The Costume Countess
This post follows my process as I bring my fairytale wedding dress to life, but it is not a step-by-step account. Read about the making of my dress from the initial concept to our wedding day, including sentimental details, working on a big dress in a teeny-tiny (and dark!) space, living in that teeny-tiny space with my fiancé while still managing to keep the dress a secret, and last minute help from loving friends that meant the world. With that in mind, please remember that this part of the process is not always glamorous and forgive some of the poor quality photos and (sometimes) messy maker's space as we dive in behind the seams.
I never thought I would make my own wedding dress, for years I simply could not come up with a design. There were far too many details to put together and most importantly, it had to be perfect. It was more than just a dress, and I was afraid that I simply would not be able to do it justice, and so it remained an empty spot in my imagination. But when Jacob proposed, it suddenly all became so clear.
I knew wholeheartedly that I wanted to design a gown that was an intersection of past and present, representing my love of historical costume and yet creating something that was entirely my own. Always inspired by the House of Worth, particularly The Oak Leaf Dress, I decided my dress would be period in construction and silhouette while modern in fabric choices, blending both history and new beginnings, which at the end of the day is what weddings are really all about.
With the big picture had been decided, I wanted to incorporate a few important details into my dress, including pieces cut from my mother’s wedding dress and jewelry that belonged to my great-grandmother.
A few sentimental details:
Something Old: My paternal great-grandmother’s jewelry set; my maternal great-grandmother’s gold wedding band; turn-of-the-century wax headpiece
Something New: My newly made dress!
Something Borrowed: My sister’s veil; Buttons and appliqués from my mother’s wedding dress
Something Blue: My corset; Ribbons on my chemise
A Sixpence in Your Shoe! Or in my case, a shiny 2018 penny!
I wasn’t the only one with meaningful details, here are some of Jacob’s sentimental tokens:
Silver thistle cufflinks, the thistle being one of our personal symbols (Also present on our handmade wedding arch!)
A vintage Russian pocket watch to represent his heritage
A heart shaped necklace that belonged to his late mother, fashioned into the fob on his watch chain
A silk pocket square made from the same silk used to make my dress
A custom vest I made for him using vintage Scottish tweed as a call to our trip to Scotland and my heritage, complete with a hidden Harry Potter ‘Deathly Hallows’ lining
The silver art-nouveau boutonniere holder was the same he wore when we went to prom together
Tie-pin from my grandfather
Starting from the Inside Out
Corsets, petticoat, chemise, stockings, shoes
As with any garment, particularly historical silhouettes, one must start from the inside out! The very first thing I made for my wedding look was my “Something Blue” Edwardian Corset, which you can read all about here
Along with my corset, I also made a very simple chemise to wear beneath my corset along with a couple of petticoats. I can tell you that the old adage, "when in doubt add another petticoat," certainly applied here. I also knew that this was the perfect occasion to spoil myself with a gorgeous pair of shoes from American Duchess. I definitely bought these right away so I could “properly measure my hem during fittings” and not just admire them lovingly...
*A note of the Edwardian S-Bend style corsets*
I learned early on that the garter suspenders attached to the corset are a MUST for proper fit. Beforehand I thought that their only function was to keep your stockings up, however I soon learned that they help tilt your hips into the proper S-bend as well as keep the front of the corset close to the body. In some of my earlier fitting pictures, you can see the ridge from the leg ‘cutouts’ of the corset through several layers of skirt and petticoat simply because I did not have it fastened to my stockings. A small detail that makes a world of difference!
First Muslin Mock-ups
Have you seen tutorials for making your own dress form out of duct tape or paper tape? Usually one would use this method on their natural form, but sometimes I like to do this over the corset I intend to wear for the dress I will be making so I can accurately drape the bodice on ‘myself.’ If you’ve ever tried to put a corset on even the smallest dress form padded out to perfection, you will know that it simply does not squish the way a real body does, not to mention that each corset gives a unique shape, even if the measurements are identical! With Jacob’s help I like to make a duct tape form over each unique corset, and then put it over a muslin form I made from my natural measurements. It’s not exactly glamorous, but so far it has worked out really well for me! This method is also really low budget and allows to me to make new forms for each of my corsets, however one day I would really like to make a foam life cast to work from.
As you can see, I was able to drape muslin over my custom form and get a pretty good first bodice mock up.
I ended up testing out a 1903 skirt pattern in paper, before moving into muslin for the skirt as well. I was extremely happy with how the paper test looked, but when I moved to muslin I was a little underwhelmed.
At the time, I attributed the sad lack of fullness in the skirt to the drape of the muslin, knowing that in addition to petticoats I had planned to flatline my silk with a much sturdier canvas as well as adding a heavy duchesse satin lining to help hold the shape. However, as I moved into the satin, you can see that even while flatlined with canvas it was beginning to puddle at the floor, creating star-shaped drag lines.
While a bit frustrating, draglines do tend to point directly at the problem. After opening a few seams and adding a little bit here and there, I ended up adding a gore at the side seam as well as the center back. As you can see, after making these corrections the skirt now drapes effortlessly when compared to the stress lines before.
With the fit of the skirt corrected, I could then go on to finish the foundation skirt. First, I flatlined the silk to canvas and attached 4" horsehair braid with a herringbone stitch, careful to only catch the canvas. I then attached the duchesse satin lining at the hem and under-stitched before bagging it out to the waist.
Once this part of the skirt was finished, I made an identical petticoat in taffeta, complete with two rows of pinked taffeta ruffles. I then married the petticoat layer to the skirt by stitching them together at the waist. I didn't take many photos during this process, but here are a few of the skirt layers afterwards.
With the foundation of the skirt ready to go, I moved into making my second bodice sample in the duchesse satin lining. With these extreme curves, I prefer to take the extra time to hand-baste the pieces together and make sure it is sewn with precision. But despite my efforts, the bodice was starting to wrinkle like crazy! I triple-checked my sewing against my muslin sample which fit perfectly, and the stitching matched identically. Before adjusting the pattern, I figured it would be worth a shot re-sew half of the sample on the opposite grain for comparison’s sake, and boy did I learn something! If you look, the side on the left was on the original straight-grain while the right side was cut on the cross grain. Look how much smoother the right side is! (Zipper was for easy self-fitting only)
Here are a few fitting photos from this stage. It's starting to take form!
Meanwhile, this is how I would hide my dress before Jacob cam home every night....
By this time, I have added several identical tulle skirt layers to the foundation skirt and I'm now ready to move to the beaded lace.
When working with pre-embellished fabric, you want to remove all beads/sequins from the seam allowance to protect your machine, your eyes (from flying shrapnel), and so the seams lie flat. With fabric as heavily beaded as this, that would mean breaking the beads with a hammer around the entirety of the seam allowance. (Breaking the beads is preferred to cutting because it leaves the threads in place and helps prevent unraveling while you sew). Before I could do this however, I traced the seam allowance of each pattern piece with red thread. This certainly took time (just one of my panels was 4yds long!) but made my life much easier down road.
Time to break the beads in all of the seam allowance! This took an entire day and was pretty loud, not to mention that eye protection is key here. There are thousands of little shards that fly in all directions and my safety goggles were constantly being pelted by little fragments.
Once the beaded layer of the skirt was in place, it was time for me to assess how I wanted to finish the hem visually. Looking to historical garments for reference, I tried a few variations of ruffles and appliqués, eventually deciding to add a pleated organza ruffle on the silk layer to provide lift for the tulle and lace, and then appliquéing wheat motifs from the remnants, concentrating the density at the hem and working their way up. Last but not least, the hem itself was finished by appliquéing the beaded selvedge cut from the lace and a heart shape appliqué from my mother’s dress was added at the center back of the train.
For fun, here is my mom's wedding dress circa 1991, this particular appliqué came from her sleeve!
In order to not disturb the fluid wheat motif, I decided that I would drape the beaded lace in one piece over the fitted satin foundation and hand stitch it into place. I tried several variations until I was finally happy with a drape that wasn’t too distracting. I then carefully removed the beads from lower bodice where the pleated chiffon belt would sit in order to remove bulk and prevent snagging. After going back and forth with myself, I finally decided to baste the belt directly to the bodice so I wouldn’t have to worry about it shifting on my big day. Once in place, I added the covered buttons from my mom’s wedding dress to close the belt at center back, and added another appliqué from her dress to the CF neckline.
Afterwards, I pleated the silk chiffon and draped it into the neckline and sleeve to create a romantic off the shoulder look and a little nouveau nod to Alphonse Mucha’s artwork.
Last minute I decided to add a very thin silk lining and didn't end up taking any photos of the boning channels and waist tape inside. I'm Sorry! You can see, however, the little channel I stitched along the neckline that allowed me to add a little drawstring to help control the straps the day of. This was a very common detail seen in historical garments and it helped keep my straps from falling down all day.
The bodice is closed with alternating hooks and eyes with the edges meeting flush at center back. Having the hooks and eyes alternate prevents them from suddenly popping open as you move (and dance!).
Despite giving myself what I thought would be plenty of time (3 months...) a few work projects came up that put my wedding dress on hold, in addition to being a crazy person and making my 1920s rehearsal dinner dress and Jacob’s vest…. With only a few weeks left, I was in a bit of a panic. I usually don’t like asking for help because I am afraid of being a burden, but Jacob could tell I needed time to myself, so he went away for a weekend and I put out an SOS call for my friends to help me finish all the last minute details that take oh-so-much time.
I am so grateful for all their help and company, and for their helping hands that poured so much more love into my dress. Thank you Ariella, Jade, Toni, Kara, Jill and Judith for all of your help, I couldn’t have done it without you! While I’m at it, a special shout out to my husband for being the best “bride” ever! While I was busy panicking about finishing my dress in time, he was taking care of all the last minute wedding details and dealing with vendors like a normal bride would be doing. I am so incredibly grateful for my village.
Here is the final fit of my gown before packing everything up for San Francisco! As you can probably tell, I haven’t slept in a few days here (the photos are also really fuzzy which is very fitting....) My dress could have been worn down the aisle as it was, but it still wasn’t finished. To be honest though, I’m not sure if it would have ever been completely “finished” in my eyes, there was always more that could be perfected. Lucky for me, my maid of honor, Ariella, continued to hand stitch appliqués onto my dress in the final days leading up to (and possibly the morning of...) our wedding!
Here is the final layer count of my dress!
Silk Lining (not historically accurate, but decided to add it in)
Silk Satin flatlined with fine canvas
White Tulle Layer
Silk Chiffon Belt, tucker and sleeves
Taffeta petticoat #2 attached at waist
Duchesse Satin Lining attached at hem
Silk Satin flatlined with fine canvas, Horsehair hem
Blush Tulle Layer 1
White Tulle Layer 2
White Tulle Layer 3
The big day was finally here and filled with so much magic and love.
Overall, I am so happy that I ended up designing and making my own wedding dress. It was certainly stressful, and there are still a few minor things I would change, but at the end of the day being able to walk down the aisle in one-of-a-kind dress made with so much love made everything worth it.
Special thanks to our Wedding Day Photographer: Ditto Dianto; Our Videographer: Yew Productions and our Florist: Bewilder Floral