Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Behind the Scenes of Round Two: Decades Theme
The dress of my dreams ...
This was it - the most iconic dress in history - the style of dress that Madame de Pompadour wore, that Marie Antoinette wore, that I had loved all my life. I had never made one for dolls before, and when the historical Decades theme was announced for Round Two of the American Girl On The Runway Instagram photo contest, I didn't have a moment's hesitation about choosing this dress from 1750 in the portrait by Francois Boucher.
"That thing is going to make my hips look enormous!"
Lisa, our American Girl doll model, was more than a little concerned when she saw this reference image from Wikimedia Commons, here. The structures that make the hips appear so wide, supporting yards of silk and ruffles, are cage like creations called panniers. However, with the lightweight fabric that we were using and the small size of the doll, we were able to come up with a creative solution that worked well and was easier to make than panniers, yet supported the fabric and created the correct shape of the dress. Still, the size of her hips was greatly increased ... don't tell her though ... she might ask for hazard pay.
"Can't you just pop down to the store and get a dress pattern so we can get finished before midnight this time?"
Sadly, the short answer is no.
There are a number of factors to consider when you are making historical costumes for dolls, especially if you want to be historically accurate. Doll clothing construction has a number of limitations that you have to work around; the small size of the dolls, their stiff, straight limbs, their large heads, their lack of flexibility, and the fact that children play with them and would like to get them dressed in under an hour - by themselves, if possible.
In the pursuit of historical accuracy, it is important to choose which aspects are the most important to you, and then figure out how to accomplish your objectives. You can't have it all when it comes to doll clothes; some compromises have to be made, especially if you want to sell the clothes at a profit.
Getting the Historical Look
"I don't REALLY have to wear a corset, do I?"
No, Lisa, you don't - you already have a flat fronted, relatively stiff cylindrical shaped body - so you don't need to alter your created shape to achieve this historically accurate silhouette. If you were a real person, though, you couldn't get the right look without it.
To achieve the right look, have the pattern shapes and seam lines as close to accurate as possible while still being fast and easy to make on a sewing machine, be easy to get on and off of the doll and fit the doll way it should, I would have to make a few changes to the way these dresses were patterned, cut and constructed - but some of these changes carried hidden blessings with them.
The most important things were fabric choice, color, drape (a big challenge for a little outfit) and scale of all of the decorative elements.
"Oooo ... I like this silky stuff!"
I could have used silk, but instead I used China silk - a polyester lining fabric that is very lightweight, and far less expensive than silk. It is lighter than garment weight silk, yet it has the same qualities of crispness and drape and a subtle sheen to it. The higher quality poly China silk has the same lustrous feel as silk, and there were times that I felt like it really was silk.
"Just let me help sew this for you ..."
For the lace, I used an embroidered tulle; it was light enough to be easily steamed into shape without creating too much bulk. I had to keep reminding myself that the sleeve ruffles in the reference paintings really were huge; it was a little hard to give myself permission to make the ruffles quite that large.
The lace accents and sleeve ruffles were very rewarding to do; the only tricky part was tying the tiny little bows out of 1/8" wide ribbon!
"Do we have to have ANOTHER fitting?"
Because of the doll's cylindrical, relatively tubular shape, I was able to simplify the pattern and still get a snug, historically accurate fit in the bodice, with the back of the armscye moved towards the center back, and still be able to set the sleeves in by machine. The sleeve shape had to be fine tuned about 4 times before I achieved that ultra snug fit yet still had room for the doll to have a full range of motion. I made a number of muslins before we had a winner, but when it was finalized and each tricky curve was digitized and double checked, the result was a fairly accurate looking result that was easy to machine sew and get on and off of the doll.
"My hair is going to be bigger than my hips!"
Lisa's hairdo was made from two different wigs that originally came from porcelain dolls. The curly wig was damaged by hot glue where the original doll had a hat glued onto the wig. It was sad because the hair was still so lovely! However, I was able to cut it apart and use it for Lisa's towering coiffure.
I used a smaller, plain straight blonde wig and made a little bun out of it. When I added it to the curly wig, Lisa looked complete.
"This dress makes it hard to get around - and do we really need all of this clutter?"
Round Two was a luxurious ten days long, so I had time to do a test layout of the set and see how it looked with the dress muslin. I love how the horse looks with Lisa - I saw that horse in a thrift store and he just had to come home with me. After finding the horse, I just kept collecting gold items until I had a happy family of props, and then put them together with a gold silk curtain and it looked great together.
The big challenge was that those reference paintings are crammed full of props - pillars, pianos, books, curtains, shelves, scrolls - heaps and piles of props just all over the floor and falling off of every horizontal piece of furniture (of which there are a lot). You would think that those Georgian painters got paid by the pound, considering how they accessorized their paintings.
Thankfully, it was an afternoon shoot - I was grateful not to be finishing up at midnight. I used three point lighting and was happier with the exposure in my photo this time; this is only my third doll photo shoot, and now that I wasn't as rushed, I actually had fun. It was hard to take my camera off of the tripod and walk around with it, making a change here and there - usually I am so scared of the photography part that I lock the camera down on a tripod, grab focus, snap a few photos and run.
I had a surprising amount of fun with this shoot though - even enough fun to do something silly with the kitty and grab a selfie. No matter how I do in the contest, I have gotten so much out of it so far - I am really learning to be comfortable with taking photographs and am having a great time getting to know the other people in the contest. It is only through practice that you get good at things; and being able to be in multiple rounds of the photo contest is giving me lots of chances to practice!
Victory! On to Round Three - Nature Theme
The results are in - and it was another win! By 3 votes, this was the winning entry in Round Two.
The next round will be harder - the theme is Nature. Read the post here.