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A Tale of Two Dresses, Part 1

When my cousin announced her daughter's wedding would be "Black Tie Optional," my entire family freaked out. What were we going to wear? We all needed something suitable, especially my mom.

My mom is cute and tiny. A floor-length chiffon confection glittering with beads, the usual answer to the "Black Tie Optional" question, was not right for her. The big flash is not her style. She's subtle, sartorially-speaking, and very cool. Fit is huge with her, and I found myself inspired to try adapting a jacket pattern I've always wanted to make to her petite and very darling frame.

A Vogue Designer Original pattern for the Issey Miyake pink jacket was a great place to start. I took a guess on her size for the first muslin, a practice garment to test the fit and other details. I shortened the sleeves and removed some body length to a size I thought would work for her. Luck was on my side- the sleeve length was a perfect 3/4 on her- one of our favorite garment details, and a sure-fire way to keep her from drowning in dress. But the flowing, asymmetric collar, a defining feature of the original design, definitely overwhelmed her. Our work was cut out for us!

You can see the evolution of the collar in the photos I've included. First I added length to the pattern piece so we could use a more dimensional gathering technique instead of Miyake's wavy drape. We kept the almost-motorcycle jacket effect of the body, but gave up the asymmetry, another admirable Miyake detail, just not right for our purposes. We built in collar dimension by turning it back on itself rather than sewing two pieces together with a seam on the outer edge. Voila! The result gave us just the right amount of drama.

After these changes (and another muslin!), we had altered the collar to a scale and design that fit her size and her personality. It had shape and dimension. It was definitely formal in a matching suit, but the jacket's hip length and side seam top-stitch detail makes it wearable with dressy black pants for a more casual affair, like perhaps my nephew's high school graduation later this year.

On to the skirt. This one, I took a stab at without using a pre-made pattern of any kind, a first for me. After drafting the waist and hip width, I broke the front and back pieces into center and side panels to match the style lines of the jacket. Again, luck was my friend- the skirt was spot-on from the very first go! It seemed the Universe was on our team.

With the muslins fitted, it was time to cut into the garment fabric. Eeek! A lovely friend of mine recently gave me a spectacular storehouse of fabric left over from years of making magnificent custom garments for brides and debs in Saint Louis. Lucky me! (again- thanks, Connie!) Once I laid eyes on this roll of lavender faille (my mom calls it "orchid") I knew it was for her.

Just before I cut the fabric, my anxieties bubbled to the surface: What if i cut it wrong? What if I sewed it poorly and wasted all that beautiful yardage? What if my mom hates it?!

I had two things going for me as I confronted my anxiety: first, we had put in diligent work on the jacket and skirt muslins. It can be frustrating- especially for students- to take the time to sew a muslin when you're super-excited to see your idea become real. But the time you invest in the practice garment is never wasted. Making one is the smartest way to begin a new clothing piece, hands down. Sizes, shapes, construction details are all worked out in your muslin. One of the keys to my facing my fashion fears is to make that muslin first. Like anything in life, your preparation informs your outcome.

Second, we had time on our side. Knowing my "client" well, I knew it was unlikely she would find something she liked, was appropriate for optional Black Tie, and in her size from the moment the invitation arrived! I had secretly begun working on the jacket more than a month before the wedding. When I sprang it on her ("Hey, Mom. I had this idea...") we still had five weeks to pull it off. Planning ahead is critical to me as an artist. When I embark upon any new project, building in time to observe how my actions impact my material- to just let the process unfold- has proven to be the fastest way for me to learn. It's sort of ironic. But it works.

With these things on my side, I cut.

We held our fittings several times a week in front of a full-length mirror until the jacket and skirt were complete. Proper shoes every time. It was pretty neurotic, to be sure, but there was a process going on. Every new seam sewn brought me closer to a feeling of... competence. Not exactly 'confidence,' yet, but I was getting there. Here I was, making a garment to be worn at a significant event, drafting a pattern for the first time, for the most important woman in my life- my mom. Eegad!! So many forces were acting on me. It was all I could do to sit at the sewing machine.

And... We pulled it off.

I finished the final hand-stitching with a few days to spare. Whew! My mom looked so gorgeous at the wedding, her jacket and skirt the perfect color for her, tailored perfectly to fit her tiny frame, with that collar offering up just the right amount of drama- she almost outshone the bride. At least in my eyes.

Believe it or not, the only image of the completed outfit I have is of the garments on the dress form. No pic of my mama in the dress. I know! I can't believe myself! We were having so much fun that night I totally forgot to take my mom aside for a model photo. And she deserved her moment in the spotlight.

Please forgive me for not showing my "client" in her Uncommon Threads Studio custom design. She looked truly magnificent. And she told me she felt that way, too. It was the greatest night of my life.



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