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The Joy in Little Stitches

Celebrated Canadian fashion designer Justina McCaffrey unveils the mystical love in bridal gowns.

8 minute read
The Joy in Little Stitches May 1, 2012  |  By Justina McCaffrey
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Years ago I was called upon by a famous Hollywood director to design a dress to be worn by a famous young actress in a movie. During the design process, I spent a lot of time with the actress, and during one long breakfast she complained about the Catholic Church. There was a litany of issues she had with the Church, and it was obvious that she was misinformed on a lot of them. I sat patiently and listened and because I was a visitor within her world of Hollywood assistants, gawking admirers and expensive sunglasses, I said nothing.

It shocked me that I had no response to her comments. In that moment, I traded my faith for the acceptance of a 20-year-old misinformed actress. It bothered me for a number of days after that I did not defend my faith. I was unsure what the correct response would be. I thought and prayed, hoping that I could find a suitable answer for this type of conversation.

During this inner torment of prayer, I saw a news piece on TV that showed The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. He was frail, sick and tired. He was old and travelling in the Holy Land. He forged through the suffering and weathered the difficulties of his condition. Through the newswires and from across the world, he resonated an abundance of grace. I knew that within the celebrity monarchy of Hollywood, a suitable question to the young actress would have been, "Have you ever met the Pope?" In that moment of revelation, I was determined to meet Pope John Paul II.

I decided to make him a cloak for Benediction—a cope. I wanted to help him feel better and to give him strength. I embroidered "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19) inside the cope so it would be a secret only he knew.

It was my hope that my many hours of work on the garment would be a prayer or a helpful tool that would mystically appease any kind of pain, and possibly elevate and transform an already transfigured individual. With the help of a few priests, I formally met John Paul II and presented him with the cope during the Fashion Jubilee in Rome. I never saw him wear this garment, but I have been told that it is saved and preserved in the Vatican archives

This very creativity that can transform a person is what led me to try to help the Pontiff through what I do best. I have often said that couture is the highest form of dignity and appreciation. To make a single-cut garment with the exact measurements of a person suggests that all effort and decisions are created around that person. The person is the single most important part of the equation. There is no need for the person to change for the garment, because the fabric and the garment revolve and change around the person. Patterns are drafted based on dozens of exact measurements, and fabric is cut and draped around every nuance and shape of the body.

In proper French couture all seams are perfectly stitched by hand and not by a sewing machine. It takes weeks to create the collar that sits majestically atop a fitted jacket. I mention this to share the indescribable care that results from the respect and intention of every centimetre of thread going in and out of the garment. I have designed and dictated the seasons' trends, but I have also been in the position of hand stitching an item that is being worked on. It is an onerous task, but in order to do it easily, it is necessary to do it with love.

There is joy when reflecting on the shapes within the pattern and noticing the unique outline of a person. There is also joy when there are little stitches inside that are noticeable, and the hope that perhaps this detail will be discovered and the customer will know the love and attention put forth by the creators of the garment. It can be the surprise of a small inner pocket or a different and contrasting lining or piping. There are wonderful secrets hidden within the garment that are complicated and work intensive, and some of these are not seen by the wearer, let alone other people.

Sometimes a very simple-looking dress, particularly a wedding dress, can be very complicated from the inside and only the creator of the garment knows the strategy of seams and the puzzle of the pattern. Usually the slow, methodical process of stitching a gown induces the intense tranquility that skilled workers have as they confront their task. It is through the beauty of the fabrics used that the seamstresses—grand directors of the woven fibres—glean the inner joy, heart-fluttering excitement and prideful contentment the bride experiences with the finished product.

In the wedding dress, all things are possible. A thousand-dollar-a-metre handmade lace is folded, manipulated, embellished and treated. Hundreds of metres of fabric cascade down the body and brush the floor. Thousands of Swarovski crystals and freshwater pearls are embroidered throughout the multi-layered, multi-boned and corseted gown. The occasion is important and so is the dress.

A disposable dress can suggest a disposable relationship. There was a time when parents and grandparents stipulated the whitest of all white fabrics for these dresses because the dress was a symbol and a packaging of the bride. Now, the more natural and flattering snow whites, diamon whites, milk whites and creamy ivories are favoured over the optic whites. Unfortunately, silhouettes have also changed, and they have mirrored the increasing casualness of some venues. Skinny charmeuse sheaths as well as "bohemian bride" ensembles echo the discotheque-style receptions with a slight nod to a five-minute ceremony. Others use fantasy themes and costume parties almost to disguise the real purpose of the wedding itself.

I am not discouraged because I am inspired by many things, and my happiness depends on creating dresses that fulfill the ideas of tradition and love. I don't necessarily create a complete collection in the traditional sense of fashion with all the dresses following a particular theme that resonates with the mood of the season. I don't want one particular idea to dictate what I do. I have been told that I create a boutique collection and that the dresses, like the individuals and their various styles of weddings, have many different purposes, with each dress carrying a different message.

I am also not a wedding dress designer who is secretly a ready-to-wear designer, masquerading and using the wedding industry as a stepping stone to a ready-to-wear career. I do design some evening wear, but I will always emphasize the importance of the wedding dress, and I continue to push my ideas of weddings, marriage and culture through each collection that I create. A couture dress makes any woman more extraordinary because the dress is designed around her. She looks slimmer and more radiant with the design of the fabric enclosing her, lifting her and enhancing her shape. Truly there is love in the creation of the garment and it shows.

It is this mystical love that is associated with the creation of this garment. By it a bride becomes transfigured when she tries on her wedding dress. She is heavenly, graceful, beautiful and at peace. Her complexion is perfect and she glows as she glides smoothly around the bridal salon. She looks strong and principled, saintly and pure. Oddly, at that moment, she is a transparently veneered image of Our Lady. And with the many grace-filled brides I have seen in my career, I am blessed with a diversity of strikingly beautiful images. I can call on them during prayer to represent Our most Heavenly Lady, the Mother of God. With this kind of career, there is no reason why I am compelled to visit Medjugorje.

This year my parents will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Their life lately has been strained with the haunting shadow of my mother's cancer. My mom, once the epitome of a woman who hosted dignified parties and board meetings, has become frail. She has become a little girl again, with the shape and weight of a youth. She giggles a lot and laughs at the sweat-filled agitation that my dad experiences counting and recounting her never-ending pill consumption. On her doctor's suggestion, she drinks red wine and eats chocolate. The burdens of work and deadlines have been replaced with the eerie foreboding of the lingering cancer that fills her veins.

Regardless, they are planning a renewal of their vows and a beautiful dinner for their family and friends, and they are as excited as a youthful nuptial couple.

Despite the thousands of dresses I have designed for ladies all over the world, I have never made my own mother a gown. I never made her feel the way I make all of my brides and couture ladies feel: special. My mom doesn't know what it's like to step into a Justina McCaffrey original.

As I imagine my mom, and all the attendants, ideas too numerous to count fill my mind with excited determination to embark on the project of all projects—making my mother the most beautiful gown she has ever worn. She is frail, but I can make her look and feel strong. She walks slightly hunched, but I can cut the dress so her back looks straight. I can elevate her; I can transfigure her. I will also have the joy of finally receiving some long-awaited approval from her—and my dad, too, when he sees how beautiful I make his beloved look.

I called my mom and suggested we get together for measurements and to discuss the dress for their vow renewal. She replied in a feeble voice and a giggle that she had the dress figured out. She had found her mother's wedding dress packed in a trunk in the basement. Curious, she had tried it on with the help of my dad, who zipped her up. They were both astonished at the perfectness of the dress. It fit beautifully and was blemish free, with the aged silk and satin having settled into a tone of blush-ivory cream. The style was perfect. And I do remember that it was her own refashioned wedding dress that she wore to her 25th anniversary party. My mom certainly has an affinity for special dresses that retain an enormous amount of spiritual equity. Dresses that carry memories, joy, sacraments and grace.

She continued to speak, in a familiar dialogue that I have heard repeatedly from other brides, about the fit and condition of her mother's dress being almost perfect. I laughed out loud because it seemed that my mother had at that moment crossed the line from being my parent to being a youthful and cheerful client excited to start a new life. A situation, a conversation and a person I was familiar with—and I wonder if at that moment she viewed me differently as well.

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