It’s been a while since I said this but….this dress was a JOURNEY, hahaha!
I have a conservative but beautiful stack of Vogue Paris Originals in my pattern stash, most of which were gifted as Christmas and birthday presents over the years, which I am slowly making my way through. I think I may have 3 or 4 of these makes under my belt by now, and some of them have been easier than others, but all of them have been challenging. I have found that the sizing for these garments, save for the normal adjustments I make on patterns regarding length, is pretty spot on and don’t have as much ease and therefore require as much futzing as most Big 4s. BUT! The instructions can be INSANE to follow. Part of it is because the distance between construction methods and materials then and now continues to get larger as time goes on. For example, a lot of vintage patterns from around the 70s and before include the use of interfacing, but iron-on interfacing either had not been invented yet or wasn’t readily available to home sewists, so the instructions always account for sewn-in interfacing, which of course needs to be attached to a separate fabric facing. As a modern sewist I am often so used to just ironing woven interfacing onto whatever pieces need to be stabilized, whether it’s the facing or the actual garment, that I forget that those aren’t always what the instructions are asking for.
Another reason these VPO designs can be so tricky to sew up is because the designs are so unique that they require construction methods that are very strange/unfamiliar. VPO patterns are pretty special, created by famous clothing designers of yester- (and sometimes today!) year to recreate some of their designs for the home sewist, and these aren’t just your everyday bodice and gathered skirt kinds of dresses- these have interesting details and often complicated construction techniques that up the ante of your regular sew-at-home outfit.
So back to this dress. Pierre Balmain was a couture designer of women’s gowns and dresses and hit his stride in the 40’s/50’s/60’s creating voluminous skirts with “nipped in waists”, using luxurious textiles with embroidery and beading, but as you can see, this VPO # 1625 is a very wearable, simplified silhouette, which is why I was so drawn to it; without having an excessive amount of frills and pleats, it screams decadence! The woman who wears this is SO FABULOUS AND UNCONCERNED that SHE CAN’T MOVE HER ARMS ABOVE HER HEAD…AND SHE DOESN’T EVEN CARE! It’s not the most practical design, those batwing sleeves that keep me from reaching up higher than my shoulders, but then again, red carpet ensembles don’t really have to be, and I am crazy about the look. It’s kind of like a cape dress, but the cape isn’t free-flowing all the way around- it’s tacked down at the front and back waistline and the “wings” of the cape are only free underneath the arms.
I was gifted this gorgeous Star Print Crepe de Chine from The Fabric Store and was overcome by a surge of inspiration when I unboxed it. The print, small white stars of varying sizes stretched out across a dark navy background, is eye-catching and subtle enough to not look twee but bold enough to feel really special. It has a crisp hand, and even though it’s very lightweight, it is opaque on the body and holds it’s structure really well- it isn’t drapey or silky (although the texture is very soft), and even though it’s listed as a crepe de chine, it has a very smooth hand and the textured effect isn’t very prominent. An idea popped into my head that I could use this fabric for one of my VPOs, but I kept talking myself out of it, thinking that it would be too lightweight to pair well with this pattern in particular. Eventually I decided to go for it anyways- once I realized that the pattern didn’t require a heavy or lightweight fabric, it just needed something that held it’s structure well, I felt confident that the fabric would translate beautifully, and thankfully I was right!
First I traced out all my pattern pieces and (thankfully) remembered to shorten the bodice, but it required some extra work. I’m not sure if I have ever seen lengthen or shorten lines anywhere on a VPO pattern except the skirt/pants, and because the bodice is curved on the bottom and has indents to make way for attaching the bodice to the skirt in certain areas, I had to create my own lengthen/shorten lines by redrawing the bottom of the cape a couple inches shorter, then truing the lines of the side seams. Easy peasy!
Next I got to working on the skirt. I had no idea how well it would fit as-is, so I extended my side seams at the hips- VPO patterns come in one size as opposed to nested with multiple measurements, so you can’t grade between sizes and instead have to take in or add extra allowance where you usually grade. I also widended my seam allowance on the side seams of the skirt from 5/8″ to 1″ so I would have ample room for making adjustments if I needed to. Next I cut the skirt out, basted the front and back darts, then tried it on to see where it needed more adjusting. I brought the back darts in a bit more and toyed around with the side seams til the skirt fit well in the hip and butt area, then I french seamed the side and back seams. All of this was pretty standard fitting stuff for me, but I made one big mistake- I adjusted the fit the skirt without taking into account that the front has an overlapping button band, so when it came time to constructing this part of the design, my skirt fit me perfectly when the front seams met at center, but not when they folded over to accommodate the placket. OOF!!!! ROOKIE MISTAKE, J! Somehow, some way, I was able to fudge things and I ended up squeezing just enough room out of the back french seam to give me a tiny bit more breathing room at the waistline of center front.
This dress is designed to have a lining underneath it, but I was confused as to what it would look like and whether I would end up needing it (I have trouble reading ahead in patterns if I don’t have a 3D visual aid, ie. the garment, to refer to), so I just moved full steam ahead but used french seams everywhere that I could in the event that the lining didn’t work and the insides needed to be finished. Another thing I neglected to take into account when adjusting the skirt was making sure that my bodice matched up with the smaller waistline. The bodice is attached to the skirt at the front and back waistlines and then flows freely underneath the arms, but now my back bodice was much too wide to match up to it. I decided to sew a big dart, beginning at the neckline and extending all the way down to the waistline, to cinch all that extra fabric in, and it turned out beautifully- it just looks like the back was cut into two pieces instead of on the center fold, and the print of this fabric is very forgiving so it looks intentional.
The bodice, though very simple looking, has a very interesting construction. There is a V-shaped dart at the lower front center of the bodice to accommodate the bust area since the dress isn’t fitted at the arms and there are no side seams in this area. I had never created darts like this- they start at the apex of the bust and then pivot before trailing out towards the front center, and because they intersect at the button band, the placket overlaps at the darts. Sewing this dart wasn’t difficult, but the instructions were pretty rough, and the maker should have been advised to use a tracing wheel to mark the seamlines of the darts on both bodice pieces (since it’s not a typically constructed dart, they didn’t show the normal dotted wedge line on the pattern piece to pin together and sew closed). I had to take my darts apart a couple of times to get it exactly right, but once I did, the effect was really cool!
The back neck facing was meant to be cut out separately for this pattern (which was difficult to tell in the instructions- there was a pattern piece specifically for the interfacing but not for self fabric) so I just applied the back neck interfacing directly to the back bodice, which worked out fine except now I had to figure out how to finish the neckline since I wouldn’t be sewing the outer shell of the dress to separate facings. To be honest, I am still unsure of exactly how they wanted the neckline to be completed, since, as I mentioned, the front facings are not separate and are merely extended pieces of the bodice folded in on itself. This is what I meant when I said that sometimes with these patterns you just have to do what makes the most sense to you instead of adhering to instructions that may or may not be correct. I trimmed the neckline of my fabric, made some bias tape, then sewed it to the seam line, understitched, and folded over and under to enclose the raw edge and give a nice, clean finish, which I am very happy with.
Lastly came the lining, and because I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make one, I hadn’t purchased any fabric to use specifically for it. I dug through my stash and found some black organza that I thought would pair well with the qualities of my poly crepe de chine, and it just…wasn’t quite right. The organza was a tiny bit too stiff for the star print poly, and the poly also creates a lot of static, so the dress just clung to the lining underneath instead of gliding over it. Although I loved the way that the lining was meant to be attached to the dress (just at the button band and shoulders, and designed with regular bias bound armholes as opposed to mirroring the lines of the batwing sleeves), I had already finished most of the seams inside of the dress so I just decided to omit the lining and wear a slip underneath if I felt like I needed more coverage- in these pictures you can still see that I am dealing with some static cling wearing a simple silk slip underneath, but in all honesty, the slip is unnecessary.
I bought a few packages of inexpensive but really pretty gold-rimmed white buttons to use for the front of the dress and I think they look great- they don’t interrupt the print of the dress too much and flow well with the rest of the stars around it.
This dress was a LOT of work to complete and of course if and when I make it again I know a million things I will do differently (or not do at all!) but overall, I am pretty stoked at how it looks, especially after seeing these pictures. The print is dynamic but so is the fit- I don’t often see many structural sewing patterns like this and I love the silhouette, specifically that swoop from back to waist to hips and the flow of the sleeves floating off the sides. So cool! I really want to make a pair of bright yellow heels to pair with this dress- I think it would be a nice nod to the bright stars of the print, but I also just love yellow and navy together and think the color combo would be brilliant!
Again, many thanks to Lawrence and Claire, who art directed this photo shoot and came up with some of the most beautiful photos we have ever taken- you guys are a real dream team, we should do this more often!