In my list of favorite designers held in high esteem, there are many which I know are inaccessible – I will probably never wear or own an original by them and only experience their creations in a museum. Then, I have another list of top favorite designers that are exciting in an attainable way because I do own original pieces from them. Betsey Johnson is at the top of the latter list…I have three of her vintage inspired silk dresses from the 90’s and 2000 era. I adored her clothing styles as a teenager! Wishing to understand more of her career after all these years, though, I am thrilled to have finally sewed up my own Betsey Johnson dress which hails from her rise to fame under the “Alley Cat” line. This dress is from an important year in her history – 1971, the year Johnson received the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award.
In Betsey Johnson ads from the early 1970s (such as this one), these dresses are labelled as the “frontier-look”, but her spin on such old-fashioned style has a sleek look and stylish edge. Even though there is almost 4 yards of fabric in this dress, I am miraculously not swallowed up in frills and gathers. Instead, I feel slim in the way it has first-rate shaping and smart details that show off the body. This dress lacks the homeliness of the normal prairie dress with its 1970s era youth oriented trendiness. All these points help my dress be very wearable by being versatile, something which is a classic trait for Betsey Johnson’s clothing. This dress can be sweet and simple (the way I styled it), but when paired with my 70’s boots, different jewelry, and bold makeup, I have found it can lean more on the punk side, an influence that Betsey Johnson preferred. Her fashion offerings – at their core – was about a punk inspired spirit of rebellion…wearing what you want, how you want, and not being afraid to show both the pretty and the gritty side of being a girl.
Even though this dress and its fabric – both being from the 1970s – makes my garment vintage in its own right, the way it turned out would make me think it was a modern “cottage core” dress loosely inspired by vintage. The prestigious FIDM museum says, “Johnson designed vintage-inspired prairie dresses with small floral prints.” I stayed true to that but it turned out so fresh, I was happily surprised by that. More so, however, I wanted to show how Betsey Johnson had an alternative means of ‘rocking’ (literally, she was popular with the pop music culture of the era) the prairie trend differently than her contemporaries for such style, the fellow American Jessica McClintock (of the 80’s Gunne Sax, see my version here) or the British Laura Ashley. I think I found that sweet spot of interpreting Betsey Johnson’s unique style to bring my own Alley Cat to life!
FABRIC: two 100% cotton prints from 1970s (or possibly early 1980s); there was 3 ½ yards of the overall dress floral and ¾ yard of the contrast floral
PATTERN: Butterick #6531, year 1971, an original vintage pattern from my personal collection
NOTIONS NEEDED: one 22” long zipper, some bias tape, and lots of thread – that’s it!
TIME TO COMPLETE: The dress came together quickly in about 15 hours of sewing and was finished at the end of October 2022.
THE INSIDES: These cottons are fairly densely woven, so they really don’t unravel much (I can tell by the way the raw ends didn’t unravel when I washed the fabric before cutting). I simply zig-zag stitched over the raw ends inside.
TOTAL COST: this dress was as good as almost free, since the notions I needed were on hand from my Grandmother’s stash and the cotton fabrics came from a large box of 50-something assorted vintage fabrics I bought for $10 from an antique shop.
I spent just as much time doing preliminary preparation – tracing the pattern, sizing it up to fit me, and then cutting it out – as I did actually sewing the dress together. Betsey Johnson’s offerings were geared to the juniors and teens market, so much so that even for those styles which are in ‘adult’ sizing (such as the dresses I have from the 90’s) are still tailored for someone short-waisted in smaller sizes. In vintage Betsey Johnson pieces, the most commonly found ready-to-wear size is 2 through 6, and they run a size smaller than listed. All this works for me because I am still close to my teen years’ sizing and also borderline petite, but I know this limits many women from wearing her designs. The opportunity of having Betsey Johnson’s designs in commercial patterns opens a big door of inclusiveness by making them available for ladies of all sizes…as long as you know how to grade! The sizing chart on the back of my pattern shows that it wasn’t offered above a size 12, equivalent to a size 6 today. My Betsey Johnson dresses are size 4 and 6 but they fit (snugly) thanks in part to being on the bias cut. This dress pattern is laid out on the straight grain and I did not want this to be as tight fitting, being cut in a cotton and not a silk like my other dresses. Thus, I had to dedicate some good time to fully adjust the pattern before I could dive into sewing.
I kept in mind the sizing trend of my existing Betsey Johnson dresses and came into this project half-expecting the same from this Butterick pattern even though it was in what appeared to be the brand’s ‘normal’ adult sizing looking at the envelope chart. However, everything I was seeing from all the measurements I was taking from off of the pattern pieces told me this was a real-deal Betsey Johnson design…I was ecstatic! So, I graded the pattern up with an extra inch bigger than what I needed and kept the petite proportions. It turned out just as I expected, true to Betsey Johnson sizing, and fit me perfectly with no adjustments needed (beyond what I added into the pattern pieces). This is one of the first clear examples I have found of a commercial pattern deviating from its company line of sizing to keep the designer’s sizing model instead. This makes me super happy because it tells me this is a true designer pattern, not one that has been altered by Butterick to bow to their guidelines. I have yet not found such designer individuality with any Vogue brand designer patterns. This heads-up knowledge of what sizing to expect was only possible because I had the opportunity to experience the clothes from this designer. There is a special sewing related benefit to (as I mentioned above) enjoying those designers you find that are accessible and appealing to you. It here paid off to be a “Betsey girl”!
My chosen two cotton fabric prints are a wonderful combination that do not match yet also complement one another just enough to actually go together. I successfully figured out how to do this with my Gunne Sax dress…which also happened to be blue printed cottons, I know. I was aware that I could end up being overly repetitive with this dress. Thus, I used smaller all-over floral prints with a variation on the same colors. The busier, smaller print on the side bodice panels and the sleeves was an already hacked up remnant that someone previously had cut several pieces from before I got the fabric. Thus, even though I say the remnant was ¾ yard, actual usable space was much smaller and I just eked out the pattern pieces I wanted. Up close, this contrast print is in triangles of tiny flowers, much like a faux ‘quilt’ paneling. It adds to the low-key prairie flair of the dress. The main floral has cheerful colors of coral pinks, blues, and tints of yellow in loosely thrown bouquets. The blue of the berries in the main fabric print are much brighter in color than our pictures captured, and I had hoped my retro style wedges (Re-mix “holiday” shoes) would have brought out some of that tone. The shoes happened to match what was drawn on the envelope cover’s model for the view C that I went with for my version!
Many of Betsey Johnson dresses from the 1980s and newer were made of flowing silks and polyester satins, but many of her prairie and kitsch inspired garments from the 1970s seemed to be in cotton. The envelope back called for me to use “crisp fabric” or “soft fabric”…huh? This was a confusing either-this-or-that choice, so I went for a bit of both. Modern cottons are too stiff to be ideal, which is why I was thrilled to use this vintage cotton – it is luxuriously soft, lofty, and flowing. At the same time, the fabric has enough body to let the gathered fluttery sleeves have their own definition. Yet again, I find that vintage does fashion the smart and fun way!
Several of the other fabric options for this pattern were crepe, voile, and – the most significant mention – knits. Betsey Johnson was involved in dance school growing up, and she and her mom would sew the stretchy body suit costumes for her performances…fueling both her creative mind and her sewing talent from a young age. Later, in 1964, Betsey Johnson had her first designing success by making velvet trimmed “sweaters that hug the body” with a batch of crocheted fabric she acquired (as she relates in her memoir book, “Betsey”). Johnson at that time was in her early twenties and a “guest editor” of Mademoiselle Magazine, working in the fabrics department. She had landed her role at the magazine by winning its summer scholarship contest. Her first step into selling her designs was initially about survival because she needed rent money to supplement her editorial job but her little tops became popular and Betsey loved the opportunity to stretch her wings. Thus, it’s no wonder the patterns she did for Butterick in the early 1970s (under the “Alley Cat” brand, when she was creative director there between ‘70 and ‘74) all either mention or prefer stretchy woven, sweater knit, or jersey material as a fabric choice since it was her first sewing experience.
Knit fabric in a plaid or funky print is very much a Betsey Johnson thing and it was tempting to try as I had just the thing on hand! However, as there are more than 3 yards in my dress, I was afraid a knit would have made it hang rather than float romantically. This exact dress design was featured in the January 1972 edition of Seventeen magazine, along with several of the other views from the pattern I used as well as Betsey’s other Butterick offerings. In the advertisement text, which can be viewed thanks to ”Gold Country Girls” blog (page here), it is hinted that Wyeth paintings were Betsey’s inspiration behind this dress design and magazine’s photo shoot, so I think using anything other than a dense but lightweight knit would have defeated her ideal here. Ah, see – here I go diving headfirst into every aesthetic detail. After years of admiring her brand, I love realizing just how this pattern completely sucked me into the joy of manifesting my own personal interpretation of Betsey Johnson’s style. Her Alley Cat line was before my time, after all, so this is different than the Betsey Johnson I grew up with…but it is no less welcome! Visit my Pinterest board here to see more Betsey Johnson ads, patterns, and clothing from her pre-1990s era.
My only small regret to my dress is the way the fine details and design lines get lost in the print. I am a big fan of how the waistline comes up to ride the top of my hips at the sides but dips down low for both the center front and back. It is a beautiful design that is interesting and makes for great ease of movement. It also seems to be a popular feature for Betsey Johnson because she reused this same undulating waistline on her other Butterick patterns (no. 6536 and no. 6529, as well as no. 3292) as well as many of her ready-to-wear dresses. This style of waistline pairs perfectly with the different layout of gathered waist where it is only gathered in at the center back and front. With the sides being kept smooth, this really creates a slimming silhouette that I am obsessed over. My hips are big enough the way it is and the combination of princess seaming in torso, dropped waist, and controlled skirt gathers all help me feel that I have lot a few pounds (even if only in appearance). Any dress which can do that is a winner. Usually teenager’s clothing does not simultaneously work well for a grown woman’s style, but Betsy Johnson has found a way around that.
My sole slight change to the pattern was to adjust the neckline. I raised the dip of the front scoop neck by about 5/8 inch and eliminated the facings. I love the simplicity and smoothness to a bias finished neckline, so I went for that instead. Bias tape does tight curves so well, especially when sewn on with a tiny seam allowance that needs no clipping, and is much less fussy than facings. After all, Alley Cat garments were meant to be bare-bones and not high end. This was so that her intended market of urban teens and juniors from big cities (like New York or L.A.) would find them “reasonably priced” (yet Betsey’s “always under $100” garments equal about $750 dollars today). Imitating the finishing of a 1970s Betsey Johnson dress gave me an excuse to do machine made top stitching and basic finished seams inside (I’ve been doing a lot of nice hand stitched projects lately). Her 1990s and 2000 era silk dresses in my wardrobe are much finer in French seams and full linings, but this “frontier frock” was the perfect way to have an easy-to-make project for myself.
This dress may not be a knockout, but it is fun and ultimately comfortable with a great fit. I thoroughly enjoyed everything related to the creation of this dress more than I show because this was an especially personal challenge. It pushed me to add an alternate appreciation to what I thought I knew about a designer I have already admire and respect. Every backstory to a designer’s history tells so much about why and what they did later in their life. For all the fame designers can garner, they are just like any other human being who deserves empathy and appreciation, after all. So I hope this post inspires you to take a look at Betsey Johnson and realize there is so much more to the “frontier look” than you may have realized. Perhaps her style speaks to you, like it does to me?