“Girls in White Dresses…

…with blue satin sashes” ? Not exactly.

From the time I was a little girl, I have always loved “The Sound of Music.” Remembering my original encounter with the classic film in the first grade classroom conjures up the rapt attention I experienced as a wide-eyed seven-year-old. Understandably, there was a lot to adore─ the infectious sing-a-long tunes, the thrilling ending, those clever nuns…
Every year, I would catch the movie on TV during Easter. Once, while watching the movie on the aforementioned holiday, I had decided that I would eat my entire chocolate and jelly bean-filled Easter basket since I was aiming to start a healthy diet the next day and didn’t want the temptation of sugary confections. (Never again !!)
While the overdose of Almond Joys may have given me a stupendous stomachache, I can’t recall a single time where “The Sound of Music” didn’t sit well with my appetite.

“The Sound of Music” movie poster (1965)

Maria’s ability to make clothes out of curtains impressed and inspired me, long before I could sew myself. And so it should come as no surprise that the costumes in the movie were a highlight for me. From Liesl’s floaty chiffon frock to Baroness Schraeder’s luxe gold evening gown, the clothes only added to the film’s accolades.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who harbors an affinity for the movie’s costumes. For years, I have been an admirer of Katrina Holte’s Edelweiss Patterns. And yet, I had never sewn one of her “Sound of Music” replica patterns… until now ! While I was greatly torn between several options, I choose Maria’s Gazebo Dress as my first attempt at classic cinema fashion.

Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”

With its delicate chiffon overlay and pastel color, I imagined it as an ideal Easter dress. But out of which color to make it…? I always viewed the film dress as an aqua baby blue, but discovered upon research that it’s not blue; it’s green ! According to the auction site that sold the frock in 2012, the listing is described in part as a “Green dress with floral pattern, with butterfly sleeves and full skirt. Smocked at neck and waist, lined in light green silk, hook and eye and snap closure at back.” Who would have thought ?! Green it is !

I ignored the tone-on-tone floral pattern on the dress since I was not equipped (neither with time nor mental stamina) to begin another fabric painting project so soon after Zerbinetta’s harlequin. The monochromatic seafoam was enough for a pretty pastel Easter dress.

Details matter on solid dresses. The pattern called for honeycomb smocking, a stitch which I had never heard of nor attempted, but found it to be a fun and easy design addition. So much so, that my mind is now whirring over the decorative possibilities for using the stitch in the future.

Honeycomb smocking at the neckline

“The Sound of Music,” sewing, and Easter… “These are a few of my favorite things.”

Happy Easter !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

This post is dedicated to Ian, whose role model for being a doting uncle to his nieces and nephews is Uncle Max from “The Sound of Music.”

Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend: Zerbinetta’s Harlequin Costume

It was a summer afternoon ─ the summer before I would attend the Live in HD performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in the theater ─ and I was watching the same opera and production from 2003 with Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay. Fulling intending to dress as Ariadne for the theater showing, I closely espied her costume, looking for small details that could aid in my creation. But as the opera progressed, I realized… Ariadne is boring ! It was Natalie Dessay’s high-flying Zerbinetta that had me completely smitten, with both her character and costume, and I decided then that I would dress, not as Ariadne, but as Zerbinetta for the theater broadcast.

Natalie Dessay as Zerbinetta

With the close-up camera shots of the costume, I could make out slubs in the costume fabric and knew that I would use a polyester dupioni as my base material. The sleeves on the bodice were a sort of gathered puff and unintentionally, while browsing for something else, I came across a sewing pattern with just the right sleeves and pointed bodice (E).

McCall’s 8043, circa 1996

How to apply the wild checkered colors was still up for decision… Hand cut pieces of fabric ? Paint ? Realizing that both methods would be extremely time consuming, but that painting the fabric would be much more precise and less of a guessing game, I bought a set of jacquard fabric paint to begin work on the harlequin design.

I used the above photos of Diana Damrau and Kathleen Kim as a guide in marking and painting the diamonds on the bodice and skirt. Thinking that painting fabric was just like painting walls, I marked off sections of the sewn princess seam bodice, which I altered and boned, with 3/8″ electrical tape, assuming that the sticky tape would hold back any and all imperfections when I peeled away the pinned on strips…

Wrong !!!! The black and red paint bled beneath the tape, into the white lines. Twill tape saved the day, turning a watery canvas into a striking harlequin.

Trimmed with (painted !) red lace around the sleeve hems, black shank buttons down the front, and bias binding around the neckline finished the zippered bodice. A hook and eye was fastened at the top of the back.

The Skirt

Itching to utilize a new patternmaking book in my collection, I experimented with transforming a full circle skirt into one of equal area with 12 gores, still maintaining the same proportions as the regularly cut bias circle. The purpose behind this maneuver was to better my chances of accurately marking out the diamond design and to prevent uneven and sagging edges from the circular bias cut.

A page from “Basic Pattern Skills For Fashion Design” by Bernard Zamkoff

This was accomplished. However, something went amiss in my calculations and I ended up having to remove two gores from the skirt to fit the waistband. Therefore, it became a 300° instead of a 360° skirt. All’s well that ends well, right ?

The new center gore pattern piece (with the discarded side sections), seam allowances added

Marking the diamonds on the skirt was torture ! Staring at the pictures of the model skirt only led to frustration when, after spending hours elongating sticky tape into impossibly curved lines, I stepped back to eye my design and beheld kites and shields ─ not harlequin diamonds !

I probably spent close to a week taping and re-taping the same design over and over again. I don’t know (and may never know) how the diamonds on Zerbinetta’s skirt stayed so regular. Even as they became larger at the hem, they still looked like perfect diamonds !

Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta and Isabel Leonard as the Composer

Time was running out and I needed to move on from the insanity, so… kites and shields it had to be !
Painting the skirt fabric was much more time consuming than the bodice and sleeves, but I finished it just a few days before the opera.

When I pulled off the electrical tape, it made a tremendous difference in the look of the design, but not as much as when the twill tape was sewn over the jagged white lines. Then, the outfit popped.

The skirt before the twill tape was sewn over the lines

There was a near catastrophe when I soaked the skirt in an attempt to remove the remains of newspaper that were stuck to the backside of the fabric and some of the black paint smeared onto the bright yellow segments. Egad, what horror ! Against instructions not to scrub with soapy water, I did just that, scouring the yellow diamonds in hopes of removing the black tinge. Thankfully, it dried with hardly any trace of black on yellow and my painted diamonds remained in good condition. Whew !

A lining of light satin was used to finish the underside, a zipper was installed, a waistband added, and the skirt was complete. During Zerbinetta’s hair-raising aria in the “Opera” portion of Ariadne auf Naxos, a red petticoat beneath her skirt is revealed as she flings herself aback on a chair, utterly exhausted from oxygen-depleting coloratura. With the need for a crinoline, I searched online and found a steal of a deal ─ a vintage red nylon petticoat that I snagged for $1.25 off eBay.

Best $1.25 I ever spent !

The Hat

One of the best parts of Zerbinetta’s costume is her 18th century tricorn hat with plumes of brightly colored feathers…

Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta

Looking for patterns online led me to Angel’s terrific mini pirate hat tutorial from Fleece Fun.

Anyone can make this cute little hat and it’s great that the pattern pieces become a part of the construction. With the hot glue gun running, a bejeweled cockade of feathers and tulle was attached.

Now I was ready for the opera !

Zerbinetta’s harlequin costume was a labor of love, but an absolute joy to wear ! Diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

For my review of the Ariadne auf Naxos, see here: https://costumeclosetcouture.com/2022/03/13/ariadne-auf-naxos/

The Gingham Girls

Cheery and checked, gingham is a timeless fabric that offers many delights. From summer picnic tablecloths to baby rompers, it has an enduring appeal. During the summer that my new niece, Ruby, was to be born, an idea of stitching matching dresses for Hope, Grace, and Ruby all in classic red gingham check came to life.

¼” Check Gingham

The Tatum Dress from Sew Sweet Patterns was my choice for a breezy summer baby dress.

The Tatum Dress from Sew Sweet Patterns

The pattern was simple, despite a few hiccups, and they sewed up quickly. Soon, I had 3 nearly identical dresses, which were then shipped off to Idaho in time for Ruby’s baby shower.

Faith was thrilled ! Ruby was born in August and until January wasn’t big enough to fit into her dress. But now…

She’s a big girl !

Hope, Ruby, and their cousin Grace loved modeling their matching dresses ─ even in the cold Idaho winter.

Aren’t they precious ?!

Gingham: the fabric that never goes out of style and is versatile for the young and old. That makes me wonder… maybe I should make a gingham dress someday !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Thank you for allowing me to use these beautiful pictures of your children, Faith and Angel !

My Halloween Costumes From Years Past

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…

Emerald Princess docked in Cozumel

With a new love came a new passion as I taught myself to sew for Madama Butterfly in 2016.

I promise, my hair wasn’t so much a knotted mess when I actually went trick-or-treating…

It’s always great when an opera outfit seamlessly doubles as a Halloween costume. My Queen of the Night getup from Die Zauberflöte was a timely hit…

…as was my Egyptian costume from Aida ! Not only was this costume commenced and completed in under a month, but it was also worn within an hour of arriving home from the matinee encore performance of La Fanciulla del West.

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 Manon was 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 ?

Happy Halloween !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Boris Godunov

Opera is back at the Met for the 2021-2022 season with its Live in HD opener, Boris Godunov, a Pushkin-based Russian opera about a dubious tsar and the haunting of his rise to power. To scale down production, this was the first time that the Met performed the opera in its original 1869 format, which had obvious distinctions: no leading lady, no intermissions.

A scene from Boris Godunov / Metropolitan Opera

Due to technical difficulties at the theater, our local audience missed the first 20-30 minutes of the performance and was left to mentally piece together the fragmented story. An inauspicious omen for the opera ? I think so… Truth be told, the opera felt disjointed ─ whether due to the composer’s intentions or the abbreviated simulcast narrative, I can’t be sure. While I was disappointed in the latter, I went for the Russian language experience and René Pape and was duly rewarded by each. And as a bonus, the audience was compensated with free tickets and a free small popcorn for the inconvenience. Nice !

As there was no central female character in this version of Boris Godunov, I had to get creative with my outfit. Intriguingly, it was the Russian people that provided the influx of inspiration. I wanted to be a peasant (or serf) and knew just what I would wear…

Folkwear 128 Russian Settlers’ Dress

The sarafan is a traditional Russian folk dress popularized by peasants, but was also worn by the dignified in the imperialist regime. Typically worn with a loose shirt and apron, the jumper can be made as plain or as fancy as a seamstress wishes. Since my aim was to look poor and deplete on the outstretching Steppes, I left much of the red washed linen and cream double gauze as unadorned as possible.

This was my first time using a Folkwear pattern, which has long been on my sewing wish list. Included in the packet were detailed instructions on how to modify (or modernize) the traditional style of the garment as well as helpful information for embroidering the shoulders of the blouse. I opted to gather the back of my sarafan and stitched matching ribbon to hold the fabric in place.

A scarf from my mother’s dresser drawer transformed into a babushka tied around my head and the single braid trailing down my back.

Although I was thrilled with my authentic creation, someone else was not… “You need to throw that out right after you wear it; it’s AWFUL !!!!!” wailed my mother as I walked out dressed in full costume. She grimaced and turned away after every press of the camera button ─ it’s a wonder I even got any pictures to share !

As (un)flattering as the sarafan may have been, it was the perfect outfit for an opera where the peasantry plays a major role. I just wish I had been able to see the entire opera !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits

Boris Godunov ─ Modest Mussorgsky (1869)
Live in HD air date: October 9, 2021

Cast:
Boris Godunov ─ René Pape
Grigory ─ David Butt Phillip
Shuisky ─ Aleksey Bogdanov
Pimen ─ Ain Anger
Varlaam ─ Ryan Speedo Green

Credits:
Conductor ─ Sebastian Weigle
Production ─ Stehpen Wadsworth
Set Designer ─ Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costume Designer ─ Moidele Bickel
Lighting Designer ─ Duane Schuler
Fight Director ─ Steve Rankin
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Angel Blue

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

Mathilde Wrap Dress: Two Ways

Made famous by Diane von Fürstenberg in the 1970’s, the wrap dress has always been a favorite of mine for its balance of polished professionalism and flattering femininity. Whether for a meeting or a casual luncheon with friends, the possibilities for wearing the classic silhouette are almost endless.
Many patterns exist on the web. However, when I came across the Untitled Thoughts Mathilde Wrap Dress sewing pattern, I felt a greater appeal and so ventured to sew my first real wrap dress.

Untitled Thoughts Mathilde Wrap Dress

The sewing was easy; the pattern was full of well-explained instructions and tips. Would the fabric fare the same ? When I first beheld the demure swatch of garden rose double brushed poly knit in one of my issues of Julie’s Picks swatch club, I barely noticed it. It was, after all, a “hot” polyester. But when my mother insisted that the color palate was a terrific match for my complexion, how was I to pass it up ? Mother knows best !

And she was right ! Despite my warranted hesitations about wearing polyester in the sweltering Florida heat and humidity, the fabric was a breeze to sew and wasn’t that warm, especially with the flutter sleeve option.

I call this my “Compliments Dress” since every time I wear it out, at least one person tells me how much they like its overall look. Perfectly paired with pearls and a blush of the cheek, I felt like a paragon of femininity. And that is a very good way to feel.

But I wasn’t done !

To me, it is important for a wrap dress to feature svelte ¾ length sleeves. Since my Compliments Dress was geared for spring and summer weather, I kept the sleeves short and free. I had other plans for the longer sleeve…

One of the most valuable aspects of the Mathilde Wrap Dress is that it comes in three different styles, including a very chic peplum top. With yet another fabric from an issue of the swatch club (this time a nautical rayon knit !), I envisioned a preppy “boat dock” look that would be well suited to an elegant dinner followed by an evening walk along the beach… or for sitting out by the pool !

The description of the pattern confides that it feels like “secret pajamas.” After wearing each style, I can testify to the truth of that statement.
A flattering design, a beginner’s level of sewing, and comfort for days─ what could be better ? The Mathilde Wrap is a winner !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha


Baby Clothes for Hope

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.

Hope’s birth announcement photo

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.

Simplicity 9685

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:

Faith, her sister, Angel, with their mother, Angela, and Hope and Grace

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.

The pattern in size “0-3 months” was free from the Melly Sews blog. https://mellysews.com/sew-a-baby-dress-with-free-pattern/ Thank you, Melissa ! Hope looked like an uptown girl in her coordinating floral dress…

Hope and Grace ─ the two cousins

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.

Very cherished, indeed.

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