My Husband’s 1950s Raglan Sleeved Cabana Shirt

I secretly suspect my husband likes sporting the vintage shirts I make for him more than I like sewing them (which is saying a lot).  Either way, the mid-century has some fantastic offerings for menswear and with Father’s day just this past Sunday, it’s time to show you what he received as a present for the holiday a few years back.  So here’s yet another 50’s shirt I crafted for my man, sewn in a cool-toned Madras cotton plaid.  

If I’m going to sew him something, I am determined that it not only will be vintage but also something different (and better) than what can be found RTW in the stores.  Luckily, my man happily obliges me in this.  How often will you see raglan sleeves on a man’s button front shirt?  Honestly, very rarely, if at all nowadays.  This is sad because they are comfy to move in, easy to sew in, and so fun to match when using a plaid fabric.  You see, just because a style feature isn’t done any more doesn’t equate to it being a bad idea. 

Take the fact that the pattern I used is for a “cabana set”, to present yet another example of a clothing feature that should have never disappeared (in my opinion).  However, as is the norm for hubby’s projects, there was barely over a yard left of the material he chose…only enough for one piece and not two as a “cabana set” implies…so this might not be the best example in actuality.  Let’s just stick to the origin pattern labeling for his shirt, though!  The FIDM defines cabana sets (see post here) as “a marketing ploy begun in the early 1950s with multi-purpose sportswear, suitable both on the beach and off, which had a matching or coordinating set of man’s swim trunks and sport shirt or light jacket.”  It was “an outfit suitable (for the) relaxed, yet sophisticated, indoor/outdoor lifestyle closely associated with Southern California.”  In the post-war period, as men found themselves with the time and means to sit by the pool or on the beach with their families, there was a booming business in leisurewear (info from here).

Cabana clothing was often in bright, fun colors which were the opposite of the bleaker toned, more formal men’s work wear of the era.  This pastel plaid is not as crazy as many true vintage cabana sets for men, which got into almost neon colors and very novelty prints as they continued to be promoted into the 1960s.  Some cabana shirts were lined in terry cloth to be a pool-side cover-up, as the pattern cover shows.  Even still, my husband prefers the breathable, lightweight, sweat-wicking Madras cotton for his summertime shirts that do not get worn at the office, so this is his perfect warm-weather, vintage sportswear for today. 

Some manufacturers even took the guys’ cabana sets a step above by offering children’s and women’s sportswear that would match his own as well, although I think this is a bit too over the top.  I will admit I have matched him before to take advantage of scraps (see this post for his, and this post for mine) although we do not wear our shirts together but only on separate occasions.  Either way, his new cabana shirt was first worn to enjoy some weekend afternoon miniature golfing as a family, thus fulfilling a 1954 advertisement for Arrow brand cabana sets, which declared them suitable for “dad’s loafing, puttering or beaching.”  The mini golf place had a Southwestern flair with lots of waterfalls and water traps, so this is sort-of close to a California resort for us land locked Mid-Westerners!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  1 ½ yards of 100% cotton Madras woven plaid

PATTERN:  Simplicity #8659, a reprint of a year 1957 pattern, originally Simplicity #2080

NOTIONS:  The buttons were vintage from his Grandmother’s old stash, and I had all the thread and interfacing scraps I needed already on hand.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The shirt was finished on June 14, 2019.  It took me only 6 hours to make!

THE INSIDES:  all French seamed, except for the back portion of the collar facing for which I used wide bias tape

TOTAL COST:  As this was bought as a discounted remnant length of material, and everything else was from on hand and therefore ‘free’, his shirt was about $10

It was easy and quick to sew together, and relatively the ‘normal’ amount of time to complete (for short sleeved shirts).  It would have actually been faster to make, compared to the other summer shirts I have made for him, but then it took longer because of the French seaming.  I’m not complaining!  As I mentioned above, I like to do better and different than RTW, which hardly ever has anything other than overlocked (serged) edges.  Fine finishing techniques when sewing for others really enhances the fact it is a treat and a gift, after all!

The shirt was simpler to sew, especially with the French seams, when you change the construction steps so you save the side seams for second to the last step (final step being the hem).  Raglan sleeves have softer shoulder shaping which is less defined when compared to set-in sleeves with a semi-circular armscye.  Thus, be prepared for some slight adjustments needed to the dart which runs down the center.  I don’t know who fits into raglan sleeves as-is, without needing some small tweaking to the fit of their unusual seams, but it not either me or my husband. 

Nevertheless, the greater issue I had with the raglan sleeves was attempting to match the one-direction plaid on so short of a cut of fabric.  I only exactly matched the front (across the button placket) and the collar.  The horizontal of the plaid match all the way around, even for the sleeves.  However, where the sleeves meet in the main body up to the collar was the most challenging.  I truly enjoy sewing a challenge…bring it on!  Yet I hate having to realize my “matching game” was going to have to be slightly off – so I focused on the predominant stripe color in the plaid.  It’s rather a busy plaid, and the many intersecting colors happily hide any little ‘mistakes’ I was forced to make. 

The sizing seemed to run roomy, but from what I see of vintage 1950s advertisements, old family photos, and other men’s patterns that are in my stash, it seems that is the intended fit.  He was okay with the comfy fit version, as I forewarned him before I cut the pieces out.  If you would like to aim for a snug fit, or if you’ve chosen a knit for this pattern (which I think would work out very well), I would suggest sizing down. 

Otherwise, do try this pattern for the man in your life.  It is a loose, forgiving enough fit that you might not have to tip him off ahead of time as to what present you are making by asking for his measurements!  It is still classic enough that with a great knit or modern print I think this vintage shirt would look very up-to-date.  I personally could see that this pattern would be a statement piece if it was colorblocked (sleeves, chest pocket, and collar in a contrast from the main body).  I always have more ideas than there is time.

I do have more shirts from other eras to make in the future for my man.  I have a 1930s blue striped shirt with a detachable collar to put together for him, a 1970s tunic, as well as a quirky 1980s pullover to mention just a few of my favorite “yet-to-make” projects for him in my sewing queue.  It just seems as if the 1950s are his fallback decade, for both his wearing preferences and for my sewing for him.  I just hope to eventually – one of these projects for him – have enough fabric to appease my inherent perfectionism.  I feel like I have said this before, but every very freaking time his preferred material is always too short of a cut to work with, being all that is left of a bolt, but somehow I still make the garment happen.  We will see…maybe by next Father’s day, or Christmas, or birthday I will sew him something from a different new-to-him era with a cut that is at least over two yards.  For now, this shirt is another happy success!

“Under the Sea”

Let’s ‘dive’ back into the 1980s decade with yet another installment to my ongoing “Pandemic Princess” series!  My title gives away the royal fairy “tale” subject ahead of time here.  This is inspired by Ariel, from Disney’s original “The Little Mermaid”, with an outfit dated to the year of the animated movie came out – 1989.  My Pandemic Princess series was something I worked on throughout last year (2020) during the pandemic, and this outfit was one planned out at the end of the year for a wintertime visit to the new downtown Aquarium.  Thus, this becomes a conservative, bifurcated version of Ariel’s mermaid look with a purple blouse and greenish trousers made for an 80’s interpretation.  This is my only Disney Princess inspired outfit, too, which will not be a dress.

I wove so much symbolism, high quality, and love into all the details of what I’m wearing…Ariel was my first big deal, mega favorite Disney Princess, after all!  Proof in point – my parents were somehow able to get me (as in bring it home to keep) the oversized window display which was at our local Disney store for the release of the movie.  I remember dressing in a little purple bikini top and a sparkly mermaid tail to stand inside the 3-D display after they had set it up for me in the living room.  I was part of Ariel’s world that day!  So, please don’t mind if a grown up me obsesses over every little aspect to crafting her very ocean princess outfit, he he. 

Be prepared for a “part two” follow-up to this post, also dating to 1989 and with more matching pieces to make this outfit a complete set.  As big a fan as I am, one Disney’s “Little Mermaid” inspired outfit is not enough!  I might also do a third Ariel inspired garment – a dress – in the future, but I know I need to curb myself in at the moment.  For now, I felt it was important to channel the underwater princess as a woman with legs because, after all, her main longing was to walk, run, and dance on land!  I also enjoy the juxtaposition between her wearing only seashells as her top becoming a very fun but conservative long sleeve blouse in my hands.  All the blouse buttons are carved abalone shells instead!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Pants – a 100% wool twill, marked on the selvedge “Alta Moda – Enrico Coveri”; Blouse – a soft but tightly woven cotton blend broadcloth

PATTERN:  McCall’s “NY NY The Collection” #4537 pattern, year 1989, from my personal stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots of thread, interfacing, several hook-n-eyes, vintage rayon tape for hems, and vintage buttons from the collection of my husband’s Grandmother

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Both pieces received much hand stitching, but the pants more than the blouse.  Even still, the blouse took me 30 hours and the pants about 40 hours (not counting the pattern re-tracing I needed to do on paper to re-grade the sizing).  Both pieces were finished by January 15, 2021.

This is a tank with both the “Leafy Sea Dragon” and the “Weedy Sea Dragon”

THE INSIDES:  Most seams are covered by vintage rayon seam tapes, but the long pants seams are zig-zagged over along the raw edges.

TOTAL COST:  This set cost me next to nothing – just a few dollars – as I bought everything except the notions (which were on hand already) at a garage rummage sale. 

This set might have been practically free but don’t be deceived – it is not lacking in quality.  The blouse fabric is very nice cotton, to be sure, but it just so happened to be the same purple as Ariel’s brassiere shells. What seemed like the perfect find was not even 2 yards in length (at 45” width) so I was able to just barely make this blouse work out with its long sleeves and peplum.  Even still, my blouse’s cotton is a pretty basic score compared to the amazing find that was the fine woolen used for my pants.  It is a very greenish turquoise perfect to complement the purple, but also a mermaid appropriate tone. It was a soft, supple, and fabulously textured cozy wool.  Yes, there were 6 yards of the material in total. 

However, those 6 yards were perhaps the most moth chewed piece of fabric I have ever seen…quite a freaky mess!  There was barely a solid swath which didn’t have a hole in it from which to cut my pants.  With that fabulous selvedge marking, though, there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to try and salvage what I could from off of it.  Whenever you see a stitched on ‘label’ on the selvedge of material, that’s a clear giveaway that it’s something high-end, especially when it says “Alta Moda”!

Many people may not recognize designer material, so I’ll decipher why the selvedge marking here is so important.  “Alta Moda” is an Italian noun for the world of Italian high fashion, Italian fashion designers collectively, and Italian couture.  It is their equivalent to “haute couture” in French.  “Traditionally, Alta Moda or Haute Couture is the creation of unique tailor-made garments made mainly by hand using high quality fabrics, decorations, applications and embroideries with extreme attention to details” says The Accedemia Costume & Moda in Rome.  Dolce & Gabbana is most often associated with the term “Alta Moda” nowadays, but as a designation for the industry, the words mark the difference between Milan and Rome – the former is more known for everday wearable clothes (pret-a-porter) where the latter is known for extravagant high fashion (says “Dave’s Travel Corner”).  This is significant because there is the name of Florence based fashion designer Enrico Coveri behind the “Alta Moda” designation.  

Enrico Coveri 1988

Enrico Coveri was born in 1952 and studied at the Accadema delle Belle Arti in Florence.  In 1973, he began working as freelance designer, creating knitwear and sportswear lines, while making his mark by being one of the first designers to use soft pastel shades.  He moved to Paris in 1978 to work at the “Espace Cardin”, the vast design institute set up by Pierre Cardin, and the year after he debuted with his first women’s collection in Paris. Shortly after that, he returned to Italy to establish his own company in 1979.  “You Young” is the name of one of the several seasonal Enrico Coveri collections. It is also perhaps the best description for his bold, unpretentious, and fun-loving fashion: strong, vibrant colors and striking, witty designs that have always been clear and intelligible, with zany prints and knits often incorporating Pop Art designs and cartoon characters. Although he excelled at casual clothing, even his eveningwear exuded a young, sporty, wearable feel. Coveri enjoyed shocking and going out on a limb with design. 

It is noted that in Coveri’s styling, attention was always given to the particularity of the materials and fabrics.  His favorite fabrics included stretch satin, superfine linen, silk, cotton poplin, and sequin-covered knits.  Journalist Hebe Dorsey to dub Coveri the “Italian Kenzo” in the Herald Tribune.  Coveri died in 1990, at the young age of 38.  (This and the above paragraph’s information is from The Fashion Model Directory, Made-In-Italy.com, and Encyclopedia.com.)  Please hop on over to my Pinterest page (here) for his work and check out how full of life Coveri’s designs were in his too-short career.

This line of NY NY “The Collection” McCall’s patterns are supposed to be designer drafted, after all, so using a fabric most probably leftover from Coveri’s work and then channeling his style to interpret my version seems so appropriate.  Now, I’m not intimating this was his pattern, but after reading up on his life, it suits his exuberance and love for details.  It also means this wool is from before 1990…bingo.  I couldn’t have chosen a better designer to incorporate into my Disney “Little Mermaid” outfit!  How this vintage Italian Coveri fabric got here in the Midwest of America and why it became so moth chewed is another mystery I won’t even entertain unravelling.  I feel he would appreciate the animated character influence here, as well as welcome the color tonality, but I would hope Coveri would especially like the unexpected details to the blouse and the pants of my chosen pattern.

The most obvious special detail is the front waist of the pants which have a strong mermaid-reminiscent shaping.  With the dipped center and the flared, pointed sides, it calls to my mind the common way to portray the joining of the human body to the fish tail at the waist of a mermaid or merman.  It’s not just all design lines with no utilitarian purpose, however – these pants are a unique “fall front” opening!  This is scarce on so many counts.  Not only is this style of pants closing something relegated to menswear, but besides maritime military uniforms having a buttoned fall front closing, it is primarily a historical fashion point.  The “fall front” means there is a panel (sort of like a bib) which is flapped up (after stepping into the legs of the pants) and either hooked, tied, or buttoned down to cover both an inner waistband underneath and the exposed lower groin. 

This style of pants is most widely seen today on the handsome gentleman and their roguish compatriots of popular Jane Austen novels and early 1800 era stories in television and screen adaptations.  The end of the Regency and Napoleonic eras were the last of the fall front’s common usage in trousers, excepting certain military uniforms (as I mentioned) or ladies Victorian “split” skirts for riding. Brann mac Finnchad has an excellent terminology post here on his blog “Matsukaze Workshops” as he explores drafting and sewing his own regency fall-front trousers.  Modern pants are a basic form of the “French fly” closure style, also called “split-fall”, and this has been dominant on men’s trousers and denims for about 170 years now.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that the “French fly” was utilizing zippers, as we use today, rather than only buttons.  

I have not yet seen a decorative fall front pants, much less in modern times, and especially for ladies.  These are THE coolest pants I now have.  They are not trying to be historical, yet are a fresh take on a style long dead…not dated at all for coming out of the 1980s!  Most importantly, though – the fall front incorporates deep pockets that reach down to my thighs.  This is modern ingenuity combined with practicality for you.  Even still, style aside, I love the way they are very comfy and easy to move in, besides being quite complimentary to my hourglass figure!  Now I just need to make sure troublesome fabric pests do not find my pants…

My fall front trousers utilizes one snap set and a few hook-n-eyes.  A 1 inch heavy-duty snap closes the inner waistband, as Brann calls the “binder”, and large hook-n-eyes to close the sides of the fall front flap.  The original instructions called for me to use buttons and work buttonholes at all these closure spots, yet I wanted the smooth front appearance of invisible-from-the-outside closures.  The amazing seam lines of these pants needed to take center stage without big buttons to distract!  After all, I did not trust two buttons to alone hold the weight and the pull of the fall front.  I want these amazing pants to last me many years.  Not having set button holes will hopefully aid that by giving the versatility of being able to adjust the spacing of a hook or snap.  Depending on how the fabric loosens or what my body is dealing with at the moment, “fit” is something fluid and not static and I sew all my clothes with some option of tailoring at a future date.

Once I graded up the paper pattern according to the given size chart, these pants turned out close fitting yet exactly my size, luckily, so I could focus on perfecting every feature as it was out of the envelope with no alteration.  The pants’ legs are tapered slimmer at the leg hems, the waist is high above the natural line, and the hips are roomy across…all in a nicely subtle 80’s way.  They are dart fitted across the back, unlike Regency trousers which were laced to fit.  The inner waist facings were in many different pieces across the back to accommodate the curving fit.  I kept the pants unlined so they would be more lightweight and therefore versatile for a mild spring or fall season.  The wool is so fine it is not really itchy.  I did finish the hem in a bright, cheerful lime green vintage rayon hem tape.  Only I really see or know it is there, but sometimes it’s those hidden fine details that make all the difference, right?!

Now compared to the pants, the blouse takes second sitting, yet it is still packed with unusual, special details, too.  It is more of a 1980’s classic, though.  As the envelope summary stated, the blouse was designed to be very over-sized, except for the close-fitting hips and wrists.  Combining these features with the dropped shoulder line and lowered armscye, as well as knowing my tiny wrists, I presumed correctly that the only place where I needed to size up was from the waist down.  The size of my pattern was two sizes too small for me according to the envelope chart and yet the main body finished up fitting well yet with a comfy amount of room to spare – just the way I figured it.  Sizing up was challenging as it is a darted one-piece in the front and a separate peplum with defined waist seam only in the back.  I merely slashed and spread the front blouse panel open to the necessary increment starting from the hem.  Then, I came back to retrace in the original pleats again.  When a pattern says “generous fit”, believe it only so far and measure at the pattern stage (as I did here) to see just what is going on ahead of time for a perfect fit in the end!

The pattern calls the back bottom portion a peplum, but I see it as a clever way to keep a poufy blouse tucked in and looking neat.  This blouse is onto something smart – don’t you hate it when you tuck a blouse into pants or a skirt which fits snug over the hips and the top just gets all bunched up and obvious under your bottoms?!  I am glad for the longer, lower hip length of the hem because it not only stays tucked in nicely but also looks great worn untucked, on its own.  80’s oversized blouses can overwhelm a smaller frame like my own, so the slim fit for the waist and hips makes this style work for me, I think.

An unusual part to the blouse is for sure the sleeves, the way they are so deep set and super gathered at the center top ‘shoulder’ seam.  I have not done a tapered sleeve like this before either, nor does one often encounter a smooth transition (no tucks, pleats or gathers) into the fitted, rounded cuff.  I love it!  Even still, one little detail of two carrier tabs at both the back collar and front button placket makes all the difference here.  It keeps a contrast scarf in place (the way I am wearing it), but the pattern calls for an ascot to be made (included in the envelope, too) and worn in a way similar to a man’s necktie.  No wonder the pants had such a masculine influence!  The whole ensemble owes its design to guy’s clothes, even if the details are inherently feminine.  The collar otherwise is pretty much the same as the cuffs, with curved ends, yet was sewn down with a man’s shirt-style collar stand. 

I felt that true shell buttons were the only thing appropriate here to keep “The Little Mermaid” reference strong but subtle.  Abalone shell buttons, if the underside is unglazed and raw, can fall apart easily.  However, I was able to find ones stable and uncracked for my blouse in the amount I needed (a total of 11) out of a good number more (about 18) in the vintage notions stash of hubby’s Grandmother.  Shells are intertwined with every mermaid legend it seems, but I figured abalone shells would be Ariel’s preference the way they have an iridescent shine in her classic colors of turquoise, purple, and pink.

The way Enrico Coveri was obsessed with matching, curated accessories, I followed suit with this outfit.  Where do I start?  My shoes are perhaps my favorite compliment to my outfit, but then again I do greatly enjoy matchy-matchy footwear!  My facemask reminds me of the interesting and slightly alien texture of coral and was made by me of the lovely shiny turquoise rosette fabric leftover from this vintage inspired Whitney Frost dress copy (posted here).  My purse might be the most obvious accessory – it is a “Unique Vintage” brand cosmetic case that I added pearl straps to so I can use it as a purse.  My bracelet is really a necklace, but it is long enough to wear around my wrist when wrapped three times.  It has a sterling silver mermaid swimming across it!

My earrings are genuine shell carved in the shape of a starfish. I have had these earrings since I first got my ears pierced as a little girl. I know there is a story to where they came from which I cannot remember yet, so but nevertheless I hold them as special for the reasons I already mentioned!  I could have flaunted off so many of my old original charms, pins, or pendants which I have from when I was little and the movie first came out…but it looked too gaudy.  I wanted to go all out with this princess out, just to let you know, but I kept it tame…I really don’t want to cause any more attention (at times) than my vintage way of dressing already does!  

So, regarding our shooting location, if you ever find yourself in St. Louis, Missouri I do recommend a visit to the Union Station Aquarium.  This is something worth seeing (from a land locked Mid-Westerner’s point of view) plus it makes for the best pictures!  I couldn’t have asked for a better outfit to wear, though…the anticipation of the visit helped spur me to finish sewing it.  My Ariel inspired set totally put in the frame of mind to appreciate the underwater realm in an immersive state of mind…which was easy to do as some of the expansive tanks wrapped around and over between rooms!  Although I will not say “it’s better down where it’s wetter” as Sebastian sings, watching the fish and their counterparts do their ‘thing’ (“just keep swimming”, right?) was incredibly relaxing for us, compared to our working hours up on land.  At least it was fun to pretend to be a grounded mermaid princess for a day! 

Gift Sewing: A Reversible 1940s Apron

My most common item I create as a gift for someone is a really cute, finely detailed apron…and if not self-drafted, there is one pattern that I use for all of them.  It’s a vintage re-issue, Simplicity #1221, originally Simplicity #4939 from 1944.  This is a true winner of a pattern, with one cut piece needed to make it and a good design that has a complimentary fit.  Not every apron is so good at being fashionably waist slimming yet with full coverage for food stain protection, too.  Neither are all aprons so good at being a one yard, two hour project!  One of these days, I need to get around to making a version for myself, especially after making so many for others.  Here’s the post on my first gift version of this same apron pattern.  This particular one was going off to my hubby’s godchild as a present.   

This is the first time I had made a reversible apron, and I love how it turned out.  I wanted her (the recipient) to have something she would not find otherwise, something fun, and ultimately useful!  Just one layer of material (printed cotton) alone was too thin to be a useful against food splatters anyways.  As the apron design is so simple, it was easy to merely have the backing fabric become an optional, yet wearable, second side.  The entire raw edges are encased in ¼ inch bias tape so they look the same on either side, too, besides being an easy and colorful finish. 

The sizing is good for gifting, as well.  It is in loose, general blocks of measurements as small, medium, and large gradients rather than precise numbered sizing.  As long as I can estimate the recipient’s body as compared to my own, I can find the right size.  The waist of the apron should just about cover the front 2/3 of the wearer’s waist, so that always gives me a good way to choose what size to make after measuring the pattern in comparison.  The godchild is actually a 20-something who is my size body (or slightly smaller) so I made the apron to fit me.  However, it is always harder to let something go to someone else once you try it on for yourself, you know what I mean?

I made the ties as long as the pattern calls for, which is short enough for only a knot and not a full bow.  The neckline has no closures and flips over the head to lay on the neck and shoulders like a collar, so I feel the shorter ties complement the overall simplicity of the design.  At the base of the ties, I added a small name tag to credit me, the maker, so the recipient can remember who gifted it to her!

What is your go-to for handmade gifts?

A Pre-Raphaelite Reverie

My avid, life-long research into medieval studies, especially when it comes to manuscripts, is distinctly tied to my fascination for the revival of its tales and artistry through the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which spanned the 1850s to the late 19th century.  The term “Pre-Raphaelite” is associated with the much wider and long-lived “Brotherhood” of English painters, poets, and art critics that included both men and women in its ranks and influenced architecture, music, and literature, as well.  They developed a particular taste instead for medieval and early Renaissance art made ‘pre’, meaning before, Raphael, focusing on working from direct observation with dazzling, sparkling colors and incredible attention to detail.   It is full of romantic idealism, old-style stories, and classically draped damsels in distress…perfect for a princess at heart!

My particular favorites are the pensive, realistically styled images in the latter half of Pre-Raphaelite art, particularly those of medieval characters or fictional fairytale damsels produced by Brotherhood members such as Rossetti and his followers William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Evelyn De Morgan.  The women in such art always have hair and clothing that are total romantic perfection while the men are yearning, staunch, and heroic…I’ve been entranced since my childhood.  In a recent post, my sewing was inspired by the classical, flowing, Grecian style of Disney’s Meg from the 1997 animated film “Hercules”.  Here I am continuing that idealism with posting the making of a dreamy, draping 1940s era “Goddess gown” with matching bolero and jewelry, all inspired by the medieval inspiration behind the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

How did I link paleographic manuscript studies to both an art form and fashionable clothing?  Well, just like Pre-Raphaelite art, my outfit has a blend of the medieval with the elements of other eras tied into one.  The floral printed silk of my dress and the canvas print of my bolero are veritable copies of the beautifully scientific style of accurately painting nature as can be seen both on the pages of late medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as a tapestry of Burne-Jones.  It was often in the page margins or borders of illuminations that such texts (primarily early 15th century) used flowers and insects so as to heighten and add depth of meaning by their symbolism.  

This is no less the case with Pre-Raphaelite artistry where such a lush amount of detailed flora and insect fauna was frequently added in abundance (especially on tapestries).  Doing so was not just to add beauty, although that is often the extra benefit.  Both this 19th century art form and medieval manuscripts used the visibility of nature to aid and enhance our understanding of ancient stories and the people of the past.  Every moth, every fruited berry, and every flower had a symbolism, a meaning that added to the message of the art, sometimes even hinting at whether well-intentioned or full of irony.  Our modern times have forgotten much of the rich underlying meanings to such beautiful creations, and I say we need to relearn this knowledge!

So why channel this classical idealism through a 1940s gown?  I wanted to emulate Madame Eta Hentz, a designer born in Budapest and educated in Hungary who immigrated to the United States around 1923.  She presented her distinctive masterpiece collection of Grecian themed gowns in circa 1943.  Please click on over with the provided links to see Ms. Hentz’s “Athena gown”, her black and gold “Clytemnestra gown”, her “Iconica” pleated dress, her “Walls of Troy” butter yellow gown, and her unnamed but strongly classical evening gown, one in ivory and a version in black – all from the same Grecian collection at the MET museum.  They are flowing, draping, asymmetric creations resembling either an ancient chlamys, a Roman palla, a column in the Pantheon, or a pleated Fortuny toga. Such a beautifully simplistic style of dressing has been around since the beginnings of civilization, but I love how the late 40’s and 50’s Hollywood puts its own subtle high-fashion spin on such a garment.  Yes, there have been many other designers from many other eras who have created according to ancient inspiration.  Yet, 1940s gowns are already elegant to begin with, and to combine such a trait with the references to the classical past gives a very winning result I had to try for myself.

Furthermore, the post-WWII (40’s into 50’s) boom of Biblical, early Christianity, and ancient history related films also resulted in the popularity of the sensual, sultry “goddess gown”.  In 1949, the year after the pattern I used for my gown, Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah, a picture that became the biggest hit of that year.  This was one of the very first big epic films made using the latest technology that ushered in the height of the Biblical silver screen drama so prevalent thereafter in the 1950’s. 

Even before the popular quasi-religious films of the mid-century, however, Grecian style gowns were a go-to choice for either elegant evening wear or a classical themed costume in Hollywood at that time.  In 1947, the year before the pattern I used for my gown, the famous Rita Haworth was seen in a sexy, one shouldered goddess gown for playing the part of a Grecian Muse in the popular musical film “Down to Earth”.  Also in 1947, for a Christmas dinner party, the actress Gale Storm graced the screen during the movie “It Happened on 5th Avenue” with an asymmetric goddess gown.  Next to the works of Eta Hentz, this goddess dress heavily influenced my own version.  Similar to the one shoulder strap which mimics a climbing vine on Gale Storm’s evening dress, I incorporated me-made leaf jewelry as a compliment to my outfit.  The accessories I crafted to match are a further nod to the sneaky Pre-Raphaelite inspiration of my outfit besides being a very classical touch.  More on this further down in the post!   

A goddess gown is usually a one-shoulder dress that is made from a quality fabric that drapes gracefully, simple in lines and inspired by the togas of old.  It is so effortless, so ageless in style, and it’s wonderfully flattering for all!  I went with a sheer floral silk underlined with an opaque rayon for my version to turn my goddess gown dreamily feminine rather than just architectural, after the stylizations of Waterhouse and Rossetti.  The bolero is like a condensed minuscule version of the printed silk, and turns the dress into a refined look, with a bit of added interest, while also not disturbing the aesthetic.  My bright green jewelry and vintage green suede heels freshen up the tone, saving it from being too dark.  However, the black background for both pieces to this outfit keeps it moody and somber, just like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.  We happily tuned into that for the photo shoot location.  What could be more melodramatic than old building ruins around a pond with giant lily pads (just like John William Waterhouse’s painting “Ophelia by the pond” from 1894) or gliding into a weeping willow tree at dusk?!  I’m living a dream.  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  2 yards of sheer 100% silk chiffon, digitally printed. Fully lined in 2 yards of all rayon crepe for the dress. The short bolero jacket is an amazing Rifle Paper Company 100% cotton duck (from Spool and Spindle as part of my prize from the 2018 “Designin’ December” challenge) fully lined in a sage green polyester.

PATTERN:  Butterick #5136, a year 2007 reprint of an original 1948 pattern

NOTIONS:  lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress took close to 30 hours to make, while the bolero only took 3 hours.  Both were finished in October 2019.

THE INSIDES:  The bolero is fully lined, so there are no seam allowances showing at all!  The entire dress and its rayon lining (which is separate, free flowing) are both finished in French seams.

TOTAL COST:  The silk on discount and was ordered direct from Hong Kong through a shop no longer in business.  The rayon crepe and the poly lining for the bolero are as good as free as they were leftover from past projects and came out of my stash. The bolero fabric was free, but I had to pay the shipping.  So, between the silk, the jewelry I made, and the shipping cost to the bolero fabric, my total cost was about $40.

Of course (knowing me) I slightly adapted the design (of the dress) to accommodate the border print of the silk, but other than that I made this entire outfit as-is out of the envelope…and it is to be highly recommended.  Some vintage reprints have strange amounts of ease or finish different than the cover image, but not this one.  It was indeed easy to make, as it says, too.  It’s only because working with a silk or a rayon crepe is never easy that my version was more challenging.  The bolero’s most challenging part was being precise with the stitching (and then trimming) the curvy seams around all the edges. 

The one slight change I made to the dress can be seen when I walk away.  I think the contrast panel train I added is a beautiful touch!  I had to add a gored godet to the center back of my dress’ skirt because working with two yards of border print material wasn’t enough to go around the bottom hem.  The one selvedge to the silk had the floral border I used along the hem while its opposite selvedge had a dense line of paisley ‘almonds’.  I used this paisley along the other selvedge for the back skirt godet add-in, and drafted its godet point to start where the center back zipper ends and curve out past the hem to be a train. 

Here’s a close-up of the right side seam bodice gathers.

The bodice was cut out of the material in front of the paisley selvedge where the underlying print is more spread out with only a few random bugs and flowers.  I actually had to seam together several smaller pieces of rayon to make my remnants work for lining this dress, but as it is inside underneath the silk, the odd excess seams are unnoticeable.  This was such close call of a project!

As it turned out, the heavy rayon lining sort of pulls the dress down on the one open-shouldered side, and I half think that adding boning as well an inner grosgrain ribbon waistband would’ve been a worthwhile idea to improve upon the bodice.  It is just fine without such ‘improvements’ too, though.  A structured bodice would bring this dress closer to the silhouette of a 1950s era dress and deviate the dress away from the soft, flowing overall appearance I was aiming for originally.  It’s often good to leave what’s well enough alone.  At least I did made sure to sew seam tape into my stitching along the top neck edge and into the dual skinny shoulder straps so these spots don’t stretch out of shape at all.  As I’m my own garments’ maker, I’m naturally going to be hard on myself.  I realize this much.  Any small ‘faults’ cannot in the least make me love this outfit any less.

The bolero’s fabric was a happy find that just happened to match because, I’ll admit, it was only made as an afterthought.  When first creating the dress, I discounted the hope of finishing a complete set as I had no idea what would be a good pairing.  Would a solid color bolero overwhelm?  Would a black one underwhelm?  I was at a loss.  What would remotely ‘match’ the printed silk enough to seamlessly blend in with the dress?  Upon browsing the “Spool and Spindle” site after receiving my “Designin’ Designer” gift, I was looking through the Rifle Paper Co. fabrics (something nice I would never buy on my own).  I happened to see a fabric print so similar to the silk goddess dress already made and jumped out of my seat.  Serendipity had decided for me a matching bolero was on the table!  Luckily, I only needed half of a yard for the bolero.  Rifle Paper Co. fabrics are pricey and my certificate voucher just covered it.  Yay!  I loved putting my prize fabric towards a very special outfit like this.

Beautiful seams, amazing details, and clever construction are all packed into this little jacket.  A backwards closing bolero comes across as very unusual to me, first of all.  I added two shiny, faceted black buttons to close this behind my back neck with hand-stitched chain loops.  The back opening lets the dress just barely peek from underneath.  As if these features aren’t cool enough, there is that slight cowl neck front neckline fold, the front hem curve notch, and those perfectly curved cut-on cap sleeves which all totally vie for my “favorite garment feature ever” title!  What makes this little jacket even better (if that’s possible) is the fact that it is slightly longer than most boleros, and actually comes down to the waistline, so it pairs with other things in my wardrobe, such as my black Burda pants (posted here)…among other things!  Not that I ever wholly mind a one-way-to-wear-it outfit, but multi-use sewing is such a wonderful payback.

My handmade jewelry includes a full bracelet, earrings, and necklace set.  The necklace is the main piece.  It was two sets of enameled leaf ‘charms’ from the “Gilded Age Timeline by Bead Treasures”, a Hobby Lobby line of vintage and Steampunk inspired jewelry supplies.  They were on deep clearance, probably due to having the date of 2013.  Each pack made a chain of 7 inches, and I knew the base of my neck (measuring around tightly) is 15 inches…this would be a close call.  The lobster clasp and loop closure, as well as the front ring that combines both leaf chains, added another 1 ½ inches so I ended up with a perfect length for a closely fitting necklace.  The two leaf chains fan away from one another yet meet in the middle front and back of my neck, so my necklace ends up looking like a Grecian or Roman coronet. 

In medieval imagery, a laurel leaves symbolize peace, tranquility, and the power of a promise.  A simple internet search has shown me that 15 inch enameled leaf necklaces were not only existent but also popular, primarily in the 40’s and 50’s, so I was onto something era appropriate anyway, it seems!

As there weren’t any more of the necklace leaves to be had, I improvised to make something similar to complete the jewelry set.  I chose green glass teardrop beads in the same deep but bright green color as the enameling on the necklace leaves.  I made the bracelet and earrings reference the necklace by interweaving small metal leaf beads above each glass teardrop.  I rather love the look of how this jewelry set turned out.  There’s nothing quite like an outfit that is all handmade, excepting the shoes (and underwear), of course, ha! 

This is a project into which I put a lot of thought and meaning, since not only have medieval subjects been a lifelong interest but I am also much more artistic on paper than I let on through this blog.  Perhaps that’s what helped my outfit to be just as dreamy and romantic as the inspiration behind it, though.  I could have expounded upon several points in detail but I reigned myself in to keep on topic! I only hope I conveyed some of my thoughts, inspiration, and construction notes in a clear and intriguing manner enough to maybe even interest you in finding a channel for your own goddess gown. 

It really does take a lot of effort to come up with a completely me-made outfit and also make it look just like what was dreamed up in one’s own head.  That is perhaps the hardest part to sewing up something based off an exciting idea…to have what you end up with be just as you had hoped.  It doesn’t always happen that way for me, yet even still, I always make sure to be proud of what I made and even enjoy the surprises along the way.  Not here, though – it’s all that and more!  You know, the definition of a “reverie” – as used in my title – is “a pleasant state of abstracted meditation or fanciful musing; to be lost in a fantastic, visionary, or impractical idea.”  I see that it is said reveries often never come to fruition, being often negatively labeled as only a daydream.  Bah.  Anyone who believes that has never sewn.  To be able to swish and glide around in this 1940s set the same way as I had hoped to be able to as I saw it in my mind’s eye is a fantastic thing.  Make that reverie work out in real life for you – it’s worth it!