further thoughts on a slow wedding dress

Our wedding was on 1st August, and by early February this year, I had some sense of what I wanted the overall shape of my dress to be. I bought this pattern from Etsy (it came all the way from Las Vegas!):

McCall's 7081: a vintage 1963 evening gown dress patternMcCall’s 7081 is a 1963 cocktail dress pattern, and I chose it because of the unusual bust seam lines and boat neck on the front bodice, and the v-neck on the back. The only size I could find was a bust 34, and I spent the next few months working on muslins, trying to refine the fit for my slightly smaller bust, and much narrower back. I invested in a dress form (something I’d wanted for a long time – this project was the excuse I needed!), and with Hanna’s help, adjusted it and added padding around the bust to approximate my dimensions. Although this bodice looks uncomplicated (its sleek simplicity was what had most appealed to me), the front curved seams proved deceptively tricky to alter, and in the end I left them alone, and achieved a better fit by, essentially, removing fabric at the side and back centre seams.

This was the first time I had incorporated muslins into a dressmaking project, and this part of the process was certainly slow, and at times frustrating. It goes without saying that for such a project as this, muslins were entirely necessary, and I would never have cut into costly silk without being fairly sure about the final result. In the end though, I did enjoy this particularly slow stage of the project – rather like when honing a long piece of writing, the repeated, careful revising  eventually left me with a sense of satisfaction and pride, in knowing that I had produced a thing well-crafted.

By late June, I hadn’t yet decided how one or more pieces of the antique lace would be incorporated. I knew that the lace was definitely going to be part of the skirt, and on the back of the skirt (a full-length circle skirt), where it would be most striking. I can’t remember exactly when it was that I finally chose to use just one piece: a tambour net flounce, over 3 metres long, dating from the 1880s, which is coincidentally the same decade in which the church where we were married was built.

IMG_1843I think many people would be shocked that I was still making some quite crucial decisions about my dress with just over a month to go until our wedding day. The timescales prescribed by the wedding industry are often terrifyingly long – it’s not unusual to make practical arrangements and lay down substantial deposits years ahead, and in my experience of others’ weddings, dresses are sourced months, if not also years, in advance. Hanna and I often talk about the disturbing aspects of contemporary wedding culture, in which people are lead to believe that their wedding has to be a day on which everything is ‘perfect’. Women in particular are put under the pressure of ‘perfection’, and not least when it comes to wedding dresses – as the world of bridal magazines would have it, it’s acceptable to spend thousands of pounds on your ‘dream’ wedding dress, a garment which will be worn only once (and is probably made entirely from synthetic fibres, in a factory in China – but that’s a post for another day…).

So in a context in which brides-to-be are expected to plan every little detail of ‘their’ day very far in advance, my wedding dress was in many ways last-minute. As I said in my last post, some people were clearly surprised and concerned that my dress wasn’t finished when I mentioned I was working on it in July. The dress was completed three days before our wedding, without any rush – just the satisfying pleasure of a project thoroughly executed, in the finest of materials (and without an eye-watering price tag). I was delighted with the finished dress, but much of my joy in wearing it came from the slow experience of making it, and the memories of that experience.DSC_0258IMG_2140

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Refashioning a bridesmaid’s dress: 1981-2015

If you are thinking how unfortunate 80s wedding dresses were, remember that this was ten days after Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married - it could have been so much worse!
August 1981. L-R: my uncle Derek, my dad, my mum, my mum’s friend Sheila, and my godmother, Marge.

At my parents’ wedding in August 1981, the dresses worn by my mother and her two bridesmaids were handmade (to the same pattern) by my mother’s friend Marge, the bridesmaid on the right in the photo above. When I was born, a few years later, Marge became my godmother, and she’s always been family to me. She’s also been a great inspiration to my crafting, because as long as I’ve known her she has been highly skilled at making: she can do expert patchwork, embroidery, knitting, crochet, and dressmaking, and makes beautiful things for herself and for her lucky friends and relatives.

When I was a child, Marge was the one person I knew who did serious dressmaking and she introduced me to the idea that by making your own clothes, you could present yourself exactly how you wanted to. Of course, it took me quite a long time to work out how I did want to present myself, and to realise that making and refashioning were the key to a thoughtful and emotionally satisfying relationship with my own style, but Marge helped me start that journey by patiently making clothes for me when I was a teenager, even sending garments back and forth across the Atlantic for fitting! On a trip to London when I was 15, she let me pick out fabrics in Liberty, and then made them into a tiered skirt in the boho style that was all the rage around the millennium; a garment I adored at the time, and still wear.

is it just me or was the print quality on Liberty fabric much better fifteen years ago?
handmade Liberty boho skirt, c.2000

In 2011, I visited Marge at her home in Vermont, and we had a lot of fun rifling through her amazing collection of vintage and handmade things. One of the items she pulled out from a trunk was the silver bridesmaid’s dress she had made in 1981. I can’t remember now if I asked or if she offered, but I came away with that dress, and an idea in my head for exactly what I would do with it. I knew that Lucy would get married one day, and I loved the thought of refashioning the dress Marge had made with such care for her best friend’s wedding into something I could wear when my own best friend (and number one collaborator in all crafting endeavours) walked down the aisle.

Lucy got married in August this year, and so the dress’s fate was to be remade this summer. After an extensive process of inspiration gathering on Pinterest, I bought a gorgeous 1986 vintage Vogue pattern on Etsy.

Original bridesmaid's dress and Vogue pattern 8671
The original dress on me, and the 1980s Vogue pattern. Yes, I should have ironed the dress before taking this picture.

Like Lucy, I learned to embrace the slow pace and careful attention that are required for sewing with silk. For the first time ever, I made a muslin, though I then discovered that correcting fit issues is rather tricky on a dress which has neither side seams nor centre back seam! Being inexpert at fitting, I caused myself problems later by taking out too much length on the shoulder straps at the muslin stage: I had to sew them into the bodice with a tiny ¼” seam allowance, and you can imagine my consternation when, sitting nervously in church during the wedding ceremony, I looked down and found that a corner of the strap had escaped from the seam altogether!

Apart from the pressure of having limited fabric and a very real and important deadline, I enjoyed making this dress, particularly where it involved learning new techniques – like using silk organza as interlining (finally I understand why Gertie does that so often!) and making bound buttonholes. It was also a pleasure to wear; the silk is of a very pleasing character, closely woven and drapey, but not too fluid – like a very fine cotton lawn but with that characteristic silk-y hand which feels so gorgeous fluttering round one’s knees in a full skirt.

The slow process of its making gave me plenty of time to mull over the new connections the dress was creating between some of the dearest and most important people in my life: my mother, my godmother, my best friend. As Lucy and I were sharing the experience of couture-style sewing for the first time, and living the excitement of the run-up to her wedding, I thought about my mother and Marge as they made their dresses back in 1981; I wondered how they had found sewing with the same silk I had in my hands, and what the run-up to that wedding had been like. Refashioning felt like having a conversation across time – and it also led to some conversations in the present, about which hopefully I’ll share more in another post.

For now, here’s the finished dress. These photos were taken recently – there are hardly any from the wedding itself, when I was too busy having fun! If you do want to see some pictures of the day and its myriad delightful handmade touches, I suggest you pop over to Instagram and browse the #clerkenwed hashtag.

Refashioned grey silk 1980s bridesmaid dress.