Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Concert Black

photo credit: Bill Kotrba

Finally remembered to post about the dresses which I made chickens in order to procrastinate on sewing (I will get back to this later).

Some months ago, Emily informed me that there would be concerts happening in her music world, and some were fancy enough to require a floor-length, sleeved gown. So naturally we both sat on the task until it became dangerous to delay further, at which point sheer terror forced me to sit down to plan and design it. 

There was sketching, plus some ballpark-esque measuring, viz:

The left diagram was what I suggested: set-in sleeves on a classic A-line shift silhouette. The right diagram was what Emily wanted: raglan sleeves integrated into the neckline. The sleeves were to be chiffon (or some other sheer fabric), which meant every seam or dart or tuck would be visible. The practical side of me attempted a reality check: Um, Maybe If We Had Like Six More Months To Tweak The Fit? The side of me that loves a challenge ignored it. 

And I went shopping to gather the materials.

Let's not be deceived by how streamlined and efficient a process that sounds, friends. Because between the sketching and the buying was an extended period of lounging around and incubating, then acting on, creative stirrings completely unrelated to garment-making. You can read the long version here. Summary: chickens. Lots of unwarranted chickens. And a pattern to make even more chickens. 

At some point, I came to my senses and finally buckled down to make this dress, beginning with decent measurements to draft an updated sloper. Sloper completed, I thought I should make a test-dress. Like a muslin, but with nice fabric. Which sounds like good garment-making practice, except no one actually makes a completely finished dress out of the muslin, especially when one is pressed for time. Unless one is still procrastinating, I mean. 

The sewing room mid-sew

Now, Emily had also shown me an alternative, second-choice design to fall back on should the Actual Dress prove too fiddly to make, and that became the test-dress. The design was very simple: A-line skirt, short flutter sleeves, a square neckline. And in-seam pockets, because all formalwear should include those; men's dress trousers (and any kind of men's bottoms, really) certainly do.

I used some Ponte - a sturdy double-knit - which didn't require a lining beyond the standard facings. It was a fast sew but when I'd finished it, I beheld it with the exasperation of someone having just made a completely unnecessary thing and was now was obliged to justify it. Like, if Emily had to play in another concert someday which required floor-length gowns without long sleeves.

photo credit: Bill Kotrba

Because it was now The Week Before The Concert and we still didn't have what she needed.

And I'd officially exhausted all other means of procrastination.

I drafted the dress. 

The mental roadblock was the sleeves. Typical set-in sleeves would've been easy; raglan sleeves integrated into the neckline, in a translucent fabric, could not easily hide the darts, bunchy elastic gathers or additional seams which would be necessary to fit such sleeves over the shoulders, upper chest and neck. I tried shaping with just seams initially. The first sleeve draft, which I tried to do intuitively in order to save time, was disastrous.

Which led to late-night emergency chat sessions with my friend Jen (professional tailor, therefore wielded magic, I always felt), who suggested returning to first principles to get a better draft. 

Which I then did. Much better, and I could tell just by looking at the shape of the thing:

But two, three sleeve muslins later, the fit was still funky, because I was still avoiding the more visible shaping mechanisms like elastic and darts. It soon became evident that it would take a fair bit more time to tweak the sleeves to the extent that they could be successfully worn, let alone moved in vigorously to work an instrument.

So with days to spare, we compromised and fell back on my original design of set-in sleeves - a tad more matronly than instagram-chic, but wearable and infinitely more comfortable for arm-raising and pumping a trombone slide. Here is Emily in the dress. And yes, there are in-seam pockets also, of course.

Now Emily has two gowns between which to toggle for her various concerts, a fortuitous* side-effect of my avoiding and overcompensating, which is somehow both tragic and ridiculous. I am happy to report that enough new musical opportunities have arisen that she has been able to wear both gowns several times. Whoo! 

*how I pretend that procrastinating isn't 100% useless


  1. 2 black dresses, super useful for all those events!

  2. I was waiting for it! My daughter has a concert this Saturday (at Orchestra Hall!), then a school one in a few weeks. I will try. She wants see-through sleeves as well, and the gown needs to be floor length, and long sleeves... and she plays violin, so those sleeves need to be accommodating. I will try, maybe not for Saturday but hopefully soon. I love Emily's dresses, they are both beautiful.

  3. I love both dresses! My daughter plays violin (I tried to comment but it went as anonymous) and needs a dress, a long one, I was waiting impatiently for your post since you mentionned it. Now to try and draw a sloper. I will read all your posts again and start. Do you by chance give lessons?

  4. Way to pull the bunny out of the hat in the nick of time. And such a lovely bunnies the dresses and daughter are. Bet she plays amazingly in them. Well done mom.

  5. If she keeps playing she will wear both dresses plenty! I am so intrigued by how those sleeves with the darts(?) work. I've never seen that design, but the finished product is beautiful.

    And hooray for pockets!

  6. Thank you very much for sharing your creative process! The dresses are beautiful and she looks lovely wearing them!

  7. May I ask after the dart in the middle of the neckline? Was that a purposeful design element or a fitting decision? I am the costume designer for American Youth Shakespeare (youthshakes.org). Though I sew, etc. I am relatively new to drafting.

    1. Anonymous: the dart was a fitting decision. Initially, we were leaning toward a semi-sweetheart neckline with the raglan chiffon sleeves, then decided on a straight square neckline for the set-in sleeves. Even stabilized, the square neckline gaped a little when Emily was moving her arms working her instrument. Both the Ponte of the short-sleeved dress and the bridal satin of the long-sleeved dress were stretch fabrics, which didn't help. The shallow darts to both necklines took care of the gaping. They would've been better integrated into the semi-sweetheart design had we used that (I think they're far more visible in this square neckline) but they achieved their modesty function, so we let them be.

  8. The dresses are beautiful as is your daughter.

  9. She's beautiful, as are both dresses. I think the procrastination factor is worse because we want these momentous garments to be " special" and just the fact that they are handmade with love ( and possibly a few flaws) makes them special, but we put the extra pressure on ourselves because we know even if no one else does. My Mother used to surprise me sometimes when I was little with a new dress to wear on my doorknob in the morning. Later on during high school, I would cut out a new outfit on Friday evening, sew all weekend with her standby help, and wear it to school on Monday. Those are wonderful memories your post evoked.

  10. Beautiful, practical band dresses! I started playing flute in grade 7 but in grade 9, at high school, I learned about the stage (jazz) band, which seemed like so much fun. And the back row of the concert band was all the cool guys, so I learned to play trombone so I could join them! For our grade 12 band trip (we went to grade 13 then), I played flute, piccolo, trombone, and "bells" (metal xylophone). We had ugly matching band sweaters. I would much rather have had this beautiful dress! It's so great to see other young ladies playing trombone. It's much more popular now--I rarely saw them in other high schools.


Thank you for talking to me! If you have a question, I might reply to it here in the comments or in an email.