Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
A Fabulous Fifties Gown
January 22, 2011Posted by on
Last fall, I had the privilege of creating a 1950s retro wedding gown for a friend’s co-worker. Camille, the bride-to-be, had wisely decided to contact me almost a year before the wedding date to begin the process of having her dress custom made. At the initial meeting, she gave me a rough hand-drawn sketch of the style she had in mind, and we discussed elements not included in the sketch (fabric, hair-style, veil, heel height, etc).
I recorded her detailed measurements (a full page worth, not just bust-waist-hips) and she departed with the task of finding the proper undergarments for her dress.
Like most brides, Camille had the goal of losing some weight before her wedding day. Therefore, we postponed a mock-up fitting until it was closer to the actual date. That gave me the time I needed to research the pattern, draft it, and go fabric shopping; and it gave her plenty of time to find the perfect lingerie and shoes.
I started my quest by examining vintage sewing patterns and Fifties style-lines. I narrowed my models down to two vintage pattern envelopes (both from 1957) that best captured the look Camille depicted in her sketch. From those two designs, I was able to thumb through my own collection to find patterns with the same seam-lines, piece together two dress patterns, and draft a sleeve pattern from scratch.
We knew that the dress needed to be a soft white (not bleach white or yellowy ivory), so I hunted for a cotton lace that was soft to the touch and could be tea-dyed to the desired color. After extensive searching, I got lucky when I found a white, vintage-looking cotton lace for sale online. I ordered the lace from the fabric site and a 1950s style petticoat from Petticoat Junction. (Later, when lace was in season in the fabric stores, I did see the exact same lace on the shelf, but at a higher price.)
With the hybrid pattern, I was able to start making a mock-up in the size that would best fit her measurements. I used a cheap bed sheet and some old scraps of lace from a past project to construct a prototype dress with only one sleeve, which allowed Camille to simultaneously see two versions of the dress when she came for her first fitting.
The mock-up fitting gave me the chance to mark the neckline, sleeve & hem, zipper placement, and adjust a few seams so that everything worked with her undergarments. And Camille was able to decide that she liked the ¾ length sleeve for her dress. With the pattern perfected on her actual body, I was ready to cut the dress from the real fabric.
But first, I had to play mad scientist and attempt to dye the lace with tea. I experimented by dyeing some small swatches of the lace to test the time needed in the tea to achieve the desired color. Then I bought a large white plastic trashcan that was big enough to hold the amount of tea needed to submerge all the pre-wet lace at the same time. It took an entire box of “pitcher size” teabags to brew a tea strong enough to achieve the color I needed. When the timer went off, I transferred the dyed lace into my washing machine full of plain water and spun it out before putting it in the dryer. The tea bath had given the lace a wonderful vintage appearance.
I repeated the tea-dyeing process with the tulle for the veil and then bravely took a chance with the store-bought petticoat so that everything would be a matching soft white color. (Fortunately, the satin taffeta fabric I bought to go under the lace was already the perfect color and didn’t need any dyeing.)
Once all the fabric was prepped, I eagerly began cutting out the actual dress for assembly. I cut the lace sleeves and skirt with the finished hem length on the scalloped edge of the material, which eliminated the need for a sewn hem – especially time-saving since the skirt’s hem measured 5½ yards around! The only lace edge I had to “hem” was the neckline, which I finished by adding a section of the scallop onto the edge of the neck.
The satin taffeta underskirt was a different pattern shape, and, therefore, needed to hang for a few days to let the bias stretch with gravity before I could mark a hem to line-up with the lace overskirt and petticoat.
I finished the back of the gown (from waist up) with shanked buttons of vintage shell from my collection of old buttons. During one fitting, it was unanimously decided that the best way to complete the retro dress was to add a handmade matching lace belt with a small silver buckle right at the waistline – a perfect 50’s accessory. The shoulder-length veil and cute round-toed heels in a subtle blush-pink were the perfect complementary details without being distracting.
Camille had her wedding on a perfect autumn night in her own backyard with a small group of family & friends as witnesses. She made her entrance from the stairs of an apartment above her garage and descended to her waiting groom beneath a beautiful old tree. Her soft white dress glowed in the warm light of the decorated backyard. It was wondrously nostalgic – like Audrey Hepburn had stepped out of an old movie.
Wedding photography by Jamie Coupaud.