Most people generally know twenties clothing as being tubular with drop waists. Many also frequently think of the twenties as having beading, sheer fabrics, and fringe, but that was for evening and special occasion. However, do you know what the turn of the decade, year 1920, actually looked like for everyday wear? When I started doing research on this I was surprised. Very high waists, overly exaggerated hips (many with ruffles and ridiculous pockets), slightly awkward long mid-calf length hems, and loose but lovely bust-less blouses. Yes – this was the year 1920, when women were wearing fashion which was both a carry-over from 1918 – 1919 that was also finding its way for changing up styles in a new decade. Here is my sewing creation interpreting the year 1920, as a woman in her nice, almost sporty, and nothing-too-fancy clothes to go do some window shopping.
Actual teens era/1920s hand painted glass buttons (close-up picture here on my Instagram) were included on the blouse I made, as well as several hours of decorative hand stitching on both neck and sleeves. My hat is a thrift store purchase, which already had straw flowers, but I piled on a wide lace band and silk flowers for an old fashioned style. I also made the skirt and the purse, as well as some of the authentic lingerie I’m wearing underneath. This ensemble did not look right (silhouette speaking) until I had the correct undergarments, which I sewed myself as well (post for them here).
Period authentic doesn’t have to be old-fashioned or un-wearable today. Because it is all cotton and not body figure conscious, this is really quite comfy to wear. Sure, it’s different, but yet lovely and tasteful enough for me to only receive kindly smiles from strangers who saw me. I love the subtle complexity, the understated richness, and the odd femininity to the style of my 1920 pieces. The ideal of beauty and the popular silhouette for women has changed so much throughout history, and this is just another incarnation that I am glad to have learned to appreciate through sewing it for myself!
FABRIC: 100% cotton specialty twill for the skirt, 100% cotton for the blouse, and a tapestry remnant (mystery content) for the purse lined in a burgundy Kona cotton leftover from this project.
PATTERNS: Past Pattern’s No. 8268, Ladies’ Overblouse, from Pictorial Review circa 1920; a Past Pattern’s No. 9412 “Ladies’ Skirt with Hip Pocket Effect” from McCall Company circa 1920 , and a Vogue #7252 from the year 2000 for the purse
NOTIONS: The notions for this came from everywhere. The detailed, Art Nouveau-style brass buttons were a Hancock Fabrics’ store brand item, bought when the company was closing, while the old vintage blouse buttons were from our favorite antique store. Most everything else needed was on hand – I even had the tassel for the purse in my stash!
TIME TO COMPLETE: The skirt was made in about 6 hours and finished on October 21, 2016. The blouse took 8 to 10 hours, with 4 more hours for the hand embroidery, and was finished on February 26, 2017. The purse was made in about 2 hours on February 28, 2017.
TOTAL COST: The skirt’s fabric was bought at the now defunct Hancock Fabrics for less than $2 a yard…and I only needed 2 yards here. I have 2 something extra yards still left for another (upcoming) project. The blouse’s cotton was bought at JoAnn’s fabric recently for maybe $10. The brass buttons were expensive even with the Hancock Fabrics closing clearance – maybe $17 – while the old buttons on the blouse were only $5. The tapestry brocade came from I don’t know where from I don’t know how long ago, thus I’m counting it as free, but the cord handle was bought at JoAnn’s for about $4. So, my total is about $40 something.
Working with patterns this old presented plenty of unknowns, but the primary one was in regards to fit. What kind of body, what kind of peculiarities, and what ease do these patterns account for? It’s one thing to get something to fit, but historical garments need a particular fit (as well as the right underwear) to be authentically worn. I did have the assurance that my pattern came from Past Patterns Company…every single garment I have made from what they offer is a wonderful success I am most happy with. No wonder they’ve been in business almost 40 years!
Let me start by talking about the bodice. After some figuring, my estimated bust measurement of the blouse pattern as-is (in the size 38 to 40 bust) is 45 inch around. This led to my figuring the wearing ease to this blouse was about 5 inches over and above the bigger of the two sizes (bust 40). I can see that the bust is supposed to be bloused and roomy (over a flat chest) so I went down to a generous measurement for myself and ended taking out a total of 4 inches around hoping to end up at what would be the next size smaller for this pattern. The side seam allowance is 1 whole inch so I figured I had plenty of room to fix a wrong calculation is sizing, but still…it’s easier to take out some extra than it is to be stuck with a garment which ends up too small. I totally feel like I nailed the right fit!
I realized that this is an overblouse that I am not wearing as an overblouse. This is not the first time I have made an over blouse only to wear it tucked into a skirt – see this 1958 project. When I received my pattern in the mail Saundra Altman kindly included a tutorial page on how to add in a stay-belt inside the blouse. As I am just getting the feel for teens and early 20’s dressing, I kept the construction of my blouse simple from the waist down because for now I plan on only wearing it as you see it. At some future point I hope to make a year 1920-style pleated skirt and wear this same top as a proper overblouse, and at that point I might come back and add the welt pockets and a stay-band to the waist.
I did use my oldest (1930’s) sewing machine to do all the button holes along the front opening, but I also splurged and used all cotton thread and self-fabric bias tape for the neckline. After I had made the button holes I decided I really didn’t want to subject the buttons to the wear and tear of pushing them through every time. So, I still sewed two at a time connected like link buttons but they’re on there permanently for now, and if I want them off I’ll just cut the linking threads. I did try to make these buttons linked by a metal loop with a connecting chain but I had disaster strike doing that. The back loop on one broke by cracking right off, but it is a molded part of the rest of the button so it cannot be fixed unless I glue some loop or such on it. I never guessed these were as fragile as they seem to be. Until I figure out how to add something to the back of this broken button, I will sadly made-do with one at the top closure. This is the risk of working with, or even wearing, old original items from many decades back – they are unique and fragile, but deserve to be seen nonetheless, so using them is a risk that also could only garners appreciation.
My decorative hand stitching is I know not the best compared to many others, but this is so much better than I used to be able to do. Whatever my skill, the stitching does take my blouse to the next level, I think, besides show casing an old time-honored practice that modern garments are so far from. Hand stitching was very much needed here because of the rather plain color of the blouse’s cotton. I made my own design, and after several unsuccessful Art Deco drawings I settled on the softer more feminine floral on my blouse. After all King Tut’s tomb would not yet be discovered for a few years from 1920!
The skirt probably would’ve fit me pretty much as-is, but I did add one extra inch to the waistband only to be on the safe side for fit. I did not change the rest of the skirt because I wanted the gathers to be a bit looser. Looking back I wish I had made no gathers across the center front of the skirt – the pockets and the hip panel would look better. No matter, I like it just the same!
The skirt did not need any special closures for the left side opening – the placket kind of conceals itself because of the side seam pleat overlay. Only hook-and-eyes keep it together at the waistline. The waistband is quite neat. It is a two inch band against my skin on the inside, with a 4 inch waistband gathered horizontally on the outside so it looks like a cummerbund belt.
True to the era, the back of the skirt is just a long rectangle for a small taste of the slim and skinny. What a contrast for the front! Along the front geometric pocket edge I made my own self-fabric “ribbon” to decorate, finish, and stabilize the edge. At first I tried a brown velvet ribbon for the edge, but, no – I didn’t look good so I took it off and went with the matching fabric. This pocket edge needs to be stiff enough to stick out on its own and define the hips so I was tempted to add interfacing. My skirt’s twill fabric was thick enough that three layers along the edge (1 – the skirt, 2 – the ribbon edging seam allowance inside, 3 – outside of the ribbon edging) was plenty good.
Needless to say, as much as I love pockets, these take the cake! My skirt’s pockets are like mini suitcases. I can keep everything in them and it doesn’t even make a difference the skirt is so roomy and meant to be billowy. Yet, the only thing that mystifies me about my 1920 outfit is the pockets, mostly because the purses and hand bags were so tiny! Pockets and purses were still relatively new items to 1920, and both signifying the independence and progression of women, but to go overboard with such a contrast between the two in interesting to me. As you can see, I did take a slight shortcut and have the pocket opening close with a snap rather than a real working button and button hole.
Patterns for both the skirt and the blouse both seemed to run very long. I made the shorter length of the overblouse, which was just over 10 inches shorter than the full-length option, and it is still falls about mid-thigh on me. For my skirt, I took out 4 whole inches from the length because as-is the pattern falls to floor length (I’m about 5’ 3” height). Now, take into account the fact that these two garments are meant to have deep hems, especially the skirt. My skirt does have a wide 3 inch hem to it which helps to weigh it down properly besides bringing it to the proper just-below-calf length for the year 1920. Skirt and dress lengths of 1920 seem to be just enough to show the ankles, just enough to move freely in, and a tad shorter than just a year or two before (1919-ish).
My purse is something so easy but I’m so tickled at how lovely and cute it turned out. The pattern I used is a real unknown gem with lovely designs straight out of the teens and 20’s. I remember my mom and I being so excited when this came out! Look at this comparison between a 1916 handbag poster for comparison. In a 1926 catalog, I’ve even seen a strikingly similar version to “View C”! They are all really quite simple designs but I like the fact they give the tracing designs for all the beading and decoration. My purse doesn’t hold much but came together so quickly. Trimmings and de-luxe materials seems like the way to go with this pattern and a remnant was all I needed. I will definitely be using this again!
In the 1920’s, handbags were often just enough room for a few small essentials (including lipstick and keys) and often geometric in shape, like my own vers ion. Mine is probably way too stuffed than what a 1920 woman would have carried, yet as it was I didn’t have room for everything I needed! Also in the 1920’s, handbags weren’t necessarily meant to match with an outfit but carry their own tasteful, individual, and often ostentatious flair…quite different from modern times!
By making my purse (a ‘reticule’ style) from tapestry I am harkening back to a popular type of “daytime” purses of the 1920s – ones made of richly complex fabric carpet bags and delicately flourished needlepoint. Handbags from these materials seem to either be meant to show the wealth of the one possessing it or the talent of the maker, as many of these types of purses were often handmade by either the woman herself or someone for the company that sold it and some were quite expensive. By having a decorative tassel at the center bottom point I’m aiming to narrow this to a primarily early 20’s piece. To read and see more, this “Vintage Dancer” page has a wonderful overview of all the ways 1920’s women carried what they needed. There is so much history to this littlest part of my ensemble!
All the materials I used for this outfit are just a dream to wear and were wonderful to sew. The twill for the skirt is a lovely weight and hand – almost as heavy as a denim, slight body, but drapey and soft enough to hang nicely. The low-key design of the fabric adds interest and keeps the olive and brown tones to it from being too drab. The cotton of the blouse is so soft it doesn’t really wrinkle all that much and it’s just sheer enough to be pretty. The tapestry of the purse is so rough, textured, and stiff it provides a nice contrast to the blouse and skirt.
The place of our photo shoot is something quite special. Not only is it a city landmark and the town’s best example of Gothic Revival architecture, but it is a National Historic Landmark. I’m talking about the St. Louis Arcade/Wright Building, opened in year 1919 as one of the very first indoor shopping areas of its kind in the country, a very early, but much more elegant version of the modern American suburban, indoor, covered “Mall”. Just think how extraordinary this is from a historical standpoint – plans for this steel and stone skyscraper was begun in 1913 before World War I and many of the materials needed for this building were rationed. Federal officials closed and postponed many construction operations during WWI. It is rumored that the principle contractor apparently had a simultaneous deal with the government at the time, so I suppose he was able to pull a few strings. The Arcade was the tallest building in the world for a number of years. Besides, the architect, Tom Barnett, was something quite important nationally. This multi-story hall was recently renovated (after being vacant for several decades), preserving much original pieces so that the Arcade can still give visitors a taste of what it might have been in its heyday when people came here for high-end purchases such as jewelry and fine china. Being able to walk through and visit places like this in period authentic clothes makes sewing this outfit a very worthwhile experience.
P.S. Good news…you don’t necessarily have to sew if you want this ‘look’! ReVamp vintage has re-made an amazing year 1921 oversized pocket skirt very similar to my own, the “Prudence” with brownish olive twill and lovely details! Although, there are a few ways to wear a modern take on such a style – “Dress Romantic” on Etsy marketplace has a neat version that’s my favorite! As for ready-to-wear 1920 style blouses, ReVamp has lovely options but any loose modern blouse with lace and/or feminine details would work – my favorites are this Anthropologie yellow blouse, this J.Crew cream colored pleated neckline blouse, or this sheer smocked neckline top. There’s always old originals out there, too, (like this one) for a taste of the real thing! Will you be channeling the early 1920’s for yourself, or have you already?