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How to make the Pretty Woman dress

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It's the brown and white polka dot polo dress that cemented Julia Roberts' status as "one classy lady" on 90s smash hit movie Pretty Woman.

Now wannabe designers can re-create the dress in DIY fashion using a step-by-step guide and diagrams in the genius new dress book Sew Iconic (A&C Black).

The design bible is a veritable Aladdin's Cave of dressmaker tips, showing creative types how to make 10 classic Hollywood dresses from material sourcing to cutting, sewing and finishing touches.

In this exclusive extract, author Liz Gregory shows Stylist readers how to make the Pretty Woman design, "one of the simplest dresses to make and a perfect project for the inexperienced dress maker." Needles at the ready as you find out more, below...

The dress: a background

Made from softly draping brown silk, with penny-sized white polka dots, this dress was created from fabric that designer Marilyn Vance “found while crawling around in the basement of Beverly Silks and Woolens.” She thought it was perfect for the outfit that she had in mind, but there was very little fabric available and this influenced the decision to go with the shorter, knee-length dress rather than the original concept of a ballerina length, which would have just skimmed the ankle. This also left a little fabric to trim the hat with!

The simple design reflected the less-is-more fashion trend of the period. A sleeveless, blouson-shaped bodice and very feminine, full skirt with an elasticized waist (covered by a wide brown leather belt) was the epitome of elegance and grace. Although it uses a substantial amount of fabric in the skirt, it is a superbly economical design, flattering to almost any figure and a sure-fire winner in the early nineties fashion stakes. In the movie, this dress expresses Vivian’s graduation from an outcast street-walker to society debutante more effectively than any dialogue or gesture. It is a frock that makes a specific statement: “Here is one classy lady!”

Making the dress

This pattern involves just a few pieces and uncomplicated techniques. Remember to check measurements carefully and use sharp fabric scissors, as it is the cut of the fabric that determines the success of the garment.

Choosing your fabric

Designer Marilyn Vance used some exquisite silk, but that may be difficult to work with so I would suggest a poly-cotton, which can be starched to give a lovely crisp feel. Fine-quality polka dot fabrics are relatively difficult to find and tend to be expensive, so be prepared to use polyester cottons instead. Make sure the fabric isn’t too heavy, or it will be more suited to upholstery than dresses. If buying online, try to buy a sample first. Polyester cotton will be really easy to sew as it holds its shape well, is straightforward to cut and stitch, and is also simple to wash. Whether you choose silk or poly-cotton, allow a little extra fabric to ensure you have enough to match the repeating pattern of dots properly.

You will need:

  • 3 yards brown and white polka-dot fabric—silk or poly-cotton
  • 1 yard brown Chinese habotai for facings (optional)
  • One 22-inch brown zipper
  • 1-inch-wide elastic, a little longer than the required waist measurement
  • Spray starch (optional)

Cutting

  • Fold your polka dot fabric lengthwise so that the selvedge edges are together
  • Lay out and pin the pattern pieces as shown on the diagram (below)
  • Take extra care to match the polka dots where possible
  • Look for the pattern repeat and ensure you place the second piece appropriately
  • You might want to use a small amount of brown Chinese habotai for the facing pieces instead of the main fabric, in which case make sure that you follow the fabric grain accurately
  • These pattern pieces show seam allowances of 5⁄8 inch, so cut close to the lines as indicated, marking notches for matching up pieces and for darts
  • Check the pattern pieces for size against your body measurements.

RSF = right side of fabric

WSF = wrong side of fabric

MF = main fabric

LF = lining fabric

Fabric pieces may be RH pieces (Right-Hand side pieces) or LH pieces (Left-Hand side pieces)

Sewing

Dress

  • Place the two main dress pieces, JR1 and JR2, right sides together and stitch the back seam from notch (Z) to the hem
  • Stitch the shoulder seams (A to B) and the two side seams (E to F). Serge all of the seams’ raw edges separately, then open and press all the seams
  • With right sides together, pin and baste the back facings to the dress, ensuring that the side seams and shoulder seams match up. Stitch them in place carefully, easing the curves around smoothly. Clip and trim as necessary to create smooth curves
  • With right sides together, pin and baste the front facing to the dress, ensuring that the shoulder seams match up. Stitch the facing in place, clipping and trimming the seams to ensure that the smooth curve is achieved. Press the armhole and neckline seams firmly
  • Prepare the open edges of the back seam of the main fabric (G to Z) for inserting the zipper by adding a strip of fusible interfacing along the seam allowance, to help support the weight of the zipper and stabilize the fabric. Allow the fabric to cool before stitching through, so that you don’t end up with sticky needles

Zipper

  • Pin and baste the zipper in place, then stitch securely to the main fabric of the dress. Enclose the zipper in at the top with the facing fabric, stitch and press in place

Finishing touches

  • Attach elastic to the waist (see key technique, below) and create the classic eighties blouse shape
  • If you wish to make a matching hat band or tie belt for the waist, cut a 6–8-inch-wide rectangle approximately twice the length of the required waist or head/hat measurement, fold in half lengthwise, right sides together, and stitch along the entire length, leaving a small gap to turn the fabric right side out after clipping corners and trimming and pressing the seam. Hand or machine stitch the gap once the belt is turned through to the right side.
  • Check the length of the skirt - the original falls to just below the knee so that it can be worn with heels, although the designer originally wanted it to be ballerina length (just below mid-calf) to be worn with flat shoes. You can choose which version you would prefer. Once the length has been measured and marked, hem with blind hemming stitch and press firmly in place.
  • Spray starch can now be used to give the fabric a fresh, crisp appearance. Spray starch is an effective tool when finishing your garment so that it is ready to be worn. Place the section of the garment to be starched onto the ironing board and spray from a height of about 12 inches above the fabric, so that the starch falls relatively evenly onto the fabric. Press straight away.

Note that some fabrics will stain and should not have starch used on them - particularly fine silks and chiffons. Cotton, linen and poly cottons are best starched giving a wonderful crisp feel to the fabric.

How to wear it

If you’re completely recreating an early nineties look, beware of the law created by James Laver, the famous costume historian, which states that an outfit is considered to be “ridiculous” 20 years after its time! Don’t let “Laver’s Law” put you off completely though: the Racing Day dress is an elegant, chic, and timeless garment, which could be easily updated with a number of adaptations.

- If you want to go for the full Pretty Woman look, as seen on the model, accessorize the dress with a white boater with matching hat band, a wide leather belt with oversized buckle, white pumps, and short white gloves. Keep jewelry simple - just a pair of simple pearl earrings will finish off the look perfectly

- This dress is definitely a daytime look, so leave the heavy makeup at home. Nude tones will go well with the colour of the dress. If you’re not planning on covering up your hair with a hat, a simple updo will show off your neck

- As stylist Erika Stanley says: “The perfect way to pull off the black and white polka-dot trend is to play down the rest of your outfit and let that one standout polka-dot piece do the talking.”

- This dress is easy to alter, with adaptations such as a more sophisticated, sculpted bodice, a wide bateau or sweetheart neckline, or a fitted rather than elasticized waist. A fitted waist would allow the wearer to adopt either a very wide leather belt, a simple satin sash, or even a narrow studded double-wrap belt, bringing the outfit into the twenty-first century

Find out how to make more fabulous dresses - from Audrey Hepburn's little black dress in Breakfast At Tiffany's to Marilyn Monroe's white halter dress in The Seven Year Itch - in Sew Iconic by Liz Gregory (A&C Black), available for pre-order on Amazon now.

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