Once Upon a December

Of all the animated princess which have graced the silver screen in my lifetime, I would like to say my favorite just may be one that is not even Disney in origin.  I’m talking about Anya, better known as Anastasia Romanov – the spunkiest, sassiest, most relatable animated royal heroine and one that has a historical basis (to some degree, as her adult life is the stuff of legends).  The last week of November was the annual anniversary since Fox Studio’s animated film “Anastasia” was first released for the entertainment of its audiences back in the end of November 1997.  Then, just last week, the palace of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas ll has been opened to the public, impeccably restored back to the time of 1917 so it looks just as it did when the princess Anastasia lived there with her family.  I guess I could have waited until the 25th anniversary next year, but after offering my “Pandemic Princess” blog series, and being a wholehearted fan of the animated movie, I decided now was the perfect time to finally bring one of her outfits to life!

I chose to sew a vintage version of the Russian tunic she is first seen as wearing in the movie when, as an adult (18 years old in circa 1927), she is finally leaving the orphanage.  She sings her first song “Journey to the Past” in this scene, the song that defines her hopes, dreams, and driving energy for the film’s storyline – the desire to find love, have a home, and connect with family.  She is the animated princess who literally had everything taken from her.  She lost more than just her memory by having amnesia (as the fictional story convincingly portrays) from a nasty fall taken while escaping the revolution.  Yet, no matter how afraid she was, she never lost sight of her belief in herself and her longing for belonging.  The jeweled “Together in Paris” necklace was her solitary key to a shard of a memory connected to the past she needed to reclaim.

That first song encapsulates why Anya is so appealing and inspiring, but the second song she sings later “Once Upon a December” while wearing that same tunic is a heartbreaking tune of her yearning under the shadows of vague memories.  Then, finally, when Anya agrees to go through with the scoundrel Dimitri’s plan to curate her into the princess ideal, she sings along to an upbeat song of family history and positivity in “Learn to Do It”.  As I did not have any snow or a fancy palace to channel the other two songs, I chose to interpret this last song…where balancing a stick on the head serves in lieu of a book to train Anya into walking elegantly.  Between these three songs, this is why I needed to make a fun (and a bit more fashionable) version of the oversized, torn, hand-me-down tunic that gets her through half of the movie.  How often does a princess get to sport casual wear that is this cute, after all?!  This is a whole new kind of a different vintage type of garment, and I love it – even if only for being Anastasia inspired.

My obsession over the Russian princess Anastasia is not confined to this sole outfit recreation, however.  On Instagram, I have styled my mother-in-law’s 1970s original dress to look like Anya’s blue strapless sparkle dress that worn in the animated film for her visit to the opera with Dimitri.  That scene is everything to me and just goes to show how the perfectly picked outfit for an occasion can literally make your man’s jaw drop…the most fantastic reaction ever.  Click on over here to see my second (non-me-made) Anastasia outfit for yourself!  Do I next re-make one of her late 1920s dresses from when she was spending a night of shopping and dining in Paris?  Or her blue collared “boat ride” dress?  Or one of her two golden yellow princess gowns?  Once I decide, I will be revisiting the fashion of the 90’s animated “Anastasia” at some point in the future.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% rayon twill

PATTERN:  a Lady Marlowe reprint of a year 1935 Simplicity #1908 sewing pattern

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots of thread, a dozen buttons (vintage ones were used here), and half a dozen hook-and-eyes.  The trim was a 1910 era antique notion, in a pre-stitched design on a 6 yard strip of loose weave muslin.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The tunic was made in about 30 hours (a third of that time was spent on just the sleeve details), and was finished on April 22, 2021

THE INSIDES:  cleanly French seamed, with vintage rayon tape to cover up the bottom hem inside

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric was needed – it was bought at JoAnn fabric store for about $10 a yard.  The buttons were $12 and ordered through Etsy to top off an order so I could have free shipping.  The trim – all 5 yards of it – was the real cost at $67, and I only needed two yards, but I felt I had to get all or it or nothing.  If I divide out the cost of the antique trim, my total cost for this tunic was $70.

First of all, I want to clarify I’m calling this a Russian tunic because I’m merely using the same terminology as what is on the pattern I used.  If I wanted a true cultural garment I would have chosen either the #128 “Russian Settlers’ Dress” or the #116 “Shirts of Russia and Ukraine”, both patterns by Folkwear Company.  Even still, if you compare the line drawings for the traditional option through Folkwear with my 1935 fashion version they are really similar.  My version is slightly more fine-tuned and truer in styling to its release date versus true cultural clothing which is more timeless. 

An Eastern Bloc influence on the fashion of the Western world was popular in the 1920s through the mid-1940s, during which the embroidery of Hungary, Poland, and Slavic countries can be spotted on vintage blouses and dresses.  These loose and comfy but gloriously embroidered garments have been (and still are) callously coined as “peasant” styles by many.  Post WWI, the peasants suffered greatly under the many internal wars of the Eastern Bloc region, and millions starved to death in the 1920’s under state confiscation of grain and collectivization of agriculture. 

A Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian folk influence was not as popular as the aforementioned “peasant” styles, and its decorated asymmetrically closing collared plackets were primarily seen on winter coats, tunic length blouses, and pyjama sets (for loungewear) in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union had been admitted to the League of Nations the year before my pattern was released, and the United States had recognized Stalin’s regime the year before that (in 1933).  No doubt the political and social-economic events of the time as well as the influx of refugees fleeing dangerous situations influenced an interest abroad in traditional Russian and Slavic garb.  Just the same as what happened to the qipao, originally from China (as I discussed in this post of mine here), once another culture’s fashion is imported in and adopted it becomes no longer purely authentic but a merging of expressions…for better or for worse.   

My tunic’s color scheme was chosen according to both what trim I could find and what Anya was wearing in the animated film, so this is not in the most traditional colors, but neither am I incorrect.  My trim is a true antique teen’s or 20s era addition to my tunic, so it is the real deal and not a product of my modern design preference.  It is in a counted cross-stitched design, so often seen on ‘Russian’ garments starting in the 20th century even if it wasn’t really proper to the culture (I’ll discuss this subject in further detail later on in my post).  So, whether or not it is truly Russian-Ukrainian, though, as it was labeled in its listing, is something I have not been able to clarify.  Either way, I think my tunic is a great homage to one of the great legends of history – the “what if the princess Anastasia had lived past 1917” story.  Influenced by the 1997 film, I would like to imagine she had a life of happy freedom, seeing the world and starting her own family with Dimitri (also frequently visiting Grandmother in Paris, of course).  Along those lines, I would like to think this is what Anya would have been wearing in the 1930s.

The tunic body basics were straightforward, but all the finishing and detailing work took up all the time and effort (don’t worry, it is always enjoyable, really).  Even with all the hours and hours of hand-stitching I logged for my tunic, working with rayon twill was a joy because it is the ideal blend of suppleness and stability.  The overall fit is a bit loose and forgiving (being hooked closed only to the waistline) and only needed to be tailored in across the shoulders and around the sleeve cuffs.  I love the little darted tucks which ever so slightly blouse out the bodice at the back.  Little points like this save the tunic from being a sack.  I also love the freedom of movement which is married to an air of elegance with the dramatically generous sleeves and fancy cuffs.  

The pattern was a reprint sized to just the measurement I needed, for a lucky break, and I have few complaints.  It was printed professionally, turned out pretty true to size, and all the pieces matched up very well.  This was my first experience with Lady Marlowe vintage pattern reprint company and I am pleased.  At the prices Lady Marlowe reprints are sold for, and the way they are so cleaned up to the point of looking more modern than not, I feel like I would be better served investing in a true vintage pattern – but I am a purist.  As I had a specific idea in mind this time, I was thankful to find a reprint which made something available to me which normally would not have been an option.

I felt like my antique trim as fated to be part of this project because it was exactly the same size width (3 1/2 inches) as the pattern piece for the asymmetric decorated front placket.  With the seam allowance, the finished edges just came to the outside of the stitched border to the antique trim, and I was ecstatic over the results.  So as not be overwhelming or confining to my neck, I used only the middle section of the trim for the collar to make it half the width as the front vertical trim.  For both collar and front closing facing, I had to iron on stiff interfacing to the backside of the old trim, and I felt badly adding something so modern and permanent to it.  However, the base material for the trim was a very fine and fragile mesh linen, and there was no way it was going to hold up through either the construction process or the a washing, even if I do so by hand. 

The underside of the stitching tells its story – I love seeing this!!!

I could tell from the backside of the trim that this was sewn by hand because the underneath was not by any means consistent, with lots of hanging floss ends.  This was real treasure I hated to cover up with the interfacing, but I realize this step was necessary to present a finished garment.  To think that this trim was done by hand blows my mind, humbling me and garnering my absolute respect for the maker.  Was this something which was worked in spells over months, with admirable patience?  Was the maker quick and efficient enough to do six yards in the first place?  What was this trim originally intended for, I wonder?  I have so many questions which will never be answered…I only know I am glad I have more to use on another project or just hoard for admiration purposes in the future.

Counted cross stitch as a cultural ‘folk’ decoration on a garment is often tied to Russia, even if the stitch itself has different origins.  The earliest fragment of embroidered cloth to include cross stitch can first be traced back Upper Egypt sixth century BC. It then flourished during the Tang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), when it may well have spread westward along the trade routes (info from here). In the centuries which followed, crossed stitching spread to England (old Normandy), medieval Spain and Italy, and then Germany and more.  In Russia and the Ukraine, cross stitch techniques began appearing in villages after the 1850s, being adopted by farmers from nobility’s and city people’s needlepoint

An example of Brokar’s stitch patterns. At the top it says “gift with purchase of glycerin soap.”

After 1870s, the French philanthropist businessman Genrich Brokar, with his Moscow firm of perfume and soap production, made a fatal hit to the knowledge and popularity of traditional crafts such as Igolochky (Russian punch-needle embroidery).  In order to attract customers, especially for his soaps, he included a free chart of a cross-stitch design with each sale of his products.  He hired his own artists to re-render traditional Russian symbolical motifs and simplify them to both please a greater variety of people and be easy enough for all skill levels.  Soon enough, Russian cross stitched garments became known as Brokar embroidered.  Before the Revolution of 1917, Brokar was one of the largest cosmetics manufacturers in Russia.  He had an ingenious marketing strategy that ruined how the world and even Russia itself sees its own fiber art traditions. 

Whether or not cross-stitch can be considered a true Russian traditional craft seems to a hot topic of debate on many of the sites for the promotion of cultural heritage which I visited online.  That being said, this is primarily how Russian and Ukrainian folk clothing has been decorated and understood for the last 150 years.  In honor of the 100 year anniversary of the Brokar cross-stitch marketing, the technique had a revival in the 1970s.

Even as I type that the cross stitched trim takes center stage for this tunic, my fun pistachio green vintage buttons are the close runner ups.  They subtly bring out the color of the trim, and low-key highlight the closure details I put so much handiwork into.  Doing a dozen chain-stitched thread loops (10 for the cuffs with 2 for the shoulder), sewing on a dozen buttons, matching up half a dozen hook-and-eyes under the front closure, and adding one large snap set at my neck all together took me almost as much time as it did to make the tunic.  It is a time consuming deal to close all those buttons, so – just as Anya did in the animated film – most of the time I flip back the cuffs for a casual look.  I love how the flipped back cuffs change the whole aura of the tunic.  I think it seems more Russian with the cuffs buttoned up because it is practical for cold weather.

These sleeves are so fantastic, aren’t they?!  They are like a cross-breed between gigot sleeves (also called leg-of-mutton) and bishop sleeves.  The giant puff sleeves literally are gathered in as tightly as they could go into cuff edges which stretch up to below my elbows.  It was as much of a drama to sew as it might look.  The skinny sleeve cuffs did not fit around my sewing machine’s free arm.  Even when I did manage to sew the sleeve-cuff seam by machine, the gathering was too tight for a good stitch.  I had to do the cuffs my hand sewing…wah!  The finished clean seams really add to the spectacle that is this sleeve style, though. 

Here – to be similar to Anya from the animated film – I am merely wearing leggings and ankle boots with my tunic.  Outside of these pictures, I will probably be wearing the tunic with a 1930s style skirt, either with it tucked in or sometimes not.  The pattern cover shows the tunic worn with a skirt, and it looks rather like something from the 70’s Disco era when I tried wide legged pants under it.  I appreciate that the pattern’s cover also shows frog closures as an optional closing method because it calls to mind the “merging of European and Central Asian traditions”, as Folkwear calls it, which this asymmetric-closing Russian style blouse (or tunic, in my case) has as part of its history.  The countries of the world are more intertwined than many of us consider, especially when you look at this fact from the perspective of a fashion memoir. 

Tunics themselves seem to an old cultural garment adapted by many nations.  They are flattering, versatile, and often unisex, besides being something modern, RTW doesn’t know how to create as tastefully as cultural clothing can do it.  All too often the tunics of today that I see in the store are terribly oversized, or in an overly clinging knit, or designed as if the body is something to hide.  There is a high probability that some part of whatever familial ancestry you most closely associate with has some form of a tunic as part of their heritage clothing.  This kind of tunic would be the very best place to start to find a renewed appreciation.  I am already used to wearing tunics in the Indian form of a kurta or kurti , so this Russian inspired one feels like a mere variant.  I am happy my excitement over the animated film “Anastasia” was a starting point for me to explore more tunics outside of India.  

It is not quite a dress, but it is a bit extra to be called a blouse…do you like tunics?  Let me know if you found the short history of cross stitching just as interesting as I did.  Also, I want to hear from any 1997 “Anastasia” movie fans out there – what were your favorite scenes, lines, or outfits?

1 thought on “Once Upon a December

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