Dress Me, You Fool!
One Silhouette to Rule Them All
If you were to set a piece of cloth before me and warn that I could only make one thing, I would pick the fabric up, shake it out, drape it ’round my face to see if I could stand the color … and then proceed to make a dress.
Why a dress?
Is it because it’s old-fashioned, nostalgic of mommy’s closet?
Those elements play a part in my femme consciousness, but it’s something bigger than that; it’s the dress’s quintessential combination of utility and conversation-stopping style.
American men got shafted out of the dress equation. More on that later.
Simply said, once you put a dress over your head, you are done. It’s called a dress because you are DONE getting dressed, you are ready to accessorize and spend the day as you please. You have a single garment on your bod that says a lot about how you feel. You are complete. It’s the garment with no apologies.
The fashion industry made a fortune convincing us that “separates” are the way to go, with ever-thinner tissue layers that need multiple purchases to “tie it all together.” Separates=scam. A few hundred dollars later, you get one complete outfit that teeters on the precipice of trend.
No so with a dress. A classic dress solves your disconnected pieces; the puzzle is complete. There are a few classic silhouettes and they never go out of style: the shift, the sheath, the A-line, the empire, the caftan.
It’s instructive that fashion worships the icon of the Little Black Dress (LBD), because every dress is a little gem — it never takes up much room, and regardless of its color, it shines.
If I were a man, or butch, I’d find the analogous sartorial moment. Caftans, dhotis, kurtas, dashikis, kimonos — there’s a chest of classics. Again, I’d be looking for one garment that sums it all up, that begins every great entrance, and exits with grace. It zips, it buttons, it ties— and your face, your crown, comes into focus.
I’ve made. . . let’s see. . . several dozen dresses over the years I’ve been sewing. As I have explained before, “life’s too short for pants,” especially for a seamstress. With dresses, you can crank them out — so much easier to create than the meddlesome crotch curve.
So what does the proper dress closet consist of? What dresses do you take to a desert island, and how quickly can you sew them up?
The A-Line & Straight Sheath
The sleeveless A-line is the basis for all smocks — it is the one. The sheath is the dress you learn on: darts, facings, zippers. If you can make one shift, you have learned all the basics of being a seamstress.
A Jackie O-style sheath dress was the first thing I ever made. It took me about four two-hour sessions, and I still wear it all the time. I knew in my gut I could sew anything after I made my first dress. It’s like snowboarding — the learning curve is steep but then, boom, you’re flying.
The sheath hemline can be micro to maxi. Get one of those patterns that offers you a few different necklines: jewel, v-neck, scoop. The keyhole or the caftan slit can keep you entertained, too. This one silouette alone could keep everyone talking about what a fashion plate you are, for years.
An A-line is a sheath except it flares at the waist— a little or a lot, your choice.
Princess Seams on Any Silhouette
Princess seams got popular (as opposed to the traditional bust and hip darts) because they are “slenderizing” and they flatter a large bosom in the way that they partition one’s figure into graceful curving sections.
Sewing guru and teacher Sandra Betzina has the ultimate instructions on how to move the chest seam up and down, the most critical part of the process to suit your figure. Anytime you can take one of her classes, her books, her old Vogue patterns— what a treasure.
Okay, the shirtdress is the most difficult dress to compose, not because of its skirt, but the tailored top half. Collars and cuffs and setting in sleeves, oh my!
But when you are done, will you look sharp! The shirtdress is an A-Line silhouette, with various degrees of fullness in the skirt.
Mastering the shirt’s components: the collar, front placket, sleeves and cuffs, is your foray into menswear and a whisper of the Savile Row mystique of “tailoring” — the level you go to after dressmaking.
Shirt design is where professional patterns make a difference; you don’t want to reinvent the wheel with these. You can’t “drape” a tailored shirt.
With good pattern instructions and neat tricks, you can really speed things up. I love the Simplicity 4171 shirtdress pattern, because it comes in cup sizes B, C, and D, saving you a couple hours of cutting and altering, right there.
(Note to Novices: Yes, the photographs on most pattern covers are SO UGLY. This is the aesthetic of big 3 American pattern companies, making everyone look like a frump. The design of the dress itself is EXCELLENT, and so are the instructions.)
The shirt dress requires a few extra tools on your table.
With shirt tops, you can’t skimp. You’ll want a sewing machine that has a first-rate automatic buttonhole setup, so you won’t be under the hot lights all year.
Also, get the specialty button sewing foot that sews buttons on in seconds.
Sometimes I sew buttons on by hand because it reminds me of my grandma, but when you’re doing 12 buttons, the quicker ways seem tempting.
(My links point you to Bernina sewing machine examples, but your brand will have something similar. I love my mechanical Bernina!)
The Wrap Dress
The wrap dress has been the big thing in patterns the past few years, because it is, again, slenderizing and bosom-enhancing, whether your chest is big or small.
It’s feature is a surplice neckline, and when you think about it, it’s as old as monks.
If you learn how to use knit (stretch) fabrics, which revolutionized this design, wraps are easy to make.
Stretch fabrics and hot wrap dresses are the difference between you looking like Diane von Furstenberg in her prime, or a ditz walking around in her bathrobe.
If you’re want a little challenge with some really hot details, you’ll fall in love with New Look’s #6429.
Knits also demand specific tools for success. Get a walking foot, which keeps the fabric from having a mind of its own.
I keep my speciality sewing machine feet in a jewelry box. They are like jewelry!
You must use ballpoint or stretch needles, or you’ll skip stitches with no control.
Sewing knits is lightning-fast with the right tools, but cutting knits out is always going to take longer than wovens — the material squiggles instead of lying docilely on the table like cotton or wool. The scissors might start chewing on the lycra; the pins rebel against the rubbery texture. You are normal if you find yourself swearing. I find that after I make a few knit garments, I have to make a pillowcase just to relax.
A serger, once you know your sewing basics, is speed + heaven. Sergers and stretch fabrics go together like PB&J. I could talk about sergers for hours, but here’s the essence: Don’t be fooled by all the zillions of add-on’s. Keep it as simple as possible.
You won’t ever need more than four threads, period. What you do need is jet-air threading — a machine that threads itself. In other words, the BabyLock classic. A new one is a little over $1,000, and I didn’t let myself get one for a couple years. Then, the deluge! It is the sewing room workhorse.
The Square Neckline
I’m discussing the square neckline apart from the silhouettes, because this one element frames your face and neck in such a distinctive manner.
You usually have to find a pattern specifically for square necklines, like Burda 7774 — they aren’t typically shared with other patterns, because they’re so unique.
The square line is a remarkable detail because it flatters both the small- and large-breasted, tall or short, willowy or zaftig. It’s as if a painter made your portrait and then put you in a beautiful frame — those right angles light you up.
The method by which you get a no-nonsense 90-degree angle on your square frame, is to handle your facing and fabric seams with extra care.
As you are sewing, and approach the 90-degree angle on the neckline, you dial down your stitch length to practically nothing— about a 1/2″ from your tight turn. Tiny stitches creep up to the turning point.
Then, lift up your machine foot, pivot, put it down again, and keep the baby stitches going for another 1/2″.
Oooh, they look so sharp and nice. Now go show yourself off.
The Empire Waistline
Empire waists are the basis for the baby-doll, the maternity dress, and many kinds of formalwear. Different motives, eh?
The skirt is full, and the bodice needs to fit perfectly, lest you look like Courtney Love on a kinder-bender.
It’s interesting that the Empire dress veers between a juvenile and a ceremonial look, with not a lot in between. In the original French, you pronounce it “Ahm-PEER.”
If your breast is more than a B cup, approach the Empire look carefully, with a superb-fitting bra. The bra is part of the dress, the way a crinoline goes with a ballgown. Look for a good balconette.
One Empire pattern that everyone went crazy about is a Grecian design with a drape that makes all the difference: Vogue 1027.
Everyone’s favorite dressmaking moment in old Hollywood is when Scarlett O’Hara tears down the moldy old drapes in her family’s antebellum mansion.
Ballgowns are — secret revealed — the easiest dresses to make. They are simply high volume! 8-10 yards of fabric. Seam them up, get a longline corset and petticoat, and DONE.
Oh hell, let’s watch this parody again!
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