“Blank Canvas” – a 1939 Hollywood Dress and Re-Fashioned Hat

Allie J's Social Sew badgeEvery blank canvas is a starting point just waiting, pleading for personalization and a touch of color.  My creation happens to have soft, white linen as the canvas, and all the colors added (in controlled moderation) for a culturally-influenced dress and hat.  I even made my own earrings from buttons to match!  This is part of Allie J.’s Social Sew #4, theme “Vintage”.

Mock embroidery, courtesy of some appliques, a wildly striped scarf belt, and my bright coral “Chelsea Crew” T-strap shoes liven up a white dress.  Subtle features and lots of bias cuts take the backstage to complete the dress.  My Tyrolean-style, dome-crowned straw hat was another successful experiment in more modern hat re-fashioning.  Together, I am again finding myself loving the year 1939 fashion – part 30’s and part 40’s combined into one lovely and comfy outfit.

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My dress and hat happen to have a wide variety of Hollywood personas related to its making – the famous Lucille Ball is the “star” of the dress pattern I used, an “Agent Carter” character Ana Jarvis was another inspiration, as well as actress Joan Blondell’s fashion, especially as worn in the 1939 movie “Good Girls Go to Paris”.  My more basic sources were 40’s and late 30’s pattern covers plus an extant 1939 garment from Jonathan Walford’s “Forties Fashion” book.  My first 1939 dress (blogged here) was also directly patterned after a dress from his book.

Simplicity #4203 & #2070, Walford book's 1939 Mexicali dressThe “Forties Fashion” book chapter which shows my inspiration dress (Chapter 1) addresses the subject of culturally inspired fashions of the early 40’s/late 30’s.  Much of the Mexican, South and Central American themed clothes, aprons and embroidery from those times stemmed from President Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighbor’ policy from the early 1930’s, but as the decade went on, Bavarian and Alpine themed fashion and headwear grew popular universally.  I would also like to think of this dress as further inspired by both the classic ‘Guayaberas’ or Havana shirts and the Phillippines’ version (called ‘Barong Tagalog’) that I’ve seen on the men (and some women) in old movies such as “The Lone Wolf” series.  These shirts are made for warm weather and are often of a type of linen, have lovely details, and have frequent floral embroidery.  Havana and Panama were of course known for their straw hats, too.   Thus, my outfit combined several cultural influences for ‘39.

As far as Hollywood influence, 1939 was the year that Lucille Ball stepped out as something 1939 Hollywood inspiration collageother than a mere radio voice and a B movie actress when she starred in the film “Five Came Back”.  One of the main ladies in that film actually wears an identical hat to the one I made!  I’ve also seen similarities to my dress in the other ’39 movies like “Star Reporter” (same bodice) and “Good Girls Go to Paris” where Joan Blondell has similar puffed arched sleeves, Tyrolean hats, and cropped boleros.  Currently, though, Ana Jarvis from the Marvel television series “Agent Carter” Season Two wears many ethnic inspired fashions, and in “A View in the Dark” (Episode 2) she wears a cream colored blouse with floral vine embroidery.  I know Hollywood is not a good example of what the everyday woman might have worn, but it sure is awesome to bring into one’s wardrobe!

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I have yet to decide on what bolero to sew up to match – one with the large collar in this Hollywood pattern for my dress, but I’m tempted to go with Vintage Vogue #8812 for a simpler look that would go with my later 40’s fashions.  Something else for my already long bucket list of future projects!

THE FACTS:Hollywood 1773, year 1939, front cover-comp

FABRIC:  Thick pure white 100% linen for the dress, polyester chiffon for the scarf belt, and a basic modern hat made out of straw for my re-fashion

PATTERN:  Hollywood #1773, year 1939

NOTIONS:  Floral appliques, thread, bias tapes, and two different zippers – all bought last year when I originally planned on making this dress

THE INSIDES:  All bias bound

TIME TO COMPLETE:  maybe 10 to 15 hours to make – it was finished on July 14, 2016

TOTAL COST:  Everything was bought when a Hancock Fabrics store was closing a year ago, so everything needed was bought on deep discount and amazingly just what I needed for a perfect match.  For several yards of fabric and all my notions I think I spent maybe $20.

DSC_0973a-compHollywood pattern #1773 was an amazing find at an amazing deal which was obviously too good to be true.  It was almost like hell in paper just attempting to sew it into a dress like the one on the cover.  First of all, it was in a very large size for which I had to grade out 4 inches besides taking out 4 inches from the length of the skirt hem.  However, the real problem was the fact the pattern was cut into and changed dramatically.  I really don’t know what someone was trying to do but after studying the line drawing and doing much detailed mathematics,DSC_0972a-comp I had to re-draw in about 3 to four inches added for the center front where someone cut out scalloping.  After all this, the instructions were disintegrated to the point they were in about 5 crumbly, delicate pieces.  All the instructions have now been scanned in and saved as files on my computer for a permanently safe copy.  Still, the instructions added to the multiples of problems, although I am glad that at least the tissue pattern pieces were in good shape.  Gotta be positive especially after a (finally) successful result!

Luckily, after all the trouble leading up to making this dress, sewing it was a breeze.  There are no darts in the skirt portion, as both the front and the back are cut on the bias.  The back bodice has no waist tucks and there are only two small ¼ darts at the neckline.  The front bodice has all the details, with its ten 3/8 inch tucks (five on each side) on the shoulders and two simple waist pleats (one on each side).  The sleeves are also cut on the bias and are tightly gathered at the cap tops.  This dress does have double zippers – a decorative metal one down the front neckline and one on the side at the waist.  For some reason the pattern had the front waistline dipping down low.  I sewed it like that at first, but did not like it and unpicked to level out the waist, instead.  The seam allowance gets cut off along the neck and the sleeve raw edges so as to cover with bias taping.  My prized vintage all-cotton ¼ inch bias tape from my Grandmother was used for the sleeve and neckline edges while modern store bought (yucky) poly cotton blend was used for finishing the insides.

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The appliques are my cheat-shortcut to all the hand sewing necessary to do real embroidery.  Anything more than a little hand stitching bring out my carpel tunnel issues.  The appliques I had are actually meant to be iron-on, but I merely stitched it down by hand.  I don’t want to ruin the fabric nor make it that permanent by ironing it down.  The flowers on the design remind me of Mexican Bird of Paradise (yellow), moss rose (pink), and milkweed (orange/yellow).  The two appliques which are on either side of the neckline are the largest and longest of the set – I have four other smaller half size ones that I am tempted to add on the rest of the dress.  I sort of like the simplicity of the appliques just at the neck.  I’m afraid that with the bright scarf belt, more appliques might make the whole dress look overly busy and tacky.  For now, I’ll leave it as-is.

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It was really the scarf belt that started this whole outfit.  I was so happy and surprised when I happened to find this chiffon in the same color tone and striped pattern as the on inspiration dress in the “Forties Fashion” book!  It was one of those great “Eureka!” moments that told me I needed to make this dress.  The belt is one long bias scarf cut from two opposite corners of 1 ½ yards with the raw ends finished off with a touch of fray check liquid.1936  Purple felt hat, FIT museum

My hat started out as another one of those basic one dollar non-descript pieces that I’ve re-fashioned before (here and here).  I started out by making two tapered darts about two inches apart up the crown where I chose the back to be.  Then I brought those two darts together in a tuck that extended into the brim and topstitched the excess down.  A light steaming from and iron as helped further shaped the hat.  The darts shaped the crown while the tuck brought the size smaller so it would sit higher up on my head and have that cup-like center top to the traditional ‘cone crown’ of a Tyrolean Hat (like the purple one at right from FIT museum).  To keep my hat on my head, I took a ribbon and knotted it together at the sides and used an upholstery needle to wind it down and through the straw so I can tie the hat around my hairstyle.

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This outfit so completely reminds me of some sort of summer resort wear, something meant to keep one looking great and moving comfortably in searing temperatures, and…yes, this dress does fit that bill!    I tested this out, as the day on which I wore it for these pictures was extremely, oppressively hot.  Linen is a super sweat wicking fabric, yet it kept me cool.  The linen kept absorbing the sweat off me, yet it did not feel soaked and it was a cooler temperature than I was when it was wet.  This particular linen has zero scratchiness and is lacking that “hemp-like”, raw feel which I find in many other linens…only softness so there is another high comfort here!  However, my favorite benefits are the no-see-through thickness of this linen as well as the way it does not change color or show however much I might be sweating to death, like many dark fabrics.  This linen dress definitely does not just give the impression of being cool but also helps that along.  To top things off, my hat ‘perches’ lightly on my head, keeping my hairstyle underneath pristine and cool, yet the brim is enough to keep the sun off my eyes.  I was doubtful that this outfit would be that great in steamy weather, but I am a converted believer in effortless summer fashion a la vintage with linen and straw!

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It’s funny, in the fabric stores I go to the bolts are always full and untouched when I buy linen.  The employees that cut my fabric often seem mystified that I want linen and tell me that hardly anyone buys it.  Do you wear linen?  If so, have you found it to be as lovely of a trooper for wearing as I have?  If not, what are your reservations to this natural fiber?  Why is linen overlooked as a fashion fabric?

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10 thoughts on ““Blank Canvas” – a 1939 Hollywood Dress and Re-Fashioned Hat

  1. I have never once seen linen in a fabric store! What I have I had to get on line. All we seem to be offered- even driving an hour and a half- is quilter’s cottons, fleece, and polyester fancies. I’d kill to see linen, wool, cotton sateen, polished cotton, and rayon in a store! I swear it used to be available 30 years ago…

    I do have a few linen pieces I’ve found used and love them, except for this one blouse I had.. it was 100% linen and it felt like made of hornets!

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    • Have you ever looked into checking for vintage tablecloths and napkins at estate sales and markets? This is how I’ve recently found some nice linen for my future projects. Just a tip.

      Shame on the fabric stores you go to for not offering more lovely material! Yes -you are right, we do get the same trio of fabrics pushed in our faces at stores, as if they are all there is to sew with.

      So sorry you were stuck with a raw linen – that is like torture to wear. There isn’t anything like touching linen and woolens and knowing before you buy them…

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  2. Gorgeous dress and it suits you so well! I especially love the neckline and sleeves, such pretty details. I have never sewn with linen myself. They do have it in the fabric stores around here, but the selection is limited. It has never crossed my mind to make a linen dress, I mostly associate it with pants. Great to hear that it keeps you cool and looking elegant even in the hottest weather, sounds like a big advantage of using linen (not like the Swedish summers ever get that hot).

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    • Thank you for your kind compliments and feedback! Linen pants are something I want to try and make soon. Sounds like you don’t need to brace for sweltering summers, lucky you. I don’t mind the heat as much as I mind the biting bugs that come out in this weather.

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