1938’s Fashionable Floral Stripes

The decade of the 1930s probably has the most joyful, extravagant, and inventive use of stripes to be seen in the last 100 years of fashion.  Garments back then – for both men and women – had striped material used in a dizzying array of differing methods to either complement the figure underneath or showcase the talent behind the design.  Visit this “Witness2Fashion” blog post for some visual proof of this fact.  Sometimes stripe directions were used straightforwardly, but more often mixed up to compliment paneled designs (such as I did for this 30s blouse) or used diagonally on the bias grain (see this dress of mine).  Back then, stripes were even used for evening wear, on winter coats, as well as shoes, hats, and everything in between. 

Year 1938 fashion inspiration.

Yet, 1938 is special in the way it stands out as the niche year for a specifically kind of striped print.  When I happened to run across a fabric that closely imitated the style of a 1938 striped floral, I was thrilled to have a chance to channel this short-lived vintage “fad” in my own sewing by combining it a 1938 dress pattern from my stash.  I love being able to recreate a killer vintage look, of course, but it is fun to do so as a modern comfort piece by working with a forgiving stretch satin-finish poly.  You’d never guess, right?  For me, this project is the epitome of learning from society’s fashionable past while also building upon and personalizing it for today. 

It is important to note that later on, this post will also be highlighting my fabulous vintage style hat, which I also made.  It is a refashion of a modern wool felt fedora.  Real vintage hats (in good wearable condition) are often beyond my preferred price range, and I really wanted a specific ‘look’ to match with my ensemble ideal.  It is much more satisfying for me to have made something with my own hands, using what was immediately available, and at a ridiculously reasonable price than high priced instant gratification.  I also made the grey belt (posted here) which can be seen in some of my pictures, but that already has had its own feature so I will not talk about it here.  I’ll do whatever it takes to assemble together everything I need to imitate those late 1930s fashion illustrations that so enthrall me where all the trimmings – jewelry, scarf, belt, gloves, etc. – are piled on in excess but somehow perfectly coordinate while also contrasting. 

All the rest of my accessories that you see are true vintage pieces, most of which have come to me from my paternal Grandmother.  I couldn’t decide if I preferred a grey belt or a rust colored belt – the latter of which is more true to the Tyrolean and peasant influence of the late 1930s.  With its laced front, the rust colored suede belt is just like what can be seen in fashions which span 1937 to 1940, even though the piece itself is from the 1970s.  We took pictures with both belt and color themed options.  As you go through my post, let me know at the end which prevailing color in accessories you prefer to pair with my dress!  Do you see how much accessories alone can change the feeling of or add appeal to a dress?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:   The dress was made of a stretch polyester satin, the same material as what I used to make this vintage 1946 dress.  The hat is a 100% wool felt, originally an American Eagle brand modern fedora.

PATTERN:  McCall #3102, circa March or April of year 1938, an original pattern from my personal collection, while the hat I made with no pattern

NOTIONS NEEDED:  For the dress, I used lots of thread (of course), one zipper for the side seam closure, a few buttons for the front bodice (I used true vintage buttons from the stash of my husband’s Grandmother), and some cotton broadcloth scraps which I used as interfacing.  Everything I needed for the hat was repurposed from off of the hat, so I needed no extra supplies.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was sewn in about 20 hours while the hat was made in two hours and both were finished at the end of August 2018

THE INSIDES:  as the dress is a knit and the hat is felt, neither piece has edges that ravel and thus the edges have been left unfinished

TOTAL COST:  This fabric had been bought too many years back for me to remember how much I spent to buy it, but I bought it on clearance from the now defunct Hancock Fabrics store.  I believe I had about 2 ½ yards of material in total.  Everything else I needed was as good as free, coming from my notions stash on hand.  The hat I refashioned only cost me $10 to purchase second-hand.  My total cost for this outfit was probably $30.

The striped fabric I was working with soon became more than solely an aesthetic or historically based choice but ended making the pattern I was working with easier to construct than it would have been otherwise.  As the entire main body gets pleated down (only down to mid-thigh for ease of movement) I merely followed the lines of the stripes on the fabric to aid me in making the pleats.  It helped that this was a 30’s pattern and therefore generally straight-lined and not very curvy.  The width of one row of striping was the depth of the pleats, and figuring that much out saved me from having to chalk mark a plethora of fold lines.  The vintage pattern – which was printed much like a modern one because it was a McCall’s brand – suddenly was much less intimidating despite being covered in pleat lines and balance marks! 

This gets me wondering if perhaps stripes were popular for reasons such as this, to aid in the sewing of a very geometric leaning design.  Stripes get the bad rap for being more challenging to work with since they present a challenge to match up along seam lines.  However, this dress proves that is not always the case.  For pleated patterns, using fabric that is striped can definitely aid in the construction of your garment.  Sewing is very much tied to math, so use that fact to your advantage and make sewing easier.

Sears ad from August of 1938 that shows fabric and fashion in floral striping prints

I wanted to level up the slimming powers of the color black and have the direction of my print run vertical, even though floral stripes (as the blog “Witness2Fashion” states here) are often associated with flannel nightgowns when used lengthwise.  The popularity of the “Lantz of Salzburg” line of clothing helped commercialize the Tyrolean and “peasant” look for American women’s mainstream fashion in the late 1930’s.  I have found such floral stripes labelled “Romany striping” in late 1930s original Sears brand ad paraphernalia for either fabric or the dresses that are in such a print.  These have a clear Polish, Hungarian, Bavarian, Czech, and Balkan influence to their quaint, colorful, geometrically laid out designs as seen in the old advertising illustrations.  Perhaps the term “Romany” referred to the Roma people so often stereotyped as the classic “peasant” influence for 1920s to 1970s vintage fashion? 

Floral stripes may have been fashionable street wear in the late 30’s, but they became mostly relegated to nightwear in the WWII era.  With the onset of war, the ethnic fashion of Europe was confined to bed chamber clothing or at least watered down in obvious cultural influence for American women.  In the 1950s, a brand new batch of floral striped cottons became popular for full-skirted, cute summer sundresses of the era, but emerged looking closer to vintage bed sheet or wallpaper prints then what was what seen in the 1930s.  My own dress’ floral stripes are rather subtle and not very obvious.  The ‘stripes’ are more like trailing vines, but definitely botanical upon close inspection.  At some point, I would love to find a true “Romany striping” from the 30s and use it for another of my ’38 patterns because this first attempt is a big win for my wardrobe!     

As I mentioned above, as 30’s patterns are generally straight-lined and do not account for full hips, I added necessary shaping into the side seams.  This way I did not mess up the layout of the pleats down the front of the dress body.  I didn’t try too hard to do any matching in the layout of the pattern pieces, but the stripes seem to match in most places anyway.  Overall the closely spaced stripes make for a busy print that hides any flaws in my half-hearted effort at matching.  The print sure does visually elongate my body, giving the illusion that I am taller and slimmer than my petite frame size says I am.  It thereby conveys the ideal 1930s body type image on my definitely not 30’s era appropriate hip size.  I made sure to have the stripes run horizontal in the shoulder panels, though.  This gives my dress strongly framed, squared up shoulders that hint forward to the 1940s era, with a nod towards a menswear influence.  Laying out the stripes horizontally in the shoulder panels balances out all the other vertical lines, thereby further elongating my torso.  Sometimes fashion can be merely about creating a certain visual imagery for the body through perfect placement or mere exaggeration of details.

Along such a topic, I would be remiss if I did not further address this dress’ fabulous sleeves.  Amongst all the straight lines and stripes going on, eve the sleeves are uniquely geometric with the sleeve cap head being nothing box right angles to form a box shape.  When I said above that the shoulders are squared off, I meant that…literally!  I’ve never seen this kind of sleeve before and I love it because it is really comfy to wear as well as interesting.  The pattern recommended some sort of stabilization over the sleeve cap area, such as canvas or stiff crinoline, to be sewn in with the seams but as this is a modern interpretation of a vintage style, I merely used cotton iron-on interfacing.  The sleeves have a life all their own and smashing them down under a blazer, sweater, or coat does not crush them – they pop back to their intended shape!  The things to see and learn from using vintage patterns never fail to amaze me.

The neckline is unexpectedly versatile.  I am glad of this since I was not a fan of the high tied neck in the illustration, as necklines too confining around my throat freak me out.  However, I also felt such a neckline suited the design so I left it as-is and made it a part of the dress anyways.  As it turned out, the tie – being a stretchy knit – is not as restricting as I thought it would be (and I can tie it loosely, after all).  Even still, if I merely tuck the tie end into my dress I have the appearance of a plain neckline.  Taking that a step further, if I also undo the top button and flap the facing open then the plain neckline looks like it has lapels.  I mixed up the necklines in my photos, since (like my accessories) I don’t know which way I liked best.  I love clothes that have options.

For my hat, I started off by buying a basic wool felt fedora so I had a “blank canvas” with which to re-block, cut, or otherwise refashion as I so desired.  As I was going to do a hot steam treatment to the crown to turn it into a new shape at some point, anyways, I had no qualms about finding this secondhand.  It was very clean and at a steal of a price for such a good quality, good condition, and good brand name felt hat!  My main inspiration was a 1930s original item I found through a vintage seller’s online site.  No matter how much I wanted it, I just couldn’t deal with the sticker shock.  The crown shape was pretty basic, in a tricky specific shape, yet with minimal stitching.  I felt from the outset that this was something I was capable of reproducing, and there is nothing like having that preliminary confidence to give you a vision to go on. 

As my hat turned out, it is slightly different than the original inspiration yet still the same in the general shape and idea.  Nevertheless, having put the effort into this piece, I personally prefer my own version!  It matches perfectly with my dress (and other items in my wardrobe, as well) and is a 1930’s shape that still carries a sort of modern air.  It sits on my head effortlessly while also not messing up my hair, since it kind of perches more than hugs my crown.  Even still, I added an attached headband of elastic thread – so thin it gets disguised in my hair so easily- that goes around the back of my head. 

My hat was happily a zero-waste project, too!  Everything that was there on the hat as I bought it is on it now as a vintage-style refashion – the felt has just been cut and steamed into a new shape and the leather decorative ties went towards becoming the “string” that brought the crown together.  I really love the vintage style hats that I make for so many reasons, but the last reason may just be the way I don’t have to be as delicate or careful as I would be with an old original piece.  I know fashionable hats may be out of style the way they were in the 1930s, but with a hat like this one I will not care.  I will wear my me-made hat as much as I desire so as to bring more than just stocking caps back in style (hopefully) for fall and winter!

The proof of how much I enjoy wearing the hat and dress is in the fact each has become my frequent go-to item, either separate or together, for an easy vintage look.  Worn together, though, the dress and hat pairs with all my favorite shoes, jewelry, and blazer colors.  I like how I can brighten the dress up with yellow for summer, keep it all black for a funeral, or go with burgundy, beige, or pastel tones. 

Me and my son “cuttin’ a rug” out in the street’s stage at the Jazz Crawl!

My best pairing outfit pairing for this dress may just be from exactly one year ago, when my husband, son, and some acquaintances all went to an outdoor live Jazz music festival which travels down several blocks of a city street and goes on for the course of a whole day.  We showed up in head-to-toe vintage and caught the attention of photographers.  Thus, we ended up getting some good pictures after all, since we were too busy enjoying ourselves dancing the day away to the lively tunes!  I wore a true vintage peach rayon gabardine blazer, with my rust orange belt and me-made hat, and black and white spectator heels from Chelsea Crew.  Visit my Instagram post (here) on the Jazz Crawl to see some extra pictures.  We had a grand day out and my outfit was just what I needed for the occasion.  The stretch fabric and the little knee pleats of my dress were perfect for swing dancing…I would have never guessed this benefit when I made it!

Floral stripes are a fun spin off of the traditional plain lines.  Such a fabric pattern is a wonderful way to incorporate botanical prints into your colder weather wardrobe without looking like you are sporting a spring print out-of-place.  Finding that there is a certain year of fashion history that excelled at this specialty floral stripe helped me discover a medium through which to enjoy something new for my vintage wardrobe…something I love to wear!  Also, my hat was so much easier (and cheaper) than would be guessed by appearances so I definitely suggest giving refashioning of secondhand headgear a try.  This is such a great way to get yourself that dream millinery piece and customize your accessories at a more achievable level while also having fun learning a new skill.  All around, creating this outfit was a great experience for me, and you will not be disappointed if you try out a 1938 look for yourself.  Everyone loves flowers, right?  So – stripes that are floral cannot be anything but fabulous, right?!

Sweetly Spooky Spider Web Dress

There’s nothing to bring my sewing mojo back like reaching for a project that pairs my favorite color of purple with one of my favorite fashion years of 1939!  Add in a little Halloween whimsy via a vintage novelty print – but do so in the superior comfort of a cotton gauze – and I have a dress that is just so good, I’m absolutely thrilled.  I am not in the mood for anything scary or dark this holiday, so instead I went the cute but on theme look.  Does this make it ‘spoopy’?  

You may not see anything Halloween related to this dress at first glance, but – similar to every good 1930s or 40’s novelty fabric print – look closer and you will see the subtly hidden details.  To let the fantastic print be featured unimpeded by excess design lines, I picked a very simple style very classic of the late 1930s and early 40’s.  The basic pattern also helps the softness and whisper weight of the cotton gauze become a dress that is unimpeded by seams.  It is so pretty how it flows at my every movement or just a slight breeze and gives such a gentle structure to the silhouette!  Happily, this was an easy project to whip together and easy to make, as well.  This year I am having a Halloween free from the stress of any costume sewing and so my dress is even more wonderful being the sole extant of my spooky season efforts!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  ”Garden Cobwebs” print on an organic 100% cotton sweet pea gauze, 54” in width, custom ordered via Spoonflower (through the shop “raqilu”)

PATTERN:  Vintage Vogue #9294, a 2018 reissue of a 1939 pattern, originally Vogue #8659

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and one long 24” invisible zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress was finished in 8 to 10 hours and was finished on October 3, 2022

THE INSIDES:  All raw edges are cleanly, tightly zig-zag stitched together

TOTAL COST:  2 yards cost me $38

This is my second spider web print dress (my first is posted here) but it is definitely competing for being my favorite spider web dress!  True vintage original items in such arachnid related novelty prints can mostly be found from the eras of the 1930s to the 1970s and go for a pretty high price point today.  Thus, I am more than happy to sew, and therefore customize, my own versions.  I almost chose to make a blouse out of the Spoonflower fabric, but the fact I would have had so much material leftover, as well as the way I didn’t know what skirts or pants would match, dissuaded me from turning it into a separate piece.  This particular print seems especially suited for the springtime with the laurel leaves, pastel tones, and subtle webs, and I always seem to think of pretty dresses for spring.  Thus, my train of thought led to find the simple dress pattern I did.  All the pattern pieces easily fit onto only 2 yards with no nap (one-way direction) to the fabric’s print! 

Previous to this this project, I had yet to find a Spoonflower fabric that was anything other than absolutely awful.  I am not a fan of the quality of most of the base materials they offer.  Their cotton sateen is so stiff it can stand up on its own (this dress), their poly crepe does not hold the printed colors well (this blouse), and their regular cotton sticks to itself like Velcro (project yet to come).  However, this organic cotton gauze is an absolute dream come true.  It is slightly sheer, and has an unusual grid-like pattern as part of the fiber weave, but it presents the printing beautifully and is a joy to wear and sew with.  This is such a welcome surprise, as well as a game changer for me when it comes to knowing what to choose from Spoonflower. 

I realized after my order was completed that cotton gauze is found at our local fabric stores in the same aisle as the nursery materials, and so I suspect that this material is often used for baby blankets and swaddling clothes.  Oh well – if it’s soft enough for a baby, I certainly don’t want to be left out from enjoying something superior in cuddliness.  It’s just not what one would think of using for a garment sewing, I suppose, but I was desperate to find a Spoonflower material that was tolerable.  With the spider web print being what it is, and the way I was able to sew it into a cute dress, I don’t think anyone would be any wiser for what I pulled off here working with cotton gauze.  So – I fashioned baby blanket material for me, a grown adult, to wear as a classy vintage dress.  How freaking amazing is the ability to sew, right?!  If you try this experience out for yourself (and I do recommend it), my hot tip is to use a ball point needle (for knits) to sew with and take to time to finish off all raw edges as the gauze likes to unravel and come apart.   

I did see a few reviews and other seamstress’ versions of this Vintage Vogue reprint and it seemed to run on the small end of fitting ease.  The gauze I was working with is a very loose woven and not the type of fabric that I could see working well with a snug fit or stress at the seams.  Thus, I went up a whole size, and I am glad I did!  My sole complaint with this pattern is it has a very long torso length.  The bodice turned out extraordinarily long on me.  I had to shorten it significantly.  Otherwise, I love this dress pattern.  It would be the best bet for anyone new to sewing who still wants more than a plain dress, as well as anyone wishing to dive into vintage styles.  There is lots of room for customization, as well as being perfect for that oversized, novelty, or special fabric print you’ve been wanting to wear.  Just double check the sizing and proportions at the pattern stage before you cut, and you should be good to go.

I didn’t do any real alterations to the pattern beyond cutting the skirt front on the fold to eliminate the center seam. Then I switched up the neckline detail in conjunction with adapting the closure method.  The pattern, as per any true vintage dress, called for a small side seam closure.  Due to the conservative neck design, the pattern combined the side zip with a slit in the front neckline which closes with a tie extension of the bias binding.  Instead, I opted for a full 22” long center back invisible zipper for ease of dressing.  This way I could eliminate the need for the front neckline slit at the same time as making my life easier.  The gauze is so buttery, that I could not see attempting that front neckline slit as ending successfully or being anything other than a stressful effort.  I actually prefer the front neckline having relative simplicity and kept the bias binding tie in the back just above the zipper pull.  This is the same neckline that I already have on some of my past projects, such as this 1940s blouse and my classic Agent Carter dress, but for some reason I think I like it on myself best with this spider web print dress.

I’m so pleased with all the additional purple add in through my accessories.  My earrings are something I made by combining two gradient toned tassels with earring hooks – so simple!  My bracelet is actually a beaded necklace I made as well, to go with this outfit (posted here).  I have found that if a necklace is not too long, but sits close to the neck, I can wrap it twice around my wrist for it to also work as a bracelet.  I enjoy finding new ways to wear items I already have on hand.  My shoes were bought to pair with this “Little Mermaid” outfit I made but also match with this dress’ print, luckily.  I can never have too much purple, much to my husband’s chagrin.

Our location for these photos was a recently shuttered garden shop.  I think it added to the Halloween idea of decay, desertion, and dereliction.  Spiders love to find neglected places to fill in with their webs, and so it made sense to me to wear my spider web dress to someplace abandoned.  Previously, this business had been a standby staple to our neighborhood for over 80 years, and it is sad to see it closed.  It was a busy place while it was open, too popular for us to ever get pictures before now so at least there is some immediate good out of something bad. 

I love my dress’ delicate print compliments the details of the building’s wrought iron trellis work – it has a trailing oak leaf and oak acorn design.  The oak trees grow tall and stately and are the last to let go of their foliage.  To me, this symbolizes stability and strength to have such representation in some trellis work that holds up the front of the building.  However, I love the irony of a strong oak and a web represented next to one another, because a spider’s silk is just a strong in its own way!  Since an empty web is a home without a tenant, my dress has an added vintage-style jeweled spider brooch, ordered awhile back through “Nicoletta Carlone.com”.  Placed on the web over my chest, “Webster” the spider is not really creepy, but rather cute (the “spoopy” factor strikes again). 

This dress is a practical, low-key way to join in on the Halloween fun, but the way it is also a vintage style is so ‘me’.  I am thrilled!  For many, this holiday can be such an exhausting occasion involving so much drama and effort for all types and levels of creators.  Why not instead channel a bit of that creativity to do a quick and easy little selfish project that saves your sanity, as I did?  Don’t get me wrong though – I have had many a Halloween that becomes my excuse to make that full-out, over-the-top cosplay so I can understand anyone who lives for this holiday.  I am not there this year, and this pretty, purple, vintage spider web print dress is all I wanted to make the season special.       

Whether you celebrate, sew, wear a costume, or do none of these, I hope whatever you do for the day makes it a wonderful time. 

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?