Long before we start marking pages in bridal magazines, the first dress to really capture our hearts might just be the white confection we wear for our First Holy Communion. This is the first time we get to wear something very special. Because we are growing up. We are old enough to make commitments and to understand them.
A communion dress needs to strike a very difficult balance between little girl and growing up person. It also needs to honor what is, after all, a holy occasion. The dress needs to be appropriate for a young girl, but also reflect her first steps into a grown up world. When Lucy came to me with a wish for a simple and classic dress, I was honored and excited to be a part of it.
Usually when I begin a dress, I am inspired by fabric or pattern. I may choose a pattern that lets an unusual fabric shine or I may chose fabric that suits the style lines of a pattern. A communion dress presents a unique design challenge. The traditional full skirted shape and pure white fabric are preordained. Yet, there is room for personality.
To create interest in the all white landscape of the First Communion dress, I do what designers do in a white room – I turn to texture. There was no doubt in my mind about the main fabric: organdy.
Cotton organdy is hard to come by. My mother fondly remembers the organdy party dresses my grandmother made her and my aunts in the 50s and 60s. Today this wonderful stuff seems to have faded exclusively to the realm of heirloom sewing and historical costuming. Organdy is a very sheer fabric that is crisp and holds its shape. It is so very lightweight it simply floats. It has a gently ethereal character that perfectly suits a holy occasion. It speaks of a fine, ladylike quality sorely missed in the ever cheaper, ever faster fashion of ready to wear.
For white work, it’s natural to turn to the world of heirloom sewing. Many people assume “heirloom” means old fashioned clothes with a suffocating amount of lace that look more like costumes than anything we might actually want to wear today. The truth is that heirloom sewing is really about the finest fabrics, exquisite detail and impeccable needlework. Heirloom style includes simple, tailored and elegant techniques perfect for a traditional setting. To honor tradition in a way that works now, I decided a modern interpretation of heirloom would offer Lucy the simple elegance she likes.
The sheer layers can be embellished in many ways, but our Lucy prefers a simple aesthetic. So I put aside ruffles and lace and borrowed from more tailored techniques. Rows of tiny pin tucks add texture and dimension without the frills. A tiny vine embroidery with Swiss entredeux was just the right amount of girly for Lucy.
The bodice and skirt are underlined in poplin for structure and just a few layers of tulle for fullness. The whole dress is lined in fine cotton lawn, soft against the skin. All skirt layers are finished with French seams.
I left the sleeves sheer for formality and textural interest. Lucy chose sweet tulip shape over more predictable puff ones. The baby hem echoes the pintucks in the skirt. For the collar, I did something unorthodox. I took just one layer of organdy and finished it with same tiny hem as the sleeves. The effect is subtle, but the relationship of the sleeves and collar help pull the design together.
The final layer of texture is a shiny silk satin sash with a generous bow. This makes a nice contrast the matte surface of the organdy.
Lucy is tall for her size and needed 6 extra inches of length! I made a sway back adjustment to better fit her excellent posture. These kinds of changes couldn’t be made to a store bought dress. Lucy has a dress that reflects her own personality, is made to fit her perfectly, and is unlike anything she could have found in a store. The finest fabrics ensure that this piece can be handed down to Lucy’s own daughter one day. Lucy and her mother are thrilled to have a simple and elegant dress with a traditional look.
While I am also pleased with how this dress turned out, at the end of this labor, what I like most about the dress is how it lets Lucy herself shine.