My mother taught me to sew when I was very young. She grew up in a thrifty rural community where many clothes were made at home, by mothers and grandmothers, and she continued this. I still have some of the outfits she made for me as a child, exquisitely finished inside and out. I know she made clothes for some of my Barbies as well, but at some point she said, “You can learn to do this yourself.” So I learned.
Aside from the random special occasion I didn’t sew much after I grew up. But when I had children, Halloween became A Thing in our house. My children, even when very young, loved to dress up, and I enthusiastically abetted this. I made gowns for Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. I made Robin Hood, Darth Vadar, Anakin Skywalker, and the Count of Monte Cristo. We crafted bows and arrows from the sticks in our backyard. We painted a chopstick with glow-in-the-dark paint so Harry Potter could cast a convincing spell all around the neighborhood.
But this story is about the pinnacle of the madness: the year my daughter, by then about thirteen, sent me this photo with the caption: will u pls make this for me for halloween.
My agreement to do this may or may not have been influenced by the Halloween costume I always wanted but never got:
Apparently my mother was not as crazy as I am.
So we went to the local Joann store, target image in hand, and bought miles of fabric, lace, various other stuff, and a pattern.
Note that this gown, lovely as it is, does not look very much like the one my girl wanted. Clearly there would have to be some improvisation.
This is how I imagine a modiste, like my heroine Felicity Dawkins (from the anthology Dressed to Kiss), worked in Regency England: the customer would come in and select a fashion plate, choosing colors and other desired embellishments. The modiste would take lots of measurements, then start with a pattern she already knew and build on it. I pictured her sketching, constructing in her head, and then taking up her shears and confidently cutting. She would pin things in place, adjust them, and then whips rows of tiny, perfect stitches by hand. Back-breaking work, no doubt, but creating a stunning gown that would be impressive even two hundred years later.
This is how the green gown happened: I brought home the bags of supplies and put them in the corner of my office. I measured the kid, looked over the size charts, and decided to let the problem of changing that pattern “simmer in my brain.”
Kid: When are you going to start, Mom?
Me: There’s plenty of time.
Kid: Are you going to start today
Kid: Are you working on it? [texted from school]
Me: I started this afternoon. [Decide to cut out part of bodice from the fabric. Chop apart some of the skirt pattern to get the draped half skirt. This dress will end up two pieces, a bodice and a skirt]
Me: See, am working on it! [accompanied by photo below of the bodice. Evidence is important]
Kid: When are you going to make the rest?
Me: You hate it when I nag you.
Kid: I AM NOT NAGGING OMG MOM
Kid: Am I gonna have to wear last year’s dress?
Me: Very funny.
Kid: Are you even doing anything on it?????????
Me: Yes! I made the sleeves! [Did not mention that I sewed one sleeve on inside out at first. Those are tricky little suckers.]
Kid: Im not going out for Halloween this year
Me: Why not??
Kid: I HAVE NO COSTUME
Me: Stop already. It’s coming along.
Kid: R u working on it yet
Me: Yes! (also working on a book due soon, but that matters naught to her)
Kid: Im dead
Kid: You are never going to finish!!!!
At this point, the situation was familiar to any writer: a deadline loomed with no possibility of extension. The computer monitor got pushed aside for the sewing machine and I started working in earnest. I finished the bodice and put eyelets in the back so it laced up. This bodice, with lace-edged ruffles around the top and a ruffled half-skirt ruched up in back, took two whole days, including time to adjust the fit when she tried it on. But it looked, if I do say so myself, fantastic.
October 31: Almost there! The skirt looks simple: a big round bell with ruffles.
For those who don’t sew, ruffles are long strips of fabric gathered up and stitched in place. The picture gown looked more like it had pleats…but there wasn’t enough fabric to make that many pleats. And we’d bought the entire bolt of fabric. Also you have to iron pleats for that crisp look, and that would take a whole day (which was not happening, given that it was Halloween morning by now). I decided to hem the top and bottom and gather it in place an inch from the top. This meant three strips of fabric, hemmed on two sides. I put on a movie and sewed hems for over an hour. My office door got closed because the dog kept trying to lie on top of the hemmed ruffles, which were approximately fifteen miles long.
I made a terrible discovery when I went to work on the body of the skirt: there was not quite enough fabric left over after the bodice to fit the skirt pattern on. Panic ensued. Let’s just say there are some unattractive seams inside this skirt as I squeezed every inch out of the fabric, because it had to fit over the hoopskirt.
Here you can see the skirt with the bottom ruffle sewn on, and blue lines marking where the second and third rows would go. Getting those lines straight may have been the hardest part, thanks to the cobbled-together skirt. I was on the third movie by now, cranked up loud over the sound of the sewing machine. The dog was finally allowed back in (the dog was a crucial part of all my creative processes).
The kid arrived home from school. “It’s not done!”
“And it’s not time to go trick-or-treating, is it?” One ruffle left to go.
“But I wanted you to curl my hair!”
Obviously dinner would be take-out and candy.
By 5 in the afternoon, the dress was done. After all the wailing and fretting, she loved it. She looked beautiful and so happy, all the angst in the past. As we watched her head off with a pack of other kids to collect our neighbors’ candy, my husband put his arm around me and said, “Another amazing creation. But you, my dear, are seriously insane.”
I understand why people go into fashion. I felt pretty psyched when she twirled around and all those ruffles flared out. The bodice fit perfectly—the beauty of custom-made clothing. I’m very VERY glad I didn’t have to sew it all by hand, in candlelight, and my Regency modiste Felicity would probably cry in envy at the cost of this green cotton; in the Regency, fabric was expensive, and narrowly woven, meaning far more sections had to be pieced together. I’m sure a real modiste would be appalled by some of the shortcuts I took, but a modiste would also recognize the trial of working under pressure and having a demanding, impatient client she could not afford to ignore. But the desire to create something beautiful and flattering, exactly suited to someone’s figure and taste, is very much the same as it ever was. I think Felicity would agree.
PS: The best part is, with the right industrial-grade Spanx, this dress fits me as well!
Caroline Linden was born a reader, not a writer. She earned a math degree from Harvard College and wrote computer software before turning to fiction. Since then the Red Sox have won the World Series three times, which cannot be a coincidence. Her books have won the NJRW Golden Leaf Award, the Daphne du Maurier Award, and RWA’s RITA Award, and been translated into seventeen languages. She lives with her family in New England. Her latest work is the novella A Fashionable Affair included in the anthology Dressed to Kiss.
Madame Follette’s is Felicity Dawkins’s birthright; her mother founded it, and now she runs it. She’s fiercely committed to making it the most exclusive modiste in London. The Earl of Carmarthen also has big plans for the shop—he wants to buy it and tear it down, to make way for a grand new boulevard of shops. One way or another, he’s determined to persuade Felicity…not only to sell her shop, but to explore the passion that sparks between them every time they meet.