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.
When I first started this projects I started bookmarking every applique, trim, rhinestone, or other embellishment that I thought might be useful in recreating the lavishly beaded overgown. There were so many options!
It looks as though there are a few different types of embellishment:
- Narrow trim down the center front that outlines the central panel. This appears vaguely floral in design and may or may not also be used to outline swags around the hem of the dress. It looks to be about 1/2″ wide.
- Circular embroidered motifs that are graduated in size– the largest appear to be about 1.5″ in diameter, and it looks as though the largest few sizes are pad-stitched with a bead or rhinestone in the center.
- Narrow embroidered trim around the very bottom edge of the hem. It appears scalloped on a large scale, but it’s tough to see detail.
- Filler appliques of some kind to embellish specific points on the gown– for example, the center front of the skirt and the high points of the swags I mentioned earlier.
- Clear rhinestones, sequins, and beads in various sizes.
- Baguette beads or sequins sewn in straight, short lines.
One of my favorite things about this gown is that although the top layer is loose and flowy, the very fitted underdress showing through the sheer layer keeps it from looking too tent-like. If I had to guess I would say that the movie gown’s underdress (seen clearly above) is tight-fitting satin with some extra fullness below the knee to allow for movement. Since I don’t have Audrey Hepburn’s stick-thin figure and have no intention of spending an evening in a dress so tight I can’t move freely, I’ve decided to go in a different direction and use a bias-cut underdress.
I’ve always loved the dress Audrey Hepburn wore as Eliza Doolittle in the Embassy Ball scene of My Fair Lady. It’s just beautiful– due in no small part to the wearer, but it’s objectively beautiful on its own. So elegant, so sparkly, so perfect in every way; I read that it’s actually made out of an original Edwardian piece, modified to suit the fashion sense of modern audiences. I’ve been dying to recreate it for ages– I even saved the embroidered and beaded tulle from an eBay wedding gown I bought for Halloween almost ten years ago, hoping to use it to make the overdress someday. (spoiler: I did not end up using it)
Then, while planning for what dress I would wear to an upcoming Edwardian-themed ball, I saw this rhinestone shoulder chain on eBay and was immediately struck by how similar it was to the jeweled neckline on the original dress– surely, it was Fate! It has the drapes in front, the shoulder swags, and the tiny crystal dangles all around the edges. Not perfect, of course (got to get rid of that tacky central jewel), but close enough to get me started!