Our Design Process Or How Do Gowns Get Created At Lily Absinthe?

Strathern Ranch Dress

Often, we are asked just exactly how we go about developing our various dress designs. The short answer, of course, is that we get our initial inspiration from history itself through a variety of media to include paintings, photographs, illustrations, and various extant examples found in museums, private collections, and most importantly–our private museum collection.However, this is only part of the equation- we also draw upon the world around us. Whether it be colors of a certain variety of flowers in a garden, an Arizona sunset, or even a piece of music, these also go a long way in the design process. Designing historically-inspired clothing is not the same as simply creating line-for-line reproductions of historical examples, but rather it’s using what came before to build something completely new. Creating line-for-line reproductions has its place (like recreating a dress for a museum display) but for us it offers little inspiration.

So, just what is the process? Well, there’s no “one” method but broadly speaking, here’s a rough outline of what we do:

  1. Discuss with the client what sort of a dress they desire (eg., day dress, evening dress, ball gown, etc.) and what specific period are they looking at.
  2. Discuss with the client their likes and dislikes and basically determine what sort of vision they have for themselves- in short, how they see themselves.
  3. Assess the client’s skin tone and hair color and crate a palette of complementary colors and review with the client.
  4. Based on the above, work up preliminary sketches and review with the client.

This is a continuous interactive process and in reality is as much a matter of art than scientific process.

However, it must be noted that the above process is also informed by our knowledge of historical styles and textiles because each plays an important role in achieving the most optimal design that is not only historically accurate, but also harmonizes with the specific client.

Now let’s take a look at a specific example…


Inspiration is the starting point for any design and it often comes from unexpected sources and often quite suddenly. This project initially started with the vague idea of wanting to design a fairly simple early to mid-1880s day dress in a style that’s not often recreated. While our reference library and the internet provided a wealth of ideas, nothing was really clicking (it happens, even with us. 😉 )

Then one day we found it! Through our Facebook feed, we’d received some images of a dress on display at a small museum. The two things that stood out were the clean lines and the use of pale greens- shades of celadon, you might say. The lines especially caught our eye in that the utilize a pseudo-jacket with large revers, a style that one rarely sees replicated these days. Eureka!  🙂

After a little close-up photo research, we determined that the dress was held in the collection of the Strathearn Historical Park and Museum in Simi, California. This was even better- we’d be able to get a look at the dress in person and not have to rely on pictures alone. 🙂 A quick 40 minutes later, we arrived at the museum and were able to get a good look at the dress even though it was behind plexiglass:

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The dress dates from the late 1870s/early 1880s and is characteristic of the Mid-Bustle period, especially with the cylindrical skirt silhouette and minimal bustle. The material appears to be either a silk or silk/cotton faille and the color is a light celadon (or gray, depending on the light).

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From the above pictures, it would seen that the dress colors are almost shades of gray. When we initially viewed the original pictures of the dress in the Facebook feed, it appeared that the dress color was more of a gray. However, when we had a chance to examine the dress in person and to take our own pictures, it was obvious that the dress was of a celadon color with ribbons of a lighter shade of celadon. It just does to show that lighting can make all the difference in a dress color and it’s one of the pitfalls of doing dress research purely online.

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Nice close-up- the sleeve fabric appears to be a silk faille.

Now for a little historical background starting with our old standby, fashion plates: 🙂

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Revue de la Mode, c. 1879

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Revue de la Mode, c. 1880

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Journal des Demoiselles, 1882

The following dress is a good example of the pseudo-jacket bodice style although it’s from the Mid 1880s:

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Day Dress, c. 1883 – 1886; Manchester City Galleries (1936-61)

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Close-Up Of Bodice

And just to be complete:

With all of the above in mind, we set out to create a design for an early 1880s day dress that would incorporate defined lapels (or “revers”) along with a two-tone color scheme of lighter greens. As can be seen below, we opted to use a dark gray with green undertones for the lapels, collar, and an outlining strip that would run along the hem of the overskirt. Here are some views of the dress under construction:

1880 Day Dress Strathern Ranch

Strathern Ranch Dress

Below is a more complete side profile view of one sleeve and the skirt. We opted to put four rows of knife pleating on the underskirt, made from a silk dupioni.

Here is a closer view of the lapels:

1880 Day Dress Strathern Ranch

And yes, there’s definitely a range of green shades going on…here we see Adam’s shirt and vest next to the dress. It’s interesting to note that the greens on the shirt and vest are “warm” while the shades on the dress are “cold”. 😉

When the dress was finally completed, Karin decided to unveil at the Helldorado Days event which is held every October in Tombstone, Arizona. Here are just a few pictures of the completed dress: -)

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Strathearn Ranch Day Dress 1880s Karin

The Final Touches…

Strathearn Ranch Day Dress 1880s Karin

And Of Course, The Obligatory “Selfie.”

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And Here We Are!

And so the it is! This is just one example of how our design process works. What really surprised us about this project is how a simple off-hand picture posted on social media lead us on a path of discovery that ultimately led us to bringing an early 1880s dress style back to life. We hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey through the creative process and we hope to be able to design a dress for you.

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Mac, our creative consultant, has decreed that there’s been enough fashion for one day and that he’s ready for dinner.

Extravagance Unfolded – The Knife Pleat, Part 3

In this installment, we’ll make a few comments in regard to knife pleat construction. Knife pleating is relatively simple but it requires a meticulous attention to detail and patience (and a lot of steam and pressure)- to use it effectively, you will need to work slow and methodical but with each project, you will gradually build up your skill and speed.

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In pleating, it is important to first consider the quantify of fabric that will be used. Here at Lily Absinthe, we compare pleating for clothing with pleating for drapery and it’s all about the proportion. In draperies, window widths are measured by “returns.” Cheaper draperies will have a 1.5 return (a return is 1.5 times the width of window). Average quality draperies run a 2 to 2.5 x return (e.g., 2 to 2.5 times the width of the window). For the highest quality (what we use here at Lily Absinthe) is a 3 x return (e.g., 3 times the width of the window). As you can see, higher quality will require significantly more yardage and this applies to clothing.

In order to achieve optimal pleats, steam and pressure are essential- a good iron is essential. During the 19th Century, one of the primary means of pleating was accomplished by the fluting iron. These could range from the manual devices to full-blown machines:

Fluting Iron1

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No matter what their construction was, they all worked on the principal of applying pressure to shape of “crimp” the fabric into the distinctive knife-edge pleat shape. Heat is an essential component and provision was made to heat up the cylinders through the insertion of heating irons which was iron bars that were heated up over a heat source, typically a stove or similar. Also, the fabric was pre-treated, usually with a mixture of water and starch, and this aided in permanently setting the pleats. Finally, to help maintain the pleats’ shape and prevent movement, the individual pleats were often tacked down.

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The above comments are somewhat cursory but if you want to know more, there are a number of good tutorials that are available online and even some video demonstrations on YouTube. Knife pleating was one of the most common decorative styles used for late 19th Century dresses and was used liberally along hemlines, cuffs, and collars and it’s definitely one of those style elements that should be give serious consideration in any dress design of the period.