“Blank Canvas” – a 1939 Hollywood Dress and Re-Fashioned Hat

Allie J's Social Sew badgeEvery blank canvas is a starting point just waiting, pleading for personalization and a touch of color.  My creation happens to have soft, white linen as the canvas, and all the colors added (in controlled moderation) for a culturally-influenced dress and hat.  I even made my own earrings from buttons to match!  This is part of Allie J.’s Social Sew #4, theme “Vintage”.

Mock embroidery, courtesy of some appliques, a wildly striped scarf belt, and my bright coral “Chelsea Crew” T-strap shoes liven up a white dress.  Subtle features and lots of bias cuts take the backstage to complete the dress.  My Tyrolean-style, dome-crowned straw hat was another successful experiment in more modern hat re-fashioning.  Together, I am again finding myself loving the year 1939 fashion – part 30’s and part 40’s combined into one lovely and comfy outfit.

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My dress and hat happen to have a wide variety of Hollywood personas related to its making – the famous Lucille Ball is the “star” of the dress pattern I used, an “Agent Carter” character Ana Jarvis was another inspiration, as well as actress Joan Blondell’s fashion, especially as worn in the 1939 movie “Good Girls Go to Paris”.  My more basic sources were 40’s and late 30’s pattern covers plus an extant 1939 garment from Jonathan Walford’s “Forties Fashion” book.  My first 1939 dress (blogged here) was also directly patterned after a dress from his book.

Simplicity #4203 & #2070, Walford book's 1939 Mexicali dressThe “Forties Fashion” book chapter which shows my inspiration dress (Chapter 1) addresses the subject of culturally inspired fashions of the early 40’s/late 30’s.  Much of the Mexican, South and Central American themed clothes, aprons and embroidery from those times stemmed from President Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighbor’ policy from the early 1930’s, but as the decade went on, Bavarian and Alpine themed fashion and headwear grew popular universally.  I would also like to think of this dress as further inspired by both the classic ‘Guayaberas’ or Havana shirts and the Phillippines’ version (called ‘Barong Tagalog’) that I’ve seen on the men (and some women) in old movies such as “The Lone Wolf” series.  These shirts are made for warm weather and are often of a type of linen, have lovely details, and have frequent floral embroidery.  Havana and Panama were of course known for their straw hats, too.   Thus, my outfit combined several cultural influences for ‘39.

As far as Hollywood influence, 1939 was the year that Lucille Ball stepped out as something 1939 Hollywood inspiration collageother than a mere radio voice and a B movie actress when she starred in the film “Five Came Back”.  One of the main ladies in that film actually wears an identical hat to the one I made!  I’ve also seen similarities to my dress in the other ’39 movies like “Star Reporter” (same bodice) and “Good Girls Go to Paris” where Joan Blondell has similar puffed arched sleeves, Tyrolean hats, and cropped boleros.  Currently, though, Ana Jarvis from the Marvel television series “Agent Carter” Season Two wears many ethnic inspired fashions, and in “A View in the Dark” (Episode 2) she wears a cream colored blouse with floral vine embroidery.  I know Hollywood is not a good example of what the everyday woman might have worn, but it sure is awesome to bring into one’s wardrobe!

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I have yet to decide on what bolero to sew up to match – one with the large collar in this Hollywood pattern for my dress, but I’m tempted to go with Vintage Vogue #8812 for a simpler look that would go with my later 40’s fashions.  Something else for my already long bucket list of future projects!

THE FACTS:Hollywood 1773, year 1939, front cover-comp

FABRIC:  Thick pure white 100% linen for the dress, polyester chiffon for the scarf belt, and a basic modern hat made out of straw for my re-fashion

PATTERN:  Hollywood #1773, year 1939

NOTIONS:  Floral appliques, thread, bias tapes, and two different zippers – all bought last year when I originally planned on making this dress

THE INSIDES:  All bias bound

TIME TO COMPLETE:  maybe 10 to 15 hours to make – it was finished on July 14, 2016

TOTAL COST:  Everything was bought when a Hancock Fabrics store was closing a year ago, so everything needed was bought on deep discount and amazingly just what I needed for a perfect match.  For several yards of fabric and all my notions I think I spent maybe $20.

DSC_0973a-compHollywood pattern #1773 was an amazing find at an amazing deal which was obviously too good to be true.  It was almost like hell in paper just attempting to sew it into a dress like the one on the cover.  First of all, it was in a very large size for which I had to grade out 4 inches besides taking out 4 inches from the length of the skirt hem.  However, the real problem was the fact the pattern was cut into and changed dramatically.  I really don’t know what someone was trying to do but after studying the line drawing and doing much detailed mathematics,DSC_0972a-comp I had to re-draw in about 3 to four inches added for the center front where someone cut out scalloping.  After all this, the instructions were disintegrated to the point they were in about 5 crumbly, delicate pieces.  All the instructions have now been scanned in and saved as files on my computer for a permanently safe copy.  Still, the instructions added to the multiples of problems, although I am glad that at least the tissue pattern pieces were in good shape.  Gotta be positive especially after a (finally) successful result!

Luckily, after all the trouble leading up to making this dress, sewing it was a breeze.  There are no darts in the skirt portion, as both the front and the back are cut on the bias.  The back bodice has no waist tucks and there are only two small ¼ darts at the neckline.  The front bodice has all the details, with its ten 3/8 inch tucks (five on each side) on the shoulders and two simple waist pleats (one on each side).  The sleeves are also cut on the bias and are tightly gathered at the cap tops.  This dress does have double zippers – a decorative metal one down the front neckline and one on the side at the waist.  For some reason the pattern had the front waistline dipping down low.  I sewed it like that at first, but did not like it and unpicked to level out the waist, instead.  The seam allowance gets cut off along the neck and the sleeve raw edges so as to cover with bias taping.  My prized vintage all-cotton ¼ inch bias tape from my Grandmother was used for the sleeve and neckline edges while modern store bought (yucky) poly cotton blend was used for finishing the insides.

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The appliques are my cheat-shortcut to all the hand sewing necessary to do real embroidery.  Anything more than a little hand stitching bring out my carpel tunnel issues.  The appliques I had are actually meant to be iron-on, but I merely stitched it down by hand.  I don’t want to ruin the fabric nor make it that permanent by ironing it down.  The flowers on the design remind me of Mexican Bird of Paradise (yellow), moss rose (pink), and milkweed (orange/yellow).  The two appliques which are on either side of the neckline are the largest and longest of the set – I have four other smaller half size ones that I am tempted to add on the rest of the dress.  I sort of like the simplicity of the appliques just at the neck.  I’m afraid that with the bright scarf belt, more appliques might make the whole dress look overly busy and tacky.  For now, I’ll leave it as-is.

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It was really the scarf belt that started this whole outfit.  I was so happy and surprised when I happened to find this chiffon in the same color tone and striped pattern as the on inspiration dress in the “Forties Fashion” book!  It was one of those great “Eureka!” moments that told me I needed to make this dress.  The belt is one long bias scarf cut from two opposite corners of 1 ½ yards with the raw ends finished off with a touch of fray check liquid.1936  Purple felt hat, FIT museum

My hat started out as another one of those basic one dollar non-descript pieces that I’ve re-fashioned before (here and here).  I started out by making two tapered darts about two inches apart up the crown where I chose the back to be.  Then I brought those two darts together in a tuck that extended into the brim and topstitched the excess down.  A light steaming from and iron as helped further shaped the hat.  The darts shaped the crown while the tuck brought the size smaller so it would sit higher up on my head and have that cup-like center top to the traditional ‘cone crown’ of a Tyrolean Hat (like the purple one at right from FIT museum).  To keep my hat on my head, I took a ribbon and knotted it together at the sides and used an upholstery needle to wind it down and through the straw so I can tie the hat around my hairstyle.

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This outfit so completely reminds me of some sort of summer resort wear, something meant to keep one looking great and moving comfortably in searing temperatures, and…yes, this dress does fit that bill!    I tested this out, as the day on which I wore it for these pictures was extremely, oppressively hot.  Linen is a super sweat wicking fabric, yet it kept me cool.  The linen kept absorbing the sweat off me, yet it did not feel soaked and it was a cooler temperature than I was when it was wet.  This particular linen has zero scratchiness and is lacking that “hemp-like”, raw feel which I find in many other linens…only softness so there is another high comfort here!  However, my favorite benefits are the no-see-through thickness of this linen as well as the way it does not change color or show however much I might be sweating to death, like many dark fabrics.  This linen dress definitely does not just give the impression of being cool but also helps that along.  To top things off, my hat ‘perches’ lightly on my head, keeping my hairstyle underneath pristine and cool, yet the brim is enough to keep the sun off my eyes.  I was doubtful that this outfit would be that great in steamy weather, but I am a converted believer in effortless summer fashion a la vintage with linen and straw!

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It’s funny, in the fabric stores I go to the bolts are always full and untouched when I buy linen.  The employees that cut my fabric often seem mystified that I want linen and tell me that hardly anyone buys it.  Do you wear linen?  If so, have you found it to be as lovely of a trooper for wearing as I have?  If not, what are your reservations to this natural fiber?  Why is linen overlooked as a fashion fabric?

My 1939 “Frosted Carter” Dress

Whitney and Dr, Wilkes, cropped - getty imageAmong all the inspiration to be found in Marvel’s television show “Agent Carter” Season Two, I cannot help but notice the classy, stylish mode of dressing of the villainess, Whitney Frost.  I kind of feel like a traitor to flaunt the persona and appearance of the opposite of Peggy Carter (I am one of her biggest fans, besides being an American).  However, Ms. Frost is another strong woman with a strong will, powerful ideas, and a drive to do something big and worthwhile, quite similar to Peggy, even if Whitney’s mind went twisted and her intentions corrupted.  So, here I am taking on a style of a new year I have not yet sewn before (1939), with the dark aura of a mysterious film star.

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Under the earth in a wine cellar, light and shadows take play here, like two faces in mine…akin to the forecasted two-faced future of Whitney Frost as “Madame Masque”.

THE FACTS:                                                           Superior pattern 9931, envelope front-comp

FABRIC:  soft and lovely 100% rayon challis for the dress and some 100% cotton muslin for the bodice lining/facing

NOTIONS:  nothing unusual was required here – thread, a zipper, and bias tape – all of which I had on hand

PATTERN:  a Sears and Roebuck Company brand Superior pattern no. 9931, year 1939

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress and belt were made in about 12 hours and finished on June 11, 2016.

DSC_0757a-compTHE INSIDES:  So nice! All bias bound. Inside the front bodice is a very nice, full chest-covering facing, perfect for anchoring all the shirring into place and keeping the gathers controlled. 

TOTAL COST:  The rayon fabric and the notions were bought on deep discount at Hancock Fabrics before their closing, and everything else came from on hand, so my total for this dress is probably about $8 or less.

Superior patterns are unprinted and are trademarked by the Sears Roebuck and Company.  I am frustrated at the complete lack of info to be found about this line of sewing patterns but from what I have seen they seem to have been printed in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

For such a lovely “white elephant”, I do have a great certainty of dating my pattern to year 1939.  Not only did it require 2 ½ yards of material with my 60” wide fabric (complete lack of rationing), but the sleeves, shoulders, and especially the skirt portion of the dress have a very specialized shape seen in 1939.  Skirts and dresses up to 1938 were still longer (mid-calf) and slender or extremely full (with lots or gores), while starting in 1940 and 1941 skirts and dresses became more frequently pleated, controlled, more close to the knee.

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As a good friend of mine (who knows about fashion from this year) told me, skirts in 1939 were full and had more swing in them than both your normal 40’s and 30’s bottom, and that is definitely this one.  The pattern pieces for the skirt panels were such wide A-line shapes I had to pare them down a bit, while the center front seam was shaped like a crescent pointing out so the front has an interesting drape to it.  My skirt hem also lands between mid-calf and the knee, although it is so full it ends up looking longer.  My dress’ sleeves are'Forties Fashion' pg. 26, 1939 floral dress,comp also very 30’s (besides being the same as in this ’38 pattern from my stash) and the large 6-row shoulder shirring is something not seen past 1940 (just rarely).  The more I look at patterns, dresses, and catalog images from ’38, ’39, and ’40, I become more convinced I am correct with dating my Superior pattern to 1939.  Besides all the “proof” I just laid out, my final showing on this topic is a dress from the Jonathan Walford book “Forties Fashion”.  It is listed as “Canadian crepe afternoon dress, ca. 1939 – 1940”.  As you can see at right, this extant dress was my true inspiration, almost to a point of copying it fabric-wise, and the style lines are almost exact as my Superior pattern.  Oh well, when I see a dress I really like, and I happen to also find a very similar fabric and pattern, I can’t help but sew a re-make, especially when it can also be similar to something from “Agent Carter”!

Whitney and Manfredi - getty imageWhitney’s dress worn in “Agent Carter” Season Two, episode 8 “The Edge of Mystery”, is very similar to the dress I have made, only hers is satin, has a sash coming from the center-front to tie in the back (much like this Simplicity #1901), slightly different sleeve hems, and in a different color scheme.  This is where my “Frosted Carter” nickname comes in the picture because (the horror of it) my dress is a combo of both ladies’ style.  Peggy Carter usually wears the late 30’s/early 40’s fashion and she always tends towards patriotic reds, whites, and navy blues – all found in my dress.  Yet, my dress itself, together with the proper hairstyle, background, and dark nail polish, are all Whitney Frost.  The 40’s were not usually her style, she seemed to always be ahead of things in more ways than one, often wearing early 50’s dresses.  However, the scene in which she wears my inspiration dress is also when she really becomes deeply unhinged, hearing voices and admitting she might be crazy, so she is ‘going backwards’ from where she thought she was going and losing her hold on things around her…

As to more crazy oddities, here is the first vintage pattern I’ve seen which specifically calls for a “zipper”.  That is a specific brand name and never is such a notion called anything else than a “slide fastener” on all my other old patterns.  Perhaps, because this is a pattern coming from a department store and, as the front envelope points out, you were expected to buy what you needed to make this pattern from Sears as well and that “zipper” brand is what the stores carried.  This is just my supposing, I don’t specifically know for sure, but do any of you know?  Have you seen a “zipper” specifically called for on your old (1950 and earlier) patterns?

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As this is an unusual, rather rare brand, I did a good amount a checking beforehand so I could estimate how this pattern would fit, the amount of ease, and the proportions.  My experience with vintage pattern lines outside of the major brands, such as DuBarry, New York, and 1940 and older Buttericks to name a few, has convinced me that they seem to have a tendency to run short in the shoulder-to-waist, have very long hemlines, generous upper arm room, and wide hips.  Otherwise the proportions are generally right on.  I automatically assumed all of the aforementioned pattern tendencies would hold true for this Superior pattern, and from doing a tissue fit on myself, I was correct.  Besides grading up to my size, I added an extra ½ inch to lengthen the waist and took out 3 inches from the skirt length.

What intrigues me is the fact that the pattern apparently to have been used to make a dress for a very petite lady or possibly a teenager from 1939.  Each piece had been folded in to make it about an inch smaller in proportions and shortened even more than my 3 inch downgrade.  The tissue is in great condition, but it had obviously been like this quite a while, and the old pins had rusted in their places.  It’s a very grown up and classy dress for a tiny young lady to wear.  Maybe it was made for a graduation or dance?!

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My making of this dress was ridiculously easy for every other part besides the front bodice.  With almost everything going on (detail wise) there, stitching the bodice front took just slightly more than half of the time spent for finishing the rest of the dress.  Not that the bodice details were hard, merely challenging, precise work which took a good amount of patience and time – all so very worth it in the end when I first saw the finished dress!  Once the dress was first worn, I was so pleased…this is one of my most comfortable vintage dresses and the most easy to move in.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to point out some of the lovely and subtle details which get lost too easily with the busy floral print.  There is a “slash-and-gather” section below the bust but above the waist to on the bodice sides.  There is also 6 rows of shirring running the width of each shoulder.  The back is pretty simple with two off-center box-pleats at the waist and a trio of fan shaped neckline darts.  Like a mentioned above, the skirt portion is wide and flowing, composed of four large A-line shaped pieces cut so the straight grain runs down the middle and the bias on the sides, with the front center crescent shaping out for flare.  At the front waist there is a slight V dip (hidden by my belt) and my sleeves…oh how I love them!  An arched hem with shirring up the center totally completes this dress.  I definitely want to make this again from a solid color fabric, in a rayon jersey knit perhaps, so that all the lovely details stand out better.

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The belt is not part of the pattern and is something I self-drafted so it could be like the extant original shown in the “Forties Fashion” book.  Besides, I just so happened to have a perfect straw covered ring for the belt, something leftover from this past re-fashion.  I used the tie belt pattern with my dress as my benchmark, ironed in “Stitch Witchery” to stiffen it like belting, then cut it to shape (skinny with tear drop ends) and stitched the edges over with ¼ inch bias tape.  Easy.  I only have the belt ends together with a safety pin for now because I don’t exactly know what to put in to make the belt completely adjustable on both ends.  Perhaps I’ll add in a few positions of hook-and-eyes at some point.

DSC_0732-compAs I am technically wearing an “afternoon dress”, and Whitney Frost (in “Agent Carter”) was wearing her similar dress at her Italian boyfriend’s warehouse full of wine barrels, we took a day trip out to enjoy an afternoon visit to a winery, where we took a tour of its cellars, and enjoyed good food and drinks.  It truly was a lovely day and perfect occasion to wear such an effortlessly elegant ensemble.  My “Chelsea Crew” brand “Mandalay” sling back, peep-toe, tie-up shoes were incredibly comfy, too – highly recommended.  What is not recommended is to touch an old, damp cellar wall…I did by mistake and yuk!  Touching it might not be a bad as Zero Matter, but jelly mold and armadillo bugs is a pretty gross combo.

It’s a happy boon to make a dress that gives rise to a fun outing.  Better yet, I get to bring a little bit more of the “Agent Carter” series into my wardrobe and explore another character.  Best of all, I now have a ‘new’ year (1939) sewn up and understood a bit better.

Look out for more upcoming Whitney Frost dresses in the 50’s style, as well as a few Agent Carter 1940’s ones, here on my blog!

P.S. – for some more 1939 styles and inspiration, see “Emily’s Vintage Vision’s” post (link here) of Du Barry Prevue for January ’39!