Thelma Madine is world famous for her extravagant wedding dresses. Thelma Madine will be well known to those who are fans of the British television show Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, although her dresses tend to be the real stars. The Liverpool-based dressmaker creates many of the huge, sparkly wedding gowns that appear in the show – pieces that partly inspired Kate Moss to get married. She told Vogue last year, “You can’t believe the dresses. They’re like blinging butterflies times 10; they can’t move down the aisle! It’s so genius.” How did Madine feel after reading that? “Honoured and thrilled!” Madine has recently released a book, Tales of the Gypsy Dressmaker (HarperCollins, $39.99), telling of the dramatic story behind her gowns: financial breakdown, a messy divorce and a stint in prison for tax evasion, as well as her relationships with the travelling community and the young Gypsy girls who come to her for their fairy tale wedding gowns. Surprisingly, Madine’s own wardrobe is bling-free: “I dress very plainly with block colours, no patterns, no bling,” she explains, “I don’t even wear jewellery.”
A dress takes about 300 hours to make. First the dress is drawn out for customer approval.
Then the girl is measured, before the corset is made by one particular member of staff. The underskirt is made by three members of staff and placed on a model. The skirt is then created, and the hand decoration and embellishment of that is done in a separate room using crystals, flowers. The skirt and corset are put on a model and every dress is checked by me.
The most memorable dress I’ve worked on was the one that was completely free from all embellishments made from pleated silk, incorporating structuring and tailoring – it didn’t have any crystals at all.
How would you explain Gypsy girls’ fascination with Swarovski crystals and shimmer? Because they love to stand out from the norm – the more bling the better. Over-decoration is the key. They learn that from their parents and the emphasis on standing out goes back generations.
How do you respond to those who say it’s tacky? It would be a boring world if we all liked the same thing! Just because some people believe it’s tacky doesn’t mean it is – just different people’s perceptions.
You have become known for your work with the Gypsy community, but do you get many non-Gypsy brides? Yes, lots of non-travellers come to my shop requesting a dress to be made. Usually they’ve seen a dress on the show and want one just like it but scaled down in size – they love the decoration and detail on the corsets. We’re inundated with orders from every culture.
The biggest lesson I learned from my time in prison was to be non-judgmental and treat everyone the same.
I would love to dress Angelina Jolie because she’s absolutely beautiful. Also Beyonce, because with her figure she’d pull the dresses off really well.
My favourite iconic wedding dress was Princess Grace of Monaco’s, because I loved cut and flow of her dress – classically beautiful.
The designer I respect most is Alexander McQueen, because of the impeccable structure of his designs, and I love the way he brought tailoring into his clothes.
My earliest fashion memory was aged 6 when my mum ordered me two dresses – one was with a very full and floaty skirt and the other was straight. I cried because the only one I wanted was the one with the big, sticking-out skirt.
The woman behind the over-the-top wedding dresses on hit TV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding keeps her own style sparkle-free.
By Zoe Walker
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