So now that things have settled down a bit, I wanted to do a post about Costume College this year! As you may recall, I had a great time last year, so I’ve been excited to go back! You’ve already seen the making-of posts for the costumes I wore, and my favorite shots of the beetlewing gown, but here’s a summary of the rest of the weekend!
Before even arriving at the conference hotel, we stopped by the Fashion District to shop– and when I say “stopped by,” I mean “shopped for five hours straight.” I ended up with 17 yards of fabric, plus assorted other items, that (with luck) will be showing up in future posts!
I had a great time wearing this whole ensemble to the Costume College gala this year– it didn’t fit the theme (“The Opulent Streets of Venice”), but it was indisputably the most fabulous of my costumes, so I had to wear it!
We took a bunch of photos all around the hotel, but it was tough to find just the right dramatic background…
But then darkness fell, and the hotel lit up their outdoor fountain with FIRE! I started off just posing near it, even going so far as to step up against the wall (taking care to keep my long sleeves and wig well away from the flames):
But by the end of the night I’d decided to literally take the plunge, stepping into the fountain itself to get some fabulous photos!
The water in the center was actually a lot deeper than I’d expected– about knee-deep– so my dress got pretty soaked! I wrung it out afterwards before going back up to my room to blot it with towels before turning the hair dryer on it so it would dry out enough to completely dry by morning.
I’m kind of kicking myself, though, because I neglected to remember that the Sargent painting portrays Ellen Terry slightly turned away from the viewer, rather than head-on the way I posed in the photos above. I only have a single photo of me in that position, and I wasn’t careful enough with the placement of my arms!
I’m definitely going to have to put on the outfit again to get better full-length photos at some point. I may even, as I mentioned in my belt post, re-do the belt someday to make the links smaller the way they are in real life. But that may have to wait until next year’s Costume College!
Once the dress was done, I turned my attention to the wig I’d need. I don’t know if Ellen Terry really had almost floor-length hair when she played Lady Macbeth or if she wore a wig, but it’s a prominent feature of her costume in the photos and in the painting, so I had to follow suit.
There were plenty of long (like, knee-length) cosplay red wigs available, but they were all perfectly straight and didn’t look particularly full– when divided into two plaits they were definitely not going to be sufficient for the look I was going for. Rather than try to figure out how to plump them up, I decided to go with a textured wig– or rather, two textured wigs that I’d cobble together.
I ended up with this one— it’s designed to be a Lady Melisandre wig from Game of Thrones and it’s a dark red color with lots of texture, so it definitely had the volume I was looking for. It also has a nice braiding detail at the top. I bought two.
Once they arrived, I took apart one wig by cutting the wig cap into strips to make wefts. I cut the cap in sets of three wefts right up to the point where it started curving around the head, then cut that curved skullcap-ish section right up the center, for a total of four weft strips (two shorter, two longer) and two denser sections. Here’s a diagram of the cuts:
Then I divided my wearable wig into two sides (following this very useful tutorial to avoid showing the wig cap at the part) and divided each of those sides into an upper and lower section. The upper sections were clipped aside, while I worked on one lower section at a time.
I spread the hair on the lower section over the floor (which was covered in parchment paper to avoid glue getting on the hardwood). I glued the longer weft across the hair about 8″ up from the ends, then glued the dense skullcap section on top of that a few inches down. Finally, I glued the shorter weft section over the top of that, at the same level as the first one.
Once I let down the upper section of hair and gathered the whole thing into a ponytail, the glued sections weren’t really visible except as a slightly thicker section of hair. I tied the long ponytail into segments using cut-up hair elastics (since trying to use them the normal way was next to impossible on such long hair), then wrapped the whole tied-up ponytail with gold ribbon. I stitched the ribbon in place using light brown thread to keep it from slipping out of position.
I’m actually really happy with how this turned out, and how easy it was, relatively speaking. Yes, it’s pretty heavy, and no, I don’t think it’ll stand up to much abuse, but it looks decent and it took me about an hour to style, so I’m counting it as a win!
Once the dress was structurally complete I got started on the belt (which had to sit a certain way over the dress to look right). The original belt for the gown appears to have been made of metal links with a raised design on them– the belt wraps twice around the waist and ties in front with a length of twisted fabric.
Initially I thought I’d repurpose some belly-dancing belts with similar metal links to make my own belt, but they were pretty expensive and didn’t have the right overall look– too much filigree, not quite the right shape. I decided to make my own, because deciding to spend ridiculous amounts of time and effort to closely replicate a costume element that I’d intended to shortcut is apparently what I do.
Since I didn’t have the time, knowledge, or supplies to make my own stamped metal links (yet), I opted to use thick black cardstock– it’s called “museum board” and it’s pretty stiff while still being cuttable. I figured that once painted with metallic paint, the links would be close enough to pass for a stage costume.
So above the rounded neckline of the dress there’s a high ivory collar. It appears to be made of net, gathered for texture and sewn with lines of gold thread.
I actually had a bunch of ivory net in my stash, so I started off by cutting two layers. First, there’s a curved piece to serve as the base, then a top layer that’s cut larger and gathered down. It’s possible that the top layer was also a proportionally-cut curve that’s gathered to fit, but to make the process easier I just cut a big rectangle and relied on varied gathering to shape it into a curve.
I cut a base layer to fit around my actual neck rather than to match the curve of the dress neckline, which as you recall had a bit of a gap due to a previous error. I left plenty of room at the bottom, though, to ensure that I’d be able to stitch it to the dress with no pulling.
For the top layer, I made my piece about twice as long as the base to allow plenty of room for gathers. After pinning a hem in the top edge (so it would be caught by later seams) I ran six parallel lines of gathering stitches (machine-sewn for the tiniest gathers) along the length of the top layer and pulled up the threads until it fit the base. I know it should’ve been five layers, but I miscounted and figured it wouldn’t matter anyway.
To make a clean back closure I stitched the base and top layers together at the short ends, right sides together, then flipped them over and topstitched over the top gathering line to keep the two layers aligned.
Let me just say, this step took FOREVER because of all the embroidery, but I’m finally done! And now the dress is technically wearable and actually looks like THE DRESS (though still not finished)! I love it when that happens…
As I discussed in my patterning post, the sleeves are cut with the long edge at the shoulder and hang almost to the floor. That being said, I’m pretty sure that Sargent took some artistic license with his painting (he totally did; Ellen Terry was *not* as tall as he made her in the painting), because even with my sleeves cut down to a mere inch above the ground, they still weren’t as long as they look in the painting when I raised my arms. More like mid-thigh length, rather than below the knee.
One thing about the sleeves always bugged me (no pun intended): is the trim on the outside or the inside? The Sargent painting pretty clearly shows it on the outside, since you can see both the outer sleeve and its (plain) lining.
But there are definitely images of the dress showing the trim with both options.
Since the trim is curved, it can’t just be folded over and still lie smoothly, so it has to be one or the other.
After consulting with fellow costumers online I came to the conclusion that the dress in its original form had the trim on the outside, but that at some point during its history the trim must have been folded to the inside, with tiny darts taken to keep it smooth. Then, when the dress was restored they put it back in its original condition with the trim on the outside where it belonged. Mystery solved!
Anyway, as you recall I’d originally planned to use pre-embroidered trim cut from a vintage sari. However, the more I looked at it the more I was dissatisfied with this plan– the trim was too elaborate, it wasn’t curved so would need some work to fit the sleeve, and the background color was a different green than my lining fabric, which didn’t look right. I decided instead to switch gears and embroider the trim myself on extra green cotton gauze. Why do I always do this? I have no idea.
More progress! These posts are getting farther apart due to the complexity of each step, but I promise that we’re nearing the light at the end of the tunnel!
As I mentioned in my patterning/mockup post, the underskirt was a simple A-line, but the overskirt was drafted differently for the front and back. The front was an A-line, while the back was a half-circle, both with gathers at the waistline for extra fullness.
I’d originally planned on attaching the skirt directly to a separate waistband at the natural waist, to let the weight of the skirt rest there rather than dragging down the bodice. However, because the bodice had a dropped waistline and was fitted to the hips there wasn’t room for all those fabric gathers between the natural waist and the dropped waistline. Instead, I made a fitted yoke out of cotton sateen (dyed in the same bath as my cotton gauze) that was set on a waistband.
In determining how this gown would go together I reviewed a lot of the photos of the restoration of the original gown. Since it was crocheted it’s not surprising that there are few (if any) shaping seams– it looks as though the top of the gown is shaped only through side seams, and there’s a dropped, pointed waistline (front and back) where the gathered skirt is attached.
I decided to cut the top section in panels for shaping, which would also minimize the stretchiness of the fabric– I figured that the bodice would be more stable if it were interspersed with non-stretchy seams connecting the panels. I started with a basic princess-seamed dress pattern (Butterick Sew Easy B5872) and cut it out according to the size chart for my first mockup. That was a big mistake, since there was a ton of ease in the dress and I ended up pinching out a whopping 8 inches of width to get a fitted bodice.
Eventually I cut the bodice mockup to a deep, rounded point both front and back, and moved on to the sleeves. And let me say right now, they were a serious pain. The problem was that my bodice pattern was for a sleeveless dress, and it’s not as easy as it looks to just graft a sleeve pattern onto a sleeveless bodice. I went through way too many iterations, altering both the sleeve and the armscye, before I finally got my basic sleeve right.