The Rear Window Dress: Petticoat and Skirt

(You can read all posts about the Rear Window Dress by Aunty Laura.)
Edith Head sketch of Grace Kelly dress.

Edith Head’s original concept sketch for the black and white gown that inspired my repurposing project.

Pulling It Apart

Usually deconstruction is a release for me. I am either chopping off panels from garments willy-nilly as I let out some energy or am cultivating the fine art of patience as I meticulously separate a single seam—in either case letting my mind wander as it wishes in luxurious daydreaming.

But this.

When my mind wandered back an hour later, it found me still picking out white stitches from white chiffon, white polyester lining, white polyester underlining, white interfacing, and white nylon netting. Fairly swimming beneath unending waves of white foamy tulle as I attempted to keep track of which seams I wanted to keep, I was beginning to rethink the ambition necessary for deconstructing a plus-size dress with multiple underskirts. And extra basting stitches still in place. And itchy, stiff nylon ruffles.

So much fabric. So much white. So much. . . much.

Well, it must be owned that by now I had an authentic appreciation for the manufacturer. Most of the damage that I had noted was limited to the outside. Underneath, aside from the poky boning, the garment really was quite well constructed. I was taking pains not to completely destroy the existing bodice, with a view to adding it to the thrift stash in as few pieces as possible, so I wasn’t breaking any sound barriers. I usually salvage boning for possible later use, which I did in this case as well, though they were just the cheap, plastic kind and in rough shape. I slipped the bones (They were also white.) out of the damaged built-in casings and set aside. They won’t poke anyone anymore.

I also kept the beads that ran away as I snipped—save the strays that I could hear land *plink* on the wood floor and roll away forever—carefully sorting them into separate glass jars as I went. They may come in handy if I want to repair parts of the dress later. Once I had the bodice pulled apart from the inside out, I could get at the waist seams and detach the three separate skirts.

On the whole, the experience was not without merit. As a newbie sewist, I enjoy deconstruction as a way of learning how all sorts of garments are put together without actually having to put them together. It’s like hand-sewing along with the pattern instructions, but in reverse. And with a seam ripper.

Grace Kelly in Rear Window.

Another still from Grace Kelly’s first scene in Rear Window (1954).

Inventory of Assets

When at last I finished and emerged from my tulle cocoon, I took an inventory of my deconstructed spoils:

  • 6 white bones of varying lengths.
  • 1 dead zipper, which I retired.
  • Several small, clear, white seed beads.
  • Several large, clear, white beads.
  • Several small, black seed beads.
  • Several black sequins.
  • A limp bodice with an approximate 46-inch bust for the stash, which has a glimmer of potential as a future bustier, perhaps with black trim and lacing up the back, if I can repair or remove the damaged parts. I may even size it down later for me.
  • A structural underskirt made of a lightweight polyester lining with two overlapping 22-inch stiff ruffles at the bottom. I decided that I would shorten this up, gather the top into an elastic waistband, and use it as the petticoat for my final dress.
  • A skirt with 1 lining layer,  2 layers of plain tulle, and 1 layer of beaded tulle. (Really, only 4 layers? It seemed like more.) The entire skirt was about 160-inches around at the hem. All four layers were still attached to one another and gathered lightly at the top.
  • A beaded crinkle chiffon overskirt, which I earnestly wanted to make use of somehow, but it didn’t seem to have a place yet in my plan. I set it aside until I could puzzle out how best to fit it into the ensemble.
  • A generous dusting of white curly-cue thread snow everywhere, for good measure. Which liked to get stuck in the coarse petticoat netting. Oh, bother.
Sketch by Edith Head of floral day dress.

Another of Edith Head’s concept sketches for the same film. Grace Kelly wears this floral day dress when she climbs into the murderer’s apartment to look for evidence in the final suspenseful scenes. Because climbing around fire escapes and through windows in high heels, confronting murderers, and getting arrested is all in a day’s work for a real lady.

Finishing the Petticoat

Creating the petticoat for my new dress was fairly easy. The underskirt was long and very full, about 156 inches around at the hem, and almost as full at the top. I sewed the side seam closed where the zipper used to be and chopped off several inches from the top of the lining piece. This shortened the whole underskirt from about 45 inches long to a more manageable 32 inches, without losing any of the fullness or length in the netting ruffles. I folded and stitched a rough hem at the top, then a cut a piece of 3-inch-wide elastic for a waistband.

Attaching the waistband was the awkward part of this step. I used a sort of stretch-n-sew technique, which felt rather like tugging on a big rubber band while easing the skirt through my sewing machine with a wide zig-zag stitch. But I had to stretch the elastic beyond what I imagine was a reasonable limit in order to ease at least 80 inches of skirt into 30 inches of elastic. I pinned the waistband to the skirt in four places and eased in a quarter section at a time, then added a second line of zig-zag stitching for good measure.

I tried the petticoat on. The stitching looked a little messy, I had to mend a section of the yoke where I had carelessly nipped it during deconstruction, and I think I could have gotten a more accurate fit with a 28-inch waistband. But no one would ever see the undergarment, and it had been hard enough to ease the skirt into the larger waistband, so overall I was quite pleased with the result. And I wasn’t re-doing it, that was for sure.

Finishing the Skirt

When it came time to turn my attention to the tulle skirt for the finished dress, I wasn’t sure at first how to proceed. The tears in the top netting layer were mostly from the bottom up, what looked like damage caused by missteps from a high heel on the dance floor. I had to shorten this skirt up, as well, but if I shortened it from the bottom to remove the damaged pieces, I would have to chop off the black and white beads that embellished the bottom of the skirt. My vision for the dress included leaving these intact, in lieu of the black lace applique around the waistline of Head’s original design. Also, I was not fond of the notion that I would have to re-hem the lining layer. (I didn’t have a serger to replace the rolled hem.) And I was not convinced that anyone could cut all three layers of tulle precisely enough for a clean and even hem on those, even if the skirt were somehow laid flat and it were done with a rotary cutter. It might come out looking worse than it already did.

So I decided to shorten the skirt from the top, like the petticoat, and deal with the damaged tulle as best I could. After baste-stitching all three layers together just above where I wanted my new waistline to be, I removed the top 8 inches of the skirt. I carefully trimmed around the damaged parts of the tulle and removed one large piece that was flapping about and might easily catch on something. While some tears and missing spots are still visible upon close inspection, from a distance of any length, you can hardly tell there is anything amiss. Besides, this is about making do with what you have, and the torn tulle bears witness to the garment’s previous life.

I put in three lines of gathering stitches at the waistline and set the skirts aside until the next step was ready: the black velvet bodice.

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