1950s | Dresses

Jimminy Crispies! There’s a Charles James gown in my livingroom!

April 4, 2014

Back in October I posted on here an introduction to a big sewing project I was taking on: reproducing a version of Charles James’ Tree Gown:

Charles James: The Exhibition - Threads

My excuse for tackling this, apart from the challenge of it, was to wear at the 2014 Toronto Garrison Ball.  Which was actually last weekend – yes, the dress was finished beforehand ;o)

This project was made possible/feasible by the generous loan of a pattern taken of the dress’ foundation made by a former curator of the Chicago History Museum for their Charles James exhibition in 2011.

I documented the process at each step along the way and blogged about it, but didn’t post all of those here because I thought they’d get tedious.

But now it’s FINISHED and I’ve caught up with my blogging (that lagged when it got to the stress-sewing point) so I’m sharing here again!

Here’s a brief(ish) retrospective on the process:













And finally I ended up with this:



I cannot tell you how RELIEVED I was that it actually turned out well, lol.  I was nervous about it right to the very end.

If you’d like to follow the process in more detail (there is some fun stuff in there) here’s a link to all the Tree posts.

You can go here if you just want to see more of the finished dress – and the “superhero” evening cape I made to wear with it!

    1. Lol, thank you! Funnily enough, this dress really just employed all the normal sewing skills one picks up along the way. It’s just a more extreme/intensive use of them. I found this project to be more about commitment and patience than special skill. The true genius of this dress is all Charles James’!

  1. Holy AMAZING, Batman!!! That’s just incredible. What a spectacular dress and learning experience and I hope you had a fantastic time at the ball!

    1. Lol, thank you! It was a really amazing, eye-opening learning experience. It’s set my PhD thesis back a few months (that’s what I’m *supposed* to have been working on all this time) but I regret nothing!
      I did have a fantastic time at the ball! This dress is not horrendous to wear, but it is a little more cumbersome than we’re usually used to. I had to sort of perch on the edge of my chair at dinner and the dress did. not. want to fit under the table, lol.

      1. Ha! So I’m not the only one! It took some fussing to get the pleated fronts right, but was otherwise pretty easy. Of course, a lot more things may seem easy now in comparison with that dress, lol. While I don’t have in-process photos for the cape I could probably do a post showing the shape of the pattern pieces I came up with and some sort of explanation of the process.

  2. GAH! So beautiful! James is my favorite couture designer ever, and you did a beautiful job of realizing this dress!

    1. Thank you! He is truly amazing, isn’t he? Maybe one day (probably a long time from now, lol) I’ll try tackling another of his. I love his unconventional approach to dressmaking/couture – a mash-up of architecture and dressmaking.

  3. I popped in for a second, saw this, and immediately trotted over to the WeSewRetro facebook page (with my mouth still agape) to post it there.

    Seriously amazing. Your next cocktail is on me.

  4. I am so happy to see that you did it, and on time too! I was very curious when you announced this at the start of the year, and it’s very exciting to see how well it turned out! It’s amazing.

    1. Thank you so much! There was a period towards the end when I wasn’t sure I actually would get it done on time. I was afraid the draping would take forever, but it ended up going much quicker than I anticipated – whew!

  5. At risk of repeating everyone else, this is incredible! So beautiful and just mind-blowing. It looks just like the original, and I can’t imagine the patience this had to take. Gorgeous!

  6. I am in total awe. You have mad sewing skills. What a beautiful gown! I cannot find the words to describe how wonderful it looks. I live in envy of your creation.

  7. As a costume history nerd, I loved seeing the understructures as much as the finished dress. I often have to reverse engineer design elements on custom pieces, and your documentation of the process is spectacular. No matter how long you’ve sewn, there’s always more to learn. This post inspires me to start investigating this dress: http://www.heatherleebea.com/2013/03/08/design-inspiration-cristobal-balenciaga-1951/ and maybe make a replica of my own soon!

    Will this work of art have a permanent display? I was thinking of how hard it must be to store without crushing the structural elements.

    Congrats on making it through! Glad you had fun swishing that skirt!

  8. Congratulations. You must feel so proud of such an epic achievement. It is such an amazing dress.

    I will be going to see the Charles James exhibition at the MET this summer so it’s great to see a break down of the process of making a dress like this. So much work and technique.

    Thank you for sharing it with us.

  9. Wow. Inspirational. Bet you felt ridiculously elegant in it! Interesting how much the lines harken back to turn the of the century’s own kind of “va voom” silhouette. Bravo.

  10. wow! i am so flabbergasted! I would never know where to begin with a dress like this! your such an amazing seamstress! this is such an amazing piece of work, i hope you are very proud of yourself

  11. Stunning in every single way…it looks like it came straight of out Charles James’ workroom. And I can’t believe you finished it in just four months. I love seeing all your detail work…can’t wait for your photoshoot to happen so we can see a picture of you in it!

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