When I began devising my plans for a complete “Wagnerian” outfit to wear to the Met concert celebrating the legendary German composer, I knew I wanted to include some sort of chainmail aspect to represent Medieval knights, which are so gallantly (and infamously) portrayed in many of Wagner’s operas. A showpiece necklace from Afghanistan was at the top of my list.
However, I struggled to devise the rest of the outfit due to the very specific nature of the necklace. And so, I looked beyond my closet and found a mesh fabric with matte silver sequin paillettes sewn onto its entire face for a reasonable price online.
Looking through historical fashion plates gave me the idea of imitating the drape of chainmail coifs (hooded headwear), but I didn’t want a full suit of armor. No, a simple, sleeveless cowl neck tunic was my intention…
After several knit mock-ups, I began what I thought would be a messy cutting process and prepped my work area with black garbage bags before tediously snipping around the sequins. Spoiler alert: hardly any sequins fell from the fabric !
The mesh selvedge was suitable enough for the facing so I placed the upper part of the front pattern piece on top of the mesh. What a time saver !
The sequins along the seamlines were promptly picked off to avoid getting caught under the sewing machine needle before I stitched the two sides together. Ta-da !
At this point, the tunic was too long. A bib hem seemed like the perfect solution to mimic the drape of the cowl neck…
Drafting a hem piece was easy enough, however, in hindsight, it would have been better to eliminate all the “place on fold” edges and create full sized pattern pieces; cutting was a one-side-at-a-time job and flipping the uncut sides distorted the shape of the pieces somewhat.
Helpful hint: to check how the lines/curves of a foldline piece will look when doubled, place a mirror next to the edge of the pattern piece and examine its full shape.
I paired my sequin tunic with faux leather pants using StyleArc’s Margaret pattern, a too-tight disaster that was salvaged by the longer hem of the tunic ! Whew !
And what would a Wagnerian-inspired outfit be without a Ring ? Although it wasn’t fashioned from the gold of the Rhine, this antique pearl ring belonged to a relative of mine.
While modern, my outfit gave me the right representation of Wagnerian interpretation. I also learned that pattern drafting wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. Hojotoho !
Anna Netrebko is a bona fide diva. She has the pipes to blast the roof off a building, the meticulous technique and luster a good singer could only wish to achieve, and the histrionic ability that could put any Hollywood A-lister to shame. She’s also very beautiful. Aside talent and looks, one of the greatest semblances of a diva is a wardrobe of couture designer gowns and shoes. And Anna Netrebko is no exception !
As the concert for Anna Netrebko neared last summer, my mind was set on creating a true “diva” gown─ something that was as stunning as Anna herself. But where to begin ? Firstly, I browsed online and then on Anna Netrebko’s Instagram account in search of clues. Although she has worn many different styles of dresses, I noticed a reoccurrence of strapless gowns in bold colors and patterns.
Even for her wedding to Yusif Eyvazov in December 2015 Anna chose to wear a strapless gown…
Strapless it is.Now for the colors…
Interestingly, a post on Anna’s Instagram account pointed to the reasoning behind her selection of bright colors for concert and gala gowns: she rarely wears black on stage since it blends in with the orchestra’s attire and the audience wouldn’t be able to see her from afar. Brilliant ! As for me, I had a different motive for choosing colors. I wanted to use up a portion of my fabric “stash” and recalled the bright fuchsia satin I used for my Dalila gown in 2018. The remnants of the hot pink satin totaled to less than 2 yards. A sheath style with high thigh slit seemed inevitable. But what else ? Reaching for other fabrics in my stash, I tested different color combinations until I hit the mark: fuchsia and royal blue ! Since the duo made a mesmerizing pair, the idea of a dramatic lace overlay tickled my fancy. Grab your sunglasses before you read any further !
I purchased 2 yards of both lace and stretch charmeuse satin for the lining (yes, I wanted to use up my stash and not add to it, but sometimes it’s not always possible) and cut my patterns for the strapless sheath with not an inch to spare !
Constructing the lining was straightforward: I interfaced the pieces, sewed on Rigilene boning, added interior lacing panels for the corset, and padded the bust. Time for a fitting !
Enormous, just right, skin tight ─ the dress was a mess ! After all, what’s dressmaking without some mishaps along the way ? Alterations were made and the slit jettisoned: a new silhouette had to created to compensate for the unwalkable bottom half of the dress. A triangular gore was inserted into the back of the dress, but for the lining only ! The idea of a chiffon train floated in my mind…
After tweaking the bodice, it was time for the lace application. I pinned the zipperless gown on my dress form and began the process of manipulating the lace, especially in the bust dart area.
Sew far, sew good ! No, really ─ there was A LOT of sewing with this dress because of the lace. I spent days securing the majority of the motifs onto the pink satin, first “stitched in the ditch” along the princess seams and then elsewhere. Thankfully, I had a great slanted zigzag stitch to use on my Baby Lock machine. With the upper portion of the dress complete, I repeated the lace application on the lower half of the gown ─ more sewing…!
During the last stages of sewing and fitting, I realized the train was unrealistic. For one, I couldn’t squeeze myself into the dress during the final fitting and had to rework the back gore, slashing it into two. Fortunately, I was able to scrounge up enough fuchsia satin in the scrap bag to cut two identical gores. Once they were sewn onto the dress, the fit was better. However, the light and sheer chiffon just didn’t seem like a cohesive match when placed next to the adjacent sturdy and thick guipure lace; elegance is best personified in simplicity.
Despite the rescheduled concert date (February instead of October) the dress was perfectly suited for the mild weather and everything I had hoped for it to be, especially when accessorized with an abundance of pink organza. It was a diva’s dream !
I knew white rhinestones would be my accent color and the shoes were one of my main inspirations. They were last worn to the Pavarotti documentary in 2019. Bling, bling !
The lace was so pretty with its edges peeking above the neckline of the dress. Now, if I only had a big, sparkly diamond necklace to show off…
…like Anna !
Anna Netrebko is a muse for generations to come. And while I cannot compare myself to the caliber of a world-class soprano, my couture concert dress certainly gave me a taste of the fame and fashion of a true diva.
Similar in shape and style, the German dirndl and the Norwegian bunad could be long lost cousins ! Vests with front closures, long skirts with embellishments and embroidery, and bright national colors teem with patriotic esprit de corps. With a new, modern production of Wagner’s Die Fliegende Holländer scheduled for the 2019-2020 Live in HD season, I cast off the thought of trying to guess the heretofore unseen (and most likely abstruse) costumes for François Girard’s reimagining and veered toward the more traditional: a Norwegian bunad for the opera’s Scandinavian setting.
I started by using a German dirndl pattern, which was given to me by a friend several months prior. When Gisele offered me any of the patterns in her garage sale stash, I looked over the Burda pattern thinking it was fashionable, but not something I could use for the foreseeable future. How clueless I was…
Noticing how similar the bunad and dirndl were, I began plotting how I was going to alter the original pattern; namely, removing the front zipper and transforming the front into a corset of sorts. A mock-up was made.
After determining the new design of the front, the muslin markings were transferred onto the tissue paper pattern piece.
According to the mock-up, the rest of the pattern appeared to be in good shape and now it was time to cut the real fabric.
I knew I wanted a bright red vest with a deep blue skirt and white blouse like many of the photos I found online…
Finding the perfect fabric was simple: a sample ordered online proved to be a brilliant scarlet with a subtle tonal floral pattern. Even better, the cotton fabric was Scandinavian in its origin. I do love to match my materials with their geographical creative counterparts !
The pieces were pinned onto the twice folded fabric (for the face AND lining) and cut out.
Because adding decoration and details were important, I decided to pipe the seams of the bodice to set off the shaping of the vest. A regular zipper foot works just as well as any fancy piping foot…
Two rows of Rigilene boning were sewn onto the front vertical edges of the lining to support the lacing area. On the face side, the seams and piping allowances were pressed opened. All the corners were snipped to prevent bulk.
Now that both the face and the lining were complete, it was time to sew them together along the neckline edge. Bias binding was used to finish the armholes and the bottom of the vest.
Voilà ! The vest was almost finished. Holes were punched, grommets were installed, and then the garment was set aside.
The master Burda pattern came with a skirt design, but this, too, had to be adapted. There was a front zipper to be joined in connection with the bodice and this I removed by placing the pattern on the fold of the fabric. Speaking of, I bought the skirt fabric, a navy canvas-type material, from Walmart ! The pattern was laid out on the canvas…
…and a waistband was cut.
I sewed the skirt based on the instructions, which included front pleats and a gathered back. The single side pocket (why only one ?) was omitted. A regular zipper was installed. Folding the waistband in half, it was attached to the top edge of the skirt over the pleats and gathers. A buttonhole was made at the back and a bright blue button was sewn onto the other side of the back band.
Something that I found skewed about the pattern was the overall hem length. It was looooooooong ! Too long. Fortunately, the folded hem provided an excellent starting place for the decorative stitching I wanted to implement along the bottom edge. Did I ever think I was going to use more than 3 of the 100 stitches on my BabyLock sewing machine ? Heavens, no ! But I have ─ look how pretty the motifs look when sewn in bright scarlet !
That’s it ! The vest and skirt were finished and now it was time to put it all together. There was one thing missing and that was the classic white blouse that is worn beneath the vest.
Searching through my mother’s closet, I found a suitable blouse in sleeve length… but it had an expansive scalloped collar satin stitched in crimson. No need to worry─ I just turned the collar right side in and the blouse was just perfect !
Together with a gold brooch and lapis jewelry, the outfit was a close resemblance to the traditional Norwegian bunad.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
To read about my virtual escape to Norway wearing my bunad, check out my post on the concert for Lise Davidsen !
Oh, Bess… You is definitely my woman now… at least for the duration of an afternoon at the theater ! The creation my 1930’s feedsack frock for Porgy and Bess involved methods that would have left ingenious housewives of the Great Depression tickled pink.
Let’s begin !
Starting off, my inspiration images were of the sundress worn to the “Kittiwah” Island picnic in Act II of the opera…
Don’t you love the floral print pattern of the material ? I did. So much so that I scoured the web in search of my perfectly matching feedsack print. (More about that in my post about the opera and my guest article for Fabric Mart’s blog.) While researching, I learned how the flour and sugar sacks back in the 30’s and 40’s used to be sold with colorful motifs stamped on them so housewives could sew clothes for their families after using the dry goods inside. Clever ? Yes !
The Porgy and Bess dress had several attributes I wanted to replicate in my own frock. Namely, the underbust gathers, square neckline, and mid-calf hem. I thought of drafting my own pattern from scratch, but what’s the point when a commercial pattern with the same style will do the same ? Seeking simplicity, I perused through my mother’s pattern box and fingered over a never-before-used jumper pattern.
View A, here I come ! Since I only needed the bodice portion of the jumper, I traced its outline onto tissue paper, made the appropriate markings, and rotated the dart from the side to the waist. I also drafted an ascending waist yoke… very vintage.
My muslin mock-up indicated some impending flaws. The back gaped and the gathers were thick and unflattering, especially when taking into consideration that the muslin was already thin. I ditched the idea. Using some of the same ingenuity from the Depression-era, I experimented with small pleats in place of the gathers, which were much more efficient and comely. I marked ½ inch lines along the area of the waist dart as a guide for the pleats…
…and pinned them in place.
Attaching the waist yoke came next. First, I sewed a row of piping along the bottom seam line of the bodice…
…and then clipped the curves along the seam allowances.
The yoke was now attached !
Time to work on the skirt…
When I assembled my mock-up, I traced a basic A-line skirt pattern and altered the waist measurements to line up with those on the lower portion of the waist yoke. The pattern was straightforward and needed few adjustments once sewn. Two back halves were cut as well as one piece on the fold. I also added a pair of inseam pockets because… well, who doesn’t love pockets ?
Now for the zipper ! Sewing over two rows of piping and seam allowances can be tough on sewing machines… but not for my Baby Lock ! A zipper foot certainly aided in gliding over the hilly terrain.
All that was left was to line the bodice, which also included the waist yoke. The easiest way to go about this was to cut identical pieces of the waist yoke (and remembering to close the dart of the front bodice piece before cutting !), sew them together with the bodice pieces along the seam lines, and then fold under the bottom ½ inch along the lower edge of the waist yoke. Here’s what the inside of the bodice looked like after I “stitched in the ditch” of the bottom row of piping from the front:
The dress basically finished, it was time to add the bows onto the front.
Cutting the right size and shape for a fabric bow can be a toss of the dice. Eyeballing a flat paper pattern piece can at times be tricky when gauging how the pattern will translate into fabric. Because I had such success with the tie bows for the baby clothes I had sewn recently, it followed in my logic that the same pattern would work again.
It didn’t work out. Too long, too flat, too thin ! Back to the drawing board… this time with a free pattern I found online.
Close, but no cigar. However, by modifying the pattern just a bit (and swapping out the pocket lining material for the floral stretch poplin), I felt I could have a winner on my hands…
The additional ¼ inch seam allowance created a perfectly fashionable bow, which was pinched together in the center and sewn with a folded rectangle of fabric for the knot.
The bows were just subtle enough sewn down the front of the bodice, but too stiff for the tops of the shoulder straps.
Show time !
I wore a curly 30’s style wig and carried my mother’s Nantucket basket purse for my sundries.
Every project has a flaw and in this dress, it was the shoulder strap placement. I hypothesized that along the way in the multiple manipulations of the original pattern, the shoulder strap became deformed, was cut too wide, and as a result, wanted to slide off my shoulders. Therefore, I found myself constantly checking to ensure the dress concealed my bra straps. As evidenced by some of the pictures, that wasn’t always accomplished. Oh, well !
The dress had flaws, Bess had flaws. Perhaps the old line was more pertinent than I realized─ “Bess, we two is one !”
I couldn’t have asked for a better opera for my first outing of Wagner: from Bugs Bunny to WWE wrestler walk-up music, Die Walküre‘s fame and legacy permeates all realms of music and culture. Who hasn’t heard the irresistibly iconic “Ride of the Valkyries” or been amused by the warrior women with braids and Viking helmets ?
Part of an epic tetralogy know formally as “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, Die Walküre explodes with mythological drama and some of the most involving music ever written. Ever since I began attending operas, I’ve always heard mentions of Wagner’s “engrossing” music and how spectators loose track of time while taking in a performance, despite the harrowing length of most of Wagner’s works. Knowing this, I was a little apprehensive about how I would fare at my first Ring opera.
I shouldn’t have been worried ─ I loved Die Walküre and was hooked on the Ring Cycle ! While the layered story dipped into several previous arcs that occurred in Das Rhinegold (the first opera in the tetralogy), I found I was able to keep pace with the action and inevitably slipped into that intoxicating Wagner “trance”. Brutish warriors and incestuous twins aside, there were greatly tender moments as well. The final farewell between Wotan, the flawed God of Valhalla, and his disobedient Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, nearly sent my mascara running !
What is a ‘Valkyrie’ anyway ? In reading up on Norse mythology, I learned how Valkyries were immortal female fighters who aided in the battles among men on earth and safely carried the fallen heroes to Valhalla where they would live and serve Wotan in happiness. Although generally styled as Viking women with horned helmets and long braided pigtails, the Met’s Robert Lepage production has altered the women’s accoutrements to have filigreed chrome wings mounted to diadems and textured skirts of a metallic mylar material. As a costume that would unmistakably smack of cosplay, I set out to replicate the shiny scaled armor bodices and flashy skirts of the Met’s fearless Valkyries.
Sourcing the materials was the first step. Initially, I thought of using a spangle sequin fabric for the chain mail bodice, but decided against it in favor of hand cutting my “scales” out of versatile silver pleather for a more authentic look. In order to use my hot knife on the pleather, I needed a stencil and a sturdy one at that ! A branding pen devours paper like the flames of Brünnhilde’s bridal fire ─ I transferred my paper patterns onto an empty soda can and burned both pleather and black matte satin using their forms.
With long lengths of scalloped scales simultaneously cut and sealed, I sewed them alternately onto a princess bodice I drafted to fit my figure using patterns from the Corset Academy. Wax paper was the saving grace while stitching sticky, scrunching pleather…
Just a note─ I don’t suggest making a lining out of heavy polyester satin, especially if you live in hot and humid climates like I do. While I could quell my mascara from running down my cheek, the sweat down my spine I could not. The bodice was a polyester sauna !
One of the most distinguishing features of the costume was the lofty pair of wings, glinting in the flashes of battle. Using pictorial resources available on the web (particularly, Deborah Voigt’s portrayal), I drew a freehand version of the openwork wing on paper and transferred it onto a thin cardboard cereal box to be spray painted later.
Once the wings were painted, they were affixed to a pleather covered foam diadem. Wrist cuffs out of the same foam/pleather combination anchored the tapered ends of the fishnet mesh sleeves. All that remained was the skirt, which was created from steely stretch taffeta by a series of angled half circles formed into a wrap style. The costume was finished and I was ready to take flight as a Valkyrie !
In spite of the poor choice of lining material, wearing this costume was a thrill ! After all, how many people can claim that they’ve been a Valkyrie ? This outfit also doubled as my Halloween costume for the year and just as at the theater, it sparked otherworldly interest.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Die Walküre ─ Richard Wagner (1870) Live in HD air date: March 30, 2019
Credits: Conductor ─ Philippe Jordan Production ─ Robert Lepage Associate Director ─ Neilson Vignola Set Designer ─ Carl Fillion Costume Designer ─ François St-Aubin Lighting Designer ─ Etienne Boucher Video Image Artist ─ Boris Firquet Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt
Madame Butterfly represents a “full-circle moment” for me: it was in 2016 that I taught myself to sew when I didn’t have anything in my closets to wear to the movie theater performance of the opera. Seeking anything that gave the impression of an Asian aesthetic, I wound up sewing a cotton yukata, which was the genesis of my sewing passion. New doors had been flung wide open !
But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Despite the rather traditional manner in which the yukata was fashioned (save the contrasting collar ─ I ran out of tropical fabric !), my interior seams were horrendous ! Because of my previous ignorance of how to properly work a sewing machine, the bobbin threads are bunched and looped into chaotic cocoons, a sign of incorrect tension in hindsight. Although I was ashamed of how slipshod the inside of the yukata turned out, the disappointment was replaced by triumph as I overheard the whispers of a little girl to her mother about the “kimono lady” that silently slipped by in the theater. Priceless !
Over three years later, Puccini’s immortal opera returned to the Live in HD schedule for the 2019-2020 season. I knew I had to go. However, since my sewing skills had improved exponentially, I wanted to create something that was more suited to the Anthony Minghella production’s styling of Cio-Cio-San. A wedding gown was in the works…
More specifically, a wedding kimono. Like a specter rising from the grave, the gossamer veils that clothe Cio-Cio-San in a milky moonglow is breathtaking. Without fail, I’m enchanted by the first appearance of the geisha climbing up the stairs with her wedding party. With the decision easily made, it was time for the research…
And there was plenty of it !
The aforementioned Minghella production has been a crowd-pleasing staple at the Met since 2006 with a plethora of sopranos playing the title role, from Patricia Racette to Kristine Opolais (who sung the part in 2016), to Hui He, singing in the 2019 Live in HD performance. A simple image search provided up close detailing of the white satin kimono and its sash.
With the success of my tropical print yukata, I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use the same pattern instructions, which worked so well in 2016. Look no further than this helpful site: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~weyrbrat/Japan/yukata/ I have all the pages printed out and stored in a zip top bag for future uses. The instructions are vivid, realistic, and accurate and equip sewers to create their own authentic yukata (or kimono) from scratch. Since I wasn’t aiming to create a historically/culturally accurate garment, I made my own adjustments to the notes and measurements that I wrote down in 2016.
If there was one thing I learned during my time as a Valkyrie, it’s that polyester linings can act as saunas to my skin. Nobody wants sweat rolling down their back and besides, the silvery white charmeuse satin I bought was just a bit too see-through for my liking. It needed a lining ─ and a cotton one at that ! Cotton voile was the perfect choice.
The construction of the kimono was easy enough, following the instructions as before, and now it was time to focus on the more thought-provoking elements of the costume… the sash and decorations !
Theater costumes fascinate me. Not only are they beautiful to look upon, but they also possess the most ingenious tricks for rapid removal without compromising the overall style. Surely, there must be staunchly guarded secrets on how best to employ the illusion. Instead of cutting a 30′ long strip of fabric and folding it over and over again, I imagined the belt being like a corset with the folded “knot” at the back being analogous to a modesty panel. And so I cut two wide rectangles and fused the the face layer with strips of double sided interfacing since there would be gathered drapes applied to the front.
Have you ever wondered how random drapes are made ? It’s simple and a lot of fun ! Cut a strip of fabric that is at least twice the height of the area that needs to be draped. For example, each horizontal half of my belt measured about 15 cm (for a total width of ~30 cm, top to bottom) so I cut pieces of fabric that were over 30 cm each and stretched the swath side to side, placing pins where the folds and creases looked appealing to me.
Once satisfied, it was time to steam press the folds that were pinned to the fusible web and then, voilà ! Secured drapes ! “Ah, but what are those round starburst “gears” peeking out from beneath the folds ?” you question. Those are called yo-yos, commonly made by quilters and used for handicrafts and decorations.
While they may not be the exact folded form of origami used on costume designer Han Feng’s stunning wedding kimono, I thought the shapes looked very similar to the humble yo-yo and therefore, I began the long and fiddly process of hot knife cutting and hand sewing the yo-yos into their recognized shape. I made hundreds of them !
Pillowy chiffon, shiny satin, bright broadcloth ─ from tiny to giant ─ mingled in a colorful array worthy of the distinction of ‘art’ on their own.
But back to the belt…
With the front portion complete, the lined belt needed to be stuffed with a stiffener so that it wouldn’t crease when sitting. First trying a thick felt, the result was undesirable. What would be stiff, yet pliable…??? Aha ! I remembered the leftover strip of buckram from the ball gown skirt for Manon and raced to find it. It was perfect ! I love when I can reuse materials for different projects.
The thick piece of felt, however, was not without its own fulfillment─ I still needed something stiff for the inside of the faux knot/modesty panel and it was used for this purpose.
Two additional panels were made as part of the belt’s meeting closure; their back edges were stitched with Rigilene boning…
…then folded over and stitched in between the bones.
And here’s what the face side looked like afterwards:
Time to punch the grommets ! The belt was nearly complete !
My deadline nearing, the wearisome work had begun. While I find it appalling to glue fabric onto clothes, Time sometimes forces me to bend on my tenets. There were many detailed photos on the web of Butterfly’s kimono and belt, but this picture was my guiding diagram when deciding how to arrange the yo-yos:
And so, I glued, and glued, and glued some more… I used two bottles of craft glue on those yo-yos and finally adhered the last one early Friday evening ─ the night before the opera ! Whew !
The glue dried with not a moment to spare and the following morning, I suited up in my silky kimono, applied a waxy whiteface, donned a long black wig, and clipped on a red poppy.
I just love that little wooden fan ! Its intricately cut panels remind me of ancient Far East traditionalism… Thank you, Aunt Countess !
The back of the belt held up well despite the futility of the sewn snaps I added onto the overhang. Never doubt the power of a few safety pins, my friends !
I bought the wig and the poppy clip from sellers on eBay and Etsy, respectively…
As much as I desired for the length of the sleeves to be much longer (and therefore, traditional, in that sense), there comes a point of practicality and whether or not I would be comfortable with the ends of my sleeves dragging in the dirt… grazing the dusty pavement of the parking lot… trailing along in the bathroom… NO !!!! Measurements are critical, and determining an appropriate length for the sleeves was no different.
Who would have guessed that the simple yukata I endeavoured to sew with nothing but gumption and the will to succeed would have bloomed into a passion of sewing costumes for cinematic opera productions ? For all the memories I’ve accrued over the years, I have Madame Butterfly to thank.
Oftentimes it is the lead female character of an opera which I try to portray in my costumes. Front and center, they usually have all the great arias while dressed in the most beautiful clothes. Although not necessarily a soprano, the prima donna is a personal delight to play. But sometimes it is the supporting actress, the seconda donna, who intrigues me more. Such was the case with Verdi’s Aida.
Egyptian princess. Heir to the throne. Most eligible woman in all the land. Seemingly, Amneris has it all. Yet her one desire ─ the love of the Egyptian warrior, Radamès ─ is denied. Jealousy flames and anger rages towards her slave, Aida, who has ensnared the heart of the princess’s beloved. Because of the meaty musical and acting material given to the mezzo-soprano singing the role, I knew playing Amneris would prove to be lots of fun. Now to plan my costume… but first, a note ─
Typically, I don’t feel comfortable creating a complex opera costume unless my deadline is at least two months in advance. But because of a serious fitting flaw with my gown for Samson et Dalila, my start time for Aida was enormously delayed. So with just a little over three weeks before the October 6th broadcast, I commenced work on my Egyptian ensemble.
Now back to the clothes…
It was a no-brainer. Now was not the occasion for interpretive gowns or my own conjuring of the character. With the Met’s current production spanning in existence for well over 30 years, there was little question as to what I would wear since the production’s costumes are as well-known as the opera itself. A doppelgänger I must be, more specifically, Anita Rachvelishvili’s twin.
Opting to recreate the second of the character’s two outfits, an assessment needed to be made of each component of the costume:
Belt and Sash
Collar and Wrist Cuffs
The plain white cotton shift I could handle. The wonderful historical clothing and costuming website, Fashion-Era, provided helpful diagrams on how to map out my gown pattern, which was nothing more than a large length of broadcloth (double my height) folded in half at the shoulder level (crosswise) and then cut downward at a slant from each side of the shoulder to the corresponding selvedges, like a trapezoid, making sure to allow enough room at the bust and hip levels. Of course, I had a slight miscalculation and had to add gussets to widen the bust area after the first fitting.
The dress was hemmed at the bottom and a decorative Greek Key ribbon, leftover from my gown for Tosca, was sewn onto the sleeve openings to finish the garment.
Next came the piece that would turn the most heads and lower the most jaws: the accordion pleated cape, which was essential to Amneris’s second costume in the opera. Glimmering gold and fragile like paper, I knew tissue lamé would be the perfect material to use for the cape. But how to make a pattern for a pleated cape ? It sounded complicated. I was at a loss… until I stumbled across a children’s sewing pattern for Egyptian costumes on the web…
I know, I know ! It sounds far-fetched and ridiculous to think that a kid’s pattern would be of any personal benefit to a grown adult. Although not the size of a child, I believed this pattern would afford me an excellent advantage in gaining a head start on my cape. No serious math equations for calculating width or number of pleats ─ all that was needed was to extend and enlarge the outlines that were already in place. An ingenious plan had been born. Acting upon the flicker of the figurative mental light bulb, I bought the pattern (in the smaller size set, no less !).
I confess, the steps I took to alter this pattern are blurred in my memory. There were some frustrations during the process, such as the bobbin repeatedly running out of thread during the endless basting, but the finished result was far more potent than expected as I attached the steam-pressed lamé cape with snaps onto the back of the white frock.
Look how the cape falls in a shimmery waterfall down the back ! The sheen is as lustrous as the sun-flecked Nile.
With the cape and the shift under my belt, it was time to move onto the real belt and the standout symbolic sash.
The Belt and Sash
Scrutinizing images like the one above, faux leather seemed to be the obvious choice to create the belt. However, finding it reasonably priced online was a bit difficult due to minimums per order, shipping costs, and negative reviews about the color tinges for some of my favorite options. But while perusing the aisles of Hobby Lobby, I spotted a bolt of bright gold upholstery faux leather, which was perfect for the project. I bought 12 inches and drafted a relatively straight band that arched slightly at the center front. Velcro was used to secure the belt in place. Easy on, easy off !
The sash required more attention.
Hieroglyphic in their composure, the characters on the sash and belt present a story in their design. Thinking at first that I would paint these figures onto more of the broadcloth, I decided against that approach after realizing the appendage’s outcome would be much more effective if I snipped the characters out of scraps of the gold lamé used for the cape. Muted paint is no match for glaring metallic foil fabric ! Carefully studying the symbols, I sketched onto paper each figure and used them as a stencil. Then, after cutting the lamé, the pieces were glued onto the broadcloth sash in replica fashion.
Lamé frays ─ badly ! You can see below how the edges of the cut caricatures are splintering.
But I shouldn’t gripe too much; it is just a costume, after all. I bordered the sash with a long, folded strip of lamé sewn between the face and the lining of the sash. Teal paint added a pop of color to the cotton fabric and then, I was done !
Now that all the accompanying accessories for the base dress were completed, I was ready to take on the more elaborate portions of the costume, mainly the tedious tasks of decoration.
The Collar and the Cuffs
I knew that there would be numerous little trinkets and accouterments to this costume as it needed to resemble the full regalia of ancient Egyptian royalty. But I dreaded the teensy-weensy elaborations to follow. It’s true ─ when much time is spent on one or two dizzying details, I never feel like I’m making progress towards my goals. However, particulars matter, especially when recreating Amneris’s attire and signature style.
While it’s apparent that the gaudy, ostentatious collar worn by the mezzo-soprano in the opera largely consists of strung beads in all shapes and sizes, I did not have the time, resources, or budget to take on such a mammoth job. And so, I did my best to mimic the model piece using more broadcloth, paint, seed beads, and yes ─ lamé !
While Velcro was used on the belt, I preferred hooks and eyes for the collar closure.
Similarly matching were the wrist cuffs, sans lamé. Please notice the eye sewn near the serged edge. Its importance will play a part later…
The Wig and Headband
Initially, my plan to create the hair for the wig was to knit a plethora of black yarn i-cords to attach to some sort of beanie cap. I knitted, and knitted, and knitted ─ both day and night almost ceaselessly. But with time running out faster than Arctic daylight in the winter, I began to seriously rethink my method. Troubled, I grasped for ideas. Then, coming to the rescue once again was the Simplicity child’s costume pattern.
See those wigs ? They were included in the pattern envelope as well. Simply explained, the strands of “hair” were large rectangles of cotton jersey knit fabric, cut into measured strips from both lengthwise sides of the rectangle (but not all the way to the middle !). And then with a tug of each strip… voilà! Deftly furled locks of hair. It was the Monday before the opera and with only 5 days left to complete my heretofore unfinished outfit, I jettisoned the i-cords in favor of the expedient children’s pattern. While the pattern had particular blocks for constructing the wig, I bypassed these since I knew they would be too short for my desired hair length. Haphazardly, I stitched segments of the pulled cotton jersey onto a crocheted cap I had formed earlier.
The gold “beads”, which were dynamic in their effect, were fashioned out of… scrapbook paper ! Who would have guessed ? Thinking logistically of the potential weight of the wig, I reasoned that nearly anything heavier than a feather would be too excessive when multiplied by the number of “beads” needed for the strands of hair. Real beads ─ wooden or plastic ─ were out of the question. Paper seemed the likely solution. So when I chanced upon a gilted crosshatch patterned paper at Hobby Lobby, I said, “Bingo !”
My only regret about the scrapbook paper is that I didn’t buy enough ! Two 12″ x 12″ sheets sliced into ½” strips were not sufficient to wrap the entire mass of coiled knit locks. But alas, it had to suffice.
A latent cobra, poised and ready to strike, was the concluding element to an ensemble crammed full of indispensable details. Would you like to guess where I found its pattern ? Why, yes ! The same children’s pattern that already served me so gallantly on more than one occasion. This time, I only used the head portion of the pattern and slid a wire into its pleather skull along with a small wad muslin for added dimension. With the cobra head completed, it was hot glued to a band of the same faux leather where it sat looking down as ruler and judge.
While most might believe that I finished my costume with plenty of time to spare, such sentiment was untrue. It was late Friday afternoon, the day before the opera, when I unplugged the hot glue gun once and for all, resigning myself to a completed job. A close call, indeed ! All that was needed was exotic make-up and gold sandals whereupon I became Amneris, ancient Egyptian princess, for a cinematic Saturday afternoon.
Remember the eyes on the wrist cuffs ? They were used in conjunction with the hook counterparts attached to the edges of the cape to lift its shiny crimped folds into the sun. Marvelous was its impression.
Although the costume was completed in time for the opera, I have no desire to ever be so pressed to meet a deadline as I was for this project. Talk about stressful ! But there is great moral to this story and that is to never count out a pattern that doesn’t fit the bill at first glance. Deeper inspection and a dose of imagination were all that were needed to turn a child’s costume into an adult’s deliverance.
It has been quipped that in order to perform Adriana Lecouvreur successfully, real-life divas must be cast. Art must imitate life and despite thrilling drama and chest-heaving music, the current stock of bona fide divas is rather sparse. Therefore, Adriana Lecouvreur remains mostly on the shelf of the operatic repertoire. However, the Met assembled a perfect bill of spectacularly strong singers for the star-studded Live in HD broadcast. The heat was on !
Sir David McVicar’s elegant production embodied the powder and pomp of 18th century French theater. With a bust of Molière gracing the stage like a god watching and listening in silence to his progeny perform, one could almost immediately grasp the nucleus of the opera: no one is faithful to anyone in love.
A love triangle with deadly stakes, my brain was twisted in two trying to unravel the deception of it all. But probably the most anticipated of all the action was the impending battle between Anita Rachvelishvili and Anna Netrebko. This was to be Round 2 of the Anna vs. Anita vocal boxing match ─ the first occurring in Aida just a few months prior. “They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;” to quote from the famed poem by James Leigh Hunt… I loved every moment of it !
While the plot twists and intrigue of the opera were at times difficult to untangle, my 18th century gown was anything but a chore, which surprised even me ! Using the Simplicity 4092 pattern that included pocket hoops for support of a proper silhouette (a terrific perk to Andrea Schewe’s delightful design), I made the featured gold version on the envelope (B), and began working on my Rococo-inspired gown as the very first project on my brand new Baby Lock sewing machine and serger.
But the real secret to such a regal gown without breaking the bank on luxurious silks and brocades is that I used extra wide width polyester curtain fabric, which significantly cut down on the costs of materials. (Can someone say, “Scarlett O’Hara” ?) According to the pattern instructions, the gown called for close to 5 yards of fabric. However, with the 3+ meter width of the green and gold floral damask upholstery material I used, I only needed to purchase 2 yards (2 yards @ 120 inches wide ≈ 6 yards) in addition to 1 yard of a contrasting cream material for the stomacher and underskirt. Instead of spending over $100 on standard width material (54-60″), I rounded my totals to just under $33, minus the shipping costs ─ what a steal !
My alterations were few: I lowered the neckline slightly in order to achieve the peeking bosom look of the era as well as slimming down the sleeves to fit more snugly. Bows were a must and frilly trims, too. But the bow pattern that was included in the packet was much too “cartoonish” in its original format for my taste, so I reworked those to better suit the width of the front stomacher. They were so cute !
And check out the pocket hoops ! Although not as wide as traditional panniers, they provided just the right “oompf” to the pleated skirts of the gown.
Perfectly fashioned in the 18th century style, my mother had the task of arranging my hair. Didn’t she do a great job ? It reminded me of Belle from the ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast”.
This was a fabulous gown worn to an equally glamorous opera with captivating historical backstories ! Marie Antoinette would’ve been proud.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Adriana Lecouvreur ─ Francisco Cilea (1902) Live in HD air date: January 12, 2019
Cast: Adriana Lecouvreur ─ Anna Netrebko Maurizio ─ Piotr Beczała Princess of Bouillon ─ Anita Rachvelishvili Michonnet ─ Ambrogio Maestri The Abbé ─ Carlo Bosi Prince of Bouillon ─ Maurizio Muraro
Credits: Conductor ─ Gianandrea Noseda Production ─ Sir David McVicar Set Designer ─ Charles Edwards Costume Designer ─ Brigitte Reiffenstuel Lighting Designer ─ Adam Silverman Choreographer ─ Andrew George Associate Director ─ Justin Way Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Matthew Polenzani
When pondering a new project, I always search for that one piece of inspiration to set the creative gears into motion. It can be a pair of shoes with just the right decoration for mimicking on a collar, or a necklace from ages past that would look perfect with a historical replica gown. ForManon, that trinket of musing was this pink and silver butterfly barrette:
Pale, frosted pink with touches of mauve and iridescent rhinestones gave me great ideas for the color scheme of my BelleÉpoque outfit. Determining whether I would create a walking suit, day dress, or evening/ball gown became the main challenge as I vacillated between contrary designs like a pendulum swinging from a string. Ultimately, a ball gown seemed like a safe choice since I knew that it would be rather simple in construction and wouldn’t limit my comfort or mobility the way a spectacularly broad daytime hat would against the back of a movie theater seat (I have experience in these matters, as surely you can tell). I did, however, sketch a design in the vein of one of Laurent Pelly’s signature looks from the opera:
Once the decision was made in favor of the ball gown, I settled on the 1890’s for my gown’s impersonation since La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Age) spans well over 40 years (roughly 1871-1914 by generous standards) with varying fashions in each decade. Now to narrow down the style of the neckline, sleeves, and skirt…
The gowns of the decade were bedecked in fancy laces, expensive jewels, and lavish ornamentation. Most noticeably were the enormous puff sleeves and long evening gloves worn by the ladies.
The decoration of the gores on the skirts was also in vogue.
As for me, I wanted a trademark 1890’s style, which meant a separate, softly pointed bodice and gored fan skirt trailing behind ─ both cut from pale pink crepe back satin and decorated in contrasting rosy mauve corded lace. Making a mock-up was the first order of business. I designed my bodice to have shoulder straps that opened wide onto the chest and a pointed bottom at the front and back, which was characteristic for the time period.
Once the bottom edge was modeled to my satisfaction, I cut along the line and had my new patterns pieces, which were then laid out onto interfaced cotton lining fabric.
Covered Rigilene bones were sewn onto the front princess seams in addition to one bone down the middle of the face side of the lining while other bones were sewn onto the bust portion of the bodice to give it shape and support.
Onto the back !
A minuscule waist was at the forefront of the iconic 1890’s silhouette. While the broad design features of bouffant sleeves and sweeping skirt hems aided in the appearance of a tiny waist, I wanted to be sure that I did my best to achieve the proper look and decided to make a built-in corset in the bodice. The attached lacing panels are shown below. Each panel has two sides: one for the lining (cotton) and the other for the side facing the back (satin).
Next came the skirt…
Doing my best to keep the gown fairly accurate, historically speaking, I made a pattern using measurement instructions given in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashions 2, an invaluable resource for fashion historians and sewing enthusiasts alike. Seam allowances were added and then the paper pattern was pinned to folded layers of crepe back satin (face), lining fabric, and interfacing to save time on the cutting process.
The interfacing was fused to the wrong sides of the face and lining fabrics and set aside for later…
After sewing together all the pieces of the bodice, pressing the seams, and stitching quilt batting onto the bust to cover the exposed bones, it was time for a fitting !
The fitting indicated that the armscyes needed to be cut down slightly since it was jabbing into my underarm area in a most uncomfortable way. (Later on I would cut down the armhole even more since it was still bothersome.)
Let’s get back to the skirt…
As per Patterns of Fashion 2, the hems of the fancy skirts in the 1890’s were interlined with buckram in order to keep them stiff and stand out and away from the wearer. This was essential in creating the proper figure that I wanted to achieve so I bought 1 yard of heavyweight buckram and cut it into strips based on the equation of the circumference of the skirt divided by the width of the buckram. If I remember correctly, I think I ended up with 8 strips that were 56-57″ long (the width of the buckram) and about 7¼” tall. Sewing the strips together gave me one long strip of stiffener.
The edge closest to the hem was sewn on first. Then to compensate for the decreasing skirt circumference higher up, I made long cuts into the buckram along the top edge (and shorter ones along the bottom) to help bend the stiff mesh into a circular shape.
Below shows how the interlining looks from the inside. There are two lines of stitching for the buckram (top and bottom) and then the pink outer face fabric was turned to the right side and the seam allowance topstitched to the inside.
All was pressed and ready to be pleated at the back. A simple waistband was added to the top, hooks and eyes were sewn to the band, and the skirt was ready for decoration ! Lovely, isn’t she ?
Calculating that it would take over 5 yards of lace trim for the bottom hem of the skirt, I purchased 3 yards of a sequined corded lace with double scalloped borders in the rosy mauve hue that would serve as the accent color, just like in the butterfly hair clip. Of course, the two selvedges of scallops gave me close to 6 yards of trim, which I snipped off and pinned their lengths in place onto the skirt.
Now, just between us, I glued the bottom border of lace onto the skirt with a clear fabric glue. I had no other choice ! If it’s early June, then I’m most likely going to hand sew the lace. But with only a month before the October opera and a bevy of other projects waiting half finished on my ironing board…well… Toss me the bottle of glue ! I did hand sew the rest of the lace, however, including the motifs along the two seams of the front gore, which took 3 hours EACH to complete. Yes, the glue saved me ! The skirt was complete (other than hanger straps, which I added later) and then it was onto the sleeves ─ the massive, puff sleeves.
Perfecting the fit of a sleeve has always been an elusive task for me. They’re either too tight, too lopsided at the top, or just plain unsightly. Sometimes, I want to give up. Since I didn’t want a failure with my 1890’s ball gown sleeves (they were, after all, consuming almost a yard of fabric each), I counted off the number of squares on a layout in Patterns of Fashion 2 and my sleeve block turned out great with only a few tweaks. Below is my sleeve pattern with markings for the front, back, and shoulder seam. However, in the process of sewing and attaching, these factors were not so important and I ditched the idea of lining up the points with those on the bodice straps. You’ll see why in a minute…
Three layers of the sleeve pattern were cut:
interfaced crepe back satin
After staystitching the edges, strips of horsehair braid were vertically sewn along the wide section of each sleeve at evenly spaced intervals. This provided a structured “oompf” and ensured that the sleeves would not droop. Next came a row of ruffled crinoline to begin building the “fluff” in the sleeve.
And then more rows of crinoline, and more, and more until the sleeve looked like this:
It almost looks like a pink and white lamb ! Baahhh !
Time to join the layers together…
…and gather the tops and bottoms.
And this is where things got tricky. Because it’s infinitely easier to gather and serge at the same time, I opted to use my serger to knock two balls out of the park after striking out with machine gathering ─ no matter how careful I was to not pull too hard on the thread tails, snap ! A thread would break. Frustration set in. Finally, it dawned on me to gather the sleeves on a cord so I went back to the serger and tried this trick. Guided by the red arrows, you will catch a glimpse of the white cotton crochet cord.
Eureka ! It worked ! From there, the sleeves gathered with remarkable ease.
And here’s what the bodice looked like after the sleeves were fitted to the straps. Sparkly, shiny, and fit for a princess, wouldn’t you say ? Time for a fitting !
A disaster: The inner support materials of the sleeves proved to be much too heavy for the wide set shoulder straps and as a result, the bodice became an “off the shoulder” style, which was not my intended look. I tried using lingerie tape under the straps to help them stay in place, but the copious amounts of horsehair and crinoline won out every time. Back to the drawing board… The seam ripper and I have a very close relationship and it was in action again with this project. I picked apart the sleeve layers, removed half of the horsehair strips, and reduced the number of crinoline ruffles before serging together the layers ─ again. Thankfully, my fear of having droopy sleeves due to a reduction of inner support was unrealized and once reassembled, they still possessed that iconic “poof” with no signs of droop. They remind me of swim floaties worn on the arms of children who are learning to swim.
A fitting was carried out and STILL the straps were falling down, just not as quickly as before. Only one thing could be done to salvage my hopes of keeping the straps on my shoulders and that was to somehow shorten the length of the strap. This was done by pinching together a back portion of each strap and sewing it down by hand. It sufficed, but wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, the corded lace sewn onto the bodice covered any obvious imperfections.
Completing the look was the beautiful rosy mauve lace I bought online from a Los Angeles fabric store. Snipping out varied motifs was necessary, but tedious at times, and don’t get me started on how much of a brain buster it was to match mirrored pieces ! I think I scrutinized each scroll of the lace pattern until I couldn’t see straight ! But, the devil is in the details and it paid off in the final outcome.
C’est très chic, n’est-ce pas ?
With the final touch of the butterfly clip ─ the source of my inspiration ─ perched atop my updo, I felt like I had stepped back in time to the grand days of Paris in the 1890’s. The dress gave me fits during construction, but not at the opera ! It was a dream to wear. Now, if only I had a Chevalier des Grieux on my arm and a fancy ball to attend…