Every year a few of my friends from my ballet school pick a day close to Halloween and dress up in dance appropriate costumes for class; we call it Balloween.
I was made redundant last year and decided to take some off. The problem is that when I have a lot of time on my hands is that when I have an insane idea like making a Maleficent inspired ballet bodice and romantic tutu, instead of writing it off completely I say “well, I’ve got the time.” This is never actually the case.
Work finishing the embellishments ran on into February 2016, but it took me six weeks (two for prep, four for construction) working full time to get the tutu ready for it’s intended outing.
I spent the first few weeks trying to pick apart the key elements of Maleficents costume to see what could be adapted. The most obvious and recognizable outfit is the christening dress with its high structured collar, however, I wasn’t entirely sure if I could pull off the detail and still have an outfit that I could dance in successfully. Certainly it wasn’t going to be a first time project.
Eventually I settled on the ombre velvet dress as the basis for the outfit and accepted that I was going to have to make some fairly significant changes.
Without a shop like Tutus and Textiles where I could buy a pattern and appropriate fabric and notions I doubt I would have had the guts to pull it off, so thanks to Suzanne for enabling me!
The hardest part of the design was working out what to do with the embellishments. I spent two weeks of prep and a good chunk of the toile build time trying to translate the obvious aspects of the film costume over to a ballet bodice; including looking for villain appropriate lace and trying to work out if I could do something with feathered epaulets.
There isn’t much (or any) literature covering the design and construction of ballet costumes; I resorted to scouring the internet for high quality images of tutu bodices to try and get a better idea of what was usual, and possible, so that I could emulate it.
Eventually I decided that I’d have to take a less literal approach; my big break came when I came across a photo of Margaery Tyrell’s wedding dress from Game of Thrones and found Michele Carragher’s description of how the briars are made using Czech glass spikes for thorns. I thought that worked quite nicely with the wall of thorns in and how several of Maleficent’s head wraps are edged with teeth and claws.
Let the games begin
As I’d never made a boned bodice before, or worked with velvet, I decided to make a full mockup (which will be referred to from here on as the toile for ease of typing) so that I could work through any construction related snags. There was one party at the two week to D-Day mark that I could wear it to which would allow me to test it for functionality. That would give me just enough time to make any adjustments before I started on the final version.
I soon learned that cutting velvet is fun. Super fun. I was very glad that it was the top fabric so it didn’t matter as much if it was a bit out because if you so much as look at velvet it moves 6 inches.
One of the main problems that I found (and this was true for the final version as well) was that I’m not used to working with fabric this thick so I spent a lot of time getting stabbed by pins and needles, particularly as I speeded up. There’s a fair amount of blood on the inside of the bodice but thankfully I avoided bleeding on anything that would be visible.
Attaching boning casing to velvet seams and getting them straight is also fun. Even though I hand basted them all I still managed to ruin one by ripping it out to re-sew so many times that I trashed the edge.
I placed the bust seam casing too low, it didn’t give enough support to the top inch of the bodice and it deformed the line at the bottom which gave me all sorts of trouble when I got around to the piping.
The pattern for the romantic tutu called for 25 meters of net and tulle to be gathered in four layers. The gathering itself took an entire day and if I hadn’t had a dress form to work with this is where the project would have died.
By this point I was getting very close to the first deadline and did I mention that I’d never made or installed piping before? I didn’t have time to get hold of the correct foot for my sewing machine but I worked out that I could use the invisible zipper foot with much the same effect.
This was also the first time I’d sewn hooks and eyes as the main closure and I’d had a very hard time getting time to sit straight. I decided to try a heavy duty hook and eye tape instead, I tested it on the toile and it mostly worked so I went ahead with the plan for final version.
Ballet bodices fit with almost no ease, they need to cling to you as you move in all sorts of directions, and as I’d been finishing the bodice in a rush I hadn’t tried to put it on my dress form fully closed. When I did, I discovered that while the bust, waist and hip dimensions matched I still couldn’t close the bodice, it was out by a good 2-3”. I suspect this means a new dress form in my future.
Once more with feeling, at least I knew what I was getting in to cutting velvet this time around. I handled the boning placement in a way I’m much happier with. However, I did get a piping foot and I’m still not sure if the problem is me or it but I was much less happy with the results and with no time to fix them.
I adjusted the length of the tutu layers so rather than coming to a straight line at the hem they are graduated to mimic the ombre effect of the film costume. I like how it turned out, on even numbered days at least, but I think that if I was to do this again with more time I’d try for a dagged edge.
The next day I unpicked 2/3rds of the piping and made/installed new using the invisible zipper foot again. There are some minor distortions in the top fabric as a result (I should have basted above the seam line before I did anything, you live and learn) but I’m much happier with the revised piping.
This also necessitated ripping out the hook and eye tape so it’s a good thing I wanted to replace that as well. I wish I could say that with a bit more practice it was easier to get the hooks and eyes straight but they were a bloody nightmare from start to finish. For the hooks I prick stitched through both layers of fabric to hold them on without being too visible. I’m quite pleased with the final effect but would like to never ever do it again on velvet.
I’d also had to unpick most of the crystals I’d put at the neckline, they were just a placeholder as even though I knew I needed something sparkly I hadn’t quite had the time to pull it off properly. True to form I spent several days looking at options before realising that I was never going to be able to get the variety of sew-on stones (both size and colour) that I needed and switching to beads. I ended up planning a 94 bead monstrosity in four different shades with varying types and sizes which went through several iterations on paper as well as some last minute changes while I was sewing.
I REGRET NOTHING.
One of the things I was able to see from the Great Ballet Photo Hunt of 2015 (which was then backed up by an acquaintance who apprenticed making ballet costumes in the usual way) is that most stone embellishments are sewn onto netting and then transferred to the costume. This is fine if you’re sewing for theatre but I’m planning to wear this so I ended up sewing the beads directly to the bodice.
I also wanted to add more of the briar and figured that it’d look nice if I put loops on each of the side seams as a continuation of the briar running down the front of the bodice. Most tutus don’t have decoration in that position as it causes problems with pas de deux work, but as this is just for me I was able to be a little more flexible.
I dyed the straps to match my skin tone with tea, I didn’t have enough elastic to do a proper patch test but I came pretty close anyway.
And there you have it! Innumerable hours (and bleeding fingers) later I have my very first tutu. I’m quite proud of what I pulled off for my first attempt and I’m planning a second.