“Tree” Intro

Between now and March 29, 2014 I have two big sewing projects going on (in addition to other small and medium/everyday ones).  These are for the annual Toronto Garrison Ball – a big military ball.  Because I’m married to a member of the Canadian Forces, I get to go!  I’ve gone three times now.


(the dress is this pattern, I’m disappointed we never got a full-length shot, I was wearing these really beautiful red shoes)


(a mash-up of two vintage patterns, this and this)


(made from this pattern, which allowed me to use up from the stash both a pile of ivory silk chiffon that had been lying around for years and several packs of blue dye that had been hanging around even longer)

For the 2014 ball I’m pulling out all the stops for my dress and am re-creating a classic vintage couture gown. (the other dress is for a friend who will also be going to the ball, in exchange for her knitting me a pretty sweater, I’ll be blogging about her’s in due course)

I’m going to recreate my very own Tree Gown:

Hee, hee.  No, not quite – although isn’t this amazing!?

I’m going to be recreating THIS Tree Gown:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - "Tree"

“Tree” Gown, Charles James, 1955, MET Museum

I have been an ardent admirer of Charles James’ work for a few years now, drooling over his incredible sculptural and architectural approach to couture during its ‘Golden Age’ (1947-1957) along with the plenty other afficianados out there.  For lots more examples of his work, check out this Pinterest search I just ran.  I have been as much drawn to his innovative and even counter-intuitive methods as to the beauty and originality of his designs.  A couple of years ago as a TA for a ‘modern’ architecture class I even gave a short talk on James as an architect of couture and the similarities between his construction methods and those of the skyscraper!

When the Chicago History Museum put on an exhibition about Charles James in 2011 I so wanted to go.  However, I was getting married that year and so it just wasn’t feasible.  – As an aside, while searching for the link to the 2011 exhibit I just now came across this.  I think a trip to NYC next spring/summer may be in order! – The Chicago exhibit took an inside-out approach to examining James’ work, focusing as much on the insides of the pieces as the outsides, going as far as having CT scans performed on certain iconic gowns of his, including this image of “Tree’s” insides:

Charles James "Tree," CT scan | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

The curator of the exhibit, Tim Long, even reconstructed the skirt foundation for “Tree”:


And this is where my opportunity to recreate this gown starts to come in.   ;o)

I spent 6 months in the UK (mostly London) from October 2012 through March 2013 performing research for my PhD thesis on aspects of 18th century garment construction (do you see a theme for my life developing here? lol).  One of the main sites for my research was in the collection of the Museum of London (and no, I actually didn’t do any research in the collection of the V&A at all, it was closed due to this – but I’m going back for a couple of weeks in the winter….).  Starting in January 2013, the very same Tim Long from the Chicago History Museum started as a curator in the dress collection at the Museum of London!  (you see where I’m starting to go with this)  When I found out he was the curator of the James exhibition it opened up a whole new area of conversation for us.  When I expressed my wish of someday re-creating a Charles James gown for the Garrison Ball he let me know that he had the pattern he’d drafted from “Tree’s” skirt and bodice foundation WITH HIM IN LONDON!   He lent me the pattern to trace, gave me a copy of the exhibit catalogue, and some notes on the construction process (as you can see from the above photo there are several layers to the skirt foundation).  In the interest of accuracy, this is the version of “Tree” from which the pattern was taken:

Charles James: The Exhibition - Threads

I cannot tell you how exciting this was for me!  It is only by having these pattern pieces taken directly from an original that it will be possible for me to recreate this gown.  I’m still daunted by the pleated/ruched/gathered bodice and upper skirt of the gown, but I believe that will actually be easier to figure out through draping than the process and pattern shapes of the foundation would be without the drafted pieces.  I am HUGELY indebted to Tim Long for his generosity in sharing these resources with me.  If you happen to read this, Tim, THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Over the coming weeks (months?) it is my intention to blog about the process of recreating this gown.  This feels like a real adventure in dressmaking for me and I’m excited to have a reason to document the process and a means to share it with those who may also find it interesting.  To get things started, I made a Pinterest board of all the images of the “Tree” gown I could find online.  If anyone happens to have come across one that I don’t have on the board yet, please do share – every bit helps!  I do have a few more photos of the different layers of the skirt foundation (there are about 4 of them!) in the exhibition catalogue I was given, but I wouldn’t post those without some sort of permission from either Tim or, most likely, the Chicago History Museum itself.

If you’re a fan of vintage couture I hope you’ll join in following this adventure, and any & all advice along the way will be most welcome!

23 thoughts on ““Tree” Intro

    • I have no doubt it will be all of those! lol And am betting when it comes time to cover the bodice and upper skirt, it will be a lot of frustrating!


  1. So exciting! I can’t wait to read about your exploits and adventure in recreating this dress. ;). You’re going to stun everyone at the ball, especially when they hear that you made it (yes, I’ll be telling everyone)!


    • That one is a really great dress and got a lot of attention that year. But it was all about the fabric, “Tree” is all about the construction and fabric manipulation, so much more challenging and adventuresome!


  2. Wow, this will be an amazing project! I’ll be making a formal dress too for my grad (prom), starting soon (hopefully), so I’ll be following this project along the way! Mine probably won’t be anything as extravagant as this though, I’m thinking more of a tea length skirt with box pleats and some sort of wide V neckline or a boatneck… something relatively simple.

    Anyways, good luck on your project! I’ll be following it!


    • Your grad/prom dress sounds really pretty! I made mine as well (back in the day). It was the 2nd thing I ever sewed – and it was out of silk velvet! I got A LOT of help from my mom on that one, lol.


  3. How very VERY cool that Tim let you trace his pattern! I love Charles James’ amazing designs! May your project be one of few frustrations and wonderful learning – your dress will be beautiful and steal the spotlight! =)


    • Thanks so much – that is rather the plan ;o) Well, at least share the spotlight with only one other – the friend whose dress I’m also making =)


  4. I have seen your end result on Pinterest and was really looking forward to reading your posts. However, on this page alone are 23 advertising photos (3 adverts repeated) and not one single picture of your own. So it was difficult to solely imagine what the progress looked like from your descriptions alone. But what a fantastic job you made, shame about the adverts. 🙂


    • Hi there,

      I have no control whatever over ads. The only way I would is if I paid for a premium account. Since I don’t get paid for writing this blog I’m not gonna pay for that. The issue with the photos is me – 2 or 3 years ago I accidentally deleted almost all of my photos on here and I’ve only very gradually been able to replace them. I have just gone back and now see that I’ve missed replacing photos for two of the progress posts for the Tree gown. I’ll try to get on that sooner rather than later – as life allows. However, most of the Tree-related posts do have their photos back, so please feel free to peruse them in the meantime!


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