A Smock-Frock from 1938

Today, a smock is understood as a variant of an apron – it is a loose over-garment worn to protect one’s clothing.  A frock is a now outdated term for a dress of any length or style.  Both terms may sound like something quite frumpy to wear.  Yet, I have the contrary to show as proof that a smock-frock can be fashionable.  Our modern understanding of many items we take for granted in common living are often sorely lacking in a realization of full historical context.  “Dig a little deeper” is my intuitive response after being an academic researcher for many years! 

In sewing, using vintage patterns is a good practice for opening one’s eyes to facets of fashion history previously either unknown or forgotten, as they leave enticing trails of interest in bygone definitions.  Recently, an old original 1938 Marian Martin pattern design I acquired and used for my early spring sewing has made me realize a new term – the smock-frock.  For as simple and unassuming as this newest dress project is (daily wear vintage clothes in comfy cotton are so handy to have in my wardrobe), it has certainly led me to discover yet another aspect from the annals of fashion.  Nevertheless, whether or not this dress taught me something along the way to completion, any dress that ends up being as easy to wear as a nightgown yet looks street worthy chic – with pockets as big as a small purse – is a winner in my estimation!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a printed cotton

PATTERN:  Marian Martin #9602, year 1938

NOTIONS NEEDED:  all I needed was thread and some bias tape for some simple neckline finishing

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was a quick project, made in about 7 hours and finished in February 2022

THE INSIDES:  I merely stitched over the edges a few times to prevent any fraying, and trimmed any fly-away threads from the fabric for clean but semi-raw edges

TOTAL COST:  On sale at my local JoAnn Fabrics store, buying 3 yards of this fabric cost me about $27

Happily, the seller that I purchased from studied up for the listing and included information from an old newspaper ad which was selling my same pattern.  Thus, that person’s amazing preliminary research is the only reason I know why Marian Martin no.9602 is called “a smock-frock” design to begin with.  Now, to appropriately continue my terminology tirade from above, a smock-frock is basically a centuries old garment primarily worn by British laborers and working class people.  Only in the last 150 years did it turn into a comparatively decorative garment to wear on its own for children’s play and ladies’ housework.  Smock-frock garments often had extensive embroiderd hand stitched work (for an alliteration of the word) to control the overall generous fit in precise places  on the garment.  This type of embellishment became highly decorative between the Victorian times and the 1930s, being more ornamental than a pure design element, and its popularity muddied the understanding of the term smock-frock.  

To make things more confusing, in the history of the clerical world, a frock is an outer garment…but so is an apron.  The Wikipedia page says, “It is uncertain whether smock-frocks are ‘frocks made like smocks or ‘smocks made like frocks’ – that is, whether the garment evolved from the smock, the shirt (or underdress) of the medieval period, or from the frock, an over garment of equally ancient origin.”  All this boils down to the fact that this late 1930s smock frock was a meld of the words, besides being a relatively modern take on two very ancient type of garments.  I am surprised this garment-related form of the term was even still in use enough for 1938 to add it onto the pattern description.  It is so close to what I would term a plain housedress, or even a hostess dress (which I explain in this post here) if sewn up of a decently nice material.  Smocking – as a style of stitch – has continued to be popular beyond the 1930s primarily on cultural inspired clothing or novelty designs as well as children’s clothes.

I am wondering if the use of this term here is because Marian Martin designs were something catered to smaller, rural town residents even though the parent company to the pattern line was based in New York City.  Living away from a big town can be someplace where old terms are still commonplace, so a smock-frock would have been well known amongst agricultural worker’s families of the 1930s. I do take note that the cover illustration portrays a young woman modeling.  I wonder if the design of this pattern would have been something that the older generations would have gravitated to before the youth of 1938 would have.  You can clearly see the Depression Era thrifty sensibilities in the fact that this pattern could be used to make several different designs – dresses with two differing necklines and closures, or an apron.  There are many possibilities here!  Marian Martin is a distant cousin to the lines of Anne Adams, Alice Brooks, American Weekly, and Laura Wheeler (needlework) – all patterns were owned by the same parent company at one point or another (see more info on that here). 

Having sewn a handful of patterns from this group of mail order patterns (my previous Marian Martin posted here, an American Weekly dress posted here, and an Anne Adams pinafore posted here), I have found them to generally run on the larger fitting size.  This one did not disappoint.  It was marked as a bust 32”, hips 35” and so I graded in 4 inches to bring it up to my size according to the instruction’s chart.  As it turned out, I had to pinch out a total of 4 inches overall as I was fitting this dress to myself during construction.  The realization of that blows my mind at just how large this pattern’s size was…lucky thing I was able to save this project from drowning me in fabric!  The hemline even came down to the ground on me according to the “dress length” as given by the pattern.  Refitting all the princess and side seams, as well as re-cutting the neckline and armscye made this easy-to-make design a bit more time-consuming.  It was still pretty simple to sew these adjustments because there was no pattern matching to worry about and I was fitting it along the way to completion. 

I knew ahead of time that the busy print would conceal the smock-frocks details, but they are simple and few so I was okay with that happening.  There are princess seams which divide the back and the front into a six panel dress.  There are big, generous pockets tucked in between seams to the front side panels just at hip length.  Then, the sleeves have puffed caps and a box pleat at the outer centered hem.  Finally, two ties come out from above the front princess seam just above the pockets so as to bring in the waist and shape the dress by tying in the back.  The attached ties make this dress reminiscent of a hostess dress, as I mentioned above (and posted about here).  It is the fact I have the ties – and the way I gave up fitting the dress to me any further after bringing it in by 4 inches – which lets me get away with no zipper or buttons or closure.  Contrary to the pattern, I cut the center back on the fold and lowered the V neckline so that this was an easy-peasy slip-on garment. 

A word or two needs to be said about my ascot neck scarf.  I made that, too!  It was cobbled together into being a long, tapered rectangle of two scraps leftover from making this sheer chiffon 1950s redingote.  A small French seam goes down the center to connect the two scraps, then went to my local sewing room and used their serger (overlocker) to stitch a tiny rolled hem edge finish.  I love making my own scarf!  It is yet another little but very useful outlet I recently discovered to use up scraps of lightweight material.  My neck is often chilly in both air conditioning and cool spring or fall days.  Also, my hair styles need protection from wind and rain, so I use sheer scarves a lot in all seasons.  This handmade version was just the thing I needed in lieu of a necklace or contrast belt to give my dress a splash of something extra.  It kept my neck cozy for these pictures, too, as the sunshine was warm that day but spring is still slow in coming here.  The neckline is pretty basic otherwise.  A vintage stick pin keeps my scarf in place on my dress, here tied in the manner of an ascot.

My fabulous shoes bring my dress way above its original humble smock-frock designation, but they are such a fun pairing here I couldn’t resist!  They are part of my latest and greatest shoe splurge purchase.  Miss L Fire Company was going out of business a few months ago so I *had* to snatch up several styles I have longed under deep clearance prices.  These are the popular Miss L Fire “Clarice” heels, made of color blocked leather suede panels with tie ankle straps.  These color blocked beauties make me forget I have heels on, but really elevate my outfit, as well as anything else I pair with them.  Just as I did with my scarf, I wanted to channel everything I love about the panache that 1930s street wear displays with killer accessories.  Even if this is just a homely cotton dress, I can show how versatile it is my making it fancier than it really is!  A great pair of shoes always helps in such a situation.  Believe me, there is no better company for statement footwear with high quality and superior comfort. Miss L Fire’s offerings are so well made and so comfortable but so standout chic, it is a true loss that they are relegated to the second hand market now. 

There is so much more I could have written in regards to smock-frocks, but I didn’t want to end up boring anyone and end up with too long of a post.  I have just found so much depth of interest in the history behind this basic little dress I whipped together!  What I didn’t mention above, is the irony of how it combines the masculine (through the working man’s shirt smock) with the feminine (a frock dress) in such a unique way.  Even still, the supreme mockery to my 1938 incarnation of a house-frock is the fact that it turned out so appealingly cute.  It is meant to be so utilitarian as to not give a darn about keeping it pristine yet I will be sad the first time it gets marred.  I don’t want to destroy it too quickly, but I also don’t want to let that hold me back from enjoying this dress whenever I want.  This is why I made it – to be worn, appreciated, and practical.  The print is so busy it shouldn’t be too noticeable when I do eventually end up staining, tearing, or otherwise using my dress as the pattern intended.  If this was going to be a true smock-frock, it was going to have to live up to its name and be a practical, work-horse kind of piece for me.  I always need these kind of clothes.  They truly do take a beating, though, but I think appear none the worse for their wear.  This mid-1940s dress is my go-to well-worn housedress, next to this cranberry cotton shirtdress, and my “Dust Bowl” Burda dress.  I am happy to have a real-deal 1930s house dress now, as I have only had ones from the 40’s until now!

I really hope to sew with this pattern again in the future using yet another charming cotton print, so this is not a one-hit-wonder here.  Perhaps next time I will choose the short, hip-length smock version that buttons down the back and has the Peter Pan collar.  Maybe I will just sew another dress version because it so handy and darn comfortable.  I also want to try out the “Edith Smock” from “Pattern Union”.  It is a zero-waste design with amazing details and a style strongly reminiscent of working smocks of old, only with large roomy pockets and billowy sleeves for the modern romantic in you.

I hope you enjoyed this little post on my smock-frock, and learned about a new facet of fashion history.  Please, give this post proper credit if you share elsewhere what you learned about here.  Also, remember to stay inquisitive and keep finding answers to the interesting questions of your own making.  Perhaps you will uncover something that will fascinate, teach, and entertain you just as much as I have found in the process of creating and wearing my smock-frock!

Once Upon a December

Of all the animated princess which have graced the silver screen in my lifetime, I would like to say my favorite just may be one that is not even Disney in origin.  I’m talking about Anya, better known as Anastasia Romanov – the spunkiest, sassiest, most relatable animated royal heroine and one that has a historical basis (to some degree, as her adult life is the stuff of legends).  The last week of November was the annual anniversary since Fox Studio’s animated film “Anastasia” was first released for the entertainment of its audiences back in the end of November 1997.  Then, just last week, the palace of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas ll has been opened to the public, impeccably restored back to the time of 1917 so it looks just as it did when the princess Anastasia lived there with her family.  I guess I could have waited until the 25th anniversary next year, but after offering my “Pandemic Princess” blog series, and being a wholehearted fan of the animated movie, I decided now was the perfect time to finally bring one of her outfits to life!

I chose to sew a vintage version of the Russian tunic she is first seen as wearing in the movie when, as an adult (18 years old in circa 1927), she is finally leaving the orphanage.  She sings her first song “Journey to the Past” in this scene, the song that defines her hopes, dreams, and driving energy for the film’s storyline – the desire to find love, have a home, and connect with family.  She is the animated princess who literally had everything taken from her.  She lost more than just her memory by having amnesia (as the fictional story convincingly portrays) from a nasty fall taken while escaping the revolution.  Yet, no matter how afraid she was, she never lost sight of her belief in herself and her longing for belonging.  The jeweled “Together in Paris” necklace was her solitary key to a shard of a memory connected to the past she needed to reclaim.

That first song encapsulates why Anya is so appealing and inspiring, but the second song she sings later “Once Upon a December” while wearing that same tunic is a heartbreaking tune of her yearning under the shadows of vague memories.  Then, finally, when Anya agrees to go through with the scoundrel Dimitri’s plan to curate her into the princess ideal, she sings along to an upbeat song of family history and positivity in “Learn to Do It”.  As I did not have any snow or a fancy palace to channel the other two songs, I chose to interpret this last song…where balancing a stick on the head serves in lieu of a book to train Anya into walking elegantly.  Between these three songs, this is why I needed to make a fun (and a bit more fashionable) version of the oversized, torn, hand-me-down tunic that gets her through half of the movie.  How often does a princess get to sport casual wear that is this cute, after all?!  This is a whole new kind of a different vintage type of garment, and I love it – even if only for being Anastasia inspired.

My obsession over the Russian princess Anastasia is not confined to this sole outfit recreation, however.  On Instagram, I have styled my mother-in-law’s 1970s original dress to look like Anya’s blue strapless sparkle dress that worn in the animated film for her visit to the opera with Dimitri.  That scene is everything to me and just goes to show how the perfectly picked outfit for an occasion can literally make your man’s jaw drop…the most fantastic reaction ever.  Click on over here to see my second (non-me-made) Anastasia outfit for yourself!  Do I next re-make one of her late 1920s dresses from when she was spending a night of shopping and dining in Paris?  Or her blue collared “boat ride” dress?  Or one of her two golden yellow princess gowns?  Once I decide, I will be revisiting the fashion of the 90’s animated “Anastasia” at some point in the future.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% rayon twill

PATTERN:  a Lady Marlowe reprint of a year 1935 Simplicity #1908 sewing pattern

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots of thread, a dozen buttons (vintage ones were used here), and half a dozen hook-and-eyes.  The trim was a 1910 era antique notion, in a pre-stitched design on a 6 yard strip of loose weave muslin.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The tunic was made in about 30 hours (a third of that time was spent on just the sleeve details), and was finished on April 22, 2021

THE INSIDES:  cleanly French seamed, with vintage rayon tape to cover up the bottom hem inside

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric was needed – it was bought at JoAnn fabric store for about $10 a yard.  The buttons were $12 and ordered through Etsy to top off an order so I could have free shipping.  The trim – all 5 yards of it – was the real cost at $67, and I only needed two yards, but I felt I had to get all or it or nothing.  If I divide out the cost of the antique trim, my total cost for this tunic was $70.

First of all, I want to clarify I’m calling this a Russian tunic because I’m merely using the same terminology as what is on the pattern I used.  If I wanted a true cultural garment I would have chosen either the #128 “Russian Settlers’ Dress” or the #116 “Shirts of Russia and Ukraine”, both patterns by Folkwear Company.  Even still, if you compare the line drawings for the traditional option through Folkwear with my 1935 fashion version they are really similar.  My version is slightly more fine-tuned and truer in styling to its release date versus true cultural clothing which is more timeless. 

An Eastern Bloc influence on the fashion of the Western world was popular in the 1920s through the mid-1940s, during which the embroidery of Hungary, Poland, and Slavic countries can be spotted on vintage blouses and dresses.  These loose and comfy but gloriously embroidered garments have been (and still are) callously coined as “peasant” styles by many.  Post WWI, the peasants suffered greatly under the many internal wars of the Eastern Bloc region, and millions starved to death in the 1920’s under state confiscation of grain and collectivization of agriculture. 

A Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian folk influence was not as popular as the aforementioned “peasant” styles, and its decorated asymmetrically closing collared plackets were primarily seen on winter coats, tunic length blouses, and pyjama sets (for loungewear) in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union had been admitted to the League of Nations the year before my pattern was released, and the United States had recognized Stalin’s regime the year before that (in 1933).  No doubt the political and social-economic events of the time as well as the influx of refugees fleeing dangerous situations influenced an interest abroad in traditional Russian and Slavic garb.  Just the same as what happened to the qipao, originally from China (as I discussed in this post of mine here), once another culture’s fashion is imported in and adopted it becomes no longer purely authentic but a merging of expressions…for better or for worse.   

My tunic’s color scheme was chosen according to both what trim I could find and what Anya was wearing in the animated film, so this is not in the most traditional colors, but neither am I incorrect.  My trim is a true antique teen’s or 20s era addition to my tunic, so it is the real deal and not a product of my modern design preference.  It is in a counted cross-stitched design, so often seen on ‘Russian’ garments starting in the 20th century even if it wasn’t really proper to the culture (I’ll discuss this subject in further detail later on in my post).  So, whether or not it is truly Russian-Ukrainian, though, as it was labeled in its listing, is something I have not been able to clarify.  Either way, I think my tunic is a great homage to one of the great legends of history – the “what if the princess Anastasia had lived past 1917” story.  Influenced by the 1997 film, I would like to imagine she had a life of happy freedom, seeing the world and starting her own family with Dimitri (also frequently visiting Grandmother in Paris, of course).  Along those lines, I would like to think this is what Anya would have been wearing in the 1930s.

The tunic body basics were straightforward, but all the finishing and detailing work took up all the time and effort (don’t worry, it is always enjoyable, really).  Even with all the hours and hours of hand-stitching I logged for my tunic, working with rayon twill was a joy because it is the ideal blend of suppleness and stability.  The overall fit is a bit loose and forgiving (being hooked closed only to the waistline) and only needed to be tailored in across the shoulders and around the sleeve cuffs.  I love the little darted tucks which ever so slightly blouse out the bodice at the back.  Little points like this save the tunic from being a sack.  I also love the freedom of movement which is married to an air of elegance with the dramatically generous sleeves and fancy cuffs.  

The pattern was a reprint sized to just the measurement I needed, for a lucky break, and I have few complaints.  It was printed professionally, turned out pretty true to size, and all the pieces matched up very well.  This was my first experience with Lady Marlowe vintage pattern reprint company and I am pleased.  At the prices Lady Marlowe reprints are sold for, and the way they are so cleaned up to the point of looking more modern than not, I feel like I would be better served investing in a true vintage pattern – but I am a purist.  As I had a specific idea in mind this time, I was thankful to find a reprint which made something available to me which normally would not have been an option.

I felt like my antique trim as fated to be part of this project because it was exactly the same size width (3 1/2 inches) as the pattern piece for the asymmetric decorated front placket.  With the seam allowance, the finished edges just came to the outside of the stitched border to the antique trim, and I was ecstatic over the results.  So as not be overwhelming or confining to my neck, I used only the middle section of the trim for the collar to make it half the width as the front vertical trim.  For both collar and front closing facing, I had to iron on stiff interfacing to the backside of the old trim, and I felt badly adding something so modern and permanent to it.  However, the base material for the trim was a very fine and fragile mesh linen, and there was no way it was going to hold up through either the construction process or the a washing, even if I do so by hand. 

The underside of the stitching tells its story – I love seeing this!!!

I could tell from the backside of the trim that this was sewn by hand because the underneath was not by any means consistent, with lots of hanging floss ends.  This was real treasure I hated to cover up with the interfacing, but I realize this step was necessary to present a finished garment.  To think that this trim was done by hand blows my mind, humbling me and garnering my absolute respect for the maker.  Was this something which was worked in spells over months, with admirable patience?  Was the maker quick and efficient enough to do six yards in the first place?  What was this trim originally intended for, I wonder?  I have so many questions which will never be answered…I only know I am glad I have more to use on another project or just hoard for admiration purposes in the future.

Counted cross stitch as a cultural ‘folk’ decoration on a garment is often tied to Russia, even if the stitch itself has different origins.  The earliest fragment of embroidered cloth to include cross stitch can first be traced back Upper Egypt sixth century BC. It then flourished during the Tang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), when it may well have spread westward along the trade routes (info from here). In the centuries which followed, crossed stitching spread to England (old Normandy), medieval Spain and Italy, and then Germany and more.  In Russia and the Ukraine, cross stitch techniques began appearing in villages after the 1850s, being adopted by farmers from nobility’s and city people’s needlepoint

An example of Brokar’s stitch patterns. At the top it says “gift with purchase of glycerin soap.”

After 1870s, the French philanthropist businessman Genrich Brokar, with his Moscow firm of perfume and soap production, made a fatal hit to the knowledge and popularity of traditional crafts such as Igolochky (Russian punch-needle embroidery).  In order to attract customers, especially for his soaps, he included a free chart of a cross-stitch design with each sale of his products.  He hired his own artists to re-render traditional Russian symbolical motifs and simplify them to both please a greater variety of people and be easy enough for all skill levels.  Soon enough, Russian cross stitched garments became known as Brokar embroidered.  Before the Revolution of 1917, Brokar was one of the largest cosmetics manufacturers in Russia.  He had an ingenious marketing strategy that ruined how the world and even Russia itself sees its own fiber art traditions. 

Whether or not cross-stitch can be considered a true Russian traditional craft seems to a hot topic of debate on many of the sites for the promotion of cultural heritage which I visited online.  That being said, this is primarily how Russian and Ukrainian folk clothing has been decorated and understood for the last 150 years.  In honor of the 100 year anniversary of the Brokar cross-stitch marketing, the technique had a revival in the 1970s.

Even as I type that the cross stitched trim takes center stage for this tunic, my fun pistachio green vintage buttons are the close runner ups.  They subtly bring out the color of the trim, and low-key highlight the closure details I put so much handiwork into.  Doing a dozen chain-stitched thread loops (10 for the cuffs with 2 for the shoulder), sewing on a dozen buttons, matching up half a dozen hook-and-eyes under the front closure, and adding one large snap set at my neck all together took me almost as much time as it did to make the tunic.  It is a time consuming deal to close all those buttons, so – just as Anya did in the animated film – most of the time I flip back the cuffs for a casual look.  I love how the flipped back cuffs change the whole aura of the tunic.  I think it seems more Russian with the cuffs buttoned up because it is practical for cold weather.

These sleeves are so fantastic, aren’t they?!  They are like a cross-breed between gigot sleeves (also called leg-of-mutton) and bishop sleeves.  The giant puff sleeves literally are gathered in as tightly as they could go into cuff edges which stretch up to below my elbows.  It was as much of a drama to sew as it might look.  The skinny sleeve cuffs did not fit around my sewing machine’s free arm.  Even when I did manage to sew the sleeve-cuff seam by machine, the gathering was too tight for a good stitch.  I had to do the cuffs my hand sewing…wah!  The finished clean seams really add to the spectacle that is this sleeve style, though. 

Here – to be similar to Anya from the animated film – I am merely wearing leggings and ankle boots with my tunic.  Outside of these pictures, I will probably be wearing the tunic with a 1930s style skirt, either with it tucked in or sometimes not.  The pattern cover shows the tunic worn with a skirt, and it looks rather like something from the 70’s Disco era when I tried wide legged pants under it.  I appreciate that the pattern’s cover also shows frog closures as an optional closing method because it calls to mind the “merging of European and Central Asian traditions”, as Folkwear calls it, which this asymmetric-closing Russian style blouse (or tunic, in my case) has as part of its history.  The countries of the world are more intertwined than many of us consider, especially when you look at this fact from the perspective of a fashion memoir. 

Tunics themselves seem to an old cultural garment adapted by many nations.  They are flattering, versatile, and often unisex, besides being something modern, RTW doesn’t know how to create as tastefully as cultural clothing can do it.  All too often the tunics of today that I see in the store are terribly oversized, or in an overly clinging knit, or designed as if the body is something to hide.  There is a high probability that some part of whatever familial ancestry you most closely associate with has some form of a tunic as part of their heritage clothing.  This kind of tunic would be the very best place to start to find a renewed appreciation.  I am already used to wearing tunics in the Indian form of a kurta or kurti , so this Russian inspired one feels like a mere variant.  I am happy my excitement over the animated film “Anastasia” was a starting point for me to explore more tunics outside of India.  

It is not quite a dress, but it is a bit extra to be called a blouse…do you like tunics?  Let me know if you found the short history of cross stitching just as interesting as I did.  Also, I want to hear from any 1997 “Anastasia” movie fans out there – what were your favorite scenes, lines, or outfits?

Carolyn Ramey – the Undergrad Designer of the 1930s

Goodness knows that young college students are in need of some good wardrobe choices.  They themselves might not realize this fact, from the seemingly perpetual loungewear that I see being worn at my local campuses.  How to choose good wardrobe items is yet another life skill, a taste that needs to be learned by young people just like anything else, to have a good foundation for the future.  Most nice clothes seem to cater to adults, however.  If they don’t, they are either too trendy, too sexy, or too professional for an aspiring young person’s needs, and the designer of such is an adult. 

Elle Woods from the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde”

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a teen creating designer clothes for her own age group?  I’m not talking about clothes that are something unaffordable or used for creating a status symbol – something that is handily just what is sought after to be worn (even if that is an inherent desire is currently undeveloped in them).  Something that would raise the bar a bit from pajama pants and a tee without any compromise on comfort would no doubt be appreciated today.  Few people realize that a well-cut garment can and should be just as comfy as any loungewear.  Ready-to-wear fashion rarely offers this ideal combo, but vintage patterns do!  There’s no reason to live the most formative years of your life looking like you just rolled out of bed.

This ideal scenario for collage students’ fashion actually happened midway in the decade of the 1930s through the largely unknown young designer Carolyn Ramey – marketed as “the Co-ed designing for her fellow collage girls, juniors, and debutantes”.  She attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia , graduating in 1937 majoring in Applied Arts while at the Home Economics department.  (In 1931, Drexel began offering degrees through the School of Home Economics)  Her dress designs for girls her own age were inspired by yearly trips to Paris, London, and Milan on summer break as well as a frugal practicality, especially when it came to her trademark “date night frock” and “Campus Modes” lines. 

Both collections were already popular by her freshman year when she had her own fashion column and sewing pattern line in both “The Country Gentleman” magazine and the Chicago Tribune newspaper.  Luckily, her mother Mary Grace Ramey was a public fashion expert herself, and her Grandmother Caroline King was the long-time editor of “The Country Gentleman” magazine, so it helped that the young Carolyn had connections.  However, she seemed to honestly be thinking about the needs and problems of her fellow young ladies and wanted to help out the budgetary, social, romantic, and school-related aspects of their lives with the inventive designs which she had apparently been creating since her high school. 

Well, now I have tried out one of Ms. Ramey’s designs for myself – her “very first to be made from her fall season wardrobe”.  I am happy to have whipped up this luxurious and super comfortable evening gown in one night!  I am one happy (albeit modern) customer of her ideas and can attest they seem to be everything old newspaper articles touted them to be! 

Another one of Carolyn Ramey’s fetching (Paris inspired) designs!

This may be my new favorite 1930s era creation.   With only 5 major pattern pieces, and various extra pieces and recommendations included for style variations, this dress pattern is a pure goldmine of a find to me.  I picked up this pattern on a whim many years back now as it was a steal of a price.  I didn’t realize until recent research how amazing yet unknown is the history the behind this pattern and its designer.  I am thrilled to have finally come around to sew something of it!

Carolyn Ramey promised in a Chicago Tribune article from December 27, 1936 that her pattern designs aim to “look like a proverbial cool million…correct in cut, comfortable to wear, and dynamically flattering” even while being “sewn without much trouble”.  I find this 100% true with the one pattern I have in my stash, and from what I see in the several others I found via Internet images (such as this one).  My interpretation here may be a bit more chic than what a collage girl of the 1930s would prefer, but it is every bit true to the era with its semi-sheer burnout velvet and aura of sumptuousness.  Ms. Ramey’s preference for “simplicity imbued with charm” certainly helped me make the most of my fancy fabric, but what makes me really happy here is the way I seem to have merged her two different collection’s ideologies into one. 

The pattern used was from her Chicago Tribune “Campus Modes” line, yet I put my own twist on it by using velvet, which is along her “Date Night Frock” way of thinking.  To her, a date night dress should be “smart enough to merit appraisal, yet not conspicuous enough to be gaudy” as she said in the “Drexel Triangle” university newspaper of January 22, 1937.  She believed “that ‘date frocks’ must have enough snap about them to make them stand out in a crowd” without being “too conspicuous”, while campus wear needs to reflect “the spirit of youth” but be the perfect transitional wear to escort them into the professional world.  I see this dress as checking off both boxes.

It seems Carolyn Ramey’s “date frocks” line was through personal consultation and made to order as they were “her particular hobby”, from the meager information I have found.  Her “Campus Modes” was a weekly pattern release and fashion advice section in the Chicago Tribune starting January 3, 1937 and lasting until 1940, as far as I can tell.  She was not a “one ball juggler” – she even tried something new in June 1937 and presented a young Men’s fashion show for Drexel University.  Also, between 1935 and 1938, Carolyn Ramey designed the official uniform sets for the National 4-H Club (just as her mother had done in 1933) to continue her personal mission of clothing young ladies smartly and sensibly.  Sadly, all information on her seems to fade into non-existence after 1940.  I would love to find out what happened to her after her college rise into popularity.  In all the articles I could find she always said that she intended to continue designing.  I wish I could at least see a picture of her to have some visual connection.  I am just glad I can shed a bit of light on her life and career through this blog post!  

THE FACTS

FABRIC:  a polyester “devoré” burnout velvet

PATTERN:  a vintage original “Designer Carolyn Ramey” Mail ordered pattern from the Chicago Tribune, No. 8581, year 1938

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but thread!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was begun and completed in a space of about 4 hours on November 3, 2021

THE INSIDES:  poly velvet doesn’t fray, but still ‘sheds’, so I merely zig-zag stitched over the edges

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric cost me about $30 something dollars from JoAnn fabrics…I bought it several years back and no longer exactly remember!

The happiest coincidence of finding some really great information relating the Carolyn Ramey is the fact I have found the original newspaper article advertising the release of the pattern that I have.  This is how I am able to date the pattern to August 7, 1938.  I never get to do such a precise tracking, especially for a mail order pattern.  Unfortunately, Newspapers.com and many of my other sources for info on Ms. Ramey and her work is either a pay-per-view site or from a link that has since disappeared off the internet.  Nevertheless, you happily get the highlights of what I’ve gleaned here! 

Many of the dress’ fine-tuned details are hidden by the oversized ‘print’ of the burnout velvet I used, so let me run through them for you.  It’s the seemingly simple designs that need the highest quality fine tuning to look chic instead of sloppy, after all, and this pattern has it all.  I’ll start with the most noticeable feature – the uber-wide and waist deep dolman sleeves (also known by the more modern term ‘batwing’).  They are seamed into a fitted bodice, quite an unusual take.  Most dolman sleeves are cut as one piece with the body and do not have an armscye.  Leave it to an indie designer to put her own spin on something!  The way the bodice is darted under the bust, with a natural shoulder seam which dips into a V-point at the side waist seam, really fits it to the body.  This variety of dolman sleeve controls the fullness of the dramatic sleeves more than the ‘normal’ one-piece dolman cut would offer.  

In Carolyn Ramey’s newspaper commentary for this pattern, she says the combo of these sleeves and the slender skirt will “make you look as slim as a reed” and is a “simple yet sophisticated” combination. “The sleeves are full except at the wrist” and the long skirt has tailored, curvy vertical seam lines to make it appear bias cut when it is really straight grain cut.  She says “it is extremely easy dress to sew” and she is not wrong, for it has taken me much longer to write my post about the dress than the four hours I spent to make it from start to finish.

No closures were needed here and this pops over my head – a completed outfit in an instant.  This isn’t what the pattern called for, but I simplified it.  There was supposed to be a duo of a back button placket and a small side seam waist closure, but velvet is not conducive to being bound into a stiff buttonhole or zipper. Carolyn Ramey even suggests a full center back zipper down the back of the dress, if possible (remember this pattern is from 1938, so this is a fashion forward thought).  I merely left the back neck open for 6 inches down with a small hook and eye at the top.  Carolyn Ramey talks up her patterns as being versatile and adaptive to customization.  This is after all the ideal of every home sewing pattern – use it as a tool to cater to your ideas and needs.  For every pattern release through the Chicago Tribune, she gives recommendations of variations, and my pattern – for one example – includes some extra little pieces to aid in making those modifications.  How honest is that for Ms. Ramey to want her users to reimagine her designs for themselves!

I am imagining another version of this dress in a soft and nubby monotone tweed, with a shorter ‘street’ length, and maybe with a collar, too, for a whole new spin.  A plaid suiting, tunic length version –to be worn with a skirt or wide trousers – may be quite interesting, as well!  I can even picture this in a liquid ivory satin for a fantastic wedding dress!  I have so many ideas for this pattern, and so little time to sew or such few places to wear half of my creative notions. 

I have no place to complain, though.  Out of all the things we have to be thankful for this holiday season, I am always thankful for my sewing capabilities and my handmade wardrobe those skills have given me.  Furthermore, I love to be thankful for women like Carolyn Ramey who had a passion to help others and gave an excellent example of following your dreams…especially when that medium is through sewing!  It gives me encouragement and hope for my own undertakings.  It fires up my historical curiosity and belief in the worth of my research.  Let us support small enterprises, creative makers, and independent businesses everywhere this weekend and show how grateful we are.  The people who channel their artistic inspiration, drawn from the beauty of life, into something you can buy deserve to be supported and appreciated.  I am merely a local maker, and my work comes from happy customers in town, spread by word of mouth, so I understand how important it is to let where money is spent do the talking.  Shop small businesses this weekend, stay thankful, and keep on stitching, my fellow sewists!  Drop me a comment if you enjoyed learning about Carolyn Ramey!

My Best Border Print Yet

Anyone who remotely knows me or pops into my blog has probably realized in have an undying fascination for border prints.  They are the siren call for me.  I know I’ve said as much before, but this time around I have sewn with a silk crepe original pre-WWII border printed fabric!  Believe me, I was terrified to use this treasure, but it was in perfect condition, and too very pretty to sit, hidden and forgotten, away in storage.  This had to be enjoyed and seen, it is just too good.  However, just what pattern to choose to make the most of this precious find was the tough question I faced.  I have no regrets and am only absolutely thrilled with the fantastic dress I now have…so I guess I chose the right pattern?!? 

The funny thing is, I really appreciate the fact I chose a relaxed and nonchalant “Hostess gown” rather than something as fancy as the fabric.  This way what I’ve made has the greatest opportunity to be worn and enjoyed, I figured.  “The Vintage Fashion Guild” defines a Hostess Gown as a dressy garment, popular from the 1930s to 1970s, worn by the lady of the house for entertaining at home, full length but not as formal as evening wear, whose lines still followed current street fashion.  Vogue calls it “somewhere between loungewear and partywear”, while Melissa, over on the blog “Well Appointed House”, notes that they were loosely sized with “a forgiving waistline”.  Often, I see them as easy to put on, in either a wrap-style or zipper front closing, with conservative body coverage.  I love this way of thinking towards what is worn at home – practical but elegant, pretty but nonchalant, all so a lady can feel as ravishing as a Hollywood celebrity with all the comforts of wearing pajamas.  It’s the ultimate statement piece showing that the lady of the house is queen of her abode in more ways than one…as this “New York Times” article says, a Hostess gown both commands but respects a domestic occasion.  

The pattern I used has been adapted by me to accommodate both my chosen border print layout and a full front zipper.  Otherwise, it stays true to the original design lines and perfectly checks off all the boxes for a hostess gown – adjustable tie waist, breezy fit, elegance in style…all in an impressive fabric print.  Even still, I do not exactly plan on keeping this just for indoors, or wait until I do home entertaining.  It is almost ‘too nice’ for preparing or serving food and drink, being mostly ivory (which doesn’t bode well for stains or spills) besides being a special vintage silk after all.  I happily wear it out and about!  It’s perfect when I want be dressed in vintage style, especially my go-to 1940s decade, but don’t feel like going all out and be confined into the traditional fitted looks. 

The way the silk is whisper weight and flowing awes me, as does the print which gives me an illusion of delicate lace…hinting (to me) of either lingerie, an arachnid, or something spooky and mysterious.  This is partly why I waited to take this post’s photos until Halloween, when the trees can create a colorful backdrop with their fallen foliage while the somber shadows of the earlier evenings adds a melancholic tone.  Trying some late springtime pictures (where I am standing with a Chinese dogwood) lightened and washed out the beautiful, rich, creamy ivory that is the fabric’s true tone.  Either way is still lovely nonetheless, but I am too much of a perfectionist…and I like realistically showing my creations to their greatest effect!  I will take any excuse in any season to be able to wear this dress – I absolutely love it!

Speaking of things that I really enjoy lately, keep your eyes open for a new kind of outfit accessory – a temporary tattoo from Inkbox.   It stays on my skin for a few weeks before fading away.  I chose a spider and a rose theme because I felt it paired with the mysterious web-like effect the border print has on the solid, light color of the silk.  My other accessories are earrings, a scarf, and a chenille butterfly brooch, all vintage items from my paternal Grandmother.  My snazzy triple buckle shoes are actually all suede and meant for dancing, a 1940 reproduction style coming from Aris Allen Company

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% silk crepe

PATTERN:  Butterick #6485, a year 1944 pattern reprinted in 2017. See more on this down later in my post!

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, a bit of interfacing for the collar, and one 22” long vintage invisible zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was made in about 6 to 8 hours, and finished on September 16, 2020

THE INSIDES:  all French seamed

TOTAL COST:  3 yards and 14” of this vintage fabric cost me a reasonable $40

How do I know it is truly vintage fabric?  First of all, the width of the selvedge gives it away.  This is a 39” width, which means it either 1930s or 1940s.  This size selvedge did last into the 1950s, but the rest of my clues point to decades earlier before WWII.  The black lace-like design is printed all the way through, too, there is no real “wrong” side.  I often see this bleed-through on 1940s and older fabric prints.  Furthermore, once you have the opportunity to feel (as I have) what a vintage 40’s or earlier cold rayon, polished cotton, or silk material feels like in comparison to modern fabric the difference is clear and beautifully unmistakable.  They just don’t make fabric (that I know of) the same way as they used to. 

I did pre-wash it, which was scary in itself, because I had no idea how it would react or if the black border print would bleed into the ivory background color.  Happily, a gentle hand wash bath made no change to the fabric texture or condition, only brightened up the ivory color and faded a few tiny rust spots which are scattered across the material.  If these minute rust spots are all this fabric shows for its age, than that is fabulous!  It cleaned up beautifully and still seemed quite strong, which gave me further confidence to make a something for myself using it.

First of all, I wanted yet another different layout of a border print that I have not yet tried.  I wanted the design element to radiate out from the center front seam, running vertically from the shoulders to the hem.  I have seen this kind of a layout for border print fabrics in other 1930s dresses, zip front robes, and hostess dresses.  The border of my fabric was about 13” wide and ran along the length of only one selvedge edge.  With such a print, I had one strip of the border to work with which was 3 yards and 14 inches long, the length of my cut of material.  Dividing that length in half helped me figure out that my fabric amount would not work for anything longer than a mid-length dress, as long as it would have the front all one panel piece (more on this later).  This meant the dress I chose would need to be shaped primarily by darts or tucks (to keep the border design intact).  Keeping all these ‘needs’ in mind as part of the planning process, all the while wanting a hostess gown, rather overwhelmed me.  I was only searching through my stash of 1930’s and 40’s patterns to make things more challenging!  I ultimately – and happily – found everything I was looking for in Butterick #6465 pattern re-issue from 1944.

Of all the vintage pattern reprints, those from Butterick are always the hardest line from which to track down the original design.  After much online searching, I found a cover image that is highly likely to be the source for the new #6465.  I’m strongly convinced this “reprint” is a tweaked version of what was originally Butterick 9154, from the summer of 1944.  I realize it doesn’t have the front shoulder panels that the new re-issue has, yet I personally have a few original Butterick patterns that have been reissued and their details had been significantly re-worked for their re-release.  During my online browsing, I did see an early 1940s “House Dress with zipper closing at center front” from the “New York Pattern Company” #230 that is also very similar to my Butterick.  Apparently this combination of details/design lines must have been popular enough to span more than one brand of sewing patterns!

I was keeping an eye on my son’s antics as I was also getting my picture taken, so that explains my disinterested face!

My first step before approaching any “vintage” reissued pattern is to read every review and post that is out there to find because I am very wary of the resizing that is done to them.  For this Butterick pattern, I saw a consistent trend of comments saying they adore the style but it runs oversized and offers limited reach room when sewn together with no prior tweaks.  What I did then, at the pattern stage, was ‘slash and spread’ the sleeve piece open for more room in the upper arms and redraft the armscye to come up higher into the armpit for reach room that doesn’t tug at the dress.  I also went a whole size down from what the chart showed I should be choosing.  All of this worked out perfectly!  Even so, the collar still is a bit sloppy around my neck, and I did add some extra front waistline vertical tucks (for both a better fit and to match the old original pattern).  This pattern needs a few tweaks to be good, but, beyond these ‘failings’ in the re-print, I can heartily recommend it!

As I alluded to a few paragraphs above, to accommodate the border design the front of the dress had to be a duo of one-piece panels.  The pattern is designed to have the front princess seamed with four individual pieces.  To amend this, I overlapped both two front panel pieces along the seam lines to ‘create’ one single front piece.  This was not a perfect match up by any means – I only matched up the seam lines from the shoulder down through the bust because the two fronts were so curvy.  Thus my dress’ skirt is a bit fuller than the reprint pattern is designed for, and much more generous in swing than a normal mid-1940s pattern would ever allow for.  It was important to at least match up the shoulders and bust, and (as I said above, as well) the rest of the fitting was accomplished by more tucks across the middle.  In lieu of having the fabric belt be attached in the princess seam, as the reprint called for, I merely added the belt into the front tuck furthest from the waistline, just like what was done on the old pattern which I think was the original. 

The easiest adaptation to the pattern reprint was by far adding in a front zipper.  There was going to be a seam down the front center anyway, so I merely didn’t sew the collar facings together but kept them separate and added my zipper in there instead.  As the fabric is so special, I pulled out a very special zipper for occasion, as well.  I used an old vintage invisible zipper.  It has the metal teeth still that we all know and respect old zippers by for their reliability and sturdiness.  However, this has special twill tape ‘covering’ rolled over the metal teeth so it becomes comparable to an invisible zipper.  It also has a fancy decorative zipper pull that looks almost Art Deco in design (very hard to pick up in pictures).  I am guessing by the packaging that the zipper I used is 1950s, or no later than 1960s era.  I only have a few of these treasured notions in my stash, yet it is the same mindset as what led me to sewing something out of this old fabric in the first place that gave me the guts to use this treasured zipper, too.  I appreciate it better by having it be usable on my wonderful dress creation far better than sitting in my stash.

I suppose it is obvious by this point that I did also squeeze out two sleeves and two waist ties out of the border print.  I wanted to incorporate more of the fabric’s detailing into pieces of the garment which would show off the border print from a back view as well…not just for the front.  No ‘party in the front, business in the back’ for me here, please!  I didn’t want the look of a bare ivory dress from behind.  Besides, fancy sleeves highlights the plain front shoulder placket.  For the tie ends and the interior collar facings, I was able to grab half of the border that was leftover from between cutting the dress’ bodice fronts.  Every little bit was used and every detail paid attention to!  There are minimal scraps left, and I am tempted to use them for something luxurious that calls for small pattern pieces – such as a brassiere…he he.   

It should be noted that the dress body is single layered and only the front shoulder panels and the upper neckline were lined (in more of the silk fabric) because they were interfaced.  I suspect the pebbled crepe texture somewhat keeps this ivory silk from being as see-through as would be expected.  I do like to spurge and wear my prettiest vintage silk slips under this dress as a sort of treat to myself – but also an experiment in historical accuracy.  Guess what?  My old silk slips with their muted pink color and beige lace are more invisible under my dress than my more modern all nude-toned ones.  Fashion from way back when never ceases to amaze me with how smart they were engineered.

Time to finish up with some honesty – there is an element of awe that I myself have for this dress.  I felt it was an honor to be working with such a special vintage fabric, and now when I put on my finished dress I have the same special sense which I get when I wear true vintage clothing.  It is as if I forget I made it, and the dress has become its own “new” vintage.  I haven’t really had something I’ve made which has done this for me to such a degree.  (My 1949 pleated peplum dress, sewn with a true vintage rayon gabardine, does seems like true vintage to me, as well, though not to the level of my Hostess gown.)  Thus, I still am surprised I was able to pull off something better than any ideas in my head.  Have you ever made anything that you felt you were struggling to fulfill then end up crushing it after all?  My hostess dress is all of that. 

This is a bit of a mix of 3 decades – 30’s for the fabric, 40’s in design, and 50’s for the zipper – that all comes together into a fashion anomaly called a “Hostess Gown”.   I was working with a vintage reproduction pattern drafted with a tendency to give an ill fit.  There was the stress of feeling I couldn’t mess up, besides a lingering guilt for even ‘destroying’ my amazing vintage material in the first place.  I believed I had everything going against my success.  Yet, working through these issues has given me one of this dress, probably one of the best things I’ve made…and after a lifetime of sewing, saying that is a big deal, quite satisfying.  I hate to brag, so this is all the more about touting an accomplishment for me.  It’s not the flashiest or most obvious testament of a successful project, but an understated one that boosts a personal confidence in my skills more than anything else.  I am my own worst critic, so a project like this dress is a great reminder to be gentler on myself, and temper my drive for perfectionism…although sometimes – like here – it does pay off!

This was my only vintage border print currently in my stash, so I may have found my “lightning in a bottle”.  I do still have some bordered design material on hand, though – two in modern rayon knits and a new Indian sari.  I now realize my next border print project, vintage fabric or not, will be very hard to work with coming off of the heels of this one.  My Hostess gown will be hard to top, but that’s okay – even though I wholeheartedly like each and every thing I create, not all can be on the top list, as this is.  Hopefully it will just as esteemed by my succeeding generations.