Photographed by Lisa Wilson of Being Breath
When I first heard the theme for this year's competition I had a very different idea in mind. My original concept was a Victorian fancy dress costume inspired by a praying mantis. I did sketches and then struggled with an injury that put things on the backburner.
When I finally had time and energy to address the project again it was January and I only had a few weeks and a very limited to complete it. I scrapped my original idea (it would have cost too much in both time and materials), and started digging around in my stash for materials and inspiration. I discovered lots of goodies, but the two I found most inspiring were an abandoned pair of stays I'd cut out years ago, and a swath of geometrically patterned green cotton.
When placed together they instantly reminded me of the sort of camouflage favored by insects - designs that break up the shape allowing them to blend in, as well as designs that mimic the plants around them. “Cryptic Coloration” is a synonym for these types of camouflage.
Armed with my concept, a hodgepodge of materials, a copy of the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Clothing and three weeks time I set out to make something that was both historical and whimsical. I had no idea how it would all work out but I was determined to enter something, after years of watching the competition with great interest.
The outfit consists of a corset made of coutil and cotton with internal boning channels, boned in spiral and flat steel and plastic whalebone, a cotton petticoat, a false rump with attached petticoat, a silk chemise, and silk Italian gown. The corset was cut out about five years ago from a "Big Three" pattern and shelved almost immediately to work on other projects. Because my size has changed, I ended up adding an extra panel at the center front and additional lacing panels at the back. Since I couldn't properly fit it until it was nearly finished, the lacing panels gave me some leeway to adjust the fit easily towards the end of construction without having to worry about picking everything apart.
The corset construction is a basic single layer with bone casing construction, with the fashion layer laid on top. I did bag out the bottom edge rather than bind it, though that was an aesthetic choice rather than a construction based decision. The top edge is bound with an upholstery piping. Both the petticoat and false rump were made to the instructions in the American Duchess book but machine stitched rather than handsewn. The chemise was made for an older 18th century stage costume. it's made from silk chiffon with modern seams and elastic at the neck and sleeves.
The Italian gown was also made via the instructions in the American Duchess book. I scaled up the pattern at a local copy shop and figured how much I'd need to add for my plus size figure. I then cut and slashed the pattern to add the extra room via standard flat patterning methods (and lots of Sellotape!). After a quick mock-up to check fit and to mark the lines for my zone front (to show off the corset as well as adding to the overall insect shape), I cut out the bodice and sleeves from silk and I cut the centre back panels for both dress and skirt from a scrap of cross woven taffeta salvaged from the hem of a prom gown. The contrast gave a bit of a pop and added to the insect feel of the gown by echoing the shape of a thorax.
Construction was a mix of hand and machine sewing. Most seam edges were left unfinished on the interior for a period look. I made a fatal error in not mocking up my sleeves - they were much too tight, and even after piecing with what scraps I had left, were unwearable. I was devastated, but after ripping them out and giving it a visual check, I liked it much better without the sleeves. It even gave me a fresh idea about how to finish the look. For the final look, I added a previously styled wig, a headdress I made especially, a pair of fancy fairy wings I'd embellished for a different costume, a pair of striped socks from sock dreams, and my American Duchess shoes.
What was it like to compete this year? What would you say to someone who is on the fence about entering next year?
It was a fun thing, and I'm glad I did it. Having seen sneak peeks of other entries for this year I would say plan ahead! While I'm happy with my entry, I know I could have done better if I'd had three months to spend instead of three weeks.