Poor Unfortunate Souls

It has been a couple of years since I’ve made a new Halloween costume. I mean, I dressed up two years ago (I went as a faun to work and to the corn maze as a “deer hunter” – faun makeup + flannel shirt + hunting vest), but that costume was mostly just special makeup added to clothing I already had. I haven’t worked on many costumes or costume pieces in a while.

I decided that I should try to remedy that, and use Halloween as a deadline to get my butt in gear. David and I joked about creating villain costumes for a karaoke outing, and I figured “Might as well start there.”

My work is normally open on Columbus Day (we’re a company with an indigenous bent…three guesses why we might not celebrate that holiday), but my contract wouldn’t let us bill work that day (we might not celebrate that holiday, but they still observe it), so I essentially had a day off. I swung up the street to the Goodwill in town, to see if they had anything I could refashion into a costume.

The “refashion” aspect of the costume design was partly in an effort to be economic (both in terms of money spent and in giving an old item new life), and partly to add to the challenge. After all, I have plenty of experience in regular old costume-and-clothing construction. But completely refashioning a pre-existing item? I don’t typically go that route. I am extremely impressed with several people’s ability to look at an item and make something completely different and amazing out of it, but that’s not really been in my wheelhouse before.

Until now!

The starting point: a non-descript 90’s evening gown with a black velvet halter neck bodice and satin skirt.

I picked up an old velvet-and-satin early 90s-ish evening dress (halter neckline, shiny buttons, and a little bit of netting flounce), as well as a truly unfortunate purple shirtdress thing, a purple satin bolero jacket with flounces around the wrist, a teal sueded cotton shirt/jacket, and some remnants in various shades of purple and green. I remembered to take a picture of the evening dress “before,” but sadly forgot to snap a shot of the purple shirt dress before attacking it.

[Trust me, it’s really for the best. The dress had been “fixed” rather inexpertly, with poorly sewn repairs along the seams, horribly mis-matched buttons down the front, and reinforced stitching on the bottom of the button placket. When I went to take the stitching out, I made the horrifying discovery of a torn fingernail sewn inside said button placket sandwich. I almost gave up right then.]

I removed the buttons from the front of the evening gown (they only served a “decorative” purpose in the first place) and separated the top from the skirt and lining. The top was too small for me, so I set about adding in a new back panel. I basted on the sleeves from the fingernail shirt dress, as well as a new zipper up the back, using the sleeve bands as a feature. I wasn’t originally planning to keep the bottom edge of the purple, but when I tried the top on to check the fit, I liked the bustle-like look of them — which ultimately defined the direction this costume would take.

You see, I didn’t go into the refashion with a cut-and-dried idea for the finished look. I figured I would play around with the pieces until something came to me. When I saw the ruffles formed by the new back panel, I thought of Victorian bustles and Old West saloon girls, and the dress evolved from there.

While I was at Goodwill, I came across the perfect shoes for the outfit. They were heels, but manageable, shiny patent leather in two shades of purple. They were my size! and they were only $5.99. They were ideal Ursula shoes…except…I could only find one. That’s right, only one of the shoes was on the rack. I looked up front, in the glass display case, in case they had somehow decided to safeguard someone against stealing the pair. No such luck (it was a long shot anyway, as our Goodwill doesn’t usually split up pairs like that). I looked under all the clothing racks, in case it had fallen below. I even searched throughout the entire store, my eyes peeled for a telltale sight of shiny lilac.


I planned to go back in a few days, in the frail hope that the other shoe had been found and I could purchase the pair. There was another pair of shoes there that could work – fuzzy olive-y green pumps that reminded me of moss, seaweed, and the cave polyps in Ursula’s leviathan home that used to be merpeople. I picked them up, still hoping that I wouldn’t need to use them.

Moving on, I set about working on the skirt. The skirt part of the dress consisted of a black satin overskirt and an underskirt of black crepe and tulle. Both skirts were far too long for my height (even if I wear heels), and I knew they needed to be brought up a smidge to allow for my waist.

The first step was to separate the petticoat from the overskirt. They were stitched together at the top, so I snipped right below that seam and set the overskirt to the side for the time being. I cut a length of twill tape to serve as a guide for the new waist measurement, leaving about two inches of overlap on either side of the tape. I pinned the tape “closed” and then proceeded to adjust the petticoat to fit the new waistline. I pinned the whole thing, ran it through the machine, and then pinked the top edge of the crepe, to keep things from unraveling while I worked on the skirt. Adjusting the skirt like this brought it to the perfect length for me, hitting about two inches above the floor.

I took the assortment of purple fabrics – including the body of the shirt dress that I had

Adding the first flounce

deconstructed, and cut them into different widths. I stitched the ends of the bands together, keeping the shades separate, and then hemmed one long edge of each. The darkest purple got stitched to the bottom of the petticoat, just behind the tulle edge. This will provide a little bit of color at the very bottom, as well as protecting my legs a little from the scratchiness of the tulle.

I stitched two lengths of black grosgrain ribbon to the front of the petticoat, to create channels for an adjustable ribbon, to be added later. This allows me to draw the skirt up in the front if I want, without making the change permanent. It was important to stitch the channels on at this point in the construction, rather than afterwards, since I didn’t want to run the risk of tacking down the other ruffles that were going to go on the petticoat. Of course, this meant I also had to be a little more careful when stitching said ruffles down, so as not to catch the ribbon drawstrings. This costume was nothing if not a challenge.

Once the channels were sewn on (I didn’t run the ribbons through them until everything else was finished), it was time to put the flounces on.

So many flounces!

So much purple!

Each strip of flounce got it’s own tiny hem. I pinked the upper edge of each one, to keep them from fraying too crazily while I pinned and stitched them to the petticoat. Each layer was stitched on by hand.

I debated whether to sew the petticoat and overskirt back together. On one hand, I wasn’t sure whether I would ever need to use either one of them without the other one. On the other hand, there’s a voice that’s always shouting in the back of my brain, going “Make them separate! You never know when you’ll need to wear a long satin skirt! Or need a flouncy purple and black petticoat by itself!

Ultimately, time make the final decision. It was the day before my self-appointed deadline and I still hadn’t finished the costume. The easiest way to finish the overskirt was to give it its own zipper and “waistband” (it actually sits about 8″ above my natural waist, to allow for the excess length), so I left the two skirts separate. I pleated up the sides of the overskirt and pinned them, just to get a sense of how the dress was going to function, and decided I liked the idea of holding the overskirt a little more securely — so I tacked the horizontal pleats together to create the front drape…and had an idea to drive home the whole “Ursula” look. Instead of creating another plain ribbon channel/tie, I made up a couple of black and purple tentacles. I tacked the ends of two of them along the back of the overskirt waistband, leaving them just long enough to come out and flip up, to attach to the bottom edge of the bodice of the dress. The rest of the tentacles were attached to the back of the dress, to form a bustle.

An earlier trip to Unique Thrift resulted in an extremely lucky find…a bag of random shells, once of which is a match for the shape of Ursula’s necklace. There were even two holes in the sides of the shells (I’m assuming that the shells were originally strung together to form a mobile/windchime). I had to enlarge one of the holes just a tad bit, and threaded some extra black ribbon through. I strung a little floral LED light on the ribbon as well, tucking it into the shell, and VOILA! Glowing magical shell necklace!

Oh, and you know those shoes I was hoping to go back and find? Nope. Gone. I’m not sure if someone finally found where the lost mate was hiding and snapped them up, or if the workers realized one of the shoes was missing and threw it out, but when I went back it wasn’t there anymore. I technically have the “mossy” shoes, which can work, but I ended up using the dusky purple flats I had purchased recently for Mel’s wedding.

Mossy shoes (left) that I originally picked up for Ursula, which later went into the swap.

I had originally considered keeping the halter neckline of the original dress — mostly because it would be one less thing to worry about — but the more I looked at it, the more I disliked that notion. Ursula’s neckline is pretty distinctive. The problem with doing away with the halter neck, though, meant there was no other way to keep the bodice of the dress up. If it had been constructed like a normal corset, it probably wouldn’t have been a problem, but I had cut away most of the inner workings of the bodice and I didn’t have enough faith in the integrity of the remaining (old!) velvet. I’m pretty modest in my daily dress, and I was going to take this to work, so I needed to make sure I was sufficiently covered.

I hopped over to Stitch the Friday before Halloween and picked up the Nettie bodysuit/dress pattern from Closet Case Patterns, followed by a trip to FPB (of course) for some lilac jersey knit. I found the perfect color, though the knit was a tad thicker than I originally wanted. I picked it up anyway and quickly knocked out a long-sleeved body suit.

[Note: I actually had to cut off quite a bit from the length of the sleeves. I find it hard to believe that most people have arms that long.]

I cheated and used some snap tape for the closure on the bottom, rather than stitching them on myself (I don’t care…time was of the essence), and tried on the piece. I was mentally crossing my fingers while I tried it on, and it fit perfectly! Hooray for sewing success!

The bodysuit solved the “how do I keep a sweetheart neckline up?” question, as well as serving as Ursula’s distinctive skin tone. I tried on the bodice, pinned the new bust line I wanted, and snipped off the extra bits. I used some moss green bias tape from my stash to finish the edge nicely and pinned the upper corners straight to the body suit using safety pins.

Et voila!

One finished sea witch costume.

David and I had originally planned to wear costumes to karaoke at Freddie’s the night before Halloween, but those plans had to be scrapped. I did sing Ursula’s song during the evening, and one of the people in the audience excitedly told me that they had dressed as Ursula at work this year. I laughed and said, “You want to hear something funny? Guess what my costume is this year!” Turns out, they almost wore their costume to Freddie’s that night, too. Now I wish we all had. That would have been hilarious.

I ended up wearing my costume at work on Halloween — one of only four people who bothered to dress up. Unfortunately, it took six months and a trip to RavenCon in Williamsburg to finally get some pictures of me in the costume. I hadn’t gone all out, in terms of makeup, when I wore the costume at work, but the convention was another story. I’m sad you can’t see the eye makeup as well. Of course, this was after I had already been running around for a while (note: my hair was not as curly at this point…I later went back to the room and re-curled it)

What do you think of the finished look?

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