Menu Close

“Designing a Dream”

Philadelphia Magazine
Elegant Wedding
Fall/winter 1997

“Designing a Dream” by Eileen Smith

Four prominent local designers help you fashion the gown of the year

It begins with a dream, the mist of an idea that might have been evolving since girlhood. The rest of a bridal gown is more tangible. Lines and lace. Cut and color. And most of all, fabulous fabrics.

This year’s brides have simple dreams, fantasies of lady-like A-line silhouettes, sleeveless frocks and trains that are more like neat cabooses than the Orient Express. Picture Audrey Hepburn. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Vogue patterns, circa 1954.

Even what is arguably the most gaped-at wedding dress of the decade –the slinky, floor-length slip dress in which Carolyn Bessette wed John F. Kennedy Jr. –reflects a simple elegance. (And some quick sewing –the gown, reportedly worth $40,000, was ordered only 15 days before the wedding.)

The inspirations for such fantastic frocks are as varied as the brides, and may range from a 1960s sitcom to a favorite pastime, or even Mom, say four top locally based designers of perhaps the most important article of apparel a woman will ever wear.

The methods by which these designers bring their creative magic to the public varies as well. One has parlayed her youthful, upbeat designs into a multi-million-dollar national enterprise. Another has had equal success in carrying on the family legacy of bringing forth distinctive gown designs to an appreciative national audience. The other two are custom designers whose every wedding creation is a signature original – one of a kind, right down, in some cases, to family heirloom materials sewn into the dress.

Stitching a Fantasy

Janice Martin produces original designs in her Victorian-era salon across the street from Miller’s store in Manayunk. Martin might sew only 50 gowns in a season, each an original. Her creations range from her own chic designs to funky collaborations with clients to meticulous reproductions of elaborate vintage dresses or family heirlooms.

Martin’s designs begin not with fabric but with fantasies. What kind of a gown does the bride dream of? “If it’s a wedding dress, chances are she has been thinking about it for a long time,” Martin says.

Tradition and sentimentality might play as big a role in the making of the dress as imported silk. One client presented a piece of lace, handed down through the family for four generations. It was 15 yards long – and could not be cut. Martin transformed the bolt into a 10-foot train. Another brides brought in the gown worn by her mother in the 1950s. The dress was in good condition, but there was one sizable glitch. The bride was five inches bigger around than the mother was,” Martin says.

She fashioned gussets for the side of the gown, covering the seams with the same lace that trims the rest of the dress. When the bride put on her gown, she appeared much as her mother did in her wedding photograph almost 40 years ago.

Yet another bride, who wanted a radical update of her mother’s gown, asked Martin to transform the bodice into a halter-top. And Martin created a precise copy of a 1950s Priscilla of Boston gown for another daughter. Painstakingly working from old photographs, she duplicated the gown –which had been destroyed – from the tiny pearl buttons to the hem of the Watteau train. “What I hate more than anything else is to hear a woman say, ‘I really didn’t like my gown but I couldn’t find anything I wanted,’” Martin says.

Martin made her own wedding dress, a pink mini-skirted frock with a perky peplum. For a bride marrying in the Southwest, she designed a jack in lace the color of desert sand, cut with a V-yoke like a cowboy’s jacket. “Whatever it is,” she says, “it should be fun.”

A wedding dress should also be fashioned from the finest fabrics possible, Martin says. Many of the laces she uses are imported from Europe. One dazzling example, luminous with tiny seed pearls, sells for $1,500 per yard –wholesale. Prices on dresses crafted from less-costly fabrics begin at about $2,200.

Martin’s dresses feature such amenities as feather-light linings of pure silk. The seam down the back, which conceals an invisible zipper, is further camouflaged with fabric-covered buttons and handmade loops. Gowns in stores, she explains are over-constructed so that any size 12 dress can be filled by five different body types. This makes the gowns heavy. If a dress is fitted and custom-made, she says, there is no extra fabric. As a result, the gown is very light. “You should be able to pick up a good dress with two fingers.”

Back to Press


Our Work

General Information

[email protected]
41 Cricket Avenue
Ardmore, PA 19003