In March my friend Danielle reached out to me to ask if I could do alterations on a dress she had bought for a wedding she was a bridesmaid in. She didn’t like the way it fit in the bodice and wanted the back to look different, either with additional panels or a new closure. She gave me a ton of creative freedom with this dress but, as with many alterations, there was no way for me to get any extra fabric unless I ordered the exact dress again. I really like alterations, I think it’s a great way to get into sewing and a fun way to try out an idea on an existing piece. Alterations require pre planning around a set of limitations and are a great way to learn to appreciate how clothing is made.
In formalwear it’s important for a dress to look cohesive so adding panels in a different fabric color or material can look really sloppy. I find this especially true when working with chiffon because it’s so light and can be dyed to match linings so easily, so adding in new colors and textures can really unbalance a piece. This is what Danielle needed:
- Extra room in the bodice. The skirt fit beautifully but the bodice was not a good fit.
- A matching mask. Part of the reception was held indoors and everyone needed a mask.
- Extra sleeve detailing. The dress had small sleeve swags but Danielle wanted more coverage for the wedding.
The first decision I made was to shorten the dress from floor to tea length. I think tea length dresses are extremely flattering and delicate, and for a southern wedding I thought it would look really nice and even help keep cool if it was a hot day. This would also give me about 8 inches x the sweep of the dress (which I think was 50-60 inches) of fabric in both the chiffon and opaque lining fabric to work with. I hemmed the bottom of the skirt and the chiffon with a simple rolled hem. Formalwear should generally be finished with blind stitching and rolled hems but I was short on time :).
Initially I thought I would create a corset back, even though it’s not my personal favorite style. We had no time for re-fitting or a second attempt since Danielle was leaving the state just a week after I got the dress! For that reason the fit needed to be adjustable so I wouldn’t have to do extra work last minute if some part of the fit was off. With a corset back I could conserve as much fabric while still opening the dress up a little. The dress already had a center back zipper so it was consistent with the existing closure and wouldn’t unbalance the dress.
I did a bunch of research on 1stDibs for other vintage backless formal dresses. I like looking on 1stDibs for things like this because generally clothing comes from significant designers or is otherwise special in some way, so it’s a nice way to find high end tailoring examples. I found a backless Valentino dress that had a large sash hanging down the back. Even though I wasn’t crazy about the dress overall, it shared a lot of design details with Danielle’s – soft fluffy little sleeves, a simple body, a low cut front and now, an open back! (The original dress here is no longer available.)
With this in mind, I cut open the back of Danielle’s dress entirely, replaced the zipper with a shorter one, hemmed the edges and attached a wide chiffon sash to each side. This way the dress was still modest, because of the width of the sash, but was also adjustable and a little sexy cuz of the open back.
Then I took the remaining chiffon and added more dramatic fabric swags to the existing cold shoulder sleeves for a little more depth and coverage. Danielle had originally suggested a cape-style sleeve, but this dress doesn’t really lend itself to that because of the low back and front and minimal shoulder coverage, so I thought some extra chiffon would be a nice compromise.
Then I made the mask out of just the lining fabric (I used all the chiffon but I also thought it looked better) based on the pattern for a random cloth mask I had and my work was done!
Danielle looked so beautiful in the dress. I was very happy about how it turned out! I think my big takeaway from this project was just that planning and research really paid off. Sometimes “good enough” is good enough – this was not a perfectly formally finished alteration but it was appropriate for the timeline and the dress.