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The Making of the Ironwork Gown Pt. 1 - Beginnings

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At long last, this is the story of how I made my replica of Worth's classic Ironwork Gown in 2016, perhaps the work I am most known for to this day.
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
Vincent Van Gogh* 
In January of 2016 I decided to attend Costume College in Los Angeles for the first time in 10 years. I would be going to see friends, make new connections, learn some things, and get my personal costuming mojo back.
 
I would need a gala gown. This would be the first proper costume I had made for myself in a decade. That is a side effect of turning passion into profession—it is hard to find time to create for yourself. Even when you do, it can feel an awful lot like work. I decided this was an opportunity for a personal challenge beyond anything I had ever attempted in a single costume. I wanted to challenge myself, and quite frankly, I wanted to be remembered.
 
So I asked myself what would I make if there were absolutely no limitations? Worth's “Ironwork Gownwas the first thing that came to mind. It checked all the boxes. It was one of those ideas that was both scary and exciting, which usually means I must do it. I had six months, plenty of time...right?

Where to Begin?
First I had to bring the project down to earth in my mind. Someone made the original gown—so it has been accomplished once. That means it is not impossible. I think we can almost forget this about the really iconic extant garments! This was just another gown to the skilled dressmakers at Atelier Worth, who were churning out gowns at an impressive rate. If they could do it, so can we, right? 

I began with the obvious problem: the fabric. If I could not find a way to replicate the textile, there would be no gown. 

Developing the Motif
The gown fabric was custom made for the House of Worth. The black velvet is woven into the ivory satin ground. Barring custom weavers (cost prohibitive, if even possible...), applique was the only feasible way I could think of to replicate the rich depth of the original fabric. I had quite a lot of machine applique experience, so I felt confident about the technique. As a professor once said, “Cindy likes that tedious sh*t.” 

My main concern was the motif itself. 

The MET says the textile was woven “a la disposition,” the implication being that the motif of each panel was designed for that specific part of the gown.
Well, I can tell you that it is much simpler than that. 

After studying the photos, I determined that it is just a standard width fabric with a huge repeat. I have no doubt that Worth designed the textile with this use in mind, but they would have simply ordered yardage. The beautiful intersection of motifs, the placement on the bodice...these are all due to skillful cutting. This was a great discovery. I only needed to develop one motif for the whole gown. 

But how on earth do you develop a flat textile pattern at actual scale, when all you have to go on are museum photos with the gown falling in folds around a dress form? Cathy Hay came to my rescue with this link. 

The MET has another colorway? And there's a photo of the skirt
LAID OUT FLAT? This began to seem doable. Another clue: skirt lengths were listed for both gowns. Even better: My waist to floor was about the same as the black and white gown. I was able to cross reference between the two gowns to determine the height and width of one motif repeat. I had the scale, and it happened to fit my height. I began to suspect that the original gown could fit me with very little adjustment. How thrilling! 

I knew that a digitized motif would be best, but I had absolutely no experience with any computer drafting or vector program. I planned to outsource this part of the project. Two commissions fell through before I gave up and did it myself. 

Stay tuned for next week's installment, where I reveal my digitization techniques...
 
[this is part of an article originally published in full on Your Wardrobe Unlock'd. You can read the full version there, if you're a site member]
*(note—a reader pointed out that my previous attribution to Picasso was incorrect. This quotation is widely misattributed online. My apologies—I make mistakes)


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