Introduction: The Architecture of a Formal Gown
One of the many things that fascinates me about high fashion is the innards of a true couture gown. The interior boning and stitching means that the dress can basically stand up by itself! No double-sided tape or plastic strips along the top edge or Spanx is necessary. The understructure is built right into the garment. For strapless pieces, especially, this interior structure is vital!
So when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to make my own gown, from the inside out.
Step 1: The Beginning
The first step is to decide on a design. Some people prefer to drape on a dress form, others to work from design blocks. Myself, I like to start with a pattern and make any necessary changes as I go.
And this pattern has been on my mind for the past few years. I really love it!
The first thing to do is pull out the pattern tissue and inspect those direction sheets to make sure I know what I am getting myself into!
After familiarizing myself with the directions I cut all of the pieces apart. And I will admit I like to be as sloppy with my cutting as possible. It feels a bit wicked, but how fun is it to slice through something with abandon, when you usually have to be so careful?!
Then comes a quick iron to get everything to lay flat.
Large pattern pieces are always a bit of a bear to work with. The skirt on this gown requires not only one extension piece, but two! That means that the skirt is so large that the tissue cannot accommodate it, and my table will have the same problem.
I know that some will consider cutting a pattern piece in two sacrilegious, but I cannot think of a bodice pattern that I have made in the past 10 years that could not be improved by adding length. So in the interest of cutting down on the number of muslins I will be making, I am making this initial alteration before I begin cutting into my scrap fabric.
I iron all those extra bits of unmarked tissue and mark my ¾” strips in pencil. I like to tear up bits of masking tape to match the two pieces together. Masking tape will not melt should the pieces have to be ironed at some point like scotch tape will. But since I plan on transferring everything to muslin right away, I do not anticipate this being a problem. To insure that the bodice, now in two pieces, is matched correctly, I use my gridded mat and match the grainline running through both pieces along one of those blue lines. If the grainline marking is only on one half of the bodice, I use a ruler and extend the line so I have something to work with. This is especially important because unless the edge is a straight line, chances are the extension will cause the edge to be off line a bit.
As the two front bodice pieces are different, and they are not duplicated, I have to remember to cut them right side up, or will end up with piece that do not match.
No matter how long I have been doing this, designs that are not symmetrical always give me pause when I am cutting fabric.
Step 2: Bodice Muslin
Here comes the not-so-interesting part – making up a muslin. I am embarrassed to admit that I make far fewer muslins than I should. However, when I am dealing with a limited amount of yardage that costs a good amount of money and that cannot be replaced, a test run is always a good idea.
After cutting out my bodice pieces in muslin, I sew along the given 5/8” seam allowance on all outer edges. This way when I rip the muslin apart to cut my fabric pieces, it should not stretch out of shape.
Because this is a strapless bodice, I decided that the only way I was going to be able to tell if I was in the ballpark regarding fit was to apply a zipper to the muslin.
Turns out, the bodice is more roomy than I expected from the measurements printed on the pattern tissue. This, of course, is why a muslin is a good idea.
I am not going to bother cutting and stitching the skirt pieces. The muslin is never going to drape like my fabric, and I have no wish to cut those pieces out more than I have to!
Step 3: The Bodice
Time to rip that muslin apart, but not before marking the dart lines and marking which piece is which. In this particular case, it is quite obvious which is which, but it is important to know which is the right side and wrong side so those asymmetrical design pieces will match up.
There is something very satisfying about working with a seam ripper on a muslin. After separating all of the pieces, a good press with a hot iron makes everything lay flat.
Because my fabric has a bit of drape, and for a bit of added stability, I am underlining the pieces with cotton (the pattern suggests sew-in interfacing). This also makes it much easier to mark darts.
I used a quilting pencil to lightly draw the darts on the WRONG side of the underlining. These pieces then get laid on the fabric, right side to wrong side, and cut out.
And the hand basting begins! I actually find this rather relaxing. Not only do I baste the outer edges, but also the darts just inside the stitching line. This way the two pieces will not shift when I finally sew those darts together.
Step 4: The Corselette
The pattern does include a foundation bodice with boning, however, it ends at the waist. Now, this is generally around where a corselette stops, especially for a full skirted dress. But this dress is form fitting through the hips. And I have plenty of squishy bits below the waist.
I have certainly heard of abs, arms, and buns of steel, but I have never heard of hips of steel. And from all the muffin top pics out there, I assume I am not the only one who has extra chub at the hipline.
I cut another cotton set of bodice pieces, along with a set made of cotton ticking (a cheap substitute for coutil which is often used for corsets). It has an extremely dense weave which lends itself to corset or corselette making.
Next, I cut strips of the ticking to create a casing for the spiral steel boning pieces that are applied to the corselette.
My least favorite part of this process is cutting the spiral steel into the proper lengths - brute strength is not something that comes easy for me.
For the corselette, I used a centered zipper application. My 22” zipper extends beyond the actual fabric because it makes it much easier to get in and out of. I will leave the end hanging inside the dress. I have found in the past that tacking it to the skirt can cause buckling.
I also used an old bra as a bit of extra support. The straps were cut off after I basted them to the side seam allowances.
Step 5: The Skirt
Oh my goodness, this skirt requires a TON of fabric.
I started with a muslin of the back which is cut on the fold. No thank you! The tissue is 40 inches wide and I just knew it was going to be a nightmare trying to get my slippery fabric folded over and pinned in place.
The skirt is then attached to the bodice before the side seams are completed.
And here is my blue jacquard and satin. I keep thinking of a cross between Cinderella (all that 50th anniversary stuff probably has something to do with it) and Ginger Rogers.
Step 6: The Saga Continues
The huge skirt pieces are edged on the bias. With my choice of fabric, it was certain that I was going to have to let the fabric drop. I decided to hang the front and back sections on a hanger before sewing the side seams. The seams no longer match, but at least they will not pucker after the sewing is completed!
To help those bias edges, I used a very slight zig-zag stitch to sew up the skirt. This also helps the seam to hang straight.
I used two strips of silk organza to stabilize the zipper opening. And I decided to go with a hand-picked, lapped zipper application.
This dress is lined by dropping a duplicate dress inside, leaving the raw edges at the top. When I complete the corselette, it will be sewn along the top edge and enclose all those yucky raw bits.
It’s starting to look like an actual dress, which is very exciting!
Step 7: Miscellaneous Finishing Bits
After sewing up the side seams and inserting my zipper, it was time to deal with the wonky lining hem.
While standing on a stool so that the dress could hang down without obstruction, I marked where the lining hit the ground with many, many pins. Once this line of pins was in, I used a chalk pen to mark this line and then measured a couple of inches higher. I used almost 6 yards of 6” wide horsehair and placed the bottom edge along my new hemline.
I did not bother to trim the excess until I sewed the horsehair to the lining.
The corselette also needed a waist stay, so I grabbed a spool of grosgrain ribbon and went to work. This extra feature makes it much easier to zip a side seam closed!
And then there is the single shoulder strap to contend with. I am adding a significant amount of weight with my beaded flowers, and I always thought that the single skinny strap looked a bit odd with this dress, so I made three. This will also give me some extra fabric to attach the corsage.
I decided that a facing was necessary to make sure that the cream colored corselette ticking does not show along the upper edge. I pulled the bodice muslin pieces out and created a facing. The center back was cut on the fold to get rid of the extra bulk.
That facing was basted to the bodice, and then the corselette was sandwiched on top.
After grading the seams, the corselette was flipped inside the dress (where it belongs!) and the facing was understiched by hand to the corselette using a backstitch. I could have done this with the machine, but I did not want to fight my entire dress under the machine foot and then have the satin shift, etc., etc. Sometimes hand stitching really is necessary and helpful!
Step 8: Finishing Up!
And here is what was cut off. In some places I removed six and a half inches, and in one scary spot, I only removed half an inch. Crazy bias!
I decided to go with a rolled hem for a couple of reasons. First off, the flare of the skirt is so extreme, that anything over an inch of fold was going to require a ton of steam to shrink down all that excess. And that probably would have required at least one more try one and marking step. This way, I just cut an inch down from floor length, and ran a machine stitch along the edge for reference. And a rolled hem and all that hand sewing is actually relaxing for me at this point.
The skirt required a bit of a press after all that!
Step 9: Embellishments
Embellishments are generally made and applied at the end of any creative process. This time around, I was working on my beaded flowers and leaves throughout the sewing process.
To make myself a template my favorite leaf pattern, I used an old cereal box. The cardboard is the perfect weight, not too thick and not too thin, and free!
I decided to go with a couple of different sizes for added texture.
I grabbed some wool felt from the stash as a base for my corsage embellishments (one will go on the shoulder, and the other on the hip).
The first time around, I sewed some of my leaves down and then added beaded flowers as they were completed. On second thought, it was easier to start with the wire pieces, and add the fabric in later. Although, thread has a was of getting caught when there are quite a few pieces of wire about.
To ensure that the wire ends are not going to cause any more damage, I added some fleece pieces to the backside of the corsage. Yes, the white looks ridiculous, but it is what I had on hand!
Step 10: The Finished Product
And here it is – the finished gown! Built from the inside out, and made to last.