I've been working at the National Theatre's Costume Hire Department (where I used to work full time) for the last couple of weeks and made an exciting discovery when going through a rail of new stock one day which I thought you may be interested in seeing here on the blog. This evening dress while gorgeous at first glanced on closer inspection was very stained and in clear need of a bit of attention. I opened it up to see what could be done to rescue it and discovered this...
Wowzer! I had in my hands a real piece of designer history! We think it must have been donated to the theatre by some kind soul who could no longer had use for this beautiful piece but wanted it to go to a good home. I love thinking about who first bought this and where they wore it and what the complete outfit was like!
We decided that, although the full skirted silhouette suggests 1950s at first glance, this is more of an early 1960s gown because of the style of the high waistline. It looks to me like something that might be worn to a debutantes' ball. Even though the silk is now very stained you can tell the quality of it at first touch. Isn't it the most gorgeous colour! We couldn't find a word to accurately capture it because of the way it changes in the light. In the picture above it looks ivory, in the picture below of the detail at the back it looks more silver/mauve and in other lights it appears quite pink.
Those pleats into the centre back waistband add further fullness to the skirt and are just gorgeous in that duchess satin. And I imagine on the shaping under the bust in the picture below is very flattering.
When you first open it up you instantly get an idea of just how much work has gone into making this dress. I imagine it would have been commissioned by the wearer for a particular ball/event and was fitted perfectly for her. The construction of the outer gown itself is beautiful, underlined in silk organza to help hold the shape. But underneath that, as you can see in the picture above is attached another entirely more complex dress consisting of the layers and layers of petticoat and a boned mesh bodice; sort of like a softer, contemporary version of a period corset. The top of the bodice is bound in the same duchess satin as the exterior of the dress which I think is a lovely touch.
The closer you look the more of an idea you get of the hours that must have gone into this. There's a huge amount of hand stitching; as you can just make out in the picture below, the entire organza lining is blind stitched to the main fabric. I love that the lining is organza as it means you really can see all the construction details; such as these notches made in the seam allowance around the armhole. You can just about make out the two layers of main fabric and underlining here too.
The image below is of the waist seam. Here it looks like some adjustments have been made to the fit to take it in a little at this point. There are a few different rows of machine and hand stitching as well as tell tale signs of uneven seam allowances and things not matching up quite right. It's not what you'd expect from this quality of garment and the rest of the dress is constructed imaculately. I wonder if these alterations were made to accommodate the changing shape of the original wearer or to fit a new owner? Perhaps this dress was passed on from mother to daughter?
The dress fastens down the centre back with a lapped metal zip as was common at the time. Plastic zips and invisible zips weren't around yet! I love the metal zips, to me they seem to indicate a sign of times when garments were made to last.
Now onto the petticoats. the beautiful shape of this dress is achieved by many full layers of quite stiff petticoats. Working from outside to inside, first you have the main fabric of the dress itself; underlined and lined.
Then you have a soft, smooth petticoat layer which helps the main fabric lay flat and smooth and also to move freely on top of the other petticoats and not catch as you moved about. (I'm assuming this was important as the state of the stains under the arms indicates a fair bit of dancing and fun being had in this frock!) I couldn't quite place what fabric this layer is (image below), but it felt like a silk of some kind. Enclosed in the wide hem is horsehair braid. As the fabric of this layer is so fine and soft this technique helps it keep it's fullness around the hem.
Finally come three tiers of net petticoats. These are much stiffer than the first petticoat layer and really give the skirt it's body. The hems of each of these tiers also had a form of horsehair braid attached, the likes of which I had never seen before! Isn't it unusual? It was about 3-4" wide.
This picture below hopefully gives you a better idea of just how many layers and how much fabric was involved in the skirt of this dress. Just look at the lengths of painstakingly hand stitched hem!
I've one final beautiful touch to point out to you in the image below. The straps of the under bodice appeared to be of a very fine, almost wired cord which would have dug into the shoulders I imagine quite painfully! These straps have therefore been enclosed in a loose, narrow silk tube to make them a bit softer on the skin. Another indication of the thought and time that went into making this dress just right. And an indication of how expensive it must have been bought new, I wish I could see it in it's freshly made glory!
I hope you've enjoyed this peek inside a vintage designer ball gown as much as I did!