Mermaid Out of Water

Following up on the heels of my last post, a 1954 qipao, here’s another Mandarin dress inspired by the 1930s era from the modern designer Andrew Gn.  “From the Paris catwalk directly to my wardrobe” thanks to Burda Style, this is home sewing at par with the designer world.

This is much more elegant than my first qipao, definitely meant for evening wear with its train.  The fabrics are much nicer and higher quality, too, than the printed cotton of the last qipao.  It’s also much more sensual and body-conscious, just like the original mine was inspired by – Nicole Kidman’s “Charity Ball” gown from the 2008 movie “Australia”.  It was the year 1939, and Lady Sarah Ashley was auctioning off herself (to dance with, I must clarify) to benefit the Missions for children, the “Forgotten Australians” as they are known, so she definitely dressed the part for that evening to win a large bid.  This is my third (and probably my last for this year) submission to the Unfinished Seamstress’ “Sewing the Scene” Challenge.

This evening dress is my very first mermaid shaped garment, and I am head over heels for what this does to my curves.  Why have I not worn something like this before?  Where has a mermaid gown been all my life?  Whatever – I have one now that I am very happy with…in fact I hate having to take it off once it’s on, especially as the first layer against my skin is lovely silk!

For more about the culture, history, and meaning to a qipao dress, please visit my previous post.  This one is admittedly designer, so it is linked more to the fashion scene than a pure culture garment.  In fact, the designer Tony Ward now appears to be knocking off Andrew Gn’s Burda release with some of the neckline on the gowns in his Spring/Summer 2018 collection (see Look #33 of his Couture garments, and see this look from his ready-to-wear)!  However, the Singapore-born Andrew Gn does have the privilege right to make a fashion qipao more than Tony Ward, and besides Gn did it first with his Fall 2017 Ready-To-Wear collection.  The designer Andrew Gn, as described in the Burda magazine, is a cosmopolitan designer who is heavily influenced by art and antiques.  He respects the worth of a good vintage item and finds creative expression universal.  Personally, he is ¼ Japanese and ¾ Chinese, but studied at London, New York, and Milan before opening under his own label in 1996 after being an assistant in Emanuel Ungaro’s atelier in Paris for just a year.  Ungaro is one of my modern designer icons, so it comes as no surprise to me that I like the work of his pupil Gn!  Traditional meets modern, and East merges with the West under Andrew Gn.

The pattern for this dress is only to be found in the monthly magazine issue and unfortunately not online to buy and download at all.   This edition of the magazine (February 2018) is totally worth buying, though – this is the best Burda month I have seen in a long time, there are so many patterns that are unique, lovely, and attractive.  Besides, nowadays how often do we get a copy to make for ourselves of what is seen is the catwalk?  This outfit counts as my August make to the “Burda Challenge 2018” for which I pledged a garment a month.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a combo of both polyester crinkle chiffon and rayon challis for the dress and true vintage all silk crepe for the under slip

PATTERN:  Burda Style #123 Gown, from the February 2018 magazine for the dress (see it on the runway here) and a vintage year 1942 pattern, Simplicity #4352, used once before, for the slip

NOTIONS:  All I really needed to make this set was really thread – lots of it – and some little scraps of interfacing for the Mandarin collar.  The neckline buttons are modern and were also on hand along with the scrap 6 inches of thread elastic.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress itself took about 15 hours while the slip took maybe 6 hours.  Both were completed on August 20, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  Clean due to the serged (overlocked) seams on both pieces – there were too many very long princess seams between the slip and the dress to do the insides as a French finish!

TOTAL COST:  The vintage silk was part of a trade at a local shop, and the dress’ fabrics came from my local JoAnn’s fabric store, maybe about $60 for 6 yards. 

Coming directly from a designer, I sort of find it oddly ironic that I became my own designer for this dress and slightly adapted the armscye to mirror my inspiration dress from the “Australia” movie.  Of course, looking at the original dress and its line drawing, you can see I left out the sleeves.  I do love them, and would love to make a winter velvet version of this dress just so I can see this design with those sleeves, but they did not fit in with my ideal of a visually obvious “Australia” movie copy, or even just a Mandarin dress for the summer.  It was a very easy adaptation.  I redrew the pattern tissue so that the center front and the center back panels’ curving seam kept going up to graze the outer end of the shoulder line.  The effect is like a pared down cap sleeve all-in-one with the dress. I also dipped the bottom of the armscye under the arm to be lower and more open, ending in a V-shape for both beauty and full movement.  Besides, the sleeve change, I shortened the front third of the hem to the dress so that the hem would graze the top of my feet with heels on.  I left the back and side hem original length.

Now, as for any Burda Style pattern, printing and/or tracing is necessary to have a usable pattern to lay on your desired fabric.  My pattern was traced from the inserts in the magazine issue, and most Burda Style Designer patterns are only in the magazines, but most other patterns are available online as a downloaded PDF that needs to be printed out and assembled together.  What works best for me is to use a roll of thin, see-through medical paper to trace my pieces out.  It’s at this preliminary step that you pick out your proper size.  Some people add in your choice of seam allowance width directly to the pattern while some as they are cutting out the fabric pieces.  A scissor with a magnetic ruler guide helps immensely to quicken along the step to getting a finished pattern prepped.  Sorry to repeat something you might already know, but this is just an “FYI” for those that don’t.

I did find the sizing for this dress to be spot on, very exact.  I made my ‘normal’ size that I choose with Burda patterns, based off of their measurement chart and this finished out perfect for my body.  Granted there is a good amount of shifty give in the dress between the fine crinkled chiffon and random bias.  This is part of the reason I get by with leaving out any closures (except for the neckline, of course).  Yes – there are no zippers, hooks, or anything to the waist of both the dress and slip.  This is a pop-over the head outfit.  I didn’t want a zipper to awkwardly pucker or bubble the fabric out, and with lowering the cut of the neckline by a few extra inches, the dress goes on me just fine with all seams sewn up.  An all silk slip is smooth and slippery, like a weightless second skin, and it has similar seaming so it slides on easily as well with no closure either.

As wonderful as this turned out, it was almost the project that was never made due to the unexpected amount of material needed. Be prepared to have lots and lots of yardage on hand in order to make this dress because I soon realized this is a total fabric hog of a project.  I rather disregarded the instructions in disbelief when they called for 6 whopping yards of fabric, in 60” selvedge width. Really?!  The pattern pieces were very skinny (and very curvy, I must add, for a proper mermaid fit).  The bottom flared out very wide though.  The pattern segments were also unmanageably long as they are all one-piece princess seams from neckline to hem.  I felt that ‘surely if the pieces are staggered, and laid out oppositely I can make the dress work’ out of the 4 yards of chiffon I had on hand.  Four yards is really the most of any fabric I have on hand or generally buy.  There is only one other fabric in my stash that is a cut of 6 yards, and it is a winter brocade saved for a fabric hog 1950s dress pattern.

I really wanted to use this butterfly print as there was something about it that I felt needed to be an Asian influenced, 1930s inspired garment for evening elegance.  I don’t know how that approbation works in my head but some fabrics just naturally get designated to certain patterns without much of a though, like the two are meant to be together.  This time, there was no seeming way to make things work.  Four yards of fabric is only enough for three pattern pieces.  The dress has four pattern pieces in total, so I needed more for one last piece.

My husband is the one that saved this project by finding the exact same print, at the exact same JoAnn’s store where the first fabric was bought, only this time it was in an all rayon challis.  As long as it was the same print I had something to work with…thank goodness for JoAnn’s repeating a print design!  As the rayon would be heavier and also opaque compared to the chiffon. The most obvious pattern piece to designate this for was the two center back panels.

This way the train is weighted down nicely and the sheer effect is tamed by having the front the primary focus while the back is only simple lines without the slip being seen there to distract.  Also the back panels are the longest piece out of the four with the train – the biggest fabric hog.  The hemline is a full almost 10 inches longer than floor length on my 5’ 3” frame.  Two yards was just enough of a cut from the rayon for the center back panel, that’s how long it is!  As it turned out, I am glad to have used two fabrics for this dress.  How often does something like this happen, though – the same print in two different materials?  I love the feeling of how the train floats and flows behind me as I walk if I let it down (see a short video here on my Instagram).  If I hold it up it looks like I have wings, like a butterfly myself, or like a mermaid tail.  However, I wouldn’t have a mermaid tail out of water now would I?!

A little bit of the rayon form of my dress’ butterfly print also went to the Mandarin collar.  I was planning on laying cotton between the sheer to make the collar opaque and not see-through before I realized I had to use the rayon.  This made my work easier.  I doubled up on the interfacing and ironed it to the wrong side of both the outer and inner collars.  This way at least something holds the dress together because the rest of it certainly isn’t going the help.

I realize that most the dresses with this wide open, almond shaped neckline which dips down to Timbuktu do not have anything but skin (and cleavage) showing.  I do not care for how blatantly this sensualizes such a style of dress too much for my taste.  This is an opportunity to make a superior quality slip in a contrast color to fill in that void in the front.  The sweetheart neckline is one of the most universally popular and flattering, and a visible slip is a more discreet yet still tantalizing detail, so I prefer such a gown worn this way, not just because it is like the movie original.  It is really much more wearable this way anyway.

My basic everyday vintage slip pattern got the deluxe makeover here!  The way I made it first using basic rayon challis has it my go-to wardrobe basic.  There was no guesswork sewing this up as I had done it once before and made notes of my grading add-ons, but I took more time on the small details.  First, I added 12 more inches to the hem of last time to end up with an ankle length slip. Then, I hand stitched the self-fabric bias facing down by hand.  Skinny self-fabric bias spaghetti straps are over my shoulders.  I don’t have many long gowns to match but I’m hoping to get good use out of this slip.  After all, I did splurge and use true vintage fabric.  I am not one to use that fact as a reason to completely save this garment – no, I want to totally enjoy it, so maybe this would make a good nightgown too, if I want to wear it but have nowhere to go.

My accessories were carefully curated to make sure this was an outfit all about me – my take on a runway trend, my personal skills to make what else I needed, and some old favorites from on hand to compliment.  Following the trend of Andrew Gn’s Fall 2017 collection where the models mostly wore tassel earrings, I found mine at a local shop, handmade in three layers of gradient colors from out of my butterfly print.  My hair decoration is made by me, with three plastic flower heads attached to a hair comb with floral wire and floral tape.  My florist’s training came in handy here and I am so happy and proud at how this turned out.  My shoes are “Lola” peep toe strap heels from Chelsea Crew, the same as what I wore her for my Grace Kelly dress copy.  My bracelet is actually a hair scrunchie from when I was little, but it always used to pull my hair out so it’s always served me better as a bracelet.

This was a bit of a hard project to handle, as dreamy as it is to wear.  Between the struggle to find enough fabric for the dress, the “sacrifice” of multiple yards of vintage fabric, and all the large scraps which were leftover from the making of this outfit, it was almost painful.  I am very thrifty (as much as can be expected) with my sewing, making use of every scrap, getting only fabric that I have an idea for, and squeezing patterns on cuts too small for an easy layout.  Not too often am I liberal with my sewing, but extravagance is just that – an indulgence, a surrendering of practicality for the ideal of beauty, the effort towards a creative reality.  This is closer to how couture works, or at least designer productions, as well.

The outlook, the artistic vision is priority along the creative process, and then the special someone who gets to wear the finished product, and the resulting feelings upon wearing, are then the pride and crowning glory after the last of the finishing touches have been made.  This is a designer dress, after all, and I’m using my best vintage fabric to complete it as a ‘copy’ of something from Hollywood, inspired by the decadence of the era of elegance itself – the 1930s.  Why was I expecting something sensible here?!  Sometimes making (and wearing) the extravagance of what exactly you want, what you feel great in is intoxicatingly enjoyable.  I am sensible enough to not do this all that often, but with this dress it is so nice deep down.  Can I use the excuse that my birthday is in August?  I may just have to find as many excuses to wear this as I possibly can, too.

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An Emerald Mid-1930’s Vionnet Gown

With Prom season upon us, I’d like to post about a quick and easy but awesomely elegant gown to make from the genius of history’s famous designer Madeleine Vionnet.  I love finding patterns that look the opposite of the amount of difficulty they present in the making process.  If you’ve got a handful of hours, a super fancy buckle, and several yards of nice fabric with a formal event to attend, then this pattern could be for you!  It’s the epitome of 1930’s glamour yet passes as fully modern.

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THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% polyester crepe back satin (I wish I could have used silk, but one can only spend so much dough for fabric…*sigh*)vionnet book covers - from iocolor

NOTIONS:  Just thread and bias tape were the only notions I needed, besides the buckle.

PATTERN:  Pattern #12: “Planes and Gussets”, page 84, of “Madeleine Vionnet” book by Betty Kirke (book covers image from here)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Only four hours!  It was made on the evening of December 4, 2015, with about an hour more to place and sew on the buckle and finish the ties.

100_6801-compTHE INSIDES:  All bias bound, except for the bottom hem which is on the bias and left raw with some fray check to keep the edge in check.

TOTAL COST:  the crepe-back satin was a Hancock Fabrics “Beautiful Fine Fabric” special – I bought it on sale for about $20.  The buckle was bought at an antique/vintage re-sale shop for about $35.

This Vionnet gown makes me feel so amazing and elegant, like some movie star of the silver screen of olden times.  Words to describe it would just seem tacky.  The bias moving with you and flowing around you is a lovely feeling.  Every lady deserves a good bias dress.  I have heard some women mention that only certain figures can pull off a bias dress, but I disagree.  First, women of the 1930’s were generally slender (it was the Depression) but they did wear foundational undergarments which helped with shaping.  Shaping underneath or not, nevertheless when the bias is cut well with a good design it will do a body good!  After all, I have never yet found any RTW (ready-to-wear) frock which accomplishes the bias correctly like when you find a really good pattern and make it yourself.

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Although I absolutely love it, I cannot figure out an anomaly about this gown.  The original dress which is on display online at the MET museum lists this design of evening gown as dating to 1936-1937.  However, the Betty Kirke book from which the pattern came from lists this dress as 1935.  Alright – who’s right?  Which year is this dress?  Also, between knowing what I know about fashion history and what I’ve read, the gown is both behind its time and ahead at the same moment.  The early 1930’s had a fad for the “half-naked-from-the-waist-up” styles of evening gown, then by about 1933 the styles became slightly more decent by following the fad for higher necks and shoulders covered with ruffles or poufy sleeves (discussed here at “Witness2Fashion” under “The Letty Lynton Dress” and “Very Bare Backs, 1930’s”, also see my past-made mid-30’s evening gown).  This emerald Vionnet gown has a taste of both contrasting styles.

So, I’m slightly confused but still impressed that Vionnet’s design of this post’s featured dress is from the mid-1930’s, but it goes with the Depression era perfectly when women’s clothes were excessively extravagant and richly elegant – the opposite of the (then) current economic circumstances.  Simple ornamentation is the ‘normal’ key to such clothes…the gown itself is amazing interest enough… but Vionnet’s gown calls for a unique closure to be a focus point!  How daring, but it works.  Another common feature to similar 30’s gowns are the extremely low backs and hemlines – achieving this with Vionnet’s evening gown was hard and a tad tricky.  I’ll explain further down.

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The patterns in the book are small sized with no specifications as to what percent to grade up to for full size.  I went through a copy store’s services to have them scan in, plot out, enlarge, and print my patterns since this was my first time making a pattern from this book.  The only “bench mark” I went by to know how much to enlarge was for me to pick one spot on the garment for which I could say how long it should be, and figure the rest of the garment should follow grading up properly from there.  For instance, I realized for this pattern that the length of the front rectangles, from the top of the neckline to what should be the side waist, should be about the length of my collar bone to my waist (adding in some extra inches for error).  This measurement was a define spot to realize how much to grade the book’s pattern up to…probably not the best way but wasn’t the worst either, just so as long as it worked.

As far as I could tell the pattern is made for Japanese sizes 9 AR (US/Canadian sizes 8, U.K. size 10, and European size 38).  This would make it for bust 34” (86 cm.), waist 26” (66 cm.), hip 37 (94 cm.).  I don’t remember where I read this but it seems accurate, maybe slightly smaller.  I am very close to this size so I didn’t make any changes to the fit because bias cut is a bit forgiving.

100_6776a-compAs it turned out, I could have made some small changes/adjustments to the fit, but this is just really the perfectionist in me wanting everything just right…a carbon copy of Vionnet.  Part of me wishes I had made my gown just a tad longer so it sweeps the floor like a true 30’s gown, but that’s impractical for me so my dress is just below ankle length.  Also the dip in the back where the ties make a “U” turn around the inserts could have been made a little wider for a sharper curve.  My back curve to the dress is more like a “U” that got bent open and I think only the upper tops of the inserts could be lengthened for a look more like the original Vionnet dress.  Pick, pick, pick – it’s what I do.  My dress is fine and the pattern is really easy…a tad hard to adjust.

The pattern for this evening gown is awesomely simple and so awkwardly large.  Except for 100_6593a-compthe little parallelogram-shaped piece which completes the back dip, the dress is made of one huge shape.  I really don’t know how someone who doesn’t have ample floor space or a gigantic table can cut this dress out.  We have large open floor spaces at our home but even still it was maxed out to lay out 3 yards of 60 inch fabric in a single layer.  This also had to be done when no one was around to walk in the house but me!  As you can also see in my picture, I let the natural end of the fabric’s width dictate the seam where the dress would have a panel joined in to complete the dress.  I did not follow the “joining line” on the pattern, as I wanted minimal seams (the dress seems to have been accommodating for the 35 inch or 45 inch fabric widths normal for those times).

I believe the key to this dress being a success is 1.) the necessity of making the neck high and back low and 2.) the placement of the buckle.  Firstly, the back dip needs to be low, low…like right at or above the waist because if not, the bias will not spread out over the bum properly.  The neck needs to be high (close to the collarbone) for the back dip to be in the right place but also because it keeps the front in proportion, especially when it comes to adding the buckle which brings the dress in.

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Thus, secondly, I found from looking at the original garment from Vionnet at the MET and experimenting with the placement on my own dress that the buckle has to be at a “sweet spot” on the body to reach the intended shape, drape, and look.  There is a triangular space above your belly button that is between your ribcage just about big enough for the palm of my hand to cover.  When the dress neckline comes to reach or go just under your collarbone (where it needs to hit), THIS SPOT between the ribcage and above the waist is where the buckle should go on the dress.  Why am I so strong on this?  I have seen plots of Vionnet’s garments where it proves how her clothes where designed with the composition of the natural lines of the body and its muscles in mind so it makes sense to me for her to pull the dress in at the same place where your body is “pulled in”…not where it pivots.  Also, when the buckle is placed in that “sweet spot” the dress naturally flares out over both the bust and the waist/hips, creating the illusion of a small middle and at a more proper waistline, too.  Conventional dressing knows nothing of the power of working with the body, and most people (including me) get so wrapped up in the only spots we focus on – waist, hips, bust, and maybe shoulders or other points, too.  The comfort spot of “the waist” is different on everyone, but the buckle’s “sweet spot” is the same on everyone, and a very strong point in the body as it is…a good place to hang the dress.DSC_0584a-comp

The ‘leaping gazelle across the pastoral scene’ on the original buckle is so beautiful and also very appropriately classic to the 1920’s and 1930’s.  An image widely used on anything and everything to home and eating pieces to fashion (see my very own Elgin Compact, at right) and ornamental purposes, the leaping gazelle is an Art Deco carryover from the peaceful Art Nouveau era.  The 1930’s 100_6803a-compideal enjoyed reliving the Grecian past, through flowing, body-conscious dressing, and no one expressed this better than Vionnet, so the carved ivory buckle on the original gown could not be any more perfect.  My own buckle, however, takes on the more uber-fancy and bling-loving side of the Art Deco era though it does have some swirling to the design.  My buckle reminds me of costume jewelry with all its gems and details but it is some sort of fine metal (sterling silver, maybe) because it polished up nicely, even though the gems are probably fake.  I also pinned another authentic vintage 1920’s or 1930’s pin to keep my back straps in place at the back of my neck.100_6755a-comp

We went back to the proper time period and location where a dress like this would have been worn for our photo shoot location – the Chase Park Plaza.  This hotel in downtown was newly completed in 1931 “as an opulent Art Deco masterpiece despite the Great Depression.”  Many famous people have walked the Chase Park Plaza’s hallways and stayed under their roof, and with Art deco splendor around every corner need I say why I felt even snazzier modeling my fancy evening gown?!