I recently realized a gap in my winter wardrobe. Amongst all my warm self-made dresses and cozy skirts in lofty wool or tweed, none are from the 1930s decade. My trip in February to Los Angeles (and Las Vegas) gave me the perfect excuse to amend this discrepancy! We were to stay at a grand Art Deco era hotel “the Biltmore” – an early home to the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscars. You all can tell how much I love an appropriate background setting for my vintage adventures, so I came prepared with a wonderful mid-30’s boucle dress which now fills in the gap in wintertime gear!
This dress completely plays upon my combined love for Art Deco geometrics and the mathematics of sewing. It is a dress chock full of right angles. The boucle has darker brown threads in perfectly right angles, and the faux pockets continue the play. There are gusset panels at the underarms. My gloves have zig-zagged cuffs and my chest decoration is dashes. Even the buttons I chose are squares. This circa 1934 dress is on the very cusp of the shift in the decade’s dresses going from so very angular and Art Deco Influenced to soft, flowing, and feminine after 1935. Even my hat refers back to the early 30’s with its close-to-the-head fit that pairs with a short hairstyle, much like the late 1920s, and it has very linear velvet trimming wrapping around the crown.
Granted, most of the pictures in this post were taken when back home in our town, because sometimes we’re too busy having fun on a trip to stop for photos. However, it just goes to show that this dress is much more than just a splurge creation for a special trip. It is a new favorite! My accessories – all vintage except for my shoes – are also mostly acquisitions from the same trip, as well. (Any color in gloves which are older than the 1950s is hard to find in town, but I prefer trying them on before buying, after all.) It felt like this outfit was just meant to be, and although it has been hard to wait, apparently ‘now’ was finally the perfect time to pick up this project and make it wearable.
FABRIC: an acrylic blend, fuzzy, chenille-like boucle; contrast pieces in a light polyester crepe; bodice and collar lined in crepe poly lining
PATTERN: Excella pattern #5288, from circa 1934 (no later than 1935)
NOTIONS: My buttons and my side zipper are true vintage from the 30s or 40’s. Other than that, all other supplies are new and mostly from on hand – embroidery floss, thread, bias tape, and interfacing scraps.
THE INSIDES: The bodice is fully lined, but the skirt seams have clean bias bound edges.
TOTAL COST: This dress cost me under $5! The buttons, zipper, and floss were my few recent expenses and the only ones I’m counting. Everything else (all the fabrics) was either scraps or came from on hand in my stash for what seems like forever…so there as good as free!
This dress has subtle (but fantastic and unusual) points to it that set it a bit apart from the run-of-the-mill 1930s design. The skirt pleats are folded oppositely to the norm – the side panels are folded in knife pleat manner towards the center on top of the middle panel. I have not yet found another 1930s design which has underarm gussets…combined with the wide, cut-on, kimono sleeves this style of bodice is what is considered traditional for the 1950s! The collar does not extend all the way around the neck and ends in an angle on either side of the collarbone to leave the front button closure standing alone all the way down the center front bodice. If I want a slightly different look than an all-buttoned-up neckline, I can open up the top button hole and give the appearance of a collar (thanks to the full lining). The belt is an extension of the bodice in the way the belt carries on the descending buttons. A back view is rather plain comparatively, with a basic two piece skirt and a bodice with waistline pleats for a slight pouf above the belt. The era of the 1930s never ceases to amaze me with its curious variety of fashion, but even still, this is a rare bird of a style, I believe!
Finishing this dress was an old commitment finally fulfilled. The project idea had been in my sewing queue for several years (and the fabric for at least a decade before that) but I knew my chosen design would require some real pattern work before being usable. Firstly, I needed to trace it out so as the grade in wider (more modern) seam allowances. Besides, I’d rather not take the chance of ruining the old original tissue pieces. Secondly, it was incomplete. Sometimes I can get a good deal on patterns which would otherwise be pricey by being open to ones which are missing pieces and in danger of being thrown away. Pattern drafting feels so worthwhile when it can go towards bringing these old pattern gems back to being usable and complete again. This way it’s also done not for money but driven only from dedication. Granted, this dress did not have any major pieces gone – only the collar, facings, and decorative corner panels – but just drafting them successfully from scratch feels like a big deal to me now that the dress has come together!
Excella Pattern Company was a subsidiary of Pictorial Review Patterns, so if it is anything like its parent corporation, I’m assuming this dress is a higher-end style which is either from epicenters such as Paris and New York, or knocked-off of a designer’s creation. Even though I see that the pattern number points to the probability that this is 1935, the design is so very 1934 (which I played upon with my hat which can be definitively dated to the same year). This is weird because these patterns were usually ahead of the curve when it came to the newest styles. Nevertheless, for as simple and “easy” as this might seem upon a general glance (especially when compared to other Excella & Pictorial Review patterns of the time) I could tell it was a high-end design by the way the small details that you don’t see demanded so much extra time.
I didn’t need the missing neckline facing pieces as I went ahead with my own plans and fully lined the bodice. Yet the contrast collar, faux pockets, and belt were actually part of my never-ending scrap-busting attempts. You see, I had bought some reproduction 1930s style, high-waisted, wide-legged trousers for my husband a few years back and they needed a very deep hemming job for them to be his length. The fabric was a lovely, thick, crepe finish material and I had two big 6 by 24 inch-something rectangles leftover which happened to match so very well with this boucle. I figured so very correctly that those pieces I wanted to be in contrast wouldn’t need much fabric anyway, and the dull crepe is a perfect non-flashy but pleasing material to do the job (a ‘pretty’ brown tone can be so hard to come by). Yay for making the most of every little bit I bother to save! My husband finds this use of those scraps amazing in the way I even so much as kept track of those remnant pieces, and then remembered my fabric stash (and planned projects) well enough to figure such a pairing. As I said above, I feel this project was meant to be!
Perfecting the details took up more time than to bring the basic dress together, but I do believe such attention makes a world of difference from merely handmade to the Parisian chic Excella and Pictorial Review patterns were known for. Perhaps the most obvious detail is the decorative stitching added onto the front chest faux pockets. Rows of thread are shown on all the angular panel pieces on the pattern cover, and I was (still am) unsure how much I like the detail, so I kept it only to the chest panels. No need to bring more attention to the hips, so I heard when I asked for advice. I used embroidery floss for the job, and stitched it by hand during the car ride across the desert from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The instructions seem to indicate the rows of thread are to be tiny, close to one another, and stitched down by the machine, but I wanted something much more decorative than that…something that shows off my time and handiwork.
Additional embroidery floss went towards stitching on arrow points at the opening of the skirt pleats. The boucle is very loose, and the skirt is unlined, and so the arrow points not only add a bit of couture finery but also make sure the fabric stays together at one of the most stressed seams to the dress. There are hand stitched thread belt loops all around the waist to keep my self-fabric skinny belt in place over the bulky waist seam. All hems and the neckline edges, as well as the zipper, were also hand stitched in place for a dress that has very little visible seaming thread showing. The only semi-shortcuts I took is to make regular stitched buttonholes as well as making the belt front closure not a true workable button – there is a hidden double hook-n-eye. These are not really shortcuts, I know, but I worked on such fine finishing everywhere else, so I had a silly sense of guilt.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother to go to such lengths. Maybe it’s for the satisfaction of creating something beautiful to the best of my ability. Perhaps it’s merely the perfectionist in me. Maybe I’m trying to fill in for the lack in quality that RTW nowadays does not generally offer. Deep down I want to make something that will last, something that will be treasured, something alike to what makes vintage garments so appealing and enduring even today. Every time I doubt myself yet still take the time to construct something well, I see the finished look and love it – it makes it all worthwhile.
Anyway – back to the dress before I wrap up this post! It might seem a bit out of the traditional season for rust toned ochre. However, orange isn’t just for fall (I have a whole Pinterest page dedicated to this). As much as this dress can come across as an autumn season frock, I see it more as an apricot color, or a warm, earth-toned beige. It’s a lovely, cheerfully muted color for a very early springtime for some pleasant February days. It’s also a color I most admire in the built environment of our home city, too. I love decorative terra cotta elements, the fine crafted brick work that our town is known for, and the combination of a glorious sunset blending its colors with the rich architecture. Now I have a dress that matches well with that! Even though I probably will not be wearing this dress any more this year until autumn comes so many months away, I have this wonderful 30s dress waiting for those cold days ahead so I can rock the Deco Era no matter what the weather!