Karl Lagerfeld, late of the House of Chanel, once said, “One is never over-dressed or underdressed with a little black dress.” Amen to that. And amen to my LBD project. It is finally over.
After four muslins of four different dresses, much machinating over which one to choose, I have finally finished one.
Based on my own design, it’s a simple sheath – my favourite silhouette – with neckline darts that extend down to the hem giving it a kind of princess-seam-from-the-neckline look. It has short sleeves which are the only part of the garment that’s lined (the fabric didn’t scream for lining but the next one will be lined as a quality dress should be), a simple neckline to permit all manner of necklaces and scarves, a back vent and an invisible zipper. That’s about it. Simple.
Now that the dress is finished, of course, had to go shopping for some fabric for my next project. While perusing the extraordinary selection at King Textiles on Spadina in Toronto, I naturally stumbled on the perfect fabric for my next LBD. So…it’s not up next, but it’s coming!
And so, my *Little Black Dress project is finally (!) coming to a close. Well, maybe that’s rushing things a bit since I have three really well-fitting muslins for three different dresses all of which would make terrific little black dresses. [I actually did four but eliminated one fairly early on.] And yet, how many classic dresses does one really need? The whole point of the perfect LBD in my view is that it is so versatile it can be dressed up or down, so timeless that it never goes out of style, so comfortable you enjoy wearing it everywhere, and so well-fitting that you need only one. But…well, I’ll start with one.
Before I get to the current process, I just need to mention that my absence from my “atelier” is not because of any loss of interest in creating or writing, rather it’s because I’ve been to Asia. The trip was unimaginably fabulous! There were some style and fabric aspects (I had a custom silk jacket done for me to wear with my LBD and more), but mostly we just visited Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, then Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan. But all of that’s for another blog space entirely. (FYI my husband and I blog about all things travel at www.thediscerningtravelers.com). Anyway, I’m back in the atelier and at the computer, designing, sewing, and writing blogs and books. So, the LBD.
I have decided in a fit of narcissism that I really liked my own design best, at least for the first dress. So, I have gone back to the muslin of LBD #4 to begin the process. Of course, this means that I actually have to create a pattern since it’s not a commercial one. The truth is a LOVE pattern-making.
My process begins with a final fitting to see where the pattern might need tweaking (my darn shoulder slope did need a bit of a tweak), then sitting at the cutting table to cut it apart. I remember the first time I cut apart a muslin (I was making my first Little French Jacket). It almost broke my heart – I had become quite fond of that ugly piece, because it fit me! Anyway, I’m a bit less emotional about the process at this stage of my design/sewing career, but I’m still just as careful. These pieces will be the foundation of my perfectly fitting LBD.
I then take those muslin pieces to the ironing board and go at them with both the iron and a lint brush. Then I’m ready to make the pattern.
I decide not to use couture techniques – rough butting directly from the muslin, thread-tracing seam lines etc. – mainly because of my fabric choice for this first dress. Did I mention the fabric choice dilemma?
I had thought I’d be using a high-end wool-blend fabric, underlining with silk organza and lining with silk charmeuse. However, I haven’t found that perfect fabric yet. I will, but in the meantime, I found a textured crepe knit that will provide me with a dress that can also travel well because, as you’ve probably figured out, I do a lot of that, too.
The fabric, as you can see, doesn’t actually beg for couture techniques. In fact, now that I’ve fallen in love with my serger (more about my former distaste for serged finishes in a future post), I’m going to use it for interior finishing. I know – I should be slapped. Bottom line: I’m making a paper pattern.
Since the last made-from-scratch pattern design I did, I’ve discovered a new gadget, a tool. I’m sure I’m late to the party but when I discovered the double tracing wheel, I thought: why haven’t I know about this? The truth is that I’ve seen them before on Amazon. You know when you buy something there they give you a list of related items others have bought? I had taken a passing look at it, but I just never figured out what I’d do with one – mainly because they show it flat in a package rather than in action with the wheels actually pointing in the direction they’re meant to go in. Anyway, I thought that this would be perfect for marking the cutting line outside my seam edges.
So, I trace my muslin seam lines onto paper and begin to use the double tracing wheel to mark cutting lines. The problem is that the tracing wheels themselves don’t have a serrated enough edge to transfer to the paper visibly. So, what to do? I pull out my large sheets of waxed tracing paper and mark the cutting line on the back of the pattern. Voila! I just cut the edges from the back-side markings and I have my pattern pieces ready! It has changed my life! No more going around the pattern with my ruler making little marks that I then join up to make a cutting line. Genius!
Now I just need to find a bit of time to cut the darn thing out, mark it and baste it together.
It’s April and spring is upon us in the northern hemisphere – at least that’s what the calendar says. And that usually means I’m heading down to Toronto’s “garment district” to shop for fabrics. It’s a terrific 45-minute walk from where I live and I love walking down a few times a year to find everything I could possibly need for sewing and design plans. My husband is my sidekick on these journeys, providing much-needed extra help with seeking out specific items in these wonderfully jumbled stores. I can set him off to find “black knits” for example while I explore the silks. When he has found the general area in the shop and pulls some bolts, I can saunter over the make a decision. As a side note, he has a terrific eye and is a great second opinion. Anyway, that’s not happening any time soon.
Here in TO, we have been in the grips of a hideous April ice storm for a few days and now it’s raining buckets. The streets are full of ice-pellet slush and the sidewalks a sheet of ice. That won’t last long, but it has curtailed Toronto fabric shopping plans for the week, and for the month for that matter as it turns out. You see, this coming weekend I’m boarding a plane headed for Hong Kong and with any luck, I’ll be browsing silk stalls this time next week. But what does all this have to do with my Little Black Dress Project* you might reasonably ask. Good question.
I was planning to make a final decision on the design of the dress which would have led directly to fabric choice decisions which would have happened on Queen Street West this week. I think I have made a decision about design (and if I’m lucky I might find something inspirational in the way of fabric in Hong Kong or Shanghai, or maybe even Tokyo – all of which are on our upcoming itinerary) and actually making the dress wouldn’t be far behind. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself because I wanted to share my experience with one final design.
I’ve tested and fit three designs –one from each of Vogue, Butterick and McCall’s – so far. The last option is a design of my own. So where would one find inspiration these days for a timeless LBD? Clearly not in this spring’s ready-to-wear offerings, that’s for sure. I really just had to share with you this photo of a dress in a window in Yorkville Village, an upscale, very tony mall-like shopping space in my neighbourhood. It was in the window of TNT, a popular store in Toronto. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
“WTF is that?” I said to my husband.
He was as perplexed as I was. To be honest, the first time I saw it I thought it was one of those art pieces that you see in fashion windows from time to time. It never occurred to me that it was actually for sale and that it was intended for someone to wear. Needless to say, it doesn’t fit in with anything that I might recognize as timeless, flattering clothing for real people. But it was good for a laugh, n’est-ce pas?
So, I went back to my personal guidelines for the perfect LBD to begin my sketch: timeless, chic, sheath-like, open to multiple ways of styling.
Here’s how the sketch began.
I love the idea of neckline darts – they seem to lend themselves to perfect fitting across my concave décolletage. It began with two neckline darts radiating from the centre and two waistline darts. That was okay, but not perfect. So, I extended the neckline darts and manipulated the waistline darts into a princess seam from centre front. I liked it, and after two more fittings, was able to get it to fit me perfectly.
Then what about sleeves? I started with the idea of petal sleeves. Although I liked them, given that they have to be lines, I wasn’t at all certain I liked all those layers of fabric that are necessary. There would be the bodice, two layers of front and two layers of back for a total of five layers at the sleeve head. Hmm…
What to do? Well, back to a simpler sleeve shaped with a curve. That seems to work.
After several (at least three) muslins, I finally settled on a simple design and guess what? I really have to make this one. But then I also have to make contender number two for sure and may be number three.
I think I have to find a lot of places to go to wear these dresses – and I have a lot of fabric to buy! Wish me luck! Cheers – and join me back here when I get home from Asia.
And so I’m on to the final – or so I think at this point – contender to become my ultimate Little Black Dress* (LBD).
Contender #1, based on McCall’s pattern 6464 has lots of seam detail for fitting well and a plethora of sleeve options, although I’m focused on the ¾ length ones.
Contender #2, based on Butterick pattern 6410 also has lots of seaming detail (although less than the McCall’s) for fit – and it fits better than the McCall’s. This option has cuffed, short sleeves and a yoke which provides a bit of interest, although in unbleached cotton muslin, it resembles nothing less than a house dress. With these toiles, I have to squint at them to try to envision them in what might be the finished fabrication. Which brings me to the final (at least I think it’s the final) contender.
Then third dress might be closest to what we used to think was a LBD. It is a simple sleeveless sheath with princess seaming, a scoop neck and a front side slit. I was drawn to the Vogue 1435 pattern the minute I saw it.
Designed by long-time design duo Tom and Linda Platt, it is a bit of a riff on their ready-to-wear offerings.
I have to be honest and say that I really knew little about them before I began looking more closely at the sewing patterns they design for Vogue patterns. They are a married couple who met while attending design school at the Pratt Institute in New York and have been around for 20 or 30 years. What I like about their philosophy which is manifested in their designs is their mantra that last season’s collection should never be obsolete, rather that “great clothes last forever.” Here are some of their current offerings:
Well, I’m not sure about forever – it’s a very long time – but I agree that fast fashion is not the way for me to go, and probably never was.
Anyway, it wasn’t difficult to get this design to fit me, then as I spent some quality time staring at the muslin, the simple little dress seemed to grow on me. I even considered the matching jacket, but to tell you the truth, it’s a bit too voluminous. Anyway, back to the dress.
As I stood gazing at Gloria junior in all her muslin designer glory, my husband came up and examined it, as he likes to do when I’m working on a project.
“I like the last one better,” he said.
Naturally, I asked him why – and keep in mind this is a man with a great sense of style. He often shops with me and spends the time while I’m in the dressing room searching through the racks to find pieces he thinks I might like and might suit me. He is most often right on the money.
“I think that the perfect little black dress has sleeves. It makes it more elegant.”
Elegant? I want elegant. I want sophisticated. And I want timeless. I took another look at the dress and thought, you know he’s right.
In that moment, I realized the reason I was contemplating the jacket was that I knew that more often than not, I would be looking for a shrug, a wrap or a jacket to complement this dress. So, I took another look at contender #2. Then my husband, who was still considering the designs said, “What about those dresses with those nice style lines Merissa wears on Bull? That would suit you.”
Merissa is a character on the television show Bull and every week when we watch it we marvel over her dresses – which, it has to be said, she wears well. I think she could wear a garbage bag and look professional and – elegant.
So, just when I thought I had a winner – contender #2, Butterick 6410 – I know in my heart I have to go back to the drawing board (literally) and design an original. I guess I better prep some more muslin fabric. I’m going to need it.
My Little Black Dress* project continues. I’m still mulling over designs. I have already made up contender #1 and put it away for a side-by-side comparison to the other two contenders in due course. I’m now on to the next one.
Before I get to my muslin, though, I’ve been thinking about the fine line between a “little black dress” which implies something that I might wear to a cocktail party, on a cruise or perhaps out to dinner at a chi-chi restaurant on a special occasion, and a couple of other garments that wouldn’t fit the bill at all. I’m talking about “sun dresses” and “house dresses.”
Let’s first consider the “house dress.”
Megan Reynolds, of Racked, wrote a really nice piece about this anachronistic piece of clothing. She talks about the real pleasure of coming home from work, shedding the daily armor (whatever that might be for you: anything from a buttoned-up business suit to a uniform) and kicking back in a pair of old sweat pants and a grubby T-shirt. She considers the modern house dress to be a better alternative. She writes: “A good house dress lacks anything constricting about the midsection and should slip over the head with ease…A house dress is the antidote to slovenliness and an effective way of making you feel dressed when you’re really not…” And it seems to me that in the 1950’s which seems to be the height of house dress popularity, the dress was less floaty and loose than today’s versions.
And while I’m on the subject of today’s versions of the house dress, it seems to me that they could pass for what I think of as sun dresses: loose(ish), cool and most importantly, made from fabrics light handkerchief linen or cotton voile.
So, why am I thinking about house dresses and sun dresses on my journey toward the ultimate LBD? It’s because I’m struck by how the style might be somewhat less important than the eventual fabric choice. I’m thinking about this because as I ponder the lines drawings of contender #2, I see that this dress, fabricated from, say, cotton sateen, would be anything but the kind of LBD I’m searching for.
And yet, if I squint, and see black, crepe-backed silk satin in lustrous black with the crepe side used for a contrasting yoke and sleeve band, styled with beautiful gold earrings and a necklace to die for, I’m seeing possibilities. Anyway, here is contender #2, Butterick 6410, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.
As I cut and fit this dress I’m struck with the fact that it’s actually a better fit than contender #1 (McCall’s 6464). It also has sleeves with that cuff detail that could look corporate in certain kinds of fabrics, but as I mentioned my image of silk, crepe-backed satin, this becomes cocktail-worthy. I also really do like the neckline, which comes as a surprise to me. I thought that and Audrey-Hepburn-inspired boat neck would be my first choice, but I see lots of possibilities for jewelry with this one.
As I move on to contender #3, I realize that the choice might be difficult in the end. But, then, doesn’t’ everyone need more than one LBD? We’ll see.
And so, the real work begins. I decide on three contenders for my *Little Black Dress project and get to work. Here are the three contenders:
What I like about all of them is that they have a variety of style lines that provide me with the ability to fine-tune the fit – and if you’ve been reading any of my posts for the past while, you’ll know that one of my most passionate goals is to have well-fitting clothes. But this good fit does have to be tempered with comfort: in my view, life is too short to wear uncomfortable or frumpy clothes!
I begin with McCall’s 6464. My first step, as always, is tissue fitting and making a few adjustments to the pattern at this initial stage. I will use my newly acquired knowledge of couture dress-making techniques for this project. I put Susan Khalje’s “Couture Dress Course” from Craftsy in my ears and mark all the seam lines on the tissue pattern. I then cut it out roughly because I’ll be marking seam lines and using those rather than using seam allowances.
First, I have to bring out the massive sheets of waxed tracing paper and mark everything on the muslin pieces.
Of course, that’s only half of the marking I need: since this marks on only one side of the fabric, I’ll need to have those seam lines, darts etc on both sides, so I use the sewing machine to thread trace everything. Time-consuming, but it should be worth it to get the fit right. I like that fact that this pattern gives me options regarding the sleeves. I haven’t decided yet if I want sleeves, but I am leaning toward that.
When I sew up the toile, there are quite a few tweaks needed to get that fit just right. [Just a sidebar: I always pop in a zipper so that I can fit myself, although my husband will willingly pin in back issues for me.]
I realize that I’m going to need to do two or even three toiles to get it just right. One of the things that surprises me about this pattern is that for the sleeveless version, it provides the same armhole as for the sleeve variations. This means that I would have to take a dart in the armhole and transfer that to the bust dart or princess seam if I decide to use this one and I find that I want a sleeveless LBD. An armscye for a sleeve will gape on me (as on most people, I’d wager) if used in a sleeveless version.
I make it up as designed in the original pattern and take a look at it. Do I like the style? The lines? The fit? As I look at it closely, I realize that I might not be so fond of those darts. In fact, to my eye, there is something about the style lines of the skirt that seem to scream for a princess seam in the upper bodice. I do up a few sketches and like what I’m seeing.
So, a trace off the pattern, transfer the darts into a princess seam and replace the bodice with my new one and the tweaked skirt. After a few false starts, I get the fit just right. I’m beginning to be able to see this in black silk—maybe raw silk, maybe satin-backed crepe silk (or crepe-backed satin depending on how I look at it). I can almost feel the silk charmeuse lining that I might use.
As it turned out, I didn’t manipulate the skirt darts into one line: it changed the fit too much, so I removed only the darts in the bodice, turning them into a princess line which I then had to fit better as you can see: the right side is still pinned in this last version.
So, as I said, it now fits really well, and I’m liking the 3/4 sleeves better than the sleeveless version. Anyway, I feel I like this one, but is it too matronly? Well, on to the next one.
Next up, the test of Butterick 6410.
FYI…Here are some photos of the large sheets of waxed tracing paper in action in a previous project…
It’s time for me to move on from gazing at inspirational (and aspirational) pieces and do a deep dive into the kinds of sewing patterns available to me in my quest for the perfect (for me) Little Black Dress.
Let me get straight to the point about commercial sewing patterns: Many of the “big three or four” are far too embellished to put it politely, while so many of the “indie” patterns available are bags. What ever happened to elegant and sophisticated?
Let me show you what I mean. I generally find that Vogue patterns provide the me with the most appealing style options, but if I look at the most recent offerings, I find myself scratching my head. Take for example Vogue 1576. A sophisticated option for the perfect LBD? I think not. Because I prefer not to look like a bat just about to take flight.
Then there’s Vogue 1578.
At first glance it seems like it might have possibilities – but then I take a look at the line art and what do I see? Gathers. Gathers? Gathers everywhere. Not in my sleek LBD. So, I move on.
I see that Vogue’s 1579 has that sheath silhouette that is so appealing to me.
But what about that attached cape? Uh-uh. Not what I’m looking for. So, it’s on to other brands.
Just look at some of the McCall’s spring 2018 dress offerings. I think not…
…but McCall’s 7714, view C has possibilities.
Then there are the new offerings from Butterick. Their new #6515 is actually appealing to me, but it is really too much “of-the-moment”, too trendy and not timeless enough. Those statement sleeves (I think I may want sleeves) will date it faster than you can say “fake news,” and the ruffles on the sleeveless one – don’t get me started. I’m not a ruffle type. So that’s out.
I surf on over to Simplicity to see the new offerings and am met with…
…and what is this obsession I see all over online sewing communities with vintage? I like a bit of retro myself – although I tend to prefer the 1960’s aesthetic to the 1940’s – but I think it needs a bit of an update. I don’t find the literal reproduction appealing at all.
So, I have a quick look at some offerings from indie companies. I don’t find most of the sites appealing at all, but I am drawn to Style Arc for their knit patters. Let’s see what they have in dresses…
…hmm, not what I’m looking for, but to be fair to Style Arc, they do have a couple that I really like, maybe just not for this project. I really love their Serena dress and their Renae. This last one is actually a possibility that I might return to.
There are other online indie pattern companies, but most seem to design for knits or people who really just want to hide in a tent. I get it, though. If I were to offer any of my own designs as patterns, I would choose to offer the ones whose fits are the most forgiving. That way I wouldn’t have to test them on so many bodies to get the very best composite sizing. S-M-L is so much easier than 6-8-10-12. Anyway, I think I need to look at some of the older patterns that might fit my criteria as follows: elegant, sophisticated, stream-lined and timeless. On to Susan Khalie’s Couture Dress course on Craftsy.
I have been all through this course with the intention of using it to guide my couture dress project. However, I find I’ve used many of her techniques on other projects to date, but have not plunged into doing the dress along with her. One of the reasons I have hesitated so long is that the pattern Craftsy sends along to be used in the course is Vogue 8648, View A or B. It fulfils many of the criteria that I am looking for, but it has one serious drawback. I really don’t like the square neckline.
Oh, actually it has two drawbacks if you must know: I don’t think I want that inset waist. The pattern is one of those that permits fine-tuning the fit – all of those seams lines make fitting much easier than in a fitted dress that is minus those offerings. So, I’m back to the drawing board.
I find that I have been contemplating three patterns for dresses in general, so I dig one of them out of my pattern box and order the other two. The first option that I’ll make a muslin for is McCall’s 6464. I really love a boat neck and it has both sleeve and sleeveless options, the sheath silhouette I love, and style lines for fine-tuning that fit. Stay tuned!
I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a cliché that seems to transcend time. They say every woman needs the perfect “little black dress” – LBD for short – and I agree, but the search for that perfection seems to go on and on. Enter the sewing talent that we possess!
Over the years I’ve had any number of what would be labeled “little black dresses.” They have all been eminently useful in their own ways.
In recent years my LBD wearing is frequently confined to travel: we often take cruises on those kind of high-end cruise lines where those informal nights really require cocktail dressing. That means that a LBD that is also packable is a must. On a recent cruise down the west coast of South America, my Joseph Ribkoff black dresses were a godsend. Both the short cocktail dress and the gown (it’s actually a strapless worn a plethora of different jackets to change it ups) in the photos above are Ribkoff’s I wore on our recent cruise down the west coast of South America on Silversea’s Silver Muse.
And yet I still search for the holy grail of LBD’s. So, what are my criteria for LBD perfection?
First and foremost, it should be black! While this seems like a no-brainer, we are forever bombarded by asinine pronouncements from the style police that “red is the new black” or recently “white is the new black.” Okay, I know what they’re getting at, but black is the only thing that is black. If you want a LRD or a LWD, that’s great, but I’m talking about a LBD and it naturally has to be black.
Second, the perfect LBD needs to fit perfectly. The beauty of the Rikoff dresses is in the fabrics – they are knits and are a bit forgiving. This means that even a not-so-perfect fit is perfect enough. What I’m searching for is a LBD that doesn’t have to be a knit to fit perfectly. It is made for me. It follows the curves of my body and no one else’s.
My perfect LBD is a sheath. I often see LBD’s that are any number of silhouettes, but somewhere in my mind’s eye, I see a real LBD as a sheath. And since that’s the silhouette that suits me best and I love the most, that’s what it has to be.
My perfect LBD is simple. It is simple enough that if I choose to wear different jackets or jewelry with it, that works and changes the look. The perfect LBD is versatile in my view. I need to be able to dress it up or dress it down. Which brings me back to silhouette: many of the complicated silhouettes on offer these days – flounces, ruffles, big skirts, peplums, “statement sleeves” – all of these distract from the simplicity of the perfect LBD. I’m going for clean lines.
I don’t know yet if my perfect LBD is sleeveless, has long sleeves or short sleeves or anything else in between. I’m not sure yet if the neckline is round, square or boat-shaped. I’m unsure of the fabric – this will be dictated by many of the design factors. But I do expect perfection to be lined in silk – silk charmeuse if I have my way and since I’m making it, I think I do. But anything can change at this stage.
So, how do I find the perfect dress? As I do in my other life, I begin with research. First, I want to understand the history of this oh-so-indispensable article of clothing and find inspiration from that.
Coco Chanel is often touted as the creator of the LBD – or at least the notion of what a LBD means. In October, 1926 Vogue magazine published a picture of a simple, elegant sheath in black crêpe de chine that was shown with a simple string of pearls. It seemed to start a kind of trend – or what today we might call a meme. It is true that in the early part of the twentieth century and before that, women wore black to indicate that they were in mourning. Remember Queen Victoria? After Prince Albert, the love of her life died at a fairly early age, she wore black for the rest of her life. Anyway, black transformed from the colour of death to the colour of simple elegance. Chanel wanted a piece of clothing that could be available to everyone. And Chanel’s idea influenced many a designer from that day until now.
My second icon of the LBD that I look to for inspiration is Audrey Hepburn. She wore them, but she didn’t design them. She had a long working relationship with Givenchy who designed many of her LBD’s including the most incredible one – at least for me – the gown she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s although to be sure, there were other LBD’s even in that film. I especially love the lines of that dress.
In a continuing search for inspiration, last week I visited the Dior exhibit currently stationed in the Royal Ontario Museum. A mere 10-minute walk from my home in Toronto, the ROM provides a wonderful way to spend a winter afternoon – and that’s just what I did.
I’m not a big fan of Dior’s “New Look” which was featured prominently – it was a 1947, post-war look that Chanel dispatched unceremoniously in 1954 with her LBJ style – but I do find close examination of designer fashions, especially historical ones, to be educational and inspiring.
I did find a number of Dior’s take on the LBD like these ones…
…and find myself inspired by the workmanship and the fabrications. The one on the left is the only one who’s silhouette is right for me, though. So, I’m off to search for the pattern or patterns I’ll try out on my way to finding just the right one. In the meantime, here are some of the other confections I took in last week at the ROM…
…I do find the above gown oddly compelling. I think I could actually wear it…
…and red is a great colour if you don’t want black. In fact, it’s my favourite colour (I don’t think black, grey, white and taupe really count although they are truly my favourite garment colours! It’s all in how you mix them in my view.).
And finally, one extraordinary gown, worn once by a Toronto socialite’s daughter for her debutante afternoon tea dance in the 1950’s. Those were the days *sigh*
Up next, the pattern options for my own LBD. Stay tuned!