If – according to Stacey London – animal prints are really a neutral, than what color do I pair best with it? I have made a few other animal print garments before, so how do I make yet another stand out from the rest? Which direction do I go to sew something fantastic with some precious leopard print scraps from my Grandmother?
Christian Dior, Paris, France autumn-winter 1947
By using that old opinionated quote to start things in this post, I am only hinting that I merely went back to the very source of a very long-running ‘trend’. That was the best way in my theory to find suitable direction. I happily ended up with the ultimate self-made designer copy of a standout garment which is burned indelibly in fashion history. I drew direct inspiration from a rich green, leopard contrast, fur-muffed coatdress in the premiere collection of Dior in late 1947. Now I have my own fabulously warm yet classy home couture garment for “Designin’ December” 2019 challenge hosted by Linda at “Nice Dress! Thanks, I made it!!”. I totally look forward to the chilly weather just for the opportunity to wear this special yet unusual combo of both coatdress and muff with a strong vintage panache!
There is perhaps no other designer of the 20th century who has remained so perennially popular and widely imitated quite like Dior. Next to Chanel’s “little black dress” stereotype, Dior’s “New Look” of 1947 has become its own icon, a bigger than life story. Yet, with all popularity and familiarity the Dior silhouette has become, it is not always recognized back to its proper designer source by people. To highlight the most modern example of this, the popularity of the show “The Marvelous Ms. Maisel” is now encroaching on the Dior glory, and many recognize the nipped waist, full-skirted, multi-seamed “princess” silhouette as being linked to the personal style of a fictional character. The situation is not too different with the ever popular animal print in fashion. It has been so overused as a movie character’s visual aid and featured in the collections of many prominent designers up until this day, that I wonder just how many people really know the influence Dior had on popularizing such a material design. The silver screen has a powerful way of influencing fashion like no runway show has!
The democratizing of couture fashion, which started in the 1930s, certainly made a major impact on the Dior New Look post WWII, with many companies (from the “American Dior” Anne Fogarty to home sewing patterns like the one I used here) offering means of achieving a French high end style on any budget no matter where you live. Although many countries, especially the United States (I’m thinking of you, Claire McCardell), showed their capability to offer creative, trend-setting fashion during WWII privations. As soon as peace was signed, French clothiers were more than ready to regain their previous place of esteem.
With his premiere collection in the year 1947, Dior has afterwards never been really far from the spotlight of fashion, never not making some reflection into the current clothing trend of the time. Yet for all the commonness of the princess silhouette of the 50’s, it still has not lost its luster of attractiveness, that aura of beautifully crafted design lines which makes both those lacking in sewing knowledge and those well-versed in it marvel alike at the creation of such structured, wonderful garments. Here’s what I hope is a worthy tribute to the perfection of the very first vision of Dior’s popularity, wild animal that it is! Practicing couture techniques, working at a slower pace, trying to primarily use invisible hand-stitching, executing professional finishings, and using high quality materials on this project all were due in part to being inspired after attending the exhibit earlier in the year at Denver, Colorado “Dior: From Paris to the World”.
FABRIC: COATDRESS: 100% wool felt, 1/8 inch thick, in a forest green and a 100% cotton flannel for the animal print contrast; MUFF: a faux fur and anti-pill fleece
PATTERN: COATDRESS – Vintage Vogue #9280, a reprint from 2017 of a year 1948 pattern, originally Vogue #491 Couturier Design; MUFF – Simplicity #4851 (also printed as no.8910) a circa 1840s to 1860’s accessories pattern from 2003 by designer Andrea Schewe
NOTIONS: nothing extraordinary was needed – thread, interfacing, a zipper for the side, and a button (in my case I used a kit to cover my own to match the leopard print), and stuffing with decorator’s cording for the muff
TIME TO COMPLETE: My version of this dress involved much hand-stitching because I wanted invisibly finished edges and higher-end techniques, but even then, it took a relatively reasonable time for those details – it was made in about 40 hours (maybe more) and finished on March 25, 2019. The faux fur muff was made in 2004, if I remember correctly, and only took 3 hours or less to make from start to finish!
THE INSIDES: The dress’ flannel is interfaced along its edges, and the wool felt needs no finishing, so all edges are au natural! The muff has all enclosed edges.
TOTAL COST: The wool felt was from my local fabric store, and was originally over $20 a yard, but with my discount on top of a sale, I bought all of the 3 ½ yards I needed for only $30…how’s that for a deal?! The leopard print is free, coming out of the fabric stash of my Grandmother. I am also counting the muff as good as free because the materials were bought for me by my mom and I made it so long back…but in reality I used less than half a yard of both materials so this was probably a pretty low cost project…even with me picking out some really nice fake fur! Altogether, the only real cost was the $35 for the dress!
Leopard print and a saturated green seem to be the quintessential combo (next to leopard and bright red) when looking through past fashion inspiration beside Dior’s 1947 coat. I’ve noticed an explosion of green paired with animal prints starting in the 1920s and most frequently used on such items as nice suits and detailed coats. Such a pairing was featured through respected sources – fashion illustrations, style magazines, pattern book covers, and Hollywood starlets. I in fact have a 1930s French fashion print of a green coat, with leopard accents and a muff (see it here), framed on the wall of my sewing space! You can browse through my related Pinterest board “Animal Prints“ for further sources and inspiration.
Rather than creating a line-for-line recreation of the Dior coat, I preferred to mix the influence of other pieces that inspired me and use a Vogue Couturier reissue for my means of interpretation. No matter what designer I am inspired by, I love to stay true to my own tastes and respect the original creation I have my eye on by varying my version. This Vintage Vogue reissue was supposedly directly inspired by Dior’s coats and dresses of his first big year, but the pattern itself is dated to the year after – 1948. That is enough of a provenance for me to be happy, but also not feel like I am taking anything away from the designer except a good lesson in sewing.
I kept closely to the pattern, except for switching up the contrast box pleat in the skirt from the back to the front, making the added collar and cuffs not removable but permanent, as well as simplifying the means of bodice button closing. I personally hate skirt back box pleats – they never stay looking perfectly creased and I always see them as progressively becoming more messy and out-of-place with every sit. When you smash a complex fabric fold like a box pleat under your bum, things cannot bode well. Thus, I switched that detail to the front, using the exact same pattern piece as was given for the back. I love the fact that the front box pleat makes my version of the pattern appear to be even more of a coat-and-dress combo piece than the original design intended.
The pattern called for cufflink-style button closing in the bodice, and as much as I like the idea of it and how unusual it would be, thinking about that detail actually enacted brings to mind something bulky and fussy in the wrong place. I wanted to make my own buttons out of the contrast leopard as well as continue the aura of this being a coat, and so one simple button in the front does more, in my opinion, with less. My sole button also keeps the tummy area nicely flat and the bodice flaps out of the way! I had to add a small leopard print square panel underneath the front closing just to fill in for when it does gape slightly (because there is only one button there), but as I mostly wear a lightweight knit top underneath my dress, I don’t really need that extra piece anyway.
As intimidating as this might look, this design was not hard to sew – it’s just tricky and needs precise execution. I love every item that I sew (otherwise I would re-work it ‘til I was!), but not too often am I left in absolute wonderment and find myself humbled and respectful of what I just made. I am not meaning this in a bragging way, only meaning that I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to use such an ingenious pattern and successfully made something of it, this is really that good. The front is practically one long piece with dizzying curves and odd bust darting. The back is one piece brought in by darts which meet together to form a V above the waistline (quite tricky). The back of the collar joins to the bodice in a lovely point (weirdly not in the line drawing). The sleeves form the perfect fit for elbow room the way they subtly flare out, just right for showing off the cuff lining if you don’t always want to fold up the hem. Everything altogether feels very fine indeed, and is so complimentary in all the best ways. I found the fit to be pretty spot on – I graded between sizes according to the chart and I didn’t need to do any additional tailoring. The bust and the sleeves tend be on the smaller side, just a bit, than I would like but all’s well that ends well!
The wool felt that I used for my dress was important for me to use on several levels. However, first of all, it is such a beautiful material – so lofty for winter wear that keeps you warm yet breathes, easy-to-sew, easy to iron, and not itchy at all! That being said, it had the perfect structure for this dress, as well. The thick wool felt is stiff enough to make this coatdress keep a very stable shape without the need to add interfacing, horsehair trim at the hem, a crinoline slip, or boning along the insides like many tailored 50’s garments (and all Dior one’s!). At the same time, it is soft enough to work with the curving seams perfectly, and be comfy to wear as well as simple to use. Now that is a big win!
Mostly, though, aside from aesthetics, I wanted to use felt for the historical significance. As I talked about in the beginning of my post, the Dior look was so popular that fashionistas on a budget immediately found ways to acquire the same thing through a different means. Perhaps no other attempt at this is as well-known as the stereotypical “poodle skirts”. The performer/singer Juli Lynne Charlot is credited for inventing the felt circle skirt in 1947. Today they are loosely called “poodle skirt” because of the popularity of one of her many (frequently dog inspired) novelty pictures above the hem. They had a humble beginning as her response to both finding a cheap and practical way to wear the newest Dior look as well as find a means of making money. Fortunately, her mother owned a factory which used felt, so she had a free source of it, and as felt is made with a wide width, it’s perfect for a seamless circle skirt…just a hole in middle for the waist and you’re done! By 1952, Juli Lynne had her own factory and was producing patterns. You can read an excellent interview with Juli Lynne on this blog page from “The Vintage Traveler” where you can see images of her life and career, and more recently (August 22, 2019) “Dressed” had a podcast on this subject.
According to the blog interview at “The Vintage Traveler”, Juli Lynne wanted her clothing to be conversation starters. I like that idea, too. My clothes frequently get people talking, asking, me questions, or sharing the memories my style conjures! This Dior inspired coatdress of mine so far has garnered many compliments, a few “oh, I sew too!” shares (this is the best), and even a few of the older generation telling me I remind them of classic Christmas movies or something a dear relative wore in their younger years. It is all very sweet! I am secretly a very social and people-loving person at heart, anyway, but experiences like that connect what I do (sewing) and the vintage styles I wear in a very meaningful manner both to me and the world around me.
The ‘Dior-ness’ of my outfit is fully continued with my accessories. I am quite proud to sport a true Dior belt buckle. I realize it is of a newer vintage (probably 80’s), but it has the name across the middle and carries the same idealism of the 1947 original that I was imitating. Not too often do I get to go ‘all out’ and both find and buy a pricey designer brand item to complete one of my outfits, so doing it this time was a real treat! I my garment is not instantly recognized for its Dior influence, my low-key but still obvious belt buckle will spell it out. My earrings are French Dior-style studs, with a ball in front and one behind the lobe to cover the stud. I couldn’t find a true Dior pair of earrings I could rationally afford after splurging on buckle, so I ordered the bronze ball/crystal back ones you see here from the Etsy shop “ArtandFact“. My hat is a true vintage post WWII piece, and my shoes are Miz Mooz brand vintage reproduction heels.
Last but not least, my faux fur muffler needs a few words to be said for it! It was made by me about 15 years in the past now when I wanted to get into Civil War reenacting and start with something fun which might be worn for other occasions. I don’t remember much about it other than it was super fail-proof and ridiculously easy for a newbie like me (back then) to sewing with fur, and I used a bag of fiberfill polyester. I rather wish I would have used something nicer than fleece for the inside but it does keep my hands so very warm! I added the cording to make it less fussy and wearable over the shoulder or around the neck. Without its cord, the muff would always need to be held, and I am the type who would grow weary of that and set it down to mistakenly forget it somewhere…never to be seen again. Can’t you tell I’ve done such a thing before?! A furry muffler is such a practical luxury item (it’s both glamorous yet good at keeping your hands from freezing) that happily came back as a trend in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. One day, I want to tweak this pattern and make another version in a faux astrakhan that is secretly a wallet inside, just as they did in the 40’s!
If you’ve made it this far down reading through my thorough post, thank you! Well, this about wraps it up here for this decade. I’ve been blogging for 8 out of the last 10 years, and am so grateful to each and every one of you for following, liking, and commenting! I’ve been putting pressure on myself to decide what would be perfect to share in a post before a new decade. Nevertheless, I realized it is just yet another year, and I have plenty more good stuff to share here and to do in the background just like this past one! Life goes on and I’m looking forward to many more years of sewing and writing about it here! This Dior coatdress was my chosen holiday outfit for this year. It was the one I wore for our Christmas card pictures, after all, so I felt my end of year outfit to share was rather a natural choice. Taking part in the “Designin’ December” challenge always ensures that I have a really amazing project to reveal and wear at the end of the year, anyway!