Long before I ever started dressing up in costume for the operas, I spent much of my Septembers and Octobers surreptitiously slaving away in my small bedroom on my Halloween costume for the year. Unsurprisingly, Halloween is my favorite holiday ─ not because of witches and ghouls and black and orange décor, but simply because I have always loved dressing up.
In the spirit of the season, I thought I would share some of my past outfits.
Before learning to sew on a machine, I had to rely on tape, garbage bags, and old sheets to create costumes. In 2013, newspaper was my material of choice…
I went as “Old News” ─ quite literally since all the newspaper used was out of date before the 31st dawned. This costume was well worn: in all, I slipped on the tiered skirt and laced up the “corset” bodice 7-8 times during the season. Thankfully, it never rained.
I love history. It’s an engaging escape for my antiquarian imagination. I also love to learn about the famous (and infamous) characters in history. Not knowing exactly what inspired it, I chose to be Marie Antoinette in 2014. The peruke and panniers were a crafting feat; both were constructed from plastic grocery bags and toilet paper rolls, but that’s where the similarities ended. Long stretches of white cotton were carefully hot glued to the cardboard “curlers” of the wig and then given a misting of watered gray paint. I crocheted the hairy tendrils. For years I kept the safety pinned skirt of tulle and sheets in a desolate drawer… until I realized that I was never going to wear flimsy cardboard panniers again and my mother wanted her sheets back. “Let them eat cake !”
In the same month that I was introduced to my first opera, my family went on a cruise ! Who would have thought that that cruise would wipe out 2½ months of social activities ? Yes, I came down with a horrible illness during the tail end of the trip that caused me to miss Tannhäuser in HD and Halloween 2015…
A Gold Rush Girl by day, Cleopatra’s doppelgänger by night… it was a whirlwind Halloween.
Brünnhilde the Valkyrie… Is there anything spookier than a mythical being whose primary purpose is to decide who lives and dies in battle and gathers up the fallen heroes to haul them to Valhalla ???
And just in case you’re wondering, I left my axe at home for the evening…
In all my years of dressing up, I don’t think I ever disguised myself as a princess; maybe a witch in a long, black gown or Miss America, but never a princess. The plush pink 1890’s ball gown from Manonwas my outlet for elegance and grace, living out every little girl’s fantasy.
Clearly my long-time love of dressing up has played a starring role in my life. The only question left is… what will I wear this Halloween ?
I have a friend. She is very dear to me… Her name is Faith ! In 2010, we met on Twitter and hit it off almost instantly, whereupon we soon became pen pals. In a way, I have lived life’s major milestones through Faith: I’ve watched her marry the love of her life and then have a daughter of her own. When Faith announced she was pregnant, I knew I wanted to make some very special things for her precious daughter, Hope.
Her name is very sentimental. Faith and her husband Tyler had hoped for a baby for a long while. And they also hoped for a girl. See the connection ? No name could be better suited to someone who had so much hope behind her !
One of the patterns that my friend, Gisele, had offered me from her yard sale stash was a children’s pattern from the early 90’s. I thought it was darling and knew it would be adorable for Hope.
As I browsed the scant fabric aisles at Walmart, I fingered over the perfect fabric for the dress: peacock print ! Faith and her family have had peacocks as pets and have an affinity for them. What could be better ? In addition to Hope’s tie back dress, I decided to make a matching one for her cousin, Grace, born two months earlier.
And here are the two baby cousins wearing their matching dresses on Mother’s Day:
Didn’t I tell you they love peacocks ? Look at all the feathers !
But I wasn’t done ! In addition to the matching dresses, I also sewed the romper from the same pattern envelope in pink gingham with a scalloped border of lace… sweet, very sweet !
Rompers (and onesies) are the hallmark of comfort. Hope modeled the style when she visited Grandpa Joe over the summer…
I also wanted Hope to have a fancy outfit so I sewed her a pink dress in crepe back satin and organza leftover from my Manon ballgown. In a craft bin at Walmart, I found a matching flower clip, which could be removed to wash the dress. Baby clothes, regardless of how fancy or frivolous, need to be washable. Very washable.
I couldn’t resist the urge to sew some girly-girl ruffles so I made a diaper cover with layers of pink patterned flounces on the back. Using my Baby Lock serger to both finish and gather the ruffles made the process a bundle of fun. Out of everything I sewed for Hope, this one was my favorite !
And off she goes !
The last item I created for Hope was a pair of knitted booties. As a mainstay of baby showers, I felt this was a genuine way to celebrate Hope’s arrival. And while I was not able to attend the actual baby shower in Idaho, my handmade clothes and booties were unwrapped with greatest appreciation and delight. From Florida, with love…
Having a niece has been a delight ! Faith and I have already been discussing different dress ideas for when Hope grows up. Of these, the most anticipated design is a Cinderella gown─ a character and story that is as cherished to Faith as our friendship is to the both of us.
“A Night of the Romantics !” the program read, as I took my seat on an unusually frigid November evening at a concert for Patrick Muehleise, a tenor in town. I must say, it’s not often the opera (in whatever form) comes so close to home, but when it does, I like to pounce on the opportunity much like a frisky kitten on a slowly pulled string.
Based on the leadup flyers and promotional materials I received in the mail, I was expecting the concert to heavily feature opera arias. I was rather mistaken. Although my thirst for opera was whetted only by an enchanting “En ferment les yeux” from Manon (recalling how the aria was sung with dearest tenderness by Michael Fabiano the month before), the program had its poking luminescence ─ a musically-set “Sea Fever” brought back recollections of when I had memorized John Masefield’s poem in my schooling years while Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House” displayed a rhythmic vigor and introduced me to a new-type genre.
Patrick’s diction was crisp and readable; it’s as if every word was distinguishable, even the foreign language passages. His voice, on the other hand, was more “pointed” than desired for solo pieces ─ many of my musically-inclined friends commented that he was better suited for choral work in a group setting. But I had an alternative judgement of where Mr. Mule-EYES-uh (this was how he instructed us to pronounce his surname) would best thrive: the characterizations of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” was played to the hilt of hilarity that I could easily picture Patrick taking his talents to Broadway. I told him so much during the meet and greet afterwards where I was rebuffed by a flashing smile and a boisterous laugh of incredibility. So much for my thought !
Thinking of how I would dress, I wished to be elegant as well as in line with the atmosphere of the event. One of my standby favorites, the black velvet sheath dress with chiffon cowl collar and pleated back train, was perfect. But with the chilly temperatures (and evening status), I needed something equally stunning to use for warmth and cover. I recalled my consignment capelet in coincidentally matching black velvet and slung it over my shoulders. My mother styled my hair in a hurry and I was off to the Arts Center for a night of the romantics !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits
“A Night of the Romantics!” Date: November 16, 2019 Lake Wales Arts Center
Patrick Muehleise ─ tenor Dr. Jonathan Reed ─ piano
When pondering a new project, I always search for that one piece of inspiration to set the creative gears into motion. It can be a pair of shoes with just the right decoration for mimicking on a collar, or a necklace from ages past that would look perfect with a historical replica gown. ForManon, that trinket of musing was this pink and silver butterfly barrette:
Pale, frosted pink with touches of mauve and iridescent rhinestones gave me great ideas for the color scheme of my BelleÉpoque outfit. Determining whether I would create a walking suit, day dress, or evening/ball gown became the main challenge as I vacillated between contrary designs like a pendulum swinging from a string. Ultimately, a ball gown seemed like a safe choice since I knew that it would be rather simple in construction and wouldn’t limit my comfort or mobility the way a spectacularly broad daytime hat would against the back of a movie theater seat (I have experience in these matters, as surely you can tell). I did, however, sketch a design in the vein of one of Laurent Pelly’s signature looks from the opera:
Once the decision was made in favor of the ball gown, I settled on the 1890’s for my gown’s impersonation since La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Age) spans well over 40 years (roughly 1871-1914 by generous standards) with varying fashions in each decade. Now to narrow down the style of the neckline, sleeves, and skirt…
The gowns of the decade were bedecked in fancy laces, expensive jewels, and lavish ornamentation. Most noticeably were the enormous puff sleeves and long evening gloves worn by the ladies.
The decoration of the gores on the skirts was also in vogue.
As for me, I wanted a trademark 1890’s style, which meant a separate, softly pointed bodice and gored fan skirt trailing behind ─ both cut from pale pink crepe back satin and decorated in contrasting rosy mauve corded lace. Making a mock-up was the first order of business. I designed my bodice to have shoulder straps that opened wide onto the chest and a pointed bottom at the front and back, which was characteristic for the time period.
Once the bottom edge was modeled to my satisfaction, I cut along the line and had my new patterns pieces, which were then laid out onto interfaced cotton lining fabric.
Covered Rigilene bones were sewn onto the front princess seams in addition to one bone down the middle of the face side of the lining while other bones were sewn onto the bust portion of the bodice to give it shape and support.
Onto the back !
A minuscule waist was at the forefront of the iconic 1890’s silhouette. While the broad design features of bouffant sleeves and sweeping skirt hems aided in the appearance of a tiny waist, I wanted to be sure that I did my best to achieve the proper look and decided to make a built-in corset in the bodice. The attached lacing panels are shown below. Each panel has two sides: one for the lining (cotton) and the other for the side facing the back (satin).
Next came the skirt…
Doing my best to keep the gown fairly accurate, historically speaking, I made a pattern using measurement instructions given in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashions 2, an invaluable resource for fashion historians and sewing enthusiasts alike. Seam allowances were added and then the paper pattern was pinned to folded layers of crepe back satin (face), lining fabric, and interfacing to save time on the cutting process.
The interfacing was fused to the wrong sides of the face and lining fabrics and set aside for later…
After sewing together all the pieces of the bodice, pressing the seams, and stitching quilt batting onto the bust to cover the exposed bones, it was time for a fitting !
The fitting indicated that the armscyes needed to be cut down slightly since it was jabbing into my underarm area in a most uncomfortable way. (Later on I would cut down the armhole even more since it was still bothersome.)
Let’s get back to the skirt…
As per Patterns of Fashion 2, the hems of the fancy skirts in the 1890’s were interlined with buckram in order to keep them stiff and stand out and away from the wearer. This was essential in creating the proper figure that I wanted to achieve so I bought 1 yard of heavyweight buckram and cut it into strips based on the equation of the circumference of the skirt divided by the width of the buckram. If I remember correctly, I think I ended up with 8 strips that were 56-57″ long (the width of the buckram) and about 7¼” tall. Sewing the strips together gave me one long strip of stiffener.
The edge closest to the hem was sewn on first. Then to compensate for the decreasing skirt circumference higher up, I made long cuts into the buckram along the top edge (and shorter ones along the bottom) to help bend the stiff mesh into a circular shape.
Below shows how the interlining looks from the inside. There are two lines of stitching for the buckram (top and bottom) and then the pink outer face fabric was turned to the right side and the seam allowance topstitched to the inside.
All was pressed and ready to be pleated at the back. A simple waistband was added to the top, hooks and eyes were sewn to the band, and the skirt was ready for decoration ! Lovely, isn’t she ?
Calculating that it would take over 5 yards of lace trim for the bottom hem of the skirt, I purchased 3 yards of a sequined corded lace with double scalloped borders in the rosy mauve hue that would serve as the accent color, just like in the butterfly hair clip. Of course, the two selvedges of scallops gave me close to 6 yards of trim, which I snipped off and pinned their lengths in place onto the skirt.
Now, just between us, I glued the bottom border of lace onto the skirt with a clear fabric glue. I had no other choice ! If it’s early June, then I’m most likely going to hand sew the lace. But with only a month before the October opera and a bevy of other projects waiting half finished on my ironing board…well… Toss me the bottle of glue ! I did hand sew the rest of the lace, however, including the motifs along the two seams of the front gore, which took 3 hours EACH to complete. Yes, the glue saved me ! The skirt was complete (other than hanger straps, which I added later) and then it was onto the sleeves ─ the massive, puff sleeves.
Perfecting the fit of a sleeve has always been an elusive task for me. They’re either too tight, too lopsided at the top, or just plain unsightly. Sometimes, I want to give up. Since I didn’t want a failure with my 1890’s ball gown sleeves (they were, after all, consuming almost a yard of fabric each), I counted off the number of squares on a layout in Patterns of Fashion 2 and my sleeve block turned out great with only a few tweaks. Below is my sleeve pattern with markings for the front, back, and shoulder seam. However, in the process of sewing and attaching, these factors were not so important and I ditched the idea of lining up the points with those on the bodice straps. You’ll see why in a minute…
Three layers of the sleeve pattern were cut:
interfaced crepe back satin
After staystitching the edges, strips of horsehair braid were vertically sewn along the wide section of each sleeve at evenly spaced intervals. This provided a structured “oompf” and ensured that the sleeves would not droop. Next came a row of ruffled crinoline to begin building the “fluff” in the sleeve.
And then more rows of crinoline, and more, and more until the sleeve looked like this:
It almost looks like a pink and white lamb ! Baahhh !
Time to join the layers together…
…and gather the tops and bottoms.
And this is where things got tricky. Because it’s infinitely easier to gather and serge at the same time, I opted to use my serger to knock two balls out of the park after striking out with machine gathering ─ no matter how careful I was to not pull too hard on the thread tails, snap ! A thread would break. Frustration set in. Finally, it dawned on me to gather the sleeves on a cord so I went back to the serger and tried this trick. Guided by the red arrows, you will catch a glimpse of the white cotton crochet cord.
Eureka ! It worked ! From there, the sleeves gathered with remarkable ease.
And here’s what the bodice looked like after the sleeves were fitted to the straps. Sparkly, shiny, and fit for a princess, wouldn’t you say ? Time for a fitting !
A disaster: The inner support materials of the sleeves proved to be much too heavy for the wide set shoulder straps and as a result, the bodice became an “off the shoulder” style, which was not my intended look. I tried using lingerie tape under the straps to help them stay in place, but the copious amounts of horsehair and crinoline won out every time. Back to the drawing board… The seam ripper and I have a very close relationship and it was in action again with this project. I picked apart the sleeve layers, removed half of the horsehair strips, and reduced the number of crinoline ruffles before serging together the layers ─ again. Thankfully, my fear of having droopy sleeves due to a reduction of inner support was unrealized and once reassembled, they still possessed that iconic “poof” with no signs of droop. They remind me of swim floaties worn on the arms of children who are learning to swim.
A fitting was carried out and STILL the straps were falling down, just not as quickly as before. Only one thing could be done to salvage my hopes of keeping the straps on my shoulders and that was to somehow shorten the length of the strap. This was done by pinching together a back portion of each strap and sewing it down by hand. It sufficed, but wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, the corded lace sewn onto the bodice covered any obvious imperfections.
Completing the look was the beautiful rosy mauve lace I bought online from a Los Angeles fabric store. Snipping out varied motifs was necessary, but tedious at times, and don’t get me started on how much of a brain buster it was to match mirrored pieces ! I think I scrutinized each scroll of the lace pattern until I couldn’t see straight ! But, the devil is in the details and it paid off in the final outcome.
C’est très chic, n’est-ce pas ?
With the final touch of the butterfly clip ─ the source of my inspiration ─ perched atop my updo, I felt like I had stepped back in time to the grand days of Paris in the 1890’s. The dress gave me fits during construction, but not at the opera ! It was a dream to wear. Now, if only I had a Chevalier des Grieux on my arm and a fancy ball to attend…
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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