Every woman knows the pain of event dressing. While men merely stick on a suit, then may or may not brush their teeth, so women are expected to pull something fantastic out of the bag, then trot about like so many show ponies. Small wonder that those forced to engage in this kind of activity on a professional basis might tire of the expense, mental effort and sheer bloody masochism of it all. Step forward the indomitable Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, 75, who – faced with a lifetime's obligation to put on the glitz – has endeared herself to womankind by stepping out in a £19.99 (NZ$38.50) Zara bedsheet.
On Saturday, Dame Kiri appeared on stage to present the BBC Cardiff Singer of The World award in front of a packed house at St David's Hall, plus a television audience of millions. Few would have guessed the improvised nature of her outfit. For, while her magnificent hydrangea-print skirt may have had shades of Gucci, its source was Zara Home. The soprano's dressmaker had transformed a single flat sheet into a full-skirted number trimmed with cornflower blue ribbon – and extremely elegant it looked, too.
Earlier this month, American performer Billy Porter took to the Tony Awards red carpet in a resplendent suit-cum-gown concocted out of the curtains used for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots – inspired, perhaps, by Maria von Trapp's deployment of drapes to make playclothes for her seven charges in the Sound of Music. And last month, This Country star Daisy May Cooper appeared at the Baftas in a frock fashioned out of bin bags embellished with crisp packets: an ensemble that may be at the extreme end of the trend to make-do-and-mend, but something a tad Scarlett O'Hara requisitioning her mother's green velvet curtains is clearly in the air.
Demi-couturier, Sylvia Young – the style insiders' best-kept secret – is frequently on the receiving end of such projects. Young started her dress-making business, Beau Monde (beaumonde.uk.com), 33 years ago after a fruitless Saturday shopping expedition. "I've worked with all sorts of bits and pieces," she tells me. "Most often, wedding dresses become christening gowns. Curtains becoming frocks is another common one, or saris becoming dresses, jackets and skirts. I've turned blankets into coats, which is how Ralph Lauren started. When it's some heirloom I'm working with, then I have to dance around the moth holes a bit and make sure the material's been well-cleaned.
"Women do this because it's a good idea," she continues. "Britons are a frugal lot and we enjoy our frugality, especially in times like these. Plus why not? It's good fun. We want something individual, beautiful – not dragged off the high street." For years, my favourite night-on-the-tiles regalia comprised a very Dolce-esque skirt made by Young from the same lace Valentino uses, sported with a silver mink she remodelled for me – both much coveted, both acquired for a song.
It's not only women, of course, explains Debbie Murphy who runs Misfit Creations, which specialises in vintage and recycled designs. When an artist came to her requesting "to look like Kylie Minogue in one of her music videos, I made his a costume from a space age-looking fabric off a faux leather sofa"; she also repurposes curtain hooks, men's ties and shoe buckles "to use them as embellishments."
That kind of thriftiness may come in handy for those among us adept enough to try such transformations ourselves. Personally, having been banned from sewing after fusing my entire school via a run in with an electric machine, such gestures are beyond me – my own improv tends to be more of the altering the colour of earrings and shoes with felt tips-mode. Still, a girl's got to start somewhere.
Besides, one thing we have learnt from the 50th anniversary of Prince Charles's investiture is that – alongside the 75 diamonds and 12 emeralds of his coronet – sat a gold-covered ping-pong ball, the thing to save the day when the original became smashed, and a new one had to be quickly remade. If a spot of sartorial DIY is good enough for the heir to the throne at a state occasion, then it's good enough for me braving a Camden shindig.
What I also wholeheartedly endorse is the kind of high-low abstemiousness that saw Sharon Stone not once, but twice sport Gap top-halves to the Oscars - and look utterly incredible doing so. After her sexy, star-making turns in Basic Instinct and Casino, the world expected her to arrive at the Oscars wearing a dress that left little to the imagination. Instead, the actress showed up in a Gap turtleneck and made red carpet history, turning to clothes from the high street store for a second time two years later.
My chief example of tightwadedness concerns the jet sheath dress that I have been donning for all black-tie occasions since the age of 21. I am 48. Known as "the bin bag" so indestructible is it, I purchased this garment for £120 (NZ$230) from Oxford's House of Fraser. It seemed a king's ransom at the time, however, in terms of cost per wear, the company has long been paying me.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa wears $38.50 bedsheet as a skirt
Hats like sneezes, playing at aristocracy and other notes from the Royal Ascot
For almost three centuries, I have dined, danced and dallied in it; climbed trees, scaled walls, skated, swum, even sledged in the thing. It has seen me through the Baftas swathed in furs, and the Venice Film Festival crowned with a tiara. I would say I'll be buried in it, but I'd rather pass it on to my niece to live it up in.
The one creative approach that I will no longer countenance is wearing something I've been lent, which I imagine Dame Kiri, with her preference for bedsheets over borrowing, would agree with. Witness the many times that I have inadvertently exposed a breast, whether dancing to Beyoncé, applauding Clive Owen, or sipping champagne with poor Prince Michael, all because I was convinced I had nothing better to wear. Back to the trusty bin bag.