Costume College Gala gown 2015

Costume College Gala gown 2015

Last night I dreamt that I went to dinner at Kedleston Hall, where my hosts turned out to be just as I’d pictured them. Mary Curzon was ever the tall, charismatic lady who had captivated three continents, and her husband, the Viceroy, was a stiff, intelligent, intimidating man whom one instinctively did not want to cross.

The heat of India was oppressive in Derby (it’s a dream, go with it) but as His Lordship discussed political machinations with one of the other guests, my hostess’s interesting conversation made one feel comfortable, valued and welcome. I did not reveal that I had travelled over one hundred years to be there that night, but I felt sure that she’d be amused to learn that I was recreating the grand state dresses that she had considered little more than annoyingly expensive work clothes!

The Corset for the Peacock Dress

The Corset for the Peacock Dress

When I was raising money for Random Acts’ projects in Haiti in 2011, and pledging to make the Peacock Dress in return, I imagined that I would be the maker of the whole outfit, every stitch. However, it’s not going to work out that way, and I’m delighted about that.

Not only because it reduces the workload (hiring Indian specialists to embroider the dress takes about thirty years off, literally) but because the result of any project is so much better when you let go, step back and ask for help from people who know what they’re doing better than you do.

New Worth Evening Gowns, part 2: Expect the Unexpected

New Worth Evening Gowns, part 2: Expect the Unexpected

In the second part of this series of posts showcasing Worth designs from the photo archive preserved at the V&A, I’m sharing the one that stopped me in my tracks and made me say, WTF?     Zigzags? In 1902? Flouncy, frou-frou femininity with garlands of roses and frothy frills, yes, but… zigzags? I wonder whether this gown was considered unusual or avant garde at the time? Was it intended for Worth’s more adventurous clients, or does it simply not fit into our modern, shorthand, tl;dr version of Edwardian style? According to the notes beneath the photo, the gown is made from black and white silk mousseline. (It’s lovely stuff, a tad more substantial than silk chiffon, but not as stiff as silk organza. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it used for an evening gown of this era.) It looks as though the main white mousseline fabric is already spangled in some way when it comes off the roll, since the pattern is constant and regular across the gown. Successive layers of the sheer, plain black mousseline have been appliqued onto the white gown, and then the edges of each layer have been outlined in sequins. (Good idea on the sequins there – the silk mousseline would have frayed like a %$^*&!£.)     On the bodice there are three such applied layers, and on the skirt an extra layer of the white, or another pale colour, has been applied first. And the sleeves?     Two pieces of “spangled” white mousseline are sewn into the armhole and held together with an applied star near the shoulder,...
New Worth Evening Gowns, 1

New Worth Evening Gowns, 1

Okay, okay, I’ll share! Here’s the first of the *other* gowns in the Worth photo album. (The album I looked at, anyway. There were at least a couple more huge tomes, just for that year.) I planned to do one of those viral list posts you see all over social media – “20 Worth gowns you’ve never seen before – OMG I nearly died when I saw #12” – but honestly, each one of these gowns is worth (ha) a good long look and a few huge detail shots, as well as a front and back. So without further ado, here is evening gown number 60734, a picture of simplicity (for 1902)… Gorgeous. The description reads, “Robe satin blas avec noeuds argents et fleurs”, or “Lilac satin gown with silver knots and flowers.” Let’s take a closer look at the bodice. I LOVE the shape of these gowns, and since I made the Oak Leaf dress in 2009 I now know that this was not only achieved with the lacing of the corset, but by padding the bust and hips too. The draping of the satin over a tightly fitted lining is to die for. Looking even closer… There’s one of the “silver knots”. Find a few similar silver/diamante brooches, and some silk lilacs, and you’d be good to go with this project. But of course, if a costumer was going to make this, they’d need to see the back… If the front was gorgeous, the back is breathtaking. Worth documented front and back shots of every gown, which makes me very, very happy. With a front and a...
What did the roses look like when they were new?

What did the roses look like when they were new?

In my last post we discovered that the white roses at the hem of the Peacock dress are not, in fact, original, but are replacements made by the milliner Reslaw Hats in the 1950s. We also saw what we think are a few of the original roses. These are a wonderful find, it’s priceless to see size, shape, fabrics and method, but there’s still a missing piece of this puzzle. If I’m going to recreate the Peacock dress exactly as it looked when it was packed in a case in the Paris workroom of Jean-Philippe Worth and shipped to India, I’d like to see more than the present day remains of the roses. What did they look like as new? We could look at the portrait (top of this page), but as we discovered in the last post, those bold strokes (which don’t tell me a great deal anyway) were painted in 1909, when the dress had already been in storage for six years and Mary was already gone. The painting was undoubtedly completed with the help of the photographs taken of Lord and Lady Curzon on the night of the Coronation Ball, but those photos are rather overexposed, leaving the roses as no more than an expanse of white. Can we do better? We can. If you move in costuming circles, you’ll know about the V&A’s recent book The House of Worth: A Pictorial Archive, which documents the vast and extraordinary collection of photographs that Worth routinely used to document its seasonal offerings. To London! Here is just one of the books of ballgowns from 1902 that were...
What’s in the box?

What’s in the box?

So you wanted to know what’s in the little box? Well, to answer that I have to backtrack a few months. The Peacock Dress was on loan to the Museum of London for most of its lifetime, from at least the 1930s to the 1990s. My interest was piqued when a contact at the Museum told me that they still have “a file” on the dress. Intriguing… So a new part of the story develops: what happened to the Dress after the ball?   Lady Mary Curzon died young. In fact, she was gone just three years after that glittering night in Delhi, at the pitifully young age of 36. The grieving Lord Curzon built her a tomb at Kedleston – even though he married again, he lies next to her there to this day – and commissioned the famous portrait of her in her dazzling Peacock Dress. Her dresses were the only possessions that were passed directly to Mary’s three daughters (she is reputed to have asked specifically for the “feathers dress” to be kept), and we pick up the story in 1938, with a series of letters that passed between the eldest daughter, Baroness Irene Ravensdale, and the Director of the Museum of London. They certainly did keep the dress, but lent it to the Museum, during which time the Baroness arranged for the dress to be displayed in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (It was the first of two appearances; the dress was lent again in 2004.) One can sense her pride in her mother’s achievements shining through, not only in these...
Collaboration

Collaboration

Yesterday I returned once again to visit the National Trust at Kedleston Hall. I must have been to Kedleston thirty times if I’ve been there once, but I can never come back without recalling the first time I ventured into a dimly lit basement museum and saw that glittering dress, resplendent on a pedestal, gently lit in its own special glass case that one can walk all the way around. The Peacock Dress is still spectacular, no matter how long I look, and I still cannot approach it without a leap in my heart and an electric magic tingling through me. It is, for me, the ultimate gown, my Holy Grail. Ffion George is the new House and Collections Manager, with responsibility for both the welfare of the fragile building and its equally delicate contents, and also for continually finding new ways to present them to visitors in an interesting and engaging way. It’s not an easy task to balance those two responsibilities. Being a sewer herself – with an interest in Forties dresses, no less – as well as recalling a childhood of half-made wedding dresses spread across her mother’s dining table, she was equally as excited to meet me as I was to meet her. I have found a kindred spirit, which is a great relief after so many years of my plans and dreams going unnoticed.     But there’s another reason that my early efforts to connect took a bit of persuading. My pipe dream about recreating the Peacock Dress became a real plan in 2011 when I got involved with Random Acts‘ efforts to...
In the meantime….

In the meantime….

With the publication of my interview at the American Duchess blog yesterday, I realised how far off the radar I’ve been of late. Harman Hay Publications has been going through some very big and important growing pains lately, which have taken most of my attention away from The Dress. For a whole variety of administrative reasons with which I won’t bore you, it became apparent last year that the only sensible way forward was for HHP to leave the United Kingdom and register officially as a business in the United States. That involved a lot of fretting, and a lot of wondering how the heck to do that, who the heck could help us do it, and who the heck we could trust to do it legally and correctly. Add to the big logistical building blocks all the myriad little details that come with it, and the unforeseen pitfalls and possibilities, triumphs and disasters, sleepless nights, and sighs of relief, and you begin to get the picture. It’s been just like selling up and moving house for the first time. It completely disrupts life for a longer period than you expect, and you just have to roll with it and take each development as it comes. You see why the Peacock Dress has fallen aside. You can probably tell just from reading this that I’m pretty tired, and huge credit is due to my whole team, and all the writers and members, who are wrangling with changes in the system too. So for a little while longer, I will be arranging furniture, smoothing out the remaining details, and completing...
A mystery solved?

A mystery solved?

Another embroidery sample arrived from India on Friday (left, seen against my own embroidery). As I compared it to the photos of the original dress in the museum, something began to dawn on me. Isn’t it funny how you can look at a thing for years and assume it was done one way, but when you put it away for a while and get it out again, a lightbulb goes on and the answer suddenly becomes clear…     Remember how I was angsting about the seams when I first studied the dress? I couldn’t convince the custodians of the dress to let me study it flat on a table, so I had to try to figure out the skirt pattern just by looking at the dress in the glass case (above). The seams delineating each panel shouldn’t be too difficult to see: the embroidery is dense, but I knew that the feather pattern would give it away. According to long-accepted tradition in embroidered costume, the pieces of the skirt would have been embroidered before assembly, so the edges of the feathers should run neatly along the seams. So I looked and looked, but although there were plenty of feathers and plenty of edges and I had a good idea where they should be, I got very confused because I couldn’t find any seams. They were deliciously, perfectly invisible, except for the darts around the waist and hips, around which the pattern has been distorted to fit, and the extraordinarily clumsy center back seam, where the feathers didn’t even come together in line with each other (below).    ...
Embroidery quote received!

Embroidery quote received!

Earlier in the week, we reached a moment of truth that I’ve been anticipating ever since September 2012, when I realised that India was my best bet for realising my Peacock Dress dream. The quote for the embroidery, by far the most expensive and complex part of the project, arrived in my inbox.   Facebook followers guessed that the task might take from three weeks to eight months, and cost anything from $1400 to $25,000.  My own wild guess just about correlates with the average of all the Facebook guesses – I anticipated 3-6 months and $8000.   Ready for the real quote? Sweta has quoted three weeks, at $8000. So we got the price right, but… THREE WEEKS???   Sweta has yet to answer my question regarding how many people will be working on it at once, but I know you can’t fit more than 62 people around the thirteen pieces of embroidery required. If they’ve got 62 people working at a time for 12 hour days, 7 days a week for three weeks (I hope there are shifts and everyone is not working 12/7)…… and I was going to work 4 hour days every weekday for 30 years… that means they’re working at least twice as fast as me – their total hours would be 15,624 to my 31,200.   So, uh, yeah… a worthwhile exercise.     As for the price, it’s a relief. $8000 is a lot of cash, but it’s not $25,000. It’s a lot, but it isn’t a stratospheric “Well, shit, so much for that idea” sort of sum. It’s within the realms of...