Dissecting the Prom Dress (With a Janet Arnold Extra)

I can’t help holding on to well-loved clothes, even those that I could never wear again.  Take this one – my favorite ball gown when I was 16-17.  I wore it once when I was 19, but I knew it was already too young for me.   I fell in love with this gown with its tone-on-tone embellishment and box pleats.  Ordinary, perhaps, but I always felt like a duchess wearing it.  I had rather short pixie hair at the time, once a hairdresser put it all up in pin curls and rhinestones to great effect.


 Lila and I ripped her apart today so I could use the skirt to line my Deco Coat.  I took some interesting pictures.  When ripping up a garment to recycle the fabric, first consider where to start.  Sometimes I start with a hem.  This time I decided the best course of action lie in ripping the zipper so I could separate the bodice and the skirt.

The back before ripping.

The bodice is constructed separately from the rest of the dress.  It is secured at the top edge, with little thread chains to keep it from twisting.  Snip.

End of the invisible zipper seam.  I always check this on nice RTW, given half the chance.  I learned to make the seam below the zipper just like that, the ends of the seam overlapping with the skirt seam starting a little out from the end of the zipper stitching.

Inside view of the bodice lining lining.  It is actually a piece cut like the bodice but holds up the skirt.  I like the idea of it, and I like the little stitched in yoke along the top edge of the bodice.  What is in that yoke?

Fusible woven interfacing, stitched in place for the sake of everything sitting well.

The bottom layer is the complete bodice, then the layer that was connected to the exterior skirt, then the layer attached to the skirt lining.  The skirt lining is kind of boring, just acetate sage green skirt lining with a tulle ruffle.

The original hem.  I took it up about 6″ to wear, but left the excess fabric.  I ripped out my old hem to see this one.  Can you see the stitches?  Me neither.  How did they do it?

Ha!  Mono-filament thread.  Like fine fishing line.  I never used that on my blind hems before, but I might try it some time.   It seemed to have some sort of chain stitch involved, so I’m guessing the manufacturer has a special blind hem mono-filament machine.  Good for them.

I sliced off the top seam, threw the lining and tulle to Lila to play with, and attacked the box pleats.  I discovered a tiny piece of confetti from some party and had to smile.  Note to self: tell mom the dry cleaner is not as great as we thought.

I left the side seams and pressed everything.  All seams were overlocked and pressed open.  Look at the mad filth picked up with my hem.  Tell mom to find a new dry cleaner.  I’m not entirely sure how to get that out, I figured I’d cut the pieces and then deal with the filth since my timid stain removal experiments came to nothing.

Note the tiny, tiny dart in the hem.  The whole edge has them at regular intervals.  This is a stiff, thick poly satin, no ease in it.  Thank you, I’ll store that in my bag of tricks for how to ease a hem on an ease-less fabric.

The cashmere doesn’t look it’s best here, I’m not sure why.  Must get the hang of my new camera.

Back pieces laid out on the satin.  I realized before cutting that my back bodice lining needed a pleat and I had to cut the fronts differently.  I desperately wanted to slap the pieces down and cut around them.

I have to admit, my cutting today was decidedly “I want to get this thing cut out already so quit being a perfectionist and farking slice it already.”   Surely, surely I will live to rue that attitude.

For the record: It is important to maintain grain line on a lining just as much as the exterior.  I have a pretty black four gore bias skirt with a straight of grain lining.  The skirt just doesn’t fall in bias ripples the way it ought, I know it is the lining.  I’m a little worried about the sleeves on my bodice, they aren’t completely cut on the bias because the ends of the sleeves cross a seam.

With this lining fabric, I worked out the grain on the skirt by using my knowledge of how skirts are cut.  CF is perpendicular to the ground and straight of grain.

At first I feared I wouldn’t have enough green satin, so I cast around for something to use for some of the other pattern pieces, probably the bodice pieces.  (Wouldn’t that look cool, green satin on the bottom, ivory on the top?)

I have the ultimate teenage UFO, picked up my last trip home: $300 worth of silk chiffon and satin, and a whole lot of Janet Arnold.  (I slung coffee after school in those days)  Dreamstress made a devastating, gorgeous version of the same dress. I hesitate to link to it because it’s so incredible.  This is what the dress ought to look like.

The skirt, sans train.  It is the same weight as my sage satin, but this is the real stuff.  Laid out next to each other on the living room floor, the difference smacks you in the face.  Poly has nothing on silk. 

I spent a long time draping and beading the bodice, I was deep into theatrical costume at the time.  So deep in fact that I made 15-20 corsets (some ungodly number) for the theatre at one time.  This came in the middle of my Janet Arnold dress and took precedence.  Then my days of going to formal dances were finished so I packed this up, promising myself I’d finish it properly one day.  I think I meant to finish the beading and somehow magically finish the inside of the bodice.   Honestly I don’t remember but I’m sure the plan lives in one of my notebooks around here.

One layer ivory silk chiffon with black sequins, and the skeletons of my peacock feathers (instead of laurel leaves).   I ran out of time and steam.  I put two layers of black tulle behind this for structure, and the whole thing went over the brilliant ivory satin.  I have a glorious piece of black silk velvet (hard to come by) for the sash.  I always intended this to be a strapless gown.

I know I won’t finish this.  I’m casting around for ideas on how to use the incredible fabrics.  Use the chiffon for some 30’s blouse?  Make a smashing skirt?  Clean up the bodice and make an eccentric cocktail or dinner dress?

Writing about Janet Arnold makes me want to dig out that book and figure out why I NEED to make the chiffon 1920’s Vionnet with embroidered rosebuds and floating shoulder ties.  I toyed with making that one as my wedding dress (blue not black like the historical sample), but the 1950’s pinafore won that battle…  That’s all another story.

As for the Deco Coat, I decided it is a very soft, feminine, drapey wrappy coat.  I’ll find a way to work some of my tone-on-tone embroidery into the lining.  I decided against interlining it with flannel to keep it from bulking up.  (I could be persuaded otherwise if y’all think interlining is wiser) The cashmere is a hefty mid-weight and the satin is rather thick.  Much thicker than ordinary lining fabric.  I might use flannel to interface the facing rather than haircloth, to make it a little softer?  I do so love haircloth, though.  What do you think?


  1. Congrats!! I love seeing a dissection. I especially found the hem interesting — I use that monofilament thread all the time for attaching trimming but I would have never thought to use it for construction, I don't know why. actually, I think because of it's shininess — which wouldn't show on satin! It will make a lovely lining. What you will do with those gorgeous pieces of fabric and beading I don't know, but you've got to do something other than let them languish! 30s blouse?I don't know that you will need interlining…the cold summers don't actually get that astoundingly cold where you are, do they? I find I prefer for much of the winter here to have a slightly lighter coat and add a sweater if needed rather than find myself overheated. And I might test the haircloth….it seems like it might work against your drapiness.

  2. I can't believe you did all that work on a laurel dress! Soooooo much hand beading! It's so impressive!And thank you so much for linking to my blog (blushing).Also, I love the description of the dress "the ultimate teenage UFO". So true! Mine is a quilt…

  3. Wow. Impressive teenage project. Mine was a very simple dress, but in beautiful and awfully expensive silk. The most expensive project I have ever made, and I was 16 and had made the pattern myself. The dress turned out surprisingly well, but slipped in the seams because the silk was fragile and I had never heard about underlining. Perhaps I should find it again and make something of it. Thanks for an inspiring post.

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