Queen of Hearts Costume, Part II: Tailoring the Underdress

Once I had my materials assembled, the first thing I did was to make sure my black and white dress would fit me. I bought it on eBay and was more concerned with design and speed of delivery than with the precise size, so I ended up getting a dress that was a size or two too big. But better too big than too small, right?

While it would have been simpler to take the dress in only on the sides or at the side back seams, I decided to get a little creative and take it in at the front seams– this way I was able to alter the shape of the color-blocking to make it slightly less square and more tapered (and thus more flattering).  Because the dress was lined, I took in only the outside layer so the lining would disguise the stitching on the inside. I also shortened the shoulder straps so the dress would sit better on my torso. See the before and after below:

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Queen of Hearts Costume, Part I: Design and Fabric

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For Halloween this year my daughter decided she wanted to be a kitty– not really a surprise, since she loves cats, but it was a bit more difficult to figure out what our family Halloween costume would have to be to coordinate with a cat. Could we all be cats? What about different animals? It all seemed kind of boring.

Then a friend suggested that she could be the Cheshire cat (pink and purple cat, talk about tailor-made for my kid’s preferences!) and my husband and I could do Alice in Wonderland-inspired costumes. It sounded like a great solution. My husband could be the Mad Hatter and would just need to add an outrageous top hat and maybe a cravat to a regular suit. As for me, since I’m not blonde and have no intention of wearing a wig, being Alice was out. But I do love fancy gowns (and have plenty of random accessories lying around), so I decided to be the Queen of Hearts. All I’d need would be a red dress to applique some hearts on, a crown, and maybe a plate of fake tarts to carry around, and I’d be all set! I even had my old high school prom dress, which was bright red satin with a full skirt. Perfect!

Right?

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Belle Epoque Wisteria Gown, Finished!

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It’s done! Done and– dare I say–gorgeous. I really love the way it turned out– it’s pretty close to exactly what I pictured from the beginning, and I had such a wonderful time wearing it to an 1890s-themed ball. The skirt has such a great swirl to it from all of the fullness in the back, and the dimensionality of the embroidery really makes it stand out in a crowd!

To recap the process:

Part I: Design

Part II: Dyeing Hug Snug

Part III: Modifying Bridesmaids Dresses

Part IV: Tea/Coffee Dyed Lace

Part V: Petticoats

Part VI: Neckline Embellishment

Part VII: Embroidery

Part VIII: 3D Wisteria Blossoms

 

Belle Epoque Wisteria Gown, Part VI: Neckline Embellishment

One of the things that all of the illustrations and photos I saw of my favorite Belle Epoque ballgowns had in common was an embellished neckline– usually involving pleats and lace and other froofy stuff, it served not only to draw the attention upwards but also to make the waist look even tinier by comparison. So I knew I’d have to do something interesting on my gown.

Of course, my original sketch was kind of, well, sketchy when it came to the neckline. I knew I wanted some pleating across the front, and some lace, and hopefully some 3D wisteria blossoms at the shoulders. But how to put it together?

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Belle Epoque Wisteria Gown, Part III: Modifying Bridesmaid Dresses

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Originally I’d planned on making the gown from scratch using some Truly Victorian patterns, but when I realized that the event was only a month away I nixed that idea as too difficult. Instead, as I’ve so often done before, I turned to eBay to locate an appropriate pre-existing dress that I could modify. Or rather, dresses (plural) because unless I found an absolutely perfect gown I was going to need some serious extra fabric to make the design work.

Luckily, I hit the jackpot with two identical dusty lilac gowns that had most of the required elements: boned bodice with center-pointed waist, faux two-piece design so I could completely separate the bodice from the skirt, and lots and lots of skirt fabric to work with. The spaghetti straps were a problem, but I figured that I could add shoulder straps and raise the back of the dress to an appropriate height, and rely on neckline decoration to disguise the joins.

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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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Upcycled Birthday Princess Dress, Part VI: Basic Bodice

When making the bodice it took me a while to decide how best to display the embroidery on the fabric. After much vacillating and even more pinning, I decided to use the existing bottom hem of the bodice, which would forfeit the pretty design along the top edge but which would let me have a more structured bottom edge. I took a deep breath and started disassembling the bodice.

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Once I’d figured out what I was going to do, I had to prepare the bodice for cutting– that meant slitting open the side seams and removing the boning from the front, and then re-shaping the bodice entirely to change it from being curved over the bust to being flat (as 4-year-olds are not known for their curved bustlines).

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