With Prom season upon us, I’d like to post about a quick and easy but awesomely elegant gown to make from the genius of history’s famous designer Madeleine Vionnet. I love finding patterns that look the opposite of the amount of difficulty they present in the making process. If you’ve got a handful of hours, a super fancy buckle, and several yards of nice fabric with a formal event to attend, then this pattern could be for you! It’s the epitome of 1930’s glamour yet passes as fully modern.
NOTIONS: Just thread and bias tape were the only notions I needed, besides the buckle.
TIME TO COMPLETE: Only four hours! It was made on the evening of December 4, 2015, with about an hour more to place and sew on the buckle and finish the ties.
TOTAL COST: the crepe-back satin was a Hancock Fabrics “Beautiful Fine Fabric” special – I bought it on sale for about $20. The buckle was bought at an antique/vintage re-sale shop for about $35.
This Vionnet gown makes me feel so amazing and elegant, like some movie star of the silver screen of olden times. Words to describe it would just seem tacky. The bias moving with you and flowing around you is a lovely feeling. Every lady deserves a good bias dress. I have heard some women mention that only certain figures can pull off a bias dress, but I disagree. First, women of the 1930’s were generally slender (it was the Depression) but they did wear foundational undergarments which helped with shaping. Shaping underneath or not, nevertheless when the bias is cut well with a good design it will do a body good! After all, I have never yet found any RTW (ready-to-wear) frock which accomplishes the bias correctly like when you find a really good pattern and make it yourself.
Although I absolutely love it, I cannot figure out an anomaly about this gown. The original dress which is on display online at the MET museum lists this design of evening gown as dating to 1936-1937. However, the Betty Kirke book from which the pattern came from lists this dress as 1935. Alright – who’s right? Which year is this dress? Also, between knowing what I know about fashion history and what I’ve read, the gown is both behind its time and ahead at the same moment. The early 1930’s had a fad for the “half-naked-from-the-waist-up” styles of evening gown, then by about 1933 the styles became slightly more decent by following the fad for higher necks and shoulders covered with ruffles or poufy sleeves (discussed here at “Witness2Fashion” under “The Letty Lynton Dress” and “Very Bare Backs, 1930’s”, also see my past-made mid-30’s evening gown). This emerald Vionnet gown has a taste of both contrasting styles.
So, I’m slightly confused but still impressed that Vionnet’s design of this post’s featured dress is from the mid-1930’s, but it goes with the Depression era perfectly when women’s clothes were excessively extravagant and richly elegant – the opposite of the (then) current economic circumstances. Simple ornamentation is the ‘normal’ key to such clothes…the gown itself is amazing interest enough… but Vionnet’s gown calls for a unique closure to be a focus point! How daring, but it works. Another common feature to similar 30’s gowns are the extremely low backs and hemlines – achieving this with Vionnet’s evening gown was hard and a tad tricky. I’ll explain further down.
The patterns in the book are small sized with no specifications as to what percent to grade up to for full size. I went through a copy store’s services to have them scan in, plot out, enlarge, and print my patterns since this was my first time making a pattern from this book. The only “bench mark” I went by to know how much to enlarge was for me to pick one spot on the garment for which I could say how long it should be, and figure the rest of the garment should follow grading up properly from there. For instance, I realized for this pattern that the length of the front rectangles, from the top of the neckline to what should be the side waist, should be about the length of my collar bone to my waist (adding in some extra inches for error). This measurement was a define spot to realize how much to grade the book’s pattern up to…probably not the best way but wasn’t the worst either, just so as long as it worked.
As far as I could tell the pattern is made for Japanese sizes 9 AR (US/Canadian sizes 8, U.K. size 10, and European size 38). This would make it for bust 34” (86 cm.), waist 26” (66 cm.), hip 37 (94 cm.). I don’t remember where I read this but it seems accurate, maybe slightly smaller. I am very close to this size so I didn’t make any changes to the fit because bias cut is a bit forgiving.
As it turned out, I could have made some small changes/adjustments to the fit, but this is just really the perfectionist in me wanting everything just right…a carbon copy of Vionnet. Part of me wishes I had made my gown just a tad longer so it sweeps the floor like a true 30’s gown, but that’s impractical for me so my dress is just below ankle length. Also the dip in the back where the ties make a “U” turn around the inserts could have been made a little wider for a sharper curve. My back curve to the dress is more like a “U” that got bent open and I think only the upper tops of the inserts could be lengthened for a look more like the original Vionnet dress. Pick, pick, pick – it’s what I do. My dress is fine and the pattern is really easy…a tad hard to adjust.
The pattern for this evening gown is awesomely simple and so awkwardly large. Except for the little parallelogram-shaped piece which completes the back dip, the dress is made of one huge shape. I really don’t know how someone who doesn’t have ample floor space or a gigantic table can cut this dress out. We have large open floor spaces at our home but even still it was maxed out to lay out 3 yards of 60 inch fabric in a single layer. This also had to be done when no one was around to walk in the house but me! As you can also see in my picture, I let the natural end of the fabric’s width dictate the seam where the dress would have a panel joined in to complete the dress. I did not follow the “joining line” on the pattern, as I wanted minimal seams (the dress seems to have been accommodating for the 35 inch or 45 inch fabric widths normal for those times).
I believe the key to this dress being a success is 1.) the necessity of making the neck high and back low and 2.) the placement of the buckle. Firstly, the back dip needs to be low, low…like right at or above the waist because if not, the bias will not spread out over the bum properly. The neck needs to be high (close to the collarbone) for the back dip to be in the right place but also because it keeps the front in proportion, especially when it comes to adding the buckle which brings the dress in.
Thus, secondly, I found from looking at the original garment from Vionnet at the MET and experimenting with the placement on my own dress that the buckle has to be at a “sweet spot” on the body to reach the intended shape, drape, and look. There is a triangular space above your belly button that is between your ribcage just about big enough for the palm of my hand to cover. When the dress neckline comes to reach or go just under your collarbone (where it needs to hit), THIS SPOT between the ribcage and above the waist is where the buckle should go on the dress. Why am I so strong on this? I have seen plots of Vionnet’s garments where it proves how her clothes where designed with the composition of the natural lines of the body and its muscles in mind so it makes sense to me for her to pull the dress in at the same place where your body is “pulled in”…not where it pivots. Also, when the buckle is placed in that “sweet spot” the dress naturally flares out over both the bust and the waist/hips, creating the illusion of a small middle and at a more proper waistline, too. Conventional dressing knows nothing of the power of working with the body, and most people (including me) get so wrapped up in the only spots we focus on – waist, hips, bust, and maybe shoulders or other points, too. The comfort spot of “the waist” is different on everyone, but the buckle’s “sweet spot” is the same on everyone, and a very strong point in the body as it is…a good place to hang the dress.
The ‘leaping gazelle across the pastoral scene’ on the original buckle is so beautiful and also very appropriately classic to the 1920’s and 1930’s. An image widely used on anything and everything to home and eating pieces to fashion (see my very own Elgin Compact, at right) and ornamental purposes, the leaping gazelle is an Art Deco carryover from the peaceful Art Nouveau era. The 1930’s ideal enjoyed reliving the Grecian past, through flowing, body-conscious dressing, and no one expressed this better than Vionnet, so the carved ivory buckle on the original gown could not be any more perfect. My own buckle, however, takes on the more uber-fancy and bling-loving side of the Art Deco era though it does have some swirling to the design. My buckle reminds me of costume jewelry with all its gems and details but it is some sort of fine metal (sterling silver, maybe) because it polished up nicely, even though the gems are probably fake. I also pinned another authentic vintage 1920’s or 1930’s pin to keep my back straps in place at the back of my neck.
We went back to the proper time period and location where a dress like this would have been worn for our photo shoot location – the Chase Park Plaza. This hotel in downtown was newly completed in 1931 “as an opulent Art Deco masterpiece despite the Great Depression.” Many famous people have walked the Chase Park Plaza’s hallways and stayed under their roof, and with Art deco splendor around every corner need I say why I felt even snazzier modeling my fancy evening gown?!