One of the most enduring dress styles in the last 60 years is undoubtably the classic sheath. According to the definition in Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion, a sheath can be one of two constructions: without a set-in waist or with a set-in waist. In either case, the silhouette is straight, narrow, and fitted, “shaped to body with vertical darts”, with ease of movement facilitated by a slash at back or an inverted pleat. “Both styles were popular in 1950s and early 1960s. Revived periodically.”
It doesn’t take very long looking at current fashion magazines and websites to see that the sheath dress is enjoying one of those revivals right now. And why not? It is an infinitely versatile style, going from casual to dressy just by choice of fabric. Earlier in the Summer when I was shopping at Mendel Goldberg Fabrics in NYC with Susan Khalje’s “Classic French Jacket” class, I succumbed to purchasing 1½ yards extra of my lining fabric, with the express intention of making a sheath dress out of it. The fabric is definitely a demonstrative print, so I thought the simpler the style of dress, the better.
I have to admit I had a few moments when I wondered if that fabric, which I loved as the lining in my jacket, might not be a bit too much for a dress. Well, too late for any misgivings – this dress was going to happen! Then suddenly I started seeing photos of more and more sheath dresses, many of them made out of very bold and colorful fabrics. Two fashion websites I often visit for inspiration and ogling each featured such dresses:
Encouraged with this affirmation of my idea, I chose my pattern, ordered china silk for the lining (I already had black organza underlining), purchased the zipper and proceeded to plan my dress.
First, of course, I once again sewed up the muslin I had already made for this pattern earlier in the summer. Here are the changes I made:
1) I sewed the neckband onto the body of the dress and treated it all as one.
2) I eliminated the facings, as I was making this dress with couture techniques.
3) I tweaked the fit a little more, to make it more fitted than my earlier dress (which was belted and needed a little more ease).
4) I adjusted the shoulder to be cut a little higher on the arm.
5) I dipped the neckline a little bit, to match the neckline on my jacket.
6) I added a slit in the back seam for ease of movement.
While I love the look, sheen and feel of silk charmeuse, I don’t think it is the easiest fabric to work with. I thought I could make my job easier if, when laying out the fabric for pattern (muslin) placement and cutting, I was able to control the slipperiness of it somehow. I decided to use half of my dining room table, covered with heavy drapery flannel (which is what I use under tablecloths for cushioning). The flannel “anchored” it beautifully.
Then I was faced with a design element quandary. Before I cut out my jacket lining in Susan Khalje’s class, she and I had looked at the fabric with my dress in mind –and had determined that one of the gold “cross” lines in the design should hit at about my breastbone. However, once I had the fabric remaining from my jacket laid out, I realized that was not going to work. I tried every which way, and, with the fabric I had available to me, I simply could not match up the pattern in the fabric across the front and two side backs of the pattern and still “cross” my breastbone. It took a couple of hours, but I finally was able to come up with a new plan – this one to have one of the “cross” details at my waist. This allowed me to have a shoulder detail I really liked, a black field (with cherries) at my neckline, and the slimming effect of a “cinched” waist, effected entirely by the design in the fabric!
Then I was off and sewing!
And, of course, I have to show the dress with its Chanel-inspired jacket:
Once again, I underestimated just how long it takes to make a dress using all couture techniques – even a simple (?) sheath dress.
Was it worth it? Absolutely!