Molly” is only half dressed. The headless dress form in Helen Welford’s studio wears a silver-green 1840s-style bodice with lacy short sleeves, but the full skirt has yet to be added. Welford fingers a plum-colored ribbon, trying to decide whether it is the right accent for a waltz dress. “Ball gowns of that period were usually light pastel colors, because modern dyes hadn’t been invented,” she says. “Now we have so many more color choices.”
At her home studio in Dexter, Welford designs and sews custom new dresses in vintage styles from the 1810s to 1930s. Her clients are mostly vintage dancers who learn and perform quadrilles, waltzes, and fox-trots and attend balls in period costume. Balls are held twice yearly at the Pittsfield Grange by Grand Traditions Vintage Dance, a nonprofit dance school.
Most of Welford’s dresses begin with modern fabrics, but she has occasionally harvested material or lace from a period dress and reused it. She is quick to point out that her creations are not historically accurate in every detail. “Women don’t have someone to help them dress these days, so I have to take liberties,” she explains. Her dresses appear to have hooks and eyes or ribbons and eyelets down the back, but they actually open with a hidden side zipper.
“It is most important to get the lines right,” she says. If the era called for corsets but the client doesn’t want to wear one, Welford will use boning in the bodice to create the same effect. And she adds a cotton lining to absorb the sweat of fervent dancers.
Helen, who is sixty and a retired arts program coordinator at the University of Michigan, has been a fiber artist most of her life. “I fell in love with weaving,” she says, and she spent years creating wall pieces and fabrics. When her husband, Robin Warner, introduced her to vintage dancing years ago, she began sewing her own dresses. “I needed costumes for many different periods,” she says—bejeweled gowns for Viennese waltzes, richly colored and layered tunic dresses for ragtime.
Welford delved into research on changing necklines, waistlines, sleeves, and detailing. She studied women’s dresses in paintings and old family photographs. Finding paper patterns difficult to adapt, she researched period publications in which fashion experts described how garments were made. For example, she learned that nineteenth-century seamstresses adjusted the length of a skirt at the waist rather than at the hem.
She now gives presentations on the history of women’s dress. Using a twenty-one-foot time line hand-drawn on muslin, she shows how women’s fashions have been affected not only by such innovations as new dyes or the invention of the zipper but also by political and cultural changes. Most of us know that the Roaring Twenties shortened hemlines and hairdos, but Welford also reveals that the yellow tones of indoor gas lighting in the 1830s encouraged more blue fabrics, and that multiple petticoats gave way to straight skirts when women started riding in cars.
Six years ago, after years of making vintage dresses for herself, Welford accepted her first commission. Since then, she’s sewn dozens of dresses through her small company, Designs for Dancing—but she’s careful not to take on too many orders at once, because she spends 75 to 125 hours on a single dress. “I enjoy creating for other people and making them look good,” she says. “And I haven’t gotten bored yet.”