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Musetta - c.1905 Velvet Opera Gown


Hammered velvet opera gown with silk dupion lining. Silk velvet accents. Handmade silk flowers. Ostrich feathers, custom shoes  -  October 2017


During my course at Melbourne Polytechnic in 2017, the first term was spent in constructing the Mrs Anne Turner costume, also featured in the gallery section. The second major assessment, which produced this piece, was a period costume assignment based on the character of Musetta; the dazzling songstress from Giacomo Puccini's beloved opera, La Boheme. 


The assignment gave a brief outline for the piece; that it would be set circa 1895-1905, that it contain a full undergarment set including corset, and that the aesthetic would draw inspiration from Art Nouveau design, popular during the period. Having been familiar with the opera, I immediately decided on Musetta as my subject. I was drawn by her beauty, her charm and her surprising complexity. The character arc that shows her going from extravagant "tart-with-a-heart" to devoted and selfless friend struck a chord, and provided a great canvas for my work.


As mentioned, I started from an Art Nouveau standpoint, drawing inspiration from the Latin Quarter, the portraiture of Giovanni Boldini, and colours of the stunning stained glass interior at La Fermette Marbeuf in Paris. I also examined the periodic revival of Art Nouveau; first in the late 1960's, and then again in the mid-late 1990's. I found in the latter, one hundred years distance from my target era, a range of similarities. Both eras had a strong emphasis on floral motifs. Both made use of joyous, vivid fabrics. And both were instilled with a heightened sense of drama and sensuality; from sumptuous undergarments to daring silhouettes, these eras became my two touchstones for this one ensemble. This explains, in part, certain elements of Musetta's outfit that do not adhere strictly to the original time period. Namely, the extraordinary hammered velvet used throughout. An unusual discovery, this velvet replaced my original plans for a silk taffeta gown as soon as I laid eyes on it. Coincidentally, I had already purchased a pair of 1990's louis-heel mules in an identical fabric, which I planned to re-cover. But as soon as I saw the two together, I knew it was meant to be. The fact that I had not seen this type of velvet during my research into extant garments did not discourage me; I felt that it had the punch and flair that Musetta's character demanded. Additionally, it was a textile I had not encountered before. It was a mechanically hammered (rather than chemically crushed) velvet mounted on a nude-tone neoprene backing, which gave it beautiful weight and prevented any fraying. This lustrous fabric brought my vision to life; a vibrant and humorous chanteuse, self-aware of her flamboyance, delighting in the attention of others.

The undergarments were composed of a shell-pink silk satin chemisette with matching bloomers, knee-length stockings with silk bows, a quilted petticoat with a cotton-silk and tulle flounce at the hem, and a silk damask corset, custom made, all in decadent candy tones. The gown features a trained overskirt in hammered velvet, seperate bodice lined and trimmed in silk dupion, and a detachable velvet bustle. The matching shoes were re-lined, and the original peep toe re-covered and shaped into a more demure style. The bodice and the sheer silk damask shawl are festooned with silk peonies and gardenia leaves, all hand made in a single sitting. The derby hat, a seperate millinery project, is composed of matching silks and flowers, with white ostrich feathers and black cotton cockades.


Although liberties have been taken in the materials, I believe they are justified for the character, one that does not adhere to any set rules for herself, and does not dress to please others. And by contrast, the actual construction of the gown adhered, in so much that I was able, to traditional techniques of the Belle Epoque. The result is a true confection; a blend of period technique and playful anachronism, which I feel truly encapsulates the vivacious Musetta.

Photography courtesy of Mr Imran Abul Kashem / Styling by Luxuria Makeup Artistry

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