Striped Seersucker Shirtdress

It may be apparent by now that I am an alliteration advocate. As much as I try to suppress my affection, there’s just something about starting a succession of words with the same alphabetical letter that tickles my fancy. Inadvertently, my new summer creation was an alliterative delight: a striped seersucker shirtdress !

Here’s how it began…

McCall’s 6891 Shirtdress

Originally purchasing this pattern to sew for a new Met production of Die Zauberflöte (which was subsequently canceled), it sat shelved, along with the yards of white chambray linen I bought for the project, without a hope except for the fact that I did very much like the pattern.

Nadine Sierra in Die Zauberflöte (Opéra National de Paris)

The idea of sewing a shirtdress never strayed too far from my mind, but it wasn’t until an issue of “Julie’s Picks” swatch club popped in the mail that the romanticized idea rose to the forefront as a planned reality. Could it have been a coincidence that the pattern suggestion for a dandy red stripe cream seersucker be none other than the McCall’s (reprinted as Butterick) shirtdress pattern I bought for the scrapped Met project ? Whether you believe in coincidences or not, I had my sign: I was making the dress !

“Julie’s Picks” July 2021 issue, Page 3

With this pattern being a Palmer and Pletsch design with extensive fitting instructions, I spent a good week perfecting the fit with the adjustment lines on the pattern tissue. My only substantial tweak was taking out ½ inch at the shoulder blade level to eliminate a gaping armhole in the back.

I wish there would have been more fitting tips besides the most common ones because I then needed to alter the sleeve pieces to compensate for the reduced armhole length. The attempt was in vain. As a result, my sleeve cap was gathered more than I had intentioned…

But, no matter !

The dress (a combination of Views C and D) turned out in tip top fashion and gave me the feel of a 1950’s waitress/housewife. I especially love the red “jelly” buttons that appear like hard candies on the peppermint stripe cotton.

I loved nearly everything about this dress: the American made fabric, the fit, the retro vibe, the color scheme… the list goes on. And while it wasn’t imperative that its descriptors start with the same letter, the fact that my striped seersucker shirtdress was an alliterative creation was just the icing on the cake.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Met Stars Live in Concert: Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja

“Viva Italia !” my friends and I exclaimed when we heard that the location of the upcoming concert for Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja had been moved from exotic seaside Malta to the Palazzo Reale in Caserta, Italy. On record as the world’s largest royal residence, the grand venue was ideal for the cinematic transmission of the latest Met Stars Live in Concert series.

The Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace of Caserta, Italy

The combination of Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja was a bit odd, especially when considering their “polar opposites” repertoire. The normally floating trills of the German soprano felt strained during the heavy Tosca numbers (“Vissi d’arte” was downright painful), which were salvaged by the charming apropos acting in a literal libretto location.

Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja singing excerpts from Tosca in the Met Stars Live in Concert series

Calleja’s hearty voice squelched Damrau’s on more than one occasion, but most notably during the finale duet of “Ave Maria” where they each took turns with versed lines. In the past, I have always enjoyed Diana Damrau due to her ability to make me feel her characters with a voice of sweetly scented femininity. However, it was during this last selection that I wished she would just stand silent and let Calleja fill the cavernous chapel with his rich tone.

Joseph Calleja and Diana Damrau singing “Ave Maria” / Metropolitan Opera

The best part about the concert was guessing which wrap Diana would wear next ! For each musical number, she would emerge from the wings of the palace chapel with a new accessory to play off her strapless black velvet gown.

Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja in the Met Stars Live in Concert series from Caserta, Italy

The Cuisine

Let’s talk about the food ! While we all struggled with the idea of Maltese cuisine (rabbit, anyone ?), the Italian switcheroo rendered the culinary preparation a breeze. Since the palace in Caserta was part of the Campania region (think Naples), Chris volunteered to make Neapolitan meatballs…

…and I was assigned the classic Caprese salad.

Anne brought the antipasti platter…

…and Jayne provided the Prosecco !

Our feast was complete… and delicious, too. We cleaned our plates !

The Clothes

When I first saw this concert on the lineup, I knew EXACTLY what I would wear, even after the location change. Years ago, I remembering thumbing through a catalog for Soft Surroundings and “oohing” and “ahhing” at the vibrant colors and relaxed refinery of the clothes. One dress, although simple, always jumped out at me along with the styling of the photo:

Santiago Boatneck Dress / Soft Surroundings

Something about the floor length knit dress in the earthy colors with the rustic jewelry just seemed so casually elegant. Coincidentally, I had several long necklaces that would look perfect with the dress. But when I checked the Soft Surroundings website, it appeared the boatneck style of dress had been discontinued. Even though I wanted to make my own dress, it would have been helpful to have more detailed pictures of what the website could offer. Nevertheless, I searched for knit maxi dress patterns and found a promising one from Hallå Patterns.

Agnes knit dress from Hallå Patterns

With a “just right” paprika colored French Terry knit, which was found in my October 2020 edition of Julie’s Picks swatch club, I sewed the pattern with the one tweak of lengthening the hem by 1½ inches, just in case. It was a perfect adjustment, but I do believe I would have allowed more width in the shoulders.

The dress was just what I desired ─ fall color, Old World jewelry, and casual stateliness for my imagined Neapolitan holiday. Best of all, I didn’t have to pay upwards of $100 ! It was a win-win-win !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits

Met Stars Live in Concert: Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja
Cappella Palatina of the Royal Palace of Caserta
Caserta, Italy
Live broadcast date: October 24, 2020

Diana Damrau ─ soprano
Joseph Calleja ─ tenor
Roberto Moreschi ─ piano

"Bess, You Is My Woman Now": the 1930's picnic dress

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…

Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan 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 !

Promotional poster for printed flour sacks

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.

McCall’s 3154

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.

The original pattern and the new patterns made

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 ?

The inside of the skirt

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.

Sewing the zipper

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…

Success !

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 !”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Rolling on the Riviera ─ Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna in Concert

“The dynamic husband-and-wife duo of tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak give a concert of arias and duets, accompanied by string quintet, from an outdoor terrace in Èze, France, with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean.”

Two for the price of one ? A string quintet ? A château on the French Riviera ? Count me in ! If the description for the third installment of the Met Stars Live in Concert initiative wasn’t appealing already, the set list for Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna’s concert was the icing on the cake. Favorites from Puccini and Verdi seamlessly mixed with adorable folk songs from Mexico and Italy, all richly accompanied by the Vienna Morphing Quintet. Below is an abbreviated video of highlights from the concert:

Aside from being a technical feat, the vistas overlooking the pelagic Mediterranean Sea were arresting. Several times during the concert, I found my eyes floating over the floral garlanded railing to espy sleek motor yachts and nearby barrier islands as Aleksandra and Roberto charmed me with their singing and effortless chemistry. Their intuitive camaraderie led to dynamic and touching duets, which also included an overflowing dose of mirth. In what is rapidly becoming the duo’s calling card, the hilarious “love potion” duet from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore involved a clever prop and crafty English ad libs ─ I was rollicking with laughter watching the two perform !

Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna singing “Caro Elisir” from L’Elisir d’Amore in concert / Metropolitan Opera

There were more serious moments as well with Aleksandra singing Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” followed by a melting rendition of the love duet from Otello, in which the darkening sky serendipitously played a role in one of the final lines. Singing “The Pleiades are low in the heavens”, the pair turned to face the azure sky and motioned to the stars just as they were beginning to illuminate. Chills !!!!

Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna singing the love duet from Otello in concert

The Cuisine

The concert locale, above all else, provided the best (and most straightforward) watch party theme: Rolling on the Riviera. Provence, with its uniqueness of sights and senses was the central inspiration behind our small gathering at Chris’s home. Each of us chipped in to make the get-together unforgettable. Jayne knew of a terrific French sparkling rosé wine while I was elated to try out Ina Garten’s Provençal Potato Salad, which was chocked full of Provençal ingredients: black olives, capers, haricot verts, cherry tomatoes, scallions, red onion, lots of fresh herbs, flaked tuna, hard cooked eggs, and anchovies. The freshness was equivalent to lounging on a sun-soaked beach chair with the sea mist brushing across your face. In the words of Ina Garten, “How bad can that be ?” The salad is so gorgeous that it was featured as the cover image on the original Barefoot Contessa cookbook from 1999.

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook and Jayne’s sparkling rosé

I highly recommend the wine and the niçoise-inspired potato salad for an instant summer getaway.

Anne sure knows how to arrange a cheese platter ! Roquefort, Boursin, and Brie, oh my ! And of course, my favorite prosciutto…

Even Chris, our gracious hostess, made blackberry sorbet to be accompanied with chocolate covered French cookies. Bon appétit !

The Clothes

Imagine partaking in a leisurely promenade along one of the coastal towns of the Riviera… what would you wear ? For me, the answer was obvious: beach pajamas !

Made popular in the 1930’s, beach pajamas (or pyjamas) were all the rage on the Riviera where the rich and famous would rendezvous. Women would wear flowy fabrics with grace, oftentimes to dressier occasions spanning into the evening hour. Casual and comfortable, while still oh-so chic, I knew I wanted to sew a set of these beloved beach clothes.

Seeking a two piece style, I contemplated designing my own set until I came across a FREE pattern online from Gertie’s Charm Patterns brand. With a complete sew-a-long tutorial on YouTube showing the details of making the pajamas, the pattern was just right for my needs. With this being my very first “Gertie” pattern, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found that the pattern was accurately sized with differing cup sizes for an even better fit.

Using a soft rayon challis I bought in June from Julie’s Picks swatch club mailer, I paired it with an equally sumptuous berry-colored material from Fabric Mart’s gorgeous selection of rayon/nylon shimmer satins. Softness and style united as one.

I loved wearing my 1930’s beach pajamas to what transpired as a joyous afternoon in Provence. From the cliffs of Èze to the rolling hills of central Florida, the pleasures of the French Riviera were abundant ─ an uplifting concert, delicious food, and lively conversation… what could be finer ?

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Met Stars Live in Concert: Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna
Château de la Chèvre d’Or
Èze, France
Live broadcast date: August 16, 2020
(Date seen: August 20, 2020)

Aleksandra Kurzak ─ soprano
Roberto Alagna ─ tenor

Vienna Morphing Quintet

Agrippina

The opera that catapulted Handel to stardom in 1709 certainly didn’t appear to possess any of the typical semblances of its Ancient Rome setting. TV news reporters, business suits, smartphones, and rather raunchy physical comedy could all be taken in during the Live in HD performance of Sir David McVicar’s staging of Agrippina.

So why did I decide to attend ? After all, I don’t like modern productions… or do I ?

A scene from Agrippina / Metropolitan Opera

A course taken on 18th-Century Opera from edX the previous summer softened my ossified resolve on the idea of attending a Baroque opera in a Y2K setting. It was worth a shot… and that shot was fired with poignant accuracy─ I laughed harder than I have ever laughed at any opera, nearly falling out of my seat on innumerable occasions ! The antics were well-timed, especially from Joyce DiDonato’s saucy Agrippina and her hellion son, Nerone, played to utmost perfection by a tattooed, skinny jean wearing, cocaine snorting Kate Lindsey in a trouser role.

Kate Lindsey as Nerone and Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina / Metropolitan Opera

As a scintillating counterpart to the opera’s R-rated comedy, the singing was sublime. With many scenes being accompanied only by the deft strings of maestro Harry Bicket’s harpsichord, the singers were exploited for their talent and technique alone, which was all the more appreciated after the insightful edX course.

The question remains to be asked: was the radical redux of the Met’s oldest opera in the repertoire worthy of my stalwart traditionalism ? Resoundingly, yes ! Call it sacrilege if you please, but if Agrippina had been staged in its original setting of the infancy of A.D. history, I think it would have been an absolute snoozefest ! Sorry, Handel.

Joyce DiDonato and Matthew Rose in Agrippina / Metropolitan Opera

Realizing the modern-dress style of the opera could very well lead into a fashionable sewing project, I envisioned a specific mode ─ an overall perceived attitude ─ for the styling of my outfit: Italian couture. Fittingly, Agrippina is centralized in Rome and while Ancient Rome is a completely different entity from the country of Italy in existence today, I still couldn’t resist aligning the two nations in my quest for haute couture.
Perusing pictures and watching video clips from previous renditions of the same McVicar production (extant since 2000), I chose to model my outfit after the Agrippina standing on the stairs in the picture below.

Sarah Connolly as Agrippina, circa 2009 / Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona

Up close, the blazer was not just one solid color; it was subtlety patterned in a diamond motif. Satin first popped into my mind until I spotted the perfect fabric, which arrived in one of my monthly swatch club mailers from Fabric Mart Fabrics.

Taking the plunge: Wool, Dry Clean Only, $20/yard… Agrippina pushed my boundaries in more ways than one !

To sew my very first blazer, I used a PDF pattern from Lekala. Although not without flaws, I learned in strides how coat construction comes together. Styled with a “business bun”, Whiting and Davis purse (my mother’s), cat eye sunglasses, and gobstopper pearls (thank you, Aunt Countess !), I was poised to take on the world in sleek, corporate couture fashion.

The classic, Chanel-esque cocktail dress, which employed pattern and alteration techniques from the Corset Academy, was the perfect base garment for my “cutthroat corporate” ideal. Here was my inspiration dress:

Circa 1995 Chanel silk slip dress / via 1stdibs.com

The ponte knit dress was customized with a mesh upper lining and built-in underwire bra…

Did I mention this was an Italian couture outfit ? Everything, from the damask weave crepe challis wool of the blazer to the black ponte knit of the cocktail dress, was sourced from Italy.

Even the gold shank button was from The Boot !

Italian couture and a ruthless Roman matriarch… a match made in heaven ? You be the judge ! The taste for high-end fashion and the delicious vocalities of Handel’s breakout opera left me as hungry as the titular Empress herself, salivating over her next scheme.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Agrippina ─ George Frideric Handel (1709)
Live in HD air date: February 29, 2020

Cast:
Agrippina ─ Joyce DiDonato
Nerone ─ Kate Lindsey
Poppea ─ Brenda Rae
Ottone ─ Iestyn Davies
Pallante ─ Ducan Rock
Claudio ─ Matthew Rose

Credits:
Conductor ─ Harry Bicket
Production ─ Sir David McVicar
Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer ─ Paule Constable
Choreographer ─ Andrew George
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt

Acoustic Eidolon

I was touched ─ I really was ─ when I was invited with a handful of others to a private concert being given at the clubhouse of a quaint little neighborhood community nearby. While different from my usual opera outings, I figured it would be a welcome change to expand my musical horizons. And for $15, it was a fair deal.
Consisting of a husband and wife duo, Acoustic Eidolon blends classicism with the folkloric adding a healthy smattering of rousing blues and lyric verses. Hannah, with her “chocolate” cello, played with both tenderness and gusto while at times accompanying the pieces with her angelic voice ─ sometimes in French. Hypnotic and melodic, she could justly be described as a siren without the impending danger.
Joe, simultaneously picking and strumming his inventive “guitjo” (a double-necked guitar with banjo capabilities), was the pragmatist ─ the frank one ─ of the two. Often times he would provide the punch line at the culmination of one of Hannah’s soulful stories such as the time when her cello was severely damaged during airport baggage handling. “United [Airlines],” Joe sneered with mock surprise. “But you probably knew that before I said it.” Snickers bubbled from the audience.
Their set list was unique. Joining covers of Simon and Garfunkel’s eerie “The Sound of Silence” and Queen’s stupendous “Bohemian Rhapsody” (their “opera piece”, Joe claimed) were original compositions from the couple’s various albums over the years including some with global flavors. In particular, my favorite of these was “One Ol’ Wreck”, a bustling bluesy tribute to Joe’s love of cars complete with Hannah’s uncannily realistic “honks” manufactured by the skill of her bow. It had my skinny stiletto tapping in time on the floor. Vroom, vroom !

Any event, no matter how small or informal, is an excuse to dress up for me. And that’s just what I did. During my opera off-season the previous year, I had made a handkerchief hem skirt using Vogue 7766.

Vogue 7766

Initially, I intended to use this pattern for my Valkyrie skirt, but aborted the idea in favor of an alternative approach. While the plan was jettisoned, the pattern was not and I was elated to have a chance to put it to good use, proudly outfitted in a bold striped sateen from Fabric Mart Fabrics. It mingled well as a dressier look: sheer gloves, glitter stilettos, and my mother’s classic Robert Scott sweater from the 70’s/80’s all coordinated in a chic statement.

Meeting Hannah and Joe after the concert was a treat ! They were personable and Hannah especially remarked on how much she appreciated my effort and style in fashion: “When I saw you walk into the room, I said to myself, ‘Now there’s a woman after my own heart ─ the shoes, the skirt, the gloves, the matching purse… !'” How could I not blush ? I was flattered.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

For more information about Acoustic Eidolon, please visit their website !

Event: Acoustic Eidolon concert
Date: February 16, 2020