Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Refurbishing Saga: Or, How I Turned a Day Dress Into a Ball Gown

This is the story of a dress that started out with a career by day and ended up working the evening shift, a dress that was plain-Jane (as in Jane Eyre, as she was one of the style inspirations) and became Cinderella-at-the-ball.  As in, literally at a ball, because I wore it to a Victorian Christmas dance hosted by a local Civil War reenactment group.  (It was a blast, to use a very un-Victorian turn of phrase.)

And today I'm here to tell you how it happened, just in case you're interested in refurbishing a dress of your own.  I've always thought it a very old-fashioned, bookish thing to be restyling a dress to serve a new purpose-- very Little Women-esque.  So when my sisters and I were invited to this ball and I started thinking about what I wanted to wear, this dress popped into my head and I couldn't resist seeing what could be done with it.  (Last year we attended the ball as well, and I wore this outfit, but though it was fun and festive and fit nicely, it was difficult to dance in as the blouse kept coming untucked.  Heh.  So this year I wanted a one-piece dress.)

I started by examining the original dress and deciding what needed to go and what could stay.  The first main element that I needed to get rid of was the sleeves-- they're decidedly 1850's-full, and long for daytime wear.  What I wanted was an 1860's evening dress, so off came the sleeves.  I love my seam ripper.

With the sleeves off, the next step was to bind the raw edges to prevent fraying later.  I used a zigzag stitch on the sewing machine.  A handsewn whipstitch would be much more period appropriate, but ya know what, I live in the 21st century and no one's going to see the bound edges.  I went for the machine.

The original armscyes in this dress were much too big on me-- this was actually only the second Victorian dress I ever made, and I was still figuring that stuff out.  (The original dress was loosely based on Simplicity #2887... I say "loosely" because I eliminated most of the trim and the collar, replaced the princess-seamed front with a regular waistline and gathered skirt, and changed the sleeves entirely.  So basically the bodice was the same.  Sort of.)  Anyway, I took the armscyes in slightly and then trimmed the top of the armholes to create less of an off-the-shoulder slope where the sleeves attached.  (Didn't get a picture of that step, though, sorry.)

Then I took a ballpoint pen because I hadn't bothered to invest in chalk or a fabric pen *cough* and marked where I wanted the new neckline to fall.  Ignore the random flower pin stuck into Mademoiselle's patient and unresisting fabric-skin.  ...Actually, don't ignore it because I want to give these pins a shout-out.  They were a birthday present from Melody last year and I absolutely adore them-- SO much better than standard straight pins.  If you drop one, the flower head makes them much easier to see in the carpet, and they're longer than standard pins so you can cover more territory on long seams.

Neckline cut! Yiiiiiiikes.  Past the point of no return and all that.  Now it's time to bind it off.  I considered making my own bias strips to bind the raw edges, but I didn't have enough leftover fabric and it would have taken forever. So I simply basted the two edges together (there's a full lining inside the bodice, btw-- forgot to mention that) and...

...finished it all off with cream-colored lace bound around on both sides.  Simple and effective.  Plus it looks cute.  If I do this again I won't cut the neckline quite so wide, though.  It wasn't too low, per se, but it ended up gapping a little more than I'd anticipated.  I ended up wearing a 21st-century camisole under it at the ball for modesty's sake, heh.  In the future I'd probably take some small darts at the sides of the neckline to create a more square shape and allow it to lie flat along my collarbone.

Sleeve time!  I didn't get rid of the sleeves I removed, of course-- just saved them for later. I measured how long I wanted my sleeves to be and then cut that much out of the original sleeves, making them just a tad narrower than the previous ones.  Enough space to gather the tops, but not quite so much fullness as I'd had before.

The skirt, though not needing any adjustments to make the change from day dress to evening gown, was looking a bit plain, so I decided to add a strip of lace trim near the bottom to dress it up a little.  I just ironed the skirt, pinned the lace in place and sewed a really long running stitch along the top side and bottom side to keep it on while listening to  the A Tale of Two Cities soundtrack. (Highly recommended.  James Barbour's voice is the stuff dreams are made of.)

Then I took a long piece of 4" wide lace, pleated it, pinned it in place over the neckline and sewed it down by hand.  I don't have a picture of the process, unfortunately, but here's how it looked when it was done.  Now the dress is starting to look, well, dressy!

A close-up of the neckline.  I considered binding the edges again with ribbon or something, but discovered I didn't have anything that matched or complemented the color, so I just left it as it was.  

Close-up of the newly trimmed hemline.

Finally, I cut out cuffs for the sleeves, gathered the bottom of the sleeves to the cuffs, gathered the tops of the sleeves and inserted them in the armscyes and the dress was done!  I'd experimented a little with adding more lace to the cuffs of the sleeves, a la The Young Victoria, but it ended up looking silly so I got rid of it. :P

It's still not a truly authentic 1860's evening gown, being cotton print instead of solid silk, satin or taffeta, but I was very pleased with how it turned out-- and it served me well through the Gothic Reel and the Soldier's Joy and all those other delightful dances.  All in all, I'd call this project a success. :D

What have you been sewing lately?


Diana Wilder said...

That seems to work very well, especially if you imagine yourself in the straitened circumstances of the member of a family making sacrifices during the Civil War. Well done and most entertaining!

Naomi Bennet said...

This is beautiful! I love the lace top especially. You look so 'real' in it. Very good job! I could never have done it. :-)

Melody said...

Yay YOU! And you gave my pins a shout-out, hahaha. How nice. ;)

Anyway, this turned out really well. Seems a bit of a shame you won't have your other dress anymore, though. Well I guess you can't have both. Haha.

Awdur said...

Wow, that looks beautiful! That's cool that you were able to just readjust it without any pattern at all… I'd like to be able to do that one day. :)
I just finished making the B5371 clincher corset pattern and a lined flannel cloak that I'm wearing to a medieval mystery party at the end of the month. I'm very on-again-off-again with sewing; I sew several big projects (or start them and leave them… heh) and then don't touch the machine for months. :)

Bethany said...

I love doing things like this, and yours turned out beautifully! What fun it must have been to wear!

Aibhilin (Evelyn) said...

WOW! Well done Amy!

Elizabeth Anne D. said...

Lovely job! I think the sewing talent skipped one daughter in my family with me, but I still love seeing how other people make costumes. (-: I do hope you do more posts like this in the future.

Abi said...

Oh, wow! Thats BEAUTIFUL! Well done!

Anonymous said...

Amazing and inspirational! Thank you for sharing this. :)


Jessica said...

You looked very pretty! Good job. :-)