There is nothing quite like a three-week break from the Great White North in the middle of February and beyond…but when you return – well, let’s just say being able to tell some stories about your adventure seems to prolong the warmth. I’m just back from debuting the cruise collection that has taken up so much of my design and create time over the past few months, a debut which actually did take place on a cruise.
I refused to show the pieces on an actual person (GG herself) until they were in the right setting, and as I do the laundry and generally get back to normal, I just thought it might be nice to get the story started with a brief glimpse of what’s to come over the next few blog posts.
We cruised aboard the Silversea line’s Silver Spirit, a 600-passenger luxury vessel, beginning in Puerto Rico (where we spent 6 days before the cruise started), cruising the Caribbean visiting Grand Cayman, the cultural and historical cities of Santiago, Cienfuegos and Havana in Cuba, the island (really a sand bar) Bimini in the Bahamas, then ending in Fort Lauderdale in Florida where we spent the last few days of our vacation.
I’m not really a sundress kind of woman. I know this about myself. All those flowy, floaty, cottony printed dresses with strappy bodices are simply not my style. With that off my chest, I can concede, though, that there is nothing quite as cool and comfortable, not to mention pulled-together, than a well-fitting “sunny day” dress. That I could get into – as long as it fulfils a number of important GG criteria. But before I get to that, what about all those sundresses out there?
Let’s start with a definition (forgive me: I’m a former Professor and this is where we always begin).
Dictionary.com (what would we do without those online dictionaries? Open a book perhaps?) defines a sundress as follows…
a dress with a bodice styled to expose the arms, shoulders, and back, for wear during hot weather.
Well, isn’t that interesting. Not a thing about flowy, floaty, cottony prints! Just a lot of exposure. Interesting. But then, there’s the Urbandictionary.com definition (Don’t blame me; I’m not endorsing anyone’s definition. I’m just sharing what they say for the sake of discussion…)
A one piece dress with a to-the-knee or lower hemline, usually worn by clingy, slutty, chunky-looking women during the summer, often accented by clogs, flip-flops, and the absence of panties…
Geesh! Duly noted…but I’m a bit old for the last element! Well, I guess everyone is an expert these days. And if you didn’t know there were other descriptions out there, maybe it’s a good thing to be educated! In any case, that’s not how I see them. In any event, this definition doesn’t seem to mention that flowy, floaty, cottony thing either. So, I’m on firmer ground than I thought by establishing my own criteria for the perfect sundress.
In general, I think we can all agree with that all-knowing authority we call Wikipedia, that it is a “dress intended to be worn in warm weather…” This is a suitably vague definition that has endless design possibilities. I have seen references to American designer and socialite Lily Pulitzer as leader in making the sundress a must-have summer garment choice in North America in the twentieth century. Her tropical coloured prints, so reminiscent of Palm Beach where she lived, became my reference point for Florida- style hot-weather dressing, and it never did suit my aesthetic. But it was everywhere. So, you can see where I got my notion that sun dresses are printed!
…Although I have to say that I would wear a few from the current collection that even has black *gasp* and other non-print colours.(These are dresses from the current collection…Lily herself died in 2013.)
The brand really took off in 1962 when Jackie O. (then Jackie Kennedy) was photographed with her husband and children wearing an LP dress. As you already know, Jackie O.’s Mediterranean style is one of my design muses for this little cruise-worthy collection.
So, then, what are the attributes that I look for in a cool summer dress that is at the centre of my cruise wear day-time wardrobe?
The dress should be in a natural fibre – or at least a natural blend.
The dress should be in a light colour. I do love a black dress (no kidding), but have you worn a black T-shirt or top out walking in the sun? Not good.
The dress should be a sheath. In other words, it should not, as the original definitions of the sundress suggest, be a bodice with an attached skirt. That’s not as cool as a well-fitting sheath in my view.
The dress should be sleeveless, exposing arms: it should not expose the back. Have you ever walked a distance in the Caribbean sun in a backless garment? Not good at all. I don’t want to be nursing a sunburn for three weeks.
The dress should have a tailored vibe. Yes, that’s right. T-a-i-l-o-r-e-d. That’s who I am.
So, when I put all of these together, it’s little wonder that I was inspired by an old sewing pattern image I stumbled upon when collecting ideas for this collection.
I did a few sketches and decided that this was the one I’d go with.
It’s really a shirt dress style, but I love the fact that the collar goes right to the edges of the cross-over at the front rather than to the centre front. If I were to actually close it over (which I nave no intention of ever doing) it would actually create a kind of stand-up collar, a look I might be inclined to use in a winter dress or top. I love the intentionality of the popped collar on this one.
I began with drafting a pattern from my sloper…
…and sewed up a muslin…
After a few tweaks, I was ready to select a fabric from my cruise fabric selections. I chose the striped seersucker.
I did learn one new skill with this piece. Don’t laugh: I learned to use the machine button foot. Not the button-hole foot – I already use that – I mean the one that sews on buttons. I have to credit my husband for goading me into it. I always hand-sew buttons on a garment, but he, a master of gadgets, asked why I don’t use the machine foot designed for this purpose. I always thought it would be more trouble than it was worth. I was so wrong!
I have created a dress that will be an important part of day-time dressing on the cruise and during our pre-cruise week in Puerto Rico and post cruise couple of days in Fort Lauderdale. (Keep in mind that a Silversea ship isn’t exactly a sloppy T and cargo shorts kind of venue).
It may not be what you call a sundress, but it’s my “sunny day” dress! Photos of it in action will have to wait until the cruise!
Every project has to begin somewhere. When you think of vacationing in the Caribbean and what you’ll be wearing, you might very well begin with an image of a beach and a palm tree and a cool cocktail. You might be wearing a dreamy, floaty swim cover-up, or a fluttery tank top and shorts, or even a sun dress. Well, I’ll get there eventually, but let’s face it – my cruise collection really is for a cruise. And a luxury cruise at that. What this means is a major requirement for cocktail attire, so that’s where I’m starting. My perfect LBCD.
I spent a lot of time last year on my Little Black Dress project, during which I completed four test garments using three commercial patterns and ending up with my own design. But during that process I did find a silhouette that I thought I might translate into one of my own pieces.
For this collection, I’m inspired by Jackie O. and Audrey Hepburn on the Mediterranean. Much of what that conjures up for me relates to daytime sand, sun, surf and shopping in Monte Carlo. But for evening, I need to look no further than their iconic cocktail style to be inspired to create a dress that will be the centerpiece of this evening cruise collection.
It will be a simple, boat-necked, princess-seamed black dress that fits to perfection and can be changed up by accessories and all manner of little jackets. That way, a cruiser like me need only take one or two cocktail dresses and never look the same twice.
The fabric is black with textural striped detail and lovely drape which lends itself to the long, lean line of this princess-seamed dress. Although this fabric feels wonderful on its own (and is washable and packable to boot), I am lining it for a more sophisticated feel – and it finishes off the neckline and armholes beautifully.
It is so simple: boat-neck, sleeveless, lined, invisible back zipper, centre-back slit. Perfect fit. That’s it.
Next I’ll need to draft a few jackets to accompany it!
Perhaps in a coordinating fabric? We’ll see.
[BTW: No final views of the pieces in action – i.e. on me – until we hit the Caribbean!]
There was a time in my creative life when I always, ALWAYS began any project with a design. In the beginning (all those years ago in home ec sewing classes) that always meant a commercial pattern. I’d go to the fabric store and sit for what seemed like hours pouring over those gargantuan catalogues. (I have not looked in a pattern book for about 20 years: if I want a commercial pattern, I’d rather let my fingers do the clicking online.) And it does have to be said that there was a lot to like back then.
I’d select my pattern number, search for it and my size in the big drawer, then, and only then, would I head toward the bolts of fabric to select something appropriate. (There was so much crimplene, woven cotton and corduroy!) I loved the process of finding just the right piece so that, even though I hadn’t actually designed the piece from scratch, there would be enough of me in it to call it an original: the colour, the drape, the way the contrasting colours were applied. But I never once, at least as far as I can remember, ever started just with a piece of fabric. Times have changed.
These days, I do occasionally find a piece of fabric that I know I just must do something with. But in all honesty, I still find that I do have a picture in my head of what it will be, even if that picture changes as I move through the project. I never, NEVER buy fabric without any idea of what I’ll do with it. I do not hoard or in any other way stash fabric. Oh, there goes my rant again.
So, back to my fabric selection for my cruise wear. Last time we talked, I was showing you my inspiration board. That inspiration board is leading me to the actual designs and to the fabric choices.
My “muses” for the collection
What comes to mind when you think about Jackie O. or Audrey Hepburn on the Mediterranean?
For me, they conjure up visions of airy cottons, pristine white T’s, striped French-sailor jerseys and big sunglasses. They make me think about sun, sand (okay, it’s hard to call it sand on the beaches of Cannes and Nice, more like pebbles), yachts, the ocean and cold glasses of Sancerre.
This is my inspiration…my stepping off point…my stimulus. The rest of the elements, however, really happen organically. Colours, textures, line…all of these come together not in a linear way; rather they feed into one another.
A cruise collection colour scheme
If I am being quite honest about my sartorial choices in general, I have to tell you that I live in a limited colour palette. I love neutrals: grey, black, white, taupe. But I do have a bit of colour: red, fuchsia, burgundy, occasionally blue. And that’s about it. These are the colours that flatter me and the colours that I think look best in the kind of tailored style that has been my hallmark for decades. I also eschew prints for the most part. I find wild prints distract from the clean lines I prefer and to tell you the truth, I usually look like I’m wearing upholstery when I try on any kind of print. Oh, I do love to see prints on others – especially ones with a dark background, but they’re not for me. It’s who I am. That being said, perhaps there might be room for a bit of whimsy in my wardrobe? Who am I kidding?
A colour scheme for a cruise collection, though begs for a reflection of sun, sky and water. So, for this collection I’m drawn to blues, greys, white and a bit of black, of course. Because, who can go on a cruise without a little black dress? Hmm?
So, I need a bit of texture, do I?
Any fashion designer will tell you that collections need texture. When I buy ready-to-wear, I don’t really think about texture in that way. How I think of it is how it feels on my skin. And I do think that this kind of feeling is very important. But what about how texture looks? How it enhances the style lines of a design making aspects of it stand out? I have had to think about texture in a different way when creating pieces rather than simply buying them.
I found these wonderful photos of sand textures and was immediately drawn to them…then to the Egyptian-motif print (Yikes a print!) with the texture.
I think I can embrace this black on white print because of its simplicity, although I see it more as a partner piece rather than a complete outfit on its own. And then what about that striped seersucker?
It has texture, print (my kind of print, anyway) and to its credit, is a natural fabric – the best choice for a Caribbean cruise in my view.
Style lines that inspire
So what kind of lines will there be in this collection? Palm trees that sway in the gentle island breeze provide my mind’s eye with both a visual and a feeling. I’d like to capture that in both fabric and in design. But flowy dresses don’t suit me personally (I don’t think I’ve worn a full skirt since I was 11 years old), so even though it might be fun to design a flowy sundress, I’ll pass on that because I’d never wear it. I’ll just have to find a way to capture this feeling with cleaner lines.
Basic design decisions
I’ve decided that the collection will have two foci: one of them will be a day dress of sorts that will be the centre-piece of the daytime wardrobe. A little black cocktail dress will anchor the evening grouping. So, I started a bit of sketching and contemplation of which fabrics go with which designs.
Prepping my fabric
Most of the fabrics I am choosing for this collection are easy care, easy packing. I prepped the materials as I always do by using my 4X4-inch template to cut swatches and throw them in the washing machine.
I then measure them against the template after coming out of the machine and then again measure and examine them after the dryer. That’s when I decide how to prep the whole fabric piece. The black fabric for the cocktail dress which will be the centre of the evening wardrobe is washable, but I’ll plan to line it so, in the end, it will not be a washable dress.
Now that my fabric is prepped and I’ve given some preliminary thought to the design of some pieces, it’s time to get to work tweaking drawings and making patterns.
When I was thirteen years old, I fancied myself something of an artist. It occurred to me that there was no reason why a young teen-aged girl could not be a best-selling writer, or a fashion designer (never mind that I went on to study science and communication in university; I did eventually write books and now…well, here I am!). I was a sewing fanatic and loved the process of putting a piece together. But the design elements! That’s what I really loved.
I used commercial patterns – it’s just what you did – but loved the process of thinking about how I could make them different, could make them mine, by fabric choice, detail tweaks and putting elements of an outfit together in a way that was different from that on the pattern envelope. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and I think that my creative process has been honed through the years, but there is still that young girl in me who wants to create. And my creation process always begins with something that seems awfully non-creative: an organizational system. But stay with me for a minute.
A few years back (actually 15, but who’s counting?) Twyla Tharp wrote an extraordinary book called The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life. If you are unfamiliar with Twyla Tharp you’re likely not much of a dance fan. Since I’m the mother of a ballet dancer, she’s very familiar to me as one of the foremost choreographers in the world. The Broadway hit Moving Out based on Billy Joel’s music was her brainchild. In any event, she has a wonderful chapter in that book called “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” And she means that quite literally.
She says, “Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you buy at Office Depot for transferring files…I write the project name on the box, and as the [project]progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making…that may have inspired me…”
She uses a box. I use notebooks. Some of my notebooks are digital, but my favourites are pen and paper ones. I use them for my writing and I use them for my sewing and design projects. And I gather ideas from everywhere then write them down. And paste in pictures. And tape in fabric swatches. So, for this cruise collection that I introduced you to in my last post, I did all this then finally organized my thoughts around the areas of shapes, colours, textures, inspirational muses and vintage early 1970’s fashion because that’s where my head is these days.
First the muses. For this little collection, I’m inspired by the Mediterranean style of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O. For their days in Nice, Cannes and Antibes, whether strolling the Promenade des Anglaises or sailing the Med on a yacht, they had a kind of je ne sai quois, and yet je sais. At least je sais a feeling and a style. That’s what is underpinning my design thoughts.
My next exercise was to find pictures whose shapes I am drawn to with the feeling of my muses in mind. I always surf over to Pinterest to suss out black and white photos that grab my attention. I use black and white so I won’t be distracted by the colours in them. That comes next. As you can see by the photos I was drawn to that there are recurring themes. I will obviously at least be using stripes! I’ll also have to balance angles with a more organic flow. Can I do that? We’ll see.
Then with all of this in mind, I think about the colours that capture the feeling. I’m thinking about the beach and the sea – of course! So, when I look for colour photos to inspire me, I’m drawn to blues, greys, tans. These will figure prominently in the fabric choices.
Then what about textures? Every collection needs a bit of texture. When I return to Pinterest to find textures that attract me, I’m drawn to sand patterns. It will be a terrific challenge to see if I can find fabrics that have textures reminiscent of sand patters, and that all fit together.
Finally, I go to my own captured images of vintage patterns and find so many that reliably inspire the same vibe I get from Audrey and Jackie on the Med. I’m not into retro fashion, so anything I design that is inspired by these will be a modern take. Anyway, it was Voltaire who said, “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” So it will be judicious.
Once I have all my inspiration material in notebooks, I extract the most important ones and they make it onto my inspiration board.
Then comes the fabric search. I know that I want a cocktail dress at the centre of the evening wear, and a “day dress” for lack of a better term at the centre of the day-time dressing. I don’t like the notion of a sundress since that’s not really my style. So, we’ll see where that takes us.
After a venture down to Queen Street West here in Toronto, a browse through a fabric store in Halifax when we were in Nova Scotia this summer and a small fabric boutique in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the route home, I have accumulated a few pieces that are further inspiring me. So, now to begin a few sketches of what some of these pieces might look like!
 Twyle Tharp. The creative habit: Learn it and use it for life. 2003. P. 80.
Ever since I began studying and learning about pattern drafting and design, I’ve obsessed about creating a kind of “collection.” This probably stems from my internal, imaginary fashion designer. Many others who also create their own wardrobes seem to refer to “capsule” collections in a similar way. In my mind, these two are related but not quite the same. And since I’m about to embark on yet another long-term project involving just such a goal, I thought I’d begin my process by defining exactly what I’m doing (probably not what an “artist” would do, but I’m my own kind of artist) then moving directly into the creative process that got me going.
First, what is a capsule wardrobe and why is my collection different?
There is a suggestion among many (if not most) people talking and writing about capsule wardrobes that they are predicated on the notion that you’ll be down-sizing – or perhaps right-sizing? – your wardrobe. In other words…
Well, that’s my definition based on what I’ve seen.
According to Wikipedia, that all-knowing online encyclopedia of varying accuracy, the term was actually coined back in the 1970’s by a London boutique owner named Susie Faux. Since I am of a “certain age” I do seem to recall that there was a flurry of interest in wardrobes that were well-thought-out enough to actually have all the pieces work together creating a cohesive style for the wearer. I, however, was young enough at the time to think that more was better when it came to my clothes. I most assuredly do not think that any longer. Thirty to forty items might seem like a lot (and this was the original capsule wardrobe recommendation), but if you go into an average woman’s closet, you’re going to be boggled by the number of pieces she owns. I know I am.
In 2016, the closet organizer company ClosetMaid polled 1000 women in the US and found out that on average they have 103 pieces of clothing in their closets. Presumably, that doesn’t include all those pieces folded in drawers! As an aside, they also found that these women admitted that they actually like only 10% of those clothes. (When I looked this up I was also staggered to learn that “… Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year …” ) So maybe we do need to “capsulize” a bit!
The definition of a capsule wardrobe as it was originally conceived was a group of essential pieces that don’t go out of style, and that form the basis for adding fashion pieces seasonally. And there were rules.
Colour: There needs to be a cohesive colour scheme and the colours chosen should be the most flattering to your complexion and hair.
Shape: The pieces should be chosen from the classic shapes so as to flatter your particular body shape (not really specific to capsules)
Fabrics: The garment should be constructed of high-quality fabrics so that they are amenable to wearing numerous times through the mixing and matching that will go on.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and capsule wardrobes seem to be created for a variety of reasons: the business capsule, the travel capsule (presumably different ones depending on the climate of the destination), the weekend capsule.
One can only conclude that if you have numerous capsules in your wardrobe, you essentially have a whole lot of clothes. So, we’re back to where we started. I think I like Susie’s approach to basics.
In my view capsule wardrobes are one type of beast, a collection a bit different. Although it has to be said that they have a number of characteristics in common: colours scheme, shapes and fabric choices among them.
My “collection” will be a group of garments that I am designing around a common theme and aesthetic for a specific season. In the case of my first such grouping, it will be what I’m calling a cruise collection. But my cruise collection does not conform exactly to the cruise collections as articulated by the real fashion industry.
The web site The Business of Fashion (and a fascinating one it is) defines a cruise collection this way:
“Cruise Collections, or resort or holiday collections as they are otherwise known, launch between the two main ready-to-wear seasons; Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Originally, they were created with the jet set in mind and catered for a client who needed a wardrobe for their mid-season travels to climates different to their own. Now, they have been adopted by many of the big brands as an opportunity to inject an entirely new must-have mid-season collection into market.”
It is the last sentence of their definition that truly embodies what they are these days – a mid-season collection. My cruise collection, on the other hand, really is going to be for a client (me) who needs a wardrobe for my mid-season travel to a climate different from my own. It will actually be for a cruise. In the winter. In the Caribbean.
My husband and I have been on lots of cruises (if you don’t believe me, just visit our travel blog at www.thediscerningtravelers.com). We’ve traveled through the Mediterranean several times, both eastern and western; we’ve done the South Pacific; we’ve done China and Japan; we’ve done the Panama Canal along with Ecuador, Peru and Chile; we’ve done a Cunard trans-Atlantic and we’ve been on numerous Caribbean cruises. And I’ve always gone on these cruises with a well-selected wardrobe of ready-to-wear that works for travel.
This year I want to take along a little collection that I’ve designed and made for the purpose.
My project begins with a design inspiration exercise. I’m going to share with you a sneak peek of where I’m headed with this project. Stand by for the next post on my creative process and getting to an inspiration board, fabric choices and potential designs.
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.
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.
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!
I’ve read a lot about Coco Chanel over the past few years as I fed my continuing obsession with all things Chanel. Every biography seems to agree on at least one thing: CC herself wasn’t fussed about other copying her work. It’s not that she would have been happy with others actually trying to pass off their copies as authentic Chanel; rather she did, in fact, believe that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. She even encouraged others to take on her style since it clearly proved that she was the one and only style arbiter. So I have to believe that Mademoiselle herself would have been proud of the fact that those of us who are interested in couture sewing produce our own homages. It’s also true that the House of Chanel actually gave its blessing (and took a percentage) to specially-selected fashion houses who made authorized Chanel copies.
For example, until recently, I had been under the mistaken impression that Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing a favourite Chanel suit on that fateful day in 1963 when JFK was assassinated beside her in the back seat of a convertible in Dallas, Texas. In fact, her suit was an authorized copy from New York-based chez Ninon, a knock-off that was 1/10 the price of an original, and made in the USA. There are those who continue to believe that Jackie was wearing an original Chanel, but to me it’s more plausible that since she was the American first lady, and her husband evidently urged her to buy American, that the suit was an official Chanel copy. In that way it was authentic from its design to its bouclé, the fabric that has become synonymous with the Little French Jacket – which brings me to my next step toward my third LFJ: now that I have the design I’m going for, I need fabric.
I always take my time perusing bouclé fabrics whenever I’m in a good fabric store. I had a wonderful time examining Mood’s offerings in their LA outpost this past winter, but in the end I wander down to the garment district here in Toronto and while buying muslin at Leather Supply, I pick through their remnant bin. Now, I’m not a real remnant kind of sewer, but on this day they have a selection of bouclé and tweed fabric in the bin. And the pieces are a minimum of 2 meters each. I find one I like; the only down side to this find is that the precise fabric content is a bit of a mystery. They know only that it is a wool blend. Well, this is good enough for me!
It’s a mix of mostly greys and burgundy with a bit of black. The texture looks as if it will neatly hide the matching quilting and it had a nice hand. I’m sold, but I need lining.
I try my usual spot on Queen Street West: Affordable Fabrics. Today, though, they have almost no silk charmeuse in stock let alone printed charmeuse which is my prefeence for a bit of interior interest. Oh, they have lost of synthetic lining fabric, but as I said in a previous post, I will not go the polyester lining route ever again. I’m out of there and down the street to Leo’s Textiles. Now we’re talking.
The place is filled with the best high-end selection of silks and wools in Toronto. It seems that most of the customers this day are seeking bridal fabrics, and they are not disappointed. Neither am I. The sale associate quickly finds me some beautiful grey silk charmeuse.
We have an interesting discussion about the rise in the price of quality silk. It seems that although we think of silk as a natural fabric (which it is – a renewable resource which has fewer deleterious effects on the environment than most synthetics), the way it is processed is not so natural. The silk cocoons have to be boiled and this uses lots of electricity which, in many countries, China in particular, causes air pollution because of the coal burning used to produce the electricity. So, less environmentally problematic methods are used and are more expensive. End of environment lesson. Hence, the price tag. I pay it– in fact, I pay almost three times as much for the lining as I pay for the bouclé! I’ll have to be very careful with it, but I will be worth it.
With fabric selected and at the ready, I tissue-fit the pattern and cut the first muslin. Let’s just say that the fit of the first muslin is hideous.
I should have heeded the pattern reviews of Vogue 8804. Many reviewers did say that it was boxy, although when I examined the shape of the pattern pieces and some of the design elements, it didn’t seem to be the case. Oh, it is the case! And then there are the too-long bracelet-length sleeves and the sleeves cut for Sumo wrestlers. But the fitting issues are for my next post.