The Anatomy of an Icon

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OK, so I don’t do reproductions – well, not exactly. There’s a difference in someone showing me a picture of a doll, and saying, ‘here, make this.’ Nope…won’t do it. But – when the inspirations come from the worlds of fashion and cinema, and as long as there’s room for interpretation (and there’s a challenge), then I can easily reconsider my policy of reproductions (they’re my rulesI’ll break them if I want to). This, Puddings, had plenty of challenges

There are many iconic Hollywood costumes, but The King and I represents both a blending of period clothing and a Technicolor touch. Designed by costumer Irene Sharaff (and winning the year’s Academy Award for her work), The King and I set its story in the exotic Orient during the 1860s. Unlike films such as Gone With The Wind, this interpretation of the heroine’s costumes focused on the European traditions of the hoop skirt treatment (more distinctively, English ideals of modesty).

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What color is this dress?

Since my work in 1:6 scale is somewhat limited, I needed to draft this pattern from scratch – mostly to understand what challenges would be needed in Barbie’s world. We would need a proper hoop skirt, and we would need to settle on the right color for this miniature reproduction…

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Then there was the fabric. Since this gown was clearly done in satin (my guess would be a rayon satin given the decade of the film’s production – but it was such a lavish film, silk may have been the go-to). In miniature, charmeuse was the only solution – satin is just too heavy as are crepe-back lightweight satins. And as you may recall my adoration of sewing charmeuse – the little seamstress in my head was taking a piss on my better judgement. Be that as it may, I luckily found a stretch charmeuse – silk with some Lycra to give it some stretch. This was a gamble, because I didn’t know if it would be better or worse (some say stretchy fabrics can be easier to sew – I SAY, ‘it depends on the fiber and textile weave/knit’).

Color? It's white muslin, you dolt!

Color? It’s white muslin, you dolt!

My bet paid off in a big way. Not only did the stretch charmeuse sew well, but the added Lycra gave it a resilience not seen in ordinary varieties. It pressed well, without leaving a seam allowance impression – and it did not slip and slide during machine sewing like most charmeuses I’ve used. It also didn’t ravel easily, making it durable for handling, especially with hand techniques. I loved it…and I made a mental note to use it again when I needed a satin texture. But the most beautiful quality was the heaviness of its hand and drape – without actually being heavy! Yes…this was a dream material, indeed…

Broadway's dress is pretty - but a bit dour in its color...

Broadway’s dress is pretty – but a bit dour in its color…

Ugh…color. I think I have a pretty good eye for it, but when all you have are a number of internet images and YouTube videos, you are left with the profound feeling of ‘will this be accurate?’. I’m sure there will be many who would argue with me on this one, but you’re not making it, now are you? As always, it’s imperative the client knows the options, and in the end, the choice is their’s based on my guidance and recommendations. Here’s what we knew:

What color is this dress?

What color is this dress?

At a general glance, the gown appears to be taupe…probably a good choice for the proper Leonowens. However, through the lighting of the decadent Grand Palace, one can definitely see peach in the undercolor. Now, I know a thing or two about light and color, which told me the dress may have actually been lavender (or even shot silk), and the golden light muted the tones to generate a taupe gown with peach highlights. In the film, you can see shades of lavender underneath the dress in the petticoat and undergarments during the dance sequence. Even Broadway interpreted its current revival in lavender – so maybe it was described that way in the book (the original Broadway production was pink). With aniline dyes in 1860, the colors were brighter (though mauve was one of the first – safranin could have created peach) – nevertheless, taupe was just too dour, and with the rising age of colors-extraordinaire, methinks Mrs. Leonowens would have chosen a bright, color to impress her King. Be that as it may – remember the shock of Julie Marsden in her inappropriate red gown

It’s not red, it’s whore red

I don’t think peach would have drawn that conclusion. In addition, we couldn’t find a changeant (iridescent) fabric to accommodate the colors. Even more, we couldn’t rely on the display lighting to achieve the muted effect if we went with lavender. So why not choose the highlight, and bring out that Technicolor – so we went with the brighter interpretation, and would rely on the shadows to mute the overall appearance, but not without diminishing the overall joy of the scene. That’s a lot of thought, yes – well, that’s the way we do things at Tommydoll. And besides…if Tonner can get away with this, I can do a peach gown..so there. Read more on the quest for the gown’s color here.

I rest my case...

I rest my case…

I’ve often stated my admiration for the more accomplished artists who sew in Barbie’s scale and/or smaller – it is an achievement. Despite the simple design, remember that simplicity is deceptive. This project would teach me a great deal about proportions in miniature, and unconventional constructions methods that may leave more seasoned designers scratching their heads – but hey, this is the way we do things at Tommydoll…I’m always learning, and I’m proud of new challenges that not only teach me a thing or two – but they may also provide insight to some poor bitch out there who has struggled with the same concepts. Now…about that hoop skirt

What?

What?

No – this isn’t the real one. Laughably, I needed a mock-up hoop to drape my actual hoop. Whatever…it’s complicated living in my head. But it worked, and unlike the Fiesta Barbie treatment, we could proceed with something more befitting of Anna.

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I’ve made human scale hoop skirts…but that was over 20 years ago…so I went to my friend, the internet, and a few books I have on period costuming. The shapes and ideas were enough to get this underway.

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Oh, fuck…steampunk…really?

I figured we would start with a simple cage using ribbon and hoop, then drape the panels over that – once I had the right shape of panel, I would transfer it to paper, clean it up – and cut the multiple gores needed.

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Petticoat trim added to judge length...

Petticoat trim added to judge length…

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I used a linen/cotton blend for the skirt, and made my own casings from the same material, cut in bias strips. These would house the boning, providing the architecture needed for the subsequent layers. and French seams, because hoops skirts are not generally lined.

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Problem is, when you push the boning to its excess, and thereby stretch the casings taut – you end up with a lampshade, and not a gentle bell-shape. After my complete lampshade was done, I made the petticoat out of silk dupioni and a purchased ruffled trim. And…well..oh, dear

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WTF?

The petticoat is supposed to provide some smoothing of the silhouette over the hoop structure, but the base shape still needs to be softer than a lampshade. So I removed excess boning, allowing the materials to gather up slightly, and relax the overall shape.

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The boning I used was a standard plastic boning, that is sold in its own casings. Ditch the casings they make, and make your own – it’s cleaner, and it allows you to increase the width of the casing, giving you a little more latitude with fit.

Much better...

Much better…

There was also another challenge I discovered while making the petticoat and hoop. If you study the still images and the film, the dress appears to actually change shape while in-motion. I mean, really…it doesn’t actually change shape, but the volume is greatly exaggerated when caught in movement. Since the desire of the client was to display the doll in mid-dance, I exaggerated the size of the skirt, which would allow for more posing options that wouldn’t rely so heavily on scale and gravity, but rather, the skillful hand of pinching, pinning and positioning. It’s a great trick to use when displaying your dolls – and this is why some reproduction dolls made by doll makers fail – they aren’t thinking of how the collector ultimately will display the doll out of the box. Things like skirt volume and facial expression give the collector inspiration, rather than simply giving a shitload of articulation to achieve kama sutra posing ability. That doesn’t always work – and even when it werqs

Oh, come on now...

Oh, come on now…

Now, I don’t know if other 1:6 scale designers have come upon this little tidbit…so if I’m a newbie in its realization, so be itbut – building a miniature gown like this is best done in stages. If you intend to create a fully lined garment that is removable, building it bit-by-bit helps you in ways that are unimaginable. Yes, yes…I’m familiar with techniques allowing you to line such miniature garments, and piece them cleverly, maximizing your machine as much as possible. That being said, I also highly value the precision that hand-work achieves when you just can’t get your eyeball underneath your presser foot while maneuvering tiny frocks with sausage fingers. No. I’ll take the hand work, any day…

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Using this methodology, it also helped me in a couple of problem-solving areas – such as the lining and closures. The actual gown was more than likely two pieces, such as historic garments of the type were – that is, skirt and bodice. Despite its inaccuracy, I did explore using a zipper for cleanness in closing; but with a separate skirt and bodice, this wasn’t possible. Upon further examination of the film’s stills, the answer came to me – and one I dreadedgrommets. The actual bodice had a lace-up closure.

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Would someone please explain how this is laced?

Fuck. Do you know how long it’s been since I installed miniature grommets in a miniature garment? About 20 years, thank you very much. And I was praying I wouldn’t find that doll shoe-making kit I bought years ago and never used – the one with the mini grommets. Would it be in my ‘shit I’m never throwing away because I just know it will be useful one day’ hoard? Double Fuck – it was. If you sew and don’t have one of these collections of various and obscure notions/trims boxes sitting around somewhere – you’re not a serious sewer (or doll collector, for that matter). I felt terrified, much as a whore during confession – this meant that I had to give it a try.

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The test worked…but I’d sweat this one out until I actually got there. Hell, maybe the world would end before it was completed; and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it while standing at the gates of Hell with a Disney pass and an unfinished doll garment in my hand. But I digress

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As I described, the gown would be built in pieces, independently lined, then pieced together by hand. The bodice seemed simple enough, but there are these crazy diagonal seams you can see in the front and back – fitting seams that marked Victorian corsets and bodices in a familiar ‘V’ shape. I tried a couple of samples in muslin, but the seams ran into each other. Perhaps someone with more technical skill than me could have mastered this. But I settled with a solution that kept the faith in the lines, while still translating into this scale. The result was clean and period-worthy.

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Way too Snow White

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Yes, dear

The sleeves were simple puffs, but the originals had been stiffened from the inside. Not in this scale, baby. I opted for an over-sized rendition that would allow the tulle overlay and spot-beading, and would remain proportional to Barbie. The original seemed to have flat snowflake-ish clear sequins…but good luck in this scale, dears. They’re out there…but I chose a Japanese seed bead…should I have selected a microsequin round to fit the bill? Your actual vote was not received, please try again

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When it came to the skirt, I just couldn’t do that in muslin – it was too important to see the movement of the material. As fate would have it, I had some old charmeuse that was marred by foldlines that set in over long periods of storage (let that be a lesson to ye who have fabric stored in an attic or basement that has never been taken out and fluffed regularly).

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The skirt was a dream. Working with all that charmeuse was pure heaven. The drape was lovely, indeed; but I dreaded the hem. I usually line a skirt fully with its own, or similar weight fabric, using a machine. But this version couldn’t be done like that, because posing it in ‘motion’ meant the skirt had to behave like the real skirt would – you guessed it – it had to be hand-hemmedtriple fuck.

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There was also the decision about whether or not to pleat or gather the waistline. Pleating in the test worked well, but when it came to the actual fabric, I just couldn’t get the pleats to fall correctly – maybe it was the Lycramaybe it’s Maybelline…who knows. Therefore, I relied on the old methods of gathering, and the soft drapes of the skirt still fell in just the right places. But that’s the one thing about moving into miniature scale with fabrics like these – you will never get the ‘sumptuous drape’ fullness in human-scale work. No laws of physics will allow it (but as bitch doesn’t get ‘easing’…we’ll figure it out for her…and understand why there’s a reason for couture – some people just can’t understand normal thought)– so you have to settle on what will work – and in this case, three semi-circle gores did the trick of what probably was a six or even eight-gore skirt. The pieces were assembled using French seams, as there would be no additional lining aside from the petticoat.

Seaming matters...

Seaming matters…

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What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

The skirt was independent of the bodice, so it has its own hook/thread loop closure – and it’s pretty damn tight, sweetie. Even poor little Barbie was gasping for her breath – and I hope she got a lung-full – because that bodice was next.

All that and all I got was a napkin?

All that and I got a napkin?

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Without the sleeves and frippery, the bodice looked lovely and modern – it had the quality of those boobless fancy wrappings of Fury’s observations– but Anna was to dance with her King, so we had to go all the way. I did use a fusible knit interfacing (thanks again, Deb) for this woven charmeuse to stabilize the stretch material. Besides, I had to distract myself from the reality of the grommets that I knew was quickly approaching.

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The sleeves were a little more complicated than I had planned. With the tulle overlay, the puffing/gathering was fussy to my fingers, as well as the spot beading. Lining the sleeves with an ungathered shell produced a sleeve that seemed larger than the muslin sample – yet the same pattern I drafted in paper from the muslin toile was used in charmeuse. Again…I’ll blame the Lycra – and why not? It brought so many other benefits to this project, it seems tragic to not fault it somewhere

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But really, this is an excellent example of how dolls bewitch your eyes in their diminutive proportions. If you look at the original gown, the sleeves are roughly the same size as Deborah Kerr’s head, without hair, that is. So in using that guide for Barbie – the result was a slightly larger sleeve. I wished it could be crushed and shaped a little more…but you can blame that one on the Lycra.

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And now there was no avoiding the grommets. I had to put them in before the neckline drape. I’m not going to bore you with my bitching about the hammering and placement and evenness and shitastic threats of it all going wrong, warranting a remake. Nope – just look at the pics, and bask in the warm glow of the brass.

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Finally it came down to the neckline. Two parallel seams created a faux pleating effect, yet remaining stable in this size. It had to be hand-sewn (as the sleeves were) to both the shell in front, and the lining underneath – the reason for this is to give the appearance of a true closed seam, without the other peeking out should she need to sniff her underarms like the true English Lady she is. With the drape in place, the fullness could be tailored to create the décolletage – I added a few ‘beads‘ as my own little ‘signature’ – it ain’t Tommydoll without the obligatory blood spot (it’s in there) and the frip.

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Lacing the bodice was an interesting accomplishment, taking about an hour to figure it out the way she had it done in the movie. Kerr’s is at a diagonal, which I couldn’t understand. However, the over-and-under continuous lacing allowed for an overlap in the back, creating balance between the offset grommets, and filling the gap at the center back. The lining peeked out a bit after lacing, but I’ll sort that out during the final dressing.

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With the final decision resting on the color of the bow (and you already know how much I adore bows) – I considered the choices. The movie bow appears to be a chocolate brown (maybe even purple) – that didn’t work with this, so I made bows out of gray and taupe. The gray is probably more accurate, but the taupe just blended so much better with the gown, her skin tone, and hair color…it was the perfect touch.

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In the end, I feel peach was the right decision. The dress is a dreamy facsimile of the mood captured during an opulently excessive cinematic moment. They joy of a King learning to dance in the Western fashion, and the Lady feeling an emotional pull to a man with 39 wives – both coming together in one of Hollywood’s most iconic moments.

That won't work...

That won’t work…

There are still final stages due for this gown – but the real doll is having her hair styled, and she will be shipped to me for final dressing. Here, I will add pantalettes (yes, Rhett, women were still wearing them, just not in the brothels of Paris), and a beaded snood. The final doll will pose for my big camera, but that won’t be for a couple of weeks, so you’ll need to make do with this for now. I’ll update the blog when Anna is ready for her dance. Until then

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ln England, no woman dances alone while a man looks on…

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Yeah...I know...the back isn't finished...whatever...

Yeah…I know…the back isn’t finished…whatever…

And don’t expect gloves – she doesn’t wear them while dancing. How’s that for accuracy, bitches? Et cetera, etcetera, etcetera

I'm still waiting for my goddamn dress!

I’m still waiting for my damn dress!

18 thoughts on “The Anatomy of an Icon

  1. Lovely, good job! It is incredibly difficult to make historical costumes at 1:6 scale because of the amount of fabric in them – it just isn’t that easy to fit it all on the doll. I still prefer to work with silk satin, although the good stuff is hard to find. I have found a couple of pieces here in Oz, but I tend to keep them for myself. The fabric I have is very light and crisp, not the heavy crepe backed stuff. Anyway, very gorgeous dress.

  2. My absolute favorite of all movie gowns — and when they DANCE!! Wow! I saw this movie when it came out, and the gown was definitely lavender — a scrumptious color that has stayed clear in my memory, but I am sure NOT so clear in fading film. That’s too bad. But your creation is divine, and the fit on the modern figure even lovelier than on Deborah Kerr. I do remember how beautifully the lavender set off her red hair. You’ve done a beautiful job, Tom. Too bad Barbie can’t dance!!

  3. Applause. Applause Applause. Wow, Tommy. This is not my kind of clothing, but this dress is gorgeous. I especially like the corset bodice. Very impressive especially when I consider this is 1:6 scale. Kudos for the hoop skirt!!!!! Encore, encore!!!!!

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