Plattsburgh seamstress Dolly Phillips knew early in life that one day she’d earn a living making other women look their best. It just took her a while to get around to it.
At the age of 6, while other children her age were setting up sidewalk lemonade stands, Phillips was stitching handmade doll outfits for her friends in a business she called “Dolly’s Doll Clothes.”
When Phillips was 11, she and a friend discovered a box of pastel-colored window curtains in the friend’s basement. So Dolly assembled a group of kids from the neighborhood, picked some wildflowers and dressed them all up like a formal wedding party. They held their mock wedding on the sweeping front lawn of a large and stately house in Albany, N.Y. — and attracted the attention of passing motorists, who lined up to watch the diminutive processional.
“So here I am, years later, doing weddings,” says Phillips. “I think what you’re interested in is determined at a young age.”
Today, Phillips belongs to a vanishing breed. She’s a seamstress who for the last 26 years has custom sewn women’s formalwear by hand, including bridal gowns, bridesmaids’ dresses, prom dresses, hats and headpieces. In an era when much of the American garment industry has relocated overseas, drawn by the allure of cheap labor, Phillips continues to make high-quality women’s formalwear the old-fashioned way: one piece at a time.
“There’s so much clothing on the market right now, but so much of it isn’t good quality, and a lot of it doesn’t really fit anyone,” says Phillips. “People who like their clothing to fit will go to a dressmaker.”
Besides crafting from whole cloth, dressmakers can help brides tailor one-of-a-kind vintage pieces to their own needs. I first met Phillips in 2008 through my wife, Stacy, when she was looking for someone to alter her wedding dress. Stacy didn’t want a conventional gown that looked like it belonged atop a three-tiered cake, so she went online in search of something simpler and more “peasant-like.” After picking out three or four possibilities, she finally found the one she wanted: a lacy antique number that cost her $29 on eBay.
When the dress arrived, however, there was a small problem: The dress was several sizes too big for Stacy’s petite frame and needed significant alterations and repairs. So she went in search of a good seamstress.
Designs by Dolly, which occupies the top floor of the North Country Food Co-op building in downtown Plattsburgh, isn’t a business one stumbles on accidentally. To get to Phillips’ shop, visitors must go through the market’s food aisles, past the Fair Trade coffee beans and bins of unbleached organic grains, and up two flights of stairs.
Phillips’ huge, prewar apartment, where she lives and works, has a timeless charm about it, with exposed brick walls, vaulted ceilings, wooden beams and large windows overlooking downtown Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain. An ornate white chandelier hangs in one of two living rooms. The apartment’s previous resident unearthed it, rusting and mud covered, in a Burlington cow pasture and restored it.
Phillips has a timeless classiness about her, too. Whenever I’ve visited her shop, I’ve found her dressed to the nines in some stylish skirt and blouse, high heels and chunky jewelry, her nails meticulously polished. Phillips insists she doesn’t gussy herself up just to impress clients, but dresses that way every day — even on Sundays, when the shop is closed.
“I feel that I do my best work when I look my best,” Phillips explains. “If I wasn’t, my work would be kind of sloppy. Dressing like this gets me in the right mindset.”
Dolly’s look-good-to-feel-good mentality predates her career as a dressmaker. Before becoming a seamstress, she worked a number of different jobs, including one as a technical clerk at General Electric’s atomic power laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. As she recalls, “The men got a real kick out of the fact that I would help load the reactors in high heels. That was a ball!”
Today, about the heaviest pieces of equipment Phillips works with are her old Swiss-made Bernina sewing machines, which she calls her “workhorses.” From March through September, Phillips can often be found sitting at those machines with her polished nails, jewelry and high heels, working until 2 or 3 a.m. to hem a gown or take in a prom dress.
In 26 years, Designs by Dolly has rarely needed to advertise; most of Phillips’ clients find her through word of mouth, she says. A “woman of a certain age,” Phillips declines to specify a number, but her longevity in the business can be gleaned from her clientele. She claims she’s sewn wedding dresses not only for the daughters of clients but for their granddaughters, as well.
Though most of Phillips’ business comes from New York’s North Country or Vermont, she has stitched formalwear for women from as far away as Washington, D.C. One of her most elaborate affairs was a wedding several years ago for which she dressed the entire party in vintage clothes from the 1930s and ’40s, including creating all the women’s dresses and hats. Phillips didn’t have time to attend the wedding herself, and never even saw a photo of her handiwork in action.
No matter, says the busy seamstress, who insists the best part of her job is working with “the girls” who come into her shop for their fittings. Despite the common stereotype of brides-to-be as demanding and self-centered “bridezillas,” Phillips says she’s only encountered one unpleasant client in her long career.
“I have the best time working with these girls,” says Phillips. “They’ll pick up their dress and say, ‘Oh, I had such a good time. I really enjoyed having my dress done.’”
It’s important that “the girls” like Phillips, too, because they’re likely to spend plenty of time with her. Since she’s a stickler for a precise fit, it’s not uncommon for clients to return three or four times to make sure their dresses are just right.
What advice does Phillips have for women shopping for a wedding or prom dress? Bring a seamstress or dressmaker with you, she says, so you can buy a dress that not only suits your frame and body size, but can also be altered to fit you properly.
Phillips remembers an instance early in her career when she was called to a wedding shop to alter a dress for a heavyset bride-to-be who asked if Phillips could “make me look 40 pounds lighter.
“I laughed, until I realized she was serious,” Phillips recalls. But she adds that, if the woman had enlisted her help before she bought the dress, “I could have at least made her look 20 pounds lighter.”
It’s worth noting that Designs by Dolly works strictly on women’s clothes for women. Over the years, Phillips has periodically been asked by men if she will custom make them women’s clothing. A devout born-again Christian, she says she did so on one occasion, but felt too uncomfortable and embarrassed by the experience to repeat it.
Fortunately, Designs by Dolly has rarely wanted for clients. Though she’s never devoted much time to growing the business side of her work, Phillips says the good Lord has always provided for her in times of need.
“There’s an old saying that if you make people happy, the money will follow,” she says. “And I’ve always made a decent living, because I really care how a person looks. That means a lot to me.”
It's a good thing Valentine's Day comes in February to thaw us out a bit. Bring on the flowers and chocolates! Love, of course, often leads to marriage, hence our dual theme. And, happily, in Vermont everyone's entitled. In this issue we visit a high-tech ring designer and an old-school wedding-dress seamstress; we resurrect the Big Day photos of a few well-known Vermonters, and take a sobering look at ... divorce. We get to the bottom of an arcane bridal ritual, and share one baker's recipes for swoon-inducing sweets. Gotta love it.