What the Watteau?! (Part 2)

A couple of posts ago I wrote about my descent down an internet research rabbit-hole on “watteau-back” dresses – a design feature that first emerged way back in the 1700s and was notably reincarnated in the 1950/60s. Watteau-back dresses basically involve a big old load of folded fabric at the back which give the appearance of a cape/train.

Cool eh? I’m into it in any case, and decided to try incorporating a similar effect into a dress or two. My favourite examples are those where the dress is fitted through the bodice (rather than a sack/shift shape) and  where the watteau is a continuation of the skirt fabric rather than an additional, separate piece. These things combined pose a considerable technical challenge. How to add all that volume at the back without losing the shape in the bodice?

For my first experiment, I chose the BHL Georgia dress, a closely fitted pattern with a cupped bodice, narrow straps and panelled skirt.

My idea was to keep the fitted upper portion and then have the watteau-back blend into a gently flaring skirt. To do this I gently graduated the side front skirt pieces out from my size (14) at the hip to the largest size (20) at the hem. Then for the back skirt I drafted a new piece as follows:

  1. Traced the outer and upper seamlines from the Side Back (I)
  2. Overlapped the Centre Back (J) by the seam allowance, traced the upper seamline, marking the centre back
  3. Added 40 cm extra and squared off (K)
  4. Cut the whole thing on the fold

Construction-wise, with wrong sides together (i.e. with the fabric still folded along the fold line) I pinned and stitched a line down the “centre back” mark for 10cm. This basically gave me a massive pleat which I played about with and pinned until I was happy.

In the end I went with two layers of pleating, the first one 25cm wide, the second one 15cm wide. Once it was all pinned securely, i flipped it over and stitched within the seam allowance along the top before trimming off the excess. I then treated it as one back skirt piece and followed the construction as directed.

I should probably state (before I leap into a whole list of things I immediately want to do differently) that I love this dress. I’ve worn it to two weddings and it got lots of lovely compliments at both. I’m glad I persevered with the bodice (hang in there, anyone who’s mid-project!) because it’s by far the most glam thing I’ve made for myself and it makes me feel fab.

BUT – watteau-wise… meh, it’s not reeeeally what I had in mind… I meant they look like big old pleats, which are nice… but it’s not really the swoopy, drapey, dramatic cape-effect I had in my mind’s eye.

SO, lessons learned?

  • On pattern drafting: The adding-to-centre-back-seam method seemed to work pretty well. But for next time, I need to go all-out. A watteau starting at the shoulders and ending at the floor, for full-on cape-mania. I also might need to add even more pleats to make it look really intentional.
  • On fabric choice: Exciting design features should probably be shown off in solid fabrics, rather than crazy-pave african prints, in order to be noticed (duh). Also to get pleats that softly blend into the skirt at the hem, you probably need to use a soft fabric, not a stiff wax-print cotton (double duh)… Althoooough at the same time how AMAZING is this beautiful kitenge?? Picked up from Woodin Kinshasa… fabric store of dreams… I mean I have basically zero regrets about using it, it’s just not ideal for a watteau, that’s all I’m saying 🙂
  • On the other hand, to make the pleats stand away from the dress up top, it might be worth experimenting with adding a layer of something (netting?) along the top few inches… To be seen!

Finally, a quick word on the rest of the pattern – as with all BHL creations, it’s thoughtfully drafted with excellent instructions, supplemented by the comprehensive sewalong on their site. In terms of fit, the BHL ladies strongly advise you to toile the bodice and I would strongly support this advice!

I think I had about three goes before arriving at a fit I was happy with. I followed their instructions for a 1” FBA and adjusted the curve quite a bit, just by by pinching and pinning and transferring to the pattern etc. This sounds like a lot of adjustment but I think it’s to be expected with this sort of pattern. We all have such different shapes and sizes, it would be impossible to draft something which fits everyone’s leading ladies perfectly.

Mmmmm gin and well-fitting bodices…

Fair to say the watteau journey is not over yet. I’m looking forward to having another go once I find the perfect fabric – will keep you posted!

Siobhan xxx