The minute I looked at the fabric, it just shouted beach dress—not that it’s hard to take the fabric seriously, because it’s lovely—but it was so soft and flowing and summery that it just seemed at odds with anything structured.
Since just about everything I sew is highly structured, this was a nice change of pace. I could have done something linear and form-fitting, but I was afraid all the interest in the fabric’s designs would be lost if they were chopped up too much. So I thought this was the best way to let the fabric speak for itself.
Part of the challenge was to add another fabric. I thought ties would be good. They could wrap around the dress in lots of different ways.
I recently spent a day in Paris with a wonderful woman who’d worked in the atelier of Madame Grès for more than 30 years. We made a sample of the sort of fine pleats that Madame Grès was known for. That was a bit of my inspiration, too—trying to work pleating into the bodice, with a free-flowing skirt.
I experimented with stitched-down vertical pleats; it wasn’t a pretty look, so I abandoned that idea and started experimenting with stitched ruching—stitching parallel rows that self-gather, thanks to elastic in the bobbin. Well, that didn’t work too well—it was awfully weak, and it didn’t look very nice, either. Back to the drawing board.
I cut two big rectangles: one for the front and one for the back, with the selvages along the bottom of the skirt and the top of the bodice. Since the panels were too long by about 10 inches, I folded each top edge to the inside, so that I had a double layer of fabric in the bodice area. Perfect—it added modesty, and it made it easy to create narrow channels for the elastic, simply by stitching parallel lines through the two layers. To allow for my stitches to stretch (when the dress was pulled over the head), I used a narrow zigzag stitch, and then threaded narrow elastic through the channels. It’s a much sturdier solution than my original ruching plan, and it’s adjustable, too. The elastic can be shortened or lengthened once it’s in the channels. The ends of the elastic are machine-stitched along the edges of the panels, once the elastic’s tightness is determined.
Elasticizing the bodice also meant that I didn’t have to worry about a zipper, which is not a great thing in a beach dress. Instead, the dress goes over the head. There are slits on both sides , and the ties are inserted into the side seams just above the waist.
For the ties, I found gossamer-weight silk knit at GorgeousFabrics.com that was light, and in a pretty persimmon color. There are varying shades of red in the fabric, so I think the color match works, and I like the idea of something sheer and lightweight for the ties. Their length is limited. (They can’t hang below the hem of the dress, in case they’re left untied, in which case they form part of the skirt.) But there’s enough length to create a number of looks: wrapped to the front, wrapped to the back, crossed in the front then wrapped around the neck. What fun!
Susan Khalje wrote Bridal Couture (Krause Publications, 1997) and offers many classes through The Couture Sewing School. SusanKhalje.com.