Tuesday, October 20, 2015

One Shot: Ball Dress 1907

    This remarkable silk chiffon ball dress is an illusion compounding an illusion, surrounded by a mystery.  The actual structure of this garment is fairly simple for the time, but the complex paneled beadwork fools the eye into seeing much more construction complexity than exists in reality.  The other half of the illusion comes from the chiffon fabric of the surface, which, when given an under layer, assumes a weightiness that is only apparent when motionless.  In motion this gown must have had a very grown up, and deeply sexy fluidity to it that its relatively conservative cut doesn't show us here.  And the mystery?  This exquisite object comes to us with an unsubstantiated attribution. We do not know for certain who made it, or who wore it. It has been claimed to be a Doucet creation, the work of Jean Phillipe Worth, and also from the House of Paquin.  Which is it, if it is any of these?  That is a secret only the dress itself could tell.
    The essential design of the gown is quite simple.  The bodice is gently gathered to the center, with no strong structure lines.  The sleeves are simple tubes, and there is a shallow Bertha collar over the bodice. The skirt is a straightforward seven gore skirt, which was the single most common skirt style at the beginning of the 20th century.  So the simple cut of the dress does everything it can to allow the glorious decoration to become the star player.
    To say that the design and execution of the beading is masterfully done understates the final product.  It is sublimely worked in every detail. The position and scale of all the decorative elements harmonize to perfection.  The choice of gold glass beads for the pale amber chiffon is ideal.
    Looking at the garment's construction, that too is faultless.  Silk chiffon is notorious.  It is so light and mobile that the merest breath on it will cause a piece being worked to shift off position.
Typically this means pins; lots, and lots, and lots of pins. And its sheerness means that no stitch can be out of place by even a small amount without being visible.  This dress is assembled with absolute mastery of the textile.  So much was the unknown dressmaker the sovereign of the fabric that there are places where the chiffon appears darker, because there are narrow strips of chiffon that have been appliqued over the main body of the gown.  Having worked with this sort of textile before, I would approach doing chiffon appliqued onto chiffon with extreme caution, and no small reluctance.
    One of the other things that made me want to show you all this piece is that it brought to mind another magnificently beaded gown, the embassy ball dress from the musical film My Fair Lady.
    When Cecil Beaton was designing the film he found an overdress from the correct period.  It was altered to make it more suitable for the film and the prevailing tastes, and an iconic film costume was born.  The same could easily have been done with this superb piece of art and craft. 
We are fortunate indeed that it survives intact

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