The Anatomy of a Little Black Dress

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Yeah, I can do simple

Not that simple...

Not that simple…

A friend asked me to partake in a special project he is overseeing, and asked if I’d like to make something for one of his dolls to wear. He sent me this photo of Catherine Deneuve wearing a little black dress by Yves St. Laurent. I was intrigued for a number of reasons, which I’ll divulge herein…

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And before you start sending me tons of pics saying, “Here, Tommy – make this!” Please refrain. Reproduction of existing designs is not something with which I have the strongest of skills. But like others that are able to do this much more effectively than I can, one can easily learn and find inspiration in re-creating something else. There is no copying in miniature doll clothing – unless someone has made a garment, line-for-line, like another miniature – and even then, those that have the ability to do so don’t really care if someone else has made a Christian Dior Bar Suit already – they either want one, too…or they have a client who does. Whatever – it only becomes a problem when someone copies a miniature outfit, manufacturers it – and sells the design as original. This isn’t re-casting – it’s clothing design, and the same rules don’t always apply. There are boundaries, of course…as there are exceptions. For example, if I made a one-of-a-kind outfit that was remarkably similar, if not exactly the same, as a manufactured doll outfit or for something like say – a Chalk White Sybarite, which is already one-of-a-kind (and assuming I could even pull off the skills needed for its execution) – that’s a different story.

First drape in rayon jersey with interfacing...

First drape in rayon jersey without interfacing…

Copying fashion design is a blurred line, but it’s being refined – and it’s largely accepted in the doll world. I am certain the original creator of the design, if aware of the copy, is none-too-happy – but the truth is, you can’t enforce it, really; and even then, who has the money to try? Most designers I know are flattered when another is inspired by their creations – and much like the repainters, they will even share techniques all in the name of community. Look, we’re just doll collectors who are playing with our dolls…and unless someone is actually trying to do it better than another (which does happen), it’s just doll play.

First pattern...yeah, it's messy...

First pattern…yeah, it’s messy…

In the 1967 film Belle de Jour, Catherine Deneuve wears Yves St. Laurent classics to the nines. Every costume in the story builds a fantasy wardrobe harking to clean design and precise execution. Sounds like a great challenge, yes? I agree wholeheartedly – what I loved about this dress was its simplicity. Had I seen more detailed images of the dress, I would have known more about its construction (and varied my own interpretation of it). But after seeing an image of one dress version, a good friend told me it was a knit – and that excited me even more. I don’t have much skill with knits…so I said yes to the challenge. That’s the beauty about being challenged – you see an opportunity to sharpen your skill set – because in the simplest of designs, precision is key.

Refining fit...

Refining fit…with interfacing inside…

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Second pattern…this was used for the final…

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Adding the collar and relaxing the darts with center front slash basted in place…

The first step was to create a pattern. I used a rayon jersey backed with a fusible knit interfacing for the toile. Knit fabrics have many admirable qualities when it comes to sewing: edges need not always be finished, they have a stretch that gives appreciable ease in curves and bias lines, and they can be very forgiving in terms of stitch removal. On the other hand, each of these qualities can also send you spiraling toward an uncertain sewing hell: not all knits press well, they can stretch out of shape, and if you rip a chain in the knit when trying to remove a seam…the resulting hole can be easily pulled further into the fabric (like a run in your stockings).

Testing plackets...

Testing plackets…

The fibers were also a challenge. My guess is YSL used a silk or rayon lightweight weft knit. I had a great rayon jersey I used for the toile…but couldn’t get it in black – and dying just wasn’t an option as it is difficult to get true black. “Oh well, my fine fabric store has loads you could choose from!” I’m sure – and thank you – but there was a time crunch, and the fine fabric section of my backwoods Joann’s offered one, and one option only in a matte black knit – of polyester, no less. Yeah, you heard me – good ol’ reliable polyester – in a double-knit. The fabric that has been reduced to most senior citizens’ lounge wear and children’s Halloween costumes was my only option. I can’t make this shit up…

Cut and placed...I'm very OCD that way...

Cut and placed…I’m very OCD that way…

I liked everything about this fabric, though…save one: It does not press well. Even with a pressing cloth, too much heat or steam would cause shiny surfaces at the seams. It had enough body to stitch well, but I had to use interfacing on the outer shell to get the placket and darts neat. The overall result was pleasing, but I never could get those pressed seams as flat as I would have liked.

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Center front with darts…

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Slashed…with placket pieces on sides…

Now…scale plays a large part in this, too – even with a more pliable material. For example, a manufacturer could make a dress like this easily by omitting a lining, using only neck facings – and that ever wonderful commercial contraption – merrowing, which can be done on a Serger – but not the one I have. Besides…I don’t have any black thread for it (stainer) – so I opted to line the whole damn thing. Gee…if we could only make stuff like the manufacturers do. We can, but we don’t always have the same commercial equipment.

Underlap of placket...

Underlap of placket…

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Hand-stitching in place…

Completed underlap...

Completed underlap…

And then there is that damn placket. The last placket I sewed was in 1983 for a clothing construction college class – it was beautiful, and yes, you would have been impressed – but sadly, that shirt does not survive today. So it became necessary to review the various forms of plackets, and practice one that would work best with this design.

Oh now...that helps...

Oh now…that helps…

This close-up of the actual dress would have helped greatly – as it’s not the same placket you see in the mannequin dress at the beginning. There is also the issue of exactly where you will place the slash line – I’ve seen it done a number of ways: you can place it in the center, and have the placket overlap off-center…or you can align everything in the center front, leaving your actual slash mark slightly off-center to account for symmetry.

Overlap pattern piece in place...

Overlap pattern piece in place…

Completed overlap...

Completed overlap…

How the placket closed ultimately would be the answer for me. Since knits have stretch, it’s unlikely I would be able to get a perfectly matched overlap using hooks/eyes or snaps. A zipper would be the best solution, but I could just see the bulk of a miniature zipper working on this scale – and placing a zipper in the back meant I would have to modify the collar, thereby breaking the clean line of a beautiful back. See? Much goes into miniature sewing decision-making…

Shell and lining...

Shell and lining…

Installing lining and collar...

Installing lining and collar…

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Decisions, decision…agony. Since I didn’t have time to try the different solutions, I went with my gut and opted for an off-center placket front, which would offset the lines of the underlap portion when pulled snugly – using interior hooks and eyes, so snaps or other hardware wouldn’t be seen from the doll’s left side. Human scale designers don’t deal with this kind of crap, because in their scale, things like these are more cleanly concealed. Not in 1:4 scale (or 16 inch dolls) – and not with double knit polyester.

Hand-stitching the lining  down at the placket...

Hand-stitching the lining down at the placket…

The off-center placket bothered me a little during finishing…but I warmed up to it when I saw it on the doll, and in relation to the silk collar meeting cleanly at the neckline. Is there room for improvement? You bet your softly sweet and supple ass there is…and now that I have a pattern, I will try it again with a better knit more suitable to this scale. But the end result was nicely accomplished, and I re-learned so many things about using knits in miniature sewing. Gee, and it only took Deneuve, St. Laurent, and my Viking to do it.

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Readying sleeves…

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“I have hands…”

Sewing the belt...

Sewing the belt…

Placing cuffs...

Placing cuffs…

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This is where lack of appreciation in even the most simplest of things can be detrimental in doll collecting, and it’s a theme I use frequently: those that complain about things being too expensive without any working knowledge of what it cost to design and manufacture products in miniature. More often than not, misinformed collectors think that just because it’s made in mass quantity in a low cost of labor, that it should be pennies to make such things. This rational is conditioned upon the selective memory and perceived quality of things that ‘look’ expensive…when they don’t really know what in the fuck ‘good quality’ means. Case in point, if this little black dress hemline was extended to the floor, a collector is more likely to pay more for it because it’s now a gown. Even though the added cost in material and 4 inches of sewing thread at the side seams adds little to the actual production cost of this dress. The labor to make either would be virtually the same, differing only by mere seconds.

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Marking hooks and eyes…

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That’s all…

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Oh, all right...

Oh, all right…

Materials– Fabric: (¼ yard of poly double knit fabric, ¼  yard of fusible knit interfacing, , Notions: pearl buttons X4, thread, and hooks/eyes): Note: Silk dupioni scraps were used for collar and cuffs, and it is not included in material cost.

Total: $7.03

Time– Patterns adjustments, muslin mock-ups and placket tests: 5 hours

Cutting and fabric preparation: 1 hour

Sewing, including hand-finishing: 5 hours

Overhead/Profit– You’ll also note there’s no added cost in this breakdown to cover cost of electricity, wear and tear on my sewing equipment, and a reasonable profit which is a reward for risks and/or skill level not observed in labor costs…not to mention a hole burned in the carpet when my Clover mini-iron dropped and sat there until I smelled the odor)… 

Total: 11 @ $8.05/hr for Florida non-tip wage earners = $88.55

Add cost of materials: +$7.03 = $95.58 

Would you pay $95 for this little black dress with no included accessories? If you said ‘no’, then piss off. If you said, “not from you,” that’s OK…I’ll take that – there are others who will. This is why we have a perception issue in doll collecting today, and those that blindly vomit criticisms as to how much something should cost without knowing a damn thing about it. Don’t put up with this behavior. If you think that this is too much to pay for a doll dress – or think that just because it’s made in China, it should be more like $30 – think again, Sweetie – you’re one of the biggest problems facing doll manufacturers today. And for doll artists like me? Well…we are appreciated by fine human beings that not only know better…they actually care.

I won’t apologize for repeatedly using the same theme in my ‘anatomy’ posts…no one else is writing about OR talking about this tender little subject – and you should be.

We're done here...

We’re done here…

37 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Little Black Dress

  1. Tommy I often feel out in the weeds on this subject and really appreciate you highlighting it here. That dress you just made Is worth so much more than $95.58. Everyone has a budget, but that does not mean we should sell for less because they don’t have that much in their pocket. An artist’s time is worth something more than minimum wage and experience is worth tons more. If its so easy they could do it themselves. And they can’t. So where is the love?

    • I think you missed my point…many will complain about a $99 manufactured outfit as ‘too expensive’…and that includes accessories! Even pricing it with minimum wage and little additional mark up shows it CAN cost that much. People who don’t have extra money to buy doll clothes simply don’t buy…but they don’t moan about how expensive it is.

      • I stopped writing because my hubby was tugging on my arm to go to dinner. Should have waited to finish later. I really do understand what you are saying — and I agree with you. Its not just the doll business, but that is what you are talking about here.
        My own personal experience is of people trying to get me to sell things for much less than what I am asking by moaning and groaning about my prices.
        I feel this is partly because they don’t appreciate what it takes for “manufactured” items to be made. These same people will often complain about poor quality in manufactured items. They are “poor quality” because most people won’t pay for quality. I think one thing washes over into the other. Or maybe I’ve just had too much martini at this point.
        This is what appeared in my Etsy email this week:
        “I would never pay that much for my own jeans let alone doll jeans! If you want to sell these you need to lower your prices! I can buy a doll with clothes for that!”
        Face palm. I know, its ‘the internets’.
        I hope you keep writing. I love it here. You are a treasure.

      • Seriously, though…you got to get a spine, honey! Just tell them to fuck off. They don’t know you at all, so why in the hell can they tell you what you’re worth? They don’t know you well enough to hurt your true feelings…so why give them power? Put that energy into your work…and your love. Tell the naysayers to go fuck themselves.

      • This is me replying to your reply :)) First of all, Thank You. As my dear Hubby told me, if I don’t value my work, no one else will either. My spine has been growing lately, and I appreciate your encouragement!

  2. You are fabulous and so 100 percent correct. Anyone that knows anything about sewing, fabrics or materials realizes how much it costs in time effort and materials just to get the original prototype out. Myself, I make doll jewelry and to start an new design if I don’t already have the beads that I see in my head or my version of a full size model of a necklace I wish to emulate is a good 50.00 right off the bat just for the materials. Then there are the charms to add to the finding for it to all be just so. Those alone have taken years to collect and construct and need to be added to repeatedly for more designs. I so enjoy your blog!

  3. Yes, you are absolutely right, and there is nothing simple about this little black dress to get it right either. I usually avoid knits like the plague, along with silk velvet, can be a technical nightmare. Your version looks great.

      • You got that right. A friend here told me they use polyester for wrapping archival material because it is a very stable fabric and the dye won’t leach out, always a concern when dressing vinyl or plastic dolls. I notice your clothes are always fully lined anyway, I just found this info interesting.

  4. Hi Tom: The way to get poly to behave is a solution of 1/3 white vinegar and 2/3  water in what ever quantities you need. Use a spray bottle and use a press cloth and you can set pleats or creases, and get seams to lay flat. If it smells too much like a salad, just air the garment out for a while. Everyone is always dumping on poly, but the nicest matte jerseys on the market today are not the traditional rayon or silk jerseys, but poor maligned polyester. Ignoring the scary name, House of Spandex, or Spandex House, I forget exactly, has a nice selection of matte jerseys and plenty of power net or swimwear linings to use with it. Always a pleasure to read your Blog! Jackie

    my Etsy store for BJD clothes: http://www.etsy.com/shop/KatzMeowDesigns my Ebay store: http://stores.ebay.com/Katz-Meow-Designs-for-Fashion-Dolls From: tommydoll To: jacqueline_cranston@yahoo.com Sent: Friday, March 20, 2015 7:09 PM Subject: [New post] The Anatomy of a Little Black Dress #yiv0521735035 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv0521735035 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv0521735035 a.yiv0521735035primaryactionlink:link, #yiv0521735035 a.yiv0521735035primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv0521735035 a.yiv0521735035primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv0521735035 a.yiv0521735035primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv0521735035 WordPress.com | tommydoll posted: “Yeah, I can do simple…A friend asked me to partake in a special project he is overseeing, and asked if I’d like to make something for one of his dolls to wear. He sent me this photo of Catherine Deneuve wearing a little black dress by Yves St.” | |

    • Thanks, Jackie…I’ll make a note of it. The poly wasn’t so very bad, indeed…even though it goes against every fiber of my being…but this would have been best in a lighter rayon or silk jersey with a fusible interfacing. I do want to try it again with one of those. Love the vinegar/water idea…though acids on any fabric over time…hmmm. But I’ll try it and see how it works. Thanks, again!

    • Thank you! Miniature detail is a quest you know well…I applaud your touch in an even tinier scale! I bow to you…and your observations! Thank you, Pudding!

  5. Hi Tommy! I absolutely love your blog. Your posts about sewing are a treasure, you share so many details and tips, and your work is amazing.
    I agree with you, that would be the correct pricing for the dress. I don’t sell my doll dresses, but given the time, patience, passion and materials it takes, I would price them the same way.
    People that are always ready to complain but are not willing to pay for quality unfortunately is a very common thing, not only as far as doll clothes are concerned! It is a bad and annoying habit indeed!
    Kisses Billa

  6. Well, there’s simple easy and then there is simple genius which is anything but easy!!! During my relatively short experience in this crazy doll universe, my impression is that there are doll collector hobbyists, doll collector “fashion victims,” and sincere collectors who see dolls and everything around them, small works of art. I find it’s usually the hobbyist that appreciates more the miniature jewels created by the artist—but cannot afford them. The diehard collector understands, respects the art and the artist and will pay whatever it costs (Superdoll enthusiasts!?!). And then there is the “fashion victim.” They are more interested in acquiring the latest greatest doll because they can, but the real passion of the art is not there. As such, they do not appreciate (nor do they care about) the work that goes into creating, what is essentially, small works of art.
    I, too, have been asked about selling the clothes I make. This does not interest me at all because it just isn’t worth it to me. Your mapping out materials+labor (calculated for way less than minimum wage), not to mention the effort of promoting, packing, shipping, accounting and taxes)….is concrete proof to me that I never need think about selling. I’d rather stay on the side of the road designated for hobbyists with a passion and just have fun. By the way….your Saint Laurent dress is beautiful. The doll looks better than Deneuve!

    • Thank you! I love reading your insight…bet you’d be great fun playing dolls! BTW, I am finishing up a humor piece about the Types of Doll Collectors…think you’ll enjoy it!

  7. I don’t often hear people complain about how expensive my doll couture is, thank goodness — I am sure they are doing it, but no one says it to my face (or even in an email). I love your posts showing the details of what goes into a piece of dolly couture. Thank goodness someone is pointing this out. Your work is fascinating and your courage to take on the finicky details is inspiring.

    What I would like to ask the person complaining that doll couture is too pricey is ” Who is making making cheap but beautiful couture for dolls these days?” There were just a meager handful of great outfits for 16 dolls created by the doll manufacturers last year and they were about $80 each after big discounts. People who need periodic doses of stylish contemporary fashion have to go to the doll couturiers these days for a fix or settle for tubes of stretch spandex tied at the waist with rick rack or the ever popular polyester satin fastened with oversized grommets and string found on eBay. To buy a beautiful $700 resin doll and then dress her in stretch knit mini skirts and belly button revealing tank tops stolen from a Dora the Explorer doll is just wrong!

    • So true, Miriam…and thank you! But it’s not just the cost of doll couture…people complain about the manufactured clothing, too…often stating that it should cost less – presumably because it’s made in China – and that’s just not the case, anymore. I feel for manufacturers in their having to choose quality materials over extensive labor in their decision-making. Sure, there are some that are not very good at costing planning products, but considering clothing is the most expensive item on a manufactured plastic doll, it’s boggling how many don’t want to know it better. The resins are a different story, the materials used in resin doll manufacture require a fair amount of handling and finishing, causing the resin doll to cost as much as the clothing, if not more. Most people who complain about the rising costs in making dolls simply don’t want to know…because it means they’d have to actually sympathize with doll makers – and it gives them something less to bitch about. Thank again for reading and for your comments – love hearing from you!

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