“Just Call Me Agent…” – The Classic Peggy Dress

Red and blue are Marvel Agent Peggy Carter’s default colors – and very appropriately, too.  As Captain America’s biggest believer and a staunch defender of liberty and equality, she is the fictional heroine that seems more historical for all of the stories on her life and times that have been on screen in the past several years.  Today is “Walk Like Peggy Day” in honor of her “birthday”, April 9, and I’m excited to present you with (finally!) my make of her most memorable outfit.

Her trademark blue suit set with red fedora was too involved for me to make in one week, which was all the time I had before an upcoming “Marvel versus DC” themed event.  Yet, I knew I wanted an easily recognizable and well known option to wear so I went for THE iconic dress that lasted Peggy through two seasons on her TV show.  You can see it in the premier episode “Now Is Not the End” of Season One (2015), and also in the promotional posters for Season Two (2016).  My ‘copy’ turned out to be such an easy-to-make dress that is supremely comfy, complimentary, and striking.  It just might be my best Agent Carter garment yet!  This just like all my other Agent Carter outfits – it feels like a natural part of me, and not a put-on cosplay garment, which is perfect for my everyday vintage wardrobe.  Incorporating the wardrobe and resilient character traits of Peggy is the best part of going 1940s with my vintage sewing and wardrobe goals!

Happily, I was equipped with a lucky find of a vintage year 1941 pattern that is the same as the Agent Carter dress I wanted to copy.  Yes – you read right…the same! I didn’t have to change the design lines of the 1941 original to end up with an Agent Carter series look-alike dress.  The original inspiration dress used in the television series was a faithful vintage design, after all!  From what I have read and heard, it was a true 70 year old piece.  This fact says good things all around.  Not too often does a designer use such authentic costumes in such widely popular film, nor can a cosplayer or one who wishes to copy a garment from a modern Hollywood production frequently be able to dip into a primary source of history and still make a believable version.  This is another Agent Carter piece where the lines between cosplay and vintage dressing are blurred to the point that there is little differentiation – this is historical fashion as seen on screens today.  This is fiction that seems more akin to real history than anything.  My vintage pattern for this dress is a ‘Hollywood’ brand after all…so ironic, isn’t it?!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% rayon challis in two colors – deep true navy blue and bright red; navy 100% cotton scraps to be the facing and support for the inner waistband

PATTERN:  Hollywood #517, a “Linda Hays of RKO-Radio” pattern, year 1941 (For a brief, well-written overview on the life and career of Linda Hays, see this blog post!)

NOTIONS:  All I basically used was thread, which I had on hand as well as the zipper I used and a scrap of sheer organza to puff out the sleeve caps.  Oh, and some waistband hook-and-eyes… 

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was made in about 12 hours and finished on August 26, 2017.

THE INSIDES:  All nicely French seamed or bias bound, with the hem being a tiny ¼ inch one, and the front waistband panel’s seams covered by the inner facing I added. 

TOTAL COST:  $10 – that’s it!  Both fabrics were found on half price discount at (now defunct) Hancock Fabrics and JoAnn’s Fabric Store!

Vintage patterns never cease to amaze me.  This one Hollywood pattern is a prime example.  Firstly, I made this dress on only 1 ¾ yards of fabric!  I’m the one that made this dress, and even still this fact amazes me.  Granted, the 1940’s was good for practical use of material goods but this is from before the American rationing.  I’m floored!

The most significant detail to this pattern is yet to come, though.  The closing detail to this dress obliterates the well founded modern concept I have heard many times that ‘a zipper down the center back is NOT authentic’.  I have seen other bloggers say that a center back zipper “ruins” some of the vintage 1940s reprints and re-issues that some of the “Big 4” pattern companies have come out with in years past.  Well…look at this old year 1941 pattern of mine.  Apparently a center back zipper totally IS authentic, surprisingly, just not common.  Right there in the description is, “…the back closes with a slide fastener.”  Now, this is awesome to see!  I’m assuming this center back zipper is because this is a versatile “Sew-Simple” dress which is labelled as either being a house coat, house dress, or street dress.  Perhaps the simplicity of getting dressed in a center back zip dress has to do with it being designated to house wear, and to be practical the pattern wanted to give the purchaser the most for her money by pointing out that this can also pass as a street garment.  I suppose it all depends on the print and material used.  Nevertheless, I will bet that a long slide fastener was harder to come by or at least quite pricey back then, and they probably were not even an option available for any garments other than military ones after America was involved in WWII.  Yet, I would think that surely women didn’t only have one dress closure option, anyway, to always endure the circus trick it can be with a tiny waist side zipper.  So make things easy for yourself and go ahead and sew those center back zippers if you darn want to!   

Since I was metaphorically “allowed” a back zipper with no “guilt” of being lazy or modern, I ran with this and installed a 22 inch invisible zipper down the back.  I know – I took the other extreme!  As my fabric is delicate and flowing, I didn’t want a bulky zipper showing in an obvious manner.  I wanted my dress to also look as professionally crafted as possible, too.  This project made me realize that the longest invisible zipper to be found is 22 inches, and sewing one that long is a real test of skill!

Fit was right on for this pattern, maybe a tad small actually.  Luckily I had added on some extra allowance on the sides so that I could have “normal” 5/8 inch seams rather than the called for 3/8 inch seams.  I am glad I did this because I ended up having to take the seams out anyway.  This is a change from all the Hollywood, DuBarry, and other now defunct brands which have almost always been consistently generous in fit.  Luckily rayon has a lovely soft ‘stretch’ when it comes to the cross-grain.

The skirt length was a bit wacky, too.  There was a perforated dot marking across at several inches above the cutting line, which I understood as the line for stitching down the hem, but even still, it was rather high up above the knees for me.  This pattern had obviously been used in its past, because someone had freehandedly cut a short length out of the skirt…and not very well either!  They had cut the sides of the skirt longer than the front so I found the skirt bottom to be quite crooked before a proper hemming.  But anyways, I just cut the hem longer and figured out what dress length I wanted as the last step since I couldn’t tell what was originally going on.  I so wish whoever cut this pattern had included what they took off.  The skirt is cut so wide there is a good amount of bias to make this a wonderful dress that flows with me as I walk (which would be perfect for swing dancing or doing Peggy Carter kick fighting), but it makes it very tricky to get a straight hem by the time it hangs over my hips!

This kind of high, almost chocking neckline can be such a turnoff, and as I am claustrophobic myself, I do understand.  If this wasn’t such an awesome Agent Carter dress, the neckline would turn me off, too.  What didn’t help is that the pattern had an impossibly small neckline cut as-is.  It was too small to remotely squeeze around my neck – it actually fit around my arm.  What were they thinking when they drew this pattern?!  Maybe I just have a big neck circumference.  Nevertheless, before adding on the contrast red bias band, I cut the neckline to be more open by just under 2 inches (all around) and it’s still small.  Just so long as I have room to fit my four fingers in between my neck and the neckline, that is as small as I will tolerate around my throat whether it is a necklace or a garment.  I have made other clothes with such a similar neckline (such as this 40’s blouse) and yet every time it is so fun yet tricky to work with taming gathers into such a small bias facing.   I do love how these kind of necklines turn out looking so feminine, delicate, and cleanly finished, especially with a contrast color!

Speaking of a clean finish, I am quite pleased at the finished look of the contrast red striping to the middle front and cummerbund pieces.  The contrast strips to the dress’ panels were stitched face down, wrong sides out, then turned over to line up with the seam allowance edge, before any further assembling together was done so that no stitching would be seen.  I do wish I would have made them just a bit wider, but they are noticeable enough as it is so I didn’t want to make them quite as wide as Peggy’s original dress.

The front paneling is part of the dress, but for the back half it becomes cummerbund belting pieces that overlap to close at the center, independent of the dress itself.  This is the way Peggy’s original dress was, but it is also staying true to my dress pattern as well, with only a minor change necessary.  The pattern calls for long cummerbund pieces on each side that line up with the middle front panel and come out of the side seams to tie at the back center.  I merely cut one long cummerbund piece, and cut it into two short pieces, added the striping to them, then facing the two undersides with navy cotton scraps, and finally adding them in the sides like the pattern instructed.  Two sliding waistband hook and eyes close the back.  There is still a ‘normal’ 1940s back to the dress under the closing cummerbund – a waist seam that has a simple skirt below and a poufy bodice above.  I slightly downwardly curved in the top edge of the back cummerbund pieces so that they would have nice dip and look more tailored than just a straight band.

Yes, I added a bit extra and changed up the back ties, but with some lucky internet research I was able to see that this style of dress and color combo was quite popular in the late 30’s to very early 1940s primarily.  In other words I wasn’t just making a cosplay copy or directly trying to be patriotic here (even though I totally am) – remember the dress was a vintage original anyway!  Also, her two seasons of television shows were supposed to take place in 1946 and 1947 respectively, it was one of Peggy’s personal traits, mostly blamed on her struggle to move on after Captain America’s ‘death’, to be stuck in the past and wear fashions from an earlier period so a 1941 dress like mine was just her style.  There is an image of a year 1938 National Bella Hess catalog advertisement showing a dress (in a different color combo) with a recognizably similar style.  While my Hollywood pattern has the closest design lines to Peggy’s original dress, I have also spotted this style as extant vintage 40’s dresses for sale through some well-respected shops – see this neutral-coral toned beauty from Scarlet Rage Vintage or this studded rust-orange toned version from Archiverie.  However, the closest “proof” of Agent Carter’s dress is existing already in the vintage realm is I think to be found in a Vogue #8247 pattern cover image from 1939 – this one’s almost a carbon copy even color-wise!  When it comes to the use of navy and red, have found a vintage original photo (colorized, no doubt, but I cannot find the source for this) that has a different style dress, but distantly comparable use of colors and color blocking.  Bright red and rich navy were popular colors the 1940s used alone as solids for dresses, tops, and bottoms, sometimes combining the colors to be nautical inspired.  Otherwise these colors were integrated into florals, stripes, accessories, or outfits which are contrast detailed, much like my classic Agent Carter dress.

So – as Peggy’s dress is apparently a vintage piece that the designer bought and not designed for the actress (Hayley Atwell) to wear in the two Seasons of her television series, I would like to think of my Hollywood pattern or some of the close copies I have mentioned above as the source that could have been used to make the original dress.  Especially since the center back zippers, as seen in many of Peggy’s dresses, have made some commenters throw question on the authenticity of her wardrobe.  Hopefully the 1941 pattern that I used to make my Peggy dress copy should rest this case once and for all!  After all, the designer Gigi Melton has shown and said that she was heavily influenced by old classic Hollywood starlets and 1940s designs, besides staying admirably true to the materials and techniques which would have been worn at the time for everything she created for the characters.

Not only were the clothes historically true to the Marvel character of Peggy Carter, but even her position as a secret agent operative was a real job for specially chosen women in Britain during WWII.  The SOE, acronym for “Special Operative Executive”, employed about 3,200 women (one-fourth of their force) in all countries or former countries occupied by Axis forces and was a top-secret organization to conduct espionage, sabotage, aid resistance movements, and do reconnaissance.  The SOE’s existence was not known for many years and even today it is still being explained and understood.  (The various branches of the SOE were often ‘hid’ under fictitious military bureaus that were believable to keep secrecy.)  It was about finding everyday people from all ages, gender, background, and walk of life and unlocking their hidden, inner talents to make them extraordinary beings with a secret military mission.  The newest installment in the SOE’s biographies is the “Secret Agent Selection: WW2” series currently on the BBC television station, which follows 14 modern volunteers undergoing the same training as back then, in the same clothes, in a secluded old country house.  See this “Sun” article for just a sampling of the original recruits who joined in the first year or two after the SOE was formed in July 1940 and read their abridged stories.  Like Peggy Carter, these Agents were real life superheroes, who didn’t need a superpower to do great things.  They just needed to know their value and believe in their worth.

In conclusion – can fiction help us learn about nonfiction?  Can recounting the past be every bit as interesting as something made-up?  Can the right garment to wear help you know your worth and clothe oneself in confidence? Can anyone be an everyday superhero?  Can Marvel just please continue telling Agent Carter’s story?  I think all of these questions in my mind just deserve one resounding YES!  Happy birthday Agent Carter, one of the most influential women I know.

14 thoughts on ““Just Call Me Agent…” – The Classic Peggy Dress

  1. This is a lovely dress. All aspects are well conceived and executed, but I particularly like how you have replaced back tie with hook-n-eye cummerbund. It both looks much better, and I bet is more comfortable to sit back against a chair in than the knot or bow in a tie is, as well as be easier to adjust for minor changes in waist diameter than a sewn in panel would be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gorgeous!! This dress is one of my favourites of Peggy’s and seeing how beautifully you were able to recreate it makes me want to attempt it myself (though I’d never be able to do as wonderful of a job as you did!). Beautiful work!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the sweet words, Emily! Finding a vintage pattern for a starting point really helped me make this successfully, I think.

      Just don’t say you can’t make it for yourself until you try, though!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Quinn! My hair often has a mind of it’s own and doesn’t always cooperate – I was so happy it was just how I wanted it to be for once! Gotta take advantage of good hair days 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if the absence of back zippers is because the metal zippers available were so bulky. I’d opt to keep them in side seams if that is all that was available. They also would be heavy in long lengths, so running one down the centre back of a dress made with a lightweight fabric might have weighed it down too much.

    Liked by 1 person

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