ACTIAS LUNA

Evening Gown

This design was shown in the 2022 ITAA Juried Exhibition.

Contextual Review and Concept

The purpose of this design is to explore a temporal and generational reimagining of literature and dress, referencing Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1909 bestselling novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. In her novels, Stratton-Porter sought to educate readers about nature, expressing a design philosophy that utilized lesser-known aspects of the natural world as design inspiration in an attempt to increase appreciation and care for the environment. I first encountered this novel while spending time as a child at my grandmother’s house; this book has been enjoyed by several successive matrilineal generations, each of which has read the book through the lens of her own time and life circumstance, always finding it relevant. This design concept is twofold: First, this design transposes Stratton-Porter’s design inspirations through time to demonstrate their continuing relevance, parallel to the continuing relevance of her books to readers a century later. Second, in this dress design, the multigenerational appeal of Stratton-Porter’s novel has been woven with the concept of qualitative multiplicities expressed by French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson asserted that human experiences contain the past and the present as a whole; each experience of an individual contains that person’s every past experience. Further, Bergson observes, in an analogy using dance and music, that “every new direction is indicated in the preceding one,” thereby “holding the future in the present” (1910, pp. 12–13). I argue that qualitative multiplicities, then, can also describe the human body of knowledge; each of our experiences contains not only our own past experiences, but the experiences of others. Designers draw on different inspirations in different ways, using different qualities or aspects of available information and experiences. I do not have access to the Limberlost swamp of the early 20th Century, now almost entirely destroyed by development, that Stratton-Porter vividly described in her work; but Stratton-Porter’s accounts of the swamp as it existed a century ago have become part of my experience. Stratton-Porter’s writing informed my unexpected encounter with a magnificent Actias luna in a park in Anhui Province, China (Figure 1), enabling me to identify the moth, photograph it, and follow in her footsteps by referencing the moth in this design. Although Stratton-Porter was not a fashion designer, she outlined design theory in her books, shaping my design work as one of my qualitative multiplicities a century later. Likewise, my familiarity with historic design and construction techniques informs my design aesthetic and construction preferences, as does the impact of my grandmother’s life on my experiences – qualitative multiplicities.

 

Aesthetic Properties and Visual Impact

The dress, following the design inspiration detailed in Stratton-Porter’s book, is modeled on the moth Actias luna, commonly known as a Luna moth. The dress features a bodice of purple silk dupioni with a silk velvet border and silk habotai trim, mimicking the bands of color along the upper edge of the moth’s wings. Glass beads, concentrated at the center of the collar and scattering toward the edges, echo the white band at the moth’s head and edges of the wings. The skirt is multilayered, with green dupioni as the base layer, followed by beaded lace, and finished with crinkled shot chiffon that echoes both the color and texture of the moth’s wings, with the lace showing through in imitation of the veining in the moth’s wings.

 

Process, Technique, and Execution

In keeping with the multi-decade concept for this garment, the dress was patterned and constructed using a variety of period sources ranging from the 19th Century to the present. The skirt was drafted by the designer as a full-circle gored skirt, and the bodice was flat-patterned with inspiration from a 1950s Modes Royale pattern, featuring a circular peplum cut in one with the center front and center back pieces, and crossing to the side front and side back. The bodice was constructed using techniques found in both 19th-Century Worth and 1950s Dior garments, flatlined in a wine-colored silk habotai with whipstitched seam allowances, boning, and a Petersham waist stay. The boning is encased in vintage rayon seam binding, sewn to the seam allowances and to the flatlining without catching the outer layer of fabric, so that no stitching shows on the exterior of the garment. The center-front zipper utilizes an invisible hand-stitched application technique documented by Claire Shaeffer (2011). The skirt layers chiffon over lace; this chiffon-over-lace layering technique is seen in evening wear of the Edwardian period. Each layer of the skirt is hand hemmed: The bottom layer features enclosed horsehair braid, the lace layer has a scalloped border fell-stitched onto the base lace, and the chiffon layer is constructed with bias French seams and finished with a hand-rolled hem. The undulating edge of the chiffon layer mimics the edge of the moth’s wings. The “eyes” of the moth, taken from Figure 1, are hand embroidered on the chiffon in irregular long-and-short satin stitches (also known as thread painting) using single-strand silk floss, embroidered parallel to the grain of the fabric so that the embroidery shifts and moves fluidly with the chiffon.

 

Cohesion

The color scheme, embellishments, and fabric choices were directly determined by the color and texture of the Actias luna moth detailed above, as inspired by a proposed dress theme in A Girl of the Limberlost (Stratton-Porter, 1909, p. 361). The dress features a 1950s-inspired silhouette, the decade in which my grandmother was the same age as the protagonist in the book; the silhouette was also inspired by the physical form of the Actias luna moth, as the overlapping broad wings of the moth suggested a full, gored skirt. This garment, inspired by a design concept delineated in a historical novel, contains time and generational human experience, combining aesthetics, construction techniques, and materials from a variety of time periods to create a unified whole.

 

Design Contribution and Innovation

Leimomi Oakes (2010) designed a dress referencing Stratton-Porter’s Luna moth inspiration, set to the period of the novel. This garment builds on Oakes’ design as well as building on my own previous designs (Armstead, 2019a; Armstead 2019b). Whereas the previous designs used techniques and silhouettes as true as possible to those of the early 20th Century to illustrate Stratton-Porter’s work, this design shifts the temporal understanding of Stratton-Porter’s work into the past, present, and future in conjunction with multigenerational nature of the designer’s relationship with A Girl of the Limberlost.

Beading the collar

Beading the collar

Hand-beaded velvet collar pieces

Hand-beaded velvet collar pieces

Stitching trim to the neckline

Stitching trim to the neckline

Hand-beaded velvet collar

Hand-beaded velvet collar

Installing boning casings in the bodice

Installing boning casings in the bodice

Skirt overlay

Skirt overlay

Sewing
Stitching chiffon to the pocket opening

Stitching chiffon to the pocket opening

Hand finishing the skirt

Hand finishing the skirt

Silk embroidery floss used to embroider the skirt

Silk embroidery floss used to embroider the skirt