Dust Bowl Dress

Of all the times that were tough to live through in the last 100 years of American history, it was the 1930s in my opinion.  Yes, the 1940s were no doubt hard as well with the rationing, and every decade has its struggles and challenges, I am sure.  From what I heard from my Grandmother and from reading old periodicals of the times, however, it seems that the 1930s was a struggle just to make it through each and every day.  There was an alarming lack of jobs, and therefore a battle to get the money and food you needed.  It challenged all ages to see how much you could do without and yet still survive, with the goal of ‘making it’ although (for much of the Depression) no certain end was in sight.  The 1940’s at least had ‘the war’ and ‘those serving’ as its definite goal.  Sorry to be bleak but facts are facts to me.

Nevertheless, fashion of the 1930s seemed to generally have the intent of telling the opposite story and conveying an everyday beauty that did not necessarily scrimp because of the pervading conditions of the times.  A certain elegance was expected to be kept up.  All of this was rubbish in the face of the “Dust Bowl”.  It was just clothes on one’s back and a gritty, plain old effort to live, breathe, and eat.  Most of us have seen the famous government sponsored photographs of Dorothea Lange (the picture above is only one of many). If you haven’t, well you should.  This situation in the lives of our poorer fellow men, women, and children is frequently forgotten in the popular 30’s glamour.  Hopefully, such is acknowledged in my newest vintage-inspired sewing of a comfy and very un-pretentious feedsack printed cotton house dress, topped off with a basic, crushable, bright blue hat.

As much as I like dresses, this was out of my comfort zone, even though I have been planning on making this project for the last three years.  I do love useful and practical dresses, because a good part of my life does not call for the lovely, elegant clothes I desire to make and wear.  Thus, when a recent trip to the country we were planning gave me no excuse to put it off any longer, I whipped this dress up (because it was easier than I had expected) and loved wearing it (because it is so comfy and cool for a summer day)!  Of course, no proper 30’s dress for a day in to sun is complete without a hat, I whipped up a wonderful Depression-style hat to match too!


FABRIC:  Dress – 100% cotton; Hat – a dense, low nap, polyester velvet for the visible exterior and a poly lining for the inside crown

PATTERNS:  Dress – Burda Style “Drawstring Dress with Peter Pan Collar” pattern #123, from April 2014, for the dress; Hat – Simplicity #8486, the “Snow White” 80th Anniversary pattern

NOTIONS:  Everything I needed for the dress was on hand as this was a long awaited project (mentioned above) – the oversized rick-rack, the thread, and interfacing.  The two buttons are true vintage from the stash of my hubby’s Grandmother.  The hat only needed supplies on hand – interfacing and thread.  The ribbon around the hat is a true vintage cotton velvet supply from my Grandmother’s stash.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was a one evening project.  It was made in about 5 hours on July 20, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound

TOTAL COST:  As the dress’ fabric was bought a few years before I came up with a plan for it (which was 3 years back) I no longer remember how much I paid for this.  I do know what store this came from though – the selvedge says it is a JoAnn’s Fabric Store Exclusive print.  The velvet was on clearance at JoAnn’s and 1/2 yard only cost me $4.50…and I still have enough for another hat!

Why was the dress out of my comfort zone?  It is just almost too homey and old fashioned for my general taste with most of what I make and wear.  Yes, I this is definitely NOT my first time sewing with a feedsack print (see my first, second, and third here), but this dress style fits in so comfortably with the fabric that my new dress doesn’t seem all gloriously bright and shiny but already broken in, as if it has already been loved and used for some time yet.  This is a good thing, and what I wish more of my makes felt like this, but I am not used to it.  Now that I have such a kind of dress, I don’t know what to think, but the cute practicality, cheery details, and simple femininity of it wins me over to loving it.

 Also, I generally want an authentic vintage style that is just as attractive and wearable for today, and although this is definitely suitable for today and will be worn with a maker’s pride, it is more obviously old-fashioned (the way I made it) than much of what I create.  There is no fashion-forward style I can point out, or designer influence here, just an everyday sensibility and a taste for the finer things on a very utilitarian level.  This kind of dress was what many women wore in the 1930s.  Not every woman looked as elegant as we might be led to think, especially when so many necessary duties of living were much more toilsome than today. (Washing is just one example…machines to do the job still required much hands-on attention and personal time to get clothes clean!)  A dress like this one was what was worn to get done those jobs of cooking, cleaning, and such.  It definitely had it place then and I’m enjoying finding a place for it today, too.  A frock like this makes house work or casual time feel much more elegant than doing the same in t-shirt and jeans for me.  This very appropriately part of my ongoing blog series “Retro Forward with Burda Style”.  It is also part of my one a month” pledge for the Burda Challenge 2018.

Now, as for any Burda Style pattern, printing and/or tracing is necessary to have a usable pattern to lay on your desired fabric.  My pattern was cut out from a downloaded PDF assembled together after being printed out onto paper, but it can also be traced, using a roll of thin, see-through medical paper, from the inserts in the appropriate magazine issue (although the older issues are harder to find).  It’s at this preliminary step that you pick out your proper size.  Some people add in your choice of seam allowance width directly to the pattern while some as they are cutting out the fabric pieces.  A scissor with a magnetic ruler guide helps immensely to quicken along the step to getting a finished pattern prepped.  Sorry to repeat something you might already know, but this is just an “FYI” for those that don’t.

Looking at the finished garment in the example picture for the pattern on Burda’s site, I chose to go down a size for the bodice half and went up a size for the hips.  This was a good move because I have a great fit – originally, above the waist is generous while the hips are quite snug…too snug for the hip pockets in my opinion!  This why I left them out and opted for something more authentic, which also happens to be so much more fun – a fancy patch pocket.  I drafted my own rectangle for this, something about the size of my hand, and then added to the top a parallelogram which was a diagonal half of the square.  This was cut out in both my print and the contrast solid, with both facing one another, so that the point could be pulled down to become pleasantly, complimentarily noticeable, and trimmed with rick rack along the angled edge.  The pocket pulls the grey touches in the dress’ collar and waist ties together as a whole quite nicely.

There were a few things I left out and added on to the dress (besides the pocket). I did lengthen the hemline by 5 whopping inches.  This way I was able to use the selvedge along the hem and save myself a finishing step.  I wanted a dress that was closer to a true 30’s mid-calf length – I do find this length quite complimentary.  Besides, it keeps my knees covered (I’m self-conscious about my chubby knees) and yet is not long enough to get in the way of my ankles.  I also left out the sleeve ties because I disliked the idea of something that fussy.  Trying to fix something on one’s sleeve with the opposite arm is tough – I’ve done that before.  There is enough interest going on in the bodice with the collar and crossover placket that a basic hemmed kimono sleeve suits it better, I think.

The collar came together nicely, but boy was it a long and unusual pattern piece.  I was halfway expecting a very wonky fit, but no – it turns out a lovely face-framing shape which creates a wide neckline.  I love how the wide open neckline prevents this dress from being too conservative, also.  The only minor complaint is that it lays funny in the back half of the neckline.  After I had stitched the rick-rack under the edge, I was forced to sew the collar to the dress for about 6 inches across the center back.  I also found out that the wide open neckline reveals the bias facing used to finish the collar and neckline edges along the inside.  Luckily, I used a matching grey, but this is an important word of warning to anyone else who might consider making the pattern.  Definitely use a facing material that you won’t mind if it is seen because this design makes it visible.

Normally, I am not one for gathered waists, whether they be drawstring or elastic.  Anything that adds bulk at my waist – no thanks!  This was yet another ‘out of my comfort zone’.  However, I gave this one a try and I am quite happy with it.  The instructions had said to sew the casing on the fabric inside (wrong side) at the waistline, as the dress’ only real seaming (besides the sides) are on the upper chest (bodice) – there is one continuous piece for the entire dress body.  Instead, I sewed the waist casing on the outside (visible side) since I had cut that piece out in the matching dress fabric.  Then the tie for inside the casing was cut and made in the contrast grey.  Yet, rather than having the ties come out of the casing at the center front as the pattern directs, I also switched the opening to the center back.  Waist casings always seem their bulkiest at the spot where they open.  The nice casing is mostly covered up because the ties are so long I can wrap them around to the front…kind of like having a belt attached – so easy.

Last but not least, I’m not forgetting the hat!  On its own and how they style it on the pattern cover, this hat does look a bit cheesy.  However, once I had put the ribbon band on, had my hair styled, and wore it with the dress, it looked a lot better to me.  I think you really need to use a quality material for this hat for it to turn out plausibly and not seem like a costume prop.  Otherwise this is a great hat that has just enough of a brim to keep the sun off my eyes yet not be overwhelming.  It is crushable, sized well, and fits nicely on the head.  It was super easy to put together, even with doing a full lining and interfacing all of the pieces.  A hat project this successful that only took a few hours is an awesome win even if it’s not a new favorite accessory.

My major tip to have this hat turn out is to use alternate interfacing.  I used a stiff heavy weight sew-in interfacing and sandwiched it in the brim while I went with a lightweight iron on for the head crown pieces.  This is important – you want the brim to have the most body (you really shouldn’t have a wonky brim here…this isn’t the 70’s).  Yet you need a soft crown that isn’t completely floppy either.  Two weights of interfacing for the different parts of the hat work great.  What really finished off the hat and gave it the perfect fit and shape was doing a full crown lining, too.  In lieu of sewing the lining into the hat when the brim and crown were sewn together, and then finishing the headband seam with a ribbon (as most hats have and as the instructions direct), I merely turned the lining’s seam allowance under and invisibly had stitched it to the edge of the hat body.  Sometimes hat bands can be scratchy on the forehead, and I don’t have the proper Petersham ribbon on hand anyway.  Having the lining start immediately makes sure this hat slips on and off my head without messing up my hair at all and feels quite good on the forehead.  I was able to make the most of the car ride into the country by sewing the lining down while being a passenger!  Ah, the benefits of being a modern vintage seamstress.

As much as we take advantage of our modern machines today – why, I used the sewing machine to make my outfit, the radio to keep my ears occupied while working on it, the computer to see the program for the day, and the car we used to get to the event – I find it funny that the ingenuity and efficiency of the old 100-something year old farm equipment we saw still is a marvel.  And yet, it is these same technological advancements in farming that were blamed for causing the “Dust Bowl” era storms.  The efficient and deep cuts such farm equipment made into the ground broke up deep roots that held the dirt together and made quick work of something much more grueling done by hand giving farmers the opportunity to forget to rotate fields with rest.  This weirdly made me reflect on what the unfavorable aftereffects might be from the technology we take for granted today.

15 thoughts on “Dust Bowl Dress

  1. You know, I think today’s fashion is very forgiving. There are no obligatory details and you can make your hem line as high or as low as you want. There’s the jeans and T-shirt uniform of course, but beyond it I really see people wear all sorts of clothes. I like mine from 1940s – early 1950s (partly because I haven’t got any original patterns from 1930s yet which I seek to remedy). My colleagues sometimes compliment me on a new dress asking where I got that fantastic pattern, and I truthfully answer: “From a 1941 sewing magazine”. Then they are amazed that it looks modern and not old-fashioned. I think it is the same with your dress. A great everyday dress, and if you hadn’t told us, I would not have immediately labelled it “vintage”. 🙂 I think it is not so much the individual items but rather how you put them together. Pumps, hat and a simple round bead necklace is what makes it vintage, I think – and the way you stand, too: natural and not in any of those “hot” poses “with attitude”. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Modern fashion is all over the place today, but, as you mentioned, I too find that many vintage styles master being quintessential. Now that you said this, I am tempted to try on my same dress with a modern ponytail and sandals for comparison’s sake. I know I will still like it best looking vintage, though. This was a very impromptu photo shoot so my poses were completely natural here. Hubby actually sort of popped out the camera as I was looking around. As much as I do occasionally put on set poses and model sometimes, I can’t stand modern posing – the poor models nowadays look either mad, unhappy, or way too full of “attitude”! I did attend modelling school in the 90’s and back then it was more about being natural, smiling and appearing happy (even if you’re terrified inside), and good posture. How things change…;) Thank you for commenting!


    • Thanks for the encouragement! And also – you have a good eye for shoes…mine are indeed Donna style from Hotter. I totally LOVE them! They were great for all day of walking and standing. As I actually plan on wearing these barefoot or with stockings, I went down from by ‘normal’ size with hotter and it’s a good fit – my foot doesn’t slip around but I still have toe wiggle room. They will definitely be part of more outfits, but I did share another pic of them on my Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/p/BjTdjaiDbxt/ I really don’t know if you can get this color in polished leather anymore, I believe they are only offered in suede on the website. I found mine second hand. I had been wanting these shoes for the last 6 years myself! Do try them!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Its a lovely dress – like the simple line – I know I generally cut the hem – line to at the knee on any vintage makes as the mid calf does not seem flattering on me or with my shoes. cute collar

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment! I do like a below the knee hemline the best, myself, too, yet I also like the elegant feeling of a longer hem, as well, with the right outfits! I like how a mid-calf hem actually covers my knees when I sit. Maybe you could try a longer hem one time? You could always cut it or hem it shorter later. I do agree that many shoes styles do not work with a mid-calf hem-line.


  3. What a lovely dress – you did such an amazing job on it! And what you wrote about the Depression was really interesting to read (I was going to say I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, but that sounded like a weird thing to enjoy, so I’ll flounder for words and stick with “interesting.” :P). I find this decade endlessly fascinating and incredibly sad – even fashion wise, it really was an era that illustrated the difference between the wealthy and the poor in a way that was alarming and poignant to look back on as a modern day woman.

    This was a wonderful post. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Emily! Sometimes the saddest stories of history are enjoyable to read because I sense that it feels right to know about it and be equipped with the foresight to see if it is happening again. Sort of like an empathy experience, I suppose.

      The 1930s was an era of wealth differences but at the same time fashion, especially sewing, was the real democratic game changer. Sewing your own clothes was pushed as a reasonable option to keep up with the rich and famous. A woman who could sew, who knew how to acquire a pattern and some fabric for cheap, could end up with a dress that might look like something which someone rich might buy from a store. In this way a woman could catch a “sugar-daddy” because he might think she was someone from a different station in life. Also, I’m sure generally people took care of what they had, too. I remember reading about the life of the politician Al Smith. They were so, so poor when he was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, and he only had one nice piece of clothing – a suit. But his mother took care of it and made sure that when they were dressed up as a family for Sunday, they looked as nice as the gentry for one day out of the week.

      See the 1934 movie “Blind Date” with Ann Sothern for a good (albeit Hollywood) overview of all this! It is a great movie anyway! As always, thanks for commenting and let me know if you watch it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow! I learned so much from this comment alone! 🙂 And I completely agree – it does feel right to know about it and have that foresight. History is so incredibly important and has always been one of my favourite subjects to study throughout my life – I wish more people (*cough*) would not only learn it, but learn from it. We could be at least somewhat better off…

        I’m definitely going to have to find a way to watch “Blind Date”! I’m making a note to myself to try and track it down! Thank you so much for the recommendation!! 🙂 ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s sweet! I like the buttons and ric rac trim. I started this pattern as a top and it’s somewhere in the naughty pile (maybe it was too large, can’t remember). I still have quite a bit of the fabric so maybe I should pull it out and have a look at putting some sort of skirt on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure – give it another go if you’re up for it! This is a great dress if you can redeem it from the naughty pile! Maybe you could just cut a skirt out and sew it on where the waist casing line is? I do think the Burda example pictures are not the best representation more often than not. I can’t believe the dress on the model (on the Burda store page for it) is completely see through and she is standing with her legs wide apart!

      Liked by 1 person

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