I read somewhere that the embassy ballgown in My Fair Lady was actually an antique gown that was modified for the movie– given that, I assume that the overgown is made of silk tulle or something similar that was in more common use back in the early 1910s. However, there was just no way I could afford to work with something that pricey, so not being overburdened with the need for historical accuracy I decided to go with plain old nylon English net. It’s basically a step up from regular tulle– I discovered the name of the fabric during my jaunt to NYC’s Garment District and it helped immensely in my search, since before that I’d been calling it “soft netting” and kept getting directed to either the crappy tulle bolts or to the stretchy power mesh stuff. I picked up four yards of it in ivory (and immediately second-guessed myself, wondering if I should’ve chosen white instead, but whatever).
When I first started draping the net over my dress form to get the shape of the gown, I just gathered a bunch of it in the center front– however, it immediately became apparent that this would not provide the correct shape– far too poofy, not nearly enough elegant drape. I switched over to the idea of a circular skirt– when the center section draped down from a single point (or really a few closely-spaced points) to a full hem, it looked much better.
There are very few photos out there showing the sweep of the gown when spread out– the best I was able to find was the one in the lower right of this composite photo:
It appears that the hem is very slightly curved (bearing out my circular skirt theory), and I would say that the entire skirt is just over 3 yards in circumference.* I used that as a baseline measurement to try to get the fullness of the overgown right.
I tried a bunch of different techniques, but in the end I came up with this:
1. Using 60″ wide fabric, fold a tube 60″ high and a little over 3 yards in circumference.
2. Stitch the short ends at an angle to make a trapezoid (leaving a 15″ section at the top unsewn– just baste that part closed for now). You’re going to make the top of your tube a little over 2 yards in circumference, so when flat you’ll have a shape that’s about 40″ wide at the top and 58″ wide at the bottom. Cut off the excess fabric, and zig-zag over the trimmed raw edge to finish.
3. Drape the fabric tube around your dress form with the seam at center back. Standing at the front of the dress form, pick up two points about 24″ apart and hold them over the shoulders of the form. Lift the fabric at each point until the bottom puddles on the floor by about an inch, and pin to each shoulder, leaving the excess loose at the top.**
4. Find the top center front point and lift it straight up until the bottom of the fabric just touches the floor. Gather the fabric at the center of the neckline until the fabric on the sides is smooth, and pin in place. This gives you a nice, smooth neckline in front with some gathering at the center.
5. Go to the back of the dress and find the back center point, repeating the lift/gather/pin process. You’ll have quite a bit more to gather here because there’s more fabric in the back, and your diagonal seam is longer than the vertical width of the fabric so there’s more to pull up. (I will note here that the movie gown appears to have a very short train, but since I hate the idea of people stepping on my dress or it getting dirty, I’m omitting it.) Don’t pull it up all the way– the center bottom will still drag somewhat– just pull it up enough that you can gather the center and smooth out the shoulderblade area.
6. Hand-baste along the neckline (just the net layer, not the underdress), tacking down the gathers, to mark the edges. Do the same for the armholes, using the armscyes of the underdress as a guide but not stitching directly to them. At this point you should remove the original basting stitches from the top of your center back seam so you can undo the zipper on the underdress when necessary.
7. Cut off excess fabric about 2″ from the basting lines, including the insides of the arm holes. With the net firmly pinned to the underdress, carefully remove both layers from the dress form and try the dress on to ensure it hangs properly when worn. If it doesn’t, use the extra 2″ you left to adjust the drape, then re-pin and re-baste.
8. Put the dress back on the form, trim the extra fabric down to 1″, and tuck it under the edges of the underdress. Using small stitches, whipstitch the net in place over the edges of the neckline and armscyes. You’ll need to remove your pins to do this properly– the basting lines will help you keep things lined up during this step. Remove the basting threads when you’re done whipstitching. The stitching will be covered by trim, so don’t worry if it’s visible– also, don’t worry about the raw edges on the inside of the dress, we’ll get to those later.
9. Cut the hem level to the floor.
I will note that I originally started this process by draping the original hem level all the way around rather than puddling at the sides– then (after cutting, damn it) I realized that I was basically just replicating the “straight tube, gather in the middle” process for the front half of the gown, which is not what I wanted. Luckily I’d left enough extra fabric when cutting that I was able to lift the center front and do a little tweaking to get the fabric to fall more attractively. Whew! The process described above is what I should’ve done in the first place.
Once I had the body of the gown finished, I cut out some half-circles of net to make the cap sleeves– those turned out to be too full, so I cut them down to be about 2/5 of a circle each– and attached them to the shoulders. I didn’t even bother to hem them, since net doesn’t fray.
*Note: I’m still going back and forth in my head as to whether I made the overgown too narrow– the actual skirt measurement at the bottom is 120″. But when I hold it out to the side like Eliza does in the movie it doesn’t seem quite as full, which bugs me. On the other hand, since I’m not as waif-like as Audrey Hepburn perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to pull off having extra fabric and poofiness. Plus, my modern synthetic fabric doesn’t appear to drape quite as beautifully as whatever they used in the movie, so I get more poof (not desirable) with less fabric. Whatever– the fabric is cut now and I can’t put it back, so I’ll just learn to like it.
** Also, while you could allow for more puddling on the sides at this step (meaning that there is correspondingly more draping of the fabric in front), the problem is that whatever you drape down at the front sides, must drape back *up* in the back. So you’ll get weird saggy drapes of fabric at the hips where you want a smooth, elegant line. One way to address this issue would be to cut the front and back pieces separately, but then you’d have visible side seams and I wanted to avoid that if possible.