My “Gracie Allen” Ensemble – a Casual Yet Classy Blouse and Skirt

Gracie Allen, wife of George Burns and comedic star of the Burns and Allen Show on radio and TV, is my top style icon for the 50’s.  In every TV episode, Gracie always had such a interesting, beautiful, and classy outfits which fit her perfectly and displayed the very best of the 50’s styling.  Of course, in my opinion she always wore great fashion styles, no matter what the era.  I would love to see all her fashions in color!  It was therefore only a matter of time before I got around to making this post’s featured outfit – my “Gracie” inspired 1952 skirt and a 40’s blouse. Burns and Allen show

Her wardrobe providers were primarily two very interesting (and sadly rather unknown) designers: Marjorie Michael (1951 to 1954) and later  De De Johnson of California (1955 to 1957).  Ms. Michael had one quirk which I admire in her designs – she used only natural fibers, like silk and cotton, with never so much as a synthetic even blended in.  The fabric for her dresses were primarily imports from either France or Italy, to reflect on the high quality of her work, because she liked to use “cotton that doesn’t look like cotton” (quote from here).  As for Ms. Johnson, she was a Los Angeles designer which in 1944 created the “pedal pusher” pants, “shorter than a Capri and with a slightly wider leg”. She wanted to create a garment that—unlike a lady’s skirt—won’t get caught in a bicycle chain. Teen idols Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, as well as Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, soon adopted De De Johnson’s look and made it into a 1950s fashion craze.  (Info from here)  Ms. Johnson also designed for other TV programs besides Burns and Allen, such as for Leave it to Beaver in 1960, and briefly for The Dick Van Dyke Show (hint, hint, Mary Tyler Moore’s “pedal pusher” look).  There is one more tidbit of info from a 1946 newspaper article regarding an unusual fashion show put on at a Grand Canyon ledge, and an ensuing accident to Ms. Johnson.  See the article photo here.

With my “Gracie” ensemble, I have completed an empty niche in my vintage/retro wardrobe fashions!  Previously I only had a handful of 50’s fashions which were all only for the warmer weather and only dresses, besides my jumper.  Now, I have two very useful separates, which are great spring/fall chilly weather transitional pieces, as well as providing a wonderful vintage look of the transitional 40s and 50s.

100_2617THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  FOR THE SKIRT:  a rayon/poly blend suiting, that is thick like a gabardine but very soft, flowing and wrinkle free at the same time.  It has a tiny hounds tooth design with the colors of white, black (or dark brown…I can’t tell), and an orange/rust brown.  FOR THE BLOUSE:  a Robert Kaufman Kona Cotton fabric in a slightly off-white “snow” color.  I love the softness of the Kona cotton – it feels so very premium and was wonderful to sew on.

NOTIONS:  I had all the interfacing and thread needed for both the skirt and the blouse.  I did have to buy a small rust orange 7 inch zipper for the side closure of the skirt.  The three flower shaped buttons for my blouse came from the familial stash of vintage buttons.  There is a story behind the buttons; I’ll share it with you further down.

PATTERN:  Simplicity 4012, year 1952, for the skirt;  and Simplicity 4602, year 1943, for the blouse.

Simplicity 4012 skirts from 1952Simplicity 4602 cover drawing

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The skirt was a fast, easy and fun project; it only took around 6 hours from start to finish.  It was done on February 21, 2014.  My blouse was finished on February 7, 2014, and I spent at least 10 hours to make this.100_2633

THE INSIDES:  The fabric edges of the skirt are either bias bound or covered nicely by another seam.  All the inner seams of my blouse are done in solely French seams.  Only the blouse hem is covered in single fold bias tape and the sleeve seams are opened up clean finished seams.  See picture.

TOTAL COST:  The suiting fabric for my skirt was bought while on the “Spot the Bolt” clearance at Hancock Fabrics.  I spent about 60 cents a yard, and I bought 3 1/2 yards in total, but I only used a little over 2 yards for the skirt itself.  The blouse fabric was a good, reasonable price (with the sale) for such quality.  I spent around $5 a yard for the Kona cotton, and I think I bought just under 3 yards.  I did buy extra yardage which went towards lining the blouse’s body.  Not meaning to ramble on, but the skirt total was under $3, while the blouse was under $20.  Not bad prices for an outfit like this one! 

First, I will address the details of my ’52 skirt.  It was really a joy to put together, and just challenging enough to be good for my sewing skills.  My favorite part actually came at the beginning of assembly – shaping the pockets.  In order to do the point of the pocket (the one closest to the center front of the skirt; not the point in the side seams) the instruction100_2597as showed to do a mitered corner at this spot.  Yahoo!  I jumped for joy while smiling.  I haven’t sewed mitered corners in a number of years and (as you might guess) it is something I enjoy doing,  not just because I can do them well (if I must pat myself on the back).  The picture at right shows both my seam point and the corresponding instructions.  I’ll have to do more fine mitered corners to more projects…this sewing technique seems to be sadly neglected.100_2631

After finishing up the edge of the pocket openings, both pockets get sewn onto the skirt front, and then comes a tricky part.  As you can see on the bottom right of the instructions in the photo above, the pockets get sewn, raw edge under, to the skirt, except for the top and the lower half of the sides.  The bottom half of the pocket side opening gets cleverly tucked into the side seam while the top half (the finished edge where the hand goes in) runs parallel right over the side seam (see left picture).  You stitch the bottom corner of the pocket opening to stabilize that spot before clipping it, and I am proud at how well I did that tricky corner.  However, doing the pockets parallel over the side seams was almost trickier – I had to be very precise, careful, and take it slowly…especially the side that had the zipper.  It took some hand stitching to get the pocket opening edge, the zipper, and pocket details just right and perfectly invisible!  There is also seam tape added into the pocket opening area and zipper too.  It keeps those areas from stretching.

100_2629     The waistband finished up wonderfully!  No messed up bias or mismatching tabs here.  I actually surprised myself – I think the pattern must be printed and designed very well, but also think I cut the pieces out well (because the hounds tooth helped me line everything up).  There is a slight overlap of the waistband end tabs so as to sew in a sturdy, slide-style waistband hook.  See the left picture.

I hadn’t even planned on bothering to match up the hounds tooth plaid.  The plaid is so tiny I felt it didn’t need matching, and I probably would’ve gone a bit batty even trying too hard to match things up.  As it turned out, the plaid on the pockets aligns perfectly with the plaid on the skirt.  I couldn’t be more pleased!

100_2628     The skirt’s hem was finished with a tiny 1/8 inch seam.  Now, for an almost complete half-circle skirt like this one, a hem like this would normally take me about 2 hours to do with my regular straight stitch foot, step by step, fold by fold.  However, I had splurged on an 1/8 inch hemmer foot and I was astonished at the amount of work and time it saved me 100_2630on this project.  All in one step I had achieved an amazingly tiny hem in only 30 minutes.  The two side seams, with the bias tape, wouldn’t run through the 1/8 inch hemmer foot, so I merely covered the bottom sections with a small rectangle of more bias tape ( see right picture).  I don’t know of a better way to finish off the thick side seams in an 1/8 inch hem, and I don’t really care, because I’m happy with my skirt just how it is.

My blouse has all the details to make it on the more couture side with all the comfort to keep it on the “casual favorite” side of my wardrobe.  This blouse was also my very first sewing creation using an unprinted pattern, which solely uses perforated dots to direct what needs to be done.  It has the collar all-in-one with the blouse (there’s only facing to shape the collar).  It is also my only, but hopefully first of yet another, blouse which employs cuff links at the wrists.  All these points make me so proud of my finished classic blouse!

100_2624      I had to adapt the pattern just a bit as it was a size or two too small for me.  Other than fitting adjustments made to the pattern before cutting, no other design changes were made.  The bodice front and bodice back were doubled up to prevent any see through and also to allow me to invisibly hand stitch the neck facings down to the inside layer.

100_2625     Can you see the buttons down the blouse front in the picture at right?  Look closely in 100_2850 floral buttonthe picture at right and you will see they are slightly off-white, four petal flower shapes.  I picked out these buttons out soon after I started on the blouse, and I was so excited to use them as the highlight.  They are from hubby’s grandmother and date around the era of the 40’s/50’s.  Three buttons are all that was left from off of a red and white “Sunday best” dress which my mother-in law remembers her mom wearing as she was growing up, except the original dress seemed to have plenty more buttons that are missing.  I am just glad to give a small family heirloom another life and a new chance to shine.

100_2632     The collar was a bit challenging, and even somewhat of a pain to accomplish. However, I love the finished result to a degree that I definitely want to do more collars like this one.  The points, angles and curves were what made the collar difficult, not to sew, but to turn right sides out.  It just took some time and patience and detailed clipping to make the collar turn out o.k.  I even tried a Threads magazine tip to attempt at getting a precise point for the collar.  Before turning right sides out, I pulled a needle with thread through the point and double knotted the tail ends.  This way, with the right sides out, I should have been able to pull the thread to a perfect point.  The double knot is inside the wrong sides, to (supposedly) be a gentler resistance than a hard, plastic ‘point turner’ tool.  Well, the knotted thread tip didn’t work…it just ended up tearing a hole right through my collar points.  It wasn’t for any apparent reason I tore a hole – my seams were double stitched and I was not pulling THAT hard on the point.  I turned the collars wrong sides out again out and had to sew them over, making the points slightly smaller than the pattern (or myself) intended.  Nevertheless, I am just glad the collar turned out in the end, none the worse for my mess up.  I did iron on interfacing to the inside (wrong) side of the collar facing to make it more sturdy, even though the instructions mysteriously left out any mention of doing such a thing.  As the finishing touch, the entire edge of the collar facing was hand stitched down to only the inside lining layer of cotton so as to be invisible.  Trying a time saving tip taught me that sometimes nothing is as good as my own way of doing things.

100_2634     Since I just explained the collar, now I will briefly point out some interesting details of the off-set “shoulder”.  You can see in the pictures above and at left how the back bodice wraps over the top of my shoulder to meet the front, which gets gathered under the collar on my upper chest.  There is an L-shaped piece so the collar can be formed (the vertical bar of the L wraps around to join at the back neck center).  The inner corner of the L made for a spot where my sewing had to be exact and precise.  Bias tape covers the inside of the “shoulder” seam with the rest of the raw edges covered by the facing.  After seeing so many old movie costumes and other past patterns, it appears a good number of vintage blouses and jumpers have a very similar and very ingenious shoulder/collar placket design.

100_2619     Even the darts, which shaped the blouse from the waist down, were also a bit different.  The darts curve to end and come to a point right where the bottom end gets turned up.  Having the darts end at the hem makes the bottom of my blouse curve out nicely over the hips.  The bottom half fans out over my hips anyway because, remember, the buttons only go from the waist up (maybe wartime women saved on buttons, too).  My blouse almost seems like a sort of a jacket with the way the hips flare with the bodice thick and stable.

I know both these separate pieces will help me build a very casual but dressy workable wardrobe for the transitional time between the wartime 40’s and the early/mid 50’s.  A handmade 50’s era velvet top from my Grandmother matches beautifully with my big pocket ’52 skirt, while I already have a mid 40’s skirt which looks good with my white blouse as well.  Wearing my 1943 blouse and ’52 skirt together isn’t all that out of place – I have noticed that most popular and powerful style features last about a decade.  For just one example of this fact, just look at two modern reprints to see how a sailor collar dress style lasted at least a decade: Vintage Vogue 1171, year 1950 and Butterick 5747, year 1960, which are both quite similar.  Then, for grins and giggles,  look at this YouTube clip from the 1939 movie Honolulu, and you can also see a collared sailor dress on a quite young Gracie Allen.

There have been a few people who have unintentionally ‘corrected’ me for calling my skirt after Gracie Allen, telling me it’s a June Cleaver style.  However, I am Gracie’s biggest fan, and, believe me, I have watched plenty of Burns and Allen on TV.  I’ve been paying attention to her styles and mannerisms, and Gracie almost always had pockets, which she loved to keep her hands in when not using them to express herself as she and George did their vaudeville act at their show’s end.  I love how Gracie’s large charm bracelet would show outside her pockets, and so often she would pull out letters from her pockets, too, providing hilarious updates about her mom or her sisters or her Aunt Clara.

100_2614      I’m titling the full picture above “Gracie (a.k.a. Kelly) ready to go shopping”.  Unlike me, Gracie was a frequent shopper (at least for TV), and she never went anywhere without wearing a glamorous fur coat or fur stole.  In fact, she once said she and other women only go shopping to give their man a reason to earn money – so their wife can spend it!  Now there’s what I call a ‘Gracie-ism’ saying for you!        

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