Strapless dresses: is there any other garment that promises so much, but at such high risk? If you've owned or worn a strapless dress, you've probably spent at least one night pulling the damn thing up every couple of minutes. That's because most strapless dresses are too cheaply made to provide sufficient support to stay up like they should. And while double-sided tape can be a temporary fix, with nothing more than a length of ribbon and some hand sewing, you can effect an easy, permanent remedy. Here's how.
The technique is simple once you understand the problem. The reason strapless dresses want to fall down is because there's nothing holding them up. Think about it: most clothing isn't skintight; what keeps it in position is the fact that it hangs from the human shoulder. But a dress that ends at your armpits has nothing to hold onto. A strapless dress can't be supported from above, by the shoulder, so it needs to be supported from below, from the wearer's waist. It needs a belt — a "stay" — to wrap around that waist, and it needs vertical structural elements — boning — to run from that stay all the way up the dress, propping it up. This combination of horizontal and vertical structural elements is called a "waist stay," and it's common in couture clothing and older ready-to-wear (you might have already seen one on a vintage dress). Boning + ribbon belt = waist stay = no more falling-down dress. It also = a dress that is more comfortable to wear.
To demonstrate, I'm going to use a purple silk Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti sheath that I bought about four years ago — $88 at Filene's, which was both more money than I had to spend and too good a price to pass up. It was an impractical extravagance, and one of the first pieces of designer clothing I ever purchased. I loved the complicated draping, the rich color, and how the vaguely '50s silhouette almost made me look as if I had curves. I didn't love how the damn thing kept falling down. So into the back of the closet it went. Until now.
To get started, you'll need from left: 1) A strapless dress whose stay-up ability is currently of concern to you. 2) About 1-2 yards of fabric-covered plastic boning (or sufficient boning to fit the bodice of the aforementioned dress). 3) Thread. 4) Fabric scissors. 5) Pins and sewing needles. 6) Grosgrain ribbon in a sufficient length to wrap around your waist, plus about 10". Click any photo to enlarge.
We're going to make a waist stay and attach it to at least four separate pieces of boning. First things first: measure and cut a length of grosgrain ribbon that wraps around your waist — plus about 6". This will be your stay. Then cut four small, square patches of grosgrain, as pictured. (If you're using more pieces boning, like six or eight pieces, then cut more of these patches. You'll need one patch per piece of boning.)
Chances are your dress already has some kind of boning in it — but it's probably too short, poorly placed, or of flimsy quality, all of which could be making it impossible for that boning to do its job. So first you'll need to get that no-good boning out of your way. On the inside of the dress, just snip boning-width holes at the bottom of the channels that contain the boning, and push the boning out of it. Discard the old boning.
Next, take your new plastic boning and push it into those recently vacated fabric channels. Measure how long each piece of boning should be — you need at least two lengths of boning in the front and two in the back, but you might want to add one piece of boning at each side, too. Cut your boning into 4-6 pieces accordingly.
Note: if your dress doesn't have existing channels for boning, fear not — that's why I recommend fabric-covered boning. Instead of inserting the boning into channels, simply hand-sew the fabric-wrapped boning to the dress lining. Stitch through the fabric cover and into the lining, being careful not to catch either the plastic boning itself or the fashion fabric on the dress's exterior. Start the boning about 1/4" from the top of the dress, and leave the bottom 1" or so of the boning unattached and free of the lining. Lastly, do a line of firm back-stitches at the top of each piece of boning to close it up and prevent the boning poking out (or poking you).
That's what my measured and cut pieces of boning looked like once they'd been pushed all the way into the channels. Note that each piece of boning is protruding out of its channel by 2". That's not something that you should necessarily copy — a protruding 1/2" would suffice to attach the boning to the waist stay — it's something that I am doing because I'm actually sneakily lowering the waistline of the dress. I happen to be long-waisted, and consequently, strapless dresses made off of standard pattern blocks (the fantasy female bodily proportions that ready-to-wear clothing manufacturers design from) always sit too low on my body. My solution is to cheat the dress upwards by an inch or two with the insertion of a waist stay that is lower than the dress's actual waistline. Essentially, I'm creating a real waist line — the grosgrain stay — that sits 1-2" below the "waist line" of the dress. (If the difference between your natural waist and the waistline of the dress is more than 2", you need to be making more extensive dress alterations to the waist line, but up to 2" you can cheat.) If you need to lower the waist line just a smidge, this is a good quick and dirty way to do it. If you don't, then don't follow my example, and just let your boning pieces end at the dress's existing waist line.
Cover the protruding ends of your boning — whether they be 1/2" or 2" — with the fabric the boning was originally wrapped in. Stitch it to the channels of the dress lining as shown.
Then start attaching the ends of the boning to your waist stay in the appropriate spots. Sandwich the end of the boning between your grosgrain patch and your waist stay, with the patch facing "out," and away from the body of the wearer. (You want your grosgrain waist stay to be as smooth as possible against your skin.) Then sew little backstitches through the grosgrain patch, the fabric wrapped around the boning, and the grosgrain waist stay, securing all the layers together as shown. After attaching one piece of boning to the waist stay, slip the dress on, pin the waist stay around your waist, and pinpoint where the next piece of boning should meet the waist stay. Work around the dress in this way until all four (or six) of your boning pieces are attached to the stay.
This is what the waist stay looks like when it's attached to all of the boning pieces.
At the end of the stay, sew in two hooks as shown. The hooks should face "in", towards the body of the wearer.
Try on the dress, and pin your waist stay closed. Insert two fingers between your body and the stay to make sure it won't be too tight. Make a note of where the hooks line up on the stay, and measure the distance from the hooks to that spot. If that length is X inches, sew two eyes at X-1"; then at X", and then at X+1". (Because the grosgrain actually folds over and back around each set of eyes, as shown here, to insert three sets of eyes at 1" intervals will actually take about 5"-6" of grosgrain.)
This is what your three sets of eyes and your one set of hooks should look like.
Now when you put on your dress, the first thing to do is to fasten the stay. Once the waist stay is fastened, your dress is fully supported — in addition to helping your dress's neckline stand up and stay put, a waist stay has the effect of taking a lot of the stress off your zipper.
Ta-da: no more falling-down, low-cut, wrong-waisted strapless dress. I can now move, sit, stand, and dance in this baby without fear. And I can raise my arms. Success.
Now if only I had somewhere to wear it.
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