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.

White Poppy

The Poppy is one of the most widely used symbolic flower around the world.  The blood red poppy flower is often (and rightly so) associated symbolically with a remembrance for those gone out of this life, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War.  However, the pure white form of the same poppy flower has a very lovely meaning in the Asian culture.  Chinese flower experts recommend the Poppy for couples because it means a deep and passionate love between two people, but white Poppies are tied to death in those cultures, too.  Even still, poppies are also seen as a cheerful plant to have in a garden due to its large size and available variety of cheerful colors.  One flower can mean love, happiness, loss, sleep, or death all at the same time.  It sounds like a summary of life.

Here is something symbolical, combined with a garment already so very symbolical – the qipao.  This is a Mandarin-derived word for a one-piece garment for women which has evolved itself rapidly in the last 100 years, even surviving being outlawed (when communism rose in China circa 1949).  Many fashion details have been added or taken off them, many fabrics from either end of the price rage have been used for them, and they have changed fit to suit each era and feminine ideal, but a qipao – a derivative of traditional menswear – has nevertheless persisted in being a statement for the freedom and knowledge available to the modern woman.   Although it originated in Shanghai of the 1920s, it was emerged in full force circa 1950s in Hong Kong, after that, as that country was a British colony at that time, it became a strong part of Western Europe and American fashion through the 1960s.  It is this tumultuous, transitional history that I would like to highlight and honor with my modern vintage Mandarin dress.

My coral pinkish-orange color is as bright as a cheerful paper lantern or the flashy electronic street advertisements of Hong Kong.  My satin edging is as black as the poppy seeds which have caused so much fighting and human misery through the ages of the opium trade.  The printed poppies, thanks to a full body lining, are as snowy as a classic bride’s dress.  A qipao was deserves much more respect than to be whipped up without a thought behind the details.  This one of mine strikes me as sending a bold, cheerful, yet peaceful message, faintly touched by sadness.

Now, I am by no means in any position to explain the qipao (sometimes informally called a cheongsam in Hong Kong).  It is not my culture and there is so much symbolism, meaning, and national beauty to this garment that I could never know it all nor explain as well as others.  Yet, I am wearing it not to ignorantly continue to Europeanize or secularize it, as was done especially in the 1950s, but to learn more of what I do not know, and interpret what I do know of the qipao in my own way to add to the respect of the garment.  The more we know about others from around the world, the more I would expect it should bring a greater compassion and understanding of humanity (yet this is sadly not always the case).  We are all going through life together be it our neighbor next door or one on the other side of the globe.  Today more than ever – with all of our means of communication and social networks available – we are able to connect and learn about each other.  Let us take advantage of that to be well-informed and thoughtful to others.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  printed quilting cotton lined in solid white cotton broadcloth

PATTERN:  Simplicity #8244, a re-issue of a year 1954 design originally Simplicity #1018

NOTIONS:  I had to go out and buy the knot closures as I was finishing the dress, but everything else was on hand – interfacing, thread, zipper, and black satin binding – only because I have been wanting to make this dress for the last few years.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  After about 10 to 15 hours, my qipao was finished on May 29, 2018

I have been wanting to make this for far too long, and it is a relief to be finally able to wear it.  You see, for some reason, I had expected this to be difficult looking at the design.  Perhaps it was the fact that the one shoulder where the neckline closes and opens is sewn on as a separate panel.  Sometimes when you add pieces like that it’s easy to cut them out of the wrong side of the fabric or find it fiddly to match if the connecting points are not clearly marked on the pattern.  However, it was much easier to make once I thought the construction out and just dove into it.  The most time consuming parts are actually making all those fish eye darts that give this dress its amazing wiggle shape, and doing the hand stitching on the frog closures along the neckline.  I guess making my own satin bias tape was a bit time consuming too, but I enjoy that step so much more than sewing darts or closures!

I found the sizing to be pretty good – maybe even a tad roomy.  For my dress, I did go up a half size just in case it ran small.  The finished garments measurements told me I probably would have been fine following the size chart to choose sizes.  However, I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry because you can always take a dress in just a tad but when you need extra inches…that can be a problem.  I get so used to working with true vintage patterns that I am actually unsure of the re-printed re-issues because you never really know how it’s been ‘modernized’.  In the end, I left my dress a bit roomy because I don’t want the horizontal body wrinkles show up as the tell-tale sign when something is just too tight.  I know this is a wiggle dress and all, but it still has such good shaping that it can be a comfy dress and still show off one’s silhouette!

There is one small tweak I did to the pattern to incredibly simplify the construction and save the print of the fabric.  It makes all the difference in the world.  I eliminated the full center back seam and cut the back on the fold instead.  Yes, I did lose some of the curving and shaping to the dress, but that was remedied in another way.  You see, to cut the center back on the fold, only the bottom half – from the high hips to the hem – was actually straight enough to line up.  The waist and above curved in too much.  Thus, my solution was to I mark the curving I was going to be missing with a disappearing ink pen and stitch in smaller that difference as a dart.  This way there is a seam that only extends to the waist in the back, and the rest of the print is not disturbed.  I find a small dart a lot less bulky than a full seam, and quicker to make anyway!

Other than this dramatic seam adaptation, there are several fine-tunings I made to end up with a dress I was finally happy with!  As I fully lined my dress, I buried the interfacing in between the two fabric layers.  As I was bias binding the edges, I left out the facings along the neckline and sleeve hems.  I also left out the facings for the side slits to the skirt portion, and merely turned the edges under and stitched like a regular hem.  The overall length ran long, and the pattern called for a wide hem, but I liked the elegance of the longer length so I did a tiny hem instead.  The back bodice poofed out as if for a hunched back woman, so I trimmed the back neckline lower by 1 ½ inches to easily smooth the excess out.  Other than these little modifications, I really did leave the general dress design as-is!  I’m especially proud of the clean and hard-to-find hand-picked side zipper.

To complement my dress, I added some dangling hair flowers (which actually rather remind me of half of a pair of Hana kanzashi – sorry!), my summer fancy patent wedge heels, vintage gloves, my Grandma’s vintage drop pearl earrings, and a fun thrift store find of a handmade slatted wood purse.  My lipstick is a classic Revlon color, true to the year 1953 called “Cherries in the Snow”.  It seems that heels, a hair updo, and little white gloves are rather classic to wear with a 1950’s era qipao, so I suppose I am sticking with the safe and predictable outfit pairings here.

‘Classically’ paired together or not, this is still a standout dress, I think, and I rather like it like that…not to draw attention to me or my clothing, necessarily, but because a qipao to my understanding is a form of art, a message with fabric, a cultural beauty.  This is what I miss the most about being an American – most other countries have a garment, a way with fabric, which offers a special cultural outlet for native personal expression.  If I want to honor my country’s past by a garment, I tend to make historical clothes for attending a living history event or participating in a re-enactment.  In other countries, there is a dirndl, a qipao, a kimono, a sari or a kurta, and an ushanka hat to name just a few of the most well-known examples of wearable culture.  However, just wearing one of these items is not respect enough without awareness behind it.  “Knowledge is power” is a phrase degraded because it is too often thrown out today, but when it comes to cultural garments, this is so very important.  Is there a culture other than your own that you particularly appreciate and enjoy?