Remaking a Formal Dress

Last May I bought a dress. I bought it, not because of what it was, but because of what I could make from it.

I loved the bright color and the full swing of the skirt. It reminded me of all those long dresses that Ginger Rogers used to wear when dancing with Fred Astaire. Or perhaps the fancy dress Grace Kelly wore in High Society. I knew I could make something from it, but first I had to get rid of the lace and ruffles.

You can see that the skirt was extremely sheer. There must have been a slip or underskirt which got separated from the dress. My first step was to solve that problem by adding additional layers of chiffon. I chose a yellow with a hot pink underskirt. The different colors would show through creating shifting highlights as the skirt moved.

I used the skirt of the dress as a pattern. It was pretty simple since the skirt was a full circle.

The skirt was also far too long. Its original owner must have been taller than me or habitually wore seven inch platform shoes. So I trimmed the skirt and hemmed it.

There is a lot of sewing involved when you have three layers of full-circle skirt. Particularly when you have to hem around twice to get the proper narrow roll. The resulting dress was wearable, but exceedingly simple. It was time for me to take some of that ruffle and some of the left over yellow chiffon and make the dress much more attractive.

I played with draping and wrapping the fabric that I had available. The waist of the dress was high, so I knew that I wanted to add a wide belt to create a better silhouette. I also decided that those triangle sleeves needed to go. Unfortunately none of the pieces of orange chiffon were wide enough to make sleeves. So I got creative.

I sewed together two segments of ruffle so that the hemmed bits were together.

I used the sleeve piece from a dress pattern I had, making sure that the seam ran down the center of the sleeve. Once the sleeve was constructed, I slit open this sleeve seam so that it gaps open attractively along the top of my arm only being joined at the top of the sleeve and at my elbow. I’ll try to get a picture of this the next time I try on the dress.

I decided to make long drapes off my shoulders to add interest in the back. Besides I had to do something with all that left over ruffle. You can see the huge pile of it on the floor. I still have a pile of it even after the dress is done. I’ll hold it against future alterations or repairs.

The next steps involved a lot of hand sewing. Most of the things could have been done on machine, but tacking things into place by hand made unpicking and re-sewing much easier. I did a lot as I was figuring out the best ways to accomplish the look I’d hoped for.

I am pleased with the result. I’ll take pictures when I’m wearing it and all dressed up, but for now you can see it on the hanger.

I loved this project. I loved breathing new life into an old dress. I loved taking it apart and re-using the old pieces. My brain is already burbling with ideas about how to do this again, only with a completely different dress. For now I need to put my dress aside until a week from Saturday when I get to wear it to the Hugos.

Cliche and Shopping

Yesterday I took my daughters for a mother daughter shopping trip. We were out for hours, had a marvelous time, and came home with big bags of new things. I say new, but since we spent most of the time at at thrift store, the things were only new to us. This does not diminish the delight of my girls at their new things. Today I realized that my emotional reserves were empty and that I needed some time by myself. I didn’t need to be physically alone, though that would have worked, what I needed was to reside in spaces where I got to direct my steps without negotiation and where no one expected anything of me. I went shopping again, because that long trip with my daughters was all focused on them. I’ve long had wardrobe gaps to fill and worn out clothing to replace.

I remember our truly lean years. During those years we could not afford to buy clothing that cost more than $1 per item and then only if we really needed it. I shopped the thrift stores on dollar days and thought longingly of the days when I could buy $6 clothing on a whim. I thought about that as I wheeled my cart full of $4-$7 items to the check out stand. I am truly fortunate.

The goddess of shopping smiled upon me and my daughters these past two days. We each had a wishlist and each of us found something perfect to match it. This also held true at the clearance shoe section of Target. I can now pack for WorldCon feeling more confident and a little sheepish that part of my confidence is dependent upon clothing. Feeling like I look good makes me stand taller and walk stronger. This is true even though I might wish that all my confidence welled up from within.

Discovering Shawls

Mary and I were in our hotel room getting dressed to venture into Baycon for the evening. I had a lovely short sleeved shirt, but once again came up against the knowledge that hotel interiors are invariably frigid. I could wear the shirt and feel pretty, or I could cover it almost completely with a jacket and feel warm. The jacket choices I’d brought were less than ideal. Mary turned to her drawer and pulled out a long piece of fabric. It was a lovely shawl which complemented my shirt beautifully. Mary had several of these and after a single evening of wearing one, I realized that they are now essential convention wear for me. I must always have a shawl. If I am too warm I can tuck it into my purse. If I am too cold, I can wrap it around like a blanket. A shawl is a good thing. Conveniently the hotel store had a stack of pashmina shawls for sale. I bought several in solid colors. Searching the internet has shown me many shawls with lovely designs as well. I suspect my collection will grow. I love it when beautiful things are also useful.

Attending a Regency Ball

One of the events at Baycon was a Regency Ball. Mary loves the regency period and had two dresses, so we dressed up and went to the dance. I found the process of dressing in period style fascinating. Mary told me all about the reasons for the various undergarments and what look the regency ladies were trying to achieve. It was fascinating. The look is very different than my instinctive preferences. I like looks that accentuate waists. But I felt lovely in the regency dress and am now thinking differently about the period styles.

The evening was fun from start to finish. They had a dance master on hand to teach everyone the steps. Since there were far more ladies than gentlemen, many of the ladies paired up as partners. Mary and I took turns in the gentleman’s position. I’ve read Austen books and after having attended a period ball many of those dancing scenes make far more sense to me. I’ll probably also be more interested in the dancing scenes in movies as well. We only danced twice. The second dance was quite fast and during the course of it, Mary lost one of her shoes. We found it again when the music finished, then made made jokes about the wild regency party. I kept being a little afraid that I would accidentally step on the lace trim of the dress I was wearing. Mary is taller than I am. Even though I was wearing 1.5 inch heels, the back trim kept threatening to get caught. I really did not want to damage Mary’s lovely dress.

I am now eyeing the dances at Worldcon and pondering the possibilities of costumes. I’m not certain I will follow through, life is busy and Worldcon is hectic, but I had enough fun that the idea really appeals to me.

Making and Wearing Hats

I went to a tea party yesterday. It was a mother daughter event which included no actual tea, but the lemonade was served in tea cups and there were scones. “Come dressed in your finest.” The invitation said. I did not actually pick my finest, formal wear is not quite right for afternoon tea. I did put on dressy clothes. Gleek did too. Then she got quite upset when she had no pretty shoes to wear. I’m not quite certain how we ended up with no nice shoes in her size. I guess she outgrew them during the past 9 months when she refused to wear anything but tennis shoes to church.
“I’ll be the only girl there with ugly shoes!” Gleek lamented as we got into the car.

By the time we arrived at the church building two minutes later, shoes were completely forgotten. Gleek found us seats at one of the tables. The first activity was hat decorating. The organizers had purchased and array of straw hats and hat trimmings. A long table was covered in faux flowers, ribbons, feather boas, feathers, tulle, glittery stickers, and pom pons. Gleek approached the project with high enthusiasm. My first reaction was more reluctant than hers, but as I arranged ribbon and flowers on my hat, I found myself enjoying the process of making something beautiful. We wore the hats for the tea.

Gleek’s hat was either a complete wreck or an absolutely brilliant expression of individuality and creativity. I loved it. I loved even more that she wore the hat to school today. As she disappeared into the school building I had a momentary fear that someone would make fun of her for her hat. Then I realized that Gleek’s absolute fearlessness meant that her peers were much more likely to decide she was cool than that she was weird. She was still wearing the hat at the end of the school day, so all went well. Now I just have to figure out when and where I am brave enough to wear mine.

Tulips and Dresses

Yesterday was sunny. It was the only truly lovely day we’ve had in about a week and a half. During those same chilly gray days I was swamped with work and stress. But I’d sent off the book files and they’d arrived. Howard had departed for his convention. The kids were all at school. For the first time in almost a month I had a day to claim as my own. I intended to use it touring the Tulip Festival at Thanksgiving Point. I dressed in the springiest shirt I own and bounced a little as I descended the front steps. Then my cell phone rang. It was Patch complaining that his stomach didn’t feel good. Motherhood responsibility settled back on me like a wet winter coat.

I managed to have a good day despite the rearrangement of my plans. A friend kept me company and we had a really good talk for hours on end. But I mourned the loss of being free to do whatever I chose. The sadness returned full force later in the afternoon when Patch fessed up that he had not really felt sick. I know that experimenting with deception as a method for manipulating the world is developmentally appropriate for an 8 year old. I just wish he’d picked a different day. So did he once he saw how sad I was about missing the gardens. Neither of us could give the day back to me.

This morning was gray and blustery, much too cold to enjoy walking in a garden. But the book was still done, Howard was at his convention, and the kids were all off at school. I claimed the day as mine and headed to Decades Vintage Clothing in Salt Lake City. Browsing through fabrics, colors, and styles feeds some of the same portions of my brain which enjoy flowers. The primary purpose of the trip was to find a formal dress. I searched Decades for dresses last year, but nothing was perfect. This year I wasn’t looking for perfect. I was looking for a dress I could alter. I was looking for dresses that filled me with thoughts of what they could be with only a few changes. The store was full of dresses like that. I browsed, tried on, and spun plans. Eventually I came home with three. None of them are presentable at the moment, once they are I’ll write up whole posts about how I made them so.

It was a lovely day, partly for the dresses, but mostly because it was completely mine.

Fashion, Haircuts, and Folk Art

When I look in the mirror these days I feel weathered. Not old, I get too many things done and carry far too many boxes of books to feel old. But the mirror was not showing me things I wanted to see. I kept noticing wrinkles, and other signs of aging. I’ve always been one who believed that wrinkles add character and create beauty. I’ve always intended to be a person who doesn’t mind them, and treats them as badges of a life well lived. And I have been that person, except lately, when I feel weathered.

On some level, I knew that my negative observations about my appearance were not because my appearance changed dramatically. I don’t look visibly different than I did three months ago. The difference is psychological, not physical. I feel grubby, boring, unattractive. This is the quite understandable result of being task focused for several months. My primary focus for personal grooming was to ready myself for the job ahead of me. I had no time to spare for more than the minimum of getting dressed and keeping my long hair out of my face. This past week I had time to pay attention again, and this is when I noticed how I was feeling about myself.

For some people fashion is a business or an industry. Some people consider it a social imperative. For me, fashion is a folk art. It is something I do because it gives me pleasure. I knew I needed to make an effort to put it back. What I was not sure of was how to go about that. I decided against going shopping for clothing. I’m feeling very cautious about spending money until after we see how well things sell at our GenCon booth. I seriously considered cutting my hair short. There are things I miss about having short hair. I played with the idea of coloring my hair as well. But a good cut and color are not at all cheap. And I did not want to have to explain over and over again why I had cut my hair. The point of the hair cut would be to infuse me with energy, which gets sapped by having to deal with other peoples reactions to the absence of long hair. (Side note: If you have long hair and cut it short, everyone wants to know why. Then they want to lament for the long hair that is now gone.) Add to that the knowledge that most women make drastic changes to their hair when something else in their life is askew. I knew this was exactly why I was considering a drastic change. I also knew that I was on the way back to being balanced, so I waited to see if the mood to cut would go away.

For me the point of long hair is the beautiful styles that can be created with it. If all I am going to do is throw it into a braid to keep it out of my way, I might as well cut it off. Then Last night I googled historical hairstyles on the internet. Once again my head is full of possibilities and many of them do not take much time at all. This morning I took a few extra minutes to put my hair up. I even stuck a flower in it. It is not much. I still don’t like everything I see when I look in the mirror, but I like it better than I did yesterday. I see the improvement in my face as well as in my hair, which makes clear to me that the faults I am seeing are as much inside my head as they are outside it. This is why I try not to listen to the voice which enumerates my physical faults. That voice has motives that I should not trust, no matter how loud the voice may be right now. Easier said than done, but I can get better at anything if I’m willing to practice.

As a side note, I’m extremely grateful to have time for folk art again.

Small happiness with footnotes

When Clark Kent ducks into a phone booth and changes clothes, he becomes someone else*. Today I put on my stylish jeans and a swishy new scarf**. Then I sashayed myself down to the kitchen for a slice of hot three-cheese semolina dipped in spaghetti sauce. I felt young, attractive, and interesting with the shabbiness of my mom clothes laying in a heap on my bedroom floor***. Even better, I had the house to myself, and so my snack was uninterrupted. Later on I danced in my kitchen just because I felt like it. These interludes in my day were short, surrounded on all sides by scrambling to get all of my work done. But like a sunbeam through a window brightens the whole room, my whole day was brighter.

*Where will Clark Kent change clothes now that cell phones have made pay phones scarce?
**Kohls is my new best friend. Janci, I should have listened to you a year ago.
***I’ll pick them up later. I swear.****
****Does Superman go back to the phone booth and retrieve his clothes after he’s done heroing? Or does he just leave poor Clark to constantly shop for suits?

On Pants, Shopping, and Transformation

“Standing in front of the dressing room mirror is such a reality check.” Melinda said as she handed over a stack of clothes she would not be buying. I agreed as I handed over my stack too. We each retained one shirt. Pants were what we’d come to find.

In most fairy tales and many modern women’s stories there is a moment of transformation. Cinderella’s godmother transforms her from a drudge to a princess. The best friend takes the woman shopping and she changes from a nerd into something beautiful. The little mermaid sheds her fins for legs. The further outcomes vary greatly, but in each the transformational element echoes in story after story. It is a reflection of the desire of ordinary women to be made beautiful. This is what I search for in the clothing racks. I seek the item which will camouflage my physical faults and draw the eye in good ways. I hope for clothing which will transform me. It is a lot to ask from mere clothing.

My last post about shopping for pants got far more responses than I expected. Women poured out sympathy and suggestions. At least one man read the commentary and was trying to comprehend the attraction of shopping for women. One friend, Jessica, was so moved by my lack of good pants that she declared that we must go shopping together. Melinda volunteered to go too. So the three of us found babysitting for our respective offspring and met at a mall.

When I was a teenager, shopping was a big component of my social interactions with friends. We would go to the mall and spend hours browsing through racks, trying on clothes, and pretending not to notice the boys who were there. There was giggling. Mostly it was freedom we craved on these shopping expeditions. We were away from our parents with money in our pockets. Trying on clothes was like playing dress up. We could experiment with who we wanted to be by trying on different clothes. And there was always the unspoken hope of transformation, that we would find one beautiful item which would make us beautiful. Shopping with adult women is much the same. We escaped from our children to visit with friends, to play dress up, and to hope for transformation.

Howard and the kids watched Princess and the Frog this weekend. That is a movie which is heavily invested in transformations. The characters transform again and again as the film explores how appearance relates to substance. Many of the transformations are magical in nature, but at least one is transformation by clothing. Tiana puts on a borrowed dress and becomes a princess.

Fun was the primary purpose of the outing for me. The quest for pants was merely a good excuse to hang out with two women I don’t get to see often enough. I honestly did not care whether I brought home clothes or not. The enjoyment was in allowing myself to look, imagine, and laugh. So amidst all the talking and looking, each of us selected some clothes to try on. Which led to the moment when Melinda and I grimaced together about the unkindness of dressing room mirrors. For there we saw ourselves, transformed in unwanted dimensions. We resolved to be better about getting regular exercise, and we began by walking through the mall to a different store.

Every woman has an item of clothing that they remember because they did not buy it. It is a reverse form of shoppers regret. Mine was a persimmon colored dress. I was seventeen and the dress was perfect. It fit perfectly, the skirt swung, the color flattered my complexion. I loved it. My mother loved it. It was a dress that transformed me. But we left it behind because it cost twice as much as any other dress I had ever owned. If I had bought it, I would have worn it and loved it. But eventually it would have been worn out, outgrown, or out of date. I would not still have it today. But it shines in my memory.

The shopping expedition did result in the purchase of pants. In fact all three of us bought the exact same pair of pants. Or rather we bought three identical pairs of pants. (We are not doing the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants thing where we attempt to share a single pair.) Now we feel that in the spirit of acting like junior high girls we should all arrange to wear them to the same event on the same day.

So did I find transformation among the clothing racks? Not this trip. I just found a good pair of pants that make me feel a little more attractive. It is a small transformation I guess. But I can’t help feeling like full transformation is out there. If only I could find it, then all my dreams could come true. That’s how it works in all the fairy tales. In real life the thing that makes dreams come true is lots of hard work. (I love that Princess and the Frog acknowledges this. It is positive progress in the way we teach our kids to think about dreams.) So if I don’t seek for my dreams in the clothing racks, what am I seeking? I’m seeking the clothes which make me feel transformed. They don’t have to be expensive. Sometimes I find it in clothes that I’m given for free or on the cheap at second hand stores. Sometimes it is by pulling out my sewing machine and making alterations to things I already own. No matter where the clothes come from, I’m playing dress up. Putting on professional clothes contributes to my feeling of professionalism and thus to my ability to actually be professional. Putting on attractive clothes helps me feel attractive, which causes me to have confidence, which actually makes me more attractive.

I once fessed up to a woman at church that I sometimes buy new shoes before conventions, because wearing something new gives me confidence. I was a little mystified with this seeming illogical behavior in myself. The other woman laughed. “Oh sweetie. I don’t even try to rationalize it. I just know it works and I buy shoes.”

I think this is wisdom. Take what works and run with it. So here I sit in my new pants, ready to handle whatever comes next with more confidence than I had the day before yesterday.

In search of pants

The time has come for new pants. My old pants still fit, although loosely. They aren’t worn out, just worn down a bit. But styles have shifted. My awareness has shifted. And I would like to have some pants that contribute to a feeling of competence and attractiveness rather than just being serviceable. I want some every day clothes that don’t proclaim motherhood quite so clearly. I want a greater variety of professional clothes. Also, on an average day I can count the amount of time I spend outside my house on the minutes of one hour. It was time to go shopping.

Pants shopping is not my favorite thing. I find it more tolerable when I go to Savers with a coupon for 30% off, because I don’t have to deal with quite so much sticker shock. Also I frequently find amusement at the clothes that someone somewhere spent full price on, but which I can laugh at for free. The disadvantage of shopping second hand is that when you find something that is perfect except for being a little too small, you can’t go back for a different size. One of the major advantages is the variety. Very different styles are on the same rack instead of in different stores.

I was in search of pants, so naturally I started by looking at shirts. Some days are good shopping days. These are the days where it seems like everything in the store is just right. Other days I can spend hours flipping through racks without finding a thing I care to try on. Today was a good shirt day. It was not such a good pants day. I still count it as a win when I come home with eight items of clothing for less than $24. Especially when 1/4 of the clothes actually fit the category I went to the store to acquire.

I also came home with an awareness that I don’t really know what I am looking for when it comes to clothes. I kept standing there at the shirt rack, remembering that I have outfits at home which just lacked a single piece to be perfect, but I could not remember what pieces I was missing. So I brought home pieces of new outfits for which I will now have to find additional pieces. I need to approach this whole “renovate the wardrobe” project a little more systematically. I need to go through my closet and make lists. While I am at it, I should probably inventory the kid clothes too. Then I need to carry that list with me and go visit the thrift store every couple of weeks until I’ve filled the gaps.

I know this stuff. I used to do it all the time. It was survival during the lean years. But then I got busy and stopped keeping track of clothing other than to dump it through the laundry machines and occasionally fold it. No wonder my clothes feel out dated.