Photographer: Rupert Russell
MUA and hair: Caitlin Rose
In 2011 I lost a dear friend, far too young. Before she died, she wanted to reassure us all that she was at peace, that she believed in death as transformation. Her memento to us was the mantra “Remember the Butterflies”. So that is what I have done.
When I see a butterfly, I remember her. When a unique Worth dress appeared on an auction site, I instantly felt a connection with it. I had to create something inspired by it.
I spent many hours studying the pictures. As it became familiar to me I realised that a faithful reproduction wasn’t what I needed to do, I needed to be brave and let my own design shine through. I needed a different butterfly! At first glance the original looks quite fantastical, but closer study shows it was closely inspired by the Swallowtail butterfly. After browsing through many gorgeous species, I finally settled on one of my oldest favourites, the Peacock butterfly.
The biggest design challenge was to work out how the texture of the wings had been created. Part of it is obviously beaded, but what about the multicoloured fluffy parts? I consulted the FR Members' group more than once, but got different suggestions each time, at least proving that it wasn’t a simple question!
After toying with ideas such as flocking and couched chenille thread, I settled on the probability that the dark parts were devoré. This would need experimentation and study. It would also involve learning about dying techniques. The original had different colours in its threads. Mine was simpler, but not white! Decisions had to be made on what parts to make. I only had two and a half months, which is plenty for making a dress or corset, not so much for research and extensive beading! More study of the original led me to believe that the wings on the back were a later addition, so in the spirit of this, I would add my own style of wings on the back.
I originally planned to improve my tambour skills with this project, but after the devoré, dyeing, and detailed design, I opted to sew instead. I’m happy I did, as it gave me confidence throughout the project, and I discovered several techniques to speed things up as I went along. Whenever I began to doubt myself and my abilities, my husband inspired me and helped me give myself permission to invest in amazing silk fabrics, keep researching, and spend hours browsing and buying beads. He built me a frame, gave constructive suggestions as to time management, and kept me going by taking on all the household chores he could. He even bought me a professional photo shoot as a Christmas gift, which was the final drive to get it done!
I am incredibly proud of the final gown. I’ve learned a huge amount, including just how much work I can achieve, and to trust in my own choices. I give you, in Memoriam: Madame Butterfly.
I downloaded the inspiration photos in high resolution from the auction website, printed them out and used them as reference and inspiration throughout the project. I also printed out an oversaturated photo of a peacock butterfly to give a colour reference.
The dress is made of silk crepe-de-chine in burgundy, silk chiffon in burnt orange, and viscose/silk velvet, lined with silk for the bodice and cotton lawn for the skirt. The combination of burgundy and orange gave the depth of colour I was after. The gold sash is also silk crepe-de-chine. The back wings are crystal organza and wire. The beads are glass TOHO and faceted.
The beaded design was created by digitally deforming a photograph of the butterfly, then hand drawing onto architect’s paper at full scale. The beaded wings are made of dyed, devoréd silk/viscose velvet. The devoré technique is complex, so I did many small test pieces. The process is detailed on my blog (link below), and learning is ongoing.
I used a double dye on the devoré velvet. It turns viscose one colour and silk another, to turn my white velvet red and black. Then I edged the pieces with strong twill tape, and strung them onto a wooden frame using string (and a sail-making needle) to tension them for beading. The frame was propped on two trestles. The beading process is partly sewn by twos, partly couched. Couching is quicker! I averaged four to six hours a day, with only a few days off for Christmas and family. To prevent complete isolation, the frame ended up in the living room so I could still be part of the family!
The gown is based on “Laughing Moon #104”. I made two practice versions of this gown before the silk one, to become familiar with the pattern. The biggest patterning challenge was to cut the skirt panels accurately as the silk is so fluid! All the pieces are flatlined. The bodice will eventually be boned and have a waist tape. The sleeves looked complex on the original, and it took a while to realise they are simply rectangles which, when hung correctly, give a lovely handkerchief effect.
The beaded bodice pieces are tacked in place, and the skirt pieces are attached with the chiffon to a Petersham waistband, as they are rather heavy! The beads are sewn on partly with polyester thread and partly with metal quilting thread, which is very strong. I don’t know about the longevity of the threads, but everything survived the photoshoot well enough.
The dress is worn over a 1910’s corset I made earlier in the year from the FR article “Story of a Vintage Corset” by Joanne Arnett.The removable back wings were repurposed from an old costume, dyed to match, and organza panels stitched in to echo the Peacock look. The whole dress weighs approximately 1.5kg, most of which is the beads!
It’s been an amazing journey, and there’s always so much to learn. Here’s to the next one!
It's been an amazing journey, with friends along the way. The group vibe within the FR community is fantastic. This feels much more like joining an exhibition than competing. Go for it!