Making my Winter Formal dress

How a dress sketch and ambition created the dress of my dreams.

May 31, 2020

On Feb. 16, I had decided that I would be attending Winter Formal in a handmade dress made by yours truly. Despite being as indecisive as I am, this decision was actually the easiest step in this DIY-dress-process.

Feb. 23, marked the first of many difficult trials in this journey. I was bustling around JOANN Fabrics and Crafts in search of the fabric and accessories needed to create the dress.

The problem, however, was that even with less than a week left to work on the dress, I still didn’t know what I wanted my dress to look like. During many bouts of scrolling through my Instagram feed, I saw dresses that were definitely worthy of being worn to Clark’s “Night in Paris” Winter Formal. Still, no matter how pretty and unique these dresses were, I couldn’t decide which was my favorite.

At JOANN Fabrics and Crafts, I was surrounded by all kinds of fabrics in all kinds of patterns. I may have known my measurements, but I didn’t know what dress I wanted to make. 

Pink or black? Pattern or no pattern? Plain skirt or textured skirt? Straps or no straps? Sleeves or no sleeves? Wrap dress or a slip dress? I had all these questions yet no answers for any of them. 

After an hour of roaming around the fabric aisles, I bought a yard of shiny pink satin and 1/2 yard of pale pink chiffon. In my mind, I would create a satin wrap dress with a chiffon lining. For the remainder of the day, I sketched a design on the underside of the satin and then cut out the design. The chiffon was untouched as it lay beside me. Once the design had been cut out, the only remnants of the fabric were fraying scraps, which were too unruled and too small to be repurposed in the dress. 

When I updated my friends on the dress’ progress with photos of the satin and a photo of my end goal, they shared how excited they were. “That’s a cute color,” said senior Katharine Dubon. “Okay, I’m in love with the dress,” said junior Carol Rodriguez. Now that I had my friends’ support, I was certain this color and design were the perfect ideas. From this moment forth, everything seemed to be looking up for me. 

Time was ticking until Winter Formal arrived and my mom never failed to remind me of this. “You’re going to have to hurry up if you want to use your grandma’s sewing machine,” my mom tutted. It was Monday afternoon. We were on our way to JOANN again to buy more satin since I underestimated my measurements for a wrap dress. At JOANN, my mom and I searched the store for the specific satin fabric, but we couldn’t find it. We found this strange because just the day prior there had been plenty of yards remaining.         

Unbothered by this setback, my mom and I persisted. We adored our initial pink satin too much to switch to another lookalike. No lookalike – or in our eyes, dupe – could rival our first satin. As such, I decided to change my dress overall. No longer would I be aiming for a simple yet chic satin wrap dress; rather, I would be making a black and gold stars-accent tulle dress with layers upon layers of tulle. This dress change wouldn’t scream Paris the way the first dress would have, but the second dress would look elegant and maybe like Paris’ night sky.

From JOANN, my mom and I went to my grandma’s, who has a knack for sewing. There, she took her own versions of my measurements. Once she recorded everything, she took me to her sewing machine – a Singer sewing machine – and using her own fabric, constructed a makeshift top. This top would be a draft since it wouldn’t be totally proportional to my body. This imperfect top was planned: if anything my grandma made used for/on the final dress, then my whole project would be compromised. Regardless, as my grandma sewed silently, I took mental notes, knowing that once she finished, I would be trying my hand at making the dress’ official top. My grandma needed more time to finish the draft, so this is where my mom and I parted ways with her for now. The next day, we’d return and it would be my turn to sew the official top. 

Tuesday evening arrived and with it, came the return of my mom and me to my grandma’s. My grandma greeted us with a light orange top. I was instructed to try it on and give any constructive criticism. As it would turn out, the sleeves fit just fine, but the fabric under my armpits was loose and the fabric along my chest and waist was too loose. I told my grandma this, and she haphazardly added the sewing pins and stitches before informing me that it was time for me to begin sewing.

I was nervous; this was going to be my first time using a sewing machine. However, I knew that showing my hesitance would only further deter my mom, who was worried about me investing my days in this project since it might blow up in my face. For both our sakes, I put on a brave face and sat before the sewing machine. 

As I worked diligently, my grandma offered me pointers and guided me through the process. With only several corrections in my technique, like “maintain consistency in the hemline and neckline!”, I was told I was doing okay for a first-timer. As I worked the machine and adjusted the fabric as I went, I also gave short glances to my grandma’s shirt draft. Hours after our arrival to my grandma’s house, the top was completed. Though it had its minor discrepancies, such as the oddly-stitched sleeve with its fraying end, the top looked all right. It was late in the evening, so we called it a night.

It was Wednesday evening and there were less than three days left until the Winter Formal. At this point, we had created the top, which my grandma informed me was usually the most time-consuming aspect of the dress given our situation. Since the top was finished, we started to work on the skirt. Sometime during these sewing sessions, my family and I agreed that it would be best if the top and skirt were kept as a two-piece due to visuals and time constraints. 

Due to the nature of the tulle, it was as easy to cut out excess fabric as it was to make a skirt out of it. Beneath each row of ruffled tulle was a row of sheer fabric, which is what connected each row to the other. This sheer fabric was easy to cut with scissors and due to its simplicity, it was easy to work with. As such, before I went to work on adding the elastic waistband for the skirt, I cut along the sheer fabric to make the desirable skirt length. Prior to adjusting the skirt’s measurements to match mine, the skirt’s length went past my feet even as I wore heels. Now, though, the skirt was just below my ankles. 

For the remainder of the night, I would be working on adding the elastic waistband to the skirt. The elastic waistband was something I bought from JOANN days prior. I cut out a length of elastic that wrapped around my waist. From there, I tucked the elastic under the skirt’s sheer fabric and folded the fabric over the elastic so that the elastic was totally covered and ready to be sewn. I sewed along the bottom of the sheer fabric just near the ruffled tulle; the sewing process for this took less time than the shirt process. 

One try-on of the skirt proved that I did in fact still need to have a lining for the skirt. My legs were visible from underneath the tulle and this looked unflattering, to say the least. While some people wouldn’t mind having their legs be visible beneath a sheer skirt, I did. That was why I wanted a lining. The lining didn’t have to be attached to the tulle skirt – in the end, this was the case – there just needed to be a lining. 

Not wanting to return to JOANN again, I made use of the remaining black fabric from which the top was made. I sketched a skirt design onto the sheer fabric, making sure to model it after the tulle skirt. Once the lining was cut out, I set to work on the waistline. Rather than using the rest of the elastic waistband – which I didn’t even have enough material of – I decided to create the adjustable waistline by bunching the fabric together, suspending my work with sewing pins, and running it through the sewing machine. For the final step, I joined the two ends of fabric by sewing them together using the Singer sewing machine. 

That same night, I tried on the entire outfit: the top, the lining, the skirt, and my heels. As I changed into the outfit, I was too scared to see my outfit just yet, so I avoided looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. When I stepped out, my mom and grandma gushed over my look. 

“The outfit looks so pretty,” my mom gushed. My grandma nodded and looked at my waist where the elastic waistband was visible. “You need a belt,” my grandma shared. “Your outfit would look plain without one.” She headed to her bedroom, and in less than five minutes she returned with a belt in her hands. The belt, which was black and hand knit, had a big, beaded flower in its center. My grandma put the belt on me and my mom rushed to take a picture of me.

It was the moment of truth. As I mentioned, I hadn’t seen my outfit yet, and I was just going off what my mom and grandma said it looked like. Based on their compliments, they made the dress out to be nice-looking. This news made me excited and as my mom took a picture of me to get a full-body picture, I was even smiling in the photo. 

When my mom showed the picture she took, my smile faltered. Something about the outfit seemed … off. The skirt looked nice. The belt looked pretty. The top – although tight in the shoulders and chest – looked good considering it was hand-made. Individually, the items could’ve looked nice. When worn together, the clothes didn’t look how I’d envisioned them to look like. It could’ve been that I didn’t take my body dimensions into consideration when I imagined how the outfit would look like. It could’ve also been that the top felt uncomfortable and that feeling translated into how I viewed the whole outfit. No matter what the reason was, I didn’t like my outfit.

Not that I’d tell my grandma, who dedicated hours upon hours out of her days to help me, or my mom, who would remind me that it would be too late to restart this process again. So I kept my disappointment to myself as I bid goodbye to my grandparents and went back home. 

It was the day before Winter Formal. Earlier in the day, my friends told me that they’d already decided on their own outfits, hairstyles and whatnot. I, on the other hand, couldn’t shake off the thought that after weeks of hyping them up for my handmade dress, I would arrive at the dance in a lack-for-a-better word: average outfit. This feeling of defeat carried on into the night. 

I was sitting on an armchair in the living room, looking at the components of the next day’s outfit. I don’t want to say it, but I was considering not going to the dance. After all, my outfit didn’t turn out how I wanted it to and this frustration would affect my mood tomorrow, which I didn’t want for my friends. However, l spent $35 on a Winter Formal ticket and it’s not as if I wanted the money to go to waste. Also, earlier in the day, I went to Target and bought a pair of heels that I felt would compliment my skirt and give my look that Paris style.

My heels were a pair of black, suede block heels that had a buckle around each ankle and a strip just below the toes. I wore them just to break into the heels and get myself comfortable with wearing them to the dance … that is, if I would go. I grabbed my sketch of my dream Winter Formal dress and compared it to my current dress.

Then, it hit me: maybe I still could make this dress. I rushed to my room and opened up the right cabinet before taking out my black leotard with thin straps. I put on the leotard then slipped on the black tulle skirt and the lining skirt, all while wearing the black heels. I returned to the living room and opened the bag filled with the excess black and gold accent fabric used for the skirt. 

Placing the fabric scraps on my body, I modeled it to look like my design. There was a long scrap wrapped around my stomach that covered my chest yet revealed my leotard-clad stomach. Since this piece of scrap was so long, I tied the loose fabric in the back into a knot. Two other pieces of tulle scraps were used to cover each of my leotard’s thin straps as they flared outward. 

Compared to my original strapless dress drawing, this dress had straps, which I didn’t mind since these ruffled straps looked similar to my drawing’s ruffled sleeves. Also, my drawing had a bodice that looked like a corset or bustier, and even though I wanted to include this in my real-life drawing, I couldn’t due to time constraints. No matter, because I liked the ruffled, makeshift top I created. 

I was happy with this makeshift look and I couldn’t wait to show my mom. When she arrived home hours later, I greeted her in the makeshift dress outfit. She gawked at my look and admitted that this outfit looked better than the one I had been making. Once we exchanged news on how each of our days went, I briefly mentioned how I thought I needed to get a roll of golden ribbon at Michaels, so I could use a strip as a belt. My mom encouraged me to go for it and I changed into different clothes, went to Michaels, bought the roll of ribbon, and returned home.

At home, I put Feb. 28’s attire on again, along with the tulle scraps. My mom secured sewing pins along each of the straps and the chest area to mark where I should sew later. Once she did this, I removed the dress and changed into comfortable clothes before heading to work on sewing the scraps onto the dress. For the remainder of the night, I was in the living room, manually sewing the scraps to the leotard. 

By 11 p.m., I finished my sewing and I tried on the dress for the last time today. I measured my waist and cut out an appropriate amount of gold ribbon before tying it around the back of my waist. When I saw my smiling reflection in the mirror, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. 

I did it.

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