Home-made Ball gown, Prom dress, Bridal or Party frock for pennies including accessories

Well maybe not quite pennies but it's very cheap for what you get, a unique piece of wearable Arts and Craft. Even if you had to buy all the fabric new and off the roll, it would still not cost much more than 10 Euros/Dollars/Pounds. It was originally designed and made for a small independent film company with a minuscule budget. The brief was for a golden ball gown, thus, a real challenge to make on such limited funds but inspired me in my quest to refashion!

Film costume made from cheap lining fabric

Elsa 'the Magic Maiden', played by Rebecca Tierney, in two scenes from 'The Golden Goblet. 

The major outlay for this frock is time, that is the labour (and fun) involved in creating it. The material I used was low-end lining fabric and what might be classed as cheap but very cheerful organza and tulle. So, lots of sparkle and not much solid substance but ironically the decorated appliqué sections of this gown can not be made with anything but light-weight, artificial fabrics. I also liked the wispy look of the final ensemble - it had an ethereal quality which so suits a special occasion, it should be magical.


As this dress was originally a film costume, I had some mood boards from the director but I was given free reign as to design. One of the ideas we discussed was to  base each character around a wild creature animal/bird. For Elsa I chose the swan and I also wanted to explore the ballet theme as I knew there was a short section in the film. Although I had the design ideas in my head, I also wanted to add to it with some classical and historical references, so I set up a Pinterest board (link at the end). As an added bonus I also found some interesting tutorials on making artificial flowers.

Left is the oil painting  'Mademoiselle' (1876) by Gustave Jean Jacquet. Right is the Dying Swan costume worn by Anna Pavlova in the four minute ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and first performed in St Petersburg in 1905. It was captured on film in 1925 and is on YouTube!

How much fabric, where to source it and the embellishments

Fairy costumes made from refashioned fabrics and accessories
For this dress, which was made for a size 6/8 UK, (US 4/6),  I bought 3 metres of lining fabric and half a metre of organza to make the fabric flowers, plus half a metre of gold metallic 'spider web' tulle for the wrap. By the time I had finished there was nothing left but 'tippets for mice'.  However, I did manage to make a matching doll's costume to fit with the doppelgänger plot of the film and I stuffed the tiara with all the tiny remnants I could find. (More of this later). In general for a long shift dress you will need enough chiffon to go twice around yourself. This to allow for a skirt that gathers well at the waist and doesn't look as if you skimped on fabric. If the chiffon is sold in short widths, as will be the case for sari scarf material, then you can do as I did and make 2 tiers of fabric. I also wanted the rich gold lining fabric of the skirt to show through when the light was on it, thus turning what was essentially a very modern and artificial looking fabric into something more subtle and interesting. The gown above on the left, I refashioned from an embroidered silk dress I had made and worn myself at a wedding. It was a Georgian style, A-line and fitted well with the Estonian influenced Faerie Queen, played by Kerry Browne.

Many pieces of dress lining fabrics end up in the remnant bin, so its worth a search through. However, even sold from cut lengths or a roll they usually cost less than one Euro/dollar/pound a yard or metre. In fact, I just checked and there are two meters of champagne coloured (old gold) fabric identical to the one I used, going now on-line for 99p (just over a dollar) a metre, which is the same price I paid. Small bridal shops, i.e., those that make, refashion or do alterations, are great places for remnants of lining and similar fabric.

The chiffon I bought at a jumble sale/yard sale in the U.K., it was a half-finished home-made petticoat for a fifties style dress and cost me 50p but you can pick up chiffon for just a few Euros/Pounds/Dollars. I did check again and there are 2 yards of wedding chiffon (60 inches wide) going on-line at the moment for just below 4 dollars. Chiffon can also be sourced very cheaply and in wonderful colours at Indian sari fabric shops, some of this fabric is even fine silk  and if you are lucky, as I was when I lived in the West Midlands, you can also find vintage scarf  lengths in the rag markets. The rest of the materials I used were ex-Christmas stock, ribbons, garlands, tassels and feathers, bought in the first months of the year. I got some really superb quality and truly for pennies in a 70% off and then a further 50% off, sale. These were often 3 ply so each component, metallic thread, ribbon and beads made a separate usable element. It pays to shop around and if you miss the sale at the original store, the same bargains will end up at Easter in the discount/thrift shop! Last but not least, broken and/or discarded costume jewellery. I get given a lot of this but even if you have to buy it new, you can pick up some really nice pieces, which of themselves may look cheap and cheerful plastic. However, by the time you've refashioned them, will at least look like glass, if not quite semi-precious! I particularly liked these metal bead caps, which I opened out to make the centres of my flowers.

refashioning broken jewellery

Cutting out the Bodice and Planning the Fabric Flowers

fabric flowers refashioned from broken jewelleryWe're going to start with making the flowers, as these are to be sewn onto the bodice early in the process. This way all the workings will be neatly hidden in the lining of the bodice. If you are creating this gown for yourself, then you are going to need a dress form of some sort to make it and I include below a link to our own pallet wood adjustable dummy. There are also some great 'how tos' for simple duct tape and paper dress forms on-line. Even if you can try the garment on a live model, they will still have to be very patient as you need to keep checking how the bodice is lying. This is because of my use of the technique of fabric manipulation to create a sculptured line around the figure. It also is much easier to work using a form, particularly with embellishments, so as to see how and where they should be placed. Furthermore, it makes me feel more professional and gives me the illusion I am Edith Head reincarnated! However, as I was working to a budget and just so as I knew how much fabric I had left to make the flowers I cut out the major pieces of the bodice first.

Choose a pattern or garment you really like the shape of, I modified the one I had, making it longer at the front and also shaped in a curve to give it a draped look.

With right sides together, fold the lining fabric in two, lengthways. Pin the pattern for the bodice front to the fabric with the centre line of the bodice to the centre fold of the fabric and cut out, preferably using pinking shears as this fabric frays.

Cut a second bodice front in the same way, this will be the lining. When you come to put these two pieces right sides together and before sewing up, you will need to pin them carefully avoiding catching the flowers. But it also means that you won't have to bother with facings as the bodice will be fully lined.

Set aside enough fabric to cut pieces which will be used as inserts between the front and back of your bodice, this will allow you to make a ballet style corset shaped bodice. It also allows for any loss of width incurred in the fabric manipulation. You should leave enough fabric for  two straight pieces each measuring double length of the side seams of the bodice and of a width of around 10cm (4"). These are to be folded in two lengthways and sewn together along one short seam and the longest seam and then turned right sides out. This will then be folded over and made narrower or wider to create the fitted bodice. If you look at the above picture of this piece made up you will get the idea.

Cut out the pieces for the back, (I'm cutting all four at once here) with the centre back, where you will put the zip, placed in line with the selvedge. I needed to cut an extra allowance to allow for the fact that I was using a tunic pattern so had to add a seam allowance for the zip.

Press all these pieces of fabric under a piece of linen using a steam iron or by dampening the linen cloth.

Making the fabric flowers

I used the remaining pieces of the champagne coloured lining fabric, a little amount cut off my gold lining fabric and the organza I had bought to make the flowers. I started by cutting out rough circles of fabric in various sizes. I used pinking shears both to prevent initial fraying but also to make a natural shaped edge to my petals. You can cut several thicknesses at once if you want to achieve flowers of similar size.

I then snipped inward across the fabric vaguely toward the centre of the 'flower' and from five fairly equidistant points on the circumference of the circle, in this way you are creating five separate and non-symmetrical petals. The longer the cut, the more your petal will curl inwards, so as I wanted several layers of petals on each flower, I varied the length of my cut on each circle. However, there is no problem with being precise about this, Nature isn't after all and any 'mistakes' can be hidden by another layer of petals.

This is the clever part, using a candle I now held the edges of the fabric close to the heat of the flame for just a moment and I rotated the circles to get an even heat. If you are worried about this you can hold the fabric circle with a wooden clothes peg or a pair of metal tweezers and you obviously need to be cautious when using a naked flame, so clear away all other flammable material from the vicinity. I also had a bowl of cold water near at hand in case of conflagration. This is why the fabric needs to be artificial, the heat melts the material and makes the 'petals' curl inwards in a very pleasing manner. I also left some of my petals in the heat for longer, this actually gave them a change of colour, which I found an added bonus!

I planned a whole raft of flowers at once, choosing centres and colour combinations. This allowed me to make subtle differences in shading across the gown.

It is also useful to get all your beads and jewels ready, so that once you are inspired you have everything to hand . I also planned to use pearls as one of my themes in this dress and in particular as part of my fabric manipulation, again I sorted out some darker shades of pearls to add to the sense of movement across the dress.

Making the Bodice - Fabric Manipulation

using fabric manipulation to create a shaped bodice

I started with pinching the fabric between my finger and thumb and then pinning it in place. I did this by eye rather than measure it because I wanted a natural organic feel rather than a geometrical pattern.

Fabric manipulation on a bodice

I continued to 'pinch and pin' until I had achieved the look I wanted, checking my bodice front against my dummy à la Dior (right). This is why I mentioned before that you either need to make a dress form or have an incredibly patient friend!

I now sewed one section of tucks in place using pearls and the others using my fabric flowers. I checked the flowers several times, pinning and then viewing them on the dummy. This way I could see how they caught the light when viewed vertically. It's a good idea to make tests using differences in size and nuances of colour to carry the theme of movement and shadow but the main thing is to have fun and make a unique piece!

fabric manipulation and fabric flowers
Once I was happy with the look of the bodice I sewed everything finally into place and then with right sides together, sewed the second bodice piece, to the manipulated section, leaving the whole bottom of the bodice open, I then turned it and using my thumb and index finger rubbed all along the sewn seams to get a sharp line.

I then pressed the edges and ran a tacking stitch all along them, so they would remain crisply in place whilst I continued to work on the bodice.

I then made my two back bodice pieces by sewing each of the previously cut backs, right sides together, leaving the bottom open to enable me to turn them. The two bodice back pieces were then pressed and tacked to maintain shape. I was now able to join them by pinning and sewing a zipper and I covered it using some of my Christmas ribbons and added pearls. I did this because in the film I didn't want any modern fastenings to be obvious. I also added a hook and eye at the top and a bow.

I was now ready to join my front and back bodice together using my adjustable fillets of fabric, as mentioned above. I pinned and measured it so as to get the corset cum ballet tutu look I wanted for the top. My zip at the back was sewn to continue down into the skirt, thus I could fit my extended bodice to fit snugly at the hip.

I finished the bodice by adding a touch of swan, in the shape of some white feathers I had scavenged from one of my discount Christmas garlands.

The Skirt

This was a very simple long A-line type design with a kick pleat or slit in the back for ease of movement. I cut it from my heavier golden lining fabric. I added to this the unpicked lengths of chiffon from a 1950's half-made, home-made petticoat. I had unfortunately washed this after finding it in a rag market years ago and it had shrunk rather badly but it was ideal for this job. Being silk chiffon, when pinned to the bodice it followed its uneven contour and formed the draped look I wanted. 

how to make an elegant evening gown on a shoestringOnce I was happy with the look of the skirt and bodice, I hand sewed them together. I had already planned that the flowers should continue down the skirt and had placed flowers along the edge of the bodice.

The dress was finished and now there were just the accessories to make and they are in the next article here.

If you have enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also about joining this blog to be assured of new posts. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.
All the very best,

Left detail from The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Thanks for Pinterest board images
- In order of appearance:
impedanceoflocomotion, surlalunefairytails, leboudoirdemademoiselle and the-garden-of-delights.

You can find these and more on my Pinterest board: Inspiration for Costume
and there you will also find the original  fabric flower tutorial from the Polka Dot Closet.
You can find our project and video on: 'How to make a pallet wood dress form'  here

© 2016 Sue Cross

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