The Belle of Amherst

I saw the show on Saturday night – AMAZING! I’ve only ever had the pleasure of seeing Sally act once before, as the Queen of Hearts. She was a fantastic crazy and exuberant queen. And that just goes to show how skilled she truly is, because her performance as the subdued (though passionate) Emily Dickinson was subtle and enchanting. It was an honour to have made the dress for her performance.

Here are some pictures I took of the dress. Remember, you can go see The Belle of Amherst next weekend! Check it out at http://www.amherstglebeartsresponse.org/

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Emily’s Dress: Research

If you’re just joining me on this project, you can read the introductory post to situate yourself.

Before I start to drape the dress, I needed a lot more information! I got my information from pictures of the dress, as well as a WONDERFUL written source: Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing by Daneen Wardrop. She has compiled a lot of sources about the dress into a chapter rich with detail. Included in her sources is personal emails with Adrienne Saint-Pierre, the woman who made the two recreations (one of which is on display at the Emily Dickinson Museum).

I can tell mostly what the front of the dress looks like from pictures. Yet I was surprised to find out from Wardrop that there is no waist seam at all. The waist shape is achieved by a few simple tucks at the side. Another surprise was that there is no button hole at the top of the neck. She claims the collar is supposed to sit slightly open, but I think it more likely that a brooch was worn.

From the pictures, I have no idea what the back should look like! I did find one image from the Amherst History Museum in which the dress is displayed in front of a mirror. However, it provides very little insight. If I combine that image with Wardrop’s description, however, I get a fairly good idea of what’s going on. Wardrop says there are six pleats in the back that mirror the six in front. Now, I would initially assume from this statement that the pleats are stitched like in the front, except without lace. BUT, check out the picture! Can you see that the back lays loosely? You can barely make it out, but it seems to me that the pleats are only stitched horizontally at the waist, and are left to fall naturally (as opposed to the rigidly stitched pleats in front).

Miss Emily's Dress

In some pictures you can see a pocket. Wardrop informs we readers that there is only one pocket, and it’s on the right side. This is where theatre takes liberties – Sally needs two pockets in which to hold props, so the dress I made has two.

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I filled in the gaps that this secondary research left with my own primary research at the Valentine Richmond History Center. I WISH I could show you pictures of the dresses I got to see and touch! They are lovely. Unfortunately, I don’t have the rights from the Valentine for that, so you’ll have to settle for some descriptions. I got to look at four beautiful dresses from the 1860s. Three were very similar white wrappers: . The fourth was something completely unique. It was a wrapper made for a dressing gown to use on the woman’s wedding night. It was truly incredible. Tiny braid trim was stitched in elaborate designs all over the bodice and back yoke. The braid formed beautiful eagle motifs. If you ever get to go to the Valentine archives and you’re interested in 19th century clothing, request to see this dress!

Some of the helpful things I discovered from this: there was no opening in the cuffs that are seen in modern blouses. The hem seams were 2-4 inches. The pleats were top-stitched down. A lot of things were top-stitched down (the trim, cuff seams, some hems). The front of the dresses tended to be closer fitting, and the backs looser with gathered waists. This supports my idea that the pleats in the back of Emily’s dress are not top stitched except across the waist.

Armed with this research, I was ready to start draping! I usually start on the dress form to get the general shape.

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Then, when pleats are involved, I created a paper pattern from the draped shape and cut it up to add the fabric required for pleats.

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At this point, I’m ready to put my mock-up on Sally! And lucky me, it fit perfectly – not a single alteration to the pattern required! That is a costumer’s best day ever.

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