Free From My Tower

I suspect that many of us can now empathize (or commiserate) to some small degree with the fairy tale girl Rapunzel, who was locked up in a tower for the whole of her young life.  Being kept from social situations, apart from friends and family, as well as seeing the same limited spaces all too frequently during the pandemic has been very trying for me…I can’t dare to imagine a 16 year solitude!  Thus, I am here portraying a Rapunzel liberated from her tower, barefoot and free amongst nature, wearing my interpretation of a Bavarian Edelweiss dirndl to honor the Germanic version of the fairy tale.  My hair may not be blonde, nor is it remotely long enough to be comparable Rapunzel’s tresses, yet I was really feeling the part here nevertheless.  Enjoy the fun vintage spin with cultural heritage that I wove into my dirndl for a Bavarian take on this popular character – yet another installment to my ongoing Disney inspired “Pandemic Princess” blog series

The classic “Rapunzel” is a fairy tale that Friedrich Schulz printed in 1790 in Kleine Romane (Little Novels), followed by the Brothers Grimm publishing it in 1812 as part of Children’s and Household Tales.  Tied to the witch of the story, Rapunzel’s name is given to her because of the German word for a salad vegetable.  Although the Grimm’s recounting of the fairy tale is the most prevalent version of the “Maiden in the Tower” in the western literature, the basic storyline has strong origins to French and Mediterranean tales rather than to Germanic oral folktales, as once believed.

However, the only version that I particularly enjoy is Disney’s “Tangled” from 2010. It’s a 3D animated film loosely based on the Rapunzel fairytale with an added, appealing twist – she’s born a princess with magical hair whose ‘rescue’ is tied to the character redemption of the handsome scoundrel Eugene, aka Flynn Rider. 

Do not be confused though, as I am posting this just before Halloween – it is not meant to be a costume!  I am of German ancestry myself, and esteem and appreciate wearing a garment which is intrinsic to the story of my heritage.  Cultural attire of any kind is NEVER a costume for misinterpretation or joking about.  I made this as a true dirndl, attempting remain authentic to its heritage while also being modern enough to be very wearable for me to enjoy outside of Oktoberfest or ethnic settings.  If you go by past standards, yes, I am channeling someone that I am not – an unmarried girl of the Alpine region – with my choices of color and style inspired by a commercial Disney retelling of an old German fairytale.  Yes, I am sadly missing and apron here, too…I normally do follow a more old-fashioned expression for this kind of clothing.  This is only a ‘costume’ for me in the older, sensible, “uncountable noun” term of the word – a set of clothing, just like anything else in my wardrobe, for expressing who I am in this time and place, not a characterization of another race or culture.

Dirndls of nowadays, however, are not as confined to older traditions that designate them to be a visual statement on your state and condition of life (I will address more on this topic further down in my post).  Today we have to freedom to wear what we want, how we want.  Nevertheless, cultural clothing like a sari, a kimono, a kilt, or a dirndl (for just a few examples), always needs to be worn with proper context, understanding, and respect.   I have sadly seen way too many ‘influencers’ on social media this month wearing a dirndl has a costume, especially for “Lord of the Rings” themed Hobbit parties.  History has many deep tales to tell and perspectives to teach, along with amazing people to hear about, so let’s open up to all those lessons by respecting garments that express cultural identity.  Is there a garment for you that signifies your ancestor’s’ heritage?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton Alexander Henry fabric dated to 1999 (seen on the selvedge) in the “chloe” floral print, with solid color jacquard woven cotton for the contrast front and sleeves, a sheer matching colored poly chiffon for the ¾ length undersleeves, and fabric leftover from sewing this vintage hat went towards making the tiny tubing which is my front dirndl lacing

PATTERN:  Butterick #6352, a vintage inspired Gertie design

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread, lots of interfacing (for the entire bodice), one zipper, and a set of traditional dirndl hooks

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was sewn in about 20 hours and it was finished on October 7, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound edges

TOTAL COST:  practically nothing – this fabric was picked up at a second-hand thrift sale where fabric is sold for $1 per pound.  The 3 yard cut of this thick, substantial fabric was kind of hefty, so it was probably just a few dollars.  The rest of my supplies was all items on hand for longer than I remember or leftover from another project, so I’m counting that stuff as free!

I loved being able to start off this project with such a high end cotton with starting place tied to that of Disney and a date that reminds me of just how long “Tangled” was in the works before its completion. The concept of an animated film based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Rapunzel” originated from Disney supervising animator Glen Keane in 1996.  Keane pitched the idea in 2001 to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner who approved it, but requested the film to be computer-animated. 

My 1999 fabric hits right in between those preliminary dates for the film.  Alexander Henry is a premier textile design house, producing original cotton prints for product manufacturers and home sewists alike from their talented artists who hand-paint each design the line produces.  Their business is located in Burbank, California which is also the corporate headquarters for Walt Disney Studios!  We drove through Burbank on our way in to Los Angeles a few years back, and it was so nice, with great shopping opportunities!  I love weaving in little details and cool correlations to my outfits, but especially so when they all come together without even trying, such as for this dress.  It also happened to be the perfect purple-pink orchid tone for a Rapunzel frock!  It was such a soft, thick, and fabulously lovely cotton!  I love how serendipitous this project came together.

Now, knowing that Disney’s story base was the German version of Rapunzel, I looked beyond the artistic license of the animation to see that her dress was intrinsically a dirndl.  It was the laced front, the puffed sleeves, (faux) apron, and the neckline shaping that give it away for me.  This would make total sense, anyways.  Dirndls are an established manner of local dressing, an organic means of freely expressing cultural identity, for Bavaria, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and more.  They are not just for Oktoberfest.  “Fashion With Renée” relates that back in 1626, the Bavarian Prince, Maximilian I created a ‘dress code’ to show people’s rank in society. The law separated people into seven groups and noted that farmers (and the lower class workers) were not allowed to wear imported clothing…and thus the dirndl was adopted for women, just as the lederhosen was for men.  The Bavarian Alps are located in what is now Germany (since 1945) near the southern border of the federal state of Bavaria and continue across the border into Austria.  

“Girl Sewing”, 1869 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a great example of the romanticism of the peasant life that brought the dirndl to the consciousness of the aristocratic class. Our picture is of an original oil painting, from a 2019 exhibit at the Memphis, Tennessee Brooks Museum of Art.

Beginning in the early 1800s, aristocrats, upper classes, and even artists romanticized rural living of the Alpine regions.  That eminent Habsburg the Archduke Johann of Styria (briefly Regent of Germany in 1848 to ’49) sported traditional Tyrolean styles in his coats and jackets, and his famous nephew, the Emperor Franz Joseph I, was a great hunter of the Alps who also was an aficionado appreciative of the rustic designs of the region.  In 1900, two Jewish brothers, Julius and Moritz Wallach, opened a clothing store in the Bavarian city of Munich and had the clever and successful idea of marketing dirndls and lederhosen as a kind of urban “rural chic”, transforming them into a fashion trend.  The Wallach name was renowned for their famous custom printed folk textile prints, even offering fashion shows of Bavarian and Austrian wear in their cloth.  (See this excellent blog post here for more info on the Wallach history.)  Thus the dirndl (and lederhosen, too) became both more universally adopted and overall more vibrantly fashionable.  Much of this energy and growth was snuffed around the time WWII began, only for Germanic clothing to find a comeback for the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich.   Today in 2021 they are having a moment in popularity again with an exhibit “’Dirndl – Tradition Goes Fashion” at the Mamorschloessl palace (former summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph I) in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria.

Vivienne Westwood dirndl on display at the “Tradition Goes Fashion” exhibit in Bad Ischl, Austria, 2021.

On a local level, in the 150 years before the 1940s, many new, organic traditions were evolving around the dirndl to make the wearer’s marital, economic, and regional status be something visibly recognizable by the every detail of one’s manner of dress. For example, an apron knot tied on a woman’s left hip meant she was unmarried, the right meant married, while the center back meant she was either engaged or otherwise working at her job (so leave her alone).  Married women were more restricted in colors to choose from while single girls were permitted the flowered hair crowns and the prettiest variety of tones.  These are just a few of the many, interesting, and beautiful traditions surrounding an old-style wearing of the dirndl.

The rich pastel colors that Rapunzel is wearing properly designates her as a young unmarried woman while the laced bodice with the dirndl hooks ties it to the Alpine region, which would be the perfect place to hide the tower the witch uses to imprison her.  However, I am so excited to have thought out not just her dress but about the main symbol associated to Disney’s Rapunzel – the golden sun of her parents’ Kingdom of Corona.  I see it as reminiscent of an edelweiss flower, also called the “mountain star”.  

The Edelweiss is such a long-standing Alpine symbol – it’s still on everything from Swiss airline planes, beer cans, club logos, coats-of-arms, money, and certain uniforms for army officials and mountain troops in Germany and the Bavarian Alps.  Again, it was the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I who popularized a renewed passion for the edelweiss flower in 1856, when he made a point of gifting the flowers, picked during a hike in the mountains, to his beloved wife the Empress “Sissi”.  As I wanted a simple outfit without jewelry, the most natural (and practical) way to add this Alpine symbol was to order a set of edelweiss flower dirndl hooks, ordered direct from a shop in Bavaria that sells tract supplies (link here).  The pattern called for loops to be sewn in anyway, so decorative hooks for the front tie was a prettier, more interesting, more authentic to have a laced-front dirndl.  The way they show the long and short petals radiating out in a staggered, wavy fashion perfectly embodies Disney’s Rapunzel Corona sun symbol while still being specifically Bavarian.  I love how beautiful the hooks are on my dress. They bring out the color of the golden flowers in the print and shimmered in the sunset glow for this post’s pictures.  

Lacing is not necessary to the front of a dirndl, but one of the many decorative elements that are optional yet also traditional.  Because it is not a corset, a dirndl normally has a closure on its own separate from embellishments – here the dress has a center closing zipper.  Lacing is a traditional Bavarian feature, but dirndls often have a front buttoning closure instead, especially ones from Germany (such as a “Black Forest” dirndl, which I have posted more about here).  A dirndl has a stable, substantial bodice, which is why it was fully interfaced just as the Gertie pattern instructs.  Most Gertie patterns call for boning, which I thought would have been overkill here, so I did leave it off for my version.  Dirndls have a close fit with little excess wearing ease, which was how the pattern fit anyway after choosing my matching size according to the given chart.  It is not confining, though, but fits me perfectly because of the pattern’s excellent curving drafted into the princess seams. 

The way a dirndl’s front bodice panels (in between the lacing) are often in a different fabric, or at least highly decorative either by adding embroidery or lace, is reminiscent to their old and hazy origins to a corset.  Either way, for my center panels I used a heavy cotton jacquard that alternates stripes with a tiny floral.  It was just a remnant on hand, and it happily matched the Alexander Henry print I used for the rest of the dress.  Disney’s Rapunzel had striped sleeves so I was originally led to choosing this contrast fabric from my stash so I could have a similar look on my dress, but then carried it over into the front panels to incorporate it into the dress, just as many dirndls do.  The open U-neckline is another classic dirndl feature, and such a pretty one for framing the face.  I see dipped U-necklines pop up a lot in the late 1940s (see this ’49 one I made back when I started blogging) into the 1950s, and Gertie herself says this pattern of hers is strongly 50’s inspired, after all.   

Whether or not the skirt is the easy part depends on how much detail and what level of quality you want to achieve. Some dirndls have tiny, even pleats going completely around the waist, and the high end ones are sometimes smocked, but many are merely gathered into a waistband – the simplest method by far. I chose that last mentioned option, using fabric left (about two yards) from cutting out the rest of dress, making sure to have the selvedge be the hemline to save myself some trouble!

My chiffon undersleeves are a custom addition.  Not only do they bring my dirndl closer to a Rapunzel look alike, but they help my dress look polished.  They add a nice touch of color and a differing texture that helps make it more interesting, in my opinion.  They help my puffed short sleeves stay controlled, most importantly.  I did wear my dress for a short time without the undersleeves, and the puff sleeves crept up my arm and ended up looking weird.  I just used a very basic, skinny fitting, long sleeve pattern piece from another pattern (don’t remember which one), sewed it in under the puffed sleeves, and then shortened to the length I wanted.  The two sleeves are tacked together around the cuff of the outer puff sleeves and the hem kept simple by a bead of Fray-Check liquid.

It was so awesome how this Gertie pattern has so many authentic dirndl details under the guise of being a cute, vintage style dress.  This is a great pattern I highly recommend.  Granted, it is a mark of 20th century modernization for a dirndl to suddenly be a one-piece garment, instead of separates – skirt, dirndl (under) blouse, dirndl (vest) blouse, apron, and an optional collar.  Just like any other culture, traditional clothes tend to evolve along with the changing needs and the present history of the culture they are a part of, yet traditional elements still remain.  In the decades between WWI and WWII, the groundbreaking research of Austrian Jewish anthropologist Eugenie Goldstern showed how the Alpine culture has not been static, or overly set in its ways, but has adapted over the centuries since ancient times when King Charlemange was hunting in the region and was impressed by the sturdy, warm Loden cloth of the region.   

Many of the cultural stereotypes for Germany originate from the Bavarian Alps, yet ironically it only composes less than 10% of Germany’s total area.  All too often stereotypes have the facts warped or screwed up to the point that the actualities are understood in a distorted way.  Popular understanding of history doesn’t automatically equal truth.  I love to uncover facts that get overlooked or forgotten for a clearer picture.  I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the history, lore, and traditions surrounding a dirndl – if you fancy more, read my last post on the other German fairytale princess Snow White, as well as my post on my “Black Forest” dirndl interpretation.  Maybe the next time you hear of Rapunzel, or visit an Oktoberfest, I will have given you a different, deeper outlook!  As you can tell, I became totally invested in taking on this particular fairytale through the lens of my heritage.  I do admire a girl who can grow her hair that long.  I’m pretending I’m the Rapunzel who got her hair cut after being free from her isolation, ha!

“It’s A Jolly Holiday with You…”

Of all the fairytale heroines, ladies of history, or those who are more realistic in their legend, there is perhaps no woman more universally intriguing and appealing than the one who is ‘practically perfect in every way’ – Mary Poppins.  Oh, how I desperately needed a bit o’ cheer this Halloween. 

Thus, even though we played it safe and had none of the ‘normal’ activities to enjoy, I felt there was all the more reason to finally delight in fulfilling a long-standing costume goal.  Since we love a good dual outfit for a couple, my husband dressed as Bert the cheerful, spry chimney sweep and I as the nanny with magical powers.  You know what?  We ended up having the best jolly holiday!  Dare I say it was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?!

Perhaps the best part to my outfit was the antique authenticity which went into it.  I used 2 yards of old turn-of-the-century eyelet fabric to make the skirt after the manner of the popular “lingerie dresses” of the early 1900s.  Then, I also altered and mended a true antique ruffled underslip for the matching (proper to the era) layer underneath.  Both items just recently happened to come my way at an incredible bargain.  I was more than thrilled to have an excellent reason to take care of and restore such precious items for a good reason.  It was for more than either just dressing up historically or just for a costume for a night.  It was to recreate a beloved character from the childhood of both hubby and myself and interpret that through a true-to-the-era means, using my sewing capabilities.  This was all very redeeming, and the best way to dress up as Mary Poppins that I could have ever imagined.  I’m glad I waited until now to attempt her famous, sumptuous, red and white “Jolly Holiday” outfit.

So the bottom half of my set is over a century old…the top half mostly is not, even though it may look like it.  The blouse is modern, bought from the GAP over this 2020 summer.  It is made in a very convincing 1900 appropriate way, with cotton lace inserted in rows across the chest, loads of whitework floral embroidery and pin tuck detailing, all in a sheer and lightweight cotton.  This blouse was incredibly popular on social media, so much so that the historical costumers started the #GapToThePast trend.  Yet, I was slow to join in on the fad and by the time I looked to order my own, all that was left was a size bigger than what I needed.  No big deal – I bought it anyways as it was on deep clearance!  To adjust the size for me, I merely added more pin tucks horizontally around the sleeve to slightly raise up the long length, and moved over the cuff buttons to fit my smaller wrists.  One little red satin ribbon bow was all that I added for a subtle Mary Poppins reference!

The belt I made myself, drafted it from scratch and used some red felt from on hand.  To make it more of a sturdy and structured piece, I added thick cotton canvas interfacing in between the felt layers.  My personal taste doesn’t really like the way the original movie belt almost appears more akin to a corset, yet I did realize my version needed some slight structure to keep the points sharp.  I remembered what I learned from constructing this boned 80’s era sun top, and used the same plastic zip ties into channels across the front and the side seam points.  I did choose white top stitching for a nod to the original movie design, but the contrast thread gets drowned out by the plushness of the lofty red felt.  A hook and eye closes the back.  This may be the least historical part of my attempt at a 1900s appropriate Mary Poppins – but at least I did scale down the belt size compared to the original.  How could I possibly leave this part of the ensemble out, though, after all? 

Vintage style remake boots by “Funtasma”, an original 1920s era silk umbrella, and the “Jolie” Short Cotton Steel Boned Corset from “Glamorous Corset” worn under it all completes my accessories.  Hidden underneath is an original antique corset cover, too, something I picked up years back now.  Finally it can be paired with a whole ensemble!  This blog post from “The Fashion Archaeologist” helped immensely towards clearly understanding all the layers and garment pieces which were needed to have this outfit be historical. My first attempt at turn-of-the-century fashion circa 1905 can be seen at this post.

Let’s go back to the amazing antique items that made this outfit idea work, for a moment though.  I could tell the two yards of eyelet fabric had been cut off of a dress.  The punctured holes of rows of stitching along the top and set pleat folds gave that information away.   I counted my blessings that were weren’t any stains, tears, holes, shredding or damage of any kind to be seen.  Yet, it is so lightweight and sheer.  How is this even possible on something which is this old…and pure white to boot?!?  The hand stitched eyelet holes (each opening is literally different from each other and uneven up close, thus hand crafted) and the wonderful thin yet sturdy and soft qualities of the material make me believe it is from circa 1900. 

The petticoat slip is on the left, the eyelet skirt is on the right. Look at how the eyelet openings were worked through the original tiny 1/8 inch french seam through the material!!!

The ruffled petticoat slip is also equally amazing in the amount of detailing – so much inserted lace, yards of ruffles, and over 20 rows of pintucks!  The slip is in a much coarser and stiffer cotton than the outer eyelet skirt.  The crisp cotton could either be highly starched or merely a heavier weight, yet it does a great job at poufing the skirt out with the help of all the details (pin tucks, ruffles).  Again, like the eyelet, this slip was in perfect, pristine condition but completely missing any closures.  

Unlike most turn-of-the-century antique pieces, these were the perfect opportunity to have something in a very modern waist size.  The eyelet fabric was customized to be pleated into a waistband I made to my own size using bleached all cotton muslin.  Modern cotton cannot compare to old cotton – the antique cotton is much superior in all qualities.  Basic, modern muslin is soft, sturdy, and the best I can do at the moment. 

After examining so many images of Lingerie Dress on Pinterest, Etsy, Ebay and such I decided on a very technical, and very tiny method of ¼ inch triple layered pleats to bring the two yards into the waistband.  For as full as those skirts are they seem to have very little pleating, so this method made the most sense to me.  Doing such tiny pleats took me a few hours of insane measuring and pinning but it was worth it.  That era was all about amazing skill, high-quality, and details not seen elsewhere.  The tiny ‘pleat on top of a pleat on top of a pleat’ method also keeps the skirt fullness controlled.  It’s a pity they are completely covered up by the belt.   Old antique hook and eyes were sewn into the back to close the skirt.

The slip originally had a 9 inch wide waistband – why, I don’t know, but this lent itself to an easy refashion.  Across, there was a very tiny 20 inch waistband circumference…let that sink in for a moment.  Just imagine the wearer.  The way the overall length of the slip was rather mid-length on me, who is someone only 5’3”, makes me wonder if this slip was for a tiny teen.  Whomever the owner was, a 20” waist is mind blowing.  This would not do for me, even with a corset.  I took off the existing waistband, cut the width in half lengthwise to end up with two 5 by 20” rectangles.  These two were sewn together into a waistband length to fit me and the slip skirt was re-gathered in a hand-stitched down together again.   

However, now that I had something wearable, the length of this slip (as I mentioned) was about 5 inches shorter than the length of the eyelet skirt, and this would not do.   I did have some 6 inch wide cotton pre-gathered eyelet lace on hand which I had been saving for an 1860s era hoop skirt slip.  I sacrificed it to add on to the bottom of the existing eyelet hem of this 1900s slip.  It may not be the perfect match, but it adds enough length to be equal to the hem of the eyelet skirt plus making my Mary Poppins look extra floofy! It’s so fun!

Mary’s outfit is really a cheesy Hollywood version of an earlier decade I believe, but this was my most natural way to interpret her.  The Dreamstress defines them as thus (posted here) “Lingerie dresses were lightweight dresses, usually in white or an off-white shade, featuring pintucks, inset lace, tone-on-tone embroidery, and other delicate detailing, usually worn as summer wear in the late 19th and first quarter of the 20th century.  They were usually made of cotton, and slightly less frequently in linen, with more expensive versions were made in silk. They are called ‘lingerie dresses’ or ‘lingerie frocks’ because the materials used (cotton and light laces) and embellishment techniques (inset lace, faggoting, pintucks) were originally used for petticoats, chemises, and other forms of lingerie.”  This garment would have made sense for Mary to wear on a summer holiday outing of fun and frolics.  (You can visit my Pinterest page “Historical Lingerie Dresses” for some eye candy!) I have always wanted one of these kind of outfits, and they are either not in my size or out of my price range.  Even though this set is still not my ideal (which is a full one-piece dress) having something is way better than nothing!  Again, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see and appreciate these old materials and restore them to a wearable state!

I want to revisit our outfits again and find a proper hat to match my dress, too.  After all, a lady like Mary was not seen outdoors without her hat if she could help it, even with all her umbrella flying and carousel horse racing.  Also, we want to go to a thrift store and find items which can be turned into the bold, striped suit set of Bert from the “Jolly Holiday” sequence.  According to my plan, an obnoxious Bert striped suit refashion will probably include some fun fabric painting to make it work.  Until then, my vintage silk scarf and items he hand on hand filled in for his chimney sweeper’s outfit.  It’s amazing how the love for Mary Poppins transcends people’s age and stays with them for years.  We just now introduced our son to the original 60s film to pass it onto the next generation.

I hope you had as safe and happy of a Halloween as we did!  I also hope you enjoyed this dive into something a little different – an era out of the ordinary here on my blog, while presenting sewing techniques more about repairing and finishing methods.  Sewing knowledge is good for more than just creating from scratch…it is also good for carrying on the loving attention to well-made garments of ages past.  This preservationist creativity is the only reason we are able to see historical garments in museums.  Granted, I fixed up these antique items to wear, but they will only go out on a holiday jaunt and be well cared for otherwise.  As I currently have old original items which date back almost every decade from now to the 1870s, I suppose I’m starting my own little museum at this point.  Would you like to see more of my original extant pieces here on the blog?  Also, where are my fellow Mary Poppins fans out there?

The Tradition of the Sari

“The sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver.  He dreamt of a woman – the drape of her tumbling hair; the colors of her many moods; the shimmer of her tears; the softness of her touch.  All of these he wove together. He wove for many yards; he could not stop. When he was done, as the folk tale goes, he sat back and smiled…for he had created a sari.” (Legend copied from here.)

Coming off of the annual celebration of the Partition, which gave India and Pakistan national independence on August 15th, I would like to feature the humble, beautiful, sari of India.  Did you know it has a history more than 5,000 years old!  It’s weaving is mentioned in “Rig-Veda”, one of the oldest surviving literature of the world, written circa 3,000 B.C.  The sari, originally intended for both men and women, is therefore probably one of the longest continuously worn clothing in the history of mankind.  A sari (saree in English) is a rectangular piece of cloth usually 5 yards (for everyday use or ones composed of cotton) to 9 yards (for some of the fanciest silk or embroidered ones).  Their approximate width is about 47 inches.  For one continuous piece of cloth, the fabric and design of the sari is well thought out to accommodate the intricate tradition of wrapping for each region’s heritage so that it becomes a pure work of art…the world’s marvel in clothing design.

The main field of the sari is framed on three side by decorative borders.  Two of these borders run longitudinal sides of the sari, while the third comprises the end of the sari, the wide and highly decorative Pallau – the part which hangs free when worn.  It is more than just a source for many yards of pretty fabric, as is often the outlook of American and Western World clothiers and sewists.  There is so much more to a sari than that – it is a shame to not explore that well of information behind the crafting of a sari and appreciate for how it is truly used and regarded.

The sari needs to be deemed as clothing and not just called fabric.  A sari is pretty much the same as a top, or a dress, or pants which are worn America.  It is an article of clothing.  It has existed for so long, there is a history to it as rich as the indigo color I’m wearing.  It should not be merely called fabric – that is a term for talking about the fiber content of a piece of clothing.  Doing such for a sari is dismissive to its cultural usage and history.  For many cultures and faith traditions, what is worn is considered purer, more perfect, or better pleasing to God to wear something unaltered by a needle and thread.  As a people, we would definitely not have a problem with finding sizes to fit our individual body physique with a sari…one length accommodates all!

Every sari has a rich and beautiful story to tell as unique as the wearer.  How it is put on the body, embellished, and colored has long served as a marker of identity in the Indian subcontinent. The hues of a garment denote not just personal sartorial preference but convey all sorts of social data, ranging from the wearer’s age and marital status to his/her community of origin.  Red is as dynamic as fire, and the symbol of joy, yet it is well known often for its use as a bridal color.  The red bordered sari with the indigo field that you see me in is more of a bridal guest or a very special occasion garment as evidenced by the jacquard weave through the blue and also the heavy goldwork along the edge.  Blue is a special color to India, especially in Hinduism – it is the color of the Diety (“Krishna Blue”) and embodies kindness, bravery, and determination.  The golden ivory field of the other sari sets this one as a sort of “everyday finery” sari, as it still has the red borders.  This one is a much lighter weight sari and slightly shorter in length.  It has the Kashmiri paisley and pomegranates along the pallau (very Northern), while the blue and red sari has its decoration imagery coming from “Bandhani” – the unique, subtle lack of dye in very pre-meditated spaces (trademark western Gujarat).

“Bandhani” is Sanskrit for tie-dye (also known as “Lehriya”).  The word refers to both the finished cloth as well as the practice of an ancient technique – tying the cloth off in very small, dotted, patterns before dipping it in a dye bath.  The decoration is so subtle, an untrained eye could completely miss it, thus making it all the more the marvel.  Rajasthan and Gujarat are famous for these brilliant tie dyes.  The more dots and the smaller they are tied, the more skill of the maker and therefore the display of a higher social status of the wearer, or at least the nicer the occasion for which such would be worn.  The multi coloring method involves working in the lightest shade first, after which the fabric is tied and darker colors introduced.  “Bandhani” saris are associated with festivals, seasons, and rituals for which there are particular patterns and colors.  Northern India – particularly Gujarat – has a few traditions of colors that varies from much of the rest of (central and below) India as well as the visually obvious front pallau hang, right shouldered wrapping.  You’ll also find this region’s clothing to be decorated with mirrors and beads or gold work embroidery.

A sari is often a family heirloom, and when one is gifted upon a special occasion that is really special.  The latter was the case with these two saris I am wearing.  It was just over a year ago we went to Memphis to visit our close family friends of Indian heritage.  My husband has known them for many years (longer than I have!). It has not been since my husband and I were married that he has seen those friends’ parents.  They were born in India around the time of its Independence and immigrated to America with their own family several decades ago.  We as a family finally met with them, and it was a wonderful time!  I also asked a lot of questions and they were so kind enough to teach me so much about the culture and ways of dressing for their home-away-from-home in the District of Kutch.  Before I left their house, I was gifted with some beautiful saris to take with me.  Now, I am honored to be able to wear them with their proper provenance for a truly special occasion of joining in to celebrate India’s long-fought, long-sought Independence.

The one piece I was lacking before now to have a complete traditional Indian sari set was an important base layer – the choli blouse.  Yes – this isn’t completely a non-sewing related post!  I did make something to this set!  The sari top and the underskirt (also called petticoat) are the base layers for which the sari is anchored to and wrapped over.  The underskirt is simple in shape but unrestrictive, and often a useful solid color of a fabric that is comfy and breathable.  Here, my base layer is a RTW long bias cut linen skirt.  The choli blouse is a close fitting cropped top that is structured, lined, and has any shaping or support which the wearer prefers built into it.  Think of it like underwear and your blouse top all-in-one, but highly tailored to your body so it stays in place while making you look really good.  A true authentic Indian choli for special occasions is an engineering work of art to examine, which I tried to imitate with my version.  I found mine very comfortable to wear.  I didn’t want to take it off at the end of the day, and could wear this every day for as good as I felt wearing it!

I started by using a vintage crop top pattern reprint as my starting base – Simplicity #8645, a 1955 reprint from 2018, originally Simplicity #1203.  I went for View D.  As I went along, I added sleeves (drafted of my own pattern), a hem panel to add a bit of length (remember, these are not a belly dancer’s top), and altered the neckline to be more open and interesting, taking my inspiration from Gujarat chaniya choli.  My outer fabric is block printed Indian cotton ordered from Mumbai through the Etsy shop “Fibers to Fabric” and my inner lining fabric is local store bought cotton broadcloth in navy.

There are molded foam bra cups sewn into the wrong side of the lining to add in hidden structure to my choli.  I had to take the size in a little extra to get this top to fit closer than the vintage pattern had planned.  Most choli tops are tied, buttoned, or hook-and-eye closing, primarily down the back, but for my ease of dressing and to stabilize to tight fit I chose a small 5 inch metal separating zipper.  The bottom hem band closes with two hook-and-eyes, still, though.  Once this top is on me, it isn’t going anywhere and it forms me into shape…but that doesn’t mean it’s restricting.  I tried it on again and again in between its construction for a little tweak here, an unpicking there to ensure a custom, perfect fit for myself.  The perfect fit ensures the garment will not be restrictive because it should be a ‘copy’ of your body when something like this has practically zero wearing ease.   If this had been made of a fancier material I might have also added light boning, but the wonderful block print disguises the fact this is just cotton, and so a comfortable everyday choli.  It took a while of searching to find a print like this that matched with both of my saris!

Not to be content with just the handmade choli, I also made my own jewelry set to match my indigo and red sari.  Jewelry is important to the Indian culture and an unashamed display of wealth, keeping one’s security right where you (and others) can see it.  Wearing jewelry also symbolizes wealth, power, and status – the heavier the nuances of these jewelries are, the bigger role they play in the legacy of the family. (Read an excellent article on this subject here.)  Gold is the primary medium.

The jewelry set worn with my ivory and red sari is much more subdued, and was made in India and highlighted in this past Indian-inspired outfit of mine.  However, the blue and gold set worn with my fine indigo and red sari is the self-made jewelry I am talking about.  It is not genuine gold, and not the normal expensive jewelry you would see with an outfit like this yet it adds to the individuality of my outfit and has a personal meaning behind it…all factors which are important when choosing Indian accessories.

I love to wear gemstones and enjoy the symbolism and interesting compounds that compose them.  I’ve been attending local Gem and Mineral society shows since I was 10.  Therefore my unjeweled, round bead necklace I strung of Lapis Lazuli, and my carved rosette dangle earrings are Sodalite, both of them semi-precious dark blue rock-forming minerals used as a decorative gems.  My more decorative necklace was something I bought loose, as a bag of broken glass jewelry, and I reassembled the pieces back into how I thought they would look good as a necklace.  There was just enough supplies to squeeze in a matching bracelet as well (a wrist bangle used to signify a married woman).  The hanging jewels look like bees to me, witch is a sort of emblem for my husband’s side of the family that I have taken to.  My father-in-law had been a beekeeper for many years and our last name’s initial is a ‘B’ so the little honey-makers are a family symbol that we enjoy.

There is so much to learn and share about the Indian culture, so I hope this post was not too overwhelming for those of you to whom this subject is completely new!  Thank you for reading my post.  This is a very special subject to me.  These sari outfits are quite different from what I am used to wearing (and posting here), I’ll admit, but understanding them through the proper cultural respect helps me to do more than just put on certain unusual clothes.  I hope it can open your mind and heart by doing so, as it has done for me.  Caring for others by putting yourself in their shoes is an important perspective to remember to take, even if that journey starts through clothing.

A Tale of Gujarat

Every August I observe in spirit with India celebrating its Independence on the 15th.  I use the clothing that I make for the day reflect my understanding, respect, and wish to be united with them in pondering on their past, commemorating 1947, and hopeful for their future.  My first Indian influenced garment for August 15th was this dress I made back in 2017.  I unfortunately had to skip repeating that last year, so I am making up for it by sewing a handful more vintage-influenced Indian fashion this year!

The first one I’d like to present this August is a different kind of garment – a Rajput inspired Sherwani-style summer coat – to honor the traditions of India that I know through some close friends. 

One of the reasons why India is my favorite culture not expressly my own is on account of some “adopted family”, long-time friends of my husband that are as close as blood relatives.  Their primary tradition hails from the Gujarat territory of India, with family from and still in Kutch.

The Gujarat region history is intertwined with that of the Rajput dynasty.  The last Hindu ruler of Gujarat was in 1297!  “For the best part of two centuries (at the end of the 14th century until the 16th century) the independent Rajupt, Sultanate of Gujarat, was the center of attention to its neighbors on account of its wealth and prosperity, which had long made the Gujarati merchant a familiar figure in the ports of the Indian ocean.”  Why was it important that the Gujarat trader was proficient at spreading their wares, and what did they have to offer? Among other things, it was mostly textiles…and this is what peaks my interest.  As our adopted family has showed me, Kutch has mind-blowingly beautiful, region-specific ways of dying silk sarees, but Gujarat had an empire in cotton and are still India’s largest producer of the fiber.

According to Dr. Ruth Barnes (“Indian Cotton for Cairo”, 2017), fragments of printed cotton made in Gujarat, India were discovered in Egypt, which provides evidence for medieval trade in the western Indian Ocean. These fragments represent the Indian cotton traded to Egypt during the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries.  Similar types of Gujarati cotton was traded as far East as Indonesia.  Their local art has been in high demand over the centuries, and all you have to do is see the real thing (watch out for modern imposters or look-alikes from other regions!) to understand why.

I must confess though – the block printed border print cotton I used is hand-stamped from a company in Mumbai (old Bombay).  Gujarat was under the authority of the Bombay Presidency since the 1800s and later, after India’s Independence in ’47, the Bombay State was enlarged to include Kutch.  The mother of our adopted family knows how to speak the official language of Mumbai.  It wasn’t until May of 1960 that there was a split in the Bombay State along the Gujarat-speaking north.  So my fabric is a sort of a hybrid, a close relative by association.  It was the closest thing I could find in both colors and print pattern to my original inspiration as well as something that would set the occasion for this coat.  More on this further down!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  all-cotton, with the print from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy and the lining a bleached muslin

PATTERN:  a Mail Order pattern A526, designed by Dalani, with its envelope stamped with the date of January 1976.

NOTIONS:  I had everything I needed on hand – lots of thread, heavy canvas sew-in interfacing, and true vintage wooden toggles from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother’s notions box.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This jacket was whipped up in the matter of two afternoons just before a trip to visit our Indian friends out of town.  It was finished on June 17, 2019, in about 10 to 15 hours.

THE INSIDES:  What inside edges? This coat is fully lined.

TOTAL COST:  I ordered 4 yards of the Indian cotton (you need to always be on the generous side with a border print) at a sale price of $5 a yard – so $20.  The plain cotton lining was from JoAnn on sale at about $1.50 a yard. As everything else was on hand my total cost is just under $30.

A Sherwani is a knee-length coat buttoning at the neck worn by primarily men of the Indian subcontinent, for the shortest and most basic definition.  “Originally associated with Muslim aristocracy during the period of British rule, it is worn over a kurta (tunic)” and several other combinations of clothing (from Wikipedia).  There are other coats and jackets in the Indian tradition, such as the Achkan or Nehru, and both are related to the Sherwani in style details and history.  However, the qualities of a Sherwani are a flared shape from the waist down (where it opens up to reveal the layers underneath), a straight cut (not as fitted), a longer length, stiffer (heavier weight), more formal in special fabrics, and fully lined.  Yup – I’ve got all those boxes checked off!

Thus, even though I am using a vintage pattern as my starting point, I hope that my coat has a timeless, cultural aura about it.  Nevertheless, let’s not ignore I am wearing here a customary men’s garment!  Together with the fact this Sherwani is asymmetric, this is a much updated type of twist on a custom yet still reflecting the modern India of today without losing its past traditions.  In modern India, women are wearing Sherwanis and there is more variety of expression in materials and decorations used.  (For more info and visual candy on this subject, see this page here.)  My husband has tried my coat on, and with a man’s propensity to stronger shoulders and lack of hip curves, this coat actually looks better on a guy than on myself, in my opinion.  It is a truly unisex garment here the way either of us can wear this in a culturally sensitive manner and also fit in its forgiving cut.  What a rare bird my Sherwani is in so many ways among all the sewing I have done.  A summer coat in the strongest Indian tradition I have channeled yet that can be worn by men or women alike?  Yes, please.  I’m more than happy to welcome it into my wardrobe.

My preliminary inspiration was this 1970 woman’s wedding coat from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  It was designed by Richard Cawley under Bellville Sassoon, hand-painted by Andrew Whittle and named “Rajputana” for the marriage of an Englishwoman (see her full outfit here).  The “Rajputana” coat even had its own feature in the November 1970 issue of Vogue magazine! Wedding garments in India are normally inclusive of gold and red, but as the Rajput princes followed the religion of Mohammed, they did not necessarily follow the region’s traditions.  White and lighter colored garments to the rest of India (especially saris) are reserved for formal wear, ritual occasion, and upper castes, and even for mourning in the Hindu religion.  The Jain sect of Gujarat wear more white than elsewhere in India, as far as I can tell.  Thus, my coat further reflects Gujarat, Rajput and the thriving textile trade the region was excelled at.  My interpretation also stays true to the 70’s, coming only six years later than my inspiration.  The top I wore under my jacket was a past 70s make of mine as well (see it here) and rather than trousers to match (which I don’t have) I went for a basic A-line rust linen skirt.

The original pattern shows this as a wrap dress, and sadly I have not been able to find anything about its designer, “Dalani”.  Besides finding a few more mail order patterns (from the 70’s and 80’s) and a few dresses credited to a “Dalani II”, I feel like digging into the source for this design is a sad dead end.  Dalani’s trend seems to be for loose and simple cut dresses and wrap-on robes.  Yet to me, there was no way such an overwhelming amount of fabric was going to look good as anything other than a coat, in my opinion.  It was so easy to adapt this to becoming a Sherwani.

Wooden buttons are traditional to India, and the fabric company generously sent a baker’s dozen along with my fabric, but a Sherwani only closes at the neck.  So, to avoid disrupting the lovely border with buttonholes, I used two wooden toggles on the asymmetric flap and orange loops on the left shoulder.  This method closes the jacket yet leaves it loose to flare open below the waist like a proper Sherwani.  Following grainlines, I laid the jacket out so that the border just ran along the bottom hem.  A separately cut border strip had to be mitered, redirected around the bottom corner and up the front, for it to be as you see it.  I blended my adaptation so seamlessly you’d think it was printed like that, right!?  Happily I found the exact color thread to match the orange along the border and I hid my tiny top-stitching in the stripes.   My sleeve hems also had a pared down version of the border applied in the same manner.  This border print was only on one selvedge edge and luckily I only had literally 5 inches to spare by time I was done…my ‘overbuying’ of 4 yards was apparently just enough to squeeze by

As I mentioned in “The Facts” above, actual construction was easy and the main body of the jacket came together in only two afternoons.  The sleeves are cut on with the main body so there were only 3 pattern pieces here.  One gi-normous back piece is laid on the fold and ends up looking like the capitol T, and two front pieces like an upside down L – a properly squared off body for a Sherwani except for the flared sleeve cuffs which give it a subtle nod to its 1970s origin.  It was all the attention to detail that took at least half of the total time spent to finish.

The highlight of the details to me is the most understated one – the quilted border to the lining.  This is what makes this all-cotton coat closer to a real Sherwani.  Such soft cottons could make this feel like a housecoat without some body.  Neither did I want to entirely stiffen the silhouette – it is boxy enough!  Thus, one layer of lightweight cotton canvas sew-in interfacing is “quilted”, in rows ½ inch parallel, to the muslin lining’s underside.  The quilted interfacing was stitched before sewing the lining inside.  It is as wide as the border is on both sides of the asymmetric front edges and also was cut to form a stable “collar” that extends out from the neck to the shoulder.  This way the main body of the jacket is loose enough but it still keeps its shape and feels so much more substantial, besides having an understated detail that I have come to expect of Indian clothing.

I have seen similar interfaced line stitching on Anarkali dresses but, goodness, it is a lot harder to do than it looks.  My machine heated up enough from the rows of long stitching that I needed to turn it off and give it a break halfway though.  It was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a while.  But can I remotely find a way to have my effort show up well in a picture?  No – it’s white stitching on white cloth.  Oh well, art is sometimes made for the sake of art…and this Gujarati tribute was worth it when I saw our adopted family appreciate the details I included in this Sherwani.

India has such a beautiful richness of culture and tradition.  There is so much, in so many varying facets, to learn about.  The way what people wear in that country speaks for their state and caste in life, their region of the land, the occasion of the moment, their religion…is something so admirable, besides being any fashion historian’s dream.  Quality that we expect out of couture garments is a normal part of Indian fashion and their strong ethnic pride is what I admire the more I get to know of the country and its citizens, both ones who live in my country now and those who still live there.  The trip to see our ‘adopted family’ included a stay at their home and my first visit to see her parents, so my coat was appropriate for an important few days of meeting people for the first time and catching up with others.  It was also quite comfy in the southern heat outside and absolutely perfect for cold indoor air conditioned inside!  My sewing feels so worthwhile when I can use it as a means of respect to our friends and their culture.  Look for more India inspired fashion to come here on my blog!