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 !”
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.