This is the story of a doll dress, a white bow, and a pink eye…
It’s a long drama about making a doll dress, so if you’re not into that – just look at the photos and read their captions to follow the progress. There – my good deed for the day is done (I’m practically inside the Pearly Gates as I write this)…
If you’ve seen Sunset Boulevard (both film and stage musical), then certainly you must recall the snarky line Norma Desmond delivers in response to Joe’s refusal to wear a tux – “…of course not, dear, tuxedos are for waiters.” Now, it’s not likely I would ordinarily take time to explain a hidden theme, but it just so happens that this particular tome draws upon not only Miss Desmond’s infamous conclusion that white tie dressing is the only choice for a formal occasion, but it blooms from a concept I’ve had in my head for many years. Choosing full dress menswear as inspiration is not unique in women’s fashion design; but for me, it absorbs the formality – transforming an ordinary garment into an almost caricature expression – in some ways, actually elevating its sense of formality when translated through a story. Man…that was a mouthful – let me explain…
Doll makers get showered with attention from collectors based on the three-dimensional character they have brought to reality through a grand gala of dolls in our world. Rightly so, too – for these characters reach into our imaginations, and they flourish under the guidance of our love. If that sounds a bit heavy, consider the hundreds of people who still cherish the character of Gene Marshall and her fiction as though she were a real Hollywood actor. They know she isn’t ‘real’, but their dreams of her life bring the character into a parallel with other actors of the age. This is one practice that separates doll collectors from action figure collectors – the frivolity of embracing a character’s story – its existence, if you will. The same can be said of other doll characters like Tyler Wentworth (although Sydney Chase tends to have more followers based her character), Jem and The Holograms, American Girl, vintage Barbie – and even that bitch, Ellowyne Wilde. And when the character is successfully originated in doll form – and not from a movie, comic book, or novel – the infatuation can be instantaneous.
Not all dolls possess storylines – they speak more to their fans through their wardrobes. Fashion and costuming tell their own story, and the dolls are actors stepping into the role manifested by fabric, thread and embellishment. Doll makers like Superdoll, Paul Pham and Kingdom Doll have created dolls that have a character in mind, but the tale is told more through the clothing and accessory design, narrating a time, place and attitude for the character in question rather than a continuous plot.
Doll clothing designers do the same, they just use other makers’ dolls to convey the story – which is actually a more versatile way to do it, as differing sculpts take on differing identities to a designer of miniature apparel. Like fashion designers, a story is conveyed to the beholder through line, color and texture – using a specific inspiration and/or muse. That’s what Poppy Parker is to me – a muse – and I’m getting lots of play out of my redhead, because most of my current design dreams envision her wearing them. I love the 1960s storyline of Poppy, but that’s not how I identify with her – I see her as a glamorous woman in a timeless setting who attends galas more than you or I go to the grocery store. Because she’s a doll, and I happen to sew – I can dress her in virtually anything I wish. I will get to suits, cocktail dresses and daywear another day – but right now, I am in a renaissance of grand creativity – and ballgowns epitomize that mood (at least for me, anyway).
White tie dressing speaks of another time and place. As an avid fan of Downton Abbey, I just love the formal scenes when the men compliment their ladies with less imagination, but definitely resplendent in style. This design came to me while playing with previous muslin toiles made for Scarlatto, Aurora and Vienna – with Aurora getting more play than most because of the skirt volume. Rummaging through my bins of luxuriant fabrics acquired from all around the globe, and frippery from inconspicuous little shops I’ve stumbled into after too much wine (shopping while intoxicated is a dangerous affair) – one alluring piece of vintage touched my fingers.
I am an incurably tactile person, who wants to touch everything like I am a blind man, whether it’s permitted or not. It just so happens, this piece of beaded chiffon tumbled into my hand, and while relocating it to another corner of the bin, I was struck by its fragility, weight, and allure. I love using pre-beaded fabrics because they save a wealth of time, but they do come at a hefty price tag. And we won’t even mention what it takes to muster up the balls to cut it. They are also limiting, because the beaded design was not made to fit a particular pattern, making improvisation critical.
This piece was from a vintage clothing shop – a beaded bodice piece ready to be installed into a saucy little cocktail dress circa 1960. It had never been used, and some beads and rhinestones were falling coming undone. Despite it’s state, the beaded circles enchanted my eye with workmanship and sparkle like I had just swatted Tinkerbell with a fly swatter…I just had to figure out how it could be used in a doll gown…
And now for the really dorky part – skip this paragraph if you don’t like faraway fancies falling on your inner cynic. I tried pinning this piece in all kinds of ways, some vulgar, some improbable – but when I turned it upside down, something joyous happened – the story began to unfold in my mind: She stood in her lavish apartment, contemplating the New Year’s Eve gala of which she was to attend with her newest beau. But as with so many before, he turned out to be a disappointment, and she had just called him to say, “Don’t bother coming tonight.” It wasn’t a suggestion – it was an order. As she prepared to dress, the lights of the city sang a silly melody of lost love and loneliness. “Oh, shut up,” she whispered to the window.
And that was it. No before or after…just a moment – and the strong character of a woman who shaped her own destiny. Her style was distinctive, her wardrobe unique and impeccable. She did not suffer fools gladly, and she would rather die than to miss an event – even if it meant going alone. I knew what I wanted her to wear, and jumped right into the toile with an idea in mind. And then I got pink eye.
If you’ve never had conjunctivitis, your eye gets pink – and within 48 hours its sensitivity to light increases until even covering it with an eye patch doesn’t help due to light entering your head from the other eye. Sunshine was out of the question, and even a pinpoint of light coming from a recharging computer battery stabbed into my face like a hot needle. The headaches could barely be suppressed by handfuls of Tylenol and Motrin – I couldn’t sleep – and worst of all, I couldn’t do anything that required eyesight. I don’t listen to television very well because of the commercials – and although music helped, it has always been a better partner when doing something else (OK, I know I need to work on my appreciation skills a bit more).
I don’t really know how long it normally lasts, but because mine was misdiagnosed as an allergic reaction, I didn’t get proper treatment for a week, and then it was a weak antibiotic that wasn’t helping. I managed to get through my second toile before the pain of looking at an illuminated white doll dress with reading glasses was just too much. I lapsed into darkness for days – with the Barbie Convention at my horizon (and I had planned to drive to Nashville, too). Gloom, despair and agony on me…until the cutest little male doctor in the ER helped me out – I got the right eye drops and attended BarbieCon looking like an infectious zombie. You can see from my blog, I had a great time – but I wasn’t the most social as I’ve been known to be at doll events. Eye drops, sunglasses, and painkillers, baby…
Returning, it was back to work on the dress. The final toile was completed, and all along the way, I was thinking about the logistics of the beaded chiffon when another tragedy stuck – the vintage fabric began to disintegrate in spots. Well that crap just beats it all, right? I pulled another fabric, but it just wasn’t finding success with its heaviness – I just don’t do Evangeline Ghastly – no disrespect to her fans, but I do not count myself among them (and that’s all I have to say about that at this time, thank you).
More fabrics were pulled, and there were some standouts…but that beaded chiffon just wouldn’t leave my head – and I’m glad it didn’t. After closer examination, and concessions made to a shitload of handwork, Poppy and I were back in the game. The silhouette became narrower than I had originally envisioned, but I felt confident it was going to work if my rusty hand skills could get on board.
The sleeves presented the first challenge, because they would need to be inserted from the neckline seam first, leaving the side seam open. It always amazes me when I see anyone make sleeves in miniature, and my undying respect for 1:6 Barbie scale is eternal when I see the detail.
Small curves are a nightmare, and home machines aren’t exactly ideal for the inner curve of a miniature armhole. There are techniques around this for the scale, and I followed my experience in resolving the chiffon over the dress shell.
Handwork…oh, the handwork – it can be quite therapeutic with the right music playing – I listen to alot of this. Needle-nose pliers help a great deal, but it is tedious and time-consuming. The beaded chiffon overlay had to be placed along the neckline by hand, then the bias-cut portrait collar had to be completely sewn by hand because the presser foot would crush beads close to the seamline when the fabric passed underneath.
You might say a more attentive dressmaker would hand-remove those beads to allow the seam to pass cleanly – but you’d be wrong, because removal of the beads from the old fabric left large pinholes in spots, and dissolved into threads in other places. Nope – handwork was the way of the Jedi, here…and that I did (about 10 hours total, not counting potty breaks).
When the collar was successfully in place, I was in the homestretch – and loving the results. A last minute malfunction along the rolled hemline warranted stitching the chiffon tails to the back under the white silk, creating a pronounced train. Not sure of it at first, I came to love the feature after pressing.
Many ideas came to mind as I argued internally over treatments to finish the back of the dress, but simplicity won out.
I do understand that bows can be awfully cliché for anything that isn’t a period dress, but if Superdoll can put Playboy Bunny ears on a magnificent mountain of gold couture, and Integrity can top of its Tulabelle Fashion Creature with an unlicensed Mouseketeer accessoire – all in the name of fashionable sarcasm – then I could put a damn white bow on my inverted tuxedo.
Yeah, I know it’s not quite the same thing – but this is my little sewing drama, so there.
The final touches came through repairing the rhinestones used to embellish each little beaded circle – and there were plenty. In the end, I was quite pleased with my little story told in silk and rhinestones – and I am positive my fictional lady not only wore it proudly to her gala, but she had every available man (and a few not-so-available) at her hemline for a chance to hear her breathe.
So that’s how I sew…what puts the olive into your martini?