Inside the Making of a Gown (K. Graham)

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GUEST BLOG: K. Lee Graham with Jennifer Graham, gown designer

We all know that one of the most exciting parts of pageant preparation is finding the gown. Luckily for me, I’ve been blessed to have a mother that has been particularly involved in helping me choose my wardrobe. Together, we designed my off-white silk charmeuse and organza gown, and she handmade it.

My mom, Jennifer Graham, has always made my pageant gowns and they have all been special, but to me this was her masterpiece! I originally wore it in my high school pageant last February, but it made me feel so confident that I knew it was the dress that I needed to wear for the Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2014 pageant!

It’s pretty interesting how my mom got started with creating gowns. When she competed as a teen, my grandmother made her gowns. It looks like I’ll have to take some sewing classes soon if we want to continue the tradition!

“My mom and I made my gowns because we couldn’t afford to buy them, but I always loved it since I would have a beautiful gown that no one else would have.”
–Jennifer Graham

When people hear that my mom makes my gowns, they’re always interested in learning how she does it. As you can imagine, making a gown from scratch is much different than ordering a dress from a designer. But like any gown, we start with a concept.

For this gown, we knew we wanted a side train. We already had yards of this beautiful ivory silk organza, so that became the first element we based the design on. We wanted to create a gown that reflected me and my personality, it had to be very elegant and somewhat sophisticated but still age appropriate.

Mom's gown at Mrs. South Carolina America

Mom's gown at Mrs. South Carolina America

Closeup Skirt Hips

Lace appliqué on skirt (hips)

In order to remain cost efficient, we always check to see what we can use from dresses she already made. Normally we take elements from a few different gowns and use them to make a completely new one.

After trying on dresses, we decided to use the skirt of a gown Mom had made for herself years ago when she was Mrs. South Carolina America. It was made completely of silk charmeuse, even lined in it.

Closeup Skirt Bottom

Lace appliqué on skirt (bottom)

Lace appliqués were placed all around the hips, and the bottom of the gown was also accented with the same appliqués, but these had soft white feathers attached to them to create an ethereal look and movement when I walked.

So after determining what we already had, Mom and I took a trip to our favorite fabric store. These trips are always so fun for us, and very special.

When my mom was a teen, her mom took her to the same store to get lace for her gowns, so as you can imagine it means a lot to me to share this experience with my mom. At the store, we found some gorgeous lace appliqués that would look fabulous to accent the bodice we planned to make.

After buying the new appliqués, we started putting together the gown...

“I didn’t learn to sew until I was 30, when I took a sewing and smocking class. I wish I had known how much I enjoy it, I would have started much earlier in life.”
-Jennifer Graham

When it comes to actually creating a gown, we have a unique sort of process. There’s definitely an element of flexibility, fabrics don’t always work the way you want them to.

Much of our creation process is trial and error. We have a general idea, a look that we go after, and work out the details as we construct the gown.

K Lee front-side-back

Front, side, and back view at Miss SC Teen USA 2014

We already had the skirt, so after experimenting with a few different options for the bodice we settled on a corset style top with a sweetheart neckline. This gave the gown some structure, and balanced out the flowiness of the skirt.

So we had the basic form of the gown, the next step was to add the detailing. My mom’s designs are characterized by her attention to detail; she has an amazing eye for placing lace and stones just so in order to create a gorgeous overall image.

After attaching the top and skirt, I would just stand there in the gown while we would pin and unpin appliqués until we were both happy with how it accented the dress and me. We also had to work out the placement of the train. It had to be placed a certain way so that it would be cohesive with the rest of the gown.

By bringing it diagonally down across the torso, there weren’t any unflattering lines. We also added a drape of lace across my left arm to continue the line created by the train.

After a few months of fitting (and in my mom’s case sewing and rhinestoning) whenever we had a chance, the gown was finally finished!

K Lee and Mom Collage

(Top Left) Jennifer Graham - Miss SC Teen USA 1985, (Bottom Left) K. Lee Graham - Miss SC Teen USA 2014, (Right) K. Lee and Jennifer Graham

Wearing a gown created by my mom made my experience at the Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2014 pageant all the more special.

The dress is a tangible representation of how supportive my Mom is of me and my goals, and working on it together has been a bonding experience for both of us.

I’ve never felt more confident in a dress and I am so grateful to have such a talented woman in my life!

I'm so proud of Mom for winning Miss South Carolina Teen USA 1985, and to follow in her footsteps as Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2014 is a dream come true!


(Photos courtesy of Sage Media Group, K. Lee Graham, and Jennifer Graham)

This article was written by Guest Blogger