Ms. Kelly’s Dress

Copying the fashion of famous people becomes interesting when you do it for one of the most iconic beauties – Grace Kelly.  To top it off, I’ve chosen to try and recreate one of her iconic dresses, as well.  Both she and I are called “Kelly”, after all – her maiden last name is my first.

I’ve copied a dress that was worn for the occasion that changed her life – the first meeting of Prince Rainier of Monaco in spring of 1955 (full story here).  Just a few months before, she modeled this same dress on the cover of the pattern book for McCall’s – it was pattern number 3100 from 1954.  She kept that dress from the McCall’s cover, and when there was no electricity in her hotel the day she was to meet Prince Rainier, this flowered silk taffeta dress was the only thing she had which didn’t need ironing.  She couldn’t fix her hair without power either, so she put it in a basic bun and added an ivy covered fascinator.  I’ve read reports that she hated the McCall’s dress, really, but she thought no one would ever remember her in this frock.  She never though so much would come from her visit with the prince!  I have a whole Pinterest board here full of more pictures of her and the prince from that occasion, if you’re interested.

Ever since I first saw an Instagram post on this, I realized I had in my stash a McCall’s pattern that’s 32 numbers more than Grace Kelly’s dress, yet (except for the neckline) it’s more or less the exact same dress design.  Now this was a temptation that I couldn’t resist!  Yet I knew I had to make my version of Grace Kelly’s dress quite nice in quality or not at all.  My cousin’s fall wedding gave me the reason and opportunity to make and wear something so fancy!  So several yards of the finest mulberry silk were bought on a fabric splurge, together with everything needed for fully finished insides, and I’ve now made what I think is one of my fanciest dresses yet!

I brought a little bit of my dear departed Grandmother to attend the wedding – the pink pearl leaf earrings are from her as well as the gloves.  My bracelet is made by me of Swarovski crystals and sterling spacers.  My shoes are the divinely comfy and yet fancy “Lola” heels from Chelsea Crew.  I was adding in muted pink pastels to soften up the otherwise dark greys and black in my dress’ print, and bring out its magnolia tree petals!  A real life English ivy vine is my headband, ‘cause why settle for fake when you can have the real thing?!

I feel so flawlessly chic and powerfully feminine in this outfit.  Even though I do not think this is the best design for my body type, the way the full skirt swishes around as I move (due to my added self-attached slip) and the softness and shine of the silk is unparalleled.  This is comfortable finery, the likes of which cannot be found to buy RTW without a hefty price tag.  I bought this dress pattern because it was different, cheaply priced, and appealing, but somehow I’ve always been mystified at how to make it work for myself.  If ever I’m gonna like this pattern, my Grace Kelly look-alike version of the dress is the best shot at that.  Even though I sense that my waist gets lost, and my hips feel as big as a house, once I think past my self-conscious insecurities while wearing this dress, it’s then that I love it.  Who couldn’t love being able to slip into a small taste of the charisma of Grace Kelly?!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% mulberry silk printed floral called “Spring Garden at Night”, lined in all cotton broadcloth, with a pleated polyester satin for the attached petticoat, and netted tulle for the crinoline

PATTERN:  McCall’s #3123, year 1954

NOTIONS:  I bought the invisible zipper for the back, but besides thread that was all the notions I needed!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress was made in about 18 to 20 hours hours and finished on August 29, 2017.

THE INSIDES:  Covered up by all the lining/petticoat, raw edges are not to be seen inside!

TOTAL COST:  The silk cost about $60 for 3 ½ yards, ordered from “The Hue Kiosk” on Etsy, with the lining cotton, petticoat skirt materials and zipper costing an extra $20 bought from Jo Ann’s Fabrics.  A total of about $80 makes this just about if not the most expensive dress I’ve made, but that still isn’t a bad price for a dress like this…it was totally worth it!

This dress pattern is labelled as “Easy-to-Sew” and it truly was incredibly easy.  Sure, I made the dress a bit harder to make by fully lining the body, and drafting my own petticoat, but even with all this, it was still way too easy for how it looks.  This McCall’s dress pattern also had remarkable fit that was spot on.  I was worried about fitting the hips correctly, so that they were almost snug but still loose.  The hips are pretty much the important part of this dress design because fitted wrongly they won’t hold the bodice and the skirt in place on the body correctly.  The area from the waist, through the hips down, to the skirt seam is really the only part of this dress that is fitted to the body anyway.  Grading up to my size according to the chart on the pattern back was right on, needing no extra adjustments.  My main caveat to this pattern is it had a very long torso.  I do not call myself petite, although I am on the shorter side, about 5 feet 3 inches high, yet I had to take out 2 inches horizontally from above the waist to bring the proportions up higher.  I also cut the top of the back neckline 1 ½ inches lower to also raise up the still long back bodice.  I never make toiles, or muslins, but I do frequently check pattern pieces by fitting them on myself first before cutting out.  I’m more glad than usual that I did discover the adjustments needed here before cutting on my good silk.

I made two small changes to the actual design.  Firstly, the most obvious one is that I made the short arm-baring sleeves on the pattern into deep kimono ¾ length.  I used another 50’s pattern from my stash as my guide for cutting because as simple as extending the sleeves might seem, I wanted to leave nothing to chance, no opportunities for mistakes if I could help it.  The elbows have small darts for shaping and are not cumbersome.  The bottom of the sleeves arch gently from my elbows down to my high waist on the dress, something you can see when my arms are out.  I realize that the longer sleeves add so much more volume to the overall appearance of the dress, yet I think the super short sleeves on the pattern strike me as jarring with the dressy air of the rest of the design.  I think my having a bit more modest sleeves not only makes my dress closer to the original Grace Kelly dress, but I think it brings out the dramatic plunge of the V-neckline.  Overall, as this is somewhat of a cooler weather dress, made especially for a fall wedding, I did not want to have to wear a sweater (with this? Yuk.), so the longer sleeves keep me more comfortable.  When trying to imitate other people’s style, I never like to compromise my own taste and personality either…after all, knock-off or not, I’m still the one wearing it!

The second change was to take out about 12 inches out of the amount of gathers to the skirt – and it’s still so full!  Many times a vintage 1950’s full skirt is really full, I mean so full your machine might not even want to sew through it, and I almost always take out 8 to 12 inches out of them and they are still quite poufy.  Also the length to the skirt of my dress would have come down to the floor had I not taken out more than 5 inches.  Even still, my skirt has a very wide hem, which actually kind of weighs it down and help the bottom round out nicely.  In all there was probably enough for a whole nuther dress in the skirt alone.  Once the skirt was sewn on to the bodice, working on finishing the dress felt overwhelming.  Have you ever felt like a garment project that has a lot of fabric “fights” with you to get under the sewing machine needle?  This was like that.  Thank goodness it was relatively easy to make.

As I was spending enough time and money to make this a very nice dress, I chose to have a modern invisible zipper down the back.  As much as I do like my vintage dresses to be vintage, there is nothing that beats a perfectly installed invisible zipper in a spot where a regular zip would be so very obvious.  The pattern called for the back zipper to extend all the way past the drop skirt seam, into the skirt itself.  I considered it, but ultimately didn’t want to try to take an invisible zip through that much fabric, so my zipper only goes down to just above the skirt seam.

The zipper was just one of several things I had to decide on for my finished dress.  Grace Kelly’s original dress has a belt at the drop skirt seam, and the pattern has a true waist belt, so I made an ultra-long belt that could’ve worked for either my hips or waist, but didn’t like how it distracted from the rest of the dress and brought the eyes to the wrong spots.  I was briefly even considering adding in light boning in the side seams to keep the bodice in shape over my hips, but I waited until my dress was finished to decide (thank goodness) and the heavy petticoat weighs down the skirt just enough to keep the dress from creeping up on me.  It is one thing to figure out how to properly shape and make a garment…it’s another to overthink problems (real or imagined) and over-engineer details.  I’m guilty of doing both.  So often the difference between those two situations is a very fine line that I struggle to find in many projects.

The extra finishing I did add to the insides really made a difference to this dress.  I tried it on at each step, without the bodice lining, and without the petticoat.  I did not like it until I had fully lined the bodice – it had more “body” and shape with it in, besides making it easy to finish the neckline, and a single layer of silk felt too sheer and delicate anyway.  The neckline pleats to the cotton bodice lining were stitched down – other than that it was cut and sewn the same as the silk bodice.  The skirt was too droopy without the petticoat I drafted – a nicely full skirt that holds its own really defines the rest of this dress design, besides preventing static cling.  I really thought about making the new Simplicity #8456 to go underneath, but having the petticoat attached with the bodice lined made wearing and getting dressed in this so effortless.  With just over 3 yards of fabric in this dress I needed to be able to wear the dress…not the dress wearing me.

My dresses petticoat was made from a mechanically pleated/crinkled satin that had a relatively heavy drape to hold its own against the light-as-air silk.  Long, 10 inch wide strips was tulle netting were cut and gathered above the hem of the crinkled petticoat satin.  Then the skirt was gathered and sewn on the other side of the waist seam, so that when the dress hangs or gets worn the petticoat falls down over the raw edge, covering it and in a sense pulling the seam allowance down for me at the same time.  I love engineering my dresses so I can be just as proud of the inside as I am of the out.  I am important enough to warrant seeing a finely finished inside.

I cannot say enough good words about the mulberry silk I ordered as well as the shop I ordered from – “The Hue Kiosk”.  They have my full recommendation!  First of all, I love what they have to offer, with reasonable prices, and great customer interaction.  A sheet of touch-and-feel samples they sent along with my order was really enjoyable, and helps me know what I want to order next from them once I catch up on my sewing allowance!  Mostly though, this mulberry silk is the best silk I have sewn, felt, and worked with.  Out of all the kinds of silks I’ve worked with so far (over half a dozen now) this is so impeccably wrinkle free –even straight out of the wash – it’s a miracle.  The best part is the lack of smell!  I know I have a sensitive nose, and as much as I love silk, both silk and wool have this smell, especially when wet, that is sort of repugnant to me.  Mulberry silk is the first that is smell-free!  I have read that it is considered hypo-allergenic because the worms have one sole diet of mulberry leaves.  Never mind the insect details, I am so sold on mulberry silk.  My only caveat is that a new, sharp needle is a must when sewing on mulberry silk.  A semi-new “sharps” needle was enough to create a few catches or runs in the silk as I was working – it has very fine threads and has a semi-tight texture.

When I thought about the history behind my dress after my cousin’s wedding, I realized an irony I hadn’t thought of before.  A dress that Grace Kelly wore to an occasion which led to a wedding, had be copied by me to wear to a wedding.  Maybe this dress when made of silk inherently wants to be a wedding dress?  Silly me!  Seriously though, I’ve noticed many drop-waisted dresses in the few years after 1954 (check out the McCall’s #7625 1955 Archive pattern or Vintage Vogue #1094 of year 1955 for two readily available examples, and see my Pinterest board “Drop That 50’s Waist”) so I realize this dress of mine as well as Grace Kelly’s dress were part of a mid-50’s trend for juniors and women alike.  It is not the most likeable style but it is memorable – especially when it has the name of Grace Kelly behind it!  I hope the modern Ms. Kelly – me! – has also been able to put a new and lovely twist on an old style.  Deep down I must be a princess at heart.

Please visit this Instagram post on my account to see my attempt at reproducing the old original McCall’s pattern book cover for the “Vintage Cover Challenge”!  Close enough to be convincing?

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5 thoughts on “Ms. Kelly’s Dress

    • Thank you, Lynn! I don’t normally have occasions to dress up this much, but I loved FINALLY having one! Here’s hoping you happen to have an opportunity to dress up fall in your lap, too!

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