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.
Once I’d finished the bodice (the most complicated part, obviously), I added a 1″ waistband– something I don’t usually do, but I thought it would help add some definition to the shape of the dress and would provide a convenient spot for adding trim later. I basically just cut out three 3″ wide strips of fabric (to provide plenty of seam allowance on both sides with room to trim)– one sheer, two cotton, and flatlined the sheer strip with one of the cotton strips.
I pinned the bottom edge of the bodice to the flatlined strip and basted it together. Then I pinned the remaining cotton strip to the inside of the bodice (to use for interior finishing later), and stitched all layers together at once.
When I was first designing this gown I thought that I’d basically construct it the same way I did my drawstring Regency sari dress— widening the front and back of the bodice and adding a drawstring around the neckline to create soft gathers across the bust and allow for sizing in the back. However, the more I looked at the photos of the drawstring dress, the more I felt that I wanted tinier, denser gathers and a more squared-off neckline. In order to get those I’d need to do two things– gather the sheer layer separately from the lining to keep the gathered fabric as thin (and therefore compressible) as possible, and have the gathered section itself be separate from the rest of the bodice to avoid affecting the shape of the neckline.
Complicating matters was the fact that the sheer layer was– well, sheer. That meant many of my interior seams would be visible from the outside, which is always something I try to avoid. After several attempts to figure out the order in which I would stitch together the various pieces of each layer to minimize visible seams, I came up with the following system:
With a Dickens-themed holiday ball coming up in December, I decided to make a new dress for the occasion– a Regency dress, partly because the event specified that Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (from A Christmas Carol) would be in attendance and the Regency period would be correct for the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party portrayed in the book, and partly because Regency gowns are just so much easier to sew than any other period.
For fabric, I decided to go with a vintage embroidered silk sari– it was originally a medium coral color, but I planned to use Crimson iDye to deepen the shade to a nice deep red. I really liked the subtle tone-on-tone effect of the embroidery. It reminded me of the dresses made of Kashmiri shawls back in the Regency period, and I hoped the dye would leave the different shades intact.
Unfortunately, I made a rookie mistake in dyeing my sari– I followed the instructions on the package rather than using my own common sense. So when the instructions said to allow the fabric to agitate in the washing machine with the dye for an extra-long cycle to allow the color to set properly, what I should have done was stop and think to myself, “this is vintage silk with delicate embroidery. I should probably just let the fabric soak in a perfectly still washing machine instead of messing it up and whirling it around and generally risking disaster.”
So which option did I choose? Yup. Disaster.
Not only did the dye not darken the color of the sari much at all, but the agitation completely ruined the embroidery– all of the thread basically unravelled and formed a giant tangle, which had to be cut away to even let me unwind the fabric from its tight, wadded-up ball. Totally unsalvageable.
The only reason I’m not devastated by all this is that the dye clearly didn’t work and wouldn’t have worked even if I’d soaked the fabric carefully– I didn’t like the original color of the sari and wouldn’t have wanted to wear it as-is, so I didn’t really lose anything in my attempt to improve it. I suppose in a perfect world I could’ve overdyed it again with the perfect blend of brown and red, but it probably would’ve taken forever to get it right in any case. So I’m going to cut my losses and try something different for the Dickens Ball.
If only I had any idea of what that would be…
Once I had the embroidered wisteria designs finished, I decided to create a few three-dimensional wisteria blossoms to use at the neckline of the gown. The problem was, I wasn’t sure how to do the stems– the blossoms would be simple, just looping seam binding and using thread to bind the tops together, but the stems were a puzzle. If I used regular embroidery floss they would be too droopy and wouldn’t have any structure. If I used wire they would be too stiff. I thought about fishing line, but then I’d have to tie it all up together and find some way to make it green, and it sounded like a huge hassle.
I finally bought some green cotton cord that was on clearance at my local craft store. It had some structure to it, and I figured that it would strike a nice balance between stiffness and flexibility.
Here’s the process for making the wisteria sprays:
I admit it, I’ve been bitten by the Regency costuming bug. It’s just such an easy period to sew for, and there actually seem to be enough places to wear the results, that I can’t help myself. For my excuse to make this one I told myself that I was planning a costumed picnic for this summer, and that I would need something new either to wear myself or lend to someone else for the event. Makes sense, right?
Anyway, I considered breaking up this post into several installments, as I have with other dressmaking projects, but honestly the dress went together in a single weekend– it was that easy– so it hardly seemed fair to make you all wait for longer than that to see how it turned out! I’ll just put in headings for organization…
Part of this project is driven by fabric– I found a lovely vintage cotton sari on eBay that I was dying to use, especially once I diagrammed out how I could make best use of the border print. Sari fabric is actually a very period fabric for Regency dresses, as the British colonies in India were regularly supplying it for use in England.
The sari itself is extremely thin and delicate– it looks like a cotton gauze, and it’s so light and airy that it’s basically transparent. I hand-washed it so it wouldn’t get messed up in our washing machine, and let it air-dry in the sun before ironing it to get it ready for use.
It has a wide border down one side and a narrow border down the other, with a double-wide border on one end (the “pallu”).
So I had my pattern pieces, I had my dyed fabric– I was ready to start gown construction! It started off easy, but then (as it always seems to do) got complicated. Remember, this is Simplicity 4055, based on Sensibility.com’s Regency Gown pattern.**
I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of dress construction, but I will note a few issues I had with this pattern:
- Like I said earlier, I added an extra curve to the bottom of the front bodice piece to adjust it from an A-cup measurement to a C-cup. I also moved the shoulder seam back and angled it for a more period look, and moved the shoulder straps in towards the center by about 1/2″.
- I really hated easing the curved back bodice seams together– things just wouldn’t match up properly– and since the finished piece was flat (as opposed to being shaped by the curves), I can only conclude that the curved seams are decorative only. That being said, I see plenty of Regency gowns with straight back seams, which I may do from now on to avoid the irritation.