For Costume College this year I’m joining a group of other costumers in donning our very best 1920s daywear in imitation of the incomparable Miss Phryne Fisher! Aside from her undeniable stylishness, the comfort factor was a big influence on my decision to join the crowd– Los Angeles in July just cries out for flowy, comfortable clothing, and 1920s outfits fit the bill admirably.
I actually wore some 1920s daywear last year as well, but thought I’d mix it up a bit this year and go with a jacket-and-pants combo, since Miss Fisher makes it look so darned good. Rather than try to sew the main pieces myself (pants scare me), I did some judicious sourcing of pre-made pieces, one of which was this jacket!
This fabulous kimono-style jacket in embroidered chiffon looks oh-so-1920s and cost just about $20 on eBay. Score! It’s actually listed as an abaya— commonly worn by Muslim women– but it works perfectly as an over-jacket for this period. I’m a sucker for embroidery, and the style of this multicolored embroidery just hit the spot for an art deco-ish look.
After stitching together the body of the tea gown, it was time for the center panel. I cut my center panel lining out of my favorite ivory cotton sateen (I bought 12 yards of it a while back and it’s perfect for this kind of thing). It was actually cut in two pieces with an extremely large seam allowance in the center, just in case I need to let the gown out in the future. I hemmed the top and bottom edges with a narrow hem.
I cut the bodice and skirt sections of lace separately, figuring that I’d want a lot more fullness in the skirt. Then I ran a line of hand-stitched gathering stitches along the top and bottom of the bodice section, then at the top of the skirt section. I laid the panels wrong side up over the cotton lining, set my hems so the border matched up at the bottom and top, then drew the gathering threads up until they matched the dimensions of the lining at the neck and waist. I hand-basted the top and bottom lace pieces together through the gathers at the waistline, then trimmed the excess.
So, I know that the “proper” way to get the sleeve-puff look is to sew a separate chemise and allow it to puff through openings in the oversleeve. I’m not going to do that. Instead, blatantly borrowing from numerous online tutorials on constructing sleeves for “Merida” costumes, I’ve constructed the puff and non-puff sections of the sleeves separately, and sewn them in a column to form the sleeve.
To draft the sleeve pattern, I took the basic straight sleeve and marked where I wanted my puffs to be. Then I cut along the lines and re-drew each piece, adding in seam allowances. The elbow puff is tapered at the inside elbow joint so it won’t bunch when I bend my arm. Similarly, the shoulder puff is cut right at the section of the sleeve under the armpit to avoid bunching.
Okay, so remember how I went to all the trouble of picking out lavender lining fabric and cutting all my pattern pieces out of it before moving on to my embroidered fabric? I honestly did intend to do a lining at that point, but after trying the dress on I realized that the inside really wasn’t all that scratchy after all. Plus, as the weather has warmed up I’ve realized that it’s going to be awfully hot at the end of May, and I won’t really want another layer of non-breathable fabric next to my skin to hold the sweat in. So I’ve decided to skip the lining. I’m going to put in a neckline facing to finish that edge, and since the inner seams will now be exposed (at least from the inside) I’m binding them with Hug Snug, a rayon seam binding that will finish the edges and prevent them from fraying.
First up is the seam binding. While more experienced sewers may be able to simply iron it in half and sew both sides at once, I opted to go with the more cautious method and first stitched one side of the binding to one side of the seam allowance, then turned it over and did the other side. It took FOREVER, but it made the inside of the dress look infinitely better than it did before.
Once those were done I finalized the neckline of my dress, then traced it out on paper to draft a pattern for the facing pieces. I made the facing out of material from the gores (interfaced with lightweight iron-on interfacing), and then sewed it, right sides together, to the neckline. Then I flipped it over and understitched it to keep it lying flat.
Before I cut into my fancy fabric I cut out my pattern pieces from the lavender polyester lining, just to see how the final pattern changes had affected the cutting layout and yardage requirements. When I cut out my mockup I had just enough fabric to do it at 6 yards of 45″ material, which is exactly what the pattern said I’d use for that width. However, after making my changes for the lining I actually have almost a full yard left from my original 6 yards, so it’s apparent that reducing the hem length back down and cutting the sleeve in separate pieces had quite an effect on the yardage.
I’ve still been pretty nervous about whether I have enough embroidered fabric to make this dress. The pattern says that I can use 4 yards of 60″ wide fabric, but instead I have 4 1/3 yards of 54″ wide. I’ve studied the cutting layout but it’s not really much help– I’m just glad that the embroidery design is omni-directional, so it won’t matter if I cut some pieces upside-down. So here it is, the moment of truth…
It works! Good thing I cut the hem shorter, it never would’ve worked with all that extra length. I do have a little wiggle room on cutting out the sleeve pieces, but it was really close otherwise. So glad that turned out all right!
One of the toughest parts about creating a costume is fabric– for an existing character the problem can be finding exactly what you need to replicate a specific look, but for a costume where you’re creating something out of whole cloth (pardon the pun) it can be even harder to choose among the vast array of available fabrics to decide what you like best.
And then there’s budget. I’ve got a relatively limited one for this costume, and unfortunately for most historical-style garb you really need something with a nice weight to it (translation: something expensive) if you want it to look good. I thought about stretch velvet, but I don’t have a lot of experience sewing knits and it’s pretty expensive if you don’t want to use panne (I don’t, it makes everything look like a cheap Halloween costume). I looked at saris, figuring they’d have some nice patterns and embellishment to work with, but they don’t often come in gray and almost never with silver accents. Most fashion fabric brocades looked too shiny and/or too modern, plain taffeta was too boring, and it was tough to find home decor brocades in solid gray.
When I finally found a 4-yard lot of 54″ wide muted silver embroidered drapery fabric on eBay for $18 (including shipping!) I couldn’t pass it up. I know fabrics don’t always look as good in person as they do on screen, but this ended up being gorgeous, and luckily not too stiff to drape nicely. According to my pattern it’s a little short to get a whole dress out of, but I’m hopeful that with judicious fabric placement I can get the majority of my dress cut.
For the gores and sleeve puffs I’m using several yards of silvery gray fabric gifted to me by a friend and which is basically “mystery fabric.” I’m fairly sure it’s polyester, it has a subtle texture to it and it drapes well, but apart from that I have no idea. It coordinates perfectly with the embroidered fabric, though, and is heavy enough for a skirt gore but light enough for a sleeve puff. It’s miles better than any of the other options I was looking at online, so I’m thrilled to have it.
Since I’m dealing for the most part with drapery rather than apparel fabric, I’m going to line the whole dress in to mitigate the roughness of the wrong side. The pattern doesn’t call for a lining, but I’m sure I can figure something out. I’d intended to go with white, but ended up picking out a pale lavender lining fabric instead– it coordinates with the gray and I thought it would be pretty, even if no one else will see it.