Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Gay Event's Pièce de Résistance - The Ball Gown

 "Shall we dance?  On a bright cloud of music, shall we fly?  Shall we dance?!"  This magical song from the musical The King and I, would waltz about in my head as I made the ball gown for Gay Event.  I could envision Deborrah Kerr as Anna Leonowens flying across the room while her pink-golden gown swished and swirled, and seemed to lift her off her tiny feet and float in a whirl.  This was how I would picture, or attempt a near impossible gown.  One that floats on a doll.  One whose illustrator never touched a pattern or a sewing machine.  A gown to complete the collection I began of The Wonderful Fashion Doll.  One that looked like the illustration.

In the book, this was the last gown Debby tried on Gay Event.  "But oh! the ball gown!  White shiny satin - off the shoulder and trimmed with small bunches of field flowers.  The skirt was caught up on one side showing a rose-colored underskirt.  The white satin slippers, the kid gloves, and the fan were perfect."

Having earned a confidence in sewing with silk, I must have felt a twinge of bravado when I purchased one yard of Italian silk chiffon (at 54").  I knew it would float, and (Debby's) satin was out of the question.  This was Gay Event's ball gown.  It had to be scrumptious.  Untold hours were spent studying this illustration while designing the pattern pieces.  If the skirt had truly been "caught up", it would not have been drawn as smoothly as this skirt's was.  I gave myself time to think about it as I attempted the bodice and sleeves.   And, the rose colored underskirt.

While I actually created most of the accessories first, fully knowing I'd be spent by the time the gown was done, let us begin with the "rose colored underskirt".

I used a tissue weight silk for the underskirt.  Understanding that women would wear all their undergarments beneath a ball gown, I chose the lightest weight possible to keep the layers from "thickening" Gay Event's waistline.  My first attempt was with a rectangle of silk that I would apply the netted lace to in layers, and gather at the waist in a waistband.  This did not work.  It would not lay nicely as in the illustration.  I would have to order more pink netted lace from China for Plan B, and this took three weeks to arrive.  Plan B was a circle skirt with the pattern laid on the fold.  This this was the correct choice.  It gave volume, big volume to the hemline while allowing a smooth line from waist to hips.  Four rows of gently gathered netting lace were applied.  Talk about work!

I took on the sleeves next.  These sleeves can only be described in two ways.  Little Nightmare's on Elm Street, or cream puffs.  They are a bit of both.  I must have worked on the design for them for over a week with no less than seven tries.   One of the things I had trouble with was figuring out how to keep them puffed out, or rather pushed out, since there is nothing to cinch them to the arm like a band.  To me they resembled Chinese lanterns and I considered, and tried, using silk covered wire sewn into them, then shaped.  This method complicated things as you couldn't turn them inside out once the side seam had been sewn.  There was also this cap extension from where the ruched sleeves would fall.  I honestly can't go into every noodle process I went through in designing them, but it suddenly occurred to me that the arm pads I'd made with her undergarments, would do the trick in keeping them extended.  How grateful I was for having made them. 

I'd spent some time on Pinterest researching 1830's dresses and gowns, and also undergarments.  The seamstresses would make huge stuffed arm pads to attach to corsets to keep the huge sleeves puffed out.  How they got them stuffed into the sleeves, I cannot say, but I'm guessing they were stuffed with down.  This would keep them very pliable.  To the left is an example of undergarments worn to accentuate the sleeves.  I'd gone online to view Anna Leonowens' ball gown and found that it had been up for auction.  The dress looked sad and miserable because the sleeves drooped down.  Its so interesting what you can find online!

The bodice was also made several times.  I'd never done draping across the bust before and the shoulders were near non-existent.  I'd never made an off the shoulder ball gown, nor with complicated cream puff sleeves.  Again the details of putting these pieces together was very much a problem solving jigsaw puzzle, and I had to hand sew both the bodice and the sleeves into it.  With delicate silk chiffon, this was the only way.   The bodice is lined with a Swiss pima batiste.  The thinnest cotton you can find. This batiste is also used for most of my doll dress linings.  Expensive, but worth it.

Now it was time to design the skirt.  You'd think I'd have had enough sense to know that it needed to be a circle skirt, same as the underskirt, but I forged ahead to make the same mistake I did with the underskirt.  A rectangle gathered.  I was really puzzling over the opening as I mentioned earlier.  Trying to take the easy way out because nothing had been second nature with this gown.  But, let's talk about silk chiffon for a few minutes.

I do most of my fabric shopping online with Farmhouse Fabrics in South Carolina.  Their service is superb and their selection is great.  There is silk chiffon, and then there is Italian silk chiffon.  I couldn't tell you the difference, but I would imagine that it has to do with the fineness of the weave.  The Italian was $44 a yard (so I assumed the quality would be finer) when I purchased it, and on sale for $30 a yard when I bought a second yard just in case I "oopsed" again.  Never having worked with this very slippery fabric, I went online to see how other seamstresses cut and sewed with it.  The best tip I discovered was laying a piece of tissue paper under the chiffon, then pinning the pattern through the three layers.  This stabilizes the fabric.  Also, if you have something on a fold, pin one half, cut it out, flip the pattern over, and repeat the process.  The bottom silk layer will shift on you if you don't.  Also, it helps to sew the garment with tissue paper between the feed dog and the fabric.  Of course you have to tear it away once the stitches are in, but it will save your noggen some bald spots from frustration.  When you hem it, the easiest way is to make a quarter inch turn, try to press it with an iron, though it won't hold, stitch that, then fold over and do it again. 

Since the ball gown's skirt was a circle pattern, and with a wedge cut out of it, I lined it with the batiste, which also solved the issue of hemming.  After ruining the first one, I decided to do a mock up in a stained vintage cotton remnant.  I needed more width at the waist, and due to the drape of the skirt, I needed to figure out the best length.  (This was also when I phoned up Farmhouse Fabrics to inquire as to which chiffon I'd ordered a couple of months ago, and order the second yard.  They are so helpful, and quick!) The waist needed a bit more width for a few tucks.  Carefully placed tucks helped the point of the V opening to lay smoothly against the underskirt, and give it a bit more body to the skirt than an A-line.

I'd also puzzled over the accents and trims.  My brain told me the ruffled trim should be gold, but the beauty and color balance of the illustration called for yellow gathered ribbon.  Oh yes.  I bought gold silk ribbon in three widths.  I have more ribbon than I know what to do with.  But, I had a huge roll of double-sided silk ribbon left over from Lettie Lane's concert dress, and this proved to be the right choice since I ran a gather stitch, by machine, through the middle of 168 inches of it.  I'd also bought regular yellow silk ribbon, which shredded when I tried to do this by hand.  My thought with the regular silk ribbon was weight.  However, the silk-satin was stable and still light enough not to weigh the chiffon edges down. I hand stitched the twisting, ruched ribbon to the hemline.  Two little bands of this gathered ribbon also float atop the cream puff sleeves.

As I mentioned earlier, I'd worked on the accessories first.  I love making accessories and they helped keep me excited about the project.  Hard to make out in the photos, but there is an "ostrich" feather plume, a brilliant pink flower, and a small spray of yellow field flowers that were to be hair combs.  There are no tiny hair combs.  And any that you find will either not poke into a wig, or will destroy it.  After trial and error, I made hair pins from snipped down...hair pins.  They have that nice plastic bulb on the ends of them.  Just one stem did the trick, and the feathers and flowers were wrapped to the hair pins with silk ribbon and hat glue.  The feathers I used are egret feathers I found down by the lake while hiking my dogs.  They're just lovely, and the perfect size. 

I often referred to the "contents of the trunk" while creating these accessories.  The flowers all began as "hat flowers", and I often trimmed them down, hand made leaves for them, and enhanced their colors with alcohol markers.  It was tempting to create each item shown in the "contents of the trunk", but some of the pieces weren't shown with the costumes.  I also contemplated making wall paper boxes, but did not feel the need to.  Yet, anyway.  Gay Event's wardrobe is stored in a lovely large Boneka trunk.

Gay Event wore earrings with this gown.  My "made over" Wendy Lawton doll does not have pierced ears, so I had to improvise.  I used 14k gold plated jewelry stems with loops on the ends to create them.  I dangled a doubled-pink Swarovski pair of beads and gold spacer beads to the loops with fine jewelry wire.  The stem slips up beneath the wig and behind the ears.  Gypsies wore scarves with hoops on them to simulate earrings, so why not use this method for Gay Event?

Her necklace is made from pearl beads and velvet flowers.  These are not your forget-me-nots, but all velvet flowers.  Lovely little pieces.  I pulled them from the stems, and sewed a gold bead through the centers while "beading" the necklace.  I made my own hook and loop from fine, thin jewelry wire.  The rosette on the bust of her gown is a "field flower" of paper.  I think it would have been a marigold, but perfect for the look.

And, the fan.  I'd purchase two celluloid fans to cover with silk and opted out of both.  They just weren't going to do the trick.  Stickler to the illustrations that I am, I hand made her fan as well.  I'd made a smaller version similar to this for Bleuette once, and covered it with the purple flower print lawn that Chiffonette's summer dress is made from.  I'd done it before (long ago), I could do it again. 

Gay Event's fan did not seem to have a lot of detail in the illustration.  It did not appear to be one that folded up.  So I made it to most resemble the one Laura Bannon drew.  Except that I painted the dove smaller.  I tried painting it the size she did, but it looked...well...ridiculous.  This was an elegant ball gown needing a fine, and fancy fan to accessorize it.  The fan screen is silk. 

Since I'd earlier done some hand painting on silk with Gay Event's Walking Costume, I was going to use the same line of paint I used prior - Tulip Soft Matte.  However it did not come in gold.  Why did I want gold?  Well, the illustration seems to be in gray.  Or maybe silver if you use your imagination, and it didn't go well with the bright elegance of the gown.  I tried to mix paints to get a gold color, but failed.  So I mixed gold metallic acrylic paint with white Tulip paint and the results were fabulous.  I was so pleased that I couldn't wait to share this with you.  The trim on the fan is not tiny feathers, but sheered rabbit fur.  I know.  Doesn't sound correct, but the results look like sweet fluffy feathers.  The ribbon is a copper gold silk, 1.5" wide. 

I know this journal post is long, but please stay with me.  A lot went into this set, and at the end of this, Gay Event's story is done.

Let's get back to the description of  the gown being "trimmed with small bunches of field flowers".  As I studied the illustration of these field flowers attached to the dress, I puzzled over the amount of them and how they stood up at angles.  I don't believe this would occur if you hand picked flowers from the field and pinned them to your ball gown.  For one thing they'd droop.  Another is that they would fall out of the pins and scatter on the floor.  Its that logical mind of mine that stays up for hours at night figuring these things out.  If they were silk flowers, the same thing in a different way would occur.  They'd fall over from their weight.

So I hand made three sets of flowers in purple-blue, bright pink and yellow-gold.  The center bunch has one larger leaf added for more color and balance. 

Still, I labored over how to attach them until the final last stitch was put in the silk ribbon hem trim.  I had a Dawn Doll costume in bad shape, on a Jessica that I wanted just the head for.  I noticed that the flowers in the center of the gown could be removed and used for another time.  So I did.  What I discovered was that the stems had been curled in a spiral and laid flat against the backs of the flowers.  Bingo!  So this is what I did for my bunches of field flowers.  I wrapped their stems in green silk ribbon and hat glue, then formed the spirals and let them dry.  They easily attached to the gown with some simple stitches.

I guess I always save the shoes for last, but these slippers were made early on while awaiting the extra pink netting lace.  They are silk slip-ons with silk-satin rosettes.  Like the riding habit boots, I adhered fabric (silk) to leather to create them.  There was an illustration of the shoes in the book, and they were created from it.  I'd also made her a pair of evening gloves, which were perhaps the easiest accessory of the collection.

Not one of these outfits made for Gay Event was easy.  I worked so very hard on each and every one of them...and learned a lot.  Acquired new tricks.  Was able to study undergarments and gowns from a by-gone age.  I almost wish the story would continue, but she only had four garments (including her undergarments), and the story of The Wonderful Fashion Doll comes to an end.  While Debby and her mother, Uncle Nate and neighbor, Butch, sat around the table in the farmhouse admiring Gay Event in her ball gown by a sugar bowl, Debby had made a rhyme and hooked her little finger out to make a wish on the rhyme.  Her wish would have to be kept a secret or it wouldn't come true.

"I couldn't tell my wish to them, of course, for that was not in the rules.  But I wished I would always have the wonderful fashion doll for as long as I live."  And, I will.

Attached below are the costumes, in order, from The Wonderful Fashion Doll.  I hope you've enjoyed the journey with me.

Miss E. Mouse



  1. Melissa, This is the most beautiful and detailed outfit ever, the fabrics all sound so luscious! I read every bit of your painstaking task with this ballgown...your fingers must be very nimble! Thank you for sharing in such detail all of your hard work. It's absolutely stunning!!!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Thank you, Lori. I appreciate your gracious comments.