Custom Style

Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic

Category Archives: Inspiration

Historic Dresses Undressed

I’m sorting through photos for a couple more Christmas costuming posts, which I’m hoping to have up before New Year’s, but in the meantime, I have to share this wonderful video!

The same friend & coworker who sent me the link to the amazing Dior video also sent me this one a few weeks ago. (Thank you, Matt!)

The undergarments required for a proper period silhouette are often a bit unfamiliar to us in modern times. So many layers! And if you’ve ever wondered what pregnancy fashions looked like in the 1800s, there are a couple examples.

I hope you enjoy this beautifully simple film about historic dresses and all the layers beneath!



And My Resume Gets More Convoluted

I have so many things to share! This is going to be a bit of a hodgepodge post.

Some of you may already know from talking to me directly or seeing it on Twitter, I no longer work part-time at Fabrique Fabrics. It was fun for the year and a half it lasted and I’ll miss my coworkers, but since it was never really my “career” I’m not really upset about it. (I think everyone who knows the details is more upset about it than I am.) The short explanation is my boss decided to reduce my hours to “none” to save some money, so I’m moving on to other things instead of waiting around.

On to more exciting things (and LOTS of links)…

  • Something I worked on last summer will finally be on display at the Dallas Arboretum for the holidays! The 12 Days of Christmas exhibit is “an elaborate collection of life-size Victorian gazebos filled with the charming costumed characters made famous by the beloved Christmas carol.”** You can see it for yourself from November 16, 2014–January 4, 2015. Since the opening was delayed a year, I’m looking forward to remembering what I did. I can’t wait to see it installed and share some photos (and possibly video) once it opens!
  • I helped make some youth circus costumes back in May. Lots and lots of tiny appliqué (spandex on spandex) and ruffles… and thread! I really blew through the thread on this project:

Circus costumes with detailed appliqué designs and what the trashcan next to my machine looked like halfway through.

And here’s a teaser video of this year’s show, in which you can see some of the costumes in motion:

  • If you will be in San Antonio this weekend (September 26-28), you can see some of the fun costumes I helped build this summer in the opera The Fantastic Mr. Fox put on by the new Opera San Antonio.
  • More of my summer sewing work will be in a Christmas parade at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri this year.

Hopefully, I will have more photos of both the opera and the parade to share later. (I’m crossing my fingers that someone will post a video of the parade on YouTube at some point!) Update: Post about the parade.

  • If you will be in Dallas, TX anytime now until October 5, go see the Oscar de la Renta exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It’s fashion inspiration! I went and took a ton of photos a few weeks ago, so if you aren’t able to see it yourself, I promise a detailed blog post about it soon. Here’s a teaser:

Oscar de la Renta – Five Decades of Style exhibit

Recent freelancing has suddenly gone from “absolutely nothing” to “I’m booked into the beginning of next year!” Such is my career.


Meet Keira, one of the mannequins I’ll be making a custom dress for. She’s had a hard life and it’s time for new hair and better clothes.

  • Then it looks like I’ll be finishing out the year working at The Dallas Opera. They have a few new costumes to build. =)

And just because I’ve been looking for a place to share a couple of great costuming videos, I’m going to include them here.

I found the first video because of the second one. It is a really nice overview of what it’s like in any professional costume shop – whether it’s opera, theatre, dance, or film – when there are costumes to construct and fit. “Recreating a Tutu” at the New York City Ballet:

And if you have the time to watch (it’s over 26 minutes long), the following is a truly fascinating video on how a ballet pointe shoe is made (teaser-not-quite-spoiler: inside out!). If you don’t have time to watch it now, come back and watch it later when you do! I promise you will enjoy it.

They use some cool sewing machines and do an amazing amount of the work by hand. And to think that all shoes used to be made this well! “What’s in a Ballet Shoe”:

** What my husband/editor read at first glance: “An elaborate collection of life-size Vulcan gizmos filled with charred costumed characters made famous by the beloved Christmas carrots”  ??

How Dior Own Dresses Compare?

My coworker sent me a mesmerizing video about the making of a Dior dress for a couture fashion show. I can’t stop watching it! I’ve shared it on Twitter a couple times already but everyone should see it, so I’m also posting it here on my blog.

If you’ve ever wondered why fashion is expensive, just try to count the number of different people who have a hand in making this gorgeous dress!

And even if you don’t particularly like the style, you can’t help but be amazed by the amount of work and engineering that goes into such a build! Those pleats! (And those heels! Want!)


For Those Who Love To Sew

Recently, I’ve been enjoying some random blog surfing and finding some interesting new blogs to follow. I’ve been inspired by many and glad to see so many others learning to sew or improving their skills.

The common theme right now seems to be people questioning their abilities and/or idiosyncrasies.

So here’s a little encouragement for all my fellow stitchers, seamstresses, costumers, sewists, seamsters, and crafters:

  • Remember: you can’t will inspiration and you can’t force creativity (those who knew me in high school will recall this was one of “Brooke’s Rules”)
  • You will always be your own worst critic.
  • Being a perfectionist is how artist types are wired – trust me, it’s a normal side-effect of a creative brain, and I’ve never met a crafty person in the professional world who isn’t a perfectionist in some way. You aren’t weird. =)
  • There will always be at least one little thing you wish you had time to do or fix when you have a deadline (even if it’s a self-imposed deadline!).
  • There will almost always be a never-ending pile of unfinished projects and you will always want to add new projects to your list.
  • When you get frustrated with a difficult project, put it down and walk away for a while.
  • Everyone who sews, no matter how experienced, will need encouragement to stick with it periodically – being creative is HARD!
  • You will learn at least one thing from every person you work with and from every project you do.
  • There will always be those people who just don’t understand your need to create (but never forget there are plenty of others who completely get it!).

May your scissors always be sharp and all your thread stay tangle-free! Happy sewing & crafting!

And here’s a video I found inspiring, hope you do too:

Vintage Surprise in My Mailbox

Today the mailman rang my doorbell and left a package on my doorstep. It was from my Mother-in-law, and it was rather heavy.

It’s always fun to receive unexpected gifts, and this was one of the most thrilling because when I opened the box I found this:

The Montgomery Ward Catalog for Fall & Winter of 1946-1947!

It’s a full inch-and-a-half thick! Over 1000 pages of detailed history, and it’s BIG – 9.25” x 13.25” sized pages! It includes everything from clothing to refrigerators to children’s toys to tractor parts.

It’s so thick the index fits on the spine!

The photos are fantastic and the detailed descriptions are wonderful. It’s in surprisingly good shape for being from 1947 – I only found one “dog-eared” page and I’m not sure it was folded on purpose. (My MIL said she found it for only 5 bucks at a thrift store!)

Of course my favorite section is the women’s fashion.

I find it interesting that the styles of jackets and coats back then aren’t terribly different from the modern styles in stores today.

I especially like the wool pea coat on the bottom row, middle right page.

Other than the elaborate Forties hairstyles and the fact that none of the models are wearing jeans, it’s kind of hard to date the coats.

Rain hats and trench coats!

And look! Tying the belt of your coat isn’t such a new idea even though current fashion magazines act like it is.

There are pages and pages of beautiful hats! I wish it were easier to pick up millinery supplies at my local fabric stores – I may have to make some of these!

I love the style lines of this dress:

Only $12.98!

Some of the pages are even in color! These sweaters and cardigans are still considered stylish today:

I would totally wear the two in the bottom right corner! Love the colors!

I would love to be able to digitize this catalog to preserve the history! I may have to invest in a handheld scanner in the future…

DIY Curtain for a Palladian Window

When we moved into our house years ago, I was faced with the challenge of dressing palladian or half-circle windows. We have 5 of them and the biggest one is in my sewing room. It faces south, so the light is constant and wonderful, but the glare was so bad I almost needed sunglasses while I was sewing!

I quickly bought the paper “accordion” pleated window shades to put in the upper half-circle of the windows (on top of the mini-blinds), just to diffuse the light a little in three of the rooms on the front of my house. The paper shades are great because they are cheap and easy to cut to fit. I had to attach two 36” shades for my sewing room window because the diameter of the arch was almost 72 inches. The other windows were smaller and could be filled with just one shade, folded in half and fanned.

Window with paper shade from outside my house.

The paper fans look great from the outside of the house, but my sewing room window was a little boring on the inside. It needed a curtain to dress it up.

I scoured my personal library for ideas of how to adorn a curved window because I didn’t want to just hang a rod straight across the top. In the out-of-print book 1001 Ideas for Windows by Anne Justin, I came across this fun design idea:

The inspiration sketch with my measurement notes.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t include any instructions or how-to’s and most of the best ideas are only sketches. So I needed to engineer a way to rig my curtain to match the sketch.

In another book on my shelf, I found some lovely photographs of simple curtains hanging in arched windows. No curtain rod required! The only problem was that the how-to seemed to be written in code because it called for “touch-and-close tape”. What on earth??

For at least two years, I pondered my window and brooded over what touch-and-close tape could be. Then one day I cracked the code! I remembered that the book was written by a British decorator so… I figured it had to be a lost-in-translation thing.

Then – lightbulb!!! – I knew! “Touch-and-close tape” is British for what Americans call “hook-and-loop tape” or Velcro. It was so stupidly simple, I can’t believe it took me years to figure it out!

I bought a pack of half stick-on and half sew-on velcro and (to save a little money) cut it in half down the entire length, giving myself twice as much since my window circumference was so big. I stuck a continuous line of the hook velcro around the inside of the window frame. (You could also staple the hook side of sew-on velcro to the frame if you don’t have the sticky kind.)

For my curtain, I needed 15 yards of fabric. I chose 34-inch-wide bleached muslin because it would still let a lot of light through, and I wouldn’t need to hem the sides since the selvage edge was hem enough without the fabric being too wide. This way, I only needed to cut the fabric in 4 straight lines. Then I had two panels 10 feet long and two panels 12 feet long. (Make sure to wash and dry your fabric before cutting to allow for any shrinking – this way you can wash & dry your curtain later.)

The same curtain design would be fun in all kinds of fabric combinations, or edged with a colored stripe. I considered adding a black edge around my panels for an added graphic effect, but decided it would detract from my wall decorations and just kept it simple.

I gathered the tops of the 4 long panels and secured the gathers by sewing the edge to the fuzzy strip of velcro, which was cut to fit exactly one quarter of the half circle window frame. (This also makes it easy to wash the curtains because the soft loopy velcro won’t tear the fabric like the hook side.) Then it was as simple as hanging, twisting, attaching loops (or safety-pins) to 4 small nails in the wall, and cutting the hem at the correct angle. I simply serged the bottom hem on each panel, but a rolled hem would work as well.

Now I have an artistically draped curtain that helps filter the light and looks great with my décor.

The finished curtain in my sewing room.

I know that anyone who has any sort of curved window has been frustrated at some point by the lack of options for window treatments. I had a feeling there was a simple solution out there without spending a fortune on fancy hardware! And when you have a beautifully shaped window, why should you have to cover up the architectural interest?

I hope this – my adventure and eventual solution – will help other owners of unusually shaped windows solve their own decorating dilemmas.

Related posts:

How I Organized my Sewing Room

Chain Bridal Stores: Pitfalls, Perils, & Poppycock

While I believe that bridal & formal store chains have their value, it has been my personal experience that there are many things they won’t tell you or explain to you until it is too late.  This means you will need to know enough on your own to work “around” them.

A form-fitting pencil style skirt

Over the years, after examining & fitting so many wedding & bridesmaid dresses from chain stores, I have made an interesting observation – one that almost always guarantees the customer will need alterations.  The sales clerks will convince you that you need a dress at least one size bigger than you actually do.  When they determine your size, they only measure bust, waist, and hips.  Then they refer to a size chart that shows the standard body measurements that are used by the company to make the dresses they carry in the store.  In most cases, your bust & waist measurements will fall into one size, while your hips will be in the next size or two up.  So you are told to order the size that fits your hips, since “you can always have the rest taken in.” 

Unless the skirt is a form-fitting pencil style, the hips should not determine the size you order.  It is always best to use your bust measurement when ordering your size because it’s the part of the dress with the most fit.  Formal dresses typically have extra-large seam allowances, and can be let out an inch or two if there is an area that fits a little too tightly – provided there is no beadwork in the area that needs to be let out.  Straps and hems almost always need to be shortened no matter how well the rest of the dress fits.  (And if the sample you’re trying on fits, don’t let anyone convince you to buy a bigger size!)

I consulted with one bride who had tried on a spaghetti-strap dress at a chain store and it fit her almost perfectly.  Then they measured her and told her she needed one size larger according to her measurements.  She questioned them about it since the sample had fit so well.  They told her the sample was probably “stretched-out” from being tried on by so many people. 

Trusting their advice, she ultimately had them order the larger size, and it wound up being about two sizes too big in the bust – the only part of the dress that was supposed to be tight!  She didn’t learn how expensive the alterations would be until she had paid for the dress, and then it couldn’t be returned or exchanged. 

She learned that many of the clerks at chain stores do not know much about the construction of dresses and are only following the company procedures when helping you choose your size.  Unfortunately for you, this almost always guarantees the store makes a profit from alterations in addition to the sale.  By the time you have your heart set on your dream dress, you have to be willing to pay for the necessary alterations – which can often cost as much as the gown itself.

See also: Alterations – What’s the Big Deal?

I was like many a bride-to-be and did not know what style gown I wanted to wear on the Big Day.  I decided to go to a chain store, but only because there was no charge to try on dresses.  I had a general list of styles I knew I did not want, so I suspected many of the dresses I took into the fitting room probably wouldn’t thrill me.  Because I am so small, all of the dresses available were one size too large.  So I knew that no matter what, any dress would require alterations. 

The night I tried on wedding gowns was during the week, so it was a very light customer night with only one other betrothed in the store with me.  The sales floor associate would only pause for a few seconds to tell me that I looked “beautiful” each time I emerged in a new dress to consult the mirror.  It seemed she was only out to make a sale and really didn’t care which one I chose.  A few times I tried to tell her why a style was “wrong” for my body, at which she would disagree with a quizzical look on her face.  She apparently had little to no training on how to dress different body-types.

The off-the-rack gown that inspired my custom dress

After analyzing the different dress styles on my body, I was able to decide which looked best on me.  While the cut & silhouette of the off-the-rack dress was great – despite being too big on me – there were other things I didn’t like about it.  Mainly, the cheap, scratchy tulle (or net) on the outside felt horrible when I put my arms down at my sides.  I also noticed many of the fake pearl beads covering the bodice & scattered over the rest of the dress were loose – I had already seen a few roll away as I stood there.  The dress had not even left the store and it was already losing beads!  The materials were cheap, and the machine-sewn beadwork was poorly done. 

No beads rolling away here!

There was only one thing I could do.  I decided to make my own dress in the same style, but with a sheer organza overlay instead of scratchy tulle, and with prettier & more secure hand-sewn beadwork.  It fit me perfectly, and it was the first of many other wedding dresses I have constructed.  I also made my veil.

After learning of the plight of so many women in their dealings with bridal chain stores, I realized there were many who would appreciate all that is a custom dress.

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