Any Excuse Will Do…

As in pretty much any excuse is good enough for me to make a dress.  And a very, very long post, so schedule loo breaks now, ladies and gentlemen.  This is an actual transcript of the conversation that happened between Logic Brain and Soprano Brain:

Logic Brain: Liederfest is coming up.

Soprano Brain: So it is!  QUICK!  TO THE SEWING MACHINE!

Logic Brain: Errr……. shouldn’t that be ‘to the practice room?’

Soprano Brain: Oh poor foolish Logic Brain.  Surely you realise that there’s no point in practicing for a competition if I have nothing to wear.

Logic Brain: But you do have things to wear.  Why not wear that dress you wore last year?

Soprano Brain: Because I wore it LAST YEAR, duh.  How passé!  The reek of bad technique clings to it like the stench of burning rubber to a smoke-tainted wine.

Logic Brain: Stop it.  You’re getting carried away.

Soprano Brain: This year’s dress shall be bold!

Logic Brain: Are you even listening to me?

Soprano Brain:  It will necessitate an extravagant trip to the Fabric Store!

Logic Brain: You can’t really aff-

Soprano Brain: IT WILL BE LIKE THE ARMOUR OF A VICTORIOUS KNIGHT AND SHINE AS A TESTAMENT TO MY AWESOMENESS!

Logic Brain: Fine, whatever, I’m not talking to you when you’re like this.

Now really, I’m sort of on Logic Brain’s side here. I only have nine days to whip this thing up in, and I will not be sacrificing practice time to do it (seeing it’s Liederfest, not Seamstressfest).  I have other dresses I could wear.  The main problem is that I made a massive rookie error on my break at work the other day and spent most of it drooling over the Christopher Esber website, oogling masterfully-cut, ridiculously beautiful garments I will never be able to afford.  I also rummaged through my wardrobe with a friend deciding on clothes for photoshoots the other day, and was palpably disappointed at the lack of badassness therein.  Everything’s a bit frumpy, or a bit dainty, or a bit vintage, or just too… safe.  Which I know is what adjudicators-of-a-certain-age/the Opera Police* tend to go for, but it’s not how I want to represent myself, and I want to have the sort of stage wardrobe where I feel like I can grab anything that’s weather-appropriate and just feel right in it, Opera Police be damned.  If you don’t feel like you’re offering up yourself on stage, you can’t expect the audience to feel a genuine connection with you.

So I had a think.

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Le Fou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…

I examined my current daytime performance dresses with a critical eye. There’s a grey cuoprene/silk Alpha 60 dress for summer, a black Viktoria Maine for winter and a rust-coloured Victoria Maine for in-between.  The rust one’s pretty stained and gaps badly at the CB neckline (also I feel about 40 in it, which isn’t how 24 year olds generally want to feel), the black one is nice to wear but a bit underwhelming, and the Alpha 60 one requires tape (which isn’t great when you go to put it on and then realise you can’t find the tape, and then have to rush around madly in the 40 minutes before your Masters recital trying to find something else that you can wear to perform in 35 degree heat without flashing anybody.  True story).

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Classic case of party at the back. Super-deep-cut armscyes, ergo tape.  With a slip it looks suspiciously like some kind of dressing gown.

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This is the one I wore last year.  It’s inoffensive enough.

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I used to like this one.  Now I think it’s boring.

What I gathered from this sartorial navel-gazing were these lessons:

-No boob-tape-dependency.

-No more frumpy/underwhelming.

-Fit is paramount.

When proper designers design things (I imagine, at least…) they think things through carefully.  In each collection, there’s almost a character in their mind; their girl; their muse.  Who are my muses?  What qualities and features and traits do I like?  Who is my girl these days?  I had a look back through my sketch folder at my recent fan sketches, looked at my bookshelf, at my favourite movies and shows – in short: what I’m interested in because I actually like it, not because I feel like I should, or to prove a point – and I noticed a trend.

Basically it boils down to this: my muses are almost invariably Fierce Armed Ladies (and gentlemen).  Buffy.  Anita Blake.   Katniss Everdeen. Shaun Mason from Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (fights zombies, busts conspiracies) Sabriel, from the eponymous book by Garth Nix (has magic bells). Nimona, from the eponymous web comic by Noelle Stevenson (turns into things, including a SHARK.).  Mr Virgil Tibbs, from the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night (not just a fearsome dude, but also possibly the biggest crush I’ve ever had).  Pretty much every character from Norihiro Yagi’s manga Claymore (the basic plot is: genetically-altered ladies hit monsters with swords whilst questioning their humanity).  Even the characters I invented in highschool to indulge the rather niche combo of rococo fashion and dragons now help to fuel my love of rococo fashion… and zombies.  The dragons got dropped at about year 10.

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Princess Sharianne slays zombies now.  My boss thought I was a tad disturbed for drawing this on my break.  And now, dear internet friends, you have the opportunity to find me disturbing too!

Hell, even the singers I like best have an element of steel to them: Billie Holiday is still my favourite singer ever, and she was one fierce lady.  There’s no amount of Edda Mosers singing die Hölle rache that will ever replace Billie for me.

So the dress must reflect these influences whilst still being appropriate stagewear and not tremendously offensive to the Opera Police.  So the list of direct influences had to be narrowed down a bit, and mixed in with some proper fashion.  The final cut was:

– Christopher Esber, for this shape:  It’s like a rococo waistcoat and yet somehow armour-like.

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From his AW13 collection.

-Dion Lee for the futurism, and how his designs remind me a lot of the wetsuits from Catching Fire; there’s a sort of action/functional look to them (even though body-con dresses are never really very functional).

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Also via the website. Watch out, the homepage makes noises.

-The suits from Claymore.  I’m nicking the CF and CB seams, because they’re quite distinctive and not often used in these sorts of dresses, and also the colour scheme.  I want my dress in grey/white/silver.  Plus a bit of emphasis on my gigantic man-shoulders probably wouldn’t go astray.

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From my very own copy of Vol. 4.

This is the design I arrived at:

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After a bit of sleeve editing and fiddling, I got the toile to the following stage, over a RTW pencil skirt (the skirt’s going to be the easy part, I say flippantly now, probably to my later regret).  It looks very wrinkly and wonky mostly because I had to pin myself into it with great difficulty.  In the real deal there’ll be a CB invisible zipper, which I can do now because I FOUND MY ZIPPER FOOT!!! HOORAH!!! As far as actual flaws go, the collar needs more building up, the ‘shoulder protectors’ need reshaping (it’s my first attempt at a raglan sleeve; once again I’m trying to run before I can walk), and so do the front and back waistcoat tails, and the bust darts need moving.  But hey, it’s a toile.  Corrections are what they’re for, right?

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I’m also very proud of my new shoes.  They’re pointy.  And taxi-coloured.

*Opera Police: a friend of a friend recently used this term to refer to the stuffy, usually middle-aged and older self-appointed gatekeepers of operatic validity, taste and propriety.

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Clothes for the Recital that I’m So Glad is Over.

Do excuse my recent lack of postage.

I FINALLY did my first Masters recital; the evil one; the one that got postponed last year because I had a month’s worth of the flu and pharyngitis; the one that I’m so so so glad is finally over, despite the fact that I had a cold and had to keep dashing off stage to blow my nose, much in the manner that more normal sopranos might dash off to swig from glasses of water.  I thought putting the tissues on the piano would be a bad idea, though it was mighty tempting.  Then maybe my level of professionalism would be on par with the con’s; they managed to bugger up my program notes, which I had given to them formatted to a tee after adhering to all their pernickety editing suggestions.  Fancy that… a red squiggle.  Wordpress doesn’t think pernickety is a word.  It keeps suggesting ‘pumpernickel’. Which is a great word too, don’t get me wrong, but not so relevant in the context.

And I actually managed to finish my skirt and top ensemble.  At 12:15am the night before, admittedly, but yes.  Finished.  Now I have things to wear when performing in winter.

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Ta-daaaa! A blurry photo.  Excuse the general mess.

The skirt took about a week, partially because I was working around loads of practice and trying to maintain some semblance of contact with other humans, but mostly because my Janome is to the lovely Fabric Store silk as hot wax strips are to Wolverine: not exactly as Kryptonite to Superman, but it’s still not a fun combination, and the result doesn’t look very attractive.  I should’ve known, because I’ve used this particular kind of silk before when I made my lace crop-top back in the mists of time (*cough* last year *cough*) and my machine has horrible memories of needle-breakage associated with it.  But in the lead-up to my recital, soprano-brain was a bit of an issue and I figured that last time I’d been trying to flat-fell chunky seams and use bias binding (ie: more layers), so if I used a brand-new, sharp-as-a-psycho’s-scalpel, small-as-I-could-get needle and set the thread tension very very carefully, what problem could a mere two layers possibly pose?  (OH THE STUPIDITY)

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Exhibit A: Nasty buckly seam.  In centre-front of all places.  😡

Doesn’t seem to matter how fine a needle I use or how few layers I have or what my thread tension’s set as, I end up with a buckly seam.  So I thought, stuff you Janome, and hand-stitched the rest of it.  What can I say?  I’m a control freak who likes to watch things while I sew.  Many, many episodes of Buffy later, I have a rather nice skirt.  The buckly seam thankfully hangs in a fold, hiding its shameful buckly nature from the eyes of good citizens.  Then I just stitched the silk over the top of the foundation layer of the waistband with backstitch so you have these little lines of topstitching, which the silk will eventually fade around so it’ll look a bit interesting.

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Pinned and ready to go.

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Little backstitches are prettier than buckly machine mess, anyway.

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Then it was slipstitched over the pleats.  Hot-damn I’m proud of that neat curve.

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Okay, so the inside’s all messy.  But it’s secure and there’s no chance of fray-age and I could not give fewer damns.

The skirt ended up being a circle skirt cut to twice the length of the waistband and then pleated on (haphazardly).  The zipper was set in with a pick-stitch, because I HATE sewing zips on the machine.  Hate hate hate, like stompy eye-pokey-outy hate.  Only on the morning did I notice that on me the lining hung more crooked than it did on the dressform, and so I had to emergency-tack it up a bit, but it’ll be an easy fix for The Weekend That Never Comes.

The top was my first foray into jersey-land (aka Mordor.  Stretch fabric is clearly the work of Sauron), negotiating the perils of Twin Needles and Clear Elastic Stay Tape of Doom.

MordorHere dwell the dreaded jersey fabrics.

via lotr.wikia.com

I cut the pattern off a skivvy I had that fitted nicely (though I ought to have gone a little roomier because my jersey didn’t stretch quite as much as I thought), and it sewed up relatively quickly.  I couldn’t figure out how to do a drapey bit at the front, so I improvised one on after and covered the joins with some bows cut from the remnants of my silk.  With a singlet under it, it was *just* warm enough in Melba Hall.  A friend of mine the Best Baritone I Know nearly froze to death in his exam the other week, so I thought it’d pay to be cautious.  Boy did it ever.  My poor accompanists… it seriously looked like a scene out of Dickens backstage with them huddled there in their coats with their hands under their arms.

Now, Clegs doesn’t normally hold much fascination for me with the Fabric Store to compare it to, but when I went down there the other day to pick up the twin needle and the elastic, they were having a remnant sale.  Remnant sales are very dangerous.  I had to be prudent, but when they’re getting rid of just enough of just what you’re after for about 1/4 of the normal price per metre, you must strike, strike like the bargain-cobra.   Now I have enough silk crepe satin to cover my stays when I finish them (I would use it for something else it’s so nice, but that colour really doesn’t suit me unless I’m fancy dressing as a zombie.  My skin cells wouldn’t know what melanin was if some came along and bit them on the endoplasmic reticulum), and half a metre of the most airy and delicious silk georgette which is going to be a nasty beast to sew, but I’m not intending to make anything super fancy from it… maybe just a fichu for my as yet hypothetical georgian costume…???????????????????????????????

So pretty!  It’s like if soufflé could be a fabric.

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Guaranteed to make me look about 5 days dead.

And then there’s sissy-poo’s kitty-shaped hot water bottle cover.  The toile (do you call it a toile when it’s clothes for a hot water bottle?) is assembled, but I’m still trying to work out if the vaguely 3D face is going to work in practice when darts aren’t meant to be a thing you do with faux fur.  I guess the pile’s not too deep, I figure I’m going to treat it pretty much like velvet and see how it goes, unless somebody warns me off it in the next 24 hours.  There’s enough faux fur that I could probably make two or three attempts before I throw in the towel.???????????????????????????????

There will also be legs and a tail but I didn’t bother to pattern them.  I’m not sure how I’ll do the nose and eyes yet, but at any rate, this is the look I’m going for:

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Via au.catsadoptions.com.  KITTY WITH NO FACE NAWWWWWWWW!!!!

It beats doing tax.

Does My Bum Look Big in these Alligators?

Please excuse me if this post is effusive and/or ebullient.  I just had chocolate and then dumplings with my dear friends Death and Brave Sir R-. I am full of chocolate and good-quality dumplings and pleasant company.  I AM EBULLIENCE ITSELF.

I finished my geeky 18th Century garters on the 3rd.  What a massive coincidence that the day after was May the 4th.  As in May the 4th be with you, as in May the FORCE be with you, as in International Star Wars Day.  I had to explain that multiple times to various perplexed people down at my opera company yesterday.  Verdict: geeky opera singers are not as common as I might have bet, or I have spent way too much time hanging around with composers.  Oh well.  I guess this is an opportunity to remind myself how blessed I was to have an adolescence saturated in the glory of multiple forms of geekery, Star Wars being prominent amongst them.  Here, by the way, are my finished garters:

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If Obi-Wan was into Georgian period cross-dressing, these are what he would wear.

So in a continued vein of geekery meets Georgian-ery, I’ve started another accessory that will be essential in achieving a plausibly Georgian shape when I *finally* get around to finishing my stays and making this fabled robe a l’Anglaise.   Everybody who’s anybody references this amusing cartoon:

Lewis Walpole Library Bum ShoppeThe Bum Shop, from the Lewis Walpole Library.  (On their website you can zoom)

Yes, when a lady of the 1780’s asks you ‘does my bum look big in this’, the right answer is ‘does it ever.’  In the cartoon, they’re selling ‘rumps’, ‘bum-rolls’, ‘false bums’, or whatever you want to call them (‘posterior petticoat-plumping pillows?’, ‘arse-augmenters?’, ‘decoy derrieres?’) in order to give their patrons the fashionable bootylicious shape.  I saw a couple of other funny cartoons about the fashionable shape on my travels through the blogosphere…

Lewis Walpole Library Back BitersThose are small, Paris-Hiltony dogs sitting on the ladies’ bums.  Back when it was the magnitude of your bum that mattered, not your tote bag.

Lewis Walpole Library Bum BailiffThe caption reads: ‘The Bum Bailiff outwitted, or, the convenience of fashion.’  Notice the lady making her escape.

Again, the zoomable versions of both of those are in the Lewis Walpole Library.  Type ‘bum’ into the search box and you’ll find them.  It’s very satisfying to use a Yale library search engine to search for ‘bum’.  Try it, and tell me it’s not titillating.  Great word that.  Titillating.  Oh God I had way too much chocolate today…

Back to the bum.  There appear to be many varieties of bum in the shop picture, so I went with a crescent-y shape, like you can see at the bottom (HA) left hanging on the wall.  I didn’t have a lot of calico left (what do we make of a seamstress who routinely uses up her stash?  Sacrilege!), so I had to piece it, but I tried to piece it in the sort of segmenty-pumpkin way that they appear to have quilted their bums, so that I’d have a good guide to sew down later if I needed to.

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My one remaining piece of calico.  Cue Mulan music: “This is what you give me to work with?  Well honey, I’ve seen worse!  We are going to turn this sow’s ear, into a-“.

A bum.  That’s what we’re turning it into.

I also made the top bigger around the outside edge than the bottom, so it’ll puff more and sit more like a bum than a plate.  I have no idea if this is period or not, but hey, I’m embroidering it with alligators, and I’m pretty sure that’s not period.  That whole thing about enjoying being an amateur again.

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Exhibit A: gator.  His eye is a teeny tiny sequin.  (Also, wow, I matched the grain lines at the seam!  TOTAL FLUKE FOR THE WIN!!!)

The gator is part of a larger pattern that references the decadently violent Anita Blake series.   When Anita has multiple preternatural nasties out to kill her, she likes to say that she’s ‘ass deep in alligators’.  Seeing as this is a fake ass I’m making, I figured it was a priceless opportunity to use that gem of a quote (well, I’m normally arse deep in scores, not alligators, but gators are more fun to embroider and I still have oodles of yummy emerald green silk thread left over from my green soprano gown (which I’m thinking of putting through a refashion… but more on that another time)).

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It’s not done yet.  It’ll have two knives crossing at the front and another gator, and possibly some skulls for good measure.

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I’m particularly proud of the roses.

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Illustrating the probably-not-period pattern.  The upper layer will get pleated into this smaller layer.

I’m happy to say the whole thing is hand-sewn so far, and I’ll keep going like that.  It’s very nearly as quick, and it’ll be easier in the awkward curvy bits.  I’m getting pretty fast at hand-sewing.  Well. Fast for me at any rate.

I’ll stuff it with scraps (because I have a massive bag of scraps) and attach it to some twill tape.  I went to Clegs (ooh Clegs) and got loads of it.  I never realised how cheap it was, but despite its cheapness they don’t seem to sell it at Lincraft (grrr, Lincraft).  The problem is that I like the staff at my Lincraft; they’re all friendly and pleasant and the Clegs staff are all snooty and have the temerity to ask you whether you’ve made a toile yet when you’re buying fabric.  DO YOU MEAN THERE’S A COMPULSORY ORDER I HAVE TO DO THINGS IN???  Are you going to sneak round to my house and check that yes, there’s a toile pinned to my crappy home-made dressform before you’ll sell anything to me?  Hell, they should be glad they’ve never met my Gran.  To her, toile only means Toile du Juoy.  Rant over.  Then once I’m finished my bum all I have to do is finish my stays, whip up some petticoats and Bob’s your Uncle, I can (cue drum-roll) pattern a robe!  FUN.

Geeky Garters

I just had my costume fitting for Nixon in China.  Verdict:  I look darn-tootin’ adorable in a Mao suit.  The dude in the van who tried to kill me on my bike afterwards is clearly jealous.

In the meantime not having my wallet means I don’t have my swipecard to get into the practice rooms, so I can’t practice.  Sad panda. So all that creative energy has gone into the 18th Century garters to hold up the stockings of which I posted earlier.  Well, most of the creative energy.  The rest of it is slowly losing the will to live as the Snatchy Poltergeist continues to snatch my stuff, and randoms continue to badger me in the street, brazenly ignoring my maximum-strength FOF (F*** Off Face). One garter is now done.  Nothing is more indicative of the creatively-frustrated soprano than the sudden ability to embroider at speed.  Except perhaps the ability to fry the brains of paintball spruikers with my fiery fiery laser-glare.

Enough wallowing.  One of the best things about being an amateur seamstress is I get to decide exactly how historically accurate/inaccurate I’m going to be.  When you work in an industry where you’ve got to be good at taking criticism for everthing you do without taking it personally, it’s sort of refreshing to have a hobby where you can do what you like and nobody can pull your socks up.  I want to hand-sew everything?  Fine.  I want to use a mix of accurate, semi-accurate and inaccurate materials?  Fair enough.  I want to include quirky modern details in my otherwise relatively historically passable garments?  Sure, why not.

All that sounds pretty reasonable right?  So bear with me… I have made one and a bit hand-sewn, mostly cotton (but I’ll fess up to using polyester ribbon), hand-embroidered garters in the spirit of the 18th Century, with an obviously modern twist.   Often the garters of the 18th Century bore mottoes.  Here are some examples:

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These are from the Met, c 1790.  Quite a sparse, neoclassical statement.

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These ones from the MFA in Boston are more what I’m aiming for.

Now, bearing in mind that the mottoes often went across both garters (with half the words on each garter), no points for guessing what I’m putting on mine.

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The finished product.  …….. be with you.  Ringing any bells?

Yes, I am a dork.

Now I just want to make tons of garters with little geeky things on them.  I want a blue pair that say ‘made in Gallifrey’ with little TARDISes on.  I want a black pair that say ‘ass deep in alligators’.  My dear friend Death will get the reference there.  

Anyway.  Here are some construction pics.  I was using a pretty sturdy calico so I didn’t feel like it needed too much reinforcing.  There are also teeny tiny random spangles that I found in my sewing box.  I think they came with a skirt years ago… The skirt’s long since moved on, but I’ve still got the small number of emergency spangles.

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Step one, drawing up the design.

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Step two, manic embroidery.  I used a mix of stem and satin stitch. (Them’s all I know)

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Step three.  Woo yeah!  Gratuitous action shot!  (Just like Indiana Jones, only not)

???????????????????????????????Another gratuitous action shot to show scale. See why I’m so damn proud? 

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Ready to go on the ribbon.

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I turned the edges under and backstitched it down with white thread

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My favourite flower.  Thar be subtle colour differences.

I apologise profusely for the close-up shots of the carpet.  When the estate agent says our house is heritage listed, they only mean the carpet.  I swear it’s the original carpet from 1880-whatever.