Ballerina Girl

Stop the presses!  News flash here!  I have now made shoes!  Well, technically I have sewn my own house slippers, but they are worn on the feet so that is close enough to make me feel like adding the term “cobbler” to my long list of capabilities.  I cannot express how elated I am over this creation and just how incredibly comfy they are to wear.  I was very doubtful I could pull such an idea off, but my slippers turned out fantastic.  Plus, they were so quick and relatively easy to make…and all I used is scraps leftover from past projects!  This post is aptly named after a sweet song by the same name by a favorite singer of mine, Lionel Richie.

A big ‘thank you’ is in order to Quinn (who blogs here at “The Quintessential Clothes Pen”) for her encouragement and support over this idea in the first place.  Over in this post of mine about the making of this fuzzy winter jacket by the designer Ungaro, I casually threw out the question of ‘what can be done with the scraps of the waist peplum I did not use’.  Happily, Quinn voted for the house slippers idea, and it sounded like she started making some for herself in turn.  All I needed was a bit of outside inspiration to spur me on, and just look at the wonderful slippers I finished now!  I am always so overwhelmed and supported by my blog’s readers and followers.  You are all truly the best!   

I half-heartedly wonder if it might be old fashioned (according to younger generations) to be wearing house slippers.  Thus, just in case a definition is needed here, I will provide a brief one.  “A house shoe is a general term for any footwear that is intended to be worn indoors, particularly at home,  while a slipper is a type of indoor or outdoor footwear that you can easily slip-on your feet.  Remember that house shoes can be slippers, but not all slippers can be house shoes.”  (Definition from this site.)

I have a few vintage slippers, of the famous Daniel Green brand, which are closer to shoes, for sure, the way they are so fancy, with molded soles and wedge heels.  While they are comfortable and luxurious, at the end of the day all I want is to feel barefoot…but with the benefits of a little extra warmth and cushioning.  This is one of the many reasons why I personally prefer soft, ballerina-style, enclosed foot house shoes to both slip-ons (with an open back or exposed toes) and modern molded foam bed support slippers.  Yet, a good version of a ballerina house slipper is hard to find, never as comfy as I would like, and also quite pricey.  Besides, they never last me very long before they wear out to the point that they need to be thrown away.  Cue the quest to craft my own.  Sewing can be so enjoyable AND useful.

Unlike the fuzzy house shoes commonly referred to as “slippers”, ballet shoes are made of soft leather, canvas, or satin, for dancers to appear weightless and graceful when performing.  “These shoes are lightweight and have thin soles to offer maximum flexibility. What’s more, the shoes feature an elastic band that’s meant to secure the shoe tightly to the foot during the entire performance. A proper ballet slipper should also offer a snug fit, like a glove.” (Info from this site.)  Often these shoes are in a skin toned color for an invisible appearance.  Modern ballerina house slippers, however, are in all sorts of fashion colors and prints and often cheaper materials.

How about a casual “about me” moment related to that topic?  I had the hard-toed ballet pointe shoes when I was growing up.  They were merely a cheap but neat second-hand purchase that I played around with and casually practiced in at home…nothing too earnest.  They are torture devices though (in my opinion) for all the beauty they offer dancers on stage.  Nevertheless, I grew to appreciate and admire both the charm of ballet and the hard work of its performers.  (Being taken to a Nutcracker performance when I was about 10 years old helped along those feelings, too!) 

What I especially loved about ballet was the soft leather dancing slippers after also acquiring a set secondhand at a resale store.  I loved wearing them around the house to the point that my mom went to a ballet store and bought me a few more new pairs.  The woman at the store quickly ended that obsession by throwing out very judgmental, inquiring, and intrusive questions to both me and my mom…as if her customers could only be professionals and nothing else.  Oh well.  No doubt this past history of mine is a contributing factor to my preference for ballet style slippers.  Now I can make my own and this is the most exciting and inspiring thing to happen in my sewing sphere in a while!

Speaking of something exciting, my slippers had their first time being enjoyed in conjunction with a very special occasion for us.  We went for a short (and Covid safe) weekend getaway to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.  I brought a special true vintage 1930s era nightgown and matching robe for my evening lounging, and my new slippers paired perfectly with the ice blue color of the peignoir set.  The aesthetic of the room was 18th century which went so well with my fancy loungewear, besides being a dream-come-true kind of glamorous setting, the likes of which I have never seen.  It was a great backdrop to take some pictures of my sippers.  If you would like to see the whole vintage lounge set, go check out these two Instagram posts of mine (here and here).  If you would like to see a short video of me in my slippers in action, see this post!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Poly fleece (leftover from this 80’s coat), poly interlock, quilted cotton batting, and faux suede (leftover from my hubby’s smoking jacket)

PATTERN:  a Burda Style extra project template in the back pages of the December 2014 magazine (cover page at right)

NOTIONS NEEDED:  All I needed was thread and wide cord elastic.  The front decorative bows are ribbons that were saved from off of the packaging of a present I received.  Re-use and recycle, right?!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Each slipper took me 1 ½ hours, so I spent a total of 3 hours to make these on the afternoon of April 7, 2021.

THE INSIDES:  raw edges are enclosed within the lining

TOTAL COST:  FREE!

So long as I approached this footwear project with the mindset that it is still sewing, just like anything else I make, it was easy to make these house shoes.  The Burda Style pattern I had to go on was even more bare bones than their regular patterns so I am floored these turned out so well.  There were challenging to make because of all the curves, small spaces, and tiny 3/8 inch seam allowances.  However, as I said above they were not hard to make, though, and a very fun, different thing to attempt.  It’s so refreshing, besides good for my brain, to change up what I am working on making! 

On the back page of the Burda magazine, you start with just two small pattern pieces for the slippers, both only about 3 inches long, next to a few short paragraphs of construction details.  The same page also has a sleep mask pattern and a quilted travel jewelry organizer to make!  All of the patterns on page need to be photocopied and custom sized up to be usable.  I aimed at the length of the sole being just a quarter inch bigger than the actual size of my foot (9 inches) since I wanted a snug, ballerina shoe style fit.  Thus, I had to enlarge the pattern pieces 305% and add on the 3/8 inch seam allowances, as directed, before I cut the pattern out.  

There are four different kinds of material I used because I wanted to only use scraps and also to keep the slippers comfortable.  The soles are triple layered with a brown faux suede bottom (a tip from Quinn) and a fleece inner foot bed, all sandwiched with a cotton, padded, quilted panel in between.  This way the soles are lightly padded with the quilting, soft on my feet with the fleece, and not slippery to walk in with the suede-like exterior.  The outside of the slippers’ uppers are more of the blue fleece, lined in a lightweight poly interlock to absorb moisture and keep my feet from overheating in just fleece alone. 

I did slightly adapt the pattern to add some improvements.  Firstly, it doesn’t necessarily call for an upper foot lining, but it was a not only a choice for comfort but also a convenient way to end up with clean inners to my slippers.  Furthermore, the instructions do not call for the padding that I added into the soles, but it elevates these slippers from being merely homemade and makes them so much cushier.  Then, I also hid the raw edges by stitching all of the shoe pieces together onto sole before finishing off the upper elastic edge.  Stitching 5 bulky layers together along a very curvy seam in a 3/8 inch seam allowance was something I took my time on so the slippers’ construction was right from the very beginning.  There are literally 3 seams to stitch on each slipper, yet if ever I needed to get a seam correct and be precise with stitching, this was the time for that. 

Stitching the casing was even trickier than sewing the sole.  I was somehow able to mostly machine stitch the seam, luckily.  I finished the raw edge of both the interlock and the fleece together with a double row of tight zig-zag stitching that imitates a serger (overlocker) finish.  Then, the edge was tuned under 3/8 inch and stitched down with a small gap so the elastic cording could be run through the casing along the upper foot bed edge.   It is interesting that the elastic has to be so very much shorter of a length than the actual casing around the foot.  The slippers should curl in on themselves when they are off of one’s foot or else they will not stay on.  Avoid having the knot of tied elastic end in the casing at the back of your heel for a smooth fit. 

I slightly obsessed over trying to have the elastic tightness of both slippers to be equal.  I think I came so close to perfection, I’m happy.  You know, most store bought ballerina slippers all have one shoe which fits tighter than the other and I have always hated that with a passion.  I know how hard it is to make RTW to suit everyone’s individual sizing – but that hadn’t fully sunk into my head how much more challenging that is when it comes to our feet.  Most people have a body that is not symmetric on both sides.  On top of that, many people also have health issues or results of an injury which can render one foot to be different from the other.  A bad ankle of mine, leftover from a severe sprain, makes my one foot swell up at times.  Cutting two elastic strips the same length made for unequally fitting slippers for me.  I can understand the gripes I have had with RTW ballerina slippers much better now.  Nevertheless, that problem still is annoying and uncomfortable, I will admit, so I am happy to have avoided it for my own handmade slippers.   

For the last step, I took a fabric marker to designate the left from the right…because let’s face it.  More often than not my brain doesn’t need one more thing to figure out at the end of a day.  I wanted my slippers to be effortlessly enjoyed, besides being something fantastic to present on my blog, as well!  Next time I make shoes, I’ll have to try an amazing 1940s pattern for some summer sandals that you make by braiding scraps – much like a rag rug!  (See the pattern here.) 

The first time trying something new is always the hardest.  With my first pair of shoes successfully done, I can feel a bit more confident branching out.  Now, I am rather interested in some kits I have seen online, for assembling your own espadrilles or sneakers.  Anyone got any suggestions for more shoes to make?  This is fun!  Just think of the possibilities to end up with shoes that perfectly match your outfit this way…

“No Chance! No Way! I Won’t Say It…”

…I won’t say – out load – I’m in love…with 1990s fashion, that is!  (Congrats to the person who can already recognize the song reference!)

Such news is a bit awkward to admit for me but it is a wholehearted truth now, especially after making this post’s project.  The dive of renewed interest in the classic Disney princesses last year via sewing my “Pandemic Princess” series of course necessitated acknowledging the fashion of the 90’s.  This ‘confession’ in my fashion taste comes only a few years after I reluctantly acknowledged I had fallen for the 80’s back when I made this Givenchy suit (posted here).  Then, my 1996 Emanuel Ungaro suit anchored my positive views of that era.  Previous to a year ago, I have not sewn anything from the 90’s since I was a teenager.  Ah, what am I turning into!?  This time, I can be completely justified in blaming my change of heart on the intensely independent, highly charismatic, acutely cynical, and generally unrecognized princess Megara of the 1997 animated film “Hercules”.  

Meg inspired me to make a flowing, Grecian-inspired maxi dress which highlights her trademark colors of purple and golden yellow, using both a soft polyester print and a sewing pattern from the era of the 90’s.  My dress – like Meg’s – has an empire waist, skinny shoulder straps, long and curving princess seaming, and an ankle skimming length.  Yet, true to the gunge fad of the era from which the movie was released, I am not content with it to be just a sundress.  I’m wearing this as a jumper layered over a slouchy, dated, thrifted turtleneck.  Practically speaking, this dress is too pretty to keep for just the warm weather anyways! 

However, the real inspiration which helped me channel my Meg dress was the character Phoebe (portrayed by actress Lisa Kudrow) from the television show “Friends”.  A sundress over a knit top is 100% Phoebe’s style!  Fashion aside, I believe Phoebe to be Meg’s 90’s twin in traits and personality.  (Seriously, though, I could see them liking the same assorted, haphazard fashion, too).  They both have a sarcastic, dry humor because they see the world free of rosy tinted glasses after having become very street-wise.  They both are admirably, boldly unafraid to speak what is on their quick-witted minds.  Nevertheless, behind the jaded outlook, both women are still soft-hearted, innocent, and sentimental.  Phoebe is my favorite character out of “Friends” and Megara is the Disney ‘anti-princess’ who has more recently earned my high esteem for being “a big tough girl” who can “take care of herself”.  This outfit of mine compliments the strong and soft sides which I share in common with both spunky screen ladies.

Funny enough, the statue behind me in the garden is Juno, the Roman equivalent of Hera, queen of the gods in Greek mythology.  In the myth and not the Disney version, Hercules was the son of Jupiter, the supreme god of Olympus, and Alcmene, a mortal married woman.  Juno, the wife of Jupiter, hated Hercules because he was the most famous and successful of Jupiter’s numerous illegitimate progeny.  I could only image what a first meeting with Hercules’s family might be like for Megara.  Nevertheless, I imagine Meg could hold her own very well with the militaristic Juno.  Even though my background setting isn’t as classical as I would have liked, I do enjoy the subtle nod to the Hercules by including Juno.  That not all, however!  At the same Botanical Garden, we also found a fountain of Persephone, the wife of Hades and the Queen of the Underworld.  After the foul way Hades used Meg when he had her under a soul bondage, the myths seem to show he had learned how to (somewhat) respect a woman by the time he married Persephone.

I want to give a shout out to the seamstress Eszter (on IG here @em_originals) for encouraging me through the power of a good review to use the dress pattern I did.  Don’t you just love it when someone else has – and makes something of – the same vintage sewing pattern as one you have on hand?  It always feels so remarkably serendipitous.  She thoroughly and kindly answered my questions about what fabric she used and how her version came together.  Go take a look at how lovely her dress looks on her (see it here)!  Good things happen when sewists unite! 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 90’s era polyester leftover from lining my 1996 Ungaro suit; fully lined in a beige polyester cut out of some microfiber bed sheets

PATTERN:  New Look #6306, year 1994

NOTIONS NEEDED:  I needed lots of thread and two zippers (I’ll explain why further down)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress took me about 20 hours’ worth of time and it was finished on November 4, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  The inner raw edges are left raw but there is a full body, floating lining which covers up the mess.

TOTAL COST:  practically free!!! Read on…

How I acquired the base materials for my Meg dress is a bit of an odd story.  Firstly, the printed fabric was practically free, being donated to a $1 a pound rummage sale.  The lining was a dirt cheap find of some gently used bed sheets.  Then, the pattern for this was actually picked out of the alley’s dumpster behind our house.  I couldn’t just leave a perfectly fine sewing supply behind when it was just an arm’s reach away…for free!  At first I was overly curious to find out who nearby sews like me (so I could meet them) and then I was struck by the fact that this single pattern was thrown away.  The fashion of the 90’s wasn’t always great but also wasn’t 100% trash.

It’s semi-explainable (especially when it comes to the 1920’s to 40’s) how certain eras of original sewing patterns have expanded in popularity and pricing in just the past 10 years yet it’s also odd how other eras remained static.  The 90’s and 2000 era patterns are clearly still underappreciated, largely disliked, and yes – often very recognizably stereotypical in styling.  Yet, now that my 1993 vehicle can officially register for “antique” license plates, it has made me think past the wry laugh and personal offense that news caused me.  I do see 90’s styles creeping into the RTW offerings and oddly being picked up by the younger generations who know nothing of the era like those of us who lived through it.  1990s logos, shows, and trends are as vintage to my 9 year old son as the 1960s were to me as a child.  My view of what constitutes “vintage” has been slowly changing along with my growing fascination for 1990s fashion.  I am understanding more than what meets the eye, and growing beyond my set prejudices towards how I regard the fashion of a decade within my lifetime.  I am not the only one, though.   

Colleen Hill is curator of costume and accessories at the prestigious Museum at FIT in New York.  Her upcoming, critically acclaimed special exhibition is entitled “Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties”.  I recently received my order of the companion book to the exhibit and have since poured over the rich content.  It portrays a restless decade where the last 10 years before the turn of the century were “modern to retro, from glitz to glamour, from puritan to pretty, from military to minimal, only to max out at the finale with an opulent flourish of beading and a rash of irony.”  (Quote from Harper’s Bazaar writer Marion Hume’s December 1999 editorial.)  What I found the most interesting was the chapter on “Retro Revivals”. 

“Fashion historians often distinguish between the terms: ‘retro’ is generally used to describe clothing that was worn within living memory, and ‘historical’ encompasses influences from the more distant past” the book says.  Sadly, it doesn’t distinguish where “vintage” falls.  The book goes on to quote art historian Elizabeth Guffey, “Retro considers the recent past with an unsentimental nostalgia.”  So does this make the 90’s vintage to me and not retro, as I am nostalgic about growing up in that era while my son views 30 years ago in a curious but unsentimental way?  The quote continues, “It is unconcerned with the sanctity of tradition; indeed, (Retro) often insinuates a form of subversion while sidestepping historical accuracy.”  Ah, yes I do take a more accurate sewing outlook on my 50’s era and older things I make, but what if I do the same for my 90’s projects?  This post’s dress is sewn with a fabric and pattern truly from the era.  “1990s fashions were at once looking back and planted firmly.  Were creators scared of the future or simply celebrating the past?  It appears to be both” said the 90’s design critic Herbert Muschamp

No wonder I appreciate the 90’s!  It is a decade peppered with the influences of the past 20th century’s fashions, all of which I already sew, wear, and love.  I already frequently find a way to put a vintage spin on the modern clothing I make.  Furthermore, it is relieving to now embrace the styles and the modes of dressing from the 90’s that I admired on others and wanted to sport, but was too awkward or not in the right place to do so.  I also enjoy appreciating the last great era for USA made clothing and a recognizable continuity for long-standing design houses, as well as the beginning of an individualistic approach to fashion.  Thus, to me, based on where I am in life and the way I approach 90’s fashion, I am calling it vintage.  This might not be your view and that is fine.  After reading the FIT museum book, I believe that placing this era is up to each person’s interpretation.  If you haven’t noticed the subtle changes to my site happening in the last few months, I would like to point out there is now a decade page for my 1990’s creations added to the header bar of my blog.  I’m so happy to see it there and might add some of my teen years’ makes (which I still wear) on that page in the future.

That being said, I could not get away from a soft demonstration of one of the decade’s earliest and most memorable trends – grunge.  I never had and have not yet found the courage for a full blown embrace of the trend because I never liked the music scene tied to it, but deep down I’ve always still liked elements of it.  Grunge is about practicality over image, economic sense with second-hand items, and comfort pieces.  I wore a loose fitting, rayon knit turtle neck I picked out at a thrift shop back in early 2000s, so it’s possibly from the 90’s.  My little ballet flats have been with me many years, too, and I love the low-key toughness of the multiple buckles.  I am not above loving what I have on hand for many years.  My earrings (from this local shop) were the only new purchase for this outfit – they have Herc’s dad Zeus’s logo lightning bolt coming out of the cloud of Mount Olympus.

Grunge was a very anti-establishment movement, and designer Mark Jacobs (for Perry Ellis), actress Winona Ryder, and “Sonic Youth” band bassist Kim Gordon all were prominent influencers in the trend.  Part of Grunge for women was the wearing of pretty floral dresses from decades before in such a way that you pair them over a tank and pants with chunky black boots, a denim jacket, and a chunky sweater.  The Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley dresses of the 80’s were part of this, as well as the floaty vintage frocks of the 30’s, or the printed tees of the 60’s era.   The height of the Grunge aesthetic was short lived, though.  My FIT museum book “Fashion in the Nineties” says that Vogue editor Anna Wintour expressed relief in a 1994 letter to the editor, by saying Grunge was drifting out of fashion.  The way I interpreted my Megara dress hits all the right notes of 1994 fashion.  Granted this is a date 3 years earlier than the “Hercules” film, but as I associated my inspiration with Phoebe from “Friends”, which began in 1994, that year seemed like a good date to go with.  The year 1994 has so very many designs which are so similar to the point of redundancy – empire-waisted maxi dresses with princess seams.

After all of my rambling on about the era and provenance of it, this dress was actually very simple to sew.  It was a bit time consuming because of all the long seams, the full lining (which was merely a second copy of the dress), and the tiny hemming required.  Even still, I can’t believe I made a completely bone-headed mistake in the midst of construction.  I forgot to combine the back bodice pieces with the back skirt before sewing in a near perfect hand-picked zipper. 

Not every day is my best day, and some days I am just lucky to have the family’s basic necessities taken care of…but I was still devastated by my oopsie.  I powered on in the most non-impactful way by merely adding in a 5 inch separating zipper to the back bodice segment of this dress, above the lower 22 inch zipper.  Yes, I do end up with two zippers up the back.  Yes, I feel terrible about this.  There were tears involved.

Nevertheless, I am proud I made the best of it, resisting the urge to throw it across the room and give up, because I love this dress.  I don’t think the dual zippers are even noticeable, after all.  The fit to the pattern was spot on and I think the hem flaring looks spectacular.  My dress makes me feel very tall, elegant, and curvy.  I garner so many compliments when I wear this!  I can’t wait to continue to wear it as a sundress this summer.  Copying Meg’s manner of styling gives me the best excuse to also brush on my favorite purple eye shadow colors and draw my best winged eyeliner, too. 

The 1997 animated film “Hercules” was very much a product of its time – it references the “Buns of Steel” exercise videos as well as Nike’s famous Air Jordan sneakers,  the muses are merely a jazzy version of the group En Vogue, and then – for goodness sakes – Michael Bolton sings the theme song!  There was no way an ancient interpretation was going to be as wearable as a 90’s manner of looking at Megara, the human princess of Mount Olympus.  The fresh new write-up for the film was not remotely mythological accurate, after all, but still a fun kind of different for Disney’s Renaissance period.  This dress (jumper, depending on the weather) similarly has to be one of my most enjoyable and out-of-the-ordinary kind of ‘practical royalty’ make for my “Pandemic Princess” series.  Here’s a toast to the sassiest Disney princess of them all!

The Legacy of Jessica McClintock

Fashion historians can talk about classic styles, definitive outfits, and remarkable designers until they’re blue in the face, but a humble Gunne Sax dress seems to outlast them all with its quaintness, audaciousness, and romanticism.  A Gunne Sax dress is a dressed down and nonchalant kind of finery.  It embodies a longing for a dream world, a sense of nostalgia attached to a sense of ‘what used to be’ that is their great appeal…incidentally also something to be found (in some degree) in every generation.  The persevering passion over this style of dressing, which has seen a renewed comeback over the last year, is made all the more poignant with the recent passing of Jessica McClintock (as of February 16, 2021).  

She was the brains behind crafting a popular American version of the English Laura Ashley style.  She had enough of a thumb on her times (70’s and 80’s) to use ingenuity to propel her both her Gunne and later independent McClintock brand to something anchored in the bedrock of fashion history.  This, my tribute to her long lasting legacy, was already crafted last year, yet only now I have a strong spur in my side to post this very special, pet project.  Much time, attention to detail, and emotional connection was poured into this venture.  Yet, often it’s the exceptional things I sew which are the ones I also am the most reluctant to share…and this project certainly falls in such a category.  By interpreting anew a kind of dressing that permeated my childhood and curated my lifelong taste in clothes, I have come full circle…and I just have to share this benchmark moment!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  All vintage printed 100% cottons from the early 1980s (I can tell by the selvedge stamps)

PATTERN: Vogue #9076, year 2015

NOTIONS:  Except for the thread and interfacing, all other notions are true vintage from the 1930s.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on December 9, 2020 after over 40 hours (lovingly) spent.

THE INSIDES:  From the waist and up is lined, and the skirt seams are cleanly covered in bias tape.

TOTAL COST:  I acquired the fabrics for this dress through a vintage shop that was going out of business last year on account of the pandemic.  A whole big box of fabrics was $25, and these were some of the many cuts in there.  This whole dress cost me mere pittance.

I just have to admit it to all of you – I am old enough to just remember the frilly, feminine, prairie dresses when they were the original fad (circa 1969 to 1989).  This was before they became cliché, only to eventually transform into the stylish trend of post-pandemic life.  Hello, “cottage core” and the “Target Dress Challenge” fads of today…what you’re pushing is really not a completely new thing, as many seem to half-acknowledge when they call it “retro”.  The source for this ‘look’ comes from a respectable designer label of less than 50 years ago.  It is not gonna be as attractive as can be when it is reworked through the cheap “fast fashion” means and thought of as costumes from “Little House on the Prairie”.  Hey, I understand we all need some fun and laughter nowadays, but no rehashing can come close to the beauty of a true Gunne Sax…unless I hope you’re talking about my version here. 

I sincerely hope I have given McClintock’s vision true justice here.  Sure, I’ll admit I did use a modern pattern to make my dress.  Nevertheless, it had all the trademarks classic to a Gunne Sax.  I hate to brag but I’ve worn my dress to a vintage shop which primarily sells such an aesthetic and they thought I was wearing a true Gunne.  Cue the internalized glee!  You have no idea how special this dress project is to me, and how successful I was at bringing a perception to life is the cherry on the top.

Her label’s offerings had an admirable excess of materials and perfection of detail not commonly associated with more modern ready-to-wear.  I needed almost 7 yards of material to make my version – 6 ½ yards of the 45” width floral print and ½ yard of the contrast blue!  Nevertheless, Gunne Sax original items were also created with easy-care materials at a modest price point for a universal appeal and accessibility.  As I mentioned in my “Facts” info above, my dress is all cotton, and being a vintage thrift find, too, it was luckily a bargain for all this yardage (which would otherwise generally be expensive).  The print has the classic “cabbage roses” which are quintessential for both Jessica McClintock as well as the decade of the 1980s.

She incorporated qualities of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with a bit of Renaissance touches, to her designs – high collars, lace, and loads of buttons.  This was very anti-establishment and a bold experiment for the times.  Just think about how stark of a difference a Gunne Sax is from the proper 50’s styles or the Mod 60’s fashions.  Yet, the early 70’s was also riding off of the liberated ideals of the Flower Child and Ossie Clark explosion of the late 60’s.  Anything goes as far as style today, when leaving the house is an occasion in itself.  I say a Gunne Sax has to be one of the best ways to be ultimately comfy but still pretty in an instant.  One of these kind of dresses is like being in a princess dream while awake.

It all started for Jessica McClintock about 1969 when she invested $5,000 from her savings and became partners with Eleanor Bailey, who was the head of design and production for the Gunne Sax Company.  According to Bailey’s son, the name was a somewhat ‘sexy’ adaptation of the gunny sack – rough, burlap bags used for potatoes and sack races (info from here).  Eleanor soon stepped down, leaving McClintock to head the (then) small local San Francisco dress boutique.  McClintock refined the prairie style of the offerings into something “incorporating romance and beauty, and an elegant sensuality, into every product she designed” (from her obituary).  Very soon after she began selling profitably internationally, even branching out into offering nightwear and perfume. 

The first store under her own label, Jessica McClintock, was opened in San Francisco in 1981, which then fully merged with and took over the Gunne Sax line in 1987.  Many women who were teens and twenty-somethings in the 80’s (or even 90’s) know her line of dresses as the coveted, ideal prom pick or a preferred choice for a casual outdoor wedding event – all more formal wear than her previous line.  In 1997, “Women’s Wear Daily” ranked her brand under the “Top 100 most recognized”, ranked as the 7th behind Cartier and Tiffany.  McClintock once joked that she probably used more lace in her offerings than any other label.  In 2013, after 43 years in fashion, Jessica quietly decided to retire at 83, yet she continued to be a part of the brand under the direction of her son Scott.

My mom made most of my nice clothes for me as a child (before my teen years), as I mentioned in my previous post where I said how the color blue frequently appeared in my wardrobe.  Well, this project has several different shades of blue!  I made a few of my casual clothes myself back then, and I overall liked that most of my wardrobe had a general theme of lots of lace, pretty colors, quaint cotton prints…all features common to a Gunne Sax.  I even had ruffled pantaloons to wear under my childhood dresses!  Just because I was too young for a trend that was popular for girl 10 or more years older than me (at that time) doesn’t mean my mother and I were not fashion conscious enough to incorporate it into my younger styles!  As a teen, my sewing skills were not up to the details incorporated into a Gunne Sax, thus making my own back then was out of the question…but then again I did not have an occasion to need something like that anyway.  Now, all these years later, such is no longer the case!

Sadly, I have not yet handled or seen in person a true Gunne Sax dress to have a baseline for my re-interpretation.  They are much too popular and pricey right now for me to be able to do that.  Buying one for myself back when they were out sadly did not happen either.  However, I have studied pictures of many originals offered through Etsy, Instagram, or Pinterest and I have heard that they are often cleanly lined inside.  Being a Vogue, the pattern I used calls for full bodice lining and exhaustive details already, making a lie out of the “easy” rating on the envelope back.  There isn’t any complex technique called for per se, it’s just a lot of tight corners, precise stitching, and intricate piecing required.  This was a pattern worthy of becoming a Gunne Sax!  I chose the view C dress with the puffier sleeves and wider cuffs of view A.  Then I also added a wide ruffle at the skirt hem to make the skirt longer and more like popular Gunne styles of the late 70’s and 80’s.

I feel that I “improved” the slightly poor instructions in certain places to achieve cleaner finish.  Firstly, you are instructed to sew in the bodice lining in such a way that most of the seams, including the waistline, is exposed.  With just a little extra step, and some forethought, I have my bodice lining cover the inner body raw edges.  A clean inside adds so very much to the wonderful experience of this fantastic dress as a whole.  It would be a shame – in my opinion – to go through all the bother of making its exhaustive detailing and leave out one or two little touches which will add nothing visibly impressive yet something so special to see for your own personal pride.  Besides, a cleanly finished inside is so much more comfortable to wear.  A bulky waist seam is always better for comfortable wearing enjoyment when it can be covered if you’re going to add lining anyways.

Secondly, I know how much of a pain making tiny bias loops are in the first place, and how hard it is to have them become small loop closures which both actually stay in place and look nice.  I could see such a closure being bulky along the front and you can’t clip the extra allowance down because (as some blog reviewers sadly experienced) the loops will have a tendency to slip out of the seam.  After noting the details on true Gunne Sax dresses, I opted for something similar and used vintage loop tape. 

I bought this vintage loop tape understanding it to be from the 1930s on account of the decorative cotton twill tape which is the base for the loops.  I do believe the dating to be true after finding the exact same notion on one of my 1930s negligees.  Yay!  This makes the front closing daintier, lends my make to be especially unique, and is considerably more stable of a closing than bias fabric loops.  Practically speaking, nevertheless, there really wasn’t much fabric leftover to turn into button closings.  I hand stitched the trim down just along the underside edge of the finished right front closure.  It was too pretty of a notion to bury in the seam during construction.

However, a Gunne Sax is never overly straightforward, but always has a tasteful amount of unnecessary flourish.  To match with the 30’s era loop tape, I chose a vintage cotton lace trim to add to most of the seams where the contrast panels join the main dress fabric.  This was sold to me as a 1910s to 1930s era vintage notion, and the unusual feel of the cotton, the slight fading of the color, the irregularity of the design, and the intricate detail to the trim all lead me to believe this dating.  Still, I’m not 100% positive this is correct. Either way, I was ecstatic over the way it was the perfect match in color.  I love the way it adds the right amount of detail without also being fussy or distracting.  It nicely blends in the transition between the two fabrics.  It mirrors the way almost every classic Gunne Sax has decorative trimming along the bodice seams.  After seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trim was added to my dress, I was blown away at how adding the perfect notion can help a project pop.  I had 3 ¾ yards of the lace on hand and I had only 3 inches leftover when I was done.  It was luckily just enough length to work!

A Gunne Sax has an aesthetic of yesteryear, so I added vintage, Depression-era carved pearl buttons from the stash of my Hubby’s Grandmother.  Yes, more 1930s notions!  I sewed them down right alongside the seam where the underlap goes on the left side.  (The underlap covers up any gape along the button closure.)  My sleeve cuffs do feature non-working buttons, however.  I used buttons which were somewhat imperfect (that’s all I had left after finding 9 matching ones for the front) and I didn’t want any more fuss to work with just to get dressed.  I can roll my hands together to make them smaller and just slide the sleeves on but yet they are still snug enough to fit fine during a wearing.  One little bit of a cut corner isn’t going to hurt, right?

After all this, don’t get me wrong, though – I always chose very modern, bold, bright colored things when it came to my fashion modeling for department stores, my choice of a bicycle, or kind of Barbie doll I preferred in my grade school years.  Yet, Jessica McClintock often spoke of her belief that “Romance is a beauty that touches the emotional part of our being.”  The frilly, dreamy garments from my childhood are the ones which remind me of memorable occasions which were part of what makes the ‘me’ of today. 

Based on the year printed along the selvedge of the main fabric, I am dating this dress to 1982, which is before I even existed.  Nevertheless, the pandemic has helped me embrace my past and appreciate my loved ones in new ways. 

Sewing my own Gunne Sax is one of the many avenues I can tangibly materialize such familial nostalgia…which is why I’m wearing my childhood locket necklace, too.  I received this as a gift from my parents when I was 13.  Inside, it still has the old pictures of my mom and my dad back from when we had an unforgettably fun family vacation the year after.  

For better or for worse, it’s funny how what we wear can be so inexorably tied to the affections and reminiscences of life!  I know I will have many new, wonderful memories in the future while wearing this old-style Gunne Sax recreation of mine!  As the phrase for the modern McClintock brand says – every day is a celebration of life.  There is yet another McClintock dress in the works as I write this…

Eggshell Blue Bow Dress

Mod 60’s fashion is not automatically associated with a sweet and feminine style.  Yet, when on occasion it is juxtaposed with the ‘baby doll’ trend, you end up with a very serious, no-frills, freshly classic take on something overtly pretty – a nice combo.  The Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” presented a version of this style to perfection with Beth’s bow dress in episode 6.  Of course, I was then on a mission to find a historical benchmark for the outfit, and have since found a true vintage pattern from which to replicate my own version.  This is my second “copy” of an outfit from “The Queen’s Gambit” (my first one is posted here).  Being made in a luxurious wool crepe and in the prettiest pastel tone, I think this is the perfect outfit to present to you now for our chilly Eastertide.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a worsted 100% wool crepe with the black contrast being 100% rayon crepe lined in satin finish polyester interlock jersey

PATTERN:  Simplicity #6634, year 1966

NOTIONS NEEDED:  one long 22” invisible zipper for the back closing and lots of thread with a bit of interfacing for under the neckline contrast

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress took me 15 to 20 hours of time.  I finished it up on February 27, 2021.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound

TOTAL COST:  The fabric was $35 for two yards from this Etsy shop (highly recommend!).  All the contrast fabrics are being counted as free since they came from small remnants leftover from other projects

My mom made all of these!

I specifically chose my version of Beth’s bow dress to be a soft blue versus the original mint green.  In the Netflix series, mint green is the color of Beth’s childhood and when worn by her as a young woman it connects her to certain events as she is struggling to find herself.  The prevailing color of my childhood was a different pastel hue, and slightly cooler in tone – soft blue.  I have a small portion of my childhood dresses on hand, and a good number of them are a pretty blue (see picture).  I felt feminine in blue, and I personally sense it compliments my skin tone more than pink, which I have grown to love more in the last several years.  Before the 1940s, blue was traditionally considered to be the more feminine color over pink, after all.  Besides, I have other mint green dresses that I love and could never upstage (see here and here)!

Fashion historian Raissa Bretaña fact checks “The Queen’s Gambit” outfits in this excellent video (watch it here) at Glamour magazine and the mint bow dress is included (skip to the time of 6:02).  Raissa Bretaña agrees this outfit is pretty accurate except for maybe the lack dark stockings or tights, which I added for my iteration.  Happily, as I was searching through pattern images online one day, this particular pattern showed up and I instantly recognized it as a very similar base in seamlines, contrast details, and silhouette of both body and sleeves to Beth’s bow dress.  The story is set in the late 60’s during episode 6, and the inspiration for Beth’s bow dress was 1966 to 1968, so this particular pattern hit the right spot.  I love happy circumstances like this where what you are looking for falls in your lap…only this kind of thing is always a challenge with vintage patterns because it is gamble to see if one is for sale.  As you can tell, I found one and couldn’t be happier with my finished dress!

The original version of this dress (which can be seen in an online exhibit here through the Brooklyn Museum) was crafted in a crepe (click on the info button).  A wool crepe has more body than a rayon, so I went with that because I thought this needs to be winter dress.  It should be a flowing dress but being inspired by the likes of Pierre Cardin means that it should also have a bit of structure, too.  I splurged for my dress and ordered something special I have been wanting to try – worsted wool.  I personally find worsted spun to be less itchy than a regular woolen, and a crepe finish is so very dressy with its soft shine and pebbled texture.  I love this fabric.  Worsted wool is considered stronger, finer, and more substantial of a fiber coming from long-staple pasture raised sheep.  Worsted wool is more expensive on account of the labor intensive production – it is not simply carded like other woolens.  I find it didn’t shrink much in a cold water wash and needs hardly any ironing more than a touch of steam (very low maintenance).  I am a worsted wool convert.

The dress itself was relatively easy to make.  The pattern is pretty basic.  The wool was as soft as melted butter to sew through.  As I was using a fine fabric and the pattern had such clean lines, I took extra time on both the finishing details and the fit so my dress would look first-rate.  I did have a few issues with the sizing and placement of the bust darts.  At first, at the cutting stage, I had graded in some extra width to be ‘safe and not sorry’ later.  By the time my dress was finished, I ended up tailoring out the inch or so which I added.  Oh well.  The bust dart was tricky to perfect because it was an unusual curved, very long, French style one that joins the side seam below my hip.  This different French dart creates a beautifully simplistic front panel with gentle shaping.  I think this is the best feature to the dress, yet it’s only a very low-key element though. 

Lengths of both hem and sleeves ended up different than both what I had originally wanted and what the envelope cover seems to show.  I kept the ‘longer-than-your-normal-60’s-dress’ length because I think it makes my version of Beth’s dress more elegant and something not so youth oriented (like many Mod fashions).  I found the sleeves ending up as bracelet length, but I don’t mind this feature either.  They are very dramatic being so wide and bell-shaped, too.  I can clear off a table without even trying – it’s quite hilarious.  Nevertheless, these kind of sleeves are really quite part of the general flowing aura of this dress, I think.  Can I repeat myself, again…I absolutely love my newest Queen’s Gambit dress…it’s so different from my first one.  It’s remarkable how varied the fashions of the 60’s can be.

My chosen pattern was the shadow of my inspiration dress except for the neckline bow.  This was an easy addition but a bit complex to craft.  I wanted the black stripe only on one side of the bow strip.  The underside needed to be plain blue and not showing the stitching from the contrast stripe on the other side.  This is how it was on Beth’s original dress (I can see as she is running through the café) and I had to recreate that because I love a challenge.  Sewing challenges are a good learning experience to further my skills, and this time will go towards adding a deluxe touch.  

It is always a task in itself to try and figure out how to recreate proportions of details as compared to a picture.  I mostly just kept the bow’s width as wide as the neckline facing for uniformity.  I had to double the width and add in seam allowances because this was going to be a folded over, one seam tie strip.  Then I carefully marked the center length of only one side to the tie strip where the black contrast will go.  I chose not to line the bow so it could hang soft like the rest of the dress.  I thought of crafting the black contrast as a tiny tube, ironing it flat, then top-stitching it down in place on the blue strip.  It was an unnerving step to sew the entire blue bow strip together finally.  If the black contrast was stitched down in the wrong place, my life was about to be miserable.  I absolutely hate unpicking!  However, I turned the tube inside out and it was looking all good after a light ironing!  Whew.  I was so happy it was figured correctly. 

One small, extra cut of the bow strip became the center holder.  I have an extra-large safety pin from behind (inside the neckline) holding my bow down in place.  I do not want to wash the dress with bow on it.  Neither do I want to have to unpick threads before it needs a wash.  Keeping the bow unstitched makes my dress project easy to take care of as well as versatile.  I can wear the dress without the bow for a different look, but really – adding the bow brings this dress from a ‘meh’ to a ‘wow’!  Sometimes it is so amazing how one little added detail makes such a big difference.

For this dress, there isn’t much that needs to be added to it for a complete outfit.  The color blocking and the oversized bow takes most of the center stage.  However, what I am wearing to compliment my dress here make a big difference.  Slip on heels were an important part to the story of this dress for the occasion Beth wears it…she only had time to put on her shoes at the very last minute!  I updated the look with a modern pointed toe, block heeled version. 

Beth’s cuff watch is a small part to the storyline, too.  In a brief scene, she receives a Bulova “American Girl” watch from her (adoptive) mother as a graduation gift (also see this post for detailed pictures).  My 60’s era, two-tone cuff watch is from my Grandmother, as are my earrings, but it is my gold pearl ring which is a similar graduation piece.  My mother recently passed this pearl ring down to me, telling me it was the gift her mother gave to her for her Graduation in 1969.  I’m so glad it fits me because it’s so special to wear.  I’m connected to the past few generations of women in my family history just with my accessories alone.  How cool is this?  Then, I go and choose a color for my dress that recalls my own childhood fashion preferences.  I love this outfit for more than just the fabulous dress alone. 

I will follow up this post with my next one being about another ‘vintage’ childhood style that I am reinterpreting for myself today.  Yes, it is also in blue!  Until then, I do hope everyone has a beautiful, peaceful, and happy Easter weekend!