Stripes on Film part 2 - assembling the dress

Amelia's Letter - The Poster
Hey Guys,

   So, almost exactly a year ago, I did the first half of my blog posts about costuming a film called A Cautionary Tale, and the challenges of working with striped fabric on film. This blog post had a few shares - thanks to the film's director, Neil Oseman, and my frequent supporter Clothes on Film - but I promised to hold off releasing the second half of the blog post until images from the film had been released, so as to not reveal anything important from it too early.

   The film, now called Amelia's Letter, is almost ready for a festival release, resulting in an increase in publicity. It has pages on IMDb, Facebook and on the website of production company Stella Vision Films (also one of the companies behind my film, Night Owls). And so, because of this, there are now lots of beautiful images from the film floating around, including this beautiful poster (above).

   And in the poster you can not only see the lovely lead actor Georgia Winters (who I've been incredibly fond of ever since the shoot), but also the finished striped dress I have been referring to in these blog posts. And so, the time has come to reveal how that dress was made.

   So, where were we? In the last blog post, I'd gone through the process of choosing the fabric, and making sure I'd picked the right sized stripes to stop the dress from appearing to 'distort' when placed in front of the camera. This was the first challenge of working with stripes. 

My costume sketch
   The second challenge was the type of fabric I used. We decided on a stretch jersey fabric, not because it was accurate to the near-Edwardian period (obviously), but because it gave us the largest stripes. And anyone who's worked with stretch jersey will know that it's a bugger to assemble anything out of it. You'll think you've cut out the piece you need correctly, but as soon as you remove the pattern, it's suddenly warped into a completely different shape. The horror!

The 'tunic' blouse, pre-sleeves
    Which is particularly disruptive when it came to my third issue; the consistency of the stripes. If you're making a striped garment, the stripes need to match up and flow across every single seam. Which wasn't too difficult down the front; the blouse (which was assembled using a vintage 1970's men's smock pattern that was already in my collection) didn't consist of many pieces, and lay pretty flat, and the front panels of the skirt were equally straight. So I was able to get the stripes lying perfectly neat and straight all the way down the front of the outfit - providing the skirt didn't 'swivel' away from the blouse while it was being worn.

    But the back of the skirt was a different kettle of fish. It consisted of four different panels - two in the middle, to create the train, and two either side - and these had to be cut diagonally across the fabric rather than straight, but still have the stripes match up at the seams. A fiddly matter at the best of times, but even worse when you're working with rebellious, stretchy fabric!

   After many trials (mostly of my patience), I figured out that, if you mark where the stripes lie on the pattern piece before you cut it out, it'll be easier to line these up on the next piece you cut, which will then create a sense of uniformity when you assemble the whole thing. That may not make sense to anyone who doesn't sew, but trust me, it's a useful tip!

   I also realised early on that I had to prioritise, and that I was never going to match up every single stripe on every panel perfectly. The main ones which had to meet at the seams were on the train - so I made sure those lined up first, and then worked my way back to the other panels. And as you can see from the photo on the right, I think I managed this part fairly well (this photo was taken when the dress was in progress, hence the raw hem!).

  Main dress assembled, I could then worry about the smaller details. The stripes were chosen in the first place to represent the idea that Amelia is trapped, or caged, inside her current situation - a technique I've often echoed in the past with my production design - so I wanted to carry that idea onto other parts of the dress. Firstly, I created 'shackle shapes' on the cuffs using lace and button closings. This is a very subtle, and something to keep an eye out for in close-ups in the film. 

  Secondly, I wanted to create a cage shape with the belt (which would also add a bit of body definition to a loose fitting, art nouveau period garment). Originally, as you can see from my above sketch, I wanted to find a structural cage-shaped belt, similar to a cincher, but I decided this was too modern and so wouldn't look realistic. So I looked at different knots and uses of rope to create a cage shape, as it seemed more believable that the artistic character would tie a simple cord around her waist. This idea worked well for a bit, but fell out of shape the moment she moved, so I don't think I achieved a cage shape there. If I try that method again some time, I'll use loops or even hooks to hold the rope in shape.

The underskirt featured meters of frilled hem for movement; this had to be hand-sewn and took SEVEN HOURS!
Bath time for the dress!
   So, with the final dress fully assembled, underskirt and all (see above), the next job was to make the fabric look believably aged and worn. The first step is usually to tea-(or coffee) stain the fabric, which darkens it and fades the pattern. The finished dress was so big that the only thing for it was to brew a bathtub full of tea, and chuck the whole thing in there, and leave it overnight. My bathtub is now heavily stained, and there is every possibility the landlord is going to kill me when he realises this!

   The final step was to age and distress the fabric physically as well as visually, using sandpaper. The entire dress had to be done, and so I was sat with the it on my lap and a block of sandpaper in my hand for many an hour. But this step was particularly important because not only did it make the fabric's texture look weathered, it also thickened it up and gave it a fluffier appearance, similar to wool. Wool is a more believable fabric for the period than stretch jersey, so this was a highly desired result, and one which I definitely think I achieved.

Compare the two: actual grey wool (left) next to the weathered dress fabric (right).

The finished dress with boots.
   The dress was still yet to undergo its biggest trial, and one which was made harder by the fact we didn't have any duplicates. It concerned the biggest moment of the film, which tested it the dress to its limits, combined with the fact that the film's location was full of beautiful overgrown bits of woodland, all waiting to get their hands on that long train! But I won't reveal any more than that. If you want to see what the costume goes through, you'll need to see the film itself.

   I want to talk about the other characters in the film, and their costumes (one, in particular, caused me a bit of a last-minute panic), and I want to talk about the close relationship between the colour of the costumes and the film's set design (skillfully provided by Production Designer Amy Nichols and Set Designer Anya Kordecki). But, looking at the length of this blog post already, it seems that I have run out of time and space. Those stories will have to wait for another day.

   In the meantime, I hope that you'll check out the Amelia's Letter Facebook page, and follow it for updates on the film's progress. I'm certainly looking forward to the finished piece. If it's anything like Neil's previous work, it's definitely going to be one to keep an eye on!


p.s. want more information about the costumes in Amelia's Letter? Don't mind rambly geeky people? Then check out this interview with me that was recently released:


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