The Travolta dress: Patterning the corset

In the last post I discussed the Travolta dress itself: the history of it, how it became Diana’s favourite, and the inspiration Victor Edelstein had behind its design. I then looked at how I was going to make changes to the design to suit my own tastes and body. Finally I looked at the materials I needed and how much of them were needed. 

Today I will look at the patterns that are needed to put it together, and get started on that process. 

What patterns do I need?

There are three or four patterns that I need to make that will all combine to create this dress. 

  • The first and most important being the corset. The rest of the dress will be built upon this corset so that is vital. 
  • The next is the sleeve which will be attached to the top of the corset.
  • Then there is the skirt which is two separate patterns: a fitted pencil skirt to the knee, and a circle flounce that attaches to the hem of the pencil skirt to create the fishtail shape.

Where do I start?

Looking at that list, it seems like a lot of patterns to start making. There’s a corset, sleeves, and two skirt patterns. So which comes first? Since everything is built upon the corset that is the place I start. The sleeve, and skirt pattern will all depend on this finished corset. 

For the corset I’m going to draft it to my measurements using a method taught to me by the wonderful Lowana of Vanyanis. And because that wasn’t enough of a challenge I decided to try a digital drafting program. 

The program I use is Seamly2D which is a free open source CAD software specifically for pattern drafting. (At the time of writing, their download link does not take you to the download so you can download it here).  One of the things I like about it is all your measurements are stored in a separate file and can be updated and refreshed and those changes get made to your current draft. This is great if you have a draft you love but you have changed size a bit. 

So after getting the software all set up I can start putting my measurements in. Letting the software do all the maths I ended up with a starter pattern. I was very aware though corsets are tricky and bodies are not mere numbers so this was going to need some work. That’s what toiles are for. 

The toile

A toile, also known as a muslin, or mock up is our first draft garment made of a cheaper fabric so that we can fix any fit issues before we move onto our more expensive final fabric. Typically when making a corset toile you want to match the final fabric of the corset as much as possible. If this were a standard coutil corset I would use either artist canvas, or coutil itself. Since the finished corset is to be made of cotton bobbinet I need to choose a fabric that will mimic that fabric. Luckily enough in this case standard calico which I have heaps of will mimic the slight stretch of our final fabric. 

When making the toile I am careful to make sure I cut it on grain and use a good strong thread and seam allowance. I want to be able to access my seams so I instead run boning channels down the center of each of the panels instead of over the seams. I also make sure to mark the finished edge of the top and bottom of the panels so that I can see the final edge and expand or reduce as needed. 

Modifying the toile and pattern

As predicted the pattern needs a lot of adjusting. Despite using my measurements and double checking that they are correct, the bust of the corset is far too large, as is the under arm area. The top front edge is also far too high. So I carefully pin the left side how I want it to be and use a fine tip Sharpie to mark the new lines I am after.

Luckily enough the back of the toile fits perfectly. So I will make changes to just the front panels and attach that to the back of the first toile. The steel boning is flattening more than it will in the final corset when I will bend the boning into shape. But the changes are pretty good after the second toile. There may be some final tweaks I make but I feel comfortable making them in the final corset. 

I am so glad to have made progress on this big dream project. While I’d like to be further along at this point, good things take time and haste makes waste. 

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