Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Empire Strikes Back

A little while ago, I received a request to do a post on dresses with empire waists. This silhouette is not readily found in most fashion trends today due to the obsession with skin tight,"body conscious" clothing. But the empire waist dress was a very big thing throughout the Jackie Kennedy era, otherwise known as "Camelot." It is a gracious and very graceful look that reminds me of the reason I fell in love with fashion.

Though a few empire waist dresses do make their way onto a catwalk or two, they tend to appear in mass at this time a year when the younger set begin to plan for..the prom! And, think about it...prom night is for the teenager what the Oscar night is to the Hollywood star. Since I have lots of "younger" Barbies around, this is the perfect time to rediscover such an endearing style.

A true "Empire" dress has a bodice that fits over the bustline then releases a very full skirt. A short while ago, I featured a dress inspired by Valentino where I had draped the pattern. I still feel this is the most efficient way to create the pattern since it gives you complete control over the silhouette, however, there are some of you who better comprehend flat patterns. This post is for you.

The pink satin gown has a classic empire waist pattern. Using a tape measure, I measure down from the pit of the doll's neck to just under her bust as well as under the arm. After placing the fro ntand back slopers together at the side seams, I mark those points on the basic sloper bodice then draw out the cutting line.  Whatever the distance is between the underarm point and the waist, should be respected over the rest of the bodice.

For this particular bodice, I have decided to make a square neckline. On the front sloper draw out neckline keeping the side perpendicular to the bottom. Now line up the front and back sloper along the shoulder seam. Continue the vertical line from the front, onto the back for as low as you want. Then draw a horizontal line which is perpendicular to the Center back line. This will ensure the neckline will be consistent from front to back.

For the skirt, cut a rectangle the length of the doll (from just under the bust to the ankles) and as wide as you would like full. For most fabrics this shouldn't exceed more than 1 1/2 times the circumference of the doll unless you are working with a super fine fabric. Otherwise your dress will resemble maternity wear!

Gather this rectangle and join to the bodice. I've added short sleeves.

I imagined some of you wanting to do one of those "Grecian" silhouettes with a softly draped bodice. Go back to first step of the draft from the above pattern and redraw a strapless bodice. It is best that you try this on the doll then make any adjustments for fit before continuing. You can use any fabric, though I've chosen a crisp cotton for the bodice to support the draped design in chiffon. I've used the same chiffon for the skirt, which is about twice the width of the doll circumference, gathered into the bodice. Assemble the dress as instructed for the previous dress.

Go back to the bodice. Cut a strip of fabric, twist it and lay it over the bodice and pin in place. Adjust the gathers pinning the fabric where you would like it to settle on the bodice.

When you have finished, clip off the excess from the Center Back. Slip stitch those gathers over the bodice, tacking down the folds where you want to anchor them. Slide the needle under the fabric and make tiny stitches so that they remain as "invisible" as possible but secure the drapes in place.

My dress wouldn't stay up on the doll, so I added "spaghetti straps" made from small bits of ribbon.

Some of the dresses the 1960's had high waists but were not, technically, Empire waists. They were simply....high waist dresses.

This dress is really a fitted sheath dress with a "yoke" and a "tent." The silhouette is created by adding a gathered rectangle to the seam joining the yoke and the body of the sheath. My tent is 1 1/2 the width of the sheath dress.

The trick is in the assembly. Stitch the darts and the side seams of the bodice. Then stich the darts and sides of the sheath body, leaving the back seam of the tent open.

Baste  the gathered "tent" to the body of the sheath. Then baste this to the yoke and sew together. The first photo shows the three layers stitched together at the bust seam. In the second photo, I flip up the tent and stitch the center back seam of the sheath. The rest of the bodice is hand-stitched in place. I have folded back the center back edge of the tent which swings free over the sheath. A hook and eye keeps the dress closed on the back bodice and another is placed to close the waist of the sheath underneath.

I've also added a velvet ribbon trim to mark the "empire" waist.

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  1. Hi April, these dresses are amazing, I love empire dresses as I'm a huge fan of fasions from the 60's, but I absolutely ADORE the on with te ribbons!!!! as usual you give a lot of precious infos for the self taught seamstress!!!
    and who's that handsome guy in the last pic?

    1. Billa, preparing this post provided an opportunity for me to "relive" my adolescence! Fashions of those times were so wonderful! The guy is named "Lee." Not the Ken doll I wanted, but the only one I could find.

    2. Hi April, I stille wear empire dresses today!
      Any new addition in sight to your guys collection?

    3. Not as yet. But I'm still looking. I plan to stop buying girl dolls and save up my coins to get a great looking guy doll. In the world of humans, female models are worth more than their male counterparts. In the doll world, it seems to be the opposite!!!

    4. yes, it is the opposite, but I believe it's just economics: too few beautiful guys out there so the prices of the really good looking ones skyrocket.....
      besides FR Hommes are not as poseable as the girls.....but I can live with it....LOL

  2. I love empire waists! My favourite are actual "empire" (period) dresses. I'm surprised you didn't use lace in any of the examples. But the dresses and the explanation are wonderful!

    1. Thank you. To be honest...I did consider doing one dress with lace but thought the construction would be more visible with a solid fabric. Also, if I were to use lace, I would have used it in such a way as to overlap the horizontal seam.


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