This dress has been long in the making, with elements slowly collected and brought together. In fact, I consider this dress a product of multiple Twin Cities textile institutions: the buttons, first, were lovingly — and filthily — fished out of the giant button bins at SR Harris; the wool stretch crepe snagged for $15 at my first-ever Textile Center Garage Sale, a much-anticipated yearly event; and the lining and interfacing picked up at Treadle Yard Goods.
Fishing the first small, bronze, beautiful Medusa head buttons (presumably Versace knock-off overstock) out of the seemingly endless bins at SR Harris came at a fortuitous time in my life, as I’d only recently spent a long time contemplating Medusa and all she stands for in a paper on Harriet Hosmer’s 1854 iteration. I found myself drawn in by the mythical figure and the many ways she has inspired emotion: fear, pity, attraction, even identification.
While we’re more familiar with Medusa a monster, many early iterations of her myth, including Ovid’s Metamorphosis, identify her original beauty, transformed into monstrosity by Athena’s curse after Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. This curse is also Medusa’s great power, granting her the ability to turn men to stone with her gaze. Even after her death, slain by Perseus in her sleep, her head acts as an apotropaic talisman, able to ward off evil and prove the prowess of its bearer. In many artistic representations, Athena herself takes up Medusa’s head as an emblem on her shield (or sometimes breastplate), and Gorgoneion heads show up again and again at building entrances or as door knockers, warding off unkind visitors. Hosmer herself takes up the Medusa emblem as a symbol of powerful women by giving her depiction of Zenobia, 3rd century Palmyrene queen conquered by the Romans, a Medusa head brooch on her belt.
While Freud used her to describe castration fear, Hélène Cixous to consider the possibility of a distinctly feminine mode of writing, and countless feminist theorists and scholars as an emblem of feminist rage, it is queer 20th century poet May Sarton’s connection to Medusa that speaks to me the most.
I saw you once, Medusa; we were alone.
I looked you straight in the cold eye, cold.
I was not punished, was not turned to stone —
How to believe the legends I am told?
I turn your face around! It is my face.
That frozen rage is what I must explore —
Oh secret, self-enclosed, and ravaged place!
This is the gift I thank Medusa for.
Her identification her is not just feminine, not just feminist, but distinctly lesbian — the pull of attraction towards something beautiful and powerful and monstrous, all at once.
With all this in mind, I knew these buttons were destined for a garment imbued with that same sense of severity and loveliness, with a Gothic drama that paid homage to the mix of fear and attraction in her stories. I’d had pinned Sweet Nothings’s review of this beautiful DD Atelier dress with full sleeves ending in a wide cuff with multiple tiny buttons, and the shoulder/neckline combination reminded me of the Colette Ceylon, which I’d already made once and really liked. I knew it needed to be green wool, to pick up on the snake associations and to set off the weighty antique look of the bronze buttons. When a length of wool crepe basically dropped into my lap at the Textile Center garage sale, it was on!
So, what adjustments did I make? The first time around, I’d futzed a full bust adjustment, and I kept that piece in place because it worked well. I cut the same way you would do a regular FBA, but anchored by spread point on the side seam instead of the shoulder (what would usually be the armscyth). That way, the spread material would get contained into the gathers already on the pattern rather than as darts (gather points marked by circles here).
The rest of the fit needed only a bit of fussing: a small swayback on the mid-back piece, a bit of extra width on the low hips.
And then the sleeves! I had already done a full bicep adjustment on the original short sleeve piece, but added even more as it was still a little snug. This time, because I was interested in fullness and drama, I simply added 2″ vertically down the length of the sleeve. I then fashioned a long cuff in a sort of trapezoid shape.
I didn’t want a big sleeve tower placket so I attached a very small continuous bound placket. The cuff was a bit tricky to sew on, as the placket was too small to allow it to open up. Overall, I wish I could reduce some bulk there somehow but generally I like how it turned out. The small buttons were salvaged from a Target dress I no longer wore.
The dramatic, poofed and pleated sleeves take the dress from forties-inspired summer frock to Gothic romance. I suddenly belonged in a story of a governess in a haunted Victorian manor house, swept across windy moors with only my stalwart logic to keep me grounded.
As luck would have it, I finished the dress just before a mid-April blizzard, which provided a very windy, very chilly, but very fun opportunity to play pretend.
I love creating garments with deeply entangled stories and imaginings stitched into their threads, of crafting things that hit just on the cusp between costume and regular clothing, of making personae that I can shrug into, just for a day at a time.