progress report: the cocktail dress

When it comes to my sewing projects, I don’t dilly dally. I usually have the vision for something long before the sewing actually begins, and it’s easy for me to think of appropriate garments for specific occasions or seasons. There are small changes or adjustments that happen along the way, but it’s usually smooth sailing. However, every once in a while, a challenge comes along that makes me question all of that. Really makes me go, “Wow, Emily, do you have any idea what you’re doing . . . at all? Get it together, girl!” The cocktail dress I’m previewing in this post is that very project. It sent me into overthink-it-all-day-and-change-your-mind-a-million-times-oh-good-heavens-what-are-you-doing overdrive. I have a good laugh thinking about all the hemming and hawing that went down last week trying to figure this thing out. Sleeves? No sleeves? Super full skirt? Something sleeker? Whatever you do, don’t mess it up!

When I first posted about our Florida trip, I mentioned that I still wasn’t sure about the direction for the cocktail dress. The afternoon after that post went live, it came to me. I remembered a pattern from my stash, and everything seemed to fall into place.

I spent the better part of the next day excitedly cutting out the pattern and sewing a muslin for the bodice. I wanted to make the dress with the faux wrap and full skirt (view A, the gold dress). It’s gorgeous, right? I made a couple small changes to the pattern after the first muslin and quickly made another one to make sure the adjustments were correct. The fit was good and the design was great, but something was missing. Do you ever have a feeling that something is just off in the middle of a project? That it’s just not sitting well with you? I couldn’t get past how “young” I thought the dress was going to look. I kept looking at my fabric (the one constant throughout this process; I love that fabric and I was going to use it for this dress no matter what) and thinking that something about the dress felt too “sweet”, too “precious.” A cocktail dress can be a lot of things–and I’m already going against the “typical” look of a cocktail dress here–but precious and sweet are not two words I associate with a cocktail dress. So, I went with my gut and I scrapped it.

Side note about that pattern, because a few of you have asked me about it. I love it a lot, and I have every intention of making it later this spring/summer. I really liked the fit, and I think it will be a fun, girly dress. Maybe in linen? Anyway, I’ll revisit it later this year.

During the couple of days I spent thinking about whether or not to put sleeves on the dress (I am more comfortable in a dress with sleeves), I sewed a sleeve on the muslin to see if I liked it or if it fixed whatever was off about the dress. That sleeve sealed the deal for me. I was convinced I would look like a toddler in a big pink and yellow floral dress with sleeves and a bow around the waist, walking around the event among all the adults in their grown up clothes sipping their sophisticated cocktails, everyone wondering who on earth invited the child to the party.

My original idea for this dress was a mix of patterns, a hybrid, if you will. I’m still obsessed with the skirt I made in January using Butterick 6129, so I knew I wanted to make that again. For the bodice, I kept going back to the idea of something simple, but well fitting. I wanted a sleek silhouette and a full, but not huge, skirt. The fabric is far too pretty to waste it on a simple sheath dress.

Not to get too off subject here, but here’s my contribution to the dressing-modestly-and-still-looking-hot conversation: the fit of your clothes is where the sophistication comes into play. If you’re more comfortable in something that covers more skin, just make sure it fits you well. You can play up your assets and the things you love about your body in a way that highlights them without giving away the farm. No one likes the girl who gives away the farm.

So, back to the dress. I drafted a simple bodice using my slopers, and adjusted the B6129 skirt to match it, making sure the pleat on the skirt would line up with the princess seam on the bodice. I knew I would be interfacing the dress for additional support and to build in extra volume, so I also made sure to add extra ease around the waist to accommodate the additional bulk created by the extra layer.

This fabric is a medium weight poly/rayon brocade blend with beautiful drape. There isn’t quite enough volume there on its own, so I planned to encourage that a little bit. Interfacing the skirt and hem band pieces added just enough support and stability to give it the extra oomph I wanted. For the bodice, I interfaced muslin and basted the fashion fabric to that. I wanted to sew four or five yards of netting into the skirt, but the interfacing did the trick, eliminating the need for the netting.

I cut the interfacing out of the shoulder, princess, and side seams to keep those areas from getting too bulky.

In an effort to save fabric (I have enough of this gorgeous brocade left to make a pencil skirt!), I decided to cut the hem facing out of a lightweight coral twill I have leftover from my business days. I had about 3 yards, and I cannot believe how perfectly it matches the coral in the brocade. I like using a contrasting or coordinating color for a hem facing sometimes, because it’s a fun surprise when you get a little peek of the color. Plus, I’m all about sewing a little personality into your garments. That makes it fun!

Here you can see the interfacing on the skirt and hem band, and the still-to-be-finished hem facing in coral twill. I may or may not insert horsehair braid into the hem facing to help the skirt stand out even more. Still thinking about that.

I went with an invisible zipper, and I also drafted a facing for the bodice. I’m usinng bemberg rayon to line the bodice, and cotton to line the skirt.

For the hem band, I used the wrong side of the fabric to introduce some visual interest on the skirt.

So, I’m in the homestretch now, and I’ll have this finished in plenty of time to take to Florida next week. The takeaway of this post? Listen to your gut and trust your instincts. Investing the time into creating a quality garment that you love is worth it every time. I’m so glad I changed course and really thought what type of garment would be best for me and this occasion. I couldn’t be happier with the dress, and I can’t wait to finish it and wear it soon.

If you have any great stories about similar adventures in sewing that made you want to pull out your hair, I’m all ears!

Happy Sewing!


  1. Judit Dee | 4th May 17

    I am totally in love with this dress! Wow Wow Wow!

  2. Janelle | 6th Mar 17

    Fascinating. I have quite a girly style, but at 46 sometimes I can go a bit far with it and get that toddler dress feeling myself, or as my Australian sheep farmer grandmother used to say “mutton dressed up as lamb”. Or sometimes I go the other way in my preference for modesty and get a bit of a queen mother vibe going on. Both require a but of creative thinking to tweak the look into something that works better. For the queen mother look I’ve found skirt length makes a huge difference, even a change of 1/2″ can be a huge improvement. For the too girly look that’s where fabric choice comes into play, and it’s something I’m getting better at the longer I sew, having the eye for matching pattern to fabric. Your eye is very very good. I have that Butterick pattern and I agree it would work well in a solid so the design elements stand alone and undistracted. I’m planning navy because there can never be too much navy in my wardrobe.

    • Emily | 8th Mar 17

      This comment made my day, and it made me laugh! I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with a “Queen Mother” look sometimes! It’s a fine line, dressing appropriately and modestly, while still looking like a grown up. And a not-dowdy-and-frumpy grown up! You’re right about skirt length. It’s the little things that make a big difference! 🙂

  3. Elizabeth | 6th Mar 17

    You will be the best dressed person at the party hands down! Do you have any book recommendations or internet links on how to draft your own slopers? I went to school for Interior Architecture and Design so drafting and figuring out all the measurements isy bread and butter which leads to wanting to draft my own slopers. I just don’t know where to start!

    • Emily | 6th Mar 17

      Oh boy, I hope so! I think the dress is coming together nicely, so fingers crossed I love it in the end as much as I do right now. 🙂 So, there’s a section in the pattern making book I use that explains how to draft your own slopers. The book is Patternmaking for Fashion Design. It’s the in Good Reads post from last week. I ordered a set of slopers years ago, so other than the one time in college I had to draft them as part of a class assignment, I haven’t done it. Looks like Craftsy has a class on making slopers–I’d start there! With your background, I bet you won’t have any trouble at all making a set for yourself! Best of luck!

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