A Pre-Raphaelite Reverie

My avid, life-long research into medieval studies, especially when it comes to manuscripts, is distinctly tied to my fascination for the revival of its tales and artistry through the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which spanned the 1850s to the late 19th century.  The term “Pre-Raphaelite” is associated with the much wider and long-lived “Brotherhood” of English painters, poets, and art critics that included both men and women in its ranks and influenced architecture, music, and literature, as well.  They developed a particular taste instead for medieval and early Renaissance art made ‘pre’, meaning before, Raphael, focusing on working from direct observation with dazzling, sparkling colors and incredible attention to detail.   It is full of romantic idealism, old-style stories, and classically draped damsels in distress…perfect for a princess at heart!

My particular favorites are the pensive, realistically styled images in the latter half of Pre-Raphaelite art, particularly those of medieval characters or fictional fairytale damsels produced by Brotherhood members such as Rossetti and his followers William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Evelyn De Morgan.  The women in such art always have hair and clothing that are total romantic perfection while the men are yearning, staunch, and heroic…I’ve been entranced since my childhood.  In a recent post, my sewing was inspired by the classical, flowing, Grecian style of Disney’s Meg from the 1997 animated film “Hercules”.  Here I am continuing that idealism with posting the making of a dreamy, draping 1940s era “Goddess gown” with matching bolero and jewelry, all inspired by the medieval inspiration behind the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

How did I link paleographic manuscript studies to both an art form and fashionable clothing?  Well, just like Pre-Raphaelite art, my outfit has a blend of the medieval with the elements of other eras tied into one.  The floral printed silk of my dress and the canvas print of my bolero are veritable copies of the beautifully scientific style of accurately painting nature as can be seen both on the pages of late medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as a tapestry of Burne-Jones.  It was often in the page margins or borders of illuminations that such texts (primarily early 15th century) used flowers and insects so as to heighten and add depth of meaning by their symbolism.  

This is no less the case with Pre-Raphaelite artistry where such a lush amount of detailed flora and insect fauna was frequently added in abundance (especially on tapestries).  Doing so was not just to add beauty, although that is often the extra benefit.  Both this 19th century art form and medieval manuscripts used the visibility of nature to aid and enhance our understanding of ancient stories and the people of the past.  Every moth, every fruited berry, and every flower had a symbolism, a meaning that added to the message of the art, sometimes even hinting at whether well-intentioned or full of irony.  Our modern times have forgotten much of the rich underlying meanings to such beautiful creations, and I say we need to relearn this knowledge!

So why channel this classical idealism through a 1940s gown?  I wanted to emulate Madame Eta Hentz, a designer born in Budapest and educated in Hungary who immigrated to the United States around 1923.  She presented her distinctive masterpiece collection of Grecian themed gowns in circa 1943.  Please click on over with the provided links to see Ms. Hentz’s “Athena gown”, her black and gold “Clytemnestra gown”, her “Iconica” pleated dress, her “Walls of Troy” butter yellow gown, and her unnamed but strongly classical evening gown, one in ivory and a version in black – all from the same Grecian collection at the MET museum.  They are flowing, draping, asymmetric creations resembling either an ancient chlamys, a Roman palla, a column in the Pantheon, or a pleated Fortuny toga. Such a beautifully simplistic style of dressing has been around since the beginnings of civilization, but I love how the late 40’s and 50’s Hollywood puts its own subtle high-fashion spin on such a garment.  Yes, there have been many other designers from many other eras who have created according to ancient inspiration.  Yet, 1940s gowns are already elegant to begin with, and to combine such a trait with the references to the classical past gives a very winning result I had to try for myself.

Furthermore, the post-WWII (40’s into 50’s) boom of Biblical, early Christianity, and ancient history related films also resulted in the popularity of the sensual, sultry “goddess gown”.  In 1949, the year after the pattern I used for my gown, Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah, a picture that became the biggest hit of that year.  This was one of the very first big epic films made using the latest technology that ushered in the height of the Biblical silver screen drama so prevalent thereafter in the 1950’s. 

Even before the popular quasi-religious films of the mid-century, however, Grecian style gowns were a go-to choice for either elegant evening wear or a classical themed costume in Hollywood at that time.  In 1947, the year before the pattern I used for my gown, the famous Rita Haworth was seen in a sexy, one shouldered goddess gown for playing the part of a Grecian Muse in the popular musical film “Down to Earth”.  Also in 1947, for a Christmas dinner party, the actress Gale Storm graced the screen during the movie “It Happened on 5th Avenue” with an asymmetric goddess gown.  Next to the works of Eta Hentz, this goddess dress heavily influenced my own version.  Similar to the one shoulder strap which mimics a climbing vine on Gale Storm’s evening dress, I incorporated me-made leaf jewelry as a compliment to my outfit.  The accessories I crafted to match are a further nod to the sneaky Pre-Raphaelite inspiration of my outfit besides being a very classical touch.  More on this further down in the post!   

A goddess gown is usually a one-shoulder dress that is made from a quality fabric that drapes gracefully, simple in lines and inspired by the togas of old.  It is so effortless, so ageless in style, and it’s wonderfully flattering for all!  I went with a sheer floral silk underlined with an opaque rayon for my version to turn my goddess gown dreamily feminine rather than just architectural, after the stylizations of Waterhouse and Rossetti.  The bolero is like a condensed minuscule version of the printed silk, and turns the dress into a refined look, with a bit of added interest, while also not disturbing the aesthetic.  My bright green jewelry and vintage green suede heels freshen up the tone, saving it from being too dark.  However, the black background for both pieces to this outfit keeps it moody and somber, just like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.  We happily tuned into that for the photo shoot location.  What could be more melodramatic than old building ruins around a pond with giant lily pads (just like John William Waterhouse’s painting “Ophelia by the pond” from 1894) or gliding into a weeping willow tree at dusk?!  I’m living a dream.  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  2 yards of sheer 100% silk chiffon, digitally printed. Fully lined in 2 yards of all rayon crepe for the dress. The short bolero jacket is an amazing Rifle Paper Company 100% cotton duck (from Spool and Spindle as part of my prize from the 2018 “Designin’ December” challenge) fully lined in a sage green polyester.

PATTERN:  Butterick #5136, a year 2007 reprint of an original 1948 pattern

NOTIONS:  lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress took close to 30 hours to make, while the bolero only took 3 hours.  Both were finished in October 2019.

THE INSIDES:  The bolero is fully lined, so there are no seam allowances showing at all!  The entire dress and its rayon lining (which is separate, free flowing) are both finished in French seams.

TOTAL COST:  The silk on discount and was ordered direct from Hong Kong through a shop no longer in business.  The rayon crepe and the poly lining for the bolero are as good as free as they were leftover from past projects and came out of my stash. The bolero fabric was free, but I had to pay the shipping.  So, between the silk, the jewelry I made, and the shipping cost to the bolero fabric, my total cost was about $40.

Of course (knowing me) I slightly adapted the design (of the dress) to accommodate the border print of the silk, but other than that I made this entire outfit as-is out of the envelope…and it is to be highly recommended.  Some vintage reprints have strange amounts of ease or finish different than the cover image, but not this one.  It was indeed easy to make, as it says, too.  It’s only because working with a silk or a rayon crepe is never easy that my version was more challenging.  The bolero’s most challenging part was being precise with the stitching (and then trimming) the curvy seams around all the edges. 

The one slight change I made to the dress can be seen when I walk away.  I think the contrast panel train I added is a beautiful touch!  I had to add a gored godet to the center back of my dress’ skirt because working with two yards of border print material wasn’t enough to go around the bottom hem.  The one selvedge to the silk had the floral border I used along the hem while its opposite selvedge had a dense line of paisley ‘almonds’.  I used this paisley along the other selvedge for the back skirt godet add-in, and drafted its godet point to start where the center back zipper ends and curve out past the hem to be a train. 

Here’s a close-up of the right side seam bodice gathers.

The bodice was cut out of the material in front of the paisley selvedge where the underlying print is more spread out with only a few random bugs and flowers.  I actually had to seam together several smaller pieces of rayon to make my remnants work for lining this dress, but as it is inside underneath the silk, the odd excess seams are unnoticeable.  This was such close call of a project!

As it turned out, the heavy rayon lining sort of pulls the dress down on the one open-shouldered side, and I half think that adding boning as well an inner grosgrain ribbon waistband would’ve been a worthwhile idea to improve upon the bodice.  It is just fine without such ‘improvements’ too, though.  A structured bodice would bring this dress closer to the silhouette of a 1950s era dress and deviate the dress away from the soft, flowing overall appearance I was aiming for originally.  It’s often good to leave what’s well enough alone.  At least I did made sure to sew seam tape into my stitching along the top neck edge and into the dual skinny shoulder straps so these spots don’t stretch out of shape at all.  As I’m my own garments’ maker, I’m naturally going to be hard on myself.  I realize this much.  Any small ‘faults’ cannot in the least make me love this outfit any less.

The bolero’s fabric was a happy find that just happened to match because, I’ll admit, it was only made as an afterthought.  When first creating the dress, I discounted the hope of finishing a complete set as I had no idea what would be a good pairing.  Would a solid color bolero overwhelm?  Would a black one underwhelm?  I was at a loss.  What would remotely ‘match’ the printed silk enough to seamlessly blend in with the dress?  Upon browsing the “Spool and Spindle” site after receiving my “Designin’ Designer” gift, I was looking through the Rifle Paper Co. fabrics (something nice I would never buy on my own).  I happened to see a fabric print so similar to the silk goddess dress already made and jumped out of my seat.  Serendipity had decided for me a matching bolero was on the table!  Luckily, I only needed half of a yard for the bolero.  Rifle Paper Co. fabrics are pricey and my certificate voucher just covered it.  Yay!  I loved putting my prize fabric towards a very special outfit like this.

Beautiful seams, amazing details, and clever construction are all packed into this little jacket.  A backwards closing bolero comes across as very unusual to me, first of all.  I added two shiny, faceted black buttons to close this behind my back neck with hand-stitched chain loops.  The back opening lets the dress just barely peek from underneath.  As if these features aren’t cool enough, there is that slight cowl neck front neckline fold, the front hem curve notch, and those perfectly curved cut-on cap sleeves which all totally vie for my “favorite garment feature ever” title!  What makes this little jacket even better (if that’s possible) is the fact that it is slightly longer than most boleros, and actually comes down to the waistline, so it pairs with other things in my wardrobe, such as my black Burda pants (posted here)…among other things!  Not that I ever wholly mind a one-way-to-wear-it outfit, but multi-use sewing is such a wonderful payback.

My handmade jewelry includes a full bracelet, earrings, and necklace set.  The necklace is the main piece.  It was two sets of enameled leaf ‘charms’ from the “Gilded Age Timeline by Bead Treasures”, a Hobby Lobby line of vintage and Steampunk inspired jewelry supplies.  They were on deep clearance, probably due to having the date of 2013.  Each pack made a chain of 7 inches, and I knew the base of my neck (measuring around tightly) is 15 inches…this would be a close call.  The lobster clasp and loop closure, as well as the front ring that combines both leaf chains, added another 1 ½ inches so I ended up with a perfect length for a closely fitting necklace.  The two leaf chains fan away from one another yet meet in the middle front and back of my neck, so my necklace ends up looking like a Grecian or Roman coronet. 

In medieval imagery, a laurel leaves symbolize peace, tranquility, and the power of a promise.  A simple internet search has shown me that 15 inch enameled leaf necklaces were not only existent but also popular, primarily in the 40’s and 50’s, so I was onto something era appropriate anyway, it seems!

As there weren’t any more of the necklace leaves to be had, I improvised to make something similar to complete the jewelry set.  I chose green glass teardrop beads in the same deep but bright green color as the enameling on the necklace leaves.  I made the bracelet and earrings reference the necklace by interweaving small metal leaf beads above each glass teardrop.  I rather love the look of how this jewelry set turned out.  There’s nothing quite like an outfit that is all handmade, excepting the shoes (and underwear), of course, ha! 

This is a project into which I put a lot of thought and meaning, since not only have medieval subjects been a lifelong interest but I am also much more artistic on paper than I let on through this blog.  Perhaps that’s what helped my outfit to be just as dreamy and romantic as the inspiration behind it, though.  I could have expounded upon several points in detail but I reigned myself in to keep on topic! I only hope I conveyed some of my thoughts, inspiration, and construction notes in a clear and intriguing manner enough to maybe even interest you in finding a channel for your own goddess gown. 

It really does take a lot of effort to come up with a completely me-made outfit and also make it look just like what was dreamed up in one’s own head.  That is perhaps the hardest part to sewing up something based off an exciting idea…to have what you end up with be just as you had hoped.  It doesn’t always happen that way for me, yet even still, I always make sure to be proud of what I made and even enjoy the surprises along the way.  Not here, though – it’s all that and more!  You know, the definition of a “reverie” – as used in my title – is “a pleasant state of abstracted meditation or fanciful musing; to be lost in a fantastic, visionary, or impractical idea.”  I see that it is said reveries often never come to fruition, being often negatively labeled as only a daydream.  Bah.  Anyone who believes that has never sewn.  To be able to swish and glide around in this 1940s set the same way as I had hoped to be able to as I saw it in my mind’s eye is a fantastic thing.  Make that reverie work out in real life for you – it’s worth it!

The Pink Polka Dotty Dress

For as much as I love everything about the 1940’s wartime styles, I also love the contrast that the post WWII fashion offers.  It is a lovely in-between the 50’s extremes of femininity (either big, poufy skirts or slim wiggle versions) and the rationed utility clothing.  I mean, this post’s year 1948 dress is 40’s still, yet I can have a full skirt in a midi length, softer shoulders, and extra details which demand excess fabric.  Yes, very early 40’s frocks also had only some of these qualities.  Yet, the post-war period had streamlined, elegant looks while the pre-war time had many folk inspired styles often with exaggerated features.  This dress is the best of what came both before and after it, in my opinion!

Even though this dress is in my least favorite print – polka dots – I am naturally disposed to favor it, probably no matter what pattern it is made from.  The fabric has the prettiest light pink and a very rich, purple-tinted burgundy!  They fall directly in my “favorite colors” range!  The whole ensemble is finished with some true vintage gloves, pink pearl earrings which had been my Grandmother’s, a retro scarf (which had been my mom’s) as my belt, and a little 1940s original hat in the same tones.  I have a recipe for a total mood booster.  To go full matchy-matchy, I even have a vintage post-WWII rayon blazer which further pairs beautifully with my dress, only it covers up the details so I saved it just for cold indoor air conditioning or a cool breeze in the shade.

THE FABRIC:

FABRIC:  The polka dot fashion fabric is a polyester crepe, with a satin finish.  It is partially lined in both a cotton-polyester blend broadcloth as well as an anti-cling polyester.

PATTERN:  McCall #7226, year 1948 ( I never cease to be shocked at the completely sheer black version on the cover!  In 1948, really?  I love it!)

NOTIONS:  Just plenty of thread and one side zipper was all that I needed to whip the dress up!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on September 21, 2018 after taking about 20 hours to finish.

THE INSIDES:  The entire raw edges are covered by full lining.

TOTAL COST:  The fabrics for this dress had been with me long enough to no longer remember when they were bought, so let’s just count this as a free stash-busting project, shall we?!

The most obvious, glaring difference than any 40’s pattern which came the previous 6 years was the great number of pattern pieces and the extra fabric they required.  The back of the skirt section is a flared out version of the classic three piece which is the same as most of all 40’s dress patterns.  Yet the front has 7 panels which get wider as they go to the hem for a fantastic sweep which is so perfect for twirling!  The bodice back is like a bloused out version of a 1950s kimono sleeved block, and so is the front underneath the three wonderful layers of horizontal pleats!

This was as easy to sew together as it is a breezy and effortless joy to wear.  As the polka dots are randomly spread all over I made absolutely no attempt at any matching, totally taking the laidback route.  The skirt is more so.  The cut on sleeves with the deep cut armholes are unconfining.  I adapted the pattern so that the zipper would open up all the way under the arm for no need to wiggle into a dress with a limited side closure.  My choice of lining also adds both comfort and simplicity.  I detest the feel of raw polyester on my skin and hate the static cling it builds.  Lining the entire dress made it opaque and eliminates the need for an extra slip, of course, but adding a cotton blend to the bodice is for pure comfort while the anti-cling poly cuts out any problems with static.  I do like a ‘throw-it-on-and-out-the-door’ kind of dress which is classy in an instant yet feels as nice like a nightgown.

There is always something surprising to the construction of a vintage pattern.  They almost always have some little detail that is put together so much smarter than it seems at first glance of the line drawings.  In the case of this pattern, it was the pleats on the front bodice which were the ingenious detail that surprised and amazed me.  The bottom two pleats are drafted into the bodice front.  You have to stitch (wrong sides together) a certain amount away from the two marked foldlines and let the pleats hang down before sewing to the side seams.  Yet, the top “pleat” is really a fake, but realistically a two ties which get sewn into the top horizontal neckline seam.  Half of each tie hangs down free at the center front so they can be drawn into a bow.  As I said, things are not as they seem in vintage patterns…they are better than they first seem!

This is the perfect 3 season transitional piece.  Now, with the chilly spring days, it is just as perfect as crisp fall days with the darker burgundy background color (especially with the matching vintage jacket).  It is lightweight enough on its own for summer, too!  I have found myself reaching for it again and again after I’ve sewn it.  Some of the things I make just immediately transition into a being a piece of my everyday wardrobe and this is one of them (versus projects that wear out of that ‘just made’ status through time).  This is why I forgot to post it until now.  Oh, I am so behind on posting sewing goodies like this one!  So, no matter what is going on in the world, and no matter whether I am staying home looking not at all as magnificent as I would like, I have stuff up my sleeves to post of past fabulous times dressed in fabulous clothes to share.

“Soft with a Touch of Tailoring…”

Many times I take a cue for a sewing project from the cover image envelope, but this time my post’s outfit 100% takes its cue from the entertaining original descriptive text to a pattern.  There is a lot of things which give this outfit unique qualities amongst both my wardrobe and my list of items I have made, though, besides following an old leaflet’s text for inspiration.  “Important silhouettes destined to go places…” as the tag line says!  With an outfit like this, I find myself actually loving my winter wardrobe enough to be totally okay with spring taking its good old time coming around!

Firstly, I considered few things coming into my outfit idea.  What material has both structure and softness?  Is it possible to find a fabric which will simplify the creation of the tricky details on the designs I have chosen?  How can this be comfortable, warm, and possess a 50’s appropriate classiness all at the same time?  Is there something I haven’t yet done, something new, that I can integrate into this project?  Can combining two different sewing patterns dated exactly 10 years apart – years 1948 and 1958 – even work or at least be made any less risky?  Happily, this my first project with scuba knit – and a lovely floral suede finish version at that – has both answered and solved many of those considerations.  Making my ‘dress’ (one-piece in appearance only) into two versatile separates, a blouse and a skirt – solved the last concern.  Ah, I love the unlimited creativity available through sewing.

I think I nailed interpreting “Soft with a touch of tailoring” my own way.  The brushed, textured suede finish compliments the softly rounded pleats and angles to the lines of both blouse and skirt achieved through the foam-like thickness of the material.  The raw, unfinished edges of the scuba knit – one of the features for which this material is so handy – brings what might otherwise be a very dressy style a par down to being unpretentious, easy-to-wear, and unique.  The floral print might be a bit dark but it lends an undeniable femininity to the designs.  It hints at the promise of spring in a dreary, leafless season.  Having a golden yellow and black primary palette pairs perfectly with gold jewelry, yet can be fancied up or down as I please.  Scuba knit is quite cozier than I expected, yet is a light warmth for a providing a wonderful winter set without the weight of a wool or tweed.  You get the idea.  I am loving this set, yet another very good sewing project!

To balance things out, the skirt is a true vintage pattern from my stash and the blouse is a modern reprint coming from Burda Style.  Together I feel that this outfit – worn together or each on its own – has a very sneaky vintage look.  It is not in your face, unmistakable old-style, and can pass as a sort of call-back modern spin.  I like that!  As I said above, versatility is what I like, in more ways than one, and as much as I love vintage styles, I do love the flexibility to merge it indistinguishably into today’s fashion.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Polyester suede finish scuba knit

PATTERNS:  The skirt’s pattern is a true vintage Simplicity #2616 from October 1948.  The blouse’s pattern is Burda Style #121 “Cross Neckline Retro Blouse”, a reprint from December 1958 included in their October 2018 magazine issue

NOTIONS:  All I needed was plenty of thread with a strip of interfacing, a zipper and a hook-and-eye set for the skirt waist

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse was made first and was finished on February 27, 2019 after 8 hours.  The skirt took me only about 5 hours to make and it was done on March 3, 2019.

TOTAL COST:  This was bought from my local JoAnn Fabric store.  It was on sale, with a coupon, so it came to about half the original price – about 3 yards cost me about $30.

There were no recognizable changes I made to each design, just slight adaptations to make this set work as separates made out of scuba.  Otherwise, it was really pretty easy to sew in the way it was straightforward and quite simplified.  Firstly, the fact my material has stretch gave me a reason to eliminate the need for a zipper or neck button for the ultimate cute slip-on top.  Manipulating the pleats in the skirt was the trickiest part of this outfit because they were layered on top of one another at a slightly fanned out angle.  Sewing in the underarm gusset panels was immensely easier than ever before in scuba, though.  Also, ironing down interfacing to the underside of a plain waistband I cut for the skirt was easier than I expected.  The scuba is thick enough that I wasn’t too worried about eliminating the facings to the ties and having them be one layer.  I just don’t pull the ties too tightly, but I wouldn’t want to do that anyway because it would twist the blouse out of shape as well.

I lengthened the ties so I have the option of multiple ways to tie the front – getting back to the idea of versatility.  There’s the twisted criss-cross thing I mostly do with the ties, or I can merely lap them over each other on my chest.  In any other fabric, this design would be equally as interesting – such as a tissue-weight silk (like the Burda sample), yet a structured wool would be on the opposing end of the spectrum.  A sharply tailored woolen adaptation of this blouse could very well end up looking like the bodice of this dress from the film “Motherless Brooklyn”, a 2019 American neo-noir crime drama set in 1957.  The original pattern actually called for a soft jersey knit as the material, though, admitted in this Burda blog post.  As it was, I made this outfit last year primarily for the blouse because I wanted to be part of the “Sew Twists and Ties” challenge.  Either way, I need to have my neck covered in the cold because of my sensitive thyroid gland, and the ties on this blouse make for a much more fancy way to do so fashionably, compared to a neck scarf or a turtleneck.

The belt is adapted from the arched waistband of the Simplicity 40’s dress pattern.  It’s worn on the reverse side and cut of a single layer of fabric, since scuba knit doesn’t fray!  I love how scuba knit is often reversible, this one especially so.  I played with that here.  Because the neck tie edges are raw, a bit of the solid underside shows and highlights a feature which might otherwise be lost in a busy print.  That also worked for the belt, and was a way to easily match with the rest of my outfit as well.  The only places where there was a conventional hem – the sleeve ends and skirt bottom – were stitched down by hand to have the thread be invisible and accommodate the stretchiness of the fabric.  Otherwise, as I learned, for both the neck ties and the belt piece, you can’t be messy with your cutting practices in a scuba knit or a jagged edge clearly shows!

My first project-from-scratch experience with scuba fabric was fun and successful. (I’ve worked with scuba to refashion RTW fashion for my paid commissions for others.) It is a great fabric, I will admit.  As I recently told a friend, scuba knit goes against everything I believe in about quality, earth-conscious sewing (there is no seam edge finishing needed, besides it being non-breathable, plastic polyester) so I was initially a skeptic.  Scuba knit is so forgiving to sew, you don’t have to be perfect stitching it together, but it still looks good nevertheless…so it would be perfect for a beginner to knits. As long as you use a wide zigzag stitch, you don’t need to stretch it as you sew, unlike other knits. An all scuba garment can be hot to wear in the summer though, as it is lofty and thick like foam, but these are good qualities for a winter piece.

I have sighted smartly crafted scuba knit garments carrying respected designer labels on them when browsing my local Neiman Marcus store, so this kind of fabric has surprisingly really progressed in status over the last 10 or so years!  I really don’t want scuba to be something I reach for on a regular basis, but I do enjoy the fact I have come to terms with it and found some of the reasons behind its popularity. This is not my last project in scuba, believe me!  I had a little bit of scuba knit on the collar and waistband of my most recent bomber jacket, after all.  Let me know what your experiences with scuba knit are!

Dior Animal

If – according to Stacey Londonanimal prints are really a neutral, than what color do I pair best with itI 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”.

THE FACTS:

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!