If there are two words guaranteed to strike joy into my heart, they are black tie. Whilst I may enthuse about brilliant basics and I do really aspire to making my own jeans and underwear, there is nothing that gets my creative juices going like a chance to really, seriously, dress up.
I grew up on a visual diet of gowns: BBC period dramas, Grace Kelly films, Bond girls. I loved paper dolls (the sort whose clothes come with tabs on) and spent hours designing and drawing my own ever more extravagant evening dresses for them. (I remember one in particular: pale ink, with floating tiers, covered in garlands of bright pink roses and strings of pearls. Completely OTT.) When I was nine or ten, my mother altered a bridesmaid’s dress she’d once worn and paired it with a little pair of white lace gloves as a gift to me, my first ballgown. When I grow up, I thought, I’m going to dress like this ALL the time.
Well, it turns out that even the most diehard ballgownista would feel a bit of a twit wearing one down to Asda, so it’s fair to say my childhood dreams haven’t quite come true (yet). But I have been lucky, and been to my fair share of fabulous balls. If I’ve counted correctly, I’ve made a total of thirteen ‘ballgowns’, from my first boyfriend’s prom when I was only seventeen through to this very latest, made and worn two weeks’ ago.
This last occasion was my dear friend’s wedding, and what rendered him all the dearer to me was his specification of a black tie dress code. I immediately began to dream and scheme. But there was a slight hurdle: in a professional capacity, I was making the bridesmaids’ dresses. I had to choose something that would be stylish without being too attention-grabbing (I guess that’s kind of a standard wedding guest dilemma). And I had to make it in a very short space of time, with very little money. Oh AND I was feeling completely sapped of inspiration and sewjo after three back-to-back rounds of wedding commissions.
All of which can go some way to explaining how I ended up making two dresses.
The lesson of this tale is never go to Goldhawk Road with only one fabric in mind. The fabric in my mind was primrose yellow silk, and it simply didn’t exist. This was three days before the wedding, and I panicked. I saw some very pretty mauve tulle and grabbed it. I then ended up with lilac georgette for the base fabric. It was all very pretty and all very, meh. And so, two days before the wedding, I went to Soho in search of a dupion – I was going to make a bustier dress with a contrasting tulle skirt. I drafted the bust cups myself, lined them with bra form and inserted underwires. I got 80% of the way to making a bustier ballgown with a tulle skirt. And then I stopped for dinner and over the course of the meal decided I wasn’t going to wear it (the perils of eating, living and working in the same room). The bustier top was, well, too busty. I’m fairly generously proportioned in the front, and the dress was looking positively Amazonian. My public justification was that it was too aggressive for a wedding, but the truth is I just didn’t want to wear it.
So, with 24 hours to go, it was back to the drawing board, and back to Goldhawk Road. After half an hour in Unique Fabrics, with the poor shop assistant laying out every shade of every silk for me to um and ah over, I ‘made his day’ by taking his advice and leaving with 2.5m of a blue-green silk I would never have picked for myself. (Next time I need dress fabric I’m just going to that boy and asking him to choose some for me upfront.)
I then proceeded to recreate a dress I’d originally drafted 18 months ago for a Christmas ball. It was inspired by this stunning number worn by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale.
Back then, I made it in royal blue silk, with a By Hand London Anna skirt and a BHL Holly hack for the top. This time, I wanted to avoid the sexy slit but retain the slinky silhouette. I first drafted the top so that the front was a deep bias-cut cowl with a facing, attached to a low-cut back (not cut on the bias). Using my sloper, I drafted a v panel, inspired by vintage 1930s gowns for the skirt front and back. I then tried to work out how to draft a half circle skirt with a square/diamond instead of a circle at the ‘waistline’. Nope, I didn’t get it either. In the end I draped the skirt from the v-panel using my dress form and went around marking the hem with pins.
The actual stitching was super quick. Once the drafting was done, this was probably one of the fastest dresses I’ve ever made! The skirt only has one seam, the centre-back, and that was cut on the selvage so I had no lengthy seams to finish. I even machined the hem. So yes, oddly, this has turned out to be one of the quickest and cheapest makes I’ve done in a long while. The whole thing was done in under a day, and cost under £40. And I truly love it.
The silk ripples and flows in the most extraordinary way; the colour shimmers and alters like oil. It felt comfortable and flattering, and I never wanted to take it off. It was a wonderful wedding celebration, a beautiful summer evening, and I had the best time, feeling like the best version of myself. It also helped that I was really chuffed by how the bridesmaids’ dresses turned out…
Anyway, now I’ve got to plan my outfits for pretty much the opposite kind of dressing up: I’m going to Wilderness Festival next week and so I’m thinking pom-poms, face paint, hair glitter and WARM clothing… But for now I’m just going to post another photo of me as I’d like to be, all the time. Perhaps next year I’ll start the world’s first black tie festival! x