Vanessa/Ursula Costume, Part I: The Idea and the Gown

Ursula movie evil

It’s no secret that I love costumes, and not just at Halloween. Besides, you can never get really elaborate at Halloween because Halloween parties are always badly lit, full of drunk people, and extremely crowded (with the aforementioned drunk people). Who would bother with a fabulous costume, and more importantly, who would risk getting it ruined?

I learned this lesson back in grad school, when I wore a beautiful Regency-style ballgown to a Halloween party and promptly got white wine spilled on it (probably the least harmful thing that could’ve happened, but still not great). And I learned it again (guess I didn’t learn it all that well the first time) when I slaved for weeks on a fantastic Ursula costume, only to have it largely ignored or misunderstood at the party I went to that year. Seriously, someone asked me if I was supposed to be Marie Antoinette. MARIE ANTOINETTE.

Just for review, this is me as Ursula, the evil sea witch from The Little Mermaid:

halloween tanya

And this is Marie Antoinette:


And while I don’t deny that we are both wearing white wigs and full-length skirts (and I guess hers could look slightly tentacle-y if you squinted really hard), it defies understanding to believe that the two costumes are in any other way similar. Seriously? Marie Antoinette? I mean, did the tentacles and giant shell necklace mean nothing? I just don’t get it…

Anyway, that aside, I really did love the costume, which i’d built on a black strapless bridesmaid’s dress and stuffed with styrofoam packing peanuts. And I didn’t have the heart to throw it away once the holiday was over, so I un-stuffed it and packed it away in a garment bag. Until I had the idea to do this*:

ursula still 1ursula still 2

ursula still 3ursula still 4

(well, maybe not that last stage). All I would need was a wedding gown to wear over the tentacles– if I cut the hem short, the tentacles would show underneath and I could be Vanessa just as she’s turning back into Ursula. Plus, I wouldn’t get a headache from wearing the white wig. So I started keeping an eye out for an appropriate dress (realizing, of course, that it would be a lot cheaper and easier to find an old wedding dress than to make one from scratch).

You can see the movie wedding gown from various angles in this clip. Key features include the puffed leg-of-mutton sleeves, full skirt, and ruffled trim. I started typing keywords into eBay, but ran into a problem– most of the dresses from the 1980’s (which was the only era to really do puffy sleeves) were, shall we say… overly embellished. Nothing like the simple lines of the movie dress. And while I could deal with a little lace here and there, the movie dress definitely did NOT have netting inserts with cheap-ass fake dangly pearls and gigantic ribbon rosettes on the shoulders. (shudder)

Finally, I found an old Jessica McClintock gown in ivory jacquard, with the perfect sleeve shape and barely any adornment. (good old Jessica McClintock, I knew I could count on you…) The only problem was, it had originally been worn by a 6-foot-tall bride. Proportions being what they are, there was no way this thing was going to fit me. It was too loose, the shoulders were far too wide, the waist was too long… so many things to fix.

ursula before

I got it home, put it on my dress form, and set to work. The first thing I did was remove the buttons down the front. Surprisingly, while they weren’t functional, the bodice was actually constructed as if they were– the front section was two separate, fully-lined, overlapping pieces, connected by a single seam.

ursula alterations buttons

It was actually pretty easy to alter– all I did was sew the bodice panels right-sides together at the center seam, about two inches deeper than the original seam on each side. It was still too loose, but I didn’t dare move the princess seams on the front any closer together than that, and the seams themselves were boned so I didn’t want to re-sew them. To make up the rest of the space (and to avoid the complex construction of replacing the back zipper on several layers of bodice and lining), I ran a seam along each side of the back zipper, again taking in almost two inches on each side. Amazingly, it now fits almost perfectly.

ursula alterations bodice ursula alterations back

I know that the back seams make the neckline look a little odd in the back, but I figure that since my hair will completely cover my back it won’t make a difference. Ditto on the slightly mismatched front center neckline, which will be covered by ruffled trim in the end.

This has got to be one of the easiest alterations I’ve ever done– just taking in the front and back eliminated the multiple issues of the too-widely set shoulders, the too-low armscyes, the too-long bodice point, and the slightly too-low neckline. Next up is finding the perfect fabric for ruffles and the center front panel.

* I admit that I originally wanted to be Vanessa in the midst of the “stall the wedding” scene, where she’s bedraggled, has several starfish stuck to her, and birds dive-bombing her, but I wasn’t sure people would recognize the reference. Heck, they might think I was dressed as Tippi Hedren or something…


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