up, you will need to pin them carefully avoiding catching the flowers. But it also means that you won't have to bother with facings as the bodice will be fully lined.
Set aside enough fabric to cut pieces which will be used as inserts between the front and back of your bodice, this will allow you to make a ballet style corset shaped bodice. It also allows for any loss of width incurred in the fabric manipulation. You should leave enough fabric for two straight pieces each measuring double length of the side seams of the bodice and of a width of around 10cm (4"). These are to be folded in two lengthways and sewn together along one short seam and the longest seam and then turned right sides out. This will then be folded over and made narrower or wider to create the fitted bodice. If you look at the picture of this piece made up you will get the idea.
Cut out the pieces for the back, (I'm cutting all four at once here) with the centre back, where you will put the zip, placed in line with the selvedge. I needed to cut an extra allowance to allow for the fact that I was using a tunic pattern so had to add a seam allowance for the zip.
Press all these pieces of fabric under a piece of linen using a steam iron or by dampening the linen cloth.
By cutting all these pieces first you will then know how much lining material you have available to create the fabric flowers.
Step 3: MAKING THE APPLIQUE FLOWERS
As I stated at the start, this method only works with artificial fabrics.
I started by cutting out rough circles of fabric in various sizes. I used pinking shears both to prevent initial fraying but also to make a natural shaped edge to my petals. You can cut several thicknesses at once if you want to achieve flowers of similar size.
I then snipped inward across the fabric vaguely toward the centre of the 'flower' and from five fairly equidistant points on the circumference of the circle, in this way you are creating five separate and non-symmetrical petals. The longer the cut, the more your petal will curl inwards, so as I wanted several layers of petals on each flower, I varied the length of my cut on each circle. However, there is no problem with being precise about this, Nature isn't after all and any 'mistakes' can be hidden by another layer of petals.
This is the clever part, using a candle I now held the edges of the fabric close to the heat of the flame for just a moment and I rotated the circles to get an even heat. If you are worried about this you can hold the fabric circle with a wooden clothes peg or a pair of metal tweezers and you obviously need to be cautious when using a naked flame, so clear away all other flammable material from the vicinity. I also had a bowl of cold water near at hand in case of conflagration. This is why the fabric needs to be artificial, the heat melts the material and makes the 'petals' curl inwards in a very pleasing manner. I also left some of my petals in the heat for longer, this actually gave them a change of colour, which I found an added bonus!
I planned a whole raft of flowers at once, choosing centres and colour combinations. This allowed me to make subtle differences in shading across the gown. It is also useful to get all your beads and jewels ready, so that once you are inspired you have everything to hand.
Step 4: BODICE FABRIC MANIPULATION & APPLIQUE
I started with pinching the fabric between my finger and thumb and then pinning it in place. I did this by eye rather than measure it because I wanted a natural organic feel rather than a geometrical pattern.
I continued to 'pinch and pin' until I had achieved the look I wanted, checking my bodice front against my dummy. This is why I mentioned before that you either need to make a dress form or have an incredibly patient friend!
I now sewed one section of tucks in place using pearls and the others using my fabric flowers. I checked the flowers several times, pinning and then viewing them on the dummy. This way I could see how they caught the light when viewed vertically. It's a good idea to make tests using differences in size and nuances of colour to carry the theme of movement and shadow but the main thing is to have fun and make a unique piece!
Once I was happy with the look of the bodice I sewed everything finally into place and then with right sides together, sewed the second bodice piece, to the manipulated section, leaving the whole bottom of the bodice open, I then turned it and using my thumb and index finger rubbed all along the sewn seams to get a sharp line. I also turned in the front of the bodice and hand sewed it.
I then pressed the edges and ran a tacking stitch all along them, so they would remain crisply in place whilst I continued to work on the bodice.
Step 5: BODICE BACK & ASSEMBLY
I then made my two back bodice pieces by sewing each of the previously cut backs, right sides together, leaving the bottom open to enable me to turn them. I then turned in and hand sewed the bottom of the bodice pieces. The two bodice back pieces were then pressed and tacked to maintain shape. I was now able to join them by pinning and sewing in a zipper and I covered it using some of my Christmas ribbons and added pearls. I did this because in the film I didn't want any modern fastenings to be obvious. I also added a hook and eye at the top and a bow.
I was now ready to join my front and back bodice together using my adjustable fillets of fabric, as mentioned above in Step 2. I pinned and measured it so as to get the corset-cum-ballet tutu look I wanted for the top. My zip at the back was sewn to continue down into the skirt, thus I could fit my extended bodice to fit snugly at the hip.
Step 6: MAKING THE SKIRT, ASSEMBLING AND FINISHING THE DRESS
This was a very simple long A-line type design with a kick pleat or slit in the back for ease of movement. I cut it from my heavier golden lining fabric. I added to this the unpicked lengths of chiffon from a 1950's half-made, home-made petticoat. I had unfortunately washed this after finding it in a rag market years ago and it had shrunk rather badly but it was ideal for this job. Being silk chiffon, when pinned to the bodice it followed its uneven contour and formed the draped look I wanted.
Once I was happy with the look of the skirt and bodice, I hand sewed them together. I had already planned that the flowers should continue down the skirt and had placed flowers along the edge of the bodice.
I finished the bodice by adding a touch of swan, in the shape of some white feathers I had scavenged from one of my discount Christmas garlands.
Step 7: ACCESSORIES - BEADED TIARA MAKING THE CIRCLET
DESIGN AND MATERIALS
I thought I should make something along the line of a royal crown, complete with faux ermine band and half-arches of 'gems' built upon a circlet of larger beads and spacers. I also wanted to continue my original inspiration of the swan and the ballet and create something delicate and filigree in nature.
The hair goes up through the centre. It also can give a trompe l'oeil effect of a bun with a tiara on top. Thus if you have short hair but want to have a different look, you can achieve it by pulling your hair back à la Holly Golightly.
For the crown I used various bits of broken necklaces, beads and buttons recuperated from a defunct Primark beaded cardigan, a very ugly late 50's beaded bodice and a contemporary chain and bead belt my cousin had given me. I also had some feathers from a Christmas garland. I used quite a fine gauge of jeweller's grade brass/bronze wire, which meant that I could finish my tiara with some tear drop beads which would move and shimmer suspended from the visible fine wire, with a pleasing effect. Using gold or silver coloured wire allows for a filigree tiara, where the wire looks like an integral part of a golden or platinum/silver crown!
I started by getting all my 'gems' sorted and where needed, broken down into individual elements. I began by sorting out the main signature beads and the spacers I needed to make the circlet and then working out how many beads and in what combinations I needed to finish the remainder of the tiara. I had decided to create my circlet or base, out of the beaded belt previously mentioned and then build onto that five crown half-arches which would finish in my tear drop beads at the top. It is much better to plan how many and of what you need first, rather than work the tiara out as you go along and then find yourself short of key elements! In effect, I had more beads than I needed laid out for use, just in case. As I was breaking up a chain belt, I also had a handy pair of long-nosed pliers to help open up the links.
BUILDING UP THE TIARA - CREATING THE CIRCLET
The circlet was created from six strands of wire to make a good strong band, I checked to make sure that all the beads would thread through this. I also verified that the five amber beads, which formed the base of each half-arch, could be threaded with an additional strand of wire. I worked out how much wire I would need to make the half-arches and cut that in readiness, five single thickness lengths in all.
I could now go ahead and form my circlet and then set up my wires, ready to create the half-arches of the crown.
Step 8: ACCESSORIES - TIARA - MAKING THE BAND AND BUILDING UP THE CROWN
With this now complete I went on to construct the faux fur band. I measured the circumference of my circlet and then worked out the rectangular piece of fabric I needed.
With right sides together, I sewed this at one end and down the main seam and then turned it inside out.
Using a handy wooden chopstick, I stuffed this tube with all the bits of fabric I had left over from my fabric flowers.
I then finished it off by adding a Mediaeval touch by winding some gold filigree and beads or rather a piece off one of the strands of the Christmas ribbon I had purchased in a final 'everything must go' sale.
This also meant that I would then have a handy anchor to affix my feathers and flowers.
I then folded in and sewed the two ends of the tube together to form my crown band.
I now started to work on the half-arches of my tiara, it is an idea to keep the wire reasonably taut and you can achieve this in your design by having certain key fastening points such as I did with a pearlised button. However, just by twisting the two wires together you can also keep your design in place.
Don't worry if it moves out of line as you are working on it and building the half-arches. Part way through, mine began to resemble rather colourful spaghetti (see photo above!). However, as long as the wires are kept taut, the tiara will pull itself 'square' at the finish.
I then built up the rest of my design, using the 'ermine' band as a touchstone to check how the finished tiara would look.
I finished off the top of the tiara with my tear drop beads, twisting the wire that held each of these beads into a large loop to allow for movement. I was then ready to sew the circlet on to the 'ermine' band. This was then decorated with two fabric flowers and two faux swan's feathers from a Christmas garland.
Step 9: ACCESSORIES - SHOE CLIPS, RIBBON BRACELETS AND WRAP
The shoe clips were based on pairs of 'angel wings' I bought in the last day of sale Christmas decoration bonanza and two more 'swan' feathers from a garland. I made two sets, one for Elsa and one for the Faerie Queen. I simply added a fabric flower to each and they were sewn on to ballet shoes in Scotland. The flowers were also used to make simple ribbon bracelets, I had first seen these in France many years ago at a friend's wedding where she had them made up in the heavy silk of her wedding dress. She gave me one to wear later at my own wedding as my 'something borrowed'.
For the wrap, I chose a piece of spider web tulle, I just bought a half metre for a couple of Euros and then drew the ends together and finished each with a tassel from my cut price Christmas decorations. This looked really delicate on film but might look too garish for a wedding or party, however there are some really fine sequinned tulles which would work perfectly with the gown and I also made a wrap for my own wedding with a piece of devoré velvet. The great thing about wraps or stoles is that you need so little fabric you can actually get some really good quality fabrics for a few dollars/pounds/euros.
The narrative of the film this costume was made for, is based on an old Estonian legend, which has a hint of Cinderella. So I hope you enjoyed this project and that even without a huge fortune, or a fairy godmother, realise that with ingenuity, you too can go to the ball!
This project and other refashioning ideas are available on my blog, where there are also more photographs and ideas for inspiration and where to source fabrics. It is a new venture so will be updated as I write up more of my projects. This is the link http://upcycledwardrobecostumeandclothes.blogspot.com
All the very best from sunny Normandie, Sue