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!
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 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.