Friday, January 13, 2012

Padme's Rainbow Dress

Character: Padme Amidala
Costume: Rainbow Dress/Lake Retreat Gown
From: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Completed: 2003
Awards: Honorable Mention for "Best Back" & Best First-Time Entry (2003 San Diego Comic-Con Masquerade)

This is the dress that started it all-- the first movie costume that made me say, "I have no idea how, but I must make that dress." The first planned, but not the first finished, this dress was a nine-month odyssey of draping, sewing, fitting, and dyeing.

After many years, I've finally finished documenting my construction of this dress, along with my notes on what I'd do differently if I were to make it again. I've also done a short costume study using the pictures that BenaeQuee took at the NYC fashion show in 2005.

Photoshoot, June 2010
(gorgeous photos by Rachel!)

Rebel Legion Photoshoot, Dragon*Con 2007
(thanks to Blue and Kathy for the pics!)

California Science Center Discovery Ball, February 2007
(thanks to Kathy for the pics!)

MIT Senior Ball, May 2003


This was a hell of a dress to make, especially for a novice costumer. I built it with the help and advice of my teachers in the MIT costume shop, and without them I would have been completely lost. (It was meant to be my final project for my costume design class in the fall 2002 semester, but it took me until summer 2003 to finish it completely.) Here's my advice to everyone who's considering this dress-- *don't* make this as your first costume ever, no matter how much you love the dress. Wait till you have a few projects under your belt first, and get some experience with dyeing and sewing silk. Don't get me wrong, I still love my dress, but looking back many years later, there's a lot of things I would have done differently. Also, we've learned a lot more about the actual dress since then, thanks largely to the New York fashion show and Kristin's pictures. So accordingly, I'll explain how I made the dress as it stands now, and then explain what I would change were I to make it again (and I will, someday!).


My underdress is made of 19.5 mm silk charmeuse from Dharma Trading, matte side out. The pattern I used was Butterick 3022, which is an out-of-print princess-seamed sundress. I mocked up the pattern in muslin from about the hips up, filling in the neckline of the center-front piece so that it was basically straight across at the shoulders. After checking the fit on me, I put it on a dress form and drew the new neck and backline. I then took the muslin pieces apart and pinned them to the tissue pattern pieces. I extended the hemline to full-length by adding pattern paper to the bottom of the tissue pieces, and behold-- my final mutant pattern!

Then I cut out my charmeuse, and here is where I made a HUGE HONKING beginner's mistake-- I didn't wash my fabric first. This was extremely stupid of me, because silk shrinks when it gets wet. I was going to be dyeing my silk; therefore, my silk was going to get wet and shrink. I wish I had made that very simple connection earlier. Luckily, I realized it before I actually dyed the thing. My extremely high-tech solution was to add an extension onto the bottom and hope like hell that the dye would camouflage the seam.

As I was working on the pattern in the costume shop, I was dye testing back in my dorm kitchen. (Well, okay, not at exactly the same time.) Based on what the other costumers in the rainbow dress thread at the Costuming&Props forum had used, I bought powdered Rit dye in Golden Yellow, Rose Pink, Evening Blue, and Royal Blue. I bought disposable baking tins to mix the dyes in, and Gladware to store them, plus a set of metal measuring spoons and a bunch of those foam brushes you can get at Michael's. I first mixed up each of the dyes at full strength in a pot on the stove, then serially diluted them in my baking tins and tested each dye concentration with a swatch of charmeuse. When I had settled on an appropriate concentration for each color, I tried blending them on some of my scrap pieces:

I liked my second try quite a lot, so I saved my chosen dye concentrations in the Gladware and bundled them off to the costume shop to dye my real dress. Rit is meant to be used at hot or boiling temperatures, but I found that it worked fine at room temperature because silk takes the dye so strongly. So rather than dip my dress in a washing machine or dyepot, I chose to "paint" the dye on with my foam brushes, because I really wanted to have total control over where the dye went and how it blended. Another theater faculty member let me use the scene shop for a day so I could dye my dress on the floor there. I put down a huge plastic sheet first, followed by big pieces of scrap fabric, and finally my dress, which I had put together except for the center back seam and then thoroughly wetted. And then I just painted the dye right on! It took about two hours, and I had a very sore back when I was done, but I thought the end result was completely worth it:

I let the dress dry completely on the floor overnight. Then I washed it in the sink to get the excess dye out and let it dry again, and I could proceed with putting the whole thing together! I made the lining from a cream-colored poly crepe (prewashed this time, even though it was poly), cut with the same pattern. In fittings, we had discovered that the neck and back edges of the dress were stretching wildly, because the cut edge was effectively on the bias. Our solution to this was to cut a stabilizing piece of muslin for the top few inches of each pattern piece, with the straight-of-grain of the muslin perpendicular to the cut edge. Then that piece was stitched to the top of each lining piece, and the lining was assembled. Finally, the dress and lining were sewn together along the top of the dress, and the lining flipped inside to hang free. As a result, the stabilizing muslin pieces are next to my skin, rather than being between the lining and the dress, so they don't show through the charmeuse. It's a bit weird, but I think it was the lesser of two evils.

The neckband is a sandwich of yellow-dyed charmeuse, muslin, and interfacing, sewn into a tube and turned. I attached it to the neck by putting the ends between the dress and lining when I sewed them together. It closes at the back of the neck with hooks and eyes. For some reason, we thought the side seam was the best place for a zipper. I'm still not sure why we thought this was the case, but that's where it is. And I'm not sure why we didn't use an invisible zipper, either. The zipper was put in by hand, and there's a hook and eye at the top.

The dress doesn't stay in place without tape, so it's kind of awkward to wear. I've finally found a good dress tape that sticks securely to both the fabric and me, for hours on end, which makes it a bit easier now. The shiftiness of the dress combined with the rather large hem circumference made it very hard to hem, hard though my teacher tried to get it even. After several tries, we gave it up as a bad job, and I marked a final hemline and did a serged rolled him to finish it off. As you can see in the pictures, it's really not even at all. And even with the extension, it's still just barely long enough, so I have to wear flats with it.


The overdress is hard to describe in words, so I'll do what I can and then give you a diagram that will hopefully make things clearer. Each side of the overdress is just one long length of chiffon. I was originally going to use silk chiffon, but then I discovered that the chiffon I had bought at a local store for mockups actually took dye remarkably well, and it had a good look and drape to it. So I just used that instead!

To drape the overdress, we taped a yardstick to a dress form to simulate an outstretched arm, and just started draping and pinning. I used two different colors of thread to mark the fabric-- one color to indicate structure (gather here, tack here) and another to indicate the general boundaries between dye colors. Then I unpinned it from the dress form, and we checked it on me to make sure the measurements and proportions would work.

Dyeing the overdress was much, much easier than dyeing the underdress-- I mixed up my dye in big disposable roasting pans, using the same concentrations as before, and just dip-dyed the chiffon. Because the chiffon was more forgiving than the silk charmeuse and didn't take the dye as readily, I was still able to get nice smooth color blending. The tradeoff was that the color wasn't as intense, but I was okay with that.

I wanted the final width of the overdress edging to be 2.5", so I cut 6" wide straight-grain strips of the charmeuse. After measuring where the color changes took place along the border of the overdress, I dip-dyed the charmeuse as I had the chiffon. Because it's silk, and therefore more finicky, the color blending isn't as nice as it is on the chiffon. To bind the chiffon edges, I machine-stitched the edging along the "right" side of the overdress and hand-stitched it on the wrong side. It took *forever*, but it looks pretty good.

Below is my diagram of what the overdress looked like laid out flat and ungathered:

The "neck" portion was gathered by machine and stitched to the top of the underdress. It was really quite a lot of chiffon, so it's gathered very tightly. The left and right sides of the overdress are not attached at the front-- they're just stitched to the dress at the top and secured with an elastic band at the bottom. At the arms, I did a double row of machine gathers, then permanently stitched the gathers down the middle and removed the gathering stitches. The "sleeves" are just knee-high pantyhose, cut to the appropriate length. I then tacked the overdress to the hose every inch or so along the gathers, and tacked the upper edging to the top of the hose to form the upper cuff. For the lower cuff, I used three small hooks and eyes to connect the edging to itself at the underside of the wrist.

Finally, at the center back, I sewed the two sides of the overdress together. The back bustle/draping is best described by the diagram below-- I just brought each dot up to meet the top dot, and sewed it all down. Then I sewed it to the center back of the underdress.

When I tried the whole dress on for the first time, I found that the back train of the overdress was much too wide, so I took it in at the center back seam. That made the overdress look like this:

Neckpiece and Armbands

My neckpiece is made out of fun foam, which was my dear friend Kimmerie's idea. I gave her the general size it needed to be-- due to the large amount of gathering at the neck, the neckpiece needed to be larger in order to cover it all-- and she cut it out and painted the first coats of iridescent/opal paint. I added several final coats of iridescent nail polish, and added the gold "leading" with a paint made to simulate leading on stained glass. I found a necklace with an appropriate chain in my jewelry box, and I just gaff-taped the necklace right onto the bottom of the neckpiece so that the chain was the correct length to go around my neck. Then I just gaff tape the neckpiece to the top of the dress every time. I've since remade the neckpiece to be slightly more accurate with respect to shape and layering, but it's still made with fun foam.

I didn't originally make the armbands, but I made them in 2006 when I was wearing my rainbow dress to the FIDM fashion show gala. They're also made from fun foam; I took the circumference of my upper arm and drew out the shape to that length. I hot-glued the ends together (hot glue is great for fun foam; it melts it just slightly) and then painted it with iridescent and copper acrylics. They just double-stick-tape onto my arms.

Hair and Shoes

The shoes are white flats from Payless. Very comfy! The hair has been...interesting. Originally I just curled my hair, pulled it back, and wrapped it with blue-dyed chiffon, but since the FIDM show I've been doing a style that's a bit closer to the shell. I made two headbands by wrapping thin plastic headbands with stuffing and then with purple fabric, adding puffy paint "pearls," and sewing small combs to the underside. I put both headbands on, roll up the sides of my hair, and make a bun at the nape of my neck. (It sounds so simple, but it takes forever to do because my hair is so fine and resistant to styling.) In June of 2010, I finally bit the bullet and ordered a custom-styled wig to replicate her actual shell hairstyle.

What I'd Do Differently

Underdress: Well, for starters, I'd wash the damn fabric first! I think I'd still use the 19.5 mm silk charmeuse, largely because I have most of a bolt of it left from another project. Sand-washed charmeuse from Dharma has also been suggested, though. I'd use purple dye instead of blue, now that we know it's yellow-pink-purple. I really like the blue better, though. :( I wouldn't use a princess-seamed pattern again; the fashion show pictures make it clear that's not correct. I'm still thinking on what I *would* do; my costume study so far can be found here. Also, I would not make the dress *quite* so low-cut on the sides and in the back, maybe just an inch or so higher. I'd stabilize the neckline and backline by adding fusible interfacing to the top of the lining, a trick I learned when I made my wedding dress. And I'd put the zipper in the center back seam, so it would be hidden, and of course I would try to do a nicer hem at a longer length.

Overdress: Silk chiffon, here I come! I would still do the charmeuse binding, as much work as it was; I think it looks quite nice. The biggest thing I would change is that I think I would try cutting the center front on an angle. That would reduce bulk at the neckline, and I think it would make the bottom of the overdress hang more like the original. The only thing I'd worry about is whether cutting it on the bias like that would make it hang funny from the center-front edging, but obviously that's something I could test out beforehand. With neckline bulk reduced, I could make the neckpiece the original size and shape.


  1. Would you consider making this dress for someone else? I am in love with this dress and would really love to have it, but unfortunately I am hopeless at making costumes and clothes in general, so I would not be able to make it myself.
    If you can do this for me email me at
    Thanks, Marissa

    1. @Marissa Chapman, did you have luck? I am also looking for this dress :/

  2. I love this dress thank u I have been looking for steps for ever thank u

  3. Hi I'm making this costume in a couple weeks and I was just wondering him much chiffon you used on the overdress? Thanks.