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Behind the Design: The Ellen Dress

by Emily DeLong

26 June 2017

The Ellen Dress is my rendition of one of my all-time favorite dress silhouettes: the wrap dress. Hitting right at the knees with a fitted bodice and flutter sleeves, the Ellen balances femininity and elegance while also being comfortable and easy to wear.

The dress didn't start out this way, though. There were a number of prototypes and samples and mistakes made before I landed on "the one." Below, follow along with how the Ellen made its way from an idea in my head to an actual wearable garment.

The Ellen Dress actually has a Margu precursor back from FW16: the Wallflower Dress. The Wallflower was my first try at a wrap dress, and it remains one of my favorite dresses that I've designed so far.

Going back even further, the Wallflower Dress was inspired by one of my favorite vintage dresses in my personal wardrobe, one of the first pieces I ever thrifted more than 10 years ago.

I've worn that yellow dress innumerable times over the years, and when designing the Wallflower, I took a lot of the elements I loved about the dress (the longer length hitting at the knee, the longer-than-normal long sleeves, the modest-but-not-too-modest neckline) in addition to adding a number of upgrades (pockets, lining, better-quality fabric, better fit in the bodice, a bias-cut rather than a straight-cut skirt, buttons instead of snaps). As a result, the Wallflower ended up being both a homage to and an upgrade from my beloved yellow vintage dress, but I couldn't leave the design alone. There were still things that needed fixing, tweaking, and adjusting.

And so, not long after launching FW16, I started tinkering with the Wallflower pattern again. I knew the new dress wasn't going to be a part of SS17, but I knew my new design would end up on the site at some point!

After wearing around the sample of the Wallflower Dress I took for myself a number of times, I began to notice a number of things I wanted to change. For one, the back of the skirt needed to be lowered by about an inch to make the hemline sit parallel with the floor. For another, the bodice could be redrafted so that it fit better, both near the shoulders and near the waistline. And the skirt could have used a few more inches of volume from the hips down. And the back neckline could be lowered a half an inch or so to be a bit more comfortable and create a slightly more attractive line. And so on — you get the point. A lot of what goes into my designs (and anyone's designs, I am assuming) are lots of teeny tiny details and curves and measurements that only someone as neurotic as I would ever notice on their own, but together, these little details are what separate a well-designed garment from any old garment.

The big, noticeable thing that I thought needed changing about the Wallflower was the way the dress closed. The Wallflower had two buttons that closed it and then a tie attached to the back that wrapped around for extra support, but I didn't like how the buttons inevitably popped out as one moved around and the tie drooped. So, for the Ellen, my main challenge was to design a button-free closure. It took me a while to get it right, but once I did, I think I figured out the perfect way to design the closure on a wrap dress: by attaching the waist ties to the ends of each side of the bodice, and then creating a small slit on the right side seam where the left waist tie could poke around from the inside to the outside of the garment.

The result was a dress that tied like a bathrobe but had the support and integrity that the buttons had formerly given it. Not to mention that waist ties make the dress super adjustable size-wise (perfect for weight fluctuations or lending to friends!), and there were no more buttons peeking out!

After I figured out the waist tie issue, I felt a great weight off my shoulders, and designing the other components of the dress went pretty easily. One of the most prominent design elements I included in the Ellen Dress were the flutter sleeves. I wanted the sleeves to be airy and flowy like sleeves on summer dresses should be, and I wanted the sleeves to be slightly exaggerated, but not so much that they took away too much attention from the rest of the dress. It took a few tries to get the sleeves just right as I adjusted my normal short sleeve pattern piece to have a fuller, elongated sleeve.

Above, you can see my normal short sleeve pattern piece on the top, and the flutter sleeve pattern piece on the bottom. By stretching out the curves on the top and the bottom, I created a lot more volume at the end of the sleeve without changing the seam length (where it attaches to the body) at the top.

After all of that work, it was time to make a sample of the dress I had designed and see what needed adjusting.

That's a photo of me trying on the first prototype of the Ellen I made. That prototype was mostly true to the final version (I still hadn't gotten the flutter sleeves where I wanted them), with the main issue being that the neckline was way too loose and baggy in the front.

At first I didn't know what to do about the loose neckline (should I just shorten the length of it?) but after a few redrafts it hit me — I need to cut the bodice on a different grain so that the neckline part isn't stretchy! The way I had cut it originally, the neckline was almost perfectly parallel with the bias of the fabric (i.e., the stretchiest part), and by shifting the pattern so I was cutting it with the neckline parallel to the grain of the fabric (i.e., the least stretchy part), all my issues were solved.

After that, there were a few things I changed about the design last-minute, like changing the way the lining attached to the dress, adjusting the way I hemmed the sleeves (a teeny-tiny rolled hem looked the best!) and changing the darts on the dress's skirt to pleats. As you can see below, some of these changes were made so late that I haven't even had time to adjust my master pattern.

And there you have it: the bumpy road leading to the creation of the Ellen Dress. As far as designs go, the road to the Ellen may have been a bit bumpier than average, but really, even after doing Margu for more than a year now, I find myself still making lots and lots of mistakes as I try new things and get better at my craft. But I like to think that's part of the fun of it!

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