Evening Wear

A Black Tie Wedding: What to Wear

My last post detailed my pool party tunic for the wedding our family attended in Miami earlier this month. The wedding was black tie and of course I created a special dress (when friends and family know you sew, you can’t exactly show up at these affairs in a store bought garment).

Here is the inspiration design and spectacular fabric from B&J’s. I spotted this while shopping in the NYC garment district and knew this would be the fabric to work with.


The black silk taffeta from Como, Italy is a border design composed of hand painted flowers and dimensional black flowers in what felt like vinyl paint. A closeup look shows the brush strokes. This design was definitely done by hand; there is somewhat of a repeat but there are irregularities characteristic of hand work.


Now that I have the fabric, what to do with it? Sometimes the characteristics of fabric dictate the design. I wanted a slim fitting style with fullness at the hem. I did a toile using released box pleats, but it just wasn’t right.


Flaring the skirt using a border print poses problems. The hemline has a distinct curve which causes he border to appear off grain. Layout showing a conventional pattern shaping:


The hem curve may not look pronounced in this scaled down illustration but it became quite noticeable when enlarged to full scale. Solution: break up the fullness into multiple smaller sections which allowed the hem to follow the horizontal line of the border. I had three yards of fabric and planned for the hem fullness to be distributed as 1 yard in the front and 2 yards in the back. Lower bodice sections fit nicely in between the skirt sections.


My custom dress form also needed a little tweaking as this design would follow the back hip area closely. Most dress forms stop at the hip line but I wanted mine to extend down past the low hip. I constructed a new cover and also added two flexible arms. Details of how to modify a dress form in this way will come in a future post.


The dress was designed using a combination of draping and flat pattern design. I applied style lines to the form to drape the bust and hip areas. The side seam was shifted towards the back; I felt the back seam lines worked better this way. The front had a single princess line; hem flare started 9 inches below the low hip and flared to 36 inches in the front, 12 inches in each of the 6 back sections for a total hem width of 108 inches.


The silk taffeta was underlined with silk organza. A layer of black cotton muslin provided additional support and extended from the waist to 9 inches below the low hip line. It was catch-stitched just inside the seam lines. The interior corset was cut from two layers of cotton tulle, one layer on the cross grain and one on the lengthwise grain (a technique I picked up from studying the work of Barbara Matera, the renowned Broadway costume designer). Spiral steel boning is enclosed within the casings. I find the tape used to stabilize armholes in tailoring makes a wonderful thin and strong way to prevent the top edge from stretching out of shape. The white zip is basted in for fitting but will be removed when the corset is sewn into the final dress.


I felt a lining in the hip area would be prone to shifting and might cause wrinkles, so I opted to finish the seams in this area with lengths of grosgrain ribbon. The white boning which extends from the top to low hip is one length of horsehair braid stretched, steamed and zig-zig stitched into another length of un-stretched horsehair braid. I find this boning is flexible yet smooths the seams over the body in a slim fitting garment.


I found a wonderful  embroidered tulle with three dimensional flowers to form the upper bodice and sleeves. An underlayer of cotton tulle was fitted and thread traced for use as a pattern when cutting the heavily embroidered tulle. Having each section with seam lines thread traced made it much easier to place the design so it would be mirror-imaged from right to left sides.


A section of the embroidered edge was shaped to follow the collar. The decorative edge fell stitched in place and excess cotton tulle trimmed away.


I don’t care for the look of just sewing a plain seam when an appliqued seam could make the transition from one fabric to another look better. I sewed the back upper bodice through the layer of cotton tulle only; then hand appliqued the decorative tulle edge.

The front seam got a few appliques to disguise the seam. Working with lace is so forgiving as you can hide almost anything. Here is a shoulder seam before and after a little applique work. I also find it easier to work in sections and complete as much as possible before joining one section to another. Finish the skirt, inner corset, lace section and bodice before attaching them together. It saves much wear and tear on the dress.





Another small detail gleaned from Barbara Matera: raising your arms in a close-fitting dress can be difficult. Solution: add an underarm gusset. I cut a football-shaped piece of stretch mesh (about 5.5 inches long by 3 inches wide) and inserted it in the underarm seam centered between the front and back. Sewing by hand was much easier than manipulating the dress into the machine. It doesn’t show and makes moving so much easier.


Have you ever had a major clothing malfunction? For the back closure  I found a zip with sheer mesh tape while shopping in NYC. It was only available as a two-way zip. I figured no problem, I would just insert as usual and not use it as a two way. Put my dress on; all’s fine. We are leaving for the ceremony and my daughter-in-law notices the zipper is starting to open in the middle of my back. Within minutes the entire back is open. I tried to run the slider to the bottom and realign the coils but no go. My husband asks if I have anything else to wear. This is an out of town affair and I didn’t exactly bring a selection of evening gowns. There is only on solution: get sewn into the dress. Fortunately my husband is an OB/GYN and has a fair amount of experience sewing (humans that is). I did have a supply of needles and thread so, with Holly holding a cell phone light on the sewing (operative) field, I told him to just whipstitch (non-interrupted running stitch), the zipper tapes (incision) closed. I had a backup supply of needle and thread in my evening bag just in case but his stitching held firm throughout the night. I’m replacing the zip with my standard invisible version which has never once failed.


68 thoughts on “A Black Tie Wedding: What to Wear”

  1. Thank you for sharing! What a gorgeous dress, and the story about the zipper made me feel better about some of my sewing mishaps.

  2. You could’ve had a shower cap on your head, and it wouldn’t have taken away a smidge from such an elegant gown.. Absolutely gorgeous. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to hear about the dress form modification.

  3. I think I actually hold my breath when I read about your sewing. You and your talented husband look “Simply Marvelous!” How you know so much and execute it so beautifully is an incredible look inside great talent and imagination.

  4. The dress looks great and what an incredible amount of work you put in to it. You are obviously a very experienced dressmaker, the appliqué on the bodice looks wonderful. You must have felt heart-sick when the zipper failed so handy to have your own surgeon in tow. Looking forward to your custom dress form post.

  5. Your dress is beautiful. I enjoyed reading all the details that went into its design and execution. The story of your husband doing the emergency repair is priceless!

  6. This is absolutely stunning! And jealousy-inducing! I plan to return to this post again and again for inspiration and instruction. The fit! The fit! So perfect – and you look incredible in it! (PS except for the extreme gap in our sewing and design capabilities, I knew we were kindred spirits in a way – both married to MD’s who are willing and more than able to stitch us up!) ~GG

    1. Thank you. We probably have even more in common. I’m happy you will refer to this again. I try and write about techniques which aren’t fully covered in most sewing books and I would have love such a resource when I was starting my journey into the world of couture level sewing. I would happily wear every garment I’ve sen on your site.

  7. Reblogged this on The G. G. Files and commented:
    I’m busily writing a post about fit, fit, fit and fit problems of commercial patterns. Then I open my blog feed to find this incredibly inspirational and instructive piece by my favourite sewing blogger at “Cloning Couture.” I learn so much here from the thought process of the design and from the stories of the technical approaches. And just note how the gown fits her!

    I am so grateful for other sewers/designers whose capabilities far surpass mine! So much to learn…

    1. Wow! What a compliment to have you repost this on your site. I’ve followed your journey through moulage drafting and think you find the time spent learning to draft a custom pattern is very well spent. Even if I don’t draft a pattern totally from scratch, the knowledge is helpful in altering a commercial design.

  8. Hello Mary,
    Thank you so much for your blog. I found you about a year ago when my ASG design group wanted to learn how to draft a three-piece sleeve – and there you were! I was familiar with 3-piece sleeves from my time at Couture Sewing School with Susan Khalje but drafting one from a two-piece sleeve was a great plan for my ASG group and everyone so enjoyed learning from your tutorial. I recently completed the Intensive Patternmaking Program at Apparel Arts and I was so happy to be able to add this to my patternmaking skills. I live in a sewing world of custom shirts and tailored jackets, rather than evening gowns, but I so appreciate your wonderful narratives and there is always a ‘take-away’ that I can use in my own creative endeavors. Thank you for all the details and insights into making this truly extraordinary gown, in which by the way, you look absolutely stunning. PH.

    1. I’m still searching for an ASG group who is interested in things other than quilting. There are a few tailored garments in the works so hopefully you will find something interesting when I write those posts. Thank you for following and I’m happy your group found my sleeve draft helpful.

      1. With regard to ASG, I am very fortunate. I live in the Nashville, TN area and we have several talented garment makers in our group. Twice a year, we do a weekend sewing retreat at one of our state parks; sewing, helping each other with techniques, fitting, laughter, etc.

  9. I felt like I was reading an adventure story with this post, with the heroine being saved at the final minute through ingenuity and resourcefulness with a little help from her Prince Charming! First of all, the dress is a masterpiece. I can only imagine how many hours went into it, but it is amazing both in its construction and in its fruition! I so enjoyed reading about the process of your thinking and execution.
    I certainly commiserate – although that is not really the correct word – about “needing” to wear something made by yourself rather than RTW when everyone knows that you are a dressmaker! But why not when you can create such beauty?

    1. Many, many hours but I do enjoy “slow sewing.” Making beautiful garments that are unavailable in stores is a big part of the fun. I also enjoy reading about your creations; you always use such exquisite fabrics.

  10. So elegant and what a journey! I think you have made every sewist reading this a bit jealous for your having a husband who can save the day with his hand sewing! Now that’s a score! Beautiful dress and thanks for all those details of construction.

  11. You were absolutely stunning at the wedding, Mary! How you envisioned this gown is an art in and of itself. The story of your husband saving the day is one for the books. Congratulations on this amazing garment. I’m honored to have met you 😉

    1. I’m sure not too many sewers have been saved at the last minute by their husbands. It is a story for the books! It was wonderful to meet you also and I do hope the opportunity will come up again.

  12. Oh I was torn between racing through reading this to see the end result and savouring all the details as they added up to make the final show! What a stunning stunning painterly print – just beautiful. You’ve done it wonderful justice with the skirt of many panels too. Beautifully intricate lace detailing along the bodice – I saw for the first time a gusset in action just two weeks ago and it was a bit of a revelation. Such a beautiful creation – thank goodness for your hubby’s sewing skills though, my goodness!!! All that work to have your zip let you down… yikes!

    1. Thanks Melanie. This one required some thinking and he underarm gusset made it so much more comfortable to wear. I read every word of your experiences at couture sewing school. It must have been wonderful to sit and sew for two weeks with like minded ladies.

  13. The only thing more exciting than the zipper story is seeing the actual finished product. And the “do you have anything else to wear?” question is priceless.


  14. What a glorious dress! I am in awe of your imagination, patternmaking and sewing skills, not to forget your husband’s crafty hands. You both look so beautiful!

  15. Fabulous! I really enjoyed reading this (glad it worked out! ) as I always do reading your posts. I want to make a model to my specifications, having altered Missy to fit Helen with your advice, and so am really looking forward to your next posts. I love the idea of arms.

    1. Thank you Anne. I’m working on the custom dress form post as quite a few followers have expressed interest in my method. Having a duplicate of yourself makes fitting much, much easier. I hope the info will be useful. I’ve followed along with your fitting challenges and having such a form might make things easier.

  16. Very beautiful fabric and your construction is so amazing. I would love to have fabric like that but I probably wouldn’t be able to make anything as lovely with it. Thank you for the details. I know a lady who stapled up her pants’ hem at work – your husband did a finer job with a needle and thread!

    1. Thanks and happy you liked reading about the construction details. Sewing was definitely better than a staple fix for this but I can see where the stapler might come in handy.

  17. Absolutely stunning Mary. Thank you for elevating us all, even though half the time I’m not sure what you’re talking about, your posts give me so much joy. and so much to think about.
    I look forward to the upcoming details on how to pad the dress form.

    1. I’m delighted that you enjoy reading my posts. Many of my readers have a fair amount of sewing knowledge so sometimes I gloss over basics. Please ask for clarification or more details if something isn’t clear. I’m always happy to answer any question. Thank you for following.

  18. Your gown is stunning with impeccable construction and fit!
    I was intrigued by the photos of the muslin on your form. My question regards the “sizing” of your dress form compared to your actual body measurements that enables you to obtain a perfect muslin fit without folds, drag lines, etc. I purchased a Wolf form several years ago. Even with two trips to NY, the form’s measurements never matched my body.
    Numerous times I have invested days attempting to pad it equal my body measurements (using left front, right front waist, bust, hip measurements, etc.). Even after doing this, everything from skirts to tops to sheaths appear too large with vertical folds because of the garment ease, measurements or something else (?). I am 5’6″, generally wear a size 6 (store bought) and like a good fit in today’s fashion – skim my body but not too tight.
    In the end, the form does not seem to be worth the time / effort as I always end up doing most of the fitting on my body which greatly slows down the process. I do not have a “helper” — that was to be my form!
    Is there a “happy medium” to strive for on the form’s measurements? I’m thinking the form should be slightly larger than my body to make it easier / quicker to obtain a very good fit. I realize this is not the main focus of your blog, but any suggestions / advice would be most welcome. If I can get the form right / improved, I can enjoy sewing again!
    Thanks very much. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. I draft a custom cover, fit that to my body, and then pad the form to fill out the cover. The cover must fit you skin tight and I take another 1/2 inch out by sewing the side seams 1/8 inch inside the marked seam line. You mention that everything you make is too large. Are you working from commercial patterns? I’ve found the major pattern companies have excessive ease. If you are draping garments on your form, then the fit should be much better, assuming that the form’s measurements match yours. I always start with a form smaller and pad out to the correct size and shape. I have received a great many inquiries about making a custom form and am planning a series of posts detailing the process. Thanks for writing and I hope you find my future posts helpful. Ask for clarification of anything that isn’t clear.

      1. Mary, thank you so much for your detailed response and suggestion to make a cover. That seems to be the most fool proof approach. Your advice on how tight to make the cover is a nugget of information. I’m glad to know that you find commercial patterns have too much ease. I’ve felt the same way but wasn’t sure if it was just me.
        I use commercial patterns, haven’t done any drafting yet and have recently gotten back into sewing after working 30+ years. I start with a size 8 (based on the chest measurement from “crease to crease”) and make numerous alterations. Before I dive into making a cover, my plan is to make a muslin of a princess shoulder sheath dress (with a waist seam) that I can eventually use to make the form’s cover “master pattern”. This will enable me to “double check” that the pattern adjustments are correct (shorten the bodice across the chest, lengthen the bodice below the bust, FBA, forward shoulders, sway back, etc.). I made a well-fitting dress using these adjustments some time ago so this should be a good starting point. Once the muslin fits well, I will transfer the markings to a cover pattern, and proceed to make the cover skin tight. Then pad the form and cross-check measurements.
        If you see any problems with my approach and have time, feel free to let me know. Again, thanks so much.

      2. It seems like you might be better off just biting the bullet and drafting a custom pattern to fit YOU. You need multiple alterations plus starting with a pattern with excessive ease makes for a frustrating experience. I recently watched a Craftsy course in custom dress forms and the instructor advocated using a dress pattern as a starting point for the cover. I was less than impressed with the results. If you use a well fitting dress and pad the cover to fit that, you will end up with a much too large shape. The moulage isn’t intended to be wearable; it’s MUCH too tight. I’ve done quite a few dress forms to fit varying shapes/sizes and always begin with a custom drafted cover. This isn’t a fast and easy project but the time invested will be well worth it. You will ultimately save hours and hours of work when sewing future garments. I have posts detaining this process coming very soon.

  19. You are amazing! Do you have a post on the topic of your custom dress form? I am researching how I can make my own and I would love your insight. Also, what are your thoughts on using a sloper vs dress form?

    1. I did a post April 2014 on dress form padding but am planning on a much more detailed one as many readers seem especially interested in this topic. The first installment will be in in the next day or so. Thanks for letting me know you find my info helpful.

  20. I just found your blog today and love to see how you do some different ways than what you typically find! I have been sewing almost all of my life, and most of it wedding and formal gowns. I decided a few years ago how much I hated commercial patterns and I wanted to actually make the designs I sketched. So I did learn how to drape, my skills have come very very far in the last few years and love making beautiful gowns now. I am in love with some of your techniques though! I have never heard or read of doing the horsehair like you did or using ribbon and not a lining honestly. I always go for the annoying lining. I will be doing some research now before I start working on these 6 gowns I am putting out for the first part of my debut collection finally 🙂 I love love love the couture way of making gowns and spend all of my freetime searching for ways I have not yet learned.

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