Come Into My Web…

With the amount of vintage fashions that I make and wear, you’d think I’d have enjoyed Halloween in some wearable holiday-themed outfit from one of the popular decades of the 20th century – but no!  I always seem to do a fictional costume, or something historical, or just plain fun.  I haven’t ever done anything quite spooky ever, either.  In all, nothing is ever really a garment that I can include as part of my everyday vintage wardrobe.  All that has changed this year with a circa 1949 sultry femme-fatale outfit!  Using Gertie’s newest print, reproduced from a true vintage fabric, and scroll-work felt combined with raw buckram to make a curiously detailed hat, my ensemble is perfect for a jaunt out in the dark, rainy, and mysterious evenings of fall!

This is one of my very favorite, luxurious, and completely unique garment projects.  It was so fun to make a novelty outfit which is not just for an event but also for a season of the year.  The hat was super-easy make, and should work well for other outfits of any season, but truly compliments this set in a way far better than I had imagined.  However, if it wasn’t for the roses in the dress’ print, however, there is probably no way I would be even so much as trying anything with a spider theme.  The buggers creep me out!

The irony is that I added to what the webs were missing with my jeweled brooch – a vintage-style “Webster” pin ordered through “Nicoletta Carlone.com”.  He is not hair-raising, but rather cute (weird for me to say) and definitely glam.  After all – a web without a spider is a home without a tenant, right?!  All other accessories are true vintage items.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Dress – 100% cotton sateen, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” 2018 print from Gertie with a sheer black chiffon for the neckline and a sweet pink broadcloth for the bodice lining; Hat – a felt placemat, buckram hat base crown, and black tulle netting

PATTERN:  Anne Adams #4696, circa early 1950s for the dress…self-drafted hat

NOTIONS:  I had all the black thread and bias tapes I needed, and the modern tiny ball buttons (not vintage) were already in my stash.  I only had to buy a zipper for the side seam waist closure!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress took about 15 hours to make and the hat was made in an hour and a half.  Both were finished on October 26, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  a combo of French and bias bound seams

TOTAL COST:  About $35 was spent on the Gertie fabric alone, $5 on the chiffon, $2 on the zipper, and $8 for all the hat supplies (placemat from the arts and crafts store Michaels, and the buckram base from the Etsy shop “DanceCostumeSupply“).  $50 is my total.

This is my second time working with an Anne Adams vintage sewing pattern and what I found out from the first time rang true again.  Their designs seem to run quite small.  Just like before, my Anne Adams pattern was a size too large for me according to their chart, but it tuned out fitting me perfectly with 5/8 seams rather than the instructed ½ inch.  As unpredictable as vintage patterns are regarded by many to be, there are benchmarks to be found the more you sew with differing companies and various decades.  I’m not for certain that all Anne Adams will have their sizing off, but two times around is a pretty good confidence booster to know what I’m working with!  Size up with this brand, just in case.

Now, I did start with an early 50’s pattern, but I slightly adapted the design lines to make it more like a 1949 silhouette.  Post WWII fashion is remarkably similar between 1948 and 1952, minus slight differences.  All it basically took to change the date to this dress was eliminating the three paneled skirt front as designed and cutting out a slimmer, swinging, bias cut one instead.  The longer and leaner lines with a longer hem are trademarks of1949, whereas after 1950 there was more emphasis on a tiny waist and full hips (below the bust).  I was mostly copying off of an Aldens Department Store advertisement from 1949 (dated using the 60th anniversary emblem) by doing my adaptation, but nevertheless – the defined spider web print needed as few seams as possible anyway.  This pattern could certainly give what the fabric needed in my mind, which was minimal seam lines with no compromise on lovely shaping for a sultry air to the whimsical vintage print.  This dress sure delivered!

I can’t believe the neckline on this is original vintage.  The cheeky and bold taste that was around back then is much more alluring and lovely in my opinion than the modern baring-it-all fashion that leaves nothing to mystery.  The pieces for the bodice were so very basic, early on I was so doubtful that they would work out at all.  At the waist of the bodice, there are two sets of three stitched-down pleats in the front, and two small open pleats in the back but somehow they do their job turning odd shaped rectangles into something special.  There are small gathers at the shoulders too, though it’s not very noticeable in the sheer material…it just sort of helps to wrinkle up the front neckline a bit.

French seams are the strongest seam possible in such a lightweight and unsupportive fabric as chiffon, so that is what is holding the shoulders – and the body of the dress – together.  Fully lining the bodice not only gives body to the soft fashion fabric but also is a great way to cleanly finish the wide arching neckline where the sheer and the printed cotton meet – with no seam there, it lays nice and smooth.  A little sneak peek of pink that can sometimes be seen of the inside makes it so worth it, too.

The upper bodice from behind is, to me, a very slight call back to Victorian times, when the necklines were high, severe, and replete with a multitude of tiny buttons.  During Halloween, Victorian times seem to be what is stereotypically associated with haunted mansions and creepy, cackling women in frilly black dresses.  There are only 5 buttons here, but still – the difficulty it presents to dress yourself is a goth reference to decadence and stuffy society.  I hand sewed thread loops along the edge to catch the buttons.

I suppose now is a good a time as any to talk about what’s on my head, now that you can see the full details from the back of my hat!  Yes, as I mentioned above, I started with a placement to decorate a dining table, but in my defense it was thick, dense felt after all, too similar to hat material to ignore doing some Halloween shopping one night.  It was on clearance too!  I have always admired the wide hats of the mid to late 1940s which have decorative ‘windows’ or fancy cut outs in their big brims.  Such vintage hats I have seen are either too costly for my wallet or disappear too quickly to act on buying them.  So, as I do with most else in my wardrobe, I make my own version!

The place mat was slightly oval but so is the buckram crown (luckily on hand…I do keep a stock of hat bases “just in case”).  Luckily the crown was just enough to replace the skeleton head cut out of the center!  Before hand-stitching the place mat’s inner edges to the wired crown edges, I did add a double layer of tulle to the top (upper) side to stiffen it up.  The tulle adds a mesh look that compliments to raw buckram plus it makes to hat brim flat and not wavy along the edges like a 70’s slouch hat.  I merely hand tacked the tulle halfway through the felt all around the outer edges, kind of like a very tiny pad-stitching.  Most of the time, the tulle and the buckram base used for my hat are only foundation materials which are not meant to be seen, only hidden under other, better, fashion fabrics to achieve a final end.  By leaving the raw supplies I used exposed, the effect reminds me both of the fragility of a spider web and the physical decay we frequently revel in around Halloween.

Spider web prints seem to have exploded in the vintage fashion scene.  They are incredibly popular and collectable today, so it’s no wonder that several retailers are reprinting such fabric.  It’s a good thing for those of us who sew because we can provide ourselves with what we cannot get our hands on – vintage spider web dresses!  These prints can be found starting in the 1940s, or very late 30’s at the earliest.  Spider web prints seem to have had their high point between the mid-1940s and mid 1950s, but still quietly persisting through the 1960s and 70’s through the work of some bigger named designers.  For some reason, though, the form of stylized web-and-roses print that I have used from Gertie is the one that is most frequently seen.

Although I and the world of today tend to automatically associate spider web anything with the holiday of Halloween, if you look closely at the old original vintage advertisements for such spider web print dresses they specifically are for spring, yet also mention that it is an “all year design”.  I have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to “Spider Web Clothes Vintage and Modern” so please visit there and look closely to read for yourself.  It is so interesting to look at the primary sources for this new vintage trend, because when you do, you realize we are looking at it quite differently than they did.  Spider webs for spring?  As lovely as my own dress and hat turned out (if I do say so myself) and as wonderful as it feels to wear this swingy and sexy little number, I think I’ll take any and every excuse to wear this as much as possible!

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Oktoberfest “Black Forest” Dirndl

As a girl of strong German heritage, and a lover of vintage fashion, an old-fashioned ethnic outfit to celebrate Oktoberfest has long been on my to-make list, and is now – finally – a reality!  Here’s my year 1942 dirndl! Each piece is separate for ultimate mix-and-matchability, so can wear each on its own in the future or change up my dirndl in the future. This is something I am so happy with…it tuned out every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  Prost!

I was inspired by the traditional late 30’s/40’s “Black Forest Maiden” when making this.  The “Black Forest” is a very ancient, forested, mountainous region in southwest Germany.  It was already being named in Roman times.  The cultural dress and traditions of this region is likewise very old, and the rich dirndl customs associated with it have been around for the last several centuries.  Thus, I find it so sad that an established manner of local dressing, an organic means of freely expressing cultural identity, temporarily became twisted by Hitler, used to suppress and subjugate women nationally in the late 30s and early 40s.  As a girl with very German roots I recognize that interpreting this can painful, but this is an outfit made to honor a woman I don’t know with a story I will never forget.

At a WWII reenactment two years ago, I met a wonderful, friendly, and knowledgeable man with a thick German accent. As we chatted, I seemed to bring to mind something for him by wearing my vintage garb, and he proceeded to tell me about his mother. She was 11 or 12 when Hitler started his invasions, and the local Nazi Youth Movement chose her as the town’s “Black Forest Maiden” since she had the “perfect” body, hair and eye color. Terrified and crying, she was forced to lead the town’s parades, forced to wear what they chose, and be the “mascot” with her official photo. When I was shown that woman’s picture from back then, in her beautiful dirndl vest, with her stereotypical ‘Gretchen’ braids, she was so sad through that ‘perfect’ smile – that image is burned in my memory. And you think image crafting and body shaming is hardcore today…!  All the advancements that women of central Europe had been fighting for during the 20 years of the Inter-War period (and they were many) were threatened by the Nazi Idea of the model German woman.

I had no idea before hearing his emotional maternal story that a “Black Forest Maiden” was so forced on women and young girls who happened to fit the “faultless” Aryan mold, much like living out a punishment.  As if the way we are made is by choice!  Instead we have been incessantly fed a need to change one’s own inherent individual beauty for ages.  I have read that blond hair dye was extremely popular and encouraged back then for the brunettes, and posters and publications pressured a certain living ideal, too.  There is nothing like a first-hand account from those who lived through those times to get the real stories of the past.  Luckily, I can choose to wear what I want, and be happy celebrating heritage the way I choose in the fall, but making this dirndl reminds that was not always the case.  This is why I did not strictly adhere to the “Black Forest” ideal with my outfit – this is (to me) a freedom-of-expression version for a non-pale skinned, brown hair and dark eyed girl like me of today.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  all fabrics are authentic to a vintage dirndl of the times – cotton for the skirt and a ribbed cotton velveteen for the vest, lined in basic broadcloth

PATTERN:  Simplicity #4230, year 1942

NOTIONS:  I only wanted to use supplies that were on hand already, and all I absolutely needed to buy was the front zipper!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  It took me about 20 hours to complete and was finished on October 13, 2018.

TOTAL COST:  As everything I used had been on hand in my stash for at least a few years (yay for whittling down my hoard of fabric), and (knowing me) I probably got it all on a good discounted price anyway, I’m counting this outfit as free!

I had the best surprise as I opened up the dirndl jumper pattern, the kind which don’t come that often (and I believe I have seen and opened up a lot of vintage patterns in my life).  This one copy of mine is in top tier condition.  It was still factory folded inside, no discoloring, smell, or brittleness and the trailing floral embroidery transfers were miraculously as pristine as the day they were made – never used and still shiny and waxy beaded up on the tissue paper strips.  I always see transfer papers either missing, used already, or the ink dry and crumbly.  Needless to say I really have no intention of actually using them, but it is neat and rather tempting knowing they are there and fully usable!  Perhaps once my commitment to full scale embroidery is more guaranteed in the future, I might make a copy of these transfers and try the design, but I would have to start such a project two seasons ahead at my rate and I have enough going on in my life.

The bodice vest’s novelty velveteen – already thick, sturdy, and lovely to touch – was fully lined and fully interfaced with sew-in muslin so it would end up almost like a corset, or at least a very substantial jacket weight.  Lining is always such a nice and easy way for both a professional finish and a clean way to finish all your edges and hide all your seams!  It was chilly the day of our town’s Oktoberfest, so my vest kept my entire middle so warm I needed no coat.

As I am a married woman, I have no red trimming (meant for single ladies) and my vest is primarily black.  There is a matching color separating front zipper wedged in the middle to close the front of my dirndl vest.  Happily it is not very noticeable at all.  I really considered a laced up front, but as zippers were the latest and greatest fashion edge in the late 30’s, I wanted this traditional-influenced dirndl to follow suit.  Besides, a simple closing accommodated the fancy trim I planned on using.

The braided trim is complex and dramatic, perfect for a dirndl where your haberdashery cannot be too fancy or your details too scrumptious.  It is a Simplicity brand roll that I had bought on deep discount years ago.  It is something so novelty that I had no clear idea of what to use it on at the time, but as something like this is hard to come by – and normally expensive – I had to have it.  I’m glad I did, because it was meant for this dirndl…the 4 feet on the roll was exactly the length needed to go completely around the front and neckline edge.  Even an inch less would have not worked.  It is a cotton rayon blend of a white satin soutache-style rope braided with multiple strands of twisted black rope which reminds me of what is on decorator’s tassels.  As much as I wanted a quick and easy way to attach the trim down, I put up with hand-stitching it down for a precise placement with threads unseen.  I am in amazement at how this special trim made my dirndl vest go above par. 

My skirt is self-drafted of a 40’s reproduction print.  The color is not as green as I would have liked, but neither is it solidly turquoise.  Whatever the tone, happily my skirt is very much a copy of the skirt and apron colors worn in the West German movie “The Black Forest Girl”, made in 1950.  The story for this movie is based on the operetta “Schwarzwaldmädel” by Leon Jessel, who died in the same year as my dirndl pattern – 1942.

It’s merely your basic gathered skirt, and for a good amount of pouf I brought in just over twice my waist length into a very nice, 1 ½ inch wide, lightly interfaced waistband.  In order to use the whole of my fabric with minimal cutting, I hand-stitched down a 12 inch hem to shape some fullness into the skirt, weigh it down, and keep it opaque.  There is a true vintage metal zipper in the side for an old-fashioned touch.  It should definitely be a great basic wardrobe staple during the spring and summer worn on its own with a tee or blouse apart from this dirndl.  I hope to make another skirt like this one, using a completely different print and material, to see how that changes the overall feel of my Germanic outfit.

An apron is a must with a dirndl!  I am using a handcrafted fine cotton apron that my mom had ordered from a vintage reproduction company, so it is not of my own making, but the details are just what I would want to pair with my outfit.  There is crocheted lace and both pintucks and ½ pleats for more texture and interest to the outfit.  The apron I had on for the day is a very wearable new version that reminds me of the apron I would have preferred to wear (but wouldn’t dare out of respect) – my Great-Great Grandmother’s apron handmade apron from circa 1890 (pictured at left).  This family history treasure was made on her way over to the United States, and the fine details are mind-blowing.  Just studying it is improving my sewing skills by practicing to imitate such tiny, regular feather-stitching on other items.

I do intend on sewing up the dirndl vest’s matching underblouse in a sheer white organdy just like the cover shows, but I ran out of time for this weekend.  It will be made soon, anyway, and be ready for next year.  Until then, I wore a fine linen blouse already in my wardrobe, one that has lovely floral-and-vine shadow work along the neckline, visible above the sweetheart neckline of my dirndl vest if you look closely.  The earrings are vintage from my Grandmother (on my father’s side).

There is heavy German influence on all sides of my family, and around the last turn of the century they had immigrated over (before the First World War, when eight million German-Americans comprised this country’s largest non-English speaking group).  This was at a time when being a “Hyphenated American” was paramount to asking for the finger of suspicion to come to you.  Yet, during the First World War, when Ellis Island immigration was high, about 20 of all Americans who answered the call to arms were foreign born.  Quick assimilation was important to “Hyphenated Americans” for both their safety and because of their likelihood for a successful new start.

Even still, our families have not forgotten our past heritage over the last 100 years.  My dad has memories of going to Oktoberfest celebrations as a child in his little Lederhosen, and his Grandfather – who operated his own bakery for many years – always had stollen and coffee on hand to enjoy with him every Sunday after church.  My husband’s paternal side had originally settled in a city actually called Germantown, with German still on the tombstones and street signs.  Conversely, our relatives did their part for America fighting against the Reich in both wars.  The German influence that still surrounds me in the Mid-Western United States where I live is all good stuff – stately, impressive churches, strong homes made to last, delicious and hearty food, creative micro-breweries, beautiful winery vineyards, and happy, down-to-earth, hard-working people.  So why did I not make a dirndl earlier than now?!

Late 30’s Dress Sports Halter and Bolero

Our trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to see the exhibit “Stitching History from the Holocaust” (see this post for an entire report about it) gave me a goal of sewing a new, era-matching outfit to wear for the occasion!  I love sewing especially when it comes to making something for a trip – to me, it’s the epitome of a special occasion and lets my outfits get a real purpose outside of the norm.  I also wanted to continue my respect for the story of Hedy Strnad with what I wore for our visit.

The woman drawn in each of Hedy’s designs of “Stitching History from the Holocaust” were the classic ideal for the late 30s.  She exudes assertiveness as she goes out into the world participating in a fully modern life of enjoying leisure time, shopping, making her own money, and taking care of her well-being.  Overall, a woman of the late 30s showed she is an equal part of society with fashions that displayed her unique personality and spunk with a combination of simplicity and complexity.  Even though the women on the cover of my outfit’s pattern are demurely looking downward, I do feel that my sports halter dress and bolero is part of that sort of womanly ideal!

This is a fun and comfy set which was perfect for the slightly cool weather of Milwaukee in the summer, with its northern breezes coming off of Lake Michigan, which you see behind me in our pictures.  It is vintage a la New York style circa 1938 or 1940, but to me it looks timeless.  I was so put together but still casual…an unusual combination that is so awesome to come upon.  I never like to look sloppy on our trips – I like the old-school way of going abroad in style.  There never is any need to be otherwise when the outfits I make feel as good as wearing a nightgown but visually are quite different!  Besides, how often do you see orange for summertime?  It’s quite cheerful when not just reserved for Halloween. My outfit is so easy to move in – I mean look at my full bias skirt – and the denim chambray of my dress and linen of my bolero are wonderful fabrics to feel against the skin.

Most importantly, though, our trip to Milwaukee gave me a good prod to finally get this outfit done in the first place.  I’ve only wanted to sew up this set together for the last several years!  So many sewing ideas and too little amount of time means there are many that get pushed back in my queue.  It is quite satisfying to get to these backburner projects!  I now wonder the reason why I always let this particular outfit project slide for so long, because I heartily enjoy wearing this set…but especially the very useful bolero!  I suppose this outfit was merely waiting for the right occasion…

This post is the first installment in my new ongoing series of an “Indian Summer of the Sundress”

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  DRESS – an all-cotton lightweight denim chambray (same as what I used for these pants but in a darker wash) together with a fat quarter of printed quilting cotton for the orange contrast; BOLERO – a dense, soft finish, loose-weave linen (leftover from making this dress) for the exterior and a sheer cotton handkerchief cotton as lining

PATTERN:  an unprinted New York #273 pattern, circa 1938, for the dress and (at left) Vintage Vogue #8812, a 2012 reprint of a year 1940 pattern, for the bolero jacket

NOTIONS:  What I used from on hand was thread, bias tape, snaps, bra cup liner, and bits of interfacing.  I bought a specialty Tim Holtz brand orange buffed metal exposed zipper for the back closure and some bright orange flower clearance buttons close up the back neck.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This set was finished in early August 2018 after about 30 hours spent to make both items.  The bolero took only 4 or 5 hours to complete out of the 30 total!

THE INSIDES:  Both are cleanly bias bound on all edges

TOTAL COST:  $20 or under

From seeing full-skirted, halter-style garments paired with a separate cover-up pop up again and again in between 1936 and 1940 respectively, this is seems to be a short-lived (but popular) sports and leisure set.  I’ve been saving pictures like nobody’s business of these types of sets, entranced by the style they exude even when doing things that are meant for fun, health, and relaxation.  I admire how the 1930s brought fashion into all aspects of life, and I mean fashion that is just as spot-on and put together as dressy wear.  Women were heartily encouraged to be active, healthy, and powerfully self-assured with themselves, and it showed in what they wore.  Thus the popularity for halter bodices which display a confidence in baring strong shoulders and arms!

Very bare backs and free shoulders were so popular in the 30’s.  They had a different air when coming from an evening gown design, but for these halter-neck garments it left full movement for tennis and golf, two of the sports women are mostly shown enjoying in such outfits.  A bolero makes such a skin-baring garment more presentable for a greater variety of occasions, as the 1930s – for all its high fashion – still made things so smart and useful.  I find my little bolero perfect for going indoors where air conditioning is almost always blasting too cold and it makes my dress fit to be seen as respectful in a church!

Both pieces were pretty easy to make – the bolero more so (obviously).  Both the dress and jacket, however, received much hand stitching so they were more time-consuming than could be expected using only my machine.  I wanted them to turn out well!  The bolero is something I want to last me many years, especially since it matches with almost everything in my summer wardrobe, so I needed to do the hemming and edging by hand.  The sundress’ denim makes any thread color very obvious, which would be okay on jeans or something meant to be a lot more casual than this, in my opinion.  No visible stitching elevates it from a mere handmade to something nicer, I think, and aligns with the quality and time-honored construction methods used on garments of the 30s.

Both patterns came together without a fitting hitch.  The bolero was rather a no brainer-type of make because I had used the pattern once already to make the matching sundress (see the dress’ post here) and I felt assured (rightly so, it turns out) of its success as it is so simple.  The dress somewhat made me nervous because New York patterns from the 30’s and 40’s seem to have funky sizing and proportions, in my experience.  They seem to have small shoulders, long hems and very small hips and waist.  Again, I was right with my sizing estimate and besides a small, extra ¼ dart I had to add to the side bust of the halter bodice, my dress turned out fitting me perfectly.

I did not have to worry about this New York pattern’s shoulders (as they are open), but the dress did come down to ankle length unhemmed.  Three inches were cut from the bottom and I gave the dress a deep 4 inch hem, which ends up nicely weighing the skirt down ever so gently.  It is now closer to a late 1930s midi length…perfect for keeping my knees covered when running or sporting or climbing in and out of public transportation vehicles!

I simplified the one pattern and had to fill in for the other.  Old patterns do not generally give you all those fussy tricky facing pieces or edge finishing guides that you get in new patterns.  In many cases, even the reprints or re-issues such as Vintage Vogue have drafted those pieces for the patterns sold today.  I normally do not like those facing pieces and much prefer a full lining, but sometimes they are needed.  For the dress, I used the edge facing pieces to cut out the interfacing and ironed that to the lining.  Then the entire “second bolero” in the form of the sheer cotton lining was put inside and stitched along the edges.  Bias tape used to turn under the raw edges.  The dress tissue had no pieces for anything besides the dress itself, and the instructions call for bias finishing, which I did.  The back neck closure needed something much more stable then edge finishing so I used the last 5 inches of the halter strap pattern to trace out a double.  Then I interfaced it, sewed it down (right sides together), and turned it under for a full facing that is clean and fully covered right or wrong side!  Old patterns trust you to either know what you’re doing or to figure out what needs to be done, and I find this confidence in the user is great for advancing or keeping up one’s sewing skills.  Just don’t let this feature of old patterns turn you off, please!

Yes, I did quite change up the back of the dress…but who would really want all those buttons to close blindly reaching behind or poking uncomfortably over your backside?!  Also, too, with a zipper – and a modern exposed one at that – I can both get the dress to fit me more snugly and update it to seem current.  I merely sewed up the back along the center front line which ran through the buttons and button holes.  Along the same thought, I made the back neckline of the halter close with two heavy-duty, large snaps.  Two buttons over the top of them create a deception.  The front bottom half of the dress was changed for the better, too, because I left out the center front seam to the skirt, lining up that former seam line with the fabric’s fold to end up with a beautiful bias half circle.  The motion to this skirt as one piece with no seam and the way it flows with me to keep me covered as I stay active is fantastic – the very reason this is a sporty dress.

The collar points were made according the pattern and turned out atrociously long and out-of-place.  They hung out over the edge of the dress and onto the front of my upper arm.  That would not do!  As I had no more scraps to cut recovery pieces, nor did I even consider the laborious task of total unpicking, I took the imperfect shortcut of folding the collar in half into a better (smaller) shape and stitching it down by hand to the underside.  The perfectionist inside me cringes that I even did this, buy hey – it really does look fine and turned out nice, especially compared to how it was (bad enough that I didn’t take a ‘before’ picture).  This ‘fix’ caused so much extra hand-stitching, but it was still better than unpicking and starting over.  I wouldn’t have had my dress done in time for the trip if I had done the proper way of fixing the collar.  It’s always better to have something you are happy to be wearing – perfect or not – than put yourself through a misery doing things “right” in sewing to the point you are no longer interested in finishing your project!  At some time in the future, I might come back to this dress and do things right, as I do for some of my projects.  When I feel up to replacing that sleeve, adding a pocket, cleaning up a seam, or correcting something done not “just-so” is better than forcing it.

To keep things simple and modest for wearing this halter, especially since the denim is so lightweight, I sewed mesh brassiere cups into the dress for an all-in-one garment.  I think I’ve only done such a thing once before.  However, as this outfit was to see its first use on a trip, and I like to be the type of person that travels with one suitcase (NOT a “bring the kitchen sink” type of person), a bra sewn in the dress was a wonderful detail which made my life easier…and more comfortable!  Now that the trip is past, I find myself reaching for this dress again and again because of how nice it is with the bra cups attached inside.  The middle netting between the cups was stitched to the center seam of the bodice, tacked at the bust darts, and the side elastic was stretched and stitched to the side seams.  You really don’t want to tack down bra cups at too many places for a lightweight, unlined dress like this otherwise they will pull at the garment and become terribly obvious.

I already have a weak spot for the late 30’s fashion, and this outfit now makes my addition all the worse.  I don’t know if it’s just because I know the culture’s ideals for back then, but I think that 1930s clothes do still lend a wonderful feeling of empowerment when they’re worn.  They give women a chance to unabashedly embrace their body figure with shapely fashions and offer great opportunity to enjoy playing with color and accessories combinations.  They provide a means to exercise and relax in something just as comfy as modern athletic wear but which is so much more colorful, unique, and feminine.  They are often bold and unusual, but that is generally what is attractive about clothes from this era.  By the compliments I receive on my me-made clothes and the discussions I have with others who don’t sew, I realize people are dying for clothes that are fun, that they can enjoy, and that make them feel like themselves.  The late 1930s does that for me in a special way different from all the other eras I wear.  I hope you’re ready for more fashions from the late 30’s because I have plenty more to come!

Indian Summer of the Sundress

Here it is – the first of October – and were we live the weather should be (and normally does) feel like fall.  Sure, we have an occasional cool day with a clear and earthy smell in the air as a promise that the next season is still to come…sometime.  Instead of fall, we are still melting in what we call an “Indian Summer” – a hot spell coming after the autumn equinox (also known as a “badger summer” in Sweden, “old woman’s summer” in Slavic countries, or “second summer” in Britain’s old English just to name a few).  My country’s term for this weather is a phase that may best be described as pejorative.  It has been in use here since circa 1790s and its origins are quite hazy and unclear, though.  In his extremely thorough research, though, Albert Matthews, a Bostonian who spent 12 years in the late 19th century gathering together dozens of the earliest uses of the phrase, never discovered a convincing explanation for what the expression meant. It is a lovely time of the year that doesn’t come annually, and it was traditionally used to fully finish one’s winter preparations.

Nevertheless, I love warm temperatures, so although completely out-of-season, I’m not complaining…only happy that my sundresses and sandals are seeing some good use!  Not content with that and contrary to it’s tradition, I find this weather as a reason to keep sewing the sundresses I have been wanting to make for a long time.  I want to soak up every minute of sundress weather while I still can before I have to wait 8 or so months for it to come back!!

Thus, I will be having a small on-going series over the next few months of my sundress makes from this late summer spell of warmth we are experiencing.  It is because I love my new sundresses and want to brighten up the season of chilly weather we will be having soon with what I am posting, but also because I realize that all my readers are not in my same zone and might be transitioning into spring and early summer coming up, so a warm weather garment might be good for ideas.

Now, what is a sundress?  To summarize it (as it does have a loose meaning) it is a sleeveless, informal dress in made of lighter weight fabrics to be worn in warm weather.  Post 1960s to modern times, a sundress is a bit different than what the past decades, especially the 1920s and 1930s, understood as a sundress.  I will explore some of this by showing the variety of sundresses I have made – from which is one 1920s inspired, to one from each of the next four decades after that.

Stitching History from the Holocaust

A month ago now, we as a family took our annual trip up to Chicago, Illinois.  It was fantastic as usual, but this time we extended the trip a bit more north to go up and visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well.  The main reason for this was because I wanted to visit an exhibit I have been interested in for the last several years, “Stitching History from the Holocaust”.  It was being presented at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum – a beautiful, peaceful place off of Lake Michigan – until September 16 so sorry for the very late notice if you were interested!  It was too good of an exhibit not to share, and so I hope this post fills you in a bit if you have not seen it yourself.  I do believe the exhibit will be traveling to three states within the next year, though, so check their website’s schedule  if you want to see this for yourself!

Hedy and Paul Strnad

The exhibit tells the stories of several different unrelated families who had a link to both the sewing craft and the town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  However, the primary focus is on Hedy Strnad, a 30 something year old with a talent for sewing and fashion design living in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who perished in the Holocaust.  Despite her and her husband Paul sending letters to his cousin in Milwaukee requesting visas to come to America, along with 8 samples of stunning garment drafts as a proof of professional and business competency, they could not get out in time to survive.  As far as is known, they were still alive in 1943, and could have died months before the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp they were held at was liberated in 1945.

The talent, the contributions to society, but most importantly the people’s lives lost in any human genocide is such an irreparable tragedy.  Personal stories ended before their time can and will never be completed.  Most of the time, as if the case with Hedy and Paul Strnad, there is no body, no certain date of death, and only vague sense of closure.  I’ve realized all this and took it to heart before I visited the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee.  However, this particular exhibit really connected this aspect of the past to history for me in a way nothing else has done before, and brought the Holocaust to my sensibilities in a very realistic and touching manner.  It was not just because of the sewing aspect either…although I will admit that did help me bond to it!

You see, my great Grandmother’s parents had emigrated over here from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s before the turn of the century.  My Czech heritage (on my mother’s side; I’m German on my father’s side) is an important part of life that we still keep up by attending ethnic dinners and keeping in mind some of the old country habits and words that my mom remembers from her “Baba”.  Even I remember her making homemade spatzles and kolachkes all the way up to when she was 93…she had a long life.  I can’t help but wonder if my mom’s distant relatives had waited to come over, if things might have been similarly frightening and miserable for them as the stories I read in the exhibit.  It also makes me proud to find out – after all these years – that my culture has such a wonderful, if rather unknown and underappreciated, standing in the fashion scene!  Now, at least, we can now see and appreciate what was the ingenuity of a strong woman that was Hedy Strnad and get a small taste of what had been the strong fashion scene of pre-WWII Prague.  I’ll bet Hedy never would have thought she would be as well known in the 21st century as she is!

As simple as they look at first glance, there is incredible detail and ingenious styling to all of these outfits…our photos do not give them justice.  Hedy’s garments are a stunning example of how the couture scene of the independent pre-WWII Czechoslovakia (1920s & 30’s) was lively and renowned. Prague couture was known for its precision, craftsmanship and elegance; it was completely current with international style trends (thanks to local couturiers visiting fashion shows around the world, purchasing design rights, and importing trims, fabric, and women’s publications) yet still maintained a strong Czech flair.  It seems that many socialites and Eastern European actresses who didn’t want the avant-garde styles of Paris, or thought that America was just either too casual or heavily influenced by Hollywood (and London, well they excelled at menswear then), considered Prague to be the place to find tasteful, chic garments.  If you’re curious, read up on Hana Podolska and Oldrich Rosenbaum for just two examples of star fashion houses.  Prague’s burgeoning film industry made explicit the link between the possession of fashionable clothing and elevated social status for Czech people of the late 30’s. The city’s rapidly developing high society required clothing that expressed and symbolized its lofty European ambitions for its future.  Now Prague is the last thing on anyone’s mind when it comes to fashion.  It’s so sad.  I can’t help but wish such progress hadn’t been ended – I would have loved to see what would have come of it!

From the top rung to the bottom of all of this, thoroughly modern Jewish men and women were drafting, making, and marketing Prague’s fashion scene – not just associated with mending or second hand selling as they had been before WWI. Traditional Jewish values of modesty and such were ‘updated’ to be on par with a smartly dressed woman of 1939 – full, bias knee length skirts, high and draping or tie necklines, and good tailoring that shows off a slim and athletic body ideal for the time.  Such assimilation into everyday culture around them protected many Jews in Bohemia – some were immune until their business expired after the events of February 1948, but most were either sent to the “ideal” concentration camp Theresienstadt, or their demise came when their country fell with them.

When you think about American fashion of the late 30’s, I realize that things came full circle.  If American fashion was considered too sporty or too dressy, at the same time late 30’s women in the States were also wearing clothes in the style of the distant cousin to Bohemia – Tyrolean hats, belts, jackets, and dresses.  Before the end of World War I, many designers in Prague that blossomed in the Interwar Period (1918 to 1948) gained at least some of their experience in Vienna, after all.  It’s funny – other countries’ influence on American fashion was prevalent, even into the mid 1940s (at the latest) but those other countries were working hard to define themselves through garment styles and find their own niche of styles and creativity that set them apart.

As was stated in the exhibit, no one really knows whether Hedy Strnad was part of a bigger design house or in charge of her own independent business.  Prague fashion operated much in the same way as they did in France at the time of the Inter-War period.  After all, the French designer Paul Poiret was legendary in Prague not in the least because he had staged fashion shows here during the 1920s!  A couturier (usually the owner) headed each “house”, setting the style of the company and managing a team of designers, illustrators, saleswomen, models, cutters, tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses.  In Prague, though, the largest fashion houses were family affairs, with sons, daughters and spouses all joining in.  To see the rest of Hedy’s designs – the other four outfits – please visit my Flickr page here.

For most of us of today who do sew, it’s either a hobby, an interest, a job, or a something which fulfills our needs. But once you have read the story of “Jack Marcus’ Sewing Machine” and how he was sewing to survive death, you will never take the talent for granted.  This is the first story presented in the exhibit and it could not speak any stronger for itself.  I will end my post with a condensed version of the text from the card next to this amazing vintage sewing machine.

“Jack Marcus of Warsaw survived the Holocaust by perseverance and sewing for his Nazi captors. At 15, Jack fled and hid at his mother’s insistence when all the Jews in his hometown, including his family, were loaded onto trucks for execution. Knowing useful work was essential to his survival, he went to a labor camp where his father had been taken to die. Jack was soon transported to Auschwitz where he was forced to sew caps for his Nazi captors, and practice on their clothes the tailoring skills he learned from his grandfather. At the end of WWII, a battalion of American soldier liberators employed Jack as their tailor. Jack was then able to immigrate to America in 1947, and settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1950 where he met and married Marlene, whose family had fled from the same Polish town before the war. He continued his profession as a tailor. One of the first things he bought with his own income was this Pfaff model 60 sewing machine. After more than 30 years as his own boss as a tailor, Jack retired and devoted himself to speaking at schools about his Holocaust experiences and doing community work. Jack Marcus died on January 25, 2017 at the age of 91.”  His experience is another thread in the incalculable patchwork narrative that is “Stitching Histories from the Holocaust”.