Working in the Quad-angle

I recently realized a gap in my winter wardrobe.  Amongst all my warm self-made dresses and cozy skirts in lofty wool or tweed, none are from the 1930s decade.  My trip in February to Los Angeles (and Las Vegas) gave me the perfect excuse to amend this discrepancy!  We were to stay at a grand Art Deco era hotel “the Biltmore” – an early home to the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscars.  You all can tell how much I love an appropriate background setting for my vintage adventures, so I came prepared with a wonderful mid-30’s boucle dress which now fills in the gap in wintertime gear!

This dress completely plays upon my combined love for Art Deco geometrics and the mathematics of sewing.  It is a dress chock full of right angles.  The boucle has darker brown threads in perfectly right angles, and the faux pockets continue the play.  There are gusset panels at the underarms.  My gloves have zig-zagged cuffs and my chest decoration is dashes.  Even the buttons I chose are squares.  This circa 1934 dress is on the very cusp of the shift in the decade’s dresses going from so very angular and Art Deco Influenced to soft, flowing, and feminine after 1935.   Even my hat refers back to the early 30’s with its close-to-the-head fit that pairs with a short hairstyle, much like the late 1920s, and it has very linear velvet trimming wrapping around the crown.

Granted, most of the pictures in this post were taken when back home in our town, because sometimes we’re too busy having fun on a trip to stop for photos.  However, it just goes to show that this dress is much more than just a splurge creation for a special trip.  It is a new favorite!  My accessories – all vintage except for my shoes – are also mostly acquisitions from the same trip, as well.  (Any color in gloves which are older than the 1950s is hard to find in town, but I prefer trying them on before buying, after all.)  It felt like this outfit was just meant to be, and although it has been hard to wait, apparently ‘now’ was finally the perfect time to pick up this project and make it wearable.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an acrylic blend, fuzzy, chenille-like boucle; contrast pieces in a light polyester crepe; bodice and collar lined in crepe poly lining

PATTERN:  Excella pattern #5288, from circa 1934 (no later than 1935)

NOTIONS:  My buttons and my side zipper are true vintage from the 30s or 40’s.  Other than that, all other supplies are new and mostly from on hand – embroidery floss, thread, bias tape, and interfacing scraps.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was sewn in about 20 hours (yeah, it gave me a bit of trouble) and finished on February 12, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  The bodice is fully lined, but the skirt seams have clean bias bound edges.

TOTAL COST:  This dress cost me under $5!  The buttons, zipper, and floss were my few recent expenses and the only ones I’m counting.  Everything else (all the fabrics) was either scraps or came from on hand in my stash for what seems like forever…so there as good as free!

This dress has subtle (but fantastic and unusual) points to it that set it a bit apart from the run-of-the-mill 1930s design.  The skirt pleats are folded oppositely to the norm – the side panels are folded in knife pleat manner towards the center on top of the middle panel.  I have not yet found another 1930s design which has underarm gussets…combined with the wide, cut-on, kimono sleeves this style of bodice is what is considered traditional for the 1950s!  The collar does not extend all the way around the neck and ends in an angle on either side of the collarbone to leave the front button closure standing alone all the way down the center front bodice.  If I want a slightly different look than an all-buttoned-up neckline, I can open up the top button hole and give the appearance of a collar (thanks to the full lining).  The belt is an extension of the bodice in the way the belt carries on the descending buttons.  A back view is rather plain comparatively, with a basic two piece skirt and a bodice with waistline pleats for a slight pouf above the belt.  The era of the 1930s never ceases to amaze me with its curious variety of fashion, but even still, this is a rare bird of a style, I believe!

Finishing this dress was an old commitment finally fulfilled.  The project idea had been in my sewing queue for several years (and the fabric for at least a decade before that) but I knew my chosen design would require some real pattern work before being usable.  Firstly, I needed to trace it out so as the grade in wider (more modern) seam allowances.  Besides, I’d rather not take the chance of ruining the old original tissue pieces.  Secondly, it was incomplete.  Sometimes I can get a good deal on patterns which would otherwise be pricey by being open to ones which are missing pieces and in danger of being thrown away.  Pattern drafting feels so worthwhile when it can go towards bringing these old pattern gems back to being usable and complete again.  This way it’s also done not for money but driven only from dedication.  Granted, this dress did not have any major pieces gone – only the collar, facings, and decorative corner panels – but just drafting them successfully from scratch feels like a big deal to me now that the dress has come together!

Excella Pattern Company was a subsidiary of Pictorial Review Patterns, so if it is anything like its parent corporation, I’m assuming this dress is a higher-end style which is either from epicenters such as Paris and New York, or knocked-off of a designer’s creation.  Even though I see that the pattern number points to the probability that this is 1935, the design is so very 1934 (which I played upon with my hat which can be definitively dated to the same year).  This is weird because these patterns were usually ahead of the curve when it came to the newest styles.  Nevertheless, for as simple and “easy” as this might seem upon a general glance (especially when compared to other Excella & Pictorial Review patterns of the time) I could tell it was a high-end design by the way the small details that you don’t see demanded so much extra time.

I didn’t need the missing neckline facing pieces as I went ahead with my own plans and fully lined the bodice.  Yet the contrast collar, faux pockets, and belt were actually part of my never-ending scrap-busting attempts.  You see, I had bought some reproduction 1930s style, high-waisted, wide-legged trousers for my husband a few years back and they needed a very deep hemming job for them to be his length.  The fabric was a lovely, thick, crepe finish material and I had two big 6 by 24 inch-something rectangles leftover which happened to match so very well with this boucle.  I figured so very correctly that those pieces I wanted to be in contrast wouldn’t need much fabric anyway, and the dull crepe is a perfect non-flashy but pleasing material to do the job (a ‘pretty’ brown tone can be so hard to come by).   Yay for making the most of every little bit I bother to save!  My husband finds this use of those scraps amazing in the way I even so much as kept track of those remnant pieces, and then remembered my fabric stash (and planned projects) well enough to figure such a pairing.  As I said above, I feel this project was meant to be!

Perfecting the details took up more time than to bring the basic dress together, but I do believe such attention makes a world of difference from merely handmade to the Parisian chic Excella and Pictorial Review patterns were known for.  Perhaps the most obvious detail is the decorative stitching added onto the front chest faux pockets.  Rows of thread are shown on all the angular panel pieces on the pattern cover, and I was (still am) unsure how much I like the detail, so I kept it only to the chest panels.  No need to bring more attention to the hips, so I heard when I asked for advice.  I used embroidery floss for the job, and stitched it by hand during the car ride across the desert from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.  The instructions seem to indicate the rows of thread are to be tiny, close to one another, and stitched down by the machine, but I wanted something much more decorative than that…something that shows off my time and handiwork.

Additional embroidery floss went towards stitching on arrow points at the opening of the skirt pleats.  The boucle is very loose, and the skirt is unlined, and so the arrow points not only add a bit of couture finery but also make sure the fabric stays together at one of the most stressed seams to the dress.  There are hand stitched thread belt loops all around the waist to keep my self-fabric skinny belt in place over the bulky waist seam.   All hems and the neckline edges, as well as the zipper, were also hand stitched in place for a dress that has very little visible seaming thread showing.  The only semi-shortcuts I took is to make regular stitched buttonholes as well as making the belt front closure not a true workable button – there is a hidden double hook-n-eye.  These are not really shortcuts, I know, but I worked on such fine finishing everywhere else, so I had a silly sense of guilt.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to go to such lengths.  Maybe it’s for the satisfaction of creating something beautiful to the best of my ability.  Perhaps it’s merely the perfectionist in me.  Maybe I’m trying to fill in for the lack in quality that RTW nowadays does not generally offer.  Deep down I want to make something that will last, something that will be treasured, something alike to what makes vintage garments so appealing and enduring even today.  Every time I doubt myself yet still take the time to construct something well, I see the finished look and love it – it makes it all worthwhile.

Anyway – back to the dress before I wrap up this post!  It might seem a bit out of the traditional season for rust toned ochre.  However, orange isn’t just for fall (I have a whole Pinterest page dedicated to this).  As much as this dress can come across as an autumn season frock, I see it more as an apricot color, or a warm, earth-toned beige.  It’s a lovely, cheerfully muted color for a very early springtime for some pleasant February days.  It’s also a color I most admire in the built environment of our home city, too.  I love decorative terra cotta elements, the fine crafted brick work that our town is known for, and the combination of a glorious sunset blending its colors with the rich architecture.  Now I have a dress that matches well with that!  Even though I probably will not be wearing this dress any more this year until autumn comes so many months away, I have this wonderful 30s dress waiting for those cold days ahead so I can rock the Deco Era no matter what the weather!

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!