I got to know Kelly Levesque a few months ago when she came to Houston to sing for the KNOWAutism gala. Not only is she an incredibly talented vocalist, but she is extremely kind and giving. She wrote a song about autism and is donating 100% of the proceeds to the KNOWAutism Foundation. We dressed her for the gala, but somehow, she was convinced to let me sing with her on The Prayer (there may or may not be evidence of this on my Instastory highlights…).
A month ago, or so, Kelly came to me because she was given the opportunity to sing on the White House lawn for military families on the 4thof July. She and I were both aware that no matter what side of the political isle you’re on, people might see this as a political statement of some sort. The gown had to be something that conveyed unity, inclusiveness, and respect for the military families who had given so much and many of them their love ones. It couldn’t just be another sparkly gown; it needed to have some sort of symbolism that conveyed celebrating our country and the sacrifices of our brave service members and their families who help to serve America.
THE COLOR PURPLE
Purple was an obvious choice in many ways because it represents the merging of red and blue. It was important to make sure the purple we chose read as a true purple, not too blue or too red. On television, with all the lights and cameras, it needed to be unmistakably purple. We even did a couple of tests, photographing different shades of purple, to make sure that they came out correctly under different lighting situations.
STAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT
We worked together to create the direction for the gown. I put together some sketches (trying to make sketch happen) and from there we were ready to go. I had the idea to combine the purple with a graphic star embroidery at the waist: something bold in texture but tonal. My original thought was that it would be fairly subtle, but as I started experimenting, I quickly realized that a bolder color choice would read better on camera than some of the subtler options and have more of a symbolic impact. In the end, we tried three different versions of the star, but the gold easily won in the end. If we had been creating a gown for a red carpet or gala situation, I would have probably chosen one of the other options as they are super beautiful. For this situation, it needed to be bold and GOLD!
With a little research, we learned that the gold star on purple is highly symbolic, especially for military families. A gold star on a purple background is given to military families who have lost a loved one in-service. Not only did the gold star on the purple background look the best, but it also truly expresses the love and admiration for these military families and our service men and women.
The main design element besides the gold star is the draped bodice and skirt of the gown. Some of the reference photos Kelly sent had a draped detail and that immediately made sense to me as a reference to Lady Liberty. The Statue of Liberty has stood as a symbol of American democracy and freedom. It made sense to combine that symbol with the gold star which represents our brave service members. They serve to protect those very values.
The dress was constructed on a corset foundation that was heavily boned. Many people don’t realize that the internal structure of a garment can be very rigid in order to create a light and airy feeling on the outside. Because I was going to be draping chiffon over the bodice, I need something that followed the body closely to be able to give me the structure and support that I needed to attach the draping. The thing that fascinates me the most about studying and dissecting couture is looking at the inside of garments more than even the outside. By looking at the interior structure, you can tell so much about how a garment was made and how it's supposed to be worn. There’s a surprising complexity in the construction in order to achieve something that looks relatively simple.
Once the corset was built, I was then able to hand drape the bodice and skirt. I love working three-dimensionally, especially when it comes to things that have a draped element. I feel like it’s very difficult, at least for me, to create draping that looks elegant and follows the lines of the body without doing it directly on the form or a mannequin.
Kelly was originally scheduled to come to Houston to do a fitting the week before her performance on July 4, but she became incredibly ill. Since we had dressed Kelly before, so I wasn’t really worried about not seeing her in the gown in person as much as I would with somebody I had never dressed. We decided to quickly finish the gown and ship it to Kelly in New York so that she would have time to try it on and get alterations done needed before the big day!
The week of the performance, I was in Interlochen, Michigan, teaching at Interlochen Arts Academy. On July 4th, I had finished teaching for the day and was just having dinner when a friend texted and asked if I was watching Kelly’s performance on the Hallmark channel. I quickly realized that I could live stream performance on my phone (DUH! Why hadn’t I thought of that ahead of time???), so while I sat at a restaurant in downtown Traverse City, I was able to watch Kelly perform live the White House Lawn!
It was surreal, and incredibly moving see our collaboration come to life, and to see it being broadcast on such a large national stage. Creating this gown and dressing Kelly for this very special performance on a national stage gave me an opportunity to show my patriotism and my belief in America.
The Star-Spangled Banner was written at a time when our country was literally at war. We weren’t even sure if we would still be a nation when it was all done. In the early morning light, Francis Scott Key saw our flag proudly waving and surviving after an epic battle and he penned words to a drinking song which would become National anthem. It is a symbol of resilience; that our nation can come together to fight for what is right and our ability to make mistakes and learn from them.
I’m proud to be an American, even though there are times when I feel like my loyalty is tested I have to remind myself to look at our past. I look at how we have overcome atrocious disregards of human life, even though it took a civil war to start the process and learn from these mistakes. We have never been a perfect nation, but I trust that we are all striving to create a more perfect union every day.
Hope doesn’t negate the work I feel that we still need to do to make this nation more inclusive, inviting, and free. I love that I get opportunity and platform to create gowns for women who are beautiful inside and out. It’s important to me to address the state in the world in my work.