It’s no secret that I love a good secret, especially when that secret surrounds the identity of an individual. Much like my all-time favorite opera, Turandot, the German fairytale of Lohengrin is shrouded in mystery as to the name and origins of its central character. But my penchant for sworn confidences is only part of why Lohengrin reigns as co-champion for my favorite Wagnerian opera.
Including the ethereal prelude, which felt like a cathartic sound bath under the spell of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s rapturous orchestra, and the bated breath aria “In fernem Land” in Act III, I am moved to hallowed stillness by the nobility of the piece. The purity, blind faith, and exalted submission of the hero to a higher power elicits sighs of romantic grandeur from my heart. Perpetually, the opera inspires me to a greater character of soul. And while I have never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve, I think it can be veritably said that there is no female alive who does not inwardly swoon over a knight in shining armor, coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Myself, included.
Before Lohengrin was ever scheduled to appear at the Met, I always knew what I would create for the occasion. Years passed before I could fulfill my vision for the opera, but my daydreams never waned. Finally, the moment arrived. Swan Knight Bridewas the culmination of central plot points in the opera: the swan that tows the skiff carrying the knight to defend the innocent Elsa, who then becomes his beloved bride. My idea was to assemble all these elements and blend them into a “Modern Medieval” look with simplistic styling. And so, the process began.
Starting with a proper foundation was important, especially since I had distinct parameters for how I wanted the gown to look. When I discovered the Sewist design website, I was in “dress dream” heaven. Below is the base gown I “designed” using the mix-and-match software offered for free by the company:
I loved the jewel sweetheart neckline as a sleek and stately alternative to a traditional Queen Anne neckline. Even with my customized pattern, I needed to do some additional fitting to account for my knit fabric and provide added stability around the pointed contours of the neckline. Taking a class from Katrina Walker on how to sew pretty necklines for knits paid off grandly as my heavy, slippery tricot fabric looked flawless after the techniques were applied. Thank you, Katrina !
For the “knight” representation, my plan was to liberally bedazzle the shoulders of the gown with metallic rhinestones in a gradient effect as if some of the Grail’s mystic power had descended upon my shoulders. The plain gown underwent a resplendent transformation as each rhinestone was applied entirely by hand.
What’s a bride without her veil ? Here is where I decided to implement “mein lieber Schwan.” Mirroring the gradation on my shoulders, my aim was to have the veil look as if feathers were gently floating in soft swishes. Originally, I was just going to gather several yards of an embroidered tulle, but after realizing the mesh was too soft and stretchy for a veil, I opted to extract the feathers from the mesh using scissors and a soldering iron and then attached them onto a more suitable tulle.
With all components complete, I added an oak leaf crown to symbolize the meeting place at the beginning of the opera as well as to lend a Medieval touch to the outfit. Swan Knight Bride, at last !
The crisply turned out neckline and the sparkle from the silver rhinestones made me feel so glamourous and noble.
With hundreds of jewels applied by hand, the gown’s decoration was a labor of love… but so worth it !
A Medieval gown cannot be without its bridal point sleeves ! Altering the sleeve pattern to include them gave me fits, but they were gorgeous in the end.
To Wagner’s Lohengrin, only one thing can be said… “I do !”
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Lohengrin ─ Richard Wagner (1850) Live in HD air date: March 18, 2023
Cast: Lohengrin ─ Piotr Beczała Elsa ─ Tamara Wilson Ortrud ─ Christine Goerke Telramund ─ Evgeny Nikitin Herald ─ Brian Mulligan King Heinrich ─ Günther Groissböck
Credits: Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin Production ─ François Girard Set and Costume Designer ─ Tim Yip Lighting Designer ─ David Finn Projection Designer ─ Peter Flaherty Choreographer ─ Serge Bennathan Dramaturg ─ Serge Lamothe Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Christopher Maltman
In a “behind the scenes” peek, I thought it would be interesting to share some parts of the process of how this gigantic endeavour came to life.
How It All Began
I conceived the idea whenthe timing was right. With the Met still closed in early 2021 and no operas for which to design costumes, I needed something to occupy my time and alsowanted a new challenge of working with different body shapes and sizes.Could I accomplish this mammoth project ? I pondered. After searching for patterns and fabrics while tallying prices, I felt the goal was doable. My mind was made up, so I called my chapter’s president and treasurer to run my grand scheme by them. At the March business meeting, I pitched the idea to the entire chapter, complete with cost analysis sheets, lists of materials needed, and samples of prospective fabrics to be used. The response was a tsunami of yeses. My sisters were “game” for anything !
Researching the styles from 1869 was the first step in formulating my plan. From my experience with opera and historical costuming, I had plenty of resources for specialized pattern companies. Ultimately, I chose to use Black Snail Patterns for the bodice, Truly Victorian Patterns for the skirt, and Laughing Moon Patterns for the hoopskirts, bustle pads, and the chemisettes. Each pattern was selected based on its finished garment style and how well they could be adapted to suit the Founders’ official portraits.
It was absolutely crucial to construct the supportive undergarments of the outfits first ! Without a well fitting hoopskirt and bustle pad, the skirts could not be measured correctly. In the spirit of thriftiness and the need to maintain a strict budget, I thought it would be ingenious to use polyethene plumber’s tubing for the hoops instead of real steel hooping. After all, I had seen blogs of people making hoopskirts out of hula hoops and similar items. But as you can tell, that didn’t work out.
Maybe for a topsy-turvy, whimsical costume, this curlicue tubing would have been a winner. But for my historical ensembles, I had to break with the budget and buy steel hooping… much better !
With everyone fitted to a comfortable size, we moved onto the skirts, which were much less tedious than threading steel boning through ribbon channels. In May, I gave a demonstration of the progress that had been made to my chapter sisters at one of our regular meetings.
The hoopskirts had not yet been outfitted with crinoline mesh so the tunnels of steel were visibly apparent.
The skirt even had a pocket on the right side !
The Black Snail bodice pattern was historically accurate. Too accurate. Designed with the corseted body in mind, I knew I would have to make alterations since I had promised my models that they would NOT have to wear a corset, but also for the sake of convenience. Who would want to fasten all those itty bitty buttons down the front when the need for speed in dressing (and undressing) was of utmost importance ?One of the first changes made was to close the bodices with Velcro at the front. But that was just the tip of the iceberg !
Out of all my models, I had the most challenging time fitting Lynne, who played Ella Stewart. While the pattern fit perfectly at the waist and bust, I could not manage to close the bodice at the neck, no matter how I finagled with the seams. Anne, who portrayed Mary Allen and was my invaluable “sous sewer,” thought inserting a small gore at the center back seam would add enough length for the neckline to meet at the front.
Together, we toyed with ideas of substitutions, but nothing seemed to work. Then I had a “lightbulb” moment: just recently, I had taken a virtual fit and sew blouse class with Katrina Walker and recalled how she demonstrated a sleeve alteration using the “slash and spread” method. Taking what I learned in class, I applied it to the upper front of Lynne’s bodice.
A preliminary fitting showed promise. I then carried over the same adjustments to the paper pattern…
…and almost cried from ecstatics when Lynne tried on the new bodice. It was a perfect fit.Thank you, Katrina !
Other embellishments were needed in order for Lynne’s outfit to look spiffy. Since Ella Stewart’s portrait showed contrasting green appliques at the clavicles, Anne and I decided to continue with the color blocking theme and added dark green bands at the skirt and sleeve hems and a decorative yoke piece at the back waist. Lynne’s costume was easily classified as “Most Unique.”
There was a near catastrophe when my original Suela Pearson came down with Covid just one day before our rehearsal and three days before the actual Founders’ Day event! With hurried hands, Anne and I went to work to completely alter the costume in order to fit the new model. Miraculously, our skills paid off and the new amended ensemble was completed in time. And the best part ? No one knew a thing !
In an ordeal that spanned 10 months and required over 120 yards of fabric, I was able to accomplish the magnanimous feat with the ready help of my chapter sisters. When all the hard work was achieved, our chapter performed its P.E.O. themed fashion show to the local reciprocity group, showcasing each of the seven Founders’ style based on their original portraits. Written into the narrated script was an “underwear demo,” which was designed to allow the audience a glimpse into how a lady would have started her dressing routine during the time period. That task fell to me.Remember what I had promised my models ? NO CORSETS !!
After strolling around the room in my “underwear,” it was now time for the models to make their appearance… Without further explanation, here are our seven Founders !
Each costume was as unique as the model wearing it and we were all so proud to honor our Founders in such a special way.
“Style From the Stile: A Tribute to 1869 Fashion and the Founding of the P.E.O. Sisterhood” was a monster success, both with the local chapters and beyond. Through social media postings and publications, the show found its way to international acclaim. But the project would never have been possible without the enthusiastic and steadfast support of my chapter sisters. Nearly every member had a part ─ from covering and hand sewing buttons, to help with backstage dressing and stage directing. And a special thanks goes to Anne, who cut out every single piece of fabric !
As sisters, we bonded through the trials and triumphs of the project and left an indelible mark on Founders’ Day history.
The P.E.O. Founders were remarkable women. The ladies of Chapter CD are quite the same.
It was a summer afternoon ─ the summer before I would attend the Live in HD performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in the theater ─ and I was watching the same opera and production from 2003 with Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay. Fulling intending to dress as Ariadne for the theater showing, I closely espied her costume, looking for small details that could aid in my creation. But as the opera progressed, I realized… Ariadne is boring ! It was Natalie Dessay’s high-flying Zerbinetta that had me completely smitten, with both her character and costume, and I decided then that I would dress, not as Ariadne, but as Zerbinetta for the theater broadcast.
With the close-up camera shots of the costume, I could make out slubs in the costume fabric and knew that I would use a polyester dupioni as my base material. The sleeves on the bodice were a sort of gathered puff and unintentionally, while browsing for something else, I came across a sewing pattern with just the right sleeves and pointed bodice (E).
How to apply the wild checkered colors was still up for decision… Hand cut pieces of fabric ? Paint ? Realizing that both methods would be extremely time consuming, but that painting the fabric would be much more precise and less of a guessing game, I bought a set of jacquard fabric paint to begin work on the harlequin design.
I used the above photos of Diana Damrau and Kathleen Kim as a guide in marking and painting the diamonds on the bodice and skirt. Thinking that painting fabric was just like painting walls, I marked off sections of the sewn princess seam bodice, which I altered and boned, with 3/8″ electrical tape, assuming that the sticky tape would hold back any and all imperfections when I peeled away the pinned on strips…
Wrong !!!! The black and red paint bled beneath the tape, into the white lines. Twill tape saved the day, turning a watery canvas into a striking harlequin.
Trimmed with (painted !) red lace around the sleeve hems, black shank buttons down the front, and bias binding around the neckline finished the zippered bodice. A hook and eye was fastened at the top of the back.
Itching to utilize a new patternmaking book in my collection, I experimented with transforming a full circle skirt into one of equal area with 12 gores, still maintaining the same proportions as the regularly cut bias circle. The purpose behind this maneuver was to better my chances of accurately marking out the diamond design and to prevent uneven and sagging edges from the circular bias cut.
This was accomplished. However, something went amiss in my calculations and I ended up having to remove two gores from the skirt to fit the waistband. Therefore, it became a 300° instead of a 360° skirt. All’s well that ends well, right ?
Marking the diamonds on the skirt was torture ! Staring at the pictures of the model skirt only led to frustration when, after spending hours elongating sticky tape into impossibly curved lines, I stepped back to eye my design and beheld kites and shields ─notharlequin diamonds !
I probably spent close to a week taping and re-taping the same design over and over again. I don’t know (and may never know) how the diamonds on Zerbinetta’s skirt stayed so regular. Even as they became larger at the hem, they still looked like perfect diamonds !
Time was running out and I needed to move on from the insanity, so… kites and shields it had to be ! Painting the skirt fabric was much more time consuming than the bodice and sleeves, but I finished it just a few days before the opera.
When I pulled off the electrical tape, it made a tremendous difference in the look of the design, but not as much as when the twill tape was sewn over the jagged white lines. Then, the outfit popped.
There was a near catastrophe when I soaked the skirt in an attempt to remove the remains of newspaper that were stuck to the backside of the fabric and some of the black paint smeared onto the bright yellow segments. Egad, what horror ! Against instructions not to scrub with soapy water, I did just that, scouring the yellow diamonds in hopes of removing the black tinge. Thankfully, it dried with hardly any trace of black on yellow and my painted diamonds remained in good condition. Whew !
A lining of light satin was used to finish the underside, a zipper was installed, a waistband added, and the skirt was complete. During Zerbinetta’s hair-raising aria in the “Opera” portion of Ariadne auf Naxos, a red petticoat beneath her skirt is revealed as she flings herself aback on a chair, utterly exhausted from oxygen-depleting coloratura. With the need for a crinoline, I searched online and found a steal of a deal ─ a vintage red nylon petticoat that I snagged for $1.25 off eBay.
One of the best parts of Zerbinetta’s costume is her 18th century tricorn hat with plumes of brightly colored feathers…
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.