I Am the Present

I have had enough of an overly commercialized, gift-focused, money-grabbing kind of holiday.  I am craving a peaceful, reverent, family-focused Christmas where my physical presence is enough of a present to bring wherever I go for whatever space I inhabit.  I will wrap myself up or just deck myself out in bows, if need be, to show just how serious I am about this intention.  Yet, true to myself, I have found a fashionable way – using a designer pattern – to make myself look like a walking holiday present for every party, function, or social event we are called to attend this holiday.  Who really “needs” excess ‘stuff’ just for the sake of gifting, after all, when we all could use intangible gifts such as a great conversation, a shared meal, a gesture of kindness, or a fun activity that will leave fantastic memories to enjoy on for years to come?!  Let me be the present…I can come dressed the part!

Sometimes the best gifts are not only intangible but also the ones you don’t ask for or don’t even see coming.  For me, diving into the world of the 1980s designer Patrick Kelly was a good as receiving a gift.  My post back in October this year on the designer Patrick Kelly was not for nothing – neither was it a “once and done” experiment.  That first Patrick Kelly dress, where I channeled his unmistakable use of buttons, fed my fangirl-type of fascination over his life and work in a way that left me wanting.  I only found myself driven to read more about anything and everything related to him, sew more of his designs, and publicaly share more love for Patrick Kelly. 

After being quite sick Covid this summer, catching the joy that radiates from exploring his life and his works had given me energy to sew again, renewing my creative spark and excitement for fashion…just what I was needing.  Thus, I saw it fitting to change up my earlier plans for the annual “Designin’ December” sewing challenge into something that would be dedicated to Patrick Kelly.   Linda at the blog “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!” is again running this fantastic contest.  I want to use this challenge to help him be appreciated and understood by those who see my interpretations of his creations and read my posts on them.  Although my enthusiasm for Patrick Kelly will not be waning anytime soon, he is my designer of 2022. 

I am celebrating the gift of Patrick Kelly’s too short but nonetheless amazing life by having him as my chosen designer to imitate for the “Designin’ December” challenge.  Not only about discovering people’s favorite designers, the challenge however is meant to encourage sewists to discover their inner talents to make their own version of a name brand garment at an accessible and affordable way.  I loved creating and subsequently wearing this dress merely because of Patrick Kelly’s legacy, yet didn’t mind the added benefit that my garment was such a deal.  Original Patrick Kelly dresses are sold solely second-hand since the brand officially lasted for a few years and ended when he died on New Year’s Day in 1990.  They are rarer than other designer brands and often priced over $1,000!  I even splurged on the top-of-the-line velvet to make sure my dress was on par with 1980s Paris runway standards.  Even still, my dress turned out cheaper and better quality than any nice dress that is remotely comparable at our local department stores.  Thanks to Patrick Kelly, I garner so many compliments wherever I wear this!  Anyone with the name of Kelly has to know what works for another Kelly…me!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a premium quality, matte finish, heavyweight, stretch poly velvet from “Blue Moon Fabrics”

PATTERN:  Vogue #2078, a year 1988 original from my personal sewing stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but thread and 29” of ¼“ wide elastic

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress took me in total about 10 hours to trace the pattern, re-size it, then sew the dress altogether.  It was finished on December 8, 2022.

THE INSIDES:  This velvet does not fray – more on this later – so the inner edges are left raw

TOTAL COST:  The 5” clip-on velvet bows were ordered pre-made separately from “Jojo Boutique Bows” and were an additional $15 on top of the $40 spent for the fabric.  The notions I needed came from on hand already – thus counted as free.  My total cost is about $55. 

The exact design of this Vogue #2078 pattern is part of Patrick Kelly’s “Mississippi in Paris” spring/summer 1988 collection (as can be seen in the beginning of this YouTube video of the runway show).  The flounced dress was made in a bright turquoise jersey knit to complement the rest of the collection which was in assorted bright, fresh, summer solids.  Although dated to 1988, if the design was stripped of its flounces it would make a great base for many of the various open-shouldered dress designs Patrick Kelly offered throughout his career.  He himself reused this style for many other dresses.  A bright red version of my pattern’s design can be seen with only the shoulder flounce in his Fall/Winter 1989–1990 ad campaign (see left picture).  Fully flounce-free versions were gratuitously used in Patrick Kelly’s Spring/Summer 1989 collection where the plainness of the dress design became the backdrop for being covered in buttons, made using a glittery fabric, or embellished with flowers

My dress next to Patrick Kelly’s Fall 1988 collection, photo- Oliviero Toscani, image- Dazed Digital.

At first sight, I gravitated towards the open shouldered wiggle dresses that had their open neckline decorated with bows.  Bows can be overly sweet for adult women and be relegated to children but I love how Patrick Kelly uses bows in way that reinvents them to be classy and feminine for grown up girls.  His 1986 ad in Seventeen magazine has a Jamaican model wearing a bright red dress with small jewel toned satin clip-on bows while his Fall/Winter 1988-1989 collection has another red version with oversized bright yellow bows (seen 9 seconds into the video). 

My favorite version is the one I interpreted for myself – a black velvet open-shoulder sheath dress that has big white bows clustered around the neckline from Fall-Winter 1988-1989 collection.  I did keep one bottom hem flounce (which I will address further on in the post) in a departure from the original inspiration dress.  However, I felt something click when I discovered a closer image of the dress was featured in the December 1988 edition of Vogue magazine (seen at right).  When you can see yourself in the place of a model in a fashion image, wearing the item that she is…that is totally a sign not only is there good advertising but that the garment is meant for you!  I do think Patrick Kelly would approve of my customizing his design to make it suit my taste if that means it gives me that smiling face and sense of joy which he wanted all of his clothes to convey.

There were several prominent designers who, after Patrick’s death, seemed to take their own spin on this particular design – see Victor Costa’s Vogue #2588 sewing pattern and Chanel’s ad in British Vogue magazine, both from November 1990.  Both competitor’s had their designs structured (couture-style interiors) with boning but Patrick Kelly’s version is the leader in my opinion for two immediate reasons.  It was not only first released (1988) but is the easiest to both wear and sew since it is just a closure-free, slip on, stretchy and easy-to-wear dress.  The media jokingly dubbed him “the king of cling”, after all!  He kept his designs avant-garde but also sensible in the way that they were also versatile, with clip on bows and convertible designs.  His ability to marry all of these separate elements into such functional artistry is the genius of his fashions.  Engineering – whether it’s for machinery or for a dress – is best when it is kept simple but that doesn’t mean a design has to be any less creatively assembled. 

The dress was deceptive mix of both easy and challenging to make.  There isn’t much room for error when the dress is so simple.  Any mistake in construction or fitting is easy to see when you have a basic design with a stretch fit that has a specific way of laying on the body.  This is why it is almost ‘easier’ in the end to make strapless designs when there is an inner corset and boning, as Chanel or Victor Costa did.  There is security in over-engineering a strapless or open-shouldered dress, but that does not necessarily equate to joyful freedom of movement.  It is tricky to offer an open-shouldered dress with all the ease of pajamas.  The fun, swishy comfort of a Patrick Kelly gown – stripped down from the harsh confines of couture tailoring – helps me understand why his models always looked so happy dancing and swirling around on the runways. 

I liked to wear my dress slightly over the curve of my shoulder out of preference, yet would have no problem in either fit or appearance of the dress if I did pull the dress down off my shoulders.  I got the overall body fit to be snug enough to pull the fabric in on me but not too tight as to cause wrinkles.  This way the dress does not feel like it is going anywhere on me when I pull the neckline off my shoulders.  The dense quality of the velvet of course helps the situation as does the fact here is a secret elastic casing in the neckline.  Either way, the idea is that there is versatility in this dress, and it is no less staying in place for being unconventional in construction.  This is possibly the quickest designer sewing project yet!

I did have a slight issue with the fit of the sleeves.  There were darts in the top of the sleeve caps on the pattern piece that made me weirdly suspicious from the start.  If this is an off the shoulder design why would there the darts in that spot?  Their presence positioned there meant that the sleeves would curve over the shoulder edge, and yet I sewed it together as it was just in case Patrick Kelly knew what he was doing, after all.  Turns out – I was right…those darts needed to be gone.  I unpicked most of the neckline to trim the darts off the sleeve caps and redo the casing for the elastic.  Oh well – at least I know I have a decent sewist’s intuition even if I didn’t listen to it! 

One way that I needed to trust Patrick Kelly’s original design was when it came to the skirt flounces.  Originally I had planned on not having any skirt flounces and just keeping this a mini length.  When I traced out the pattern onto medical paper (since it needed to be sized up), I added the panel that originally went in between the two skirt flounces to the dress’ main body at the hemline.  Just to be safe, I also added about 3 inches more in hem length.  I quickly realized at the first try-on that a mini length look does not do any favors for my thighs or borderline petite height.  Secondly, I realized that without the flounces, the dress immediately crept up to my panty line with every move I made.  No thanks!  No wonder the hemlines were so snug around the thighs of the models wearing Patrick’s mini dresses – it was to keep them from traveling up the body! 

A hem flounce was needed here to help this dress both compliment my body as well as hang correctly.  I really like the dress all the better for the flounce.  I love the fun it adds to the design.  It is a powerful dose of dopamine to swish the flounce just the way the Patrick Kelly models do on the runway presentations of his collections.  It was nothing more than a circle skirt so it is not groundbreaking.  Even still, how the hem flounce looks and the energy it adds to this dress is everything.  Patrick Kelly wanted every woman to feel beautiful in his designs, and energy and body positivity I had wearing my version of his 1988 design did not disappoint.

The velvet is so nice – it doesn’t fray or roll – I left the hem raw!

The velvet I used needs its own write up, though.  It literally is the most fantastic velvet I have ever worked with.  Not to brag but I have tried just about all varieties that are out there – silk velvet, crushed panne, poly velvet, cotton velveteen, and rayon velvet.  This Blue Moon premium matte velvet did not shed at all.  It is a miracle, especially since I seem allergic to velvet fuzz!  There was maybe some slight shedding on my scissor after cutting out a whole dress but that is it.  I am in awe. The feel of this velvet may even be better than my silk velvet and it has the most amazing combination of dense stretch with a perfect mid-weight loftiness.  I especially noticed that wearing my dress in the winter cold temperatures did not create any static cling, as every other poly velvet does.  The inside of a super soft knit while the plush side has a lovely low shine that prevents it from looking cheap even though it is a steal at $16 per yard.  Do pick up some for yourself and try it.  If you have never worked with velvet before or have had some bad experiences with it, I highly doubt you will be disappointed with this premium matte finish velvet.  This is not a sponsored positive review.  It is just an honest sharing of an opinion from a happy customer.

Last but not least are the decorative bows that transform this dress from plain to packing a punch.  I knew I didn’t want the bows to be permanently in lace but clip-on, just as Patrick Kelly often did for ornamentation.  This gives a versatility that is unmatched.  For example, through most of the party I wore my dress to, I had one single bow to keep things low-key, but after the party…out from my purse came the rest of the bows so I could sport the full look!  I ordered several more extra bows than what was needed to decorate the front from shoulder to shoulder (only 5 bows).  Maybe in the future I can dye the rest of the bows different colors in for another variance to my dress!  I did notice that the original model has bows that are crisp as if made of a taffeta or wedding satin.  Nevertheless, I went with my personal preference to choose velvet bows because I not only wanted an overall unanimous fiber theme but I wanted a softer edge.  I gave myself a big break by ordering the bows pre-made.  My time – especially around the holidays – is precious and in limited supply so I was thrilled to find these bows which were just what I needed and in great quality at an awesome price.  They are about 5 inches wide which seems to be about the proper size to remotely match my inspiration image. 

I hope this post puts you in the proper festive mood!  After seeing so many bows in my pictures maybe you are just thinking of Christmas morning presents, though.  I think the bows make this the perfect little black dress for the holiday.  This also is the most I have worn bows since I was probably 8 years old!  Just wait until you see the rest of the Patrick Kelly creations I have in line to show up on this blog in the next few months.  I have a fabulous mini collection that I am so thrilled about because it will help me continue the cause of spreading love for and awareness of Patrick Kelly, the American designer in Paris.

Remember to be the present with your presence.  Take time to appreciate those around you, those you care for, and all those who you meet!  This can be a wonderful time of cheer and happiness for many, but it also can be a very challenging time of loneliness and pain or others, so your presence can truly be the best present of all to those of whom no physical gift can help their situation.  Have the best of Holidays from my household to yours!  I wish you a healthy, safe, contended day with all the blessings which can come your way.  It’s hard to believe that in one more week it will be 2023!

Kelly’s Button Bonanza

A ground level view of my version of a Patrick Kelly dress…

Anyone who shares my name of Kelly is of course going to immediately pique my curiosity.  I have already channeled the royal actress Grace Kelly a few times (both here and here), so it was high time to dive into the history of another famous namesake.  Patrick Kelly has already been a designer I have greatly respected, admired, and been interested in.  Then, press for the current costume exhibit “Runway of Love”, presenting his life and designs, has recently brought him anew into my thoughts.  However, it was also my desire to do something worthwhile with an old dress of mine that ultimately drove me deeper in a renewed understanding of just how deserved is the renown given to Patrick Kelly. 

In his honor, I gravitated towards Patrick Kelly’s penchant for using a plethora of buttons to up-cycle a ready-to-wear black knit dress that has been sitting in my wardrobe, unloved and unworn for over a decade.  One way to understand someone is to actively put yourself in their place.  I tried to do that (in a lesser degree) by working with over 100 varied buttons to find a taste of Patrick Kelly’s joy and creativity, as well as comprehend his talent.  The resulting “new-and-improved” little black dress is my own interpretation of his vision, nevertheless, not a copy of anything Patrick Kelly made.

It’s raining down buttons on the designer Patrick Kelly in this picture!

Patrick Kelly was born on September 24, 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  As a black man growing up in the Southern states of America, he fought through his life’s setbacks, his surrounding society’s prejudices, and the partiality practiced in the fashion design world.  Eventually, he made his way to Paris with the help of his friendship with the supermodel Pat Cleveland.  In 1988, he became the 1st American inducted to the “Chambre Syndicale”, a prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry that determines which fashion design houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses.  Most people know the names of other members to the Syndicale – Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy to list just a few.  However, as an American myself, I am painfully aware of the fact that Patrick Kelly is not as collectively well-known as his fellow designer counterparts, so I am personally doing something here to help make up for that!  I love that he succeeded by being determined and dedicated to his creative vision.  It is commendable how he stayed true to himself and his simple upbringing at the same time, not changing for the sake of climbing that ladder of fame.  Patrick Kelly had a uniquely joyous personality that shines through to his exuberant designs.  He epitomizes the garish fashions of the 1980s, but in the best way possible because he was celebrating his roots, the beauty of all women, and the happiness of living.  He died young at age 35 on New Year’s Day 1990.    

Fall-Winter 1986-1987, Patrick Kelly collection, from “Runway of Love” exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco

Patrick Kelly helps me see what it means “to sew” in a whole new light.  He personally was not skilled at garment construction, and struggled with a sewing machine to the point that he threw his appliance out his apartment window in frustration one day.  Yet, from a young age, Kelly’s aunt instilled in him the basic hand sewing skills he needed to mend, repair, and provide basic garment upkeep.  His Grandma, who helped raise him after his father died, inspired him by the way she would always replace his missing shirt buttons with mismatched, multicolored buttons from her notions box.  He never forgot to appreciate his childhood memories.  After moving to Atlanta, Georgia through the 1970s to attend fashion design school, Kelly supported himself by working at an AMVETS thrift shop.  He soon began selling his first creations which were vintage and secondhand garments from the store that he upcycled, refashioned, or added decorative notions (found lost on the floors at the thrift shop) to transform into something uniquely one-of-a-kind.  

1986 – Patrick Kelly, sleeveless black knit dress with button bustier

Why is it that the sewing culture of today acts as if this practice of re-working existing items is merely an on-trend thing to do for thriftiness, personal enjoyment, or social consciousness?  Why isn’t it expressly clear to the general mainstream public that such a practice reached the level of official French couture only 40 years ago and therefore deserves a higher level of regard than it currently has?!  This isn’t even addressing the fact that you don’t even need a machine or anything other than basic mending skills to do a Patrick Kelly dress, thus challenging the very ideas of sewing stereotypes.  Yes, sewing is more than just a skill, he has shown how it is also self-confidence, perseverance, ingenuity, and (most importantly) joy in the process.

Thus, to create his preliminary ‘brand’ image in the 80’s, Patrick Kelly utilized what he could do, what inspired him, and what was immediately available to create something amazing.  Using knit tube dresses as his canvas blanks, he worked with something that is so commonplace – buttons – people can all immediately relate to his designs more than most other pieces from couture houses.  Yet, at the same time he elevated buttons on garments into an awe inspiring art form.  Such a technique may look simple to replicate, but like most really good garments, there is a highly challenging level of execution hiding under the guise of effortlessness.  I can vouch for this truth, just from the small scale button project that I attempted for myself!

To start with, my dress is more complicated than the seamless knit tubes that Patrick Kelly would work with, so I had to be adaptive enough to make my button placement different.  Every time I attempt to imitate something that has been made by a designer, my version has to be my own twist out of respect to the unique genius of each one of us.  I am not convinced by the “imitation is a form of flattery” phrase and rather prefer to believe that tapping into one’s individuality is the best tribute.  The design lines to my dress prevented the possibility of any buttons being added across the entire dress body, as many Patrick Kelly designs have.  Thus, I internalized my inner artist to feel out a way to display the buttons on my dress in a way that makes my own imaginative statement…but more on that later.  Right now, let’s dive into the how to sew on 130 individual buttons, and not the why!

My dress has a basic bodice, which joins to a wiggle skirt, pleated in at the high waistline.  It is a comfy piece that still fit me perfectly (and had pockets, too) so I felt it was worth saving.  Just the very fact I was looking for something to do with my black dress, immediately led me to think of Patrick Kelly…and there was a mixed mega bag of assorted buttons at my local fabric store which has been calling to me like a siren’s call ever since I noticed it there.  Yes, I felt bad that I was buying a new bag of buttons when there are so many large canning jars full of various vintage buttons at all the local thrift and antique stores.  I felt guilty that I was not approaching this refashion the way Patrick Kelly would have.  However, none of the button jars I came across were a colorful enough assortment for my creative vision.   

A close-up to the front neckline of my dress. See how I changed up the ways of sewing down a button?

To channel the spirit of Patrick Kelly’s works, it is important to go big and bold, choosing the brightest shades to create a true statement piece. Thus, I chose to buy two “Big Bag of Buttons” packs from “Favorite Findings”, which has an assorted mix of sizes, opacity, finish, and colors to offer.  I chose the color way that struck me as an almost neon blend of a lime green, sunshine yellow, hot pink, fresh orange, and a bright blue.  To have this burst of lively color pop off of a dark inky black background reminds me of the way Patrick Kelly wanted to be someone who could make people smile through their troubles.  He once said “There’s so much sadness in the world. And if you can stick a button on something or funny hat, I’m the one for you. I hope when they (people) think about me, they think of being happy.”    

I can’t get enough of the beautiful array of buttons I added on my dress!

Finding and choosing just one layout to settle on for decorating my dress with the plethora of buttons was an agonizing process.  I had so many different ideas I wanted to commit to, at this rate I could do plenty more Patrick Kelly inspired button dresses of my own!  Anyways, once I settled upon one idea, I laid out as many buttons as I could the way I wanted them, traced around them with tailors chalk, an then moved them out onto the floor next to my dress in the exact same lay out.  Sounds easy, right?  Not really.  It is easy to get confused when trying to match what is on the floor back onto my dress.  I took lots of quick phone pictures to help me remember the button placement along the way and sew in a way close to my original idea.  The whole process was so time consuming, needing complete mental focus. 

I quickly discovered that I had to sew one button on at a time.  At first I thought I could interlace the buttons to make the process smoother.  However, I quickly realized I had to tie each one off separately because the fabric is a knit, thus needing to stretch unconfined in between all the buttons.  Trying to remember to keep the spacing and the layout, see the chalk marks that faded with every touch, and figure out placement in between sewing every button was exhausting.  Then, keeping the entire household away from the area of the floor where I was working was stressful…if anyone kicked the buttons around, I was ruined.  This dress has definitely been the top craziest thing I have done amongst my sewing projects.  I am really curious how Patrick Kelly dresses’ insides look because I wonder if he had a better way to do this, or had some quick trick that I haven’t thought of.  Slowly seeing the design come together with every button group I sewed on was the only saving grace that gave me both hope and patience to finish this project idea. 

The buttons on the front and back skirt took me a total of 8 hours to sew onto the dress, while the neckline buttons took me almost 4 hours, for an overall total of almost 13 hours.  Whew!  This is what I was talking about when I said (above) that it may look like these kind of dresses are easy, but it’s a real eye opener to try one out for yourself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “There is more than meets the eye” are some adages that can apply perfectly to a Patrick Kelly dress, even if only talking about a paltry imitation by a home sewist like myself! 

As interesting as this dress was to refashion, it is also very interesting to wear.  Having that many buttons, even if only lightweight plastic, really does add substantial weight to the dress.  Each button pack was almost 4 ounces alone, and I used two packs.  That is half of a pound in added button weight!  I am really thankful that my base dress’ knit fabric was a thick, stable knit.  I half-heartedly thought to myself, at the outset of this project idea, that the hefty weight of the knit would hold the buttons well, but I did not realize how important having a thicker knit would be until all the buttons were sewn on.  Also, I was surprised to discover that all the knots inside the dress from where I tied off all the buttons can become slightly bothersome the longer the dress is worn.  I now wish I would have tied off the ends from the right side of the dress, under the buttons.  This issue is mostly resolved by wearing a full slip underneath the dress, but it is a point worth noting.  Finally, to hear how the buttons click together and jangle when I wear the dress is entertaining enough to make me chuckle under my breath.  It is almost like a dull chiming music for me to move, sit, or walk in my dress.  This is the most surprising effect, and one that I really enjoy.  In all this dress, has been a project chock full of surprises and curious discoveries.

Patrick Kelly designs – Woman’s Ensemble Coat and Dresses, fall-winter 1986

I wonder if these interesting ‘side effects’ are not unique to my imitation dress but also something shared by a true Patrick Kelly button garment.  Since he often worked with older vintage buttons, many of which are metal or shell, I can imagine that his dresses were even heavier than my plastic button dress.  I expect his button dresses (as he was an official couture house) to not have the harsh knots inside, as mine does…but who knows, though!  The insides of a garment tell its full story, and couture of the past often is relegated to museum collections, thus it is hard to actually be able for a curious sewist like me to discover the details found in the guts at an up-close, personal setting.  I have been looking for pictures online from listings of Patrick Kelly dresses for sale, but not many of his button creations seem to be found for sale, and neither do those listings have images of the inner garment workings.  Some things from the designer world are best left a mystery, after all, I suppose.

The artistic vision behind the placement and color choice of the buttons on my dress is supposed to call to mind the life giving symbiotic relationship of the sun and the rain.  My neckline has the ‘water’ in the blue color that trickles down in drips that fade from green to clear yellow by being touched by the sun.  The rays which stretch out from my bottom left skirt hem corner reach out towards the rain, and filter between the classic colors chosen to represent the sun – orange and yellow – and the pink…like a beautiful early morning sunrise.  Is there anything more enlivening than watching the dawn of a new day touch the wet morning dew? 

My photo location’s wall mural is a tribute to the 1980s culture.  It is has classic mid 80s computer gaming references that only those in the know will recognize.  I love that here is a giant figure of Link, the protagonist of Nintendo‘s video game franchise The Legend of Zelda.  The game dates to 1986, the same year for the Patrick Kelly button dress that were my primary inspiration!  I love how the wall mural brings out the colors in my dress, as well as referencing the way Patrick Kelly was a mixed media artist on the side.  He always began a runway show with a can of paint to spray a quick little artistic message on the back wall.

National Sewing Month (September) may be over now, but I have not yet moved on from the reflections and revelations I had in the spirit of such a dedication.  If speaking about physical project production, September is never really anything different for me because sewing is a part of my life on a regular basis.  However, celebrating such a dedication for the month prompts me to at least think back on what I have made and celebrate my achievements.  Most importantly, however, I like to reconsider the why, the what, and the ideology behind sewing.  In this quest, I have happily discovered a new appreciation for a designer I have known of but never previously thoroughly educated myself on – the great Patrick Kelly.  To me, his life and his triumphs are not just inspirational on their own apart from the fashion world, but they are also the epitome of what sewing is all about.  Please look through the pictures and explore the site links to be found on my “Patrick Kelly” Pinterest page for more on his life and his work!   

Ceiling Paint Splatter

1986 was an interesting year with many definitive events that I am sure anyone who experienced in some degree will not forget.  There was the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the arrival of Hailey’s comet.  There was the Chernobyl accident and the Iran–Contra affair.  There was the debut of both the Oprah Winfrey show as well as the stage musical “Phantom of the Opera”.  Wow, right?! There are recognizable parallels to 1986 recently, between the popularity of a new Top Gun movie (gosh, Tom Cruise has barely aged) and the current Russian aggression (evocative in some ways of the Cold War’s nuclear brinksmanship).  Reminiscing along this vein, I finally bit the bullet and sewed up a crazy print dress tied to that definitive year, using a pattern from a largely unknown designer.  This is one project I have long wanted to make, and I am thrilled over my resulting dress.  It is so enjoyable, cute, and comfortable!

My dress was inspired by another event of 1986, one that was momentous to the entertainment industry – the music video to Lionel Richie’s song “Dancing on the Ceiling”.  Out of all the music videos out there, this is one that I absolutely wish I could go back in time and be a part of.  I am an absolute Lionel Richie fan the way it is, but I even more so adore the energy and craziness to this specific song and its accompanying video.  It reportedly cost somewhere around $400,000 for only 4 days of shooting, making it the most expensive short form music video production at the time.  

The music video was directed by the great Stanley Donen, whose most celebrated works include Hollywood’s classic films such as Singin’ in the Rain, Royal Wedding, and Funny Face.  The director Donen said that Richie actually adapted easier and quicker to the rotating room used in the video than Astaire did while shooting similar scenes in his 1951 film Royal Wedding.  It is an energy release for me to even just listen (but also dance) to when I indeed feel like I need to crawl the ceiling from being so cooped up inside with nothing of great fun to do. 

The combination of colors and crazy prints that the party-goers in the music video are wearing inspired me to gravitate to a multicolored cotton that is a riot of color.  Lionel Richie is the bold color focus while the band and extras are black and white (or silver) tones, so my dress is the general scheme in one package.  To me it is a print inspiring energy and absolute elation, exuding a feeling which seemed so appropriate for a dress inspired by the music video to “Dancing on the Ceiling”.  If you paint on the ceiling, it is bound to splatter, right?  And if you had a party on the ceiling, it would definitely need to be repainted, right?  So goes my fanciful way of thinking. 

Sewing my own garments may be more like creating a dream or interpreting my own art, I suppose, when I realize how imaginative I approach some of my projects, such as this one.  I hope you enjoy this wild throwback dress, and it’s even crazier photo backdrop location – the Museum of Illusions in Chicago, Illinois.  This place had an exhibition which gave me the opportunity to actually live out my dream of dancing on a ceiling, even if it is just an illusion!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton lawn in a Lady McElroy “Artistic Vibrance” multicolored print lined with a bleached cotton muslin

PATTERN:  Butterick #3854, year 1986, a Kathryn Conover pattern from my personal stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  two 7/8” black ball buttons, lots of thread, and two packs of ¼” wide double fold bias tape

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was a 10 hour project and was finished on May 24, 2022

THE INSIDES:  the waistline is bias covered but side seams are left raw

TOTAL COST:  The Lady McElroy fabric alone cost me about $25 and the muslin lining was $5

This 1985 sports set is in a print very similar to my dress’ fabric!

This dress immediately helps me remember that the trippy color craze of the early 90’s was really a result of the late 1980s.  Coming before the age of the internet, it used to take a while for trends to catch up and turn mainstream!  Think of the titular intro screens to the television series Rugrats, which came out in 1991, and you can see the similarities with my dress’ 80’s inspired print.  The cotton lawn was slightly sheer, and being in a white, it needed a lining, for sure.  The bright white bleached muslin I used as lining seems to help the colors in the print pop by brightening the white background.  

I actually toned down some of the bold contrast and overall busyness to this design by switching up a few design details.  I also simplified the already easy-to-made dress.  There is no facing needed or complicated finishing here but only binding along all the entire neckline, which continues into the waistline seam.  For this purpose, I chose a thinner bias edge binding rather than ½” wide as the pattern wanted, as well as using pre-made packaged notions rather than cutting the needed strips myself.  Smaller edging makes the dress more delicate than clunky so that it is like controlled chaos.  I wanted this to be a wildly fun 80’s dress, but didn’t need it to turn into an immediate eyesore. 

This sediment is only another reason I switched to a clean and tailored pleated skirt rather than a mere overall gathered seam.  Especially as I was fully lining the skirt, pleats were necessary anyway to tame any bulk.  I enjoy the kind of math that sewing calls, for and rather enjoyed figuring out the depth and amount of pleats much more than if I would have set in gathers.  I always like to customize at least something from every pattern’s design!  I suppose I’m merely flattering myself to feel as though I improve upon patterns with some of my changes.  Yet, I think such is definitely the case with this design…sorry, Ms. Conover!

Kathryn Conover is the designer listed on this pattern, and she released a good number of dresses through Butterick for several years in the 1980s.  As she has a history of offering her fashionable designs for the last 50 years, it is a shame her name is not more widely recognized.   I can totally relate to her Midwestern practicality and upbringing, being a Midwesterner myself!  Her designing focus was centered on dresses that should “withstand the seasonal vicissitudes of fashion, in fabrics that endure and retain their luster.  However her primary aim,” she insisted in the interview, “is for a woman to put on one of my dresses and feel better about herself.”   Read her full interview in April 1983 with the New York Times (link here, from which comes the previous quotes) to understand the price points, ideology, and status of her brand in the early 1980s. 

She was a dressmaker in a literal sense of the word – no suits, separates, or anything else!  Her love of sewing began as a hobby, but she then worked her way through the University of Minneapolis by collecting clothes from thrift shops, restyling them and selling them. (I have a soft spot for refashions, so she seems like my kind of gal.)  Her own line of clothing was founded sometime in late 70’s, with her first collection immediately gaining the attention of specialty stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Niemen Marcus, and Lord & Taylor.  She sold her ready-to-wear through these stores and others until her line was ended in 1992.  Conover served as design director for the Liz Claiborne dress division from 1991 to 1993, where she introduced some of her collections through Perry Ellis.  She cited overly trendy fads and the liberal use of denim through the decade of the 90’s for a lack of popularity for the kind of dresses that she wanted to offer, what Conover refers to as having ”a strong classic undertone.” 

I respect the way that Conover was unlike many designers who adapted with the changing times.  She stayed true to her own tastes and desires to the point that she was not afraid to stop what she was doing to try something new in her career.  Conover brought back a line of dresses through the company Ronni Nicole for a short period of time in 2007 and the year after.  She began her own bridal consulting in 2003, which morphed into her working as a couture wedding gown creator for “The Knot”.  She is 74 years old this year!

I can’t help but wonder if my interpretation of her pattern is enough on brand to be true to Ms. Conover’s idealology.  I do have a Pinterest board created (see link here) for you to see a sample variety of her work from the 1970s through 90’s.  My dress’s print is no less full of 80’s obnoxiousness than any other Kathryn Conover dresses from that era, as can be seen in my Pinterest board.  The dropped waist is classic style point of the 1980s, when the era bought back modern versions of French heeled shoes and straight-lined flapper dresses, both inspired by the 1920s.  Many of her designs of the mid 80s seemed to integrate a dropped waistline, with or without some curve emphasis.  I think she would be pleased with my replacing the gathers with pleats as she did this for similar designs such as Butterick #3019 (those bows across that open back bodice are simply fantastic).  To complete my outfit, I’m wearing true vintage 80s heels, crafted with real snakeskin toes which have the primary colors plus green on them.  I then paired the dress with my grandmother’s 80s clip-on earrings.  The funny thing is, since I was going full 80s, even the fact I had an unexpectedly crazy curly hair day became a styling point to match.

There are a handful of copies of my dress’ pattern, Butterick #3854, out to be found for sale, and I definitely recommend it if you find yourself remotely interested in this design.  It is so easy to make, with no facings or zipper needed, and is a step-in dress, for ease in dressing.  Two buttons in the front are the simple closure in this double breasted style!  One word of warning – this dress is proportioned for very tall body.  Even if you are of average height, you will need to do the petite alteration as shown on the pattern pieces.  The bodice was the correct length for my 5’ 3” frame.  Even still, the skirt was really long.  I did the petite alteration to the dress and the skirt still came to my ankles, so I had to do a deep hem.  This ended up in my favor because a thick hem nicely, but gently weighed down the skirt (so I didn’t have a Marilyn Monroe moment walking along Downtown Chicago) and keeps the fabric opaque.  The arm opening is comfortably generous and adds to the general loose and breezy classy air of the dress. 

Do not be dismayed if you try this dress out for yourself and discover that it has a roomy ease amount.  If you look at the model image on the cover and the version I made for myself, it is fitted but not snug, tailored but still generous – and that is the beauty of a good design, the trademark of a designer creation.  Not everything has to be skin-tight to look good…that is a modern mentality and inaccurate.  Slip into all the good points about the 1980s.  You may just find, like I did, that a tailored fit on the higher end of wearing ease can be a gloriously exhilarating experience which doesn’t have to mean frumpy.  Rocking the 80’s doesn’t have to mean something gaudy to wear when it is coming from the hands of lesser-known, but no less talented, United States designer Kathryn Conover.     

Conover’s self-named line of clothing might not have lasted all that long yet I am very glad I tried out a taste of it for myself through the hands-on means of a sewing pattern.

Cold Shouldered

An ice queen wouldn’t really feel frigid temperatures, I would assume, so she can dress purely for beauty, aesthetics, and the power of her position, right?  Okay, we have that understood.  It wouldn’t be too assumptive either, would it, for the next step to be automatically suppose that character also has certain affectionless traits of a queen who has the capability to freeze water and produce snow?  Perhaps.  However, Disney’s animated “Frozen” movies both 1 and 2 (2013 and 2019, respectively) counter some of such widely set understandings of such a particular fantasy female character.  Ice queens are almost always given a villainess arc in other related stories and films, yet Disney’s version becomes (dare to say) thawed by love and warmed of heart yet still upholds her powers and magical capabilities.  It’s weird and kind of a disappointing change for me, but hey – Elsa does have some awesome cold-shouldered fashion in common with her fellow more malevolent ice queens, so I can definitely roll with that!

Because I am not really a frosty temperament nor am I tolerant of the cold weather, I am happy to have found a way to make an open shouldered gown warm to wear, vintage styled (of course), and practical all at once for a personal interpretation to an ice queen character.  Of course I needed the proper crown and jewelry to match the part, so I also crafted a crystal crown and ring for my set, too.  This is part two of my newest 2021 blog post series called the “Pandemic Princess”.  Part one can be found here – it is my remake of a dress worn by Anna, the sister of Elsa from “Frozen”, so this is kind of like a sequel post to that one. 

Yet, this princess post’s outfit is inherently different since I do not relate to Elsa (as I discussed at the end of my previous post).  Inspired as well by the old Hans Christian Anderson “Snow Queen” tale, I however, mainly incorporated strong references of my preferred ice queen, one who is just as enthralling as she is scary.  She jumps off alive from the pages of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia…the White Witch called Jadis.  She is a not a true queen of course (those who know the books understand) but she still reigns over her spell of an eternal winter with such an iron hand that there is no Christmas.  She is not a character to ‘like’ necessarily but I find her captivating as appalling in her mystery and importance to the story.  The seven Narnia Chronicles are just about my favorite books ever and the strong character of Jadis has formed my idea of a snow queen.  Disney did do a fantastic job at outfitting actress Tilda Swinton to become a great visual interpretation of the White Witch in the 2005 “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” movie

One of the White Witch’s trademarks is her wearing of fur to symbolize her ruthless brutality to the creatures of Narnia.  A polar bear may be pulling her chariot one day then become a coat the next…ugh.  (See several examples here.)  After all, Jadis did wear as a collar the mane of the great Aslan the day after killing Him.  My outfit gave a further nod to the character of Jadis in a fair and humane way by wearing either my Grandmother’s vintage 50’s era fur coat collar or a cut of white polyester faux fur, leftover from a coat my mom made me as a child.  These added items were my refuge to keep such a dress with an open neckline warm to wear in the cold, anyway.  Such a style is called cold-shouldered for a reason, but it only becomes literal when the wearer is also frigid in personality.  I was doing my best at looking the part of a stern snow queen in many of these pictures, but it is really hard not to smile in an outfit this fantastic.

Both Elsa in “Frozen” as well as Narnia’s Jadis only wear open shoulder dresses.  The White Witch prefers dramatic, heavyweight dresses though while Elsa of “Frozen” sports lightweight, sparkling, elegant finery.  Both queens incorporate elements of the Hans Christian Anderson Snow Queen, who looked “as if (her dress) had been made from millions of star shaped flakes.  She was beautiful as she was graceful.”  (The classic Anderson Snow Queen also has a chariot and is portrayed in images wrapped in furs like the White Witch.)  All of these ladies gravitate to pastel blues, greys, and white tones (with exception of “Frozen Fever”).

Being worn with bare shoulders, I realized early on that my snow queen creation had to be a dress yet still be closer to a coat.  I wanted it out of a warm and sturdy material to channel Jadis, yet something soft and lovely in sheen to incorporate Elsa.  An all-cotton textured chenille which was found in the decorator’s fabric section on clearance at my local JoAnn store was just the ticket.  It has a white, frosty overtone to the dusty blue because of the fluffy nap (similar to a quality velvet).  Yet the substantial ‘hand’ to it, being a decorator material, is perfect to hold up a strapless dress.  You don’t see much of chenille anymore, both in stores and in fashion today, and that’s a shame.  It is lovely fabric that I remember liking a lot back in the 80’s and 90’s as I was growing up.  This flashback gave me an idea of what direction to look for choosing my pattern design.

Off shouldered vintage dresses are almost every time something super fancy, for evening wear, or not remotely utilitarian.  This was not something I wanted for my “Pandemic Princess” collection, as I said in my announcement post.  I need a “pretty princess” dress I can wear anywhere and everywhere, as often as I want!  I remembered how the 80’s and 90’s (cue the tip from the chenille) were so good at attractive avant-garde fashions which took unexpected creative spins on many ‘traditional styles’.  I found a “New York New York, The Collection” Designer pattern, a McCall’s #4442 from 1989, that hit all the right buttons for me.  It is part body fitting coat, part feminine dress, but altogether powerfully asymmetric enough to suit placing myself ‘in the shoes’ of an intense queen character.  Except for my shoulders, I could be covered up in the cold, too, in the ankle length and long sleeves – just like Elsa!

As weird as the pattern pieces for this looked on paper, the making of the dress turned out fantastic!  The fit was spot on, instructions were clear.  My dress is remarkably easy to move in, as well, and comfy.  It has raglan sleeves.  Pleated darts in the front from the neckline down which shape the bust yet open to give ease in the hips.  There are also pleated darts in the back which are sewn in from bottom to waist to give an amazing bloused back but fitted booty.  As proof, just freaking check out that silhouette the dress gives from behind!  There is a tapered skinny skirt and skinny long sleeves.  The front cover did a horrible job at portraying all of these fantastic details, and the back only gives tiny, limited line drawings.  Under the cover of the loosely sketched fashion illustration, it hides a gem inside.

I made a few slight changes to the design.  An asymmetric closure ends in a pleat which opens up into a walking slit (which I moved from being a kick open style in the back).  After all, Elsa’s “Let It Go” song dress has that infamous thigh-high front slit and sensual fit!  As I didn’t want to deal with closing all those buttons nor try to stitch in buttonholes through the thick fabric, I sewed the buttons down permanently to have the front be a mock closing.  They are silver foiled mock crystal squares to nod to the ice queens who inspired me. Then, I added a left side seam closing invisible zipper to compensate for the faux buttons.  Due to a small lack of fabric (buying an end-of-the-bolt on clearance meant I was ½ yard too short for what I needed) the sleeves are indistinguishably two-pieced along the elbow.

As chenille frays like crazy, all seams are finished inside with a double zig-zagged stitch to imitate overlock stitching from a serger, while the bottom hem and sleeves has vintage rayon hem tape in turquoise.  The instructions impressively called for very fine finishing techniques similar to what I see in Vintage Vogue Special Design patterns or modern Vogue designer ones.  I felt the chenille just couldn’t handle French seams or an additional edge binding, though.  I can wear a slip in lieu of lining and the fabric is not scratchy.  It was important to keep such an odd but fantastic dress simple. 

Speaking of simple, when prepping my supplies for the making of this dress I was prepared to tolerate the possibility of adding in an internal structure (boning or horsehair trim) to either the body or neckline of this dress.  I honestly had no idea going into this if it would just end up a nightmare of a project.  Luckily, it was not – only remarkable easy.  This was so different a style, I didn’t know what to anticipate!  I soon found that as long as I properly interfaced the front placket and the wide neckline facing as the pattern recommended, as well as found a snug fit for the waist and below, the dress stays up and in place. 

The pattern called for little shoulder inserts if a full cold-shoulder is not wanted.  I actually cut out these pieces of a skin-toned power mesh and had them ready to sew in, only to try on the dress and love it as-is with a fully bare neck and shoulder line.  The pattern has a wide facing which stabilizes the ‘collar’.  It was a weirdly wonky piece that I cut out of a dark green cotton and ironed heavy interfacing to the wrong side.  As crazy as that piece looked flat on tissue paper, it did the trick.  I adore the way this neckline frames my face and is low-key drama.  Without being snug, the wide neck opening is also not sloppy on my body.  It stay perilously on the curved ends of my shoulders so perfectly.  This is a mysterious wonder of a design. Did I say enough times already that I love this dress?!? 

Unlike the White Witch in the Disney film, my dramatic up-do is ALL my own hair!!!

Mirroring the way ice forms into defined faceted, geometric shapes, I chose natural crystal quartz to make my own crown and ring set to match my outfit.  Sterling silver findings give it that cold shine.  Back when I was at my local craft and hobby store buying the crystals, I was walking around the section for findings when I saw an ad for wire wrapping.  I liked the appearance of that technique and figured it might be a way to attach the quartz stacks to become jewelry.  This was my first try and I know there is vast room for improvement but I am happy my crazy idea was a success. 

I wound the wire in and around one quartz column then wrapped the rest of the frame to become the ring.  The crown’s crystals were wrapped around the center of a necklace wire.  This way I have not only made a crown, but also something I can wear as around the neck to make the most of my time, money, and supplies.  There are screw off nobs at the ends so I can even slide off the crown’s quartz crystals and reuse the necklace if I ever want to.  I’m all about splurging on something as superfluous as crown, but at the same time I’m also incredibly practical, you see.  What carat is the rock I am wearing, I wonder?  To match, my earrings are vintage 1950’s faux diamond pieces from my Grandmother.  My dark beige boots from my White Witch inspired photos are of the 1980’s era from my mom.  

Hey, Olaf! “Do you wanna build a snowman”

All of the ice or snow queen characters are so inherently sad, so I hope my version of such a role is a much happier, brighter spirited one.  A kiss of the Snow Queen blinds the mind’s eye of the little boy Kai – another kiss from her would have killed him.  Jadis only shows a mock kindness to Edmund so that she can later kill him and his siblings.  Elsa finds herself alone internally due to her powers, even after the power of love allows her to physically touch her family and friends.  Most all of us now know the crippling deprivation of seclusion in some manner since the pandemic of 2020 hit. 

As frosty as these queens are, they have now become easier to empathize with through the bitter loss of social contact in today’s society.  This post’s pictures were taken around Christmastime decorations and after a long-awaited snowfall.  Thus, combined with my fantastic new outfit and the company of my immediate family, there was a lot of fun to be had behind the scenes.  This makes for a joyful, novel understanding of the snow queen persona I undertook by creating this outfit.  I hope this shines through to you as you read this post and enjoy the images.  Let’s not turn into snow queens ourselves, but work on finding ways to let love break through the icy solitude and cold seclusion of the world today.

“Even if there is no Narnia, I will continue to live as a Narnian!” -quote from The Silver Chair. We had fun playing out the parts from the stories with our son!