Anyone who knows me knows that there is nothing I like better than an LBD. Simple and unfussy, the LBD is one of the most versatile pieces of clothing a woman can own. There are so many places to wear one: dinner out, cocktails at a favourite watering hole, under a jacket when giving a lecture, a funeral and just lately it seems it’s acceptable to wear black to a wedding. Well, that’s where I wear them. What’s not to like?
A year or two ago I embarked on my LBD Project which resulted in me testing three different styles – two commercial patterns and one of my own designs. In the end, I made the one I designed myself but along the way, I fitted two others. When I had the opportunity to write a blog post for Fabricville’s blog I thought it would be fun. [For non-Canadian readers: Fabricville is the one ‘big-box’ fabric chain in Canada. The stores are sometimes called Fabricland depending on where you live across the country but their online service is fabricville.com.]
I didn’t realize when they asked me to do it that I’d be getting my fabric choices for free. This has never happened to me before. So, there it is.
To tell you the truth, I might have made different choices for this one, but I had to choose fabrics that were available online from Fabricville.com so I was limited. What I really wanted was a silk dress but they didn’t have much of that on offer.
In the end, I came up with a dress that will probably come in handy although, to tell you the truth, at this point in 2020, and the way things are going, I don’t see where I’m going to wear it unless there’s an unexpected funeral in my future. Anyway, here’s what I wrote for them…just click on the image…
There is nothing quite like an evening at sea on a luxury cruise ship! The only down-side is making decisions about how many dresses to take when you’d really like to minimize the weight of your suitcase! So, when I began thinking about the evening portion of the Cruise Collection, it was clear to me that I’d be needing a versatile LBD – or LBCD in this specific case. Let me back up for a moment to talk about travel style.
I think it’s safe to say that in this twenty-first century, travel has become much more casual than it was in years gone by. Remember the days when people actually dressed up to board an airplane? When flying was a pleasure?
Well, I think that most people would agree that, for the most part, things have changed. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find Youtubers with all manner of advice on how to wear the next best thing to pajamas while schlepping a moisturizing mask on your face while flying just about anywhere. Can you imagine sitting beside that person as she removes various facial paraphernalia from the depths of her enormous tote bag, preps the gooey mess and slaps it on her face? But I digress… Let’s talk about cruise fashion for a moment.
Historically, cruise fashion has paralleled the increasing casualness of our day-to-day career and leisure wardrobes.
Whenever I look at pictures of the cruise wardrobes from the 1940’s to the 1960’s like the ones above, for example, I experience a kind of wistfulness that speaks of an appreciation for what has gone by (and what I missed because of the era of my birth), and yet I don’t really wish for us to dress “the same” as they did back in the day.
One influence I did not want on this collection – or my wardrobe in general for that matter – was the current careless attitude that many cruisers seem to have when they post about cruise line dress codes online. It’s that “I’ll wear whatever a damn well please” attitude – and make no mistake what they “damn well want to wear” is not a cocktail dress. Different strokes for different folks, I say. The good news is that not all cruise lines are the same. There’s something for everyone.
For example, the dress code for Norwegian Cruise Line, one of the large, mainstream cruise lines is as follows:
Cruise Casual: The Freedom of Freestyle Cruising
Dress cruise casual anytime during the day, in the buffet and in most specialty restaurants. For women, it includes summer and casual dresses, skirts, regular or capri pants, shorts, jeans and tops. Khakis, jeans, shorts and casual shirts are fine for men. Swimwear is acceptable at the buffet and outdoor restaurant, but a shirt or a cover-up and footwear are required.
Notice that “all decked out” to these cruisers includes jeans with nary a mention of a tie or cocktail dress.
Silversea Cruises, on the other hand, (one of our favourites and the line we have been on three times in the last 18 months) says this about their dress code:
Shipboard attire ranges from casual to formal. Casual wear is appropriate for daytime aboard ship or ashore and consists of standard sports outfits as worn at five-star resorts. Shoes should be flat or low heeled for deck activities. Evening attire falls into three categories: casual, informal and formal. On casual evenings, pants, blouses, skirts and casual dresses for ladies; open-neck shirts and slacks for gentlemen are appropriate. On informal evenings, ladies usually wear dresses or pantsuits; gentlemen wear jackets (tie optional). Appropriate formal evening wear for ladies is an evening gown or cocktail dress; gentlemen wear tuxedos, dinner jackets or dark suits. Tie is required.
On formal nights, guests may dine in La Terrazza and choose to dress informal; dresses or pantsuits for ladies, jackets for gentlemen (tie optional). This option also applies to Seishin and Stars on board Silver Spirit. Dining at The Grill is optional casual all nights. Following dinner, all guests are free to take advantage of any or all public spaces, however, jacket is required. Sailings of 9 days or less typically feature 1 formal night, while longer voyages usually have 2-3 formal nights. Details will be provided in your final cruise documents, but the chart below provides a basic guideline to assist in packing the proper attire. [Source: https://www.silversea.com/travel-informations/general-information.html]
Note the references to “five-star resorts”, dresses, jackets and ties. So, when it came to planning a collection, obviously a cocktail dress would be at the heart of the evening wear, since there are more informal evenings than any other type.
My plan was to create a Little Black Cocktail dress that I could style a variety of ways so that I could have a slightly different look on four different evenings without taking four dresses. I think I succeeded.
Here’s where it started…
Here is the dress styled only with a statement necklace for its first outing…
I then added a lace topper I already owned…
…and a drapey, bolero that I created within the collection…
There is nothing quite like a three-week break from the Great White North in the middle of February and beyond…but when you return – well, let’s just say being able to tell some stories about your adventure seems to prolong the warmth. I’m just back from debuting the cruise collection that has taken up so much of my design and create time over the past few months, a debut which actually did take place on a cruise.
I refused to show the pieces on an actual person (GG herself) until they were in the right setting, and as I do the laundry and generally get back to normal, I just thought it might be nice to get the story started with a brief glimpse of what’s to come over the next few blog posts.
We cruised aboard the Silversea line’s Silver Spirit, a 600-passenger luxury vessel, beginning in Puerto Rico (where we spent 6 days before the cruise started), cruising the Caribbean visiting Grand Cayman, the cultural and historical cities of Santiago, Cienfuegos and Havana in Cuba, the island (really a sand bar) Bimini in the Bahamas, then ending in Fort Lauderdale in Florida where we spent the last few days of our vacation.
Every project has to begin somewhere. When you think of vacationing in the Caribbean and what you’ll be wearing, you might very well begin with an image of a beach and a palm tree and a cool cocktail. You might be wearing a dreamy, floaty swim cover-up, or a fluttery tank top and shorts, or even a sun dress. Well, I’ll get there eventually, but let’s face it – my cruise collection really is for a cruise. And a luxury cruise at that. What this means is a major requirement for cocktail attire, so that’s where I’m starting. My perfect LBCD.
I spent a lot of time last year on my Little Black Dress project, during which I completed four test garments using three commercial patterns and ending up with my own design. But during that process I did find a silhouette that I thought I might translate into one of my own pieces.
For this collection, I’m inspired by Jackie O. and Audrey Hepburn on the Mediterranean. Much of what that conjures up for me relates to daytime sand, sun, surf and shopping in Monte Carlo. But for evening, I need to look no further than their iconic cocktail style to be inspired to create a dress that will be the centerpiece of this evening cruise collection.
It will be a simple, boat-necked, princess-seamed black dress that fits to perfection and can be changed up by accessories and all manner of little jackets. That way, a cruiser like me need only take one or two cocktail dresses and never look the same twice.
The fabric is black with textural striped detail and lovely drape which lends itself to the long, lean line of this princess-seamed dress. Although this fabric feels wonderful on its own (and is washable and packable to boot), I am lining it for a more sophisticated feel – and it finishes off the neckline and armholes beautifully.
It is so simple: boat-neck, sleeveless, lined, invisible back zipper, centre-back slit. Perfect fit. That’s it.
Next I’ll need to draft a few jackets to accompany it!
Perhaps in a coordinating fabric? We’ll see.
[BTW: No final views of the pieces in action – i.e. on me – until we hit the Caribbean!]
Karl Lagerfeld, late of the House of Chanel, once said, “One is never over-dressed or underdressed with a little black dress.” Amen to that. And amen to my LBD project. It is finally over.
After four muslins of four different dresses, much machinating over which one to choose, I have finally finished one.
Based on my own design, it’s a simple sheath – my favourite silhouette – with neckline darts that extend down to the hem giving it a kind of princess-seam-from-the-neckline look. It has short sleeves which are the only part of the garment that’s lined (the fabric didn’t scream for lining but the next one will be lined as a quality dress should be), a simple neckline to permit all manner of necklaces and scarves, a back vent and an invisible zipper. That’s about it. Simple.
Now that the dress is finished, of course, had to go shopping for some fabric for my next project. While perusing the extraordinary selection at King Textiles on Spadina in Toronto, I naturally stumbled on the perfect fabric for my next LBD. So…it’s not up next, but it’s coming!
And so, my *Little Black Dress project is finally (!) coming to a close. Well, maybe that’s rushing things a bit since I have three really well-fitting muslins for three different dresses all of which would make terrific little black dresses. [I actually did four but eliminated one fairly early on.] And yet, how many classic dresses does one really need? The whole point of the perfect LBD in my view is that it is so versatile it can be dressed up or down, so timeless that it never goes out of style, so comfortable you enjoy wearing it everywhere, and so well-fitting that you need only one. But…well, I’ll start with one.
Before I get to the current process, I just need to mention that my absence from my “atelier” is not because of any loss of interest in creating or writing, rather it’s because I’ve been to Asia. The trip was unimaginably fabulous! There were some style and fabric aspects (I had a custom silk jacket done for me to wear with my LBD and more), but mostly we just visited Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, then Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan. But all of that’s for another blog space entirely. (FYI my husband and I blog about all things travel at www.thediscerningtravelers.com). Anyway, I’m back in the atelier and at the computer, designing, sewing, and writing blogs and books. So, the LBD.
I have decided in a fit of narcissism that I really liked my own design best, at least for the first dress. So, I have gone back to the muslin of LBD #4 to begin the process. Of course, this means that I actually have to create a pattern since it’s not a commercial one. The truth is a LOVE pattern-making.
My process begins with a final fitting to see where the pattern might need tweaking (my darn shoulder slope did need a bit of a tweak), then sitting at the cutting table to cut it apart. I remember the first time I cut apart a muslin (I was making my first Little French Jacket). It almost broke my heart – I had become quite fond of that ugly piece, because it fit me! Anyway, I’m a bit less emotional about the process at this stage of my design/sewing career, but I’m still just as careful. These pieces will be the foundation of my perfectly fitting LBD.
I then take those muslin pieces to the ironing board and go at them with both the iron and a lint brush. Then I’m ready to make the pattern.
I decide not to use couture techniques – rough butting directly from the muslin, thread-tracing seam lines etc. – mainly because of my fabric choice for this first dress. Did I mention the fabric choice dilemma?
I had thought I’d be using a high-end wool-blend fabric, underlining with silk organza and lining with silk charmeuse. However, I haven’t found that perfect fabric yet. I will, but in the meantime, I found a textured crepe knit that will provide me with a dress that can also travel well because, as you’ve probably figured out, I do a lot of that, too.
The fabric, as you can see, doesn’t actually beg for couture techniques. In fact, now that I’ve fallen in love with my serger (more about my former distaste for serged finishes in a future post), I’m going to use it for interior finishing. I know – I should be slapped. Bottom line: I’m making a paper pattern.
Since the last made-from-scratch pattern design I did, I’ve discovered a new gadget, a tool. I’m sure I’m late to the party but when I discovered the double tracing wheel, I thought: why haven’t I know about this? The truth is that I’ve seen them before on Amazon. You know when you buy something there they give you a list of related items others have bought? I had taken a passing look at it, but I just never figured out what I’d do with one – mainly because they show it flat in a package rather than in action with the wheels actually pointing in the direction they’re meant to go in. Anyway, I thought that this would be perfect for marking the cutting line outside my seam edges.
So, I trace my muslin seam lines onto paper and begin to use the double tracing wheel to mark cutting lines. The problem is that the tracing wheels themselves don’t have a serrated enough edge to transfer to the paper visibly. So, what to do? I pull out my large sheets of waxed tracing paper and mark the cutting line on the back of the pattern. Voila! I just cut the edges from the back-side markings and I have my pattern pieces ready! It has changed my life! No more going around the pattern with my ruler making little marks that I then join up to make a cutting line. Genius!
Now I just need to find a bit of time to cut the darn thing out, mark it and baste it together.
It’s April and spring is upon us in the northern hemisphere – at least that’s what the calendar says. And that usually means I’m heading down to Toronto’s “garment district” to shop for fabrics. It’s a terrific 45-minute walk from where I live and I love walking down a few times a year to find everything I could possibly need for sewing and design plans. My husband is my sidekick on these journeys, providing much-needed extra help with seeking out specific items in these wonderfully jumbled stores. I can set him off to find “black knits” for example while I explore the silks. When he has found the general area in the shop and pulls some bolts, I can saunter over the make a decision. As a side note, he has a terrific eye and is a great second opinion. Anyway, that’s not happening any time soon.
Here in TO, we have been in the grips of a hideous April ice storm for a few days and now it’s raining buckets. The streets are full of ice-pellet slush and the sidewalks a sheet of ice. That won’t last long, but it has curtailed Toronto fabric shopping plans for the week, and for the month for that matter as it turns out. You see, this coming weekend I’m boarding a plane headed for Hong Kong and with any luck, I’ll be browsing silk stalls this time next week. But what does all this have to do with my Little Black Dress Project* you might reasonably ask. Good question.
I was planning to make a final decision on the design of the dress which would have led directly to fabric choice decisions which would have happened on Queen Street West this week. I think I have made a decision about design (and if I’m lucky I might find something inspirational in the way of fabric in Hong Kong or Shanghai, or maybe even Tokyo – all of which are on our upcoming itinerary) and actually making the dress wouldn’t be far behind. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself because I wanted to share my experience with one final design.
I’ve tested and fit three designs –one from each of Vogue, Butterick and McCall’s – so far. The last option is a design of my own. So where would one find inspiration these days for a timeless LBD? Clearly not in this spring’s ready-to-wear offerings, that’s for sure. I really just had to share with you this photo of a dress in a window in Yorkville Village, an upscale, very tony mall-like shopping space in my neighbourhood. It was in the window of TNT, a popular store in Toronto. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
“WTF is that?” I said to my husband.
He was as perplexed as I was. To be honest, the first time I saw it I thought it was one of those art pieces that you see in fashion windows from time to time. It never occurred to me that it was actually for sale and that it was intended for someone to wear. Needless to say, it doesn’t fit in with anything that I might recognize as timeless, flattering clothing for real people. But it was good for a laugh, n’est-ce pas?
So, I went back to my personal guidelines for the perfect LBD to begin my sketch: timeless, chic, sheath-like, open to multiple ways of styling.
Here’s how the sketch began.
I love the idea of neckline darts – they seem to lend themselves to perfect fitting across my concave décolletage. It began with two neckline darts radiating from the centre and two waistline darts. That was okay, but not perfect. So, I extended the neckline darts and manipulated the waistline darts into a princess seam from centre front. I liked it, and after two more fittings, was able to get it to fit me perfectly.
Then what about sleeves? I started with the idea of petal sleeves. Although I liked them, given that they have to be lines, I wasn’t at all certain I liked all those layers of fabric that are necessary. There would be the bodice, two layers of front and two layers of back for a total of five layers at the sleeve head. Hmm…
What to do? Well, back to a simpler sleeve shaped with a curve. That seems to work.
After several (at least three) muslins, I finally settled on a simple design and guess what? I really have to make this one. But then I also have to make contender number two for sure and may be number three.
I think I have to find a lot of places to go to wear these dresses – and I have a lot of fabric to buy! Wish me luck! Cheers – and join me back here when I get home from Asia.
And so I’m on to the final – or so I think at this point – contender to become my ultimate Little Black Dress* (LBD).
Contender #1, based on McCall’s pattern 6464 has lots of seam detail for fitting well and a plethora of sleeve options, although I’m focused on the ¾ length ones.
Contender #2, based on Butterick pattern 6410 also has lots of seaming detail (although less than the McCall’s) for fit – and it fits better than the McCall’s. This option has cuffed, short sleeves and a yoke which provides a bit of interest, although in unbleached cotton muslin, it resembles nothing less than a house dress. With these toiles, I have to squint at them to try to envision them in what might be the finished fabrication. Which brings me to the final (at least I think it’s the final) contender.
Then third dress might be closest to what we used to think was a LBD. It is a simple sleeveless sheath with princess seaming, a scoop neck and a front side slit. I was drawn to the Vogue 1435 pattern the minute I saw it.
Designed by long-time design duo Tom and Linda Platt, it is a bit of a riff on their ready-to-wear offerings.
I have to be honest and say that I really knew little about them before I began looking more closely at the sewing patterns they design for Vogue patterns. They are a married couple who met while attending design school at the Pratt Institute in New York and have been around for 20 or 30 years. What I like about their philosophy which is manifested in their designs is their mantra that last season’s collection should never be obsolete, rather that “great clothes last forever.” Here are some of their current offerings:
Well, I’m not sure about forever – it’s a very long time – but I agree that fast fashion is not the way for me to go, and probably never was.
Anyway, it wasn’t difficult to get this design to fit me, then as I spent some quality time staring at the muslin, the simple little dress seemed to grow on me. I even considered the matching jacket, but to tell you the truth, it’s a bit too voluminous. Anyway, back to the dress.
As I stood gazing at Gloria junior in all her muslin designer glory, my husband came up and examined it, as he likes to do when I’m working on a project.
“I like the last one better,” he said.
Naturally, I asked him why – and keep in mind this is a man with a great sense of style. He often shops with me and spends the time while I’m in the dressing room searching through the racks to find pieces he thinks I might like and might suit me. He is most often right on the money.
“I think that the perfect little black dress has sleeves. It makes it more elegant.”
Elegant? I want elegant. I want sophisticated. And I want timeless. I took another look at the dress and thought, you know he’s right.
In that moment, I realized the reason I was contemplating the jacket was that I knew that more often than not, I would be looking for a shrug, a wrap or a jacket to complement this dress. So, I took another look at contender #2. Then my husband, who was still considering the designs said, “What about those dresses with those nice style lines Merissa wears on Bull? That would suit you.”
Merissa is a character on the television show Bull and every week when we watch it we marvel over her dresses – which, it has to be said, she wears well. I think she could wear a garbage bag and look professional and – elegant.
So, just when I thought I had a winner – contender #2, Butterick 6410 – I know in my heart I have to go back to the drawing board (literally) and design an original. I guess I better prep some more muslin fabric. I’m going to need it.
My Little Black Dress* project continues. I’m still mulling over designs. I have already made up contender #1 and put it away for a side-by-side comparison to the other two contenders in due course. I’m now on to the next one.
Before I get to my muslin, though, I’ve been thinking about the fine line between a “little black dress” which implies something that I might wear to a cocktail party, on a cruise or perhaps out to dinner at a chi-chi restaurant on a special occasion, and a couple of other garments that wouldn’t fit the bill at all. I’m talking about “sun dresses” and “house dresses.”
Let’s first consider the “house dress.”
Megan Reynolds, of Racked, wrote a really nice piece about this anachronistic piece of clothing. She talks about the real pleasure of coming home from work, shedding the daily armor (whatever that might be for you: anything from a buttoned-up business suit to a uniform) and kicking back in a pair of old sweat pants and a grubby T-shirt. She considers the modern house dress to be a better alternative. She writes: “A good house dress lacks anything constricting about the midsection and should slip over the head with ease…A house dress is the antidote to slovenliness and an effective way of making you feel dressed when you’re really not…” And it seems to me that in the 1950’s which seems to be the height of house dress popularity, the dress was less floaty and loose than today’s versions.
And while I’m on the subject of today’s versions of the house dress, it seems to me that they could pass for what I think of as sun dresses: loose(ish), cool and most importantly, made from fabrics light handkerchief linen or cotton voile.
So, why am I thinking about house dresses and sun dresses on my journey toward the ultimate LBD? It’s because I’m struck by how the style might be somewhat less important than the eventual fabric choice. I’m thinking about this because as I ponder the lines drawings of contender #2, I see that this dress, fabricated from, say, cotton sateen, would be anything but the kind of LBD I’m searching for.
And yet, if I squint, and see black, crepe-backed silk satin in lustrous black with the crepe side used for a contrasting yoke and sleeve band, styled with beautiful gold earrings and a necklace to die for, I’m seeing possibilities. Anyway, here is contender #2, Butterick 6410, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.
As I cut and fit this dress I’m struck with the fact that it’s actually a better fit than contender #1 (McCall’s 6464). It also has sleeves with that cuff detail that could look corporate in certain kinds of fabrics, but as I mentioned my image of silk, crepe-backed satin, this becomes cocktail-worthy. I also really do like the neckline, which comes as a surprise to me. I thought that and Audrey-Hepburn-inspired boat neck would be my first choice, but I see lots of possibilities for jewelry with this one.
As I move on to contender #3, I realize that the choice might be difficult in the end. But, then, doesn’t’ everyone need more than one LBD? We’ll see.
And so, the real work begins. I decide on three contenders for my *Little Black Dress project and get to work. Here are the three contenders:
What I like about all of them is that they have a variety of style lines that provide me with the ability to fine-tune the fit – and if you’ve been reading any of my posts for the past while, you’ll know that one of my most passionate goals is to have well-fitting clothes. But this good fit does have to be tempered with comfort: in my view, life is too short to wear uncomfortable or frumpy clothes!
I begin with McCall’s 6464. My first step, as always, is tissue fitting and making a few adjustments to the pattern at this initial stage. I will use my newly acquired knowledge of couture dress-making techniques for this project. I put Susan Khalje’s “Couture Dress Course” from Craftsy in my ears and mark all the seam lines on the tissue pattern. I then cut it out roughly because I’ll be marking seam lines and using those rather than using seam allowances.
First, I have to bring out the massive sheets of waxed tracing paper and mark everything on the muslin pieces.
Of course, that’s only half of the marking I need: since this marks on only one side of the fabric, I’ll need to have those seam lines, darts etc on both sides, so I use the sewing machine to thread trace everything. Time-consuming, but it should be worth it to get the fit right. I like that fact that this pattern gives me options regarding the sleeves. I haven’t decided yet if I want sleeves, but I am leaning toward that.
When I sew up the toile, there are quite a few tweaks needed to get that fit just right. [Just a sidebar: I always pop in a zipper so that I can fit myself, although my husband will willingly pin in back issues for me.]
I realize that I’m going to need to do two or even three toiles to get it just right. One of the things that surprises me about this pattern is that for the sleeveless version, it provides the same armhole as for the sleeve variations. This means that I would have to take a dart in the armhole and transfer that to the bust dart or princess seam if I decide to use this one and I find that I want a sleeveless LBD. An armscye for a sleeve will gape on me (as on most people, I’d wager) if used in a sleeveless version.
I make it up as designed in the original pattern and take a look at it. Do I like the style? The lines? The fit? As I look at it closely, I realize that I might not be so fond of those darts. In fact, to my eye, there is something about the style lines of the skirt that seem to scream for a princess seam in the upper bodice. I do up a few sketches and like what I’m seeing.
So, a trace off the pattern, transfer the darts into a princess seam and replace the bodice with my new one and the tweaked skirt. After a few false starts, I get the fit just right. I’m beginning to be able to see this in black silk—maybe raw silk, maybe satin-backed crepe silk (or crepe-backed satin depending on how I look at it). I can almost feel the silk charmeuse lining that I might use.
As it turned out, I didn’t manipulate the skirt darts into one line: it changed the fit too much, so I removed only the darts in the bodice, turning them into a princess line which I then had to fit better as you can see: the right side is still pinned in this last version.
So, as I said, it now fits really well, and I’m liking the 3/4 sleeves better than the sleeveless version. Anyway, I feel I like this one, but is it too matronly? Well, on to the next one.
Next up, the test of Butterick 6410.
FYI…Here are some photos of the large sheets of waxed tracing paper in action in a previous project…