Designing a Diva: Dress Inspired by Anna Netrebko

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…!

The wrong side of the face after sewing on the lace

A week later, I sewed on a ruched sash with the help of this tutorial: https://mamamadeit.blogspot.com/2011/03/ruched-satin-taffeta-sash.html Thank you, Mama !
The gathered ends were capped with a folded strip of satin and hooks and eyes were sewn on the underside.

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.

Toi, Toi, Toi,
Mary Martha

Diva du Jour ─ Anna Netrebko Live in Concert

“Diva assoluta del mondo.” “Prima donna.” “Showstopper.” Regardless of how you choose to phrase your expressions, the fact of the matter remains constant: Anna Netrebko is the World’s Reigning Diva. She is also my favorite singer. And so, when the time came for Anna Netrebko to be featured in the Met Stars Live in Concert series, there was no question that I would be watching.

Cleverly, the program was divided into Day and Night art songs ─ the first portion floated with some of Anna’s Russian repertoire calling cards while the latter half was devoted to darkness. While most of the selections were enjoyable (most ─ Debussy’s “Il pleur dans mon cœur” sparked the need for an antidepressant), I couldn’t help but wish for an injection of opera somewhere into the set list. Art songs can only be sustained for so long, even with Pavel Nebolsin’s nuanced piano playing…
What was delightful, however, was the addition of mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova to complete two duets. The girls were a pretty sight together and their Venetian masks worn in part for Offenbach’s Bacarolle painted a portrait of pure whimsy.

Anna Netrebko and Elena Maximova singing “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amore”

The Cuisine

The Spanish Riding School offered an extraordinary venue for a concert. And its host city, Vienna, became the inspiration for the food. Anne’s cheese platter contained a mix of Muenster, Manchego, and Danish Blue. Something German, something Spanish, and something as blue as the Danube. Brava, Anne !

Chris’s canapes were a work of art ! Open faced sandwiches never looked better…

And what would an opera concert be without some bubbly imbibement ? From the bordering hills of Italy, I supplied a bottle of Prosecco.

But Vienna is probably best known for its renowned dessert: Sachertorte ! Who would of thought that a simple chocolate cake could be heightened to extraordinary levels by a smearing of tangy apricot jam and a bathing of velvety ganache ? Okay, that’s not too much of a profound pondering. We all had seconds !

Sachertorte

The Clothes

While the storied city of Vienna may have supplied the inspiration for the food, it was Anna Netrebko herself who became the muse for my outfit. As a bona fide diva, Anna Netrebko wears gowns worth dying for. My research began by browsing online images of Anna’s past concert and gala gowns. The results led me to two conclusions: Anna Netrebko loves bright colors and bold styles. Other noticeable features were the repetitions of strapless gowns with coordinating waistband sashes. Using these as my standards, I set out to create a “Diva” dress, glam and all.

Bright colors ? Check ! Bold style ? You be the judge…!

My “Diva” gown, accentuated by an abundant organza stole, made me feel like I had stepped onto a Hollywood red carpet ! More appropriately, it fit the mold of my all-time favorite diva, Anna Netrebko ─ “la diva assoluta del mondo.”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha


Surely, you must want to know more about my jaw-dropping dress, right ? Details of its conception and completion can be found here: http://costumeclosetcouture.com/2021/03/09/designing-a-diva-dress-inspired-by-anna-netrebko/

Cast and Credits

Met Stars Live in Concert: Anna Netrebko
Spanish Riding School
Vienna, Austria
Live broadcast date: February 6, 2021
(Date seen: February 18, 2021)

Anna Netrebko ─ soprano
Elena Maximova ─ mezzo-soprano
Pavel Nebolsin ─ piano

Samson et Dalila

It’s a well-known fact that opera is a breeding ground for steamy passages of heart-searing love and passion. Whether through a gripping duet of vocal intensity or timely choreography, an attendee of the opera ─ especially a shy one ─ should be prepared for some “seat squirming”. And so, I braced myself for an assumptive afternoon of red hot heat in a retelling of one of the most notorious couples of biblical proportions: Samson and Delilah.

Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna in Samson et Dalila / Metropolitan Opera

This new production was hyped because of its starring cast. When Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna were teamed together for Carmen in 2009, the fireworks were undeniable, so it has been said by many. Now, almost 10 years later, the two rejoined the stage in hopes of rekindling their chemistry.

Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča in Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

Although I had not seen the performance of Carmen with Elīna and Roberto, I wasn’t overwhelmed by what I saw in Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila. Both performers did well on their own, but I wasn’t moved by their “passion”. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or maybe those same anticipations were more deflated by the cartoonish sets and costumes. Samson’s hair, which was not nearly as long as I had hoped, dangled over a swath of heathered jersey knit and the neon lamé and garish design features on Dalila’s gowns were almost an insult to the rich potential for styling this opera. Pooh !

Elīna Garanča as Dalila and Roberto Alagna as Samson in Samson et Dalila / Metropolitan Opera

Musically, my favorite moment came during the Bacchanale, which sizzled with Middle Eastern flair and energy. The corresponding ballet, however, was far more revealing than what my unprepared eyes had estimated. Remember what I said about seat squirming ? Well, it happened here.

The Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila / Metropolitan Opera

Reputed as a Philistine femme fatale, the excitement to dress as Dalila bubbled within me like a hot spring in an arid desert. However, with a new production, costuming can be a peculiar challenge since the non-existence of past performance photos brings about a crap shoot risk: will the costumes in the opera mimic those worn in the released promotional still shots ? It’s a gamble, but one of an intense ruminating kind. For Samson et Dalila, the promotional media looked to be geared toward a 1970’s disco glam/modern vibe with Elīna Garanča appearing to look like a sultry screen siren.

With that approach, I was thunderstruck by an idea after seeing a model dress on the Corset Academy website:

Courtesy of the Corset Academy

The dress reminded me of the raspberry pink halter neck gown worn in the promos and I had a dynamic plan for the design of my own: bright fuchsia satin and funky orange lace for the side panels.

Several mock-ups were created to manually model the curved lines of the side panels; the finalized muslin pieces were then cut and placed on the satin and lace for sewing. But during the fitting of the lining, I learned something had seriously gone awry: the dress was skin tight and I could barely move ! The next 10 days were spent letting out the seam allowances with mediocre results. Finally, it dawned on me that the only way the dress was going to fit was if I cut “expander” panels and sewed them to the back vertical edges of the dress. Crisis averted !

“Expander” panels sewn to back edges of dress

Although the cleverly concealed error wasn’t my ideal method of creating a dress, a hindsight look into the process taught me that I shouldn’t stuff my mock-ups too tightly ─ the cotton muslin became stretched and therefore rendered a faulty reading on the measurements. Lessons learned during sewing are invaluable for future creations.
In the end, I was elated with the design of the dress and how it hugged my body like a slippery satin snake. My mother styled my hair in “Desert Goddess” fashion, which was inspired by Olga Borodina’s Dalila from the Met in 1998.

Plácido Domingo and Olga Borodina in Samson et Dalila, circa 1998 / Metropolitan Opera

While my wrist was weighted in gold and leather bracelets and my shoes sparkled with the glints of Arabian sands, the real showstopper to this ensemble was the presence of glittering Swarovski crystals (over 500 of them !) that adorned the circular insets on the lace. Pictures cannot prove their luminescence, but the crowd at the theater noticed…

Up close detail of the lace and crystals

Dalila: a sense of worldly glamour with the seduction of a lioness. Samson et Dalila: a lion cub outfitted in plastic rhinestones.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Samson et Dalila ─ Camille Saint-Saëns (1877)
Live in HD air date: October 20, 2018

Cast:
Dalila ─ Elīna Garanča
Samson ─ Roberto Alagna
High Priest of Dagon ─ Laurent Naouri
Abimélech ─ Elchin Azizov
An Old Hebrew ─ Dmitry Belosselskiy

Credits:
Conductor ─ Sir Mark Elder
Production ─ Darko Tresnjak
Set Designer ─ Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer ─ Linda Cho
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Choreographer ─ Austin McCormick
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Susan Graham

Carmen

“Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame… And if I love you, watch out !”

Act I ─ Carmen

Opera’s most notorious femme fatale finally sashayed her way into the theater after keeping me waiting for years. Truthfully, I have longed to see Carmen for two reasons. First, the bouncing music, which is both tuneful as well as recognizable, is an alluring draw to Bizet’s landmark opera. And then there’s Carmen herself, a meaty role for any mezzo-soprano. Clémentine Margaine, French by birth, slipped into the black dress for this Live in HD performance.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

Gritty, but perfumed, Clémentine Margaine balance crude manners with beguiling charm. Watching her sent my mind into vacillations of resolve as to who she really was: a woman who looked attractive at first glance, but on further inspection was nothing more than a broad wearing lipstick and eyeliner. There was a hardness about her ─ an earthiness ─ that befit the role of the tempestuous gypsy well. This baseness was especially noticeable when compared to the sweet and singular Micaëla, played by Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, who also happens to be the real life wife of Roberto Alagna, the opera’s Don José !

Aleksandra Kurzak as Micaëla and Roberto Alagna as Don José in Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

While the songs were as exciting as I hoped they would be, I wouldn’t say that Carmen ranks as one of my favorite operas. It’s too long for a story that feels humdrum and predictable. From a personal standpoint, Bizet’s earlier work, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, was much more intriguing in terms of plot and outcome. Nevertheless, I was happy to be able to check Carmen off my list of must-see operas.

A scene from Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

Just as the singer who plays Carmen often relishes the chance to live vicariously through the role, so I also wanted to step into the clicking heels of a Spanish gypsy through my portrayal. Although Richard Eyre’s production is set in Seville during the 1930’s, I felt many of the costumes seemed pertinent to the present day and so I decided to model my look after the dancing ensemble worn by Carmen in Act II.

A scene from Act II of Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

A voluminous bell sleeve blouse and lace skirt swings in time to the rousing Gypsy Song while a black corset exemplifies Carmen’s signature seduction. Planning my version of the outfit was easy, especially when I thought of the coral colored crinkle skirt in my mother’s closet that would be perfect for the part. Marking the tiers with rows of beads, it was destined for bohemian couture. Two yards of Raschel lace, which I bought for a bargain during a Black Friday sale, were draped and pinned on the outside of the skirt like a sarong.

The lower half of the outfit complete, I moved onto the fun parts ─ the corset and the blouse !

Yes, I made a corset. It was easy with the patterns and instructions from the Corset Academy, which I use often when making structured garments. Shaping my figure, the corset was mostly hidden beneath the flouncy tie bottom blouse I sewed using the free wrap blouse pattern from Anke Herrmann’s website for Flamenco Dressmaking. Her advice and support were valuable as I altered the style slightly to suit my needs. Once I found a festive dot crepe fabric on closeout online, I was ready to sew my blouse.

Making the bell sleeves was not as difficult as I anticipated, especially using a circle skirt cutting layout. And I loved using the rolled hem setting on my BabyLock serger ! It made the edges of my bell sleeves frilly and polished.

“But what about your hair ? Is it real ?” Yes and no. Looking over past Met performance pictures, I knew I needed tightly curled locks to match that of the character’s and so I related my plight to my mother (also known as my hairstylist) whereupon she gauged that trying to curl my naturally soft and wavy hair was a futile effort. Ultimately, she suggested I find some hairpieces. Well, I did, but the entirety of that story is not fit for publication. It involved a shady shop on the wrong side of town and a man who tried to convince me that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Che Guevara. Fearful for my life ? Just a smidge.
Doing her best, my mother mingled my hair with the newly bought hairpieces to capture the Spanish vibe I was seeking.

Steeped in Sevillian style, I thoroughly delighted in playing opera’s most infamous gypsy, especially when twirling around in the theater on the way back to my seat. Olé !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Casts and Credits:

Carmen ─ Georges Bizet (1875)
Live in HD air date: February 2, 2019

Cast:
Carmen ─ Clémentine Margaine
Don José ─ Roberto Alagna
Micaëla ─ Aleksandra Kurzak
Escamillo ─ Alexander Vinogradov

Credits:
Conductor ─ Louis Langrée
Production ─ Sir Richard Eyre
Set and Costume Designer ─ Rob Howell
Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford
Choreographer ─ Christopher Wheeldon
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Ailyn Pérez

Idomeneo

The brainchild of a 24-year-old Mozart in the spring of his career, Idomeneo embodies drama and torment on an intense scale. A Trojan captive bemoans her plight of wartime displacement. A runaway Grecian princess seethes with humiliation and jealousy from unrequited feelings. A father and king, crossed between the angry seas ─ and even angrier gods ─ suffers from the anguish of the cruel task that besets him.

A scene from Mozart’s Idomeneo / Metropolitan Opera

While the basis of the plot was heavy ─ the title king, after being saved by the gods during a disastrous storm at sea, must kill his own son as recompense ─ the music was quite the opposite. Comprised of a windswept coterie of strings and woodwinds, the score was typically Mozartian and showed the beginnings of his lauded career. Singing the trills of early Mozart was made to look easy as Matthew Polenzani gave a stirring performance as the king. His voice was unhampered, but his soul was not.

Matthew Polenzani singing an excerpt from “Fuor del mar” from Idomeneo / Metropolitan Opera

The women provided for some much needed romantic rivalry to break up the repetitious monotony of the staid opera seria format. It’s true─ the opera was far too longwinded and soporific for my withering patience as I reached my home well after 6 that evening. At least the textured costumes and the spastic mad scene provided ample attraction and distraction from my jadedness.

Loosely based on the lace and jewels of Elettra’s gown, I snagged a favorite from my mother’s closet and made a simple alteration. The bright blue dress, being 8 sizes too big for me, would have swamped my figure more than the devouring seas of Idomeneo. A simple fix, I ran a line of baste stitches up the back of the dress and, voilà ! The dress fit. My mother was horrified with my action, let me tell you, but I assured her the stitching could easily be removed as I promptly pulled out the threads after the opera was over and the pictures captured.

My headpiece was a borrowed transformation. Previously, the black glittered tiara sported red rhinestones along the top points and an attached piece of black lace.

Thank you, Aunt Countess !

First popping out the red rhinestones, I replaced them with standard white ones and added gold fan sequins for seaside flare. They coordinated with my dress and the mantilla was beautiful enough for a princess. In case you were wondering, I removed all the sequins and replaced the original red jewels before I returned the accessory to its rightful owner.

Isn’t that necklace fabulous ? It’s a Metropolitan Museum of Art (also affectionately nicknamed “the Met”) replica given to me as a present from Aunt Countess. I cherish gifts from travels afar, much like the shell necklace and pashmina shawl that I wore to The Pearl Fishers the previous year. While New York City isn’t as far-flung as ancient Crete, the necklace made a statement worthy of Elettra’s tempered fury and Mozart’s fledgling opera.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Idomeneo ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1781)
Live in HD air date: March 25, 2017

Cast:
Idomeneo ─ Matthew Polenzani
Idamante ─ Alice Coote
Ilia ─ Nadine Sierra
Elettra ─ Elza van den Heever
Arbace ─ Alan Opie

Credits:
Conductor ─ James Levine
Production ─ Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Set and Costume Designer ─ Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler
Live in HD Director ─ Barbara Willis Sweete
Host ─ Eric Owens

The Making of Manon: the 1890's ball gown

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. For Manon, 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 Belle Époque 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:

Manon / Metropolitan 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.)

A portion of the armscye cut down.

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.

The 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:

  1. cotton lining
  2. interfaced crepe back satin
  3. crystal organza

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.

Pinched portion of back shoulder strap sewn down by hand stitches

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…

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Manon

The score of Manon is a sensual pleasure for the ears… It’s a pity that I wasn’t more enthused about opera from the get-go ! But after my repelling experience with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut in 2016, I was tepid to take on the French version of the same tale. However, I sought to give the Massenet piece a fair shake ─ and it’s a good thing I did !

Lisette Oropesa as Manon / Metropolitan Opera

With charms tantamount to a Cartier necklace, Lisette Oropesa and Michael Fabiano lit up the stage with their untamable chemistry. It flowed and never ebbed, even in spite Manon’s tastes for frivolous Parisian luxuries. I confess that the blush on my cheeks turned redder than beets during the smouldering peak of Manon and des Grieux’s passion… atop a battered bed in the open sanctuary of a church. Awkward.

Lisette Oropesa as Manon and Michael Fabiano as des Grieux / Metropolitan Opera

While the screen was seared by the heat of the lovers, I had my eye on the historical aspects of the opera, namely, the costumes.

Although Manon is originally set in the Parisian courts of the 18th century, the Met’s current Laurent Pelly production has switched the setting to the late 19th century, or “La Belle Époque” as it is called among fashion historians. While rich with possibilities for sumptuous gowns, the costumes for this particular production looked a tad… “polyester”… and were all over the place in terms of isolating a specific decade: I noticed armored cuirasse bodices and fluffy bustles ─ indicative of the 1880’s ─ to gored skirts and enormous feathered hats, synonymous to the early Edwardian period of the 1900’s. There were even contemporary gowns of no historical basis. The myriad of differing modes of dress spanning 30+ years made for a lack of continuity as well as identity in the production. Was it traditional ? Was it modern ? The answer remained obscure.

Lisette Oropesa in Manon / Metropolitan Opera

Knowing that Laurent Pelly productions are filled with whimsy and topsy-turvy lineages, I didn’t aim to directly copy any one single costume from the opera since I knew, in taking that tack, the possibilities for future wear would be slim to none.
Coming to the decision was tough, but I eventually opted to create an 1890’s ball gown inspired by the mauve, pink, and silver butterfly clip perched in my hair.

The puff sleeves were enormous and reminded me of spun cotton candy…

With lace hand sewn onto the bodice and front gores of the skirt, this costume had couture qualities about it.

Paris, here I come ! I remember walking (or waltzing ?) into the theater that sunny late October afternoon and observing the gentleman ticket taker rendered speechless as he approached the podium. While approbation is never my motivation, it’s always a pleasure to receive remarks about the enjoyment elicited in others and their gratitude for what the craft adds to the Live in HD simulcasts.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

For more information on how I created my “pretty in pink” 1890’s ball gown from start to finish, check out my tutorial post: https://costumeclosetcouture.com/2020/04/21/the-making-of-manon-the-1890s-ball-gown/

Cast and Credits:

Manon ─ Jules Massenet (1884)
Live in HD air date: October 26, 2019

Cast:
Manon ─ Lisette Oropesa
Chevalier des Grieux ─ Michael Fabiano
Guillot de Morfontaine ─ Carlo Bosi
Lescaut ─ Arthur Ruciński
de Brétigny ─ Brett Polegato
Comte des Grieux ─ Kwangchul Youn

Credits:
Conductor ─ Maurizio Benini
Production ─ Laurent Pelly
Set Designer ─ Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer ─ Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer ─ Joël Adam
Choreographer ─ Lionel Hoche
Associate Director ─ Christian Räth
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Nadine Sierra