“Dark Academia” of the 1940s

This is just a small sampling of my favorite old books in our home library.

Of all the trends from the last couple years that I have been fully on board with such as Cottage Core (merely a ‘prairie dress’ revival) or the over-the-top decadence of a Princess inspired dress, there has also been Dark Academia.  Granted I am a bit late to have anything to show for this one by now, but the weather is gloomy and I am recovery mode from the last two years – so I am in the mood to share my darker toned, more serious themed sewing projects that have been hiding in the undercurrents. 

I do understand the Dark Academia trend because the aesthetic has been 90% of what I have been since I was a child.  Research always has been my forte, learning is a joy, and studying is the pursuit of my lifetime. More often than not you will often find me thinking inquisitively, reading intensely, writing furiously, or speaking passionately about many varied subjects.  Besides, having a basement that was a literal library of antique books makes Dark Academia not even feel like a trend to me but something natural. 

As it is nevertheless still going strong although no longer ‘new’, I might as well get around to show how I’ve been visibly channeling Dark Academia through my fashion with some of my older makes, such as this 1940s “poet blouse” from the previous post, seen also in my outfit here.  As is the custom for Dark Academia, this set is heavily inspired by the classic menswear of Britain in the 1940s, particularly the plaid suits of the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII) and the plaid styles seen on elite university campuses – such as Oxford – in the 1930s. 

I was actually inspired to sew my outfit soon after finishing my mid 1940s Glen plaid suit set (blogged here) back in 2016.  This set is actually made out of the exact same kind of luxuriously soft rayon suiting material as was used for my Glen plaid suit just mentioned.  I knew I was bound to love whatever I sewed of the material anyway but an unabashedly masculine interpretation of the rich plaid really made it interesting!  I delight in the juxtaposition created by choosing a skirt over trousers or plus fours (another campus mode and Edward VIII influence here), but it was really just a shortage of yardage which helped that decision be made.  Sometimes it seems as if the fabric truly speaks in regards to how it should be fashioned.

Being a favorite look of mine for winter that has taken too long to finally appear on my blog, you will see more than one way to work it as we have had a few different locations for our photos.  A black toned pairing of my set in a local book shop gives it the Academia Goth vibes, while a white me-made blouse (which I posted here) underneath when outdoors lightens it up to purely menswear inspired.  You should see what my red Agent Carter blouse (posted here) or even a beige blouse does!  It is truly versatile, so soft, quite comfortable, and fetching to wear I am so glad to have this vest and skirt in my wardrobe. 

THE FACTS:

FABRICS:  a plaid lightweight rayon suiting, complimented on the vest with a solid Kona cotton

PATTERNS:  Burda Style “Franzi vest” pattern #9302 and an old original McCall #6338 pattern from the year 1945  

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and a good amount of interfacing combined with a card of buttons, carved abalone shell buckle, and a metal zipper – the last three items are true vintage from the 1930s or 40s

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The vest came together in about 8 hours on January 16, 2020.  The skirt was sewn much earlier on December 5, 2018, and was also sewn in 8 hours.  Both pieces took longer to make because I did so much hand finishing.

THE INSIDES:  So clean!  The vest is “bag” lined so there are no seams showing but the skirt has bias bound edges

TOTAL COST:  I vaguely remember purchasing this fabric many years ago at my local JoAnn store.  It was almost a remnant at a length which was barely over a yard, so I got it at a discount.  The cotton solid which was used on the vest was remnants on hand from making this vintage 50’s coat, so I’m counting it as free.  The notions were bought at a rummage sale for about $1.  My total was about $12 in total.

The book store’s kitty was such a dear to me!

The 1989 film Dead Poets Society as well as Donna Tartt‘s novel The Secret History, published in 1992, both telling a story that takes place within a group of classics students at an elite New England college, have been credited as being the inspiration for the Dark Academia literary genre.  It emerged as a subculture on Tumblr in the mid-2010s, then – during the past 2 years – exploded as a trend on the visual based TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. 

I never knew until recently that there was a term for old-style enjoyments I grew up with, so much so that if there was a checklist for Dark Academia I could fill in so many boxes.  Why, I have used an initialed wax seal kit for sealing special letters since I was a teen!  I excelled at my Latin studies and happily had read a good number of Classic literature in high school.  My proficiency at fancy lettering like calligraphy even eared me money for a time.  I have always had a weak spot for all plaids, but also always have been adding subtle Goth or punk undertones to my ‘modern’ style (I blame this on my teen music preferences for Evanescence and Avril Lavigne).  At the same time, I have also deeply enjoyed classical music since I was 10 and have worn glasses since about that age, as well.  See?  My list could go on.  Jump years forward to me as an adult, when I fully incorporated vintage style into my everyday wardrobe and begin wearing more historical styles, and I have Dark Academia down to a T…then realize there is a name for this kind of thing.  It feels weird to be called out so distinctly.

Depending on what influencer is channeling it, however, the trend can sometimes seem snobbish and exclusive, in my estimation, and some elements are problematic.  By romanticizing a time (Victorian) when the privileged society put an emphasis on liberal education, it can have classist undertones.  Also, it is important to realize that people can have an academic drive purely so they can better their professional or personal life.  To have one’s education be a mere pleasurable luxury is a Romanization longed for as an ideal for many (“beauty for the sake of beauty” as Nathanial Hawthorne believed) but made difficult to attain in a capitalist society.  Furthermore, the trend revolves around the handful of highest premier institutions – how many of us who actually strive to take advantage of higher education actually will be at Oxford or Harvard?  Not that to attend there isn’t indeed something to aim for or be proud of, but for most that is not an option.  I am just as happy at my local University.

Nevertheless, I live for the literary geek, driven studiousness, and fashion aesthetic parts to it but embrace a very modern, diverse interpretation of the term.  While the advantages of a real life book is never to be underestimated, I will be a ‘heretic’ of old-school learning and admit that a good amount of research can be done through a computer’s resources.  This has been especially necessary for me over the past few years in particular when ‘in real life’ was not possible.  A quest for knowledge and yearning to learn should be nourished in whatever form it takes so as to be accessible for all, regardless of one’s income or neighborhood.  As long as you know how to sort out misinformation or at least find what you are searching for, the internet is a library, too, just without a proper moderator.  Thus, I still have a preference.  To actually have the opportunity to experience what an old book can share is something tactile, memorable, and uniquely worthwhile…something I hope every one of you can find a way to enjoy if you so wish!

This outfit is something I wish others could experience for themselves, too, as it was pretty easy to make and incredibly fun to wear.  Sadly, though the patterns are not easy to find.  The vest pattern is a really oldie at least from 2007.  I believe I acquired it in 2012 when Burda advertised the pattern anew.  The fantastic part about it is not just how wonderfully curvy and fitted it is for the female figure but also the fact that the pattern had been a free PDF download.  That’s right – free!  Sadly that is no longer the case…the pattern is not to be seen on their site anymore, free or not.  My skirt pattern is a vintage original, and those are generally a gamble to try and find but an Internet search occasionally yields a couple copies for sale (I see a 32” waisted one on Etsy at the moment).  I heartily recommend both patterns, regardless.  They are came together without a hiccup with a true-to-size fit. 

Surprisingly, both patterns were so very economical, as well.  The skirt – true to 40’s era rationing – only needed just under one yard, which left the vest to be made with a third of a yard plus scraps.  It was perfectly doable, but still a bit of a squeeze.  I had to get inventive to fit in all the pattern pieces while also trying to match the plaid.  This was a very stressful step.  I laid down all the pieces for both patterns on my fabric and thought the layout over for a day, rearranging and adjusting each piece a little here and there during that time, before I felt confident enough to cut. 

Please notice that the skirt’s back kick pleat and the vest’s side panels had to be cut on the bias.  At first this was done out of necessity but I like it so much better than if I had followed proper directions.  So often the little make-do tweaks I throw into my projects become the best part.  Every little challenge that arises in my sewing projects forces my inventiveness, and I love that.  The bias kick pleat insert panel makes the feature more interesting than basic and helps it hang softer.  The bias to the vest breaks up the monotony of the plaid and gave me leeway to not match seams precisely (although I tried to anyway).  All is well that ends well, as the saying goes.

I did have to interface the every individual piece of the vest as well as every dart and seam to the skirt.  This suiting was a bit lighter in weight than its Glen plaid relative and would pull apart too easily.  Luckily the fit was not snug.  I used a medium weight cotton interfacing for both vest and skirt, and it kept the slippery, shifting fabric in its correct shape for the vest construction in particular.  After one wearing of the skirt I soon found out that just ironing down the interfacing over the darts was not enough, so I stitched them down, hiding the stitching within lines of the plaid. 

To continue stabilizing the fabric at all points of stress, I made a decorative choice for the center point of the skirt’s back kick pleat and chose to embroider an arrowhead as a bar tack anchor.  It is a subtle touch that keeps the fabric together in the loveliest way possible.  I chose to use a satin finish embroidery floss in a deep red for the arrowhead to bring out the color undertones of the plaid.

Nuances to the skirt include a deep 5 inch hem to help weigh down the lightweight material, a center front decorative vertical pleat, and a pointed waistline button placket.  I hand stitched the entire hem, zipper, and waistband because (at first) I couldn’t find a thread color which would blend in.  Then it was because I am a stickler for how going the extra mile elevates a handmade garment from merely made to finely crafted. 

This idealology extended to the vest…completely hand stitched except for the lapel flaps and inner seams.  Nuances to the vest are otherwise much more simplified than the skirt.  There is no real (meaning properly faced and pad stitched) collar lapel – it is merely an extension of the inner full body lining.  The waistline lapels are also for faux pockets, just for decoration purposes, sewn down with a button.  I seriously debated about making welts so I could have real pockets, but my dislike of sewing welts won over the decision.  At least the back waist strap is real and working, with an old buckle cinching in the fit of this curvy vest.  The fitted cut is so impressive on its own, and needs just a bit of help from the back buckled belt.  Such a tailored fit drawn for feminine curves helps this set be so sharp, stronger in impression than just a “wearing my man’s clothes” kind of look.  The practical straight cut of the skirt with its fine detailing is something strongly reminiscent of great vintage suit.  Altogether, it comes together for a tight outfit, no matter how I style it.     

It is said that the general shutdown of in-person learning at schools prompted the resurgence of Dark Academia.  It was supposed to be a push pack from the challenges presented by virtual learning and a nostalgia for how classical schooling used to be, even if that look back extends to the not-so-distant time before the use of the home internet.  Just think back to the effort and restrictions of finding information when books – or people with the knowledge in books – where only available during business hours, by phone, or in-person visits.  It is not that school from home is without great challenges – believe me, it was tougher than I ever imagined it would be for our son – but many complaints of virtual learning seem negligible in hindsight.  Channeling vintage fashion as one of the many ways to connect to that old style of learning is great for me because that completes what I grew up with.  It helps me feel more connected with Generation Z, for sure!  I find it incredibly interesting – and flattering – that the younger generation wants to connect to that.  I’ll join in anew with them on it!

The “Dark Poet” Blouse

Now that the holiday season is done, I am feeling just how severely 2021 has wiped me out in more ways than one.  It was not the sewing – what I blogged about and what I made was one of the best parts to 2021.  Nevertheless, it was hard to find my mojo again after a 3 month spell of no sewing over last year’s summer.  My Charles James recreation helped me feel back on track as well as some secret really good projects I will share soon enough.  Our drab, cold, and inclement weather is not helping out my energy levels, however, so I might as well roll with it.  ‘Easy’ sewing patterns are indeed a fun treat for me at certain times, but detailed patterns always deeply satisfy creative needs…and I need to focus on something rewarding that gives me a boost right now.  I’m up for blogging the comfort of my go-to decade (the 1940s) with its effortless elegance and class.  How about something which mimics the darkness of a winter night, with twinkles in the details bright and clear as January’s stars?  

This blouse has been enjoyed in my wardrobe for years since it was made back in 2015, but it never found its way onto my blog until now.  Sadly, I had worn this blouse to a few funerals for close family members who died in Januaries past, so for some time it has been something I wanted to forget.  Finally, I am in a place to be delighted to expound on this shadowy dream of a blouse.  I am now ready to let it have its time in the limelight to let you know about one of my (now many) sewing projects which have too long gone unshared.  

I see this as a blouse loaded with a low-key creative flourish I enjoy so much.  I play with the ties, change them up as I wear the blouse, and throw my arms around in a more dramatic manner.  It makes me think of the stereotypical idea of the artistic type (primarily poets, but also painters and sculptors), living in blouses and shirts with large drapey sleeves and a frilly bow, ruffle, or obnoxious collar at the neck.  I’m not saying the stereotype is at all correct…typecasting is often wrong.  Then again, however, the artists, writers, and sculptors of societies such as Lord Byron of Romanticism, Oscar Wilde in the Victorian Aesthetic Movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelites, or William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement did wear eccentric, romantic garments which reflected their idealism.  This is not too far off from the ruffled antique blouses which the Beatnik crowd of the 1960s preferred, a topic I blogged about here.  

I’ve always thought, “Don’t those sleeves only get in the way?!” or “Isn’t the decorative neck fussy?” but also, “Yes, I would love to live in fancy fabrics!”  Even though my version of the “Poet shirt” is black (they’re traditionally white) with fashionable touches, this 1946 blouse somehow reminds me of that “artistic” image.  It has helped me to know the answer to my queries.  Sure, the voluminous sleeves do lend an air of elegance and character, and the neck ties offer customization as well as a bit of something extra.  A garment this luxurious in lovely rayon crepe makes it supremely comfortable and a joy to wear – and a good state of mind and body is optimal for creativity, right?!  Something romantic, something overly impractical, gives one a sense of freedom, both to think outside that which is basic and expected.  After all, dressing purely for your own aesthetic tastes is the ultimate living expression of wearable art, in my opinion.  This January, my art will be a dark poet aesthetic…but I am starting to veer towards pink looking ahead to Valentine ’s Day!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  2 yards of 100% rayon crepe

NOTIONS:  Except for the black fabric covered shoulder pads which I bought, I had everything else on hand that I needed – thread, interfacing, the hem tape, snaps, and even the buttons (which were from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother).

PATTERN:  McCall #6716, year 1946, vintage original pattern in my stash

TIME TO COMPLETE:  I spent 10 to 12 hours on this in total, and it was finished on February 3, 2015

THE INSIDES:  Oh so lovely!  Every seam is French finished, with vintage 100% rayon hem tape on the bottom and facing edges.

TOTAL COST:  I no longer remember…

As I do every so often, I channeled the cover envelope’s inspiration exactly and made my blouse out of a flowing, solid black, luxurious rayon crepe.  I went even more de-luxe with my choice of doing clean French seams inside (mentioned in “The Facts”), shiny dual-toned both silver and gold buttons outside, and adapting to have a cufflink closure on the sleeves.  This blouse is totally “in-your-face” post-WWII extravagance!  I adore it!  At first I wasn’t sure that the top-heavy details that widen the shoulders and add volume to one’s top half could work on me, one who is on the margin of being petite.  But here again, the decade of the 1940’s really does work well for me.  Designers of those times knew how to engineer some pretty awesome clothes, with special features that do complement the figure beautifully. 

Luckily, the blouse is designed to be generally loose and flowing, so I didn’t have to fuss over the perfect fit.  The only part which is fitted is the neck and wrist cuffs.  The rest is somewhat tapered in at the waist and hips, and the shoulders are loose (meant to be filled in with thick padding) so I needed it in the ballpark of general overall fit.  This isn’t a style that is supposed to be fitted close the body anyways.  I had to grade up dramatically in the sizing, as my original was a 30” bust.  This was a bit tricky to up-size, and in the end I estimate I fell on the slightly generous side of the intended proportions. 

The comfy fit is reined in by the most fantastic, unusual shoulder line.  It prevents this blouse from being a tent on the body in the most stylish manner.  It’s like some sort of mitered set-in sleeve with a hint of the raglan style from behind.  This was quite tricky to finish with French seams.  The wide shoulder-chest panel to the blouse really hides the big shoulder pads I added inside – and I needed properly 40’s era wide, sharp shoulders to be the anchor the whole look of the piece! 

There is something to be said for the benefits of perfecting a loose fit.  Nowadays everything seems to be worn tightly, but then again modern society of the last few decades has become so used to every garment having stretch.  Just because something can be squeezed into doesn’t mean it truly fits in the professional understanding of the term.  On the opposite spectrum, if a ready-to-wear garment isn’t skin tight it is too often baggy, especially when it comes to fashions for women who need a bigger size number on the label.  Loose clothes don’t have to mean the body is something to hide or that someone still wants to be in night clothes…but there are viable times and reasons for that, too, don’t get me wrong.  Frequently such tent-like styles seem to indicate the manufacturer was out of design ideas.  There is a good in-between state that I think this blouse hits.  I say bring back the 4 or 5 inch wearing ease for certain designs.  I am over the modern 2 inch (or less) wearing ease which causes “drag lines”, something many have been accustomed to being standard when they are only an indication of ill fit.  Make comfy dressing fashionable.  Let us sewists help bring back in popularity better fitting garments with our bespoke creations.  If anything, at least just give your local tailor some business – let them show you how comfy a proper fitting garment can be.  We survived the last two years…we all deserve it.

It’s funny to realize today that this blouse was made before I created my 1951 giant-sleeved Schiaparelli inspired blouse, so since then I have learned a lot about how to sew, wear, and do activities in clothes which have a voluminous amount of fabric.  Compared to that designer inspired blouse I just mentioned (which did take over 3 yards), this one seems so much tamer.  A lot of people seem to be very turned off by the idea of generous sleeves, but in reality a neckline with an attached scarf, tie, bow, or fluff of some sort is much more bothersome in my experience.  Once I made this 1933 kerchief tie neck blouse back in 2016 I learned about fussy necked tops pretty quickly.  Here I prefer the more casual air of an untied bow neck, but doing it so causes my ties to dip into a wet sink or a plate of food before I can stop them.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t change a thing about my make, and love to reach for it from my closet no less for its bother. 

The purse you see me with is a special accessory in my wardrobe – an authentic 40’s Corde bag.  It is one in an often hard-to-find excellent condition, so I have hand sewed a little hand strap into the inner corner to keep my hands off of the Corde detailing.  Luckily, it is both wide-bottomed and deep enough to hold much more modern necessities than conventional vintage purses.  Look at that lovely Lucite charm at the zipper and the shell pattern of the cording!

The grey skirt that I’m wearing with my blouse in these pictures is actually a RTW item bought from a name brand department store about 15 years back.  I see it as having a classic shape that pairs quite appropriately for my 1940s look, as well as items from many other decades.  It is in a rayon blend suiting, and has a slimming cut down to mid-thigh (contrasting well with the loose blouse above) with a bias flare below due to the many panels that make up the design.  The high waist and the skinny fit is why I think this skirt pairs best with my loose blouse, but other skirts in my wardrobe match, as well.  I love it when I can work existing pieces from my wardrobe to end up with a ‘new’ and very fluid vintage-style outfit which comes across as also being contemporary. 

A decade ago now, I locally found the pattern I used for this blouse for a deal, and had to l laugh to see it dated to one of my favorite years from that era (1946)…I’m so predictable.  Making anything from the decade of the 1940’s is irresistible to me, but this particular one had my name written all over it with the shirring, interesting seaming, and drama galore.  Usually black is not a comfort color for me but despite it being my funeral attendance blouse for a few times, this is as smooth and mellow of a treat to me as a shot of good bourbon.  Now if I start waxing poetic while wearing it you’ll know I’m really letting the aesthetic of this blouse get to me.  That’s okay…it is 2022 now.   We all probably could write a story or some prose on what we have been through in the last few years.  I’ll keep blogging and writing here about the things I make that get me through both the tough and the good times.  So, thanks for following, I appreciate your reading what I have to share, and cheers to a new year ahead!

Winter “Petal” Gown

One of the main things I miss the most during winter is the lack of blooming beauties of nature.  How’s a warm-weather-loving girl supposed to survive months without green grass, pretty flowers, and the comforting sound of rustling leaves?  Even still, I will admit their dormant and withered state has its own loveliness.  Winter’s withered vegetation holds onto its amazing potential for future blossoming under the cloak of an unassuming, bland, natural-toned exterior.  Scientific explanations aside, it is rather like an annual miracle, a kind of superpower, if you think about it in a child’s point of view.  Let me celebrate the awesomeness of nature in winter through some high fashion for this year’s “Designin’ December” challenge, sponsored by Linda at “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!” blog.  I am channeling the great American couturier Charles James, and hopefully looking like a drooping but elegant winter petal doing so, with my muses being two famous gowns from circa 1950. 

The way I understand it, there are definite phases in Charles James’ life.  In the 1930s, he had moved from millinery to making garments, designing pieces ahead of his time inventing wrap dresses and “sculptural fashion” such as a futuristic puffer jackets.  He also took control of the Charles James brand by licensing his company under his name in 1935.  In the 1940s, James made important marketing connections, working with Elizabeth Arden, Lord & Taylor, and Bergdorf Goodman as well as being photographed by the famous Cecil Beaton for Vogue.  “Mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery is his forte,” Vogue noted of James in 1944, as he continued offering luxurious dresses despite war-time rationing, at times even using inventive fabrics.  Then, there is the man of his first (of two) COTY award of 1950 in which his work was defined by over-the-top, 10-something pound full-skirted evening gowns – equipped with caging and immense boning since they were almost always bare shouldered – that only high society’s wealthiest women could afford.  This last and most defining period of his design is what I am channeling with my sewing, although I think the first 30’s portion had the greater talent because I respect the avant-garde.  Charles James retired in 1958 and died in 1978.

Unfortunately, I cannot personally connect to either time period of James’ life, as he is not remotely on my list of favorite designers.  It has been said he would lock his seamstresses in his shop if he felt they were not “working hard enough”, and being the fiery personality and obsessive perfectionist that he was, made very few friends he could keep.  Between his irresponsibility in financial matters and his inability to ever deliver an order on time to a client, I feel too distracted by the drama of his life’s story to fully appreciate his work, and I do not welcome the erotic undertones he subtly included in his dresses.  By all means, nevertheless, please do your own research on the life, the works, and ingenuity of Charles James so you can make your own opinion.

His design house did not outlive him so he is not known as well as his genius warrants.  Charles James was an influence not worthy of being so largely unacknowledged.  He inspired the likes of Christian Dior, Salvador Dalí, and Balenciaga while Chanel and Schiaparelli (one of my top favorite designers) were included in his exclusive list of clients.  Thus, I admire his work and ingenuity enough that some of his creations warrant my saving pictures of them for remembering later.  Other things he is famous for actually repel me – I must respect my natural reaction.  Thus, it is a big deal for me to even be attempting this designer imitation in the first place.  Do not anticipate any other direct Charles James inspiration to be seen here again on my blog, unless I happen to remake James’ famous “Taxi” dress of 1932.  So enjoy this probable one-off Charles James appreciation post here, and come delight with me in the monotone loveliness of nature in winter.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% cotton thick novelty ribbed velveteen, lined in a poly crepe, for the top and a polyester nubby ivory shantung for the bottom half of my outfit

PATTERNS:  Simplicity #1409, a year 1955 original, from my personal pattern stash, for the ‘petal’ top and a Butterick “Retro” #4919, year 2006 reprint of a 1952 pattern (originally Butterick #6338) for the skirt portion

NOTIONS:  lots of thread, bias tape, and two zippers                                                           

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The shantung dress worn as a skirt was finished on April 9, 2021 in 15 hours while my bodice was finished on December 16, 2021 after 16 hours (8 hours hand stitching, 5 hours by machine, and 3 hours of re-drafting the pattern).

THE INSIDES:  My top is fully lined while the shantung part has its raw edges zig-zagged over to reduce fraying

TOTAL COST:  The novelty velvet for the top was a remnant found on clearance at JoAnn fabric store at $4 for 7/8 of a yard.  Lining for the velvet was a no-cost choice – it was a bed sheet originally and leftover from sewing this 90’s era sundress.  The shantung was bought 10 years back from a local store, which is out-of-business now, so I no longer remember the cost.  I did buy 4 yards of the shantung and I always bought fabric from that store on some sort of discount…maybe I spent $7 a yard.

The iconic “petal dress” of 1951, in cream and olive toned satin, was my main inspiration ever since I happened to acquire my Simplicity #1409 pattern.  The pointed hip detail was an unmistakable reference.  James described the the dress as a “curving stem of velvet…above 25 yards of blowing, billowing (silk) taffeta.”  According to the Chicago History Museum, which has a black and white version in its collection, “If James were not so clever, the Petal’s twenty-five yards of material would have created an undesirable bulk at the waist. He solved this by stitching most of the material to petal-shaped hip panels and only one layer to the waist seam.” It makes the torso appear as an upside down stalk, with the hip points being what is technically called the “sepal” to flowering plants, with the skirt becoming the petals.

Later, I happened to stumble across an image of another Charles James dress from the year 1950 on which the red velvet bodice had the same “W” notched neckline as my Simplicity #1409.  This red and white Charles James dress was famously worn by Mrs. Barbara Paley, the wife of the founder of CBS, as well as Mrs. Dominique de Menil, a rich art patron in Texas, besides being featured in the 2014 “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.  Now I had a stronger reason to blend both features together, just as the pattern has it, which was actually just the way I liked it!  I noticed that both had velvet bodices and know that both have much more complex technical detailing than I realize from only looking at pictures.  I was not doing anything that couture in the one week I had to recreate this.  There was also a black and white variations James made of this inspiration dress, as well (see it here).  However, I gravitate towards James’ versions with more color.  My intent with my simpler, blended version here was merely to do my best work and capture the spirit of both dresses in one.

My dual inspiration garments were both dresses, but here I have turned my interpretation into a two-piece set.   You’d never guess, would you?!?  Charles James was inventive and came up with unusual combinations, so I thought my choice might be (remotely) along his way of thinking.  A big difference between us might be the way I was driven by a desire for versatility and practical finery, and not a desire for pure extravagance with my ‘copy’.  Only this month (yes, very last minute), when I decided on this particular designer project, it struck me that a vintage 1952 dress I sewed in ivory shantung earlier this year was the perfect color and silhouette for pairing with a Charles James “petal” dress look-alike.  Wearing it skirt-style, with the wrapped bodice portion hanging inside, saved me the time and money, and is just what I wanted anyway!  The full dress will receive its own post very soon because it is just so good, so versatile when worn as intended, and a sneaky movie costume look-alike, too.  It is a 4 seamed full circle skirt with a wrap bodice which is the most useful evening gown you could ever want.  I am ecstatic over it…but for now, the ‘skirt’ will not be addressed anymore in this post.  So stay tuned!

I have actually been sitting on this Charles James inspired project for the last few years.  There is a perfect time for every one of my sewing projects – I let inspiration happen when it naturally comes or when my free time allows.  Up until now, the tweaking that my chosen pattern needed as well as the lack of easily finding the “perfect” fabric has together discouraged me from tackling this idea.  The pattern I had for the ‘petal’ blouse was a Junior misses (teenager) pattern in petite proportions as well as a tiny bust-waist-hips ratio.  It needed dramatic resizing before being useable for me.  I had to trace the two bodice pieces out to tissue paper and cut, splice, and tape it all back together into something for my measurements.  I wanted the set-in shoulders to hug the outer point of my real shoulders so I cut and spread open the sides of the neckline to adapt.  The original red 1950 gown hugs the end of the shoulders but has a flap-like collar, too, while the classic “petal” gown is mere skinny straps – neither were to my taste.  I always stick to my personal preference first over any desire to copy verbatim any original – no matter how good that may be.  

I made so many tweaks and customizations to my tissue paper pattern ‘copy’ I feel as if it is my design now more than something directly owed to the original vintage pattern.  I recognize that my chosen pattern is from a date which is several years later from the Charles James original inspiration dresses, but he was fashion forward and home sewing companies no doubt had their hands full keeping up with all the great designs that were exploding right and left during the 1950s.  I have read from reputable sources that Charles James ‘revived’ the Petal design in 1958 as a ready-to-wear dress for the junior market, but I have yet to find solid proof of this.  So I guess my Simplicity pattern from 1955 was both ahead and behind for its time, coming after the original 1949 Petal dress but before James’ release for teenagers.

As I mentioned above, my favorite (and the one I see the most) of the “petal” dress has a sort of brownish, earthy, green velvet bodice.  I had a novelty velvet on hand, only recently bought, that was an olive-toned tan with an ombré sheen – very deluxe looking and close enough in reference.  It is obvious Charles James apparently liked working with velvet, and his 50’s era creations were highly structured.  I figured this thick ribbed material – which was almost like a heavy corduroy – would be very suitable.  I did not bone the seams or add any internal structure to the bodice because of the sturdy weight of my velvet.  I figure I can come back and add boning channels with some hand stitching if I choose to at a later date.  Inside is merely a lightweight lining to give it a fine finish and smooth feel against my skin.  The lining also helps stop the way the raw edges were disintegrating into little fuzzy lint balls everywhere I was working.  It was a messy project that definitely added to our normal household amount of dust.  It turned out looking so cleanly tailored when finally finished, though!

I expected this velvet bodice was going to be easy-to-make – so I thought.  There were only two pattern pieces, few seams, and the pattern (since it was re-drafted by me) was exactly my size now but it became a beast that I could hardly bear to finish.  The points of the hem and the neckline, the sharp curves around the arm openings, and a mirrored pairing of the lining with its velvet bodice all severely tested my normal desire for perfectionism.  I did so very much hand stitching on everything but the internal darts and right (zipper free) side seam for the sake of my said desire for perfection…I guess I am not too completely unrelated to Charles James as I may think. 

My fingers have never before been so sore and torn up from the hand stitching through the layers of tough velvet…I was to the point of tears only halfway though.  At the same time, I am never very comfortable using a metal thimble and would rather adapt my stitching strategy by using a different finger.  I tore up the skin of almost four fingertips by the time I was finished.  Yet, I have a boundless determination to not leave my sewing projects hanging.  I try not to have unfinished endeavors.  I also had a deadline for it to be part of the “Designin’ December” challenge!  As you can see, I powered through, with stitches that are not as perfect as I might have liked but still finely done, for a top which turned out just as wonderful as I had happily imagined.

Additional versions (circa 1953) of the Charles James dress originally worn by Babe Paley – see the Victorian influence?!

Early on, the hip hem points vaguely reminded me of Tinker Bell, the fairy in Disney’s 1953 animated Peter Pan movie.  Fairies are forest creatures and protectors of the woods, after all and often modeled after flowers in the visual arts.  Even more so, though, my two inspiration dresses are very much reminiscent of the elegant open necklines, close fitting bodices, liberal use of luxurious material, and artful skirt drapery of women’s older historical clothing.  The Victorian bustle era, 1850s caged skirts, the 18th century court gowns with hip panniers, and the corseted shaping of the Edwardian period all were sources of inspiration for the 1940s and 50’s gowns created by Charles James.   He just did a more modern, individualistic interpretation of those old styles, but the principles of boning, caging, draping, and overall artful reshaping the female figure are still there.  Every famous quote from every other designer about wearing a dress – such as “What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it” by Yves Saint Laurent or “It’s not about the dress you wear but it’s about the life you lead in the dress” by Diana Vreeland – is blown away by the overwhelming power of a Charles James frock.

My personal recreation is nowhere as extreme as what the courtier who was my inspiration would have chosen, although I am wearing a heavily boned original 1950s body fitting brassiere underneath.  Comparing my version to the original dress, I am now also half-wishing I had worn a couple of my floofy 50’s petticoats underneath instead of just one.  My outfit seemed very grand with a grandly swishy skirt when I was wearing it for these photos – I was knocking things over!  As I’ve mentioned before, this is meant to be my practical, made-in-one-week, using-what-was-on-hand version of something extremely high fashion.  Since this turned out something less dramatic than the original yet still immediately recognizable, I am very still proud I was able to pull off what I did.  I am very proud I worked through the pain and trouble to perfect those points, corners, and invisible hand stitching, too.

This was a tough sewing project for me to end the year on, but one that – just like my other “Designing December” entries from past years – is something which ends my year of sewing on a grand note.  It’s like going out in fireworks to have my last project of the year be about attaining for myself those seemingly unattainable designer pieces I languish over as a photo on my computer.  Now all I need is an excuse of some event to wear this glamorous outfit somewhere…soon!  Petals are the showiest part of a flower after all, and this “Petal” set is just begging to be seen at a dinner party or dance somewhere.  I will be a walking bouquet!  Until then, this dress will be only live vicariously through this blog post.  So I’ll send off 2021 with my special “Petal” outfit, to offer some natural beauty for entering into the cold and quiet darkness I despise about January.  I wish you a New Year a peace, health, beauty, and happiness.  

My Victorian Christmas

The royal Christmas tree is admired by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert & their children, December 1848

The popularity of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” novel from 1843 is one a strong reason why Victorian fashion always seems to be the choice for a historical “old timey” flair to the winter holiday.  However, the celebratory traditions of the Victorian era do have a large part to play in the way Christmas has been celebrated in last 150 years.  The traditions of sending greetings to friends and family, caroling, the Father Christmas figure, glittering trees, and showy wrapped presents which spread good cheer and abundance were each not original to the Victorian era and were celebrated across the world for centuries before (in some cases).  Altogether, by the 1870s these practices were solidified into being one holiday, all thanks in part to the wide publicity of the way Britain’s Queen Victoria began celebrating Christmas with her family in the 1840s.

As much as I love the aesthetic of a Victorian Christmas, I have long been a confused but always captivated admirer when it comes to Victorian fashion.  What is with the big rear end?  Is it difficult to wear?  Why were the trained skirts so “extra” when there were dirt roads and hazardous carriage wheels to deal with? How can there be so many various trimmings (pleats, ribbons, ruffles, and beading) that actually look so good together?  Every detail in every fashion plate or extant original is so beautiful but also so unusual, with the fanciest Victorian ladies’ outfits a lot to look at, for sure. 

I actually have an original hand-tinted fashion page from April 1874 Godey’s Lady’s Book framed in my bedroom (see it in my post under “The Facts”) that speaks for my lurking obsession.  Did you know that in both 1850 and 1860 Godey’s printed an Americanized version of Queen Victoria’s Christmas scene with her family, and it is known as the first widely circulated picture of a decorated holiday evergreen in America? Art historian Karal Ann Marling called it “the first influential American Christmas tree”, and it certainly helped anchor the tradition for the Western Hemisphere by the 1870s.

I am a hands-on type of girl, though, and just admiring for years was eventually not going to cut it.  There was only one way to ultimately answer some of my internal queries and satisfy my fascination – attempt to sew my own Victorian wear.  My mom had recently given me her stash of historical costuming patterns, so I was conveniently set.  I figured Christmas was the best time to pick up this project for reasons listed in the paragraphs above, but especially with the local historic homes decked out in old time finery fit for a background setting which would be 1870s appropriate.  I also realized that I did not have historic clothing for the wintertime – the lack of which has now certainly been amended in the most fantastic way!

The recent purchase of a highly decorative vintage silk velvet jacket (possibly from the 1930s) which would remotely pass as Victorian gave me an easier introduction into sewing this new-to-me historical era.  Thus, for this outfit, I only had the make the skirt and the apron drapery which goes over the skirt.  The jacket gave me a ‘starting point’ idea to work off of, as well as having half of my outfit ready-to-go.  Luckily, I already had a reproduction blouse on hand, a 1880s Red Threaded corset, a lightly boned bum pannier, and my 1860s undergarments (made by me, yet to be posted) to help the rest of the outfit easily come together.  My Grandmother’s brooch pins down a lacey pocket square serving as a ruffled neck cravat.

Using the vintage jacket for my bustle set hints at a running theme I will be having here on my blog for 2022 – the revivals of historical styles which can be found in vintage fashion of the 21st century.  More on this coming soon!  On a basic level, the ‘not-true-Victorian’ jacket helped me remember to not be so hard on myself if I don’t get my first Victorian outfit perfectly historically correct.  Many of today’s most popular costumers are not strict about accuracy as much as I remember from being in re-enacting groups 20 plus years ago, but I am my own worst critic.  The older in era I sew, I want to be as accurate as is reasonable for both my means and my sanity (my Middle Ages dress is an exception). 

I acutely realize sewing is a journey and – especially for historical clothing – one can learn so much during the push to continue to trudge forward through challenges.  Looking back at the visible proof of that progress is something to be proud of, which is why I still love to wear things I sewed 10 and even 20 years ago.  I am confident this my first Victorian set will be very versatile to me, and be a work in progress that I will appreciate having made when I did…the way I did.  I have previously sewn and worn garments from the decades with bookend the Victorian era – Regency and Edwardian – so I am happy with anything fun, fancy, and swishy which fills that void.

picture of Lillian Robert from the DeMenil house

The location for my photos is the historic Chatillon–DeMenil Mansion, located in St. Louis, Missouri.  Construction on the house was begun in 1848 on a five-acre tract of the pioneer Henry Chatillon, somewhat famous as the leader of an Oregon Trail expedition.  In 1855, the house had then been enlarged to its present Late Greek Revival style form under the new ownership of prominent businessman Nicolas DeMenil and his wife Emilie Sophie Chouteau, the descendant of both of the founders of St. Louis.  Being a Victorian house, it was decked out in all of the era’s holiday finery.  I was so happy to hear the docent comment that I looked like an 1870s picture of Lillian Robert, the wife of the house’s heir Alexander DeMenil!      

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a dark brown herringbone printed cotton flannel for the skirt, with poly felt – leftover from this hat project – to support the hem (I’ll explain more about down below) and a 100% wool twill for the apron drapery

PATTERN:  Simplicity #5457, from Andrea Schewe, labelled as ‘Victorian 1880s’, from year 2003

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots and lots of thread went towards this project – I finished up about four 250 yard spools.  Other than that, I needed lots of size 2 hook and eyes.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The skirt combo took me about 30 plus hours to make (a large part of it by hand) and it was finished on November 30, 2021.

THE INSIDES:  all edges are tightly stitched over for a simple edge finish

TOTAL COST:  The dark brown skirt flannel was bought on sale at my local JoAnn store for $5 a yard – with 3 ½ yards, my total is about $18.  I’m counting the wool apron drapery as free because it was rummage scraps I picked up as part of a “$1 a bag” second-hand sale of material.  All notions were already on hand, most from my paternal grandmother’s stash.  What a reasonable way to dive into Victorian dressing, right?!?

the Godey April 1874 print in my bedroom

For women’s wear, the shape and placement of the underpinnings, as well as the size of the overall silhouette, changes subtly but still significantly over the span of less than any given 5 years throughout the general Victorian era (1837 to 1901).  I kept close to the year of my bedroom’s Godey print – 1874 – as my main inspiration, because that is what I see on a regular basis!  Nevertheless, the 1870s & 1880s is often seen as the classic trademark look of the “bustle era” to the Victorian period, and veering closer to the 1870s suited everything I had to work with already.  I do think that the date of 1880 for the Andrea Schewe pattern is at least 5 years too late – the late 1870s shifted into a more curvy natural form look for a number of years before returning to the full bustle.   

From my research into bustle era looks, it seems my outfit is more of an interpretive mix of trends which ranged between 1870 and 1876.  My velvet jacket has a natural waistline length, with close fitting sleeves that are set in at my natural shoulder in line with pre-1873 fashion.  My reproduction blouse and my jacket both have fuller wrists, as seen circa 1873.  Hoop skirts were just beginning to be replaced in 1869, so amplified rear ends at this time (early 1870s) were rather tame compared to the late bustle era.  The overskirt’s apron fronts and draped backs were detachable and shorter than any overlay that came post 1876.  These details are everything that this Andrea Schewe pattern has, hence my skepticism of the cover’s date.  Nevertheless, all of these historical details also happily suited my working with scraps, using what I had, and trying make this outfit on a budget.  I still used quality fabrics which would have been utilized for a garment back then, and my entire outfit – inside and out – is cotton, wool, or silk.  My hubby actually found the fabrics I used for my skirts – he has been trained well to know what material I like and is an expert at finding a good deal!

It is actually a very versatile set for historical dressing.  I am hoping to make a different overskirt and more dramatic drape in the future, as well as a matching bodice, so I can turn my underskirt from the current “walking outfit of a comfortably wealthy middle class woman” into a fancier, trained outfit of a wealthier woman.  Yes, visible appearance of class status was what was done back then, for better or for worse.  Finding out about the way women of different classes dressed is how we study Victorian fashion today, and understand them when modern costumers choose what to recreate.  I myself like a more practical look for a lot of my historic garments.  I enjoy wearing things that might have seen more use and been worn by more people like me perhaps.  It’s all part of my “stepping back in time” idea, I suppose (which I discussed here in this post, already).  It is also easier to start off basic and work up to some intricate finery!  

The skirt and its apron drape were really quite simple to make – the hardest part was adjusting to a different silhouette.  All the accoutrements, such as the pannier for the bustle back, petticoats, and a corset, too, needed to be tied, laced, and hooked on myself in between construction fittings to see how my two pieces would work for me.  I had a good beginner’s outlook to power me through.  After reading a few blogs (this post was especially helpful), I figured out that the best way for me to approach Victorian bustle outfits were to view them as nothing more than a bodice with a two part skirt – underskirt and overskirt (which consists of the front apron and the back drape).  No big deal…they just require a lot more material and in much weirder pattern shapes than what I am used to sewing.  Once I got my head wrapped around the undergarments and foundation, then I could understand what my end goal was and not be completely mystified during the construction process of my bustled skirts. 

I wanted warm fabrics in a natural materials, so my basic underskirt is flannel.  My hubby found a flannel that has a wonderful two-toned herringbone weave.  This makes such a basic cotton appear as if it was a brushed wool, or a suiting, and provides interesting texture.  To continue the warmth factor, and level up the underskirt, the apron and its draped overskirt are my wool twill remnants.  I would never have used such a fine woolen if it hadn’t have been small, hacked up remnants which were completely moth chewed (it was like this when we found it, hence it was offered as good as free). 

I normally dislike using really nice material on historical costuming clothing mainly because I get sad over the fact it will not see much wear when compared to my regular wardrobe.  If an expensive fabric will help my project turn out a successful recreation of my ideal I have no problem diving all in.  It is all about give-and-take.  However, it is ideal for me when a fine fabric has existing issues too obvious for a more fashionable design.  The deep folds of the pleated apron front drape hide moth chews big enough to slip a pencil through.  It also hides the seaming I did to come up with pieces which just barely fit the patterns.  I had to improvise my own back overskirt drape because of the lack of material, too.  I really wanted something more impressive over my bustled back, but I am just as happy to have ‘rescued’ a nice – but damaged – material from the trash bin.   

The way the details are put together are a mix of finely done and rather unorthodox.  In lieu of a proper waistband for both underskirt and overskirt, I used brown satin ribbon turned under inside for easy finishing and for stability.  Cotton flannel relaxes too much to trust to just interfacing (I’ve learned) and there was nothing left but tiny scraps of the woolen.  All hems and top stitching at the waist was prick stitched invisibly most just because I couldn’t find a color thread to match.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of a harsh solid stitching line jarring my efforts thus far to make a nice historical outfit here.  The extra mile is worth it to me…which is why I also spent so much more effort on the underskirt hem than what would be expected just looking at it.  Again, flannel is awfully limp, and my skirt hem needed some body, weight, and stability.  I cut a wide 5 inch strip of felt for the entirety of the skirt bottom, and tucked it inside the flannel hemline.  I have read and heard from my fellow historical costumers that Victorian and Edwardian skirt hemlines could be stabilized with canvas, horsehair braid, or some sort of interfacing to help the silhouette of the skirt.  Again, I was just working with what I had available.  The felt does a great job at doing just what I hoped it would do.  For never doing something like this before, I was really overwhelmed at this step.

The jacket is a very interesting blend of the old and the new, too.  The exterior is an older silk velvet, I can tell, especially by inspecting the decorative stitching, but the interior has modern poly chiffon lining.  When I bought it, someone had done some very pretty creative modern up-cycling to make it what it is today.  Subtle brown stains, indistinguishable in the fancy stitching, makes me assume this must have had shattered lining and different closures and been in a rather sad state.  I was happy to see another sewist’s great job of mending and thrilled to have a vintage piece (at a great deal, I must add) which didn’t need me to find the free time I don’t have for garment repair…all I had to do was enjoy wearing it.

The apron overskirt, as it was patterned, has these peculiar but very smart back yoke panels which reign in the deep side pleats, keeping them smooth under the back bustled drape (attached down halfway, also for ease of dressing).  I like the way the smooth helps the overskirt fit and lay in an uncomplicated way, yet I also do not know if this is a modern adaptation or a true historical but little used overskirt detail.  I have not yet seen such a feature on any other Victorian bustle skirt patterns through other companies, or even extant garments, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possibly out there and I haven’t yet seen it.  Other costumers or historical seamstresses, come jump in the comments and let me know about this overskirt yoke!

Perhaps the hardest learning curve of going Victorian was attempting a 1870s hairstyle.  I bought a 7 piece fake hair clip-on extension kit at 18” length to add to my existing hair and followed this YouTube tutorial from “Silvousplaits” (highly recommend, by the way).  I played around with my “new hair” for several hours the night before my event to get used to working with it, and so the styling as you see it here is my 3 third attempt.  If I had bought a 22” fake hair extension set I might have been able to try the second draped and twisted hairstyle in the “Silvousplaits” video or even had my braid go all the way around.  I used hair flowers to cover up the raw end of the braid, with all the pins I needed to keep the silky fake hair in place, and utilized a basic hair comb to hold the braid down at my top crown.  Victorian hair was fancy anyway, so I really don’t feel bad about having to use something extra in my up-do – the fake flowers and greenery add a nice splash of color in my half-fake hairstyle. 

Again, after explaining my hair situation, I am going back to my old feeling that Victorian fashion is so weird.  I have never before used fake hair and I am not used to having to use more than what nature has bestowed upon me.  Just based off of my experience with trying to re-enact the bustle era fashion, I can see why the Victorian period is often criticized as the era for keeping up unrealistic appearances.  My hair is half not mine, my body is restricted into a then-societal expected shape, and I have a fake caged booty.  What a woman wore back then told every spectator of her class, marital, and monetary status.   There were many wars and shifting of national boundaries at that time.  I would not have wanted to be a part of that era, and find it interesting in a different way than I do for the 20st century’s history.  I can’t relate in the way I can for the era my Grandparents lived through, but Victorian times had so many goings-on and such a shift in many aspects of life that the new Industrialism and colonial actions brought about…it is the history buff’s dream.  I like the fact Victorian times were the beginning of what we think of as modern living conditions, even if women’s fashion still had a good way to go before it too was ‘modern’.      

Perhaps a Victorian Christmas is too much for your taste.  Whatever way you celebrate this holiday, I give you my wishes for a happy, peaceful, and healthy holiday which will leave you with good memories, warm feelings, and a full tummy!  Yay – we made it this far through the year of 2021!  Now, for one more week to go so we can walk into 2022…