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”.
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!