One of the main things I miss the most during winter is the lack of blooming beauties of nature. How’s a warm-weather-loving girl supposed to survive months without green grass, pretty flowers, and the comforting sound of rustling leaves? Even still, I will admit their dormant and withered state has its own loveliness. Winter’s withered vegetation holds onto its amazing potential for future blossoming under the cloak of an unassuming, bland, natural-toned exterior. Scientific explanations aside, it is rather like an annual miracle, a kind of superpower, if you think about it in a child’s point of view. Let me celebrate the awesomeness of nature in winter through some high fashion for this year’s “Designin’ December” challenge, sponsored by Linda at “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!” blog. I am channeling the great American couturier Charles James, and hopefully looking like a drooping but elegant winter petal doing so, with my muses being two famous gowns from circa 1950.
The way I understand it, there are definite phases in Charles James’ life. In the 1930s, he had moved from millinery to making garments, designing pieces ahead of his time inventing wrap dresses and “sculptural fashion” such as a futuristic puffer jackets. He also took control of the Charles James brand by licensing his company under his name in 1935. In the 1940s, James made important marketing connections, working with Elizabeth Arden, Lord & Taylor, and Bergdorf Goodman as well as being photographed by the famous Cecil Beaton for Vogue. “Mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery is his forte,” Vogue noted of James in 1944, as he continued offering luxurious dresses despite war-time rationing, at times even using inventive fabrics. Then, there is the man of his first (of two) COTY award of 1950 in which his work was defined by over-the-top, 10-something pound full-skirted evening gowns – equipped with caging and immense boning since they were almost always bare shouldered – that only high society’s wealthiest women could afford. This last and most defining period of his design is what I am channeling with my sewing, although I think the first 30’s portion had the greater talent because I respect the avant-garde. Charles James retired in 1958 and died in 1978.
Unfortunately, I cannot personally connect to either time period of James’ life, as he is not remotely on my list of favorite designers. It has been said he would lock his seamstresses in his shop if he felt they were not “working hard enough”, and being the fiery personality and obsessive perfectionist that he was, made very few friends he could keep. Between his irresponsibility in financial matters and his inability to ever deliver an order on time to a client, I feel too distracted by the drama of his life’s story to fully appreciate his work, and I do not welcome the erotic undertones he subtly included in his dresses. By all means, nevertheless, please do your own research on the life, the works, and ingenuity of Charles James so you can make your own opinion.
His design house did not outlive him so he is not known as well as his genius warrants. Charles James was an influence not worthy of being so largely unacknowledged. He inspired the likes of Christian Dior, Salvador Dalí, and Balenciaga while Chanel and Schiaparelli (one of my top favorite designers) were included in his exclusive list of clients. Thus, I admire his work and ingenuity enough that some of his creations warrant my saving pictures of them for remembering later. Other things he is famous for actually repel me – I must respect my natural reaction. Thus, it is a big deal for me to even be attempting this designer imitation in the first place. Do not anticipate any other direct Charles James inspiration to be seen here again on my blog, unless I happen to remake James’ famous “Taxi” dress of 1932. So enjoy this probable one-off Charles James appreciation post here, and come delight with me in the monotone loveliness of nature in winter.
FABRIC: 100% cotton thick novelty ribbed velveteen, lined in a poly crepe, for the top and a polyester nubby ivory shantung for the bottom half of my outfit
PATTERNS: Simplicity #1409, a year 1955 original, from my personal pattern stash, for the ‘petal’ top and a Butterick “Retro” #4919, year 2006 reprint of a 1952 pattern (originally Butterick #6338) for the skirt portion
NOTIONS: lots of thread, bias tape, and two zippers
TIME TO COMPLETE: The shantung dress worn as a skirt was finished on April 9, 2021 in 15 hours while my bodice was finished on December 16, 2021 after 16 hours (8 hours hand stitching, 5 hours by machine, and 3 hours of re-drafting the pattern).
THE INSIDES: My top is fully lined while the shantung part has its raw edges zig-zagged over to reduce fraying
TOTAL COST: The novelty velvet for the top was a remnant found on clearance at JoAnn fabric store at $4 for 7/8 of a yard. Lining for the velvet was a no-cost choice – it was a bed sheet originally and leftover from sewing this 90’s era sundress. The shantung was bought 10 years back from a local store, which is out-of-business now, so I no longer remember the cost. I did buy 4 yards of the shantung and I always bought fabric from that store on some sort of discount…maybe I spent $7 a yard.
The iconic “petal dress” of 1951, in cream and olive toned satin, was my main inspiration ever since I happened to acquire my Simplicity #1409 pattern. The pointed hip detail was an unmistakable reference. James described the the dress as a “curving stem of velvet…above 25 yards of blowing, billowing (silk) taffeta.” According to the Chicago History Museum, which has a black and white version in its collection, “If James were not so clever, the Petal’s twenty-five yards of material would have created an undesirable bulk at the waist. He solved this by stitching most of the material to petal-shaped hip panels and only one layer to the waist seam.” It makes the torso appear as an upside down stalk, with the hip points being what is technically called the “sepal” to flowering plants, with the skirt becoming the petals.
Later, I happened to stumble across an image of another Charles James dress from the year 1950 on which the red velvet bodice had the same “W” notched neckline as my Simplicity #1409. This red and white Charles James dress was famously worn by Mrs. Barbara Paley, the wife of the founder of CBS, as well as Mrs. Dominique de Menil, a rich art patron in Texas, besides being featured in the 2014 “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Now I had a stronger reason to blend both features together, just as the pattern has it, which was actually just the way I liked it! I noticed that both had velvet bodices and know that both have much more complex technical detailing than I realize from only looking at pictures. I was not doing anything that couture in the one week I had to recreate this. There was also a black and white variations James made of this inspiration dress, as well (see it here). However, I gravitate towards James’ versions with more color. My intent with my simpler, blended version here was merely to do my best work and capture the spirit of both dresses in one.
My dual inspiration garments were both dresses, but here I have turned my interpretation into a two-piece set. You’d never guess, would you?!? Charles James was inventive and came up with unusual combinations, so I thought my choice might be (remotely) along his way of thinking. A big difference between us might be the way I was driven by a desire for versatility and practical finery, and not a desire for pure extravagance with my ‘copy’. Only this month (yes, very last minute), when I decided on this particular designer project, it struck me that a vintage 1952 dress I sewed in ivory shantung earlier this year was the perfect color and silhouette for pairing with a Charles James “petal” dress look-alike. Wearing it skirt-style, with the wrapped bodice portion hanging inside, saved me the time and money, and is just what I wanted anyway! The full dress will receive its own post very soon because it is just so good, so versatile when worn as intended, and a sneaky movie costume look-alike, too. It is a 4 seamed full circle skirt with a wrap bodice which is the most useful evening gown you could ever want. I am ecstatic over it…but for now, the ‘skirt’ will not be addressed anymore in this post. So stay tuned!
I have actually been sitting on this Charles James inspired project for the last few years. There is a perfect time for every one of my sewing projects – I let inspiration happen when it naturally comes or when my free time allows. Up until now, the tweaking that my chosen pattern needed as well as the lack of easily finding the “perfect” fabric has together discouraged me from tackling this idea. The pattern I had for the ‘petal’ blouse was a Junior misses (teenager) pattern in petite proportions as well as a tiny bust-waist-hips ratio. It needed dramatic resizing before being useable for me. I had to trace the two bodice pieces out to tissue paper and cut, splice, and tape it all back together into something for my measurements. I wanted the set-in shoulders to hug the outer point of my real shoulders so I cut and spread open the sides of the neckline to adapt. The original red 1950 gown hugs the end of the shoulders but has a flap-like collar, too, while the classic “petal” gown is mere skinny straps – neither were to my taste. I always stick to my personal preference first over any desire to copy verbatim any original – no matter how good that may be.
I made so many tweaks and customizations to my tissue paper pattern ‘copy’ I feel as if it is my design now more than something directly owed to the original vintage pattern. I recognize that my chosen pattern is from a date which is several years later from the Charles James original inspiration dresses, but he was fashion forward and home sewing companies no doubt had their hands full keeping up with all the great designs that were exploding right and left during the 1950s. I have read from reputable sources that Charles James ‘revived’ the Petal design in 1958 as a ready-to-wear dress for the junior market, but I have yet to find solid proof of this. So I guess my Simplicity pattern from 1955 was both ahead and behind for its time, coming after the original 1949 Petal dress but before James’ release for teenagers.
As I mentioned above, my favorite (and the one I see the most) of the “petal” dress has a sort of brownish, earthy, green velvet bodice. I had a novelty velvet on hand, only recently bought, that was an olive-toned tan with an ombré sheen – very deluxe looking and close enough in reference. It is obvious Charles James apparently liked working with velvet, and his 50’s era creations were highly structured. I figured this thick ribbed material – which was almost like a heavy corduroy – would be very suitable. I did not bone the seams or add any internal structure to the bodice because of the sturdy weight of my velvet. I figure I can come back and add boning channels with some hand stitching if I choose to at a later date. Inside is merely a lightweight lining to give it a fine finish and smooth feel against my skin. The lining also helps stop the way the raw edges were disintegrating into little fuzzy lint balls everywhere I was working. It was a messy project that definitely added to our normal household amount of dust. It turned out looking so cleanly tailored when finally finished, though!
I expected this velvet bodice was going to be easy-to-make – so I thought. There were only two pattern pieces, few seams, and the pattern (since it was re-drafted by me) was exactly my size now but it became a beast that I could hardly bear to finish. The points of the hem and the neckline, the sharp curves around the arm openings, and a mirrored pairing of the lining with its velvet bodice all severely tested my normal desire for perfectionism. I did so very much hand stitching on everything but the internal darts and right (zipper free) side seam for the sake of my said desire for perfection…I guess I am not too completely unrelated to Charles James as I may think.
My fingers have never before been so sore and torn up from the hand stitching through the layers of tough velvet…I was to the point of tears only halfway though. At the same time, I am never very comfortable using a metal thimble and would rather adapt my stitching strategy by using a different finger. I tore up the skin of almost four fingertips by the time I was finished. Yet, I have a boundless determination to not leave my sewing projects hanging. I try not to have unfinished endeavors. I also had a deadline for it to be part of the “Designin’ December” challenge! As you can see, I powered through, with stitches that are not as perfect as I might have liked but still finely done, for a top which turned out just as wonderful as I had happily imagined.
Early on, the hip hem points vaguely reminded me of Tinker Bell, the fairy in Disney’s 1953 animated Peter Pan movie. Fairies are forest creatures and protectors of the woods, after all and often modeled after flowers in the visual arts. Even more so, though, my two inspiration dresses are very much reminiscent of the elegant open necklines, close fitting bodices, liberal use of luxurious material, and artful skirt drapery of women’s older historical clothing. The Victorian bustle era, 1850s caged skirts, the 18th century court gowns with hip panniers, and the corseted shaping of the Edwardian period all were sources of inspiration for the 1940s and 50’s gowns created by Charles James. He just did a more modern, individualistic interpretation of those old styles, but the principles of boning, caging, draping, and overall artful reshaping the female figure are still there. Every famous quote from every other designer about wearing a dress – such as “What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it” by Yves Saint Laurent or “It’s not about the dress you wear but it’s about the life you lead in the dress” by Diana Vreeland – is blown away by the overwhelming power of a Charles James frock.
My personal recreation is nowhere as extreme as what the courtier who was my inspiration would have chosen, although I am wearing a heavily boned original 1950s body fitting brassiere underneath. Comparing my version to the original dress, I am now also half-wishing I had worn a couple of my floofy 50’s petticoats underneath instead of just one. My outfit seemed very grand with a grandly swishy skirt when I was wearing it for these photos – I was knocking things over! As I’ve mentioned before, this is meant to be my practical, made-in-one-week, using-what-was-on-hand version of something extremely high fashion. Since this turned out something less dramatic than the original yet still immediately recognizable, I am very still proud I was able to pull off what I did. I am very proud I worked through the pain and trouble to perfect those points, corners, and invisible hand stitching, too.
This was a tough sewing project for me to end the year on, but one that – just like my other “Designing December” entries from past years – is something which ends my year of sewing on a grand note. It’s like going out in fireworks to have my last project of the year be about attaining for myself those seemingly unattainable designer pieces I languish over as a photo on my computer. Now all I need is an excuse of some event to wear this glamorous outfit somewhere…soon! Petals are the showiest part of a flower after all, and this “Petal” set is just begging to be seen at a dinner party or dance somewhere. I will be a walking bouquet! Until then, this dress will be only live vicariously through this blog post. So I’ll send off 2021 with my special “Petal” outfit, to offer some natural beauty for entering into the cold and quiet darkness I despise about January. I wish you a New Year a peace, health, beauty, and happiness.