Belle Epoque Wisteria Gown, Part I: The Design

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The period spanning the late 1890s and early 1900s has always been my favorite when it comes to evening wear. You’ve got the slim waist, slightly fitted hips, and the elegant swoosh to the bottom of the skirt, which all combine for a breathtaking silhouette. Plus, you’ve got gorgeous fabrics and trimming, which can run the gamut from embroidery to lace to faux flowers to beading… the possibilities are endless. Which is why, when I heard about a Victorian-themed dance weekend in my area, I knew I’d have to make something for it.

I browsed through Pinterest looking for inspiration, concluding (as I’d always known I would) that the spectacular gowns by Charles Frederick Worth were what I’d eventually end up mimicking. Just look at the gorgeousness!

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After I’d finished drooling, I decided that I’d want to do some kind of embroidered embellishment to go down the front of the entire gown, much like the butterflies you see above. And because I always have to make things difficult for myself, I eschewed the idea of embroidered roses (which I could’ve done using pre-made appliques) and decided on wisteria. I was really inspired by this Japanese fabric:

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So, the gown will be purple, with trailing wisteria blossoms and leaves, possibly some flowing water lines at the hem. Simple, right? Famous last words…

Upcycled Birthday Princess Dress, Part IX: Done!

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Done! Finally done! And it turned out so gorgeous! I’m so excited about this dress– despite the changes of plan and occasional difficulties, I really love it. I just hope my daughter will wear it…

When we left off, I had just finished the paned sleeves, which are just one of the many fabulous features I can’t stop squee-ing over. To finish up I stitched the rose clusters to the skirt bustling points, then made a few more rosebuds of various sizes to finish off the neckline along with some silver leaves. It took several tries to get an arrangement I liked for the neckline, but eventually I settled on one and stitched it down.

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And voila! Finished!

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For the previous work-in-progress posts, see below:

Part I: Sketches

Part II: Fabric

Part III: Revising the Design

Part IV: White Underskirt

Part V: Bustled Overskirt

Part VI: Basic Bodice

Part VII: Chiffon Roses

Part VIII: Paned Sleeves

 

Final Thoughts:

  1. For the love of god, don’t buy a dress to upcycle unless it is larger than you need it to be. I thought the size 5 kid’s dress would be big enough for my daughter, and the fact that it wasn’t caused all kinds of extra trouble that could’ve been avoided. If I’d known ahead of time how much work upcycling would be, I would have made the dress from scratch. Remember, making things smaller is a heck of a lot easier than making them bigger.
  2. EBay formalwear is still a great place to find yards and yards of fancy fabric, and I’d recommend it to anyone, especially if you’re looking for satin. Bonus points for embroidery details and petticoat layers underneath!
  3. Unless you’re really good at pattern drafting it’s best to have a printed pattern to work from for the basic things like sleeves and necklines. You don’t have to take it as gospel, but you can use it to compare to your own pieces and make sure they’re somewhat in the right range.
  4. Making a duct tape dress form made this process infinitely easier. Highly recommended.
  5. However, you still need to try the dress on your child to make sure there aren’t any surprises. Case in point– when I tried the skirt on my daughter for the first time, it was clear that the weight would drag it down from her natural waistline over time. The solution was to buy suspenders to keep the skirt at the right height– they fit just fine under the separate top and the skirt stayed firmly in place the whole time.

Upcycled Birthday Princess Dress, Part VIII: Paned Sleeves

To add to the “princess” look of this dress I wanted to do paned sleeves– you may know them as “Snow White sleeves”– where a contrasting-colored lining peeks through slashes in the outer sleeve. However, since I didn’t want to make two separate layers I decided to simply insert strips of white satin into the main purple sleeve, pleating the purple fabric so it looked like the white was a separate inner sleeve. For the technique I relied heavily on this tutorial, which is awesome.

For my basic sleeve pattern I wasn’t confident enough to draft my own– I really didn’t feel like measuring and guessing about the best curved shape, so I raided the $1 pattern bin at my local store and picked out a girls’ pattern that had puffed sleeves to use. I cut the sleeves out, then cut each one into four pieces and inserted 2.5″ wide strips of white satin between them, ironing the 1/4″ seam allowances towards the purple fabric .

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Flashback: Mermaid Birthday Party

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When my daughter became obsessed with The Little Mermaid (which was one of my very favorite movies as a little girl), I was thrilled to have the chance to have a mermaid-themed birthday party for her. Though since we’re trying to avoid being stuck in the Disney rut for everything, I went more generic and less YAY ARIEL AND SEBASTIAN AND FLOUNDER AND ALL THE OTHER COPYRIGHTED CHARACTERS YAY!!!

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Upcycled Birthday Princess Dress, Part IV: White Underskirt

Once I had all of my fabrics and sketches I decided to start with what I hoped would be the easiest part of the dress– the white underskirt. I started off by simply cutting off the upper portion of the dress’s bodice, leaving a good 3″ of fabric attached to the skirt to make a waistband.

 

Next I turned my attention to the inside of the skirt– there was already a nice lining and net petticoat layer, but it wasn’t quite poofy enough. Luckily the lavender bridesmaid dress came with a netting layer that was exactly the same length as the white skirt, so I ruthlessly ripped out, gathered, and stitched it just below the petticoat lining. Presto! Poofy white satin underskirt!

Before I went any further I had to make sure the skirt would be the right length on my daughter, but since she hates to stand still (like any almost-four-year-old) I needed a substitute for fittings.

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Upcycled Birthday Princess Dress, Part II: Fabric

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Once I had my basic design idea I started looking for fabric. I originally figured that I’d get some lavender-colored jacquard or satin, possibly a lace or embroidered sheer for a skirt front panel, and call it a day. If I’d had easy access to a decent fabric store this wouldn’t have been a problem; however, my local store is hit-or-miss, so I turned to the internet. In searching online for the best price for jacquard (shipping is so expensive!) I had another idea– cannibalizing an old prom or bridesmaid’s dress.

Pre-worn formal dresses, particularly pastel satin ones that are clearly bridesmaid’s dresses, have a limited shelf life and an even more limited price range, whether at Goodwill or on eBay. With a full enough skirt the price-per-yard can end up being significantly lower than buying it off the bolt– and the dresses often come with beading or embroidery that’s just not practical to do by hand. I started sifting through auctions online, and found the perfect gown.

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Easy Hooded Fleece Cloak

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As the weather has been cooling down I’ve realized that while my daughter may be excited to wear her princess costume for Halloween this year, it’s not exactly appropriate for a New England fall evening, not even with a turtleneck underneath. Remembering my own trick-or-treating years as a “ballerina princess fairy” (it involved a sparkly tutu, wings, and a tiara made of Christmas tinsel), I took a page out of my own mother’s book and decided to stitch up a cape made out of fleece to keep my daughter warm.

It would have to be purple, to match her costume and because it’s her favorite color. Happily, my local fabric store had 60″ wide fleece in a nice deep purple, so I picked up 2.5 yards and a yard of matching purple satin ribbon. The great thing about fleece is that it requires no hemming, and it’s thick enough to drape nicely as a cape without looking flimsy. I’d never made a hooded cloak before, but how hard could it be, right?

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Tutu Dresses for Mini Cinderellas

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My daughter recently watched the new live-action Cinderella movie and was immediately enthralled by the costumes (with good reason!). She adores the old Disney animated classic, but when I saw her eyes widen and her jaw drop upon seeing the new version of Cinderella’s ballgown I knew I’d be making one very shortly.

To be fair, I’d already planned out (just for fun) how I’d make one for myself if I ever had occasion to, but making something for a 3-year-old to wear is different. It needs to be comfortable, or she’ll never wear it. It needs to be washable (at least for spot-cleaning), or she’ll ruin it. And it needs to be reasonably cheap, or I’ll never make it. 😉 A tutu dress seemed to fit the bill admirably. It’s easy to make, inexpensive, very comfortable, stretchy so it’s practically one-size-fits-all, and simple to clean or repair if anything happens to it. And since the kidlet’s favorite color is purple I changed the color scheme to ensure she’d actually wear the dress.

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Vanessa/Ursula Costume, Part III: The Tentacles

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Taking the entire process into account this was the hardest part of the costume, but since I did almost all of the hard work back when I first sewed it in 2010, I didn’t have to do much this time around.

To summarize the original process, I wanted to make eight tentacles (though she only has six in the movie– weird), each completely separate, but intertwined with each other to form the bottom of the skirt. I sketched out the way I wanted the tentacles to intersect, then re-drew each tentacle separately so I’d know what shape to cut it in. Then I used black satin and purple foil dot fabric to sew the tentacles. I stuffed them with polyfill and styrofoam packing peanuts, then hand-stitched them in place on the skirt of a black strapless bridesmaid’s dress.

Anyway, while the costume itself still fit reasonably well, I didn’t need the strapless bodice under the wedding dress– so I decided to make it into a skirt. I just cut off the bodice about two inches above the waist seam, folded it over, and stitched it down to make a waistband. I added a hook and eye at the top of the zipper, and voila, I was done.

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I got some more packing peanuts (you can buy them by the cubic foot at U-Haul) and re-filled the tentacles, leaving the upper portions of the back ones empty since they weren’t going to show, then stitched them closed by hand. Next up– finishing the dress.

Tips:

1. I originally filled the tentacles entirely with polyfill, figuring that its soft texture and resulting smooth surface would be ideal. However, pillow stuffing can get really heavy if you use a lot of it, and it made my tentacles far too heavy for wear. I definitely recommend using polyfill only for the pointed ends of the tentacles and perhaps as a thin layer of padding in certain areas that need a smooth look, and going for the much lighter packing peanuts to fill in the bulk of the shape.

2. One great feature of the original dress was the interior structure, which included a separately boned mini-corset thing. It had its own zipper, and was basically like a long-line bra that was attached to the dress. It really helped to keep the dress in place without shifting or pulling downwards due to weight, and kept any stress off the outer bodice fabric. If you’re going to get a strapless dress to use as a frame for a heavier costume, keep an eye out for this feature.