It’s been two years since my last costume creation, and the stitching itch finally got the best of me. That and the season of St. Patrick’s Day with its Celtic performances reminded me of my dwindling inventory of handmade gowns to wear–a signature part of my music performance presence.
Most of my previous collection of Celtic/Renaissance gowns I had made during my college work, and many of them no longer fit my rib cage (an inherited family trait, which might help with singing but not with fitted garments), so I had sold most all of that inventory through my Etsy shop.
Remembering Julia Cameron’s remark in The Artist’s Way that a closet full of clothes does not invite new ones, it was time to let the beautiful but unwearable dresses go. Some of the gowns have gone to children’s Shakespearean theaters, some to private collections, some to Halloween parties. It was rewarding to hear the stories and see these wearable pieces of art find new lives and appreciators.
But now with a roomier closet, the invitation was waiting for fresh work. With St. Patrick’s on my mind, I went to raid the stash. But instead of bolts or yards, my stash is made of repurposed materials–curtains, bed spreads, other large garments that can be taken apart and reworked. This time, a swirling green damask table cloth caught my eye, along with a piece of crushed green velvet given to me by a grad student friend who had purchased it for sets in a Shakespearean play she directed. “I’m not going to use this anymore,” she had said. “But I know that you could!”
When I think about building a gown to support my performance work, I’m interested in the overlap. Many of the ballads and tunes I play are quite ancient and require a breathing of new life into them. Transforming cast-off fabrics like a table cloth from the thrift store and hand-me-down set pieces mimics the same process and shows how even that which has been discarded and forgotten can become quite beautiful beneath the artist’s hand.
This process can create serious challenges, such as having to craftily plan out the cutting process in order to avoid using heavily faded parts of the fabric. But just when the artist is faced with new challenges, ingenuity ensues. It’s like building a puzzle where the finished product is in the mind’s eye–transforming flat fabric into a three-dimensional object meant to be worn by a three-dimensional object (the human form) that will move in it.
It turned out that almost everything I would need for the gown was in my stash–fabric, thread, zipper, lacing. But I wanted to give this one something special, something that would make it pop. Searching online, I found a “Middle-Earth inspired” Jacquard trim in beautiful swirling greens and ordered it immediately. The shipping time was oddly vague and indicated that it might not even arrive until after St. Patty’s Day, but I decided to trusty my gut and the process. Two weeks later (well ahead of the celebration day), the ribbon arrived stamped by customs in Turkey. Goodness! Is that where the ribbon was made? Now even this element possessed an interesting story. I cut off the stamp as a keepsake, taped in my journal.
Unlike any of my other previous costume projects, I decided to stitch this piece entirely by hand. Winter evenings for our family are a treasured time for sitting by the wood stove, reading a book out loud or enjoying a documentary. Instead of holing up in my studio with the sewing machine, I could spread out on the couch, stitching away while still enjoying conversation and camaraderie. This method certainly made the process take longer, but the slowing effect actually brought a therapeutic element to the project. Not only was I stitching an elegant dress in a lustrous color, but I was also stitching together a new chapter both in my performing practice and costuming process. There was healing happening, and there was also no grumbling at the old, sometimes cantankerous sewing machine!
Just two days from my first concert this month, the gown was finished–complete with all the trim, velvet accents, laced front, and a matching necklace I made from a pendant that was also in the stash. This was a perfect pairing with one of my beaded snoods and a velvet slouch hat made by Christine Lendved. Here are some images of me wearing it at last night’s Duluth Folk School performance. (Photo credits for the following images, Bryan French).
Welcome to the collection, lovely green gown. There will be certainly be more to come!
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