Monday, April 11, 2022

An Enormous Tulle Oscar's Party Gown: The Floofa Maxima

Once upon a time there was a girl, one of billions with similar dreams, who thought of someday wearing an enormous fluffy dress to a party and floating around on clouds of tulle with friends.

That day never seemed to arrive. A semi-serious sort, she grew up to wear things tailored, durable, sometimes sporty, but never fluffy and that proclivity remained steady through the decades.

This February, as the endless pandemic seemed to ease, our tea society planned an Oscar's party. I am close to 60 now, and by golly, what better time to be a teenager again than on a red carpet?

So it was that on a gray, windy afternoon spitting a haze of drizzle I eased endless yards of tulle down the back steps, along with a plate of mushroom salad and baguette slices, praying that a nail or twig wouldn't tear a rent in the skirt, and somehow bundled myself and all of the tulle, plus the salad and bread, into the car. I was awash in tulle, and it puffed nearly to the chest and spilled in a giant bouf into the passenger seat, having been pushed out of the driving area for safety. The lace jacket across my shoulders was too short to bunch too, or driving would have been hypothetical at best.

Getting out of the car was an intricate process I hope left unseen, and the passage to Ida's front door was made in a serious of awkward bounds as the wind had picked up and was doing its best to pick up the tulle too, with me in it.

Once at the party? Delight! Swanning around was part of the agenda, as we all had dressed up, and so the day slid into evening very happily, as parties with good friends often do. It was a chance to be truly elegant and silly simultaneously and I think we made the most of it.

Tea and a green martini? Tonight, why not? Three desserts? It's the Oscar's, darling.

Here we all are, holding our pretend trophies, Ida, Caroline, Julia, me, Darlene, Elizabeth, Cara. We sure missed those of us who couldn't attend!

...and taking a stroll down a red carpet. I found walking in the tulle cloud a little trying and wonder if actors often worry about falling over their own clothes.

Made it through without too much embarrassment, perhaps due to having already passed through that fire a few minutes earlier.

I discovered that sitting in such an enormous dress means that you become enmeshed in the stuff. Ballerinas who play the swan in Swan Lake or sugar plum fairies in The Nutcracker never appear to stick or to trip a neighbor when they sink to the floor, a blossoming of tulle spread around them, but when I sat on a chair to have an hors d'oeuvre, the skirt puffed gorgeously while threatening to upend anyone attempting to walk by.

Standing up later to help Elizabeth find her formal purse, a tiny, pre-1960 silk satin affair entirely encrusted with brilliants set in prongs, that had gone missing, I found managing chair legs, plate, and martini while balancing on those ridiculously high heels among the tulle a little like a circus act. 

Too bad I couldn’t break the heels off of my shoes like Sandra Bullock does to her spikes in "The Lost City", but then, she could move as she liked -- sometimes -- in her purple sequined catsuit, while I'd have been treading on and swimming in five or so inches of floor-bound skirt, being suddenly that much shorter. The two situations don't compare, except perhaps in their lucridiousness.

The purse wasn't found until somebody hooted and said I'd made off with it, which I didn't understand, my hands being full. Of course, you already know: I'd sat on it -- how could anyone see or feel a purse under all that floof -- and it was stuck to the back, trailing on the floor.

Pronged brilliant aren't easy to untangle from mesh.

Oh, and the tulle stuck to a glittering shaped bow on Julia's heels, and tore half of it off. I was mortified. Really, the skirt could have figured in a noire movie, or a farce.

Would I wear it again? Oh, of course. My mother thought it likely a one-off (she is rather puzzled by the costumes), but once you've experienced the crinkly whoosh of tulle, weightless all around, at the party we agreed anyone would definitely want to try it again. Just watch out for sharp edges, other people's belongings, and mind your heels.

Making the Outfit

The outfit pulled together surprisingly seamlessly. It consists of six elements:

1) A Capezio long-sleeve leotard. Wore them as a kid, and going to wear them again now. So sleek, so pulled together.

2) A vintage lace jacket, possibly 1980s and possibly by Gunne Sax. A classic I'll wear for ages.

Construction detail: a touch of gathered fine tulle to puff the shoulders.  

3) An inexpensive organza bridal petticoat from Amazon. Again, generally handy. It allows the tulle to slide. Muslin pettis and tulle do not dance together. They bond, and not in a good way.

4) Really, really, really tall shoes I've had for years, Y2K chunky because it seemed that a single in-your-face Grrrrrl element was in order, to counteract the mega-floof.

5) Large earrings I bought back in the 1990s for a High Museum of Art event when I lived in Atlanta.

On the verge of disco-ball tawdry, but not quite and weren't they the thing in 1991. 

6) The floofy, enormous skirt. It's made from 41 yards of 108"-wide tulle.

The skirt's construction is inspired by Starset Moonfire's video, titled "Making a Ball Gown in Two Days", at She is so engaging in it that I found myself smiling right through at her enthusiasm and creativity and upbeat personality. Her version turned out really well, and wait until you see how she managed the top.

In the end, I made the waistband quite differently, but like hers, my skirt is a wrap style (so sensible!), features long ties, and is made of gathered massive amounts of tulle folded in half longways. When you count both layers, the 41 yards becomes 82 yards all gathered up in to about 34". You can whistle now.

Undoing the bolt of tulle, I found that its width was folded in quarters. All I had to do was unfold it once, leaving the remainder folded in half, and sew a channel big enough to run through a bodkin with a string attached just next to the fold.

So, I plopped my machine on the dining table, unfolded about 4 yards of tulle, leaving the rest on the bolt for neatness, pinned the layers at intervals to prevent sliding, and started to stitch the channel.

Once that section was complete, all there was to do was unroll more tulle and continue, ending with a single 41-yard length with a channel along the fold. I had cut nine yards from the 50-yard bolt in an experiment and am glad to have saved it, in case of rents later that need to be replaced.

Because I used the Singer 27 handcrank sewing machine, this wasn't a rapid process, multiple hours over two or three days. You can hear the click-click-of the machine, now 111 years old and still agile and precise, in the video.

Can't see the video? Here is the link.

Nutmeg was keen to help and very interested in the Singer. At one point she hopped in my lap and decided to have a paw at the sewing. There was an anxious split second as I waved it away.

You can see the channel I am sewing here. It's about an inch wide.
Wanted to make sure that stringing the bodkin through would be 
as easy as possible. Probably I should have made it narrower.

The next step? Taking a bodkin and running tatting yarn through the channel. It was on this string that I would pull up the 41 yards to fit my waist measurement, plus a bit more for the wrap-around. Remember, this is a wrap skirt.

Initially, I whipped the top edge to a cotton tape, but that proved too loosely woven, and I wanted the waistband to live largely above the tulle, with the tulle sewn to the outside of the waistband to help it puff while not adding bulk.

So I turned to a long remnant strip of Hymo haircloth encased in silk shantung that I had in the stash. It was strong and smooth, able to manage all of the tulle without going limp. The gathered tulle was whipped to it a little above one long edge, with giant stitches in two overlapping rows for stability. 

Inside of the waistband. I may line it in paper-thin silk to neater it up.

Not having found black silk in town for the outer side of the waistband, I dyed a remnant of the cream shantung I had from the 1895 petticoat project with RIT, and cut a wide waistband. For further strength as well as a luxe effect, I doubled the shantung, sewed the long edge, turned it right side out into a finished tube, and pressed it flat.

Then the black band, which is just slightly wider than the interior waistband, was prick-stitched as invisibly as possible to its outside, with the lower edge nestling as closely as possible to the puffed edge of the whipped-on tulle. That was tricky.

Here is the waistband. It only wrinkles because it is bent while it's on the floor. Worn, it's pretty smooth.

I had cut and prepared two 40" long pieces of shantung along with the waistband, into two more tubes of the same width for ties. 

One end of each was angled amd both ends were whipped closed as invisibly as I could.

Then they were set to the outside of the waistband a few inches from the closure so that they could be tied easily with room for the overlap of the wrap skirt. The straight end of each was prick-stitched to the waistband. I hand-sewed all of this because I wanted no visible stitching on the waistband to detract from the smooth, luminescent effect.

Another imperfection: somewhere along the way I had an issue with one end of the waistband and folding it was the solution.

Two heavy-duty steel squared hook and eye closures were added and the skirt was almost done.

The end of a tie, whipped closed.

The completed skirt, laid as it would be worn, not flat.

When worn, the overlap becomes both invisible and remains closed because the tulle sticks together.

Below, the final skirt before being trimmed at the bottom...I am wearing those heels. It's really too bad that I had to cut the bottom to floor level, for I love the floaty feeling of the full length puddling on the floor and making a train in back, but this was simply not practical.

Unless the tulle were faced underneath with a balayeuse, which would have spoiled the feathery floating effect, it would stick to everything on the floor and gather detritus with every swoosh...I found a sweet gum tree seed pod at the bottom, picked up on the way to the car on the way home, I assume.

Also, my mother was adamant...nothing must get in the way of the feet for safety since I cannot see my feet at all or where I am going for many inches ahead of me, due to the depth of the skirt, all solid tulle. She was right, of course. 

In the end, I stood in my heels and mom measured the inches up from the floor to the proper level given how the skirt boufed all around me, and we cut away the excess. It wasn't easy to cut neatly and cleanly given the amount of fabric that is squished into the skirt's dimensions, and I see some tails in a few pictures (now removed), but it looked even when I cut it!

It would not be safe to precut to floor length before sewing, for that doesn't take account of take-up at the waist due to the gathering and resulting upward puff when sewn to the waistband, or due to the outer section needing to be a little longer given that it must flow over the fabric sitting to the interior. 

In the picture, I look quite short-waisted, as I hadn't set the skirt at the proper waist level. It looks interesting this way, rather 1960s, somehow, or 1790s.

Ah, the train before the trim.

So there we have the story of the Floofa Maxima Oscar's gown. It was fun to make and if a tad alarming due to its dimensions and tendency to attach itself to anything in the way, a joy to wear.

What's on for spring, other than the endless 1895 godet petticoat experiment? An 1810 ballgown in wine-colored fine-rib silk faille, really a bengaline. And renovating the 1816 Vernet dress for better fit and Mameluke sleeves.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Oh I absolutely love it ad the construction details are super useful as I have a project for which all the materials are all collated, for a massive organza skirt using a bunch of sunset coloured organzas, to go with this beautiful black stretch velvet bodice with sunset coloured sequin patterning. I can see the vague finished project in my mind but not the details and THIS just solved the skirt issue. I have the floofy red petticoat to go under it already.
Floofy Maxima, such an epic name! Brilliant! And I do love its voracious desire to gather objects into itself.
That jacket I'd say was 80s, the tulle floof in the sleeve head is a strong memory!

ZipZip said...

Dear Mrs. C.,
Grand big smile here :) Many thanks indeed!
So you're making an organza floof? Yummy, especially the use of color, which in my imagination might be an ombre effect. Double yummy. How I wanted an ombre effect, too. I played with the idea of inner layers of black tulle on the upper part of the skirt that would create an ombre effect of gray fading to white at the bottom, but then there would have been sewing those layers to the base white tulle and perhaps adding another layer of white lower down so as not to upset the bell shape, and I hadn't the time. All the more reason for delight in seeing your results!

The only thing I did want to test, and didn't, was treating the tulle gathers as cartridge pleats and whipping them to the bottom of the haircloth waistband. Then the skirt would be able to pivot, which could make for added movement. Can you see it?

Yes, I think you're right, the jacket is 80s. It was sold as 70s but even the lace pattern is 80s. I had a ducky puff-sleeved green corduroy collar-less jacket and dirndl skirt combination bought in England in 1982 when I lived there for a few months, a Miss Selfridge's label. How I loved it, although it's a bit on the stuffy side, especially when worn with a frilled color blouse :) Why I gave it away...although of course it would be much too small now, so there's that.

Anyhow, so hope you share the sunset dream you're embarking on with us!

Oh, and in one 24-hour period it was sunny, sleeted, hailed, rained, snowed enough to stick, and was sunny again, warming right up. Springtime in Kentucky is really odd.


Anonymous said...

I love this! So pretty, and what a prefect name! You do know tulle skirts are au currant? Anthropologie has several. Love the Gurrl shoes as well; sadly mine similar have passed on.

ZipZip said...

Dear Julie,
Didn't know Anthropologie was carrying them but do know from the NYT that large poufy gowns are in again. They haven't been in ages. The last time I saw a truly large and fluffy tulle skirt was in a Vera Wang dress back in the late 90s or early 2000s.

It was such fun to wear, although tricky, as I wrote.



The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

This is so fun! Tulle can be a beast to hem/level. :) I love the story of the skirt picking up a friend's purse...!


ZipZip said...

Dear Quinn,
It was a blast, actually, and I can't wait to wear it again. The garment box it sits in is probably 2x3x2 feet, or a little less. Even packed away it's a maxima :)
Very best,