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!

“Just Whistle While You Work”

I know this year’s official Oktoberfest in Munich is over for this year.  Actually, though, the 12 to 17 of this month marks the very first occasion of this celebration, something which evolved from repeating the festivities surrounding the 1810 wedding of the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.  Interestingly enough, the Brothers Grimm published their first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which included “Snow White” (“Schneewittchen“ in German) as story #53, around the same time in 1812.  What better excuse to post my outfit inspired by the legendary apple-biting princess with the most traditionally German background?  Let’s dive into my Snow White “rags” work dress, made of a 1937 design, the same year as the release of the first Disney animated film by the same name.  This post’s outfit is yet another installment in my ongoing “Pandemic Princess” blog series.

I am proud of how I incorporated the heritage of the Snow White story together with the year of its Disney film, especially when it comes to the fact that this entire dress was cobbled together from my scrap bin.  What we first see Snow wearing at the beginning of the Disney film (when she meets her prince while singing into the wishing well) has the title “rags” dress after all.  I both interpreted that dress literally and opened up room for storing more scraps – ha!  Snow was yet another princess who’s an unloved daughter working as the domestic servant in the house of her stepmother, much like “Cinderella”, and so it makes sense that her garb seemed cobbled together in tattered condition.  For my dress, my “rags” are all very nice material to begin with, so it might be scrapped together too, but it is still a very nice and comfy dress!  It also happens to happily be one I don’t have to keep perfectly clean and proper in while wearing (I don’t have many of these kind), or clean and proper in my grade of construction, as well, for a strange change of circumstances.

The location for these photos is a testament to the enduring, strong presence of German immigrants in the history of my Mid-Western American hometown.  It is a landmark for our city and called the “Bevo Mill”.  The Dutch-style mill was built by August Busch Sr. (of Anheuser-Busch fame) in 1917.  The story goes that August wanted a halfway point between his brewery near down town and his home in the county. It was later opened to the public as a restaurant.  “Bevo” is supposed to be derived from the Bohemian word “pivo,” which means “beer”.  During Prohibition (1920-1933), Anheuser-Busch brewed a non-alcoholic beer named that he also named “Bevo.  The place has a very Bavarian lodge kind of feel to it which was perfect for pictures!  I have many, many great memories of coming to this place since I was old enough to remember for good food and music with special friends and family. 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% linen – all leftover from my past projects. The skirt was a hacked up one-ish yard remnant from this 30’s skirt, the collar and sleeves came from this 1910’s era suit, and a rich brown soft vintage linen napkin set became the bodice and pocket for the dress.  Scraps of silk leftover from this blouse became the second contrast pocket and headband

PATTERN:  Simplicity #8248, a 2016 reprint of a March 1938 pattern, originally Simplicity #2432

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress came together in about 6 hours and was finished on July 21, 2020.

THIS INSIDES:  This is a “rags” dress made from scraps…it would be weird to be cleanly finished inside, right?!  The seam allowance edges are left raw.

TOTAL COST:  This dress cost me nothing!  I normally do not count the cost of material when I am using seemingly insignificant scraps, so this covers most of the dress.  The vintage table linen set was picked up for 25¢ and the zipper was on hand in my stash already, so I’m counting my dress as an ‘as-good-as-free’ project!

Women’s fashion for the year 1938 marked a widespread Germanic and Bavarian cultural influence that was unmistakable, frequent, and easily recognizable in late 30’s fashion for women.  A Germanic folk style had been creeping into women’s stylish street fashions before then because of nationalistic, racialist, and expansionist ideas stemming from both the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy during the First World War and Hitler becoming Chancellor.  “The traditional dirndl (a tracht) was also promoted through the Trapp Family Singers, who wore folk fashion during their performance at the Salzburg Festival (1936), and later on their worldwide tours.  In addition, the film “Heidi”, with Shirley Temple in the lead role, became a hit in 1937. By that year, the dirndl – and Germanic influenced fashion – was considered a ‘must’ in the wardrobe of every fashionable American woman.” (Quoted info from Wikipedia here.)  No doubt the influx of immigrants fleeing pre-WWII invasions and takeovers helped bring a new cultural influence into American style as well.  Folk fashion of central Europe had spread way beyond Germany but the fascination in the United States had dissipated by 1942 to be replaced by a craze for all things Polynesian and South American.    

There is a darker side to the German influence on late 30’s fashion, often called “Tyrolean”, which needs to be addressed.  The women’s League of the Nazi party promoted a “renewal” of the traditional Germanic designs, reworking them into a more attractive version of their folk costume which might easily entice women to adopt the styles outside of festivals.  The Nazi women’s League added short puff sleeves, a more form revealing bodice, and shorter skirt length…all scarily close to how we know the dirndl of today.  To me, Snow White’s “rags” dress seems like a hybrid, bared down version with no lacing or apron.  The way its bodice is a different color from the rest of the dress is reminiscent of an old-style tracht over-bodice with a conservative coverage over the chest, high rounded neck, and little collar.  Yet, there are the puffed sleeves and the shorter skirt.  However, this is enough of my rambling – I will dive into this topic deeper in my next post on the other Germanic fairytale princess…the one with magical hair who was imprisoned in a tower.  So stay tuned! Until then, visit my Pinterest page here on dirndls (modern and traditional) for some eye candy.

I suppose the most obvious choice of pattern to make a vintage Snow White outfit would have been Simplicity #8486, a vintage re-issue for the 80th anniversary of the Disney film in 1937, but as I keep saying for my princess series projects, I do not want a costume.  Simplicity #8486 is indeed a ‘37 design in its lines when you just look at the technical drawing, but it just seems a bit forced to make it in such a way that is a Snow White outfit.  Sure it works, but for my purposes it is too obvious of a character reference sewn like that.  I couldn’t see myself wearing these pieces otherwise, so I will come back to that pattern when I have a non-Disney inspired idea for it.  (I have made the pattern’s hat, posted here, and highly recommend it!)  Now I will explain at the end of this post why I gravitated to Snow’s “rags” dress rather than her princess one, but it was also an easy choice when another 1937 reprint – Simplicity #8248 – was an almost line for line ‘copy’.  This shows just how much Disney’s styling of Snow White makes her very much a product of the times.  I have been aching to sew Simplicity #8248 ever since it came out, anyway, and I was so happy to finally have a reason to do so!

My little bluebird pin on my collar is a gift to me from my Aunt!

Before diving into my Snow White dress, I checked out a few reviews on the pattern and immediately saw one constant warning – this pattern runs small and short-waisted.  I can now attest that this is 100% true.  Heeding the warnings (‘cause it’s better to be safe than sorry), I cut out one whole size bigger than what I needed (according to the given chart) and gave myself an extra inch in the bodice length.  It was a good thing I took these precautions – the dress just fits, and couldn’t be any smaller.  Any tighter in the bodice and I would have been restricted in reach room or my bust would’ve been smashed.  I do wish I had widened the shoulders more because they are too far in towards my neck.  However, the puff sleeve tops fill in for this fitting mishap.  I did have to take out the seam allowance from the waist down because the hips in the dress were snug enough to wrinkle and ride up on me.  I wholeheartedly recommend this dress, though – it is a cute design that lends itself to many differing interpretations.  The details are top notch (omg…the angular darted sleeve caps I chose from view B = love).  It was easy to sew.   It is a classic example of late 30’s fashion.  I will be coming back to this and making another dress from this pattern, maybe even color blocking the bodice panels.  It’s a winner – I hope you try this dress out for yourself.

Pockets just big enough for a to-do list, small handkerchief, or my lipstick – in this case Besame Cosmetics’ “Fairest Red”, a faithful recreation of Snow White’s lip color in the 1937 Disney film.

That being said, I did slightly change up the pattern, not by altering anything in the design, just by adding in extra seam lines to accommodate the small fabric pieces I was using.  The four napkin squares that I had were just barely enough to work – only wide enough to fit half of my body at a time.  Luckily the bodice was in two pieces as well because This linen was dense, super soft, and luxurious – understandable as it was intended to be napkins – and in the perfect color for Snow’s bodice.  I was determined to make my idea work.  The entire front and center bodice is supposed to be cut on the fold, but I had to add a center seam to all the pieces because of linen napkins I was using.  Even the collar pieces had to be seamed together as well because the two biggest scraps went towards the sleeves.  Since there was a seam down the front anyway, and since a collar that is tight around my neck can feel stifling for me, I added a long 22 inch zipper to make my dress fuss-free and adjustable for my comfort. Of course, the double, overlapping, two-tone pockets are my idea as well, and the cutest way to flaunt something so utilitarian!

There was a chunk cut out of the almost perfect one yard left that I needed for the dress’ skirt.  No problem – I was being forced to do the natural thing to make an accurate rendition of the “rags” dress…patches!  It’s not just decorative for looks alone…I really used up the few pieces I had left to barely cover the hole in my skirt material.  It couldn’t have been any more perfect, it was laughable – I would never do this to a project otherwise!!  This was a fantastic case of serendipity.  I left the dress bottom raw, fraying and unhemmed to complement the “rags” look.  Even still, I did use decorative, basic embroidery (a chain-stitch and feather stitch) to sew the patch panels down so at least they would look well-done.  The patch work goes against my ingrained sewing style but the embroidery made it palatable. 

I realized something important here – just because clothing becomes mended doesn’t mean it is ruined or on it’s last life.  My husband, my son, and I have been wearing out our clothes, socks, etc. at a far quicker pace than ever before since the start of the pandemic in 2020 and the rate of repairs I have been doing is quite constant.  I suppose it’s all the extra time and work we are getting done at home – I don’t really know.  Anyway, this Snow White dress is a good example of the visible mending trend I am trying to lean into anyway.  I have always been about reusing, refashioning, and recycling what we have on hand for a new purpose here at home.  Sure, it would be easier to just pitch or recycle such items and buy new, and in some cases we need to do just that, yet change in the fashion industry has to come from somewhere…so it might as well start with me.  I’ve just never tried to incorporate mending so intentionally into something vintage, much less newly made.  As I said, it’s weird for me…in a good way.

As much as I love this dress, and as happy as I am wearing it, Snow White’s story is troublesome to me, mostly on account of the many questionable and problematic elements to her tale.  One young woman to keep house for seven men she just met?  At least the Grimm Brothers’ version makes the Disney interpretation seem so much better than it is on its own.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  The Disney movie version is fantastic in its own right, particularly as a landmark achievement in animation history, and charming in its presentation.  I love how Snow was animated, I enjoy her songs, and relish the humor intertwined in her movie.  Even still, as a person, I find Snow White to be one of the hardest Disney princesses to associate myself with or understand…she is too naive and gullible, for my taste.  Even the messages of both the Grimm tale and the Disney story is sort of confusing…physical beauty will save you and find you love?  Be kind to the point of overly trusting of strangers?  I know it was the older “scare” style of teaching lessons. Yet, seriously, folks…how the antiquated fairytales were for children, I’ll never fully understand.   

I like to ‘see’ a better message from Snow White’s tale, which is why I gravitated towards the “rags” dress in the first place.  Beauty is not dependent on the clothing you wear or the manner of styling oneself.  Marilyn Monroe put a spin on this belief in the most fantastic, hilarious manner in recent memory by wearing a potato sack for a photo shoot.  Beauty is what’s on the inside.  I know this may be a cliché phrase by now, but it’s worth repeating so we can remember what’s important in a world that’s driven by image-centric social media ‘perfection’.

Furthermore, on a practical level, I can completely relate to Snow White’s working song, “Just Whistle While You Work”, which I why it’s my post’s title.  I do like a bit of merry, energizing background music while I do chores or sewing (but not fabric cutting…too much to focus on).  Believe it or not, I sometimes even like my favorite tunes playing on the side when I do my blog post writing.  However, such a setting only applies when my “comfort” music is played, the kind that I know by heart and places me in a great mood!  Now if only I can get all the squirrels, rabbits, and birds that we have around our yard to actually help me get things done, as well, I suppose I would be ecstatic enough to whistle about it, too!  

Kaleidoscope Colors

As a child, my kaleidoscope used to enchant and fascinate me.  I would love all the bright colors changing and mixing with every spin, and the patterns it created were something which reminded me of a snowflake with personality, making the most of whatever light you directed the toy at.  Now that I know how it works and have so many things on my schedule, sadly my kaleidoscope is packed away and not seen anymore.  However, I do have this blouse, a grown-up girl replacement!

Modern day winter wardrobes tend to be so droll and dreary compared to the fun with color the late 30’s enjoyed.  That decade combined and paired the most unusual colors in the most creative and attractive ways.  Bright and crazy colored stripes, however, are so classic to the late 30s and oh-so-popular again today.  It’s no wonder – they are like a ray of welcome and much needed sunlight in the world of everyday fashion!  True vintage items in such a stripe print today get sold so fast at high-prices that sadly such style garments are out of the question for many others like myself…and true vintage fabric like it is even harder to find in a usable, stable condition.  Reprinted modern versions don’t often do the 30’s striping justice either, which is why I am so happy to have recently found a newly printed crepe which does match the old-time mix of happy colors.  Together with a tried-and-true 1940 pattern, which has been adapted to copy a 1938 style, I have what may be my most complimented me-made garment yet!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% polyester crepe for the fashion fabric, and a scrap of cotton broadcloth the line the shoulder panel inside

PATTERN:  Hollywood #1991, year 1940

NOTIONS:  I had all the buttons and thread I needed.  The buttons are vintage from the stash of my husband’s Grandmother

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was made in about 8 hours and finished on October 10, 2017

THE INSIDES:  nice French seams inside

TOTAL COST:  under $15

This was really a simple blouse to make, but the fabric and the sleeves are what helps to make the blouse standout.  I got rid of the angled panels to the original pattern and cut this version in all sharp geometrics, which complements the stripes.  The collar was re-drawn to be pointed, and the wide front (as well as back) upper bodice was made completely horizontal.  I lengthened the blouse hem as I eliminated the attached waistband.  As the golden yellow stripe was missing from the color sequence across the blouse front because of the way I cut, I added the ocher tone in through my choice of buttons.

I was basing my new composition to the 1940 Hollywood pattern off of images of true vintage patterns I do not have but admire, old fashion advertisements, and past photographs of both celebrities and regular women wearing striped blouses which have a crazy assortment of color.  It seems as if this trend is concentrated in between the years of 1938 and 1940.  I can’t help but wonder if that mode of fashion was begun with the lovely “Alimony” evening gown (year 1937) from the American designer Elizabeth Hawes.  However, it seems that multi-color striped garments after that designer were frequently in housecoats or sportswear pieces.  To see more inspiration of late 30’s to early 40’s multi-striped garments see my Pinterest board here.

My very favorite multi striped garment for inspiration is in the Agent Carter television show Season Two with the character of Ana Jarvis.  Ana favors late 30’s style in her wardrobe, and her blouse in the episode 5 “The Atomic Job” is a true and striking sample of the best from that period.  The only obvious difference between hers and mine is that Ana’s is satin with a waist tie front, and mine is a crepe finish with a regular blouse middle.  She was the cheerful, hopeful, and helpful backup character that was supporting all the others embroiled in the possible-death mission of the “The Atomic Job” episode, and her wardrobe shows this fact.  I want my wardrobe to reflect my happy inside…or if my day is going badly, I want it to cheer both me and others up.  Elsa Schiaparelli has been quoted as saying, “Color gives me ecstatic pleasure” from her book “Shocking Life”.  I’m so in agreement, and so are many people I think.  It’s a shame that out of the many people who compliment me on my blouse, many admit that even though they want it off my back they really wouldn’t wear it.  I’m guessing it’s because they just have a certain color comfort level they’ve grown used to and might even be afraid of being too flashy or too different.  Whether my colorful garment flags people down or not, we all know need color in our lives and regular RTW fashion certainly doesn’t seem to realize that so this blouse’s kind of different is good!

The wonderfully wide bishop sleeves with its big cuffs and puffed shoulder tops are the only thing I left as the pattern designed…and why not because they are killer amazing!  The pattern for such a full bishop sleeve with such forearm-encompassing cuffs was almost confusing because it was as wide as it was long.  Just like for my recent 1962 “Beatnik Blouse”, the sleeves atop big cuffs are so much shorter than “normal” long sleeves I am used to and it throws me off.   It also takes a good deal of both seam allowance clipping and ironing to harness so much gathering into a cuff so it stays flat.  The cuffs have dual buttons with close under embroidered thread loops along the edge.  These are rather hard to do on myself but I like how they keep the cuffs wrapped flat and snug around my lower arm verses buttonholes.

Can we set aside a minute just to gush over my jaw-dropping belt!?  This was a very lucky and therefore ridiculously affordable second-hand find for me, and is a ‘dream belt’ come true!  All in leather and detailed tooling all around front and back, it is a perfect bold and statement piece to complement the already outgoing feel of my blouse.  Actually, though – the late 30s was all about statement belts anyway, especially wide ones that had complex or unusual closings, anyway.  The only thing is, I haven’t yet figured out if the buckles are supposed to be worn at the top or on the bottom!

Yes, I realize I have been posting a good number of both blouses and shirts lately, but this has been what I have been sewing most of this year!  Separates are to me the salt and pepper of my everyday dressing.  Especially when it comes to vintage garments, having something that looks nice, yet is still casual, and definitely comfy as well as practical for whatever life throws my way for the day is what I can never get enough of.  The 1930s had this down to an art, in my opinion.

I must admit I never thought I would be wearing all those colors I admired so well in the light coming through my kaleidoscope.  I have been searching long for the right fabric to remake this now popular vintage trend for myself.  Now that I can do so, I have something to resort to for the long, dreary, chilly cold weather season we experience here…because warm weather garments shouldn’t be the only clothes which get the prettiest colors.  Do yourself a favor and don’t be afraid to try a new color in your wardrobe today!

Late 30’s Dress Sports Halter and Bolero

Our trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to see the exhibit “Stitching History from the Holocaust” (see this post for an entire report about it) gave me a goal of sewing a new, era-matching outfit to wear for the occasion!  I love sewing especially when it comes to making something for a trip – to me, it’s the epitome of a special occasion and lets my outfits get a real purpose outside of the norm.  I also wanted to continue my respect for the story of Hedy Strnad with what I wore for our visit.

The woman drawn in each of Hedy’s designs of “Stitching History from the Holocaust” were the classic ideal for the late 30s.  She exudes assertiveness as she goes out into the world participating in a fully modern life of enjoying leisure time, shopping, making her own money, and taking care of her well-being.  Overall, a woman of the late 30s showed she is an equal part of society with fashions that displayed her unique personality and spunk with a combination of simplicity and complexity.  Even though the women on the cover of my outfit’s pattern are demurely looking downward, I do feel that my sports halter dress and bolero is part of that sort of womanly ideal!

This is a fun and comfy set which was perfect for the slightly cool weather of Milwaukee in the summer, with its northern breezes coming off of Lake Michigan, which you see behind me in our pictures.  It is vintage a la New York style circa 1938 or 1940, but to me it looks timeless.  I was so put together but still casual…an unusual combination that is so awesome to come upon.  I never like to look sloppy on our trips – I like the old-school way of going abroad in style.  There never is any need to be otherwise when the outfits I make feel as good as wearing a nightgown but visually are quite different!  Besides, how often do you see orange for summertime?  It’s quite cheerful when not just reserved for Halloween. My outfit is so easy to move in – I mean look at my full bias skirt – and the denim chambray of my dress and linen of my bolero are wonderful fabrics to feel against the skin.

Most importantly, though, our trip to Milwaukee gave me a good prod to finally get this outfit done in the first place.  I’ve only wanted to sew up this set together for the last several years!  So many sewing ideas and too little amount of time means there are many that get pushed back in my queue.  It is quite satisfying to get to these backburner projects!  I now wonder the reason why I always let this particular outfit project slide for so long, because I heartily enjoy wearing this set…but especially the very useful bolero!  I suppose this outfit was merely waiting for the right occasion…

This post is the first installment in my new ongoing series of an “Indian Summer of the Sundress”

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  DRESS – an all-cotton lightweight denim chambray (same as what I used for these pants but in a darker wash) together with a fat quarter of printed quilting cotton for the orange contrast; BOLERO – a dense, soft finish, loose-weave linen (leftover from making this dress) for the exterior and a sheer cotton handkerchief cotton as lining

PATTERN:  an unprinted New York #273 pattern, circa 1938, for the dress and (at left) Vintage Vogue #8812, a 2012 reprint of a year 1940 pattern, for the bolero jacket

NOTIONS:  What I used from on hand was thread, bias tape, snaps, bra cup liner, and bits of interfacing.  I bought a specialty Tim Holtz brand orange buffed metal exposed zipper for the back closure and some bright orange flower clearance buttons close up the back neck.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This set was finished in early August 2018 after about 30 hours spent to make both items.  The bolero took only 4 or 5 hours to complete out of the 30 total!

THE INSIDES:  Both are cleanly bias bound on all edges

TOTAL COST:  $20 or under

From seeing full-skirted, halter-style garments paired with a separate cover-up pop up again and again in between 1936 and 1940 respectively, this is seems to be a short-lived (but popular) sports and leisure set.  I’ve been saving pictures like nobody’s business of these types of sets, entranced by the style they exude even when doing things that are meant for fun, health, and relaxation.  I admire how the 1930s brought fashion into all aspects of life, and I mean fashion that is just as spot-on and put together as dressy wear.  Women were heartily encouraged to be active, healthy, and powerfully self-assured with themselves, and it showed in what they wore.  Thus the popularity for halter bodices which display a confidence in baring strong shoulders and arms!

Very bare backs and free shoulders were so popular in the 30’s.  They had a different air when coming from an evening gown design, but for these halter-neck garments it left full movement for tennis and golf, two of the sports women are mostly shown enjoying in such outfits.  A bolero makes such a skin-baring garment more presentable for a greater variety of occasions, as the 1930s – for all its high fashion – still made things so smart and useful.  I find my little bolero perfect for going indoors where air conditioning is almost always blasting too cold and it makes my dress fit to be seen as respectful in a church!

Both pieces were pretty easy to make – the bolero more so (obviously).  Both the dress and jacket, however, received much hand stitching so they were more time-consuming than could be expected using only my machine.  I wanted them to turn out well!  The bolero is something I want to last me many years, especially since it matches with almost everything in my summer wardrobe, so I needed to do the hemming and edging by hand.  The sundress’ denim makes any thread color very obvious, which would be okay on jeans or something meant to be a lot more casual than this, in my opinion.  No visible stitching elevates it from a mere handmade to something nicer, I think, and aligns with the quality and time-honored construction methods used on garments of the 30s.

Both patterns came together without a fitting hitch.  The bolero was rather a no brainer-type of make because I had used the pattern once already to make the matching sundress (see the dress’ post here) and I felt assured (rightly so, it turns out) of its success as it is so simple.  The dress somewhat made me nervous because New York patterns from the 30’s and 40’s seem to have funky sizing and proportions, in my experience.  They seem to have small shoulders, long hems and very small hips and waist.  Again, I was right with my sizing estimate and besides a small, extra ¼ dart I had to add to the side bust of the halter bodice, my dress turned out fitting me perfectly.

I did not have to worry about this New York pattern’s shoulders (as they are open), but the dress did come down to ankle length unhemmed.  Three inches were cut from the bottom and I gave the dress a deep 4 inch hem, which ends up nicely weighing the skirt down ever so gently.  It is now closer to a late 1930s midi length…perfect for keeping my knees covered when running or sporting or climbing in and out of public transportation vehicles!

I simplified the one pattern and had to fill in for the other.  Old patterns do not generally give you all those fussy tricky facing pieces or edge finishing guides that you get in new patterns.  In many cases, even the reprints or re-issues such as Vintage Vogue have drafted those pieces for the patterns sold today.  I normally do not like those facing pieces and much prefer a full lining, but sometimes they are needed.  For the dress, I used the edge facing pieces to cut out the interfacing and ironed that to the lining.  Then the entire “second bolero” in the form of the sheer cotton lining was put inside and stitched along the edges.  Bias tape used to turn under the raw edges.  The dress tissue had no pieces for anything besides the dress itself, and the instructions call for bias finishing, which I did.  The back neck closure needed something much more stable then edge finishing so I used the last 5 inches of the halter strap pattern to trace out a double.  Then I interfaced it, sewed it down (right sides together), and turned it under for a full facing that is clean and fully covered right or wrong side!  Old patterns trust you to either know what you’re doing or to figure out what needs to be done, and I find this confidence in the user is great for advancing or keeping up one’s sewing skills.  Just don’t let this feature of old patterns turn you off, please!

Yes, I did quite change up the back of the dress…but who would really want all those buttons to close blindly reaching behind or poking uncomfortably over your backside?!  Also, too, with a zipper – and a modern exposed one at that – I can both get the dress to fit me more snugly and update it to seem current.  I merely sewed up the back along the center front line which ran through the buttons and button holes.  Along the same thought, I made the back neckline of the halter close with two heavy-duty, large snaps.  Two buttons over the top of them create a deception.  The front bottom half of the dress was changed for the better, too, because I left out the center front seam to the skirt, lining up that former seam line with the fabric’s fold to end up with a beautiful bias half circle.  The motion to this skirt as one piece with no seam and the way it flows with me to keep me covered as I stay active is fantastic – the very reason this is a sporty dress.

The collar points were made according the pattern and turned out atrociously long and out-of-place.  They hung out over the edge of the dress and onto the front of my upper arm.  That would not do!  As I had no more scraps to cut recovery pieces, nor did I even consider the laborious task of total unpicking, I took the imperfect shortcut of folding the collar in half into a better (smaller) shape and stitching it down by hand to the underside.  The perfectionist inside me cringes that I even did this, buy hey – it really does look fine and turned out nice, especially compared to how it was (bad enough that I didn’t take a ‘before’ picture).  This ‘fix’ caused so much extra hand-stitching, but it was still better than unpicking and starting over.  I wouldn’t have had my dress done in time for the trip if I had done the proper way of fixing the collar.  It’s always better to have something you are happy to be wearing – perfect or not – than put yourself through a misery doing things “right” in sewing to the point you are no longer interested in finishing your project!  At some time in the future, I might come back to this dress and do things right, as I do for some of my projects.  When I feel up to replacing that sleeve, adding a pocket, cleaning up a seam, or correcting something done not “just-so” is better than forcing it.

To keep things simple and modest for wearing this halter, especially since the denim is so lightweight, I sewed mesh brassiere cups into the dress for an all-in-one garment.  I think I’ve only done such a thing once before.  However, as this outfit was to see its first use on a trip, and I like to be the type of person that travels with one suitcase (NOT a “bring the kitchen sink” type of person), a bra sewn in the dress was a wonderful detail which made my life easier…and more comfortable!  Now that the trip is past, I find myself reaching for this dress again and again because of how nice it is with the bra cups attached inside.  The middle netting between the cups was stitched to the center seam of the bodice, tacked at the bust darts, and the side elastic was stretched and stitched to the side seams.  You really don’t want to tack down bra cups at too many places for a lightweight, unlined dress like this otherwise they will pull at the garment and become terribly obvious.

I already have a weak spot for the late 30’s fashion, and this outfit now makes my addition all the worse.  I don’t know if it’s just because I know the culture’s ideals for back then, but I think that 1930s clothes do still lend a wonderful feeling of empowerment when they’re worn.  They give women a chance to unabashedly embrace their body figure with shapely fashions and offer great opportunity to enjoy playing with color and accessories combinations.  They provide a means to exercise and relax in something just as comfy as modern athletic wear but which is so much more colorful, unique, and feminine.  They are often bold and unusual, but that is generally what is attractive about clothes from this era.  By the compliments I receive on my me-made clothes and the discussions I have with others who don’t sew, I realize people are dying for clothes that are fun, that they can enjoy, and that make them feel like themselves.  The late 1930s does that for me in a special way different from all the other eras I wear.  I hope you’re ready for more fashions from the late 30’s because I have plenty more to come!