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Pattern hacking Elisalex - the ultimate off the shoulder velvet princess dress!

When I was little, growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, off the shoulder dresses were the absolute pinnacle of ladylike perfection. Thanks to nostalgic images of Brigitte Bardot floating around our house and my then style icon Princess Jasmine, I knew I'd be needing an off the shoulder gown one day, and in super luxe floor sweeping velvet no less. Good thing then, that both off the shoulder 90s styles and velvet are back, and that I had the good sense to learn to sew - all my childhood fashion dreams are falling right into place...

To hack the Elisalex Dress into an off the shoulder dress, you will need:

  • The Elisalex Dress sewing pattern, sleeveless variation. Whether you choose the given tulip skirt or whack on a different skirt is entirely up to you
  • Dot & cross paper / Swedish tracing paper / baking paper to trace and alter your pattern pieces
  • Tape, pencils, paper scissors etc 
  • Scrap fabric to make a toile of your hacked bodice (very important with a design such as this! You don't want to end up with droopy straps and a gapey back...)
  • Your main fabric and lining - how much will depend on the width of your fabrics, your dress size and what kind of skirt you choose to add to your bodice. Please check the layplans in the pattern instructions for a guide
  • Optional - organdy underlining. If you've opted for a drapey, unstructured fabric like I have, you'll need to give your bodice some more stability. I basted all my bodice pieces onto cotton organdy before seaming
  • Your usual tools and sewing supplies

Step 1

Trace and cut out your bodice front and bodice back pieces, leaving a decent expanse of paper beyond the armhole - it is there that we will be extending the off the shoulder strap.

Step 2

To alter the bodice to make it off the shoulder, it really is simply a case of sweeping the neckline across the collar bone and out to the upper bicep, as opposed to around the neck and up and over the shoulders.

Starting with the bodice front, re-draw the neckline from the centre front and out to the armhole, about half the way between the top of the shoulder strap and the princess seam.

Step 3

We're now going to extend this new neckline in order to create the off the shoulder strap. Figuring out exactly by how much to extend it is kind of hit and miss when you're trying to measure yourself... I found that the best way to do this was to put on an existing sleeveless Elisalex dress of mine (actually any sleeveless dress will do, as long as it's not of the spaghetti strap variety) and measure from the edge of the armhole at the front - roughly at the point your new neckline will be hitting - around your arm/upper bicep to the edge of the armhole at the back. I found this measurement on me to be about 10".

So with a total around the arm measurement of 10", we need to extend each of the shoulder straps at front and back by 5". Don't worry about the seam allowance here as it is already factored in by the seam allowance at the armhole - simply extend that new neckline by 5" (or half of your own around the arm measurement) using the image below as a guide. 

Step 4

To complete the off the shoulder strap, we need to extend the line of the princess seam in the same way. I found this measurement on me to be fractionally larger to account for ease and movement of my arms.

Once both upper and lower lines of the shoulder strap have been extended, join them to create the shoulder seam of your newly altered bodice.

Step 5

Repeat steps 1-4 for the bodice back piece.

Step 6

Possibly the most important step in a hack such as this - make a toile! There's nothing worse than an off the shoulder dress with droopy straps or a gapey neckline and the only way to check your altered pattern is to test it before cutting into your show-stopping fabric.

A word on construction - the construction of the bodice is exactly the same as normal, but it is imperative to mark the original armscye/princess seam point with a notch so that you know where the princess seam should start when joining the side front/back panels.

What I learned from my toile - extending the off the shoulder straps by 5" was too much, and my back neckline was not snug enough despite the fact that the sleeveless Elisalex bodice usually fits my back just fine... 

I ended up shaving a full inch off that shoulder seam on both front and back pieces, and I pinched an inch dart out of the back neckline, thereby eliminating the gape and bringing up the angle of the shoulder strap at the back just a little bit which resulted in close fitting straps and a bodice that hugged me perfectly:

Second toile fit like a dream, so with a deep breath I dived right in and started cutting...

Some things worth mentioning about the construction:

  • As I mentioned earlier, if - like me - you've chosen a particularly drapey or unstable fabric like silk velvet, it's a very good idea to underline all of your bodice pieces onto something more stable in order to give your bodice some much needed structure. Cotton organdy or silk organza is ideal.
  • Don't forget to check out this post we put together on working with silk velvet for some helpful tips when it comes to dealing with such a tricksy fabric. 
  • To give the neckline and off the shoulder straps even more snug staying power, I understitched a length of lingerie elastic into the neckline's seam allowance.

I had actually planned to make this dress from cotton velvet, which would have been much easier, faster and less fussy to work with, but unfortunately I couldn't find the colour I was after. I settled for a beautifully dark and gothic teal silk velvet, underlined in black cotton organdy and fully lined with a slippery black poly from my stash. When it came to making and joining the skirt, I'd had big plans of making a lengthened, ankle grazing version of our petal-wrap Kim skirt, but in all honesty I was so frazzled by all the hand basting and underlining that I just whacked the bodice on my mannequin and draped a simple box pleated skirt to complete my dress. I'm happy to report that I couldn't feel more like a princess in this dress - and even though I had no help whatsoever from my woodland friends or my fairy Godmother, I shall go to the ball!

Comments on this post (15)

  • May 11, 2020

    I’ve been looking for a bodice pattern with this exact neckline for a project…I’ve purchased the pattern, I’m just wondering if you think a similar edit could work on the long sleeved variation or if you think that with the off-the-shoulder hack you would need to mock up your own sleeve to fit to the pattern?

    — Brenna

  • May 30, 2018

    Gorgeous dress! :) This helped a lot thank you!

    Could you please post a sew along kind of tutorial for this please? in order to get the same clean finish that you’ve perfected?

    — Mey

  • Sep 28, 2018

    A few minutes ago I submitted a request for advice about a different off the shoulder pattern. I am so sorry: I did not realize that this was a tutorial by a designer with her own patterns. I had merely followed a web search for sewing off the shoulder dress etc. Now that I realize this, I appreciate even more the craft and artistry represented here, and I would like to order the Elizalex pattern. I have never ordered anything from “across the pond” so I shall try to negotiate the financials after more reading. I just felt very sorry to have even mentioned a “Big Three” American pattern in this context since yours is bound to be superior, and I hope I did not annoy you!
    Thank you very much,and do consider me a new or soon-to-be customer of your patterns.

    — Liz

  • Sep 28, 2018

    Thank you for your info and the lovely photos. My teen daughter wants Butterick 6129 for formal in May and I’ve worked on a toile for 2 weeks. Once fit and on, when she extends her arms forward, the bust line pushes out into a large “bowl.” I can’t tell a teenager not to move her arms! I think the sleeves are pulling everything with them. I did lightly elasticize the back all around for good fit in back. I used boning and bra cups so she would not have to trouble with a strapless bra. Maybe that structure added to the problem. If you have advice I would be most eager to try it. Your example looks effortless; my trial dress looks so overfitted and too big at the same time. I am trying to overcome the geometry in my mind. I am not a beginner, but this design has truly humbled me. Thanks – Elizabeth

    — Liz

  • May 11, 2020

    I have been traipsing the net trying to find a dress pattern like this with NO LUCK…and lo and behold, my FAVOURITE pattern makers have a hack of one of my favourite dresses to achieve it… I am elated to say the least.

    I am wanting to make this out of lace though…would I Just underline in a cotton? Will that provide enough stability to keep the straps up? Also, if I wanted a scalloped edge, just sewing that onto the top neckline once it is all sewn up would work?

    Sorry for all of the questions :/ I am just DYING to make this type of dress and am finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel finding this :D

    — Michelle

  • Feb 10, 2017

    Thanksss for the post!!! I will try the strap again :)

    — Nan

  • May 11, 2020

    Hi, I would like to do this neckline, but attach do I do that so I have arm mobility? I can’t seem to find a pattern anywhere. Help :)

    — sallyee

  • Feb 16, 2016

    Hi Kay, the fact that the bodice is totally underlined with cotton organdy which is so stiff and rigid, really helps to keep the shoulders up. Although, there’s not really very far for them to go, so it would probably be fine of the main fabric you were using was pretty stable – I was using silk velvet which definitely needed plenty of support! And yes, for the boat neck, it’s simply a case of raising the neckline and redrawing a gentle curve out to the shoulder. Hope this helps! ~Elisalex

    — Elisalex - By Hand London

  • Jan 29, 2016

    The Elisalex and Kim dresses are my absolute fave and I love seeing pattern hacks as it gives us more options.

    With the off the shoulder style, do you find that it stays relatively well or do you rely on the fitted bodice to hold everything up?

    Also I’m wondering whether it’s possible to do adjust the Elisalex into boatneck? I suspect it would be similar to the off shoulder hack but instead of extending it pass the shoulders, the neckline would be raised slightly and extending that line halfway to the shoulder seam?

    — Kay

  • Jan 01, 2016

    Just checked the basic pattern to compare. You did really good!! And in velvet no less.

    — Margaret

  • Dec 31, 2015

    Wow I can’t believe you made this! It looks amazing, and I seriously love everything about it! x

    Thahira’s Thoughts

    — Thahira

  • Dec 31, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this, Elisalex. It is truly a dress fit for a princess. All the very bestest of New Year wishes to you xxx

    — ooobop!

  • Dec 31, 2015

    absolutely stunning!!!! I’m off to find some silk velvet. xx

    — Pips

  • Dec 30, 2015

    Gorgeous dress!

    — Suz

  • Dec 30, 2015

    Looks fabulous!!!

    — Niamh

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