Hoppin’ Dots! My Bunny Day Dress

What would Eastertide be without bunnies?  This year, I made that stereotype an enjoyable reality by actually spending some time with some real, live domesticated bunnies at a local photography studio.  They were hosting the visit of a rabbit rescue foundation to offer some Easter picture opportunities for the public as well as adoption prospects for the bunnies.  Why does Easter enjoyment need to be relegated to just children when adults can do something like get dressed up and hold some sweet fluffy bunnies?!  This is my kind of fun! 

I hope you enjoy my Easter post, which will attempt to be not just about the cute critters I am holding but also featuring my newest handmade holiday dress. It was whipped together out of a thrifted bed sheet.  Am I really ever completely leaving my sleeping quarters if I am wearing a bed sheet for the day, even if cut, pleated, and manipulated in the most glamorous manner?  I love how when you start with a fabric designed to be pleasant on the skin like a bed sheet, the resulting project is so wonderfully relaxed.  This was easy to make, had a spot on fit right out of the envelope, is comfy to wear, and has just the right amount of details.  This is perfect for what I am looking for Easter 2022 – I just want to stay relaxed, but eat well, and enjoy my day.  This swishy, simple dress is just the thing! 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 60% cotton/40% polyester blend twin sized bed sheet (66 by 96 inches) for the dotted material and some cotton/poly blend broadcloth remnants to line the bodice for opacity

PATTERN:  Vintage Vogue #1043, a year 1953 pattern reprinted back in 2008

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of interfacing, thread, some bias tape, and one zipper for the side seam

THE INSIDES:  my dress’ bodice is cleanly lined while the skirt seams are nicely covered in bias tape

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress was completed in about 15 hours and finished on April 9, 2022

TOTAL COST:  pittance – the sheet cost just under $2 and the zipper and bias tapes were from a $1 a bag rummage sale find

The soft aqua colored polka dot print is easy on the eyes yet still cheerful.  I know the print is symmetrically round dots but it still somehow reminds me of multitudes of Easter eggs.   As I have said before (in this post), I am generally not a fan of polka dots and it has taken me years to be a bit more than tolerant with wearing garments which have that sort of print.  Yet, the irony to using this bed sheet for my dress is compounded in the fact I picked this up from a thrift shop a decade ago now…when I really didn’t like polka dots at all!  I love any aqua or teal color though, and I am always up for trying new things in my sewing project choices so I picked it up.  The fact the sheet was less than $2 also helped convince me to purchase it!  I had paired Vintage Vogue #1043 with the polka dotted sheet from the very beginning when I brought it home, and only just now felt the time had come to sew this project as I originally envisioned it.  I was finally ready for a full-on polka dot dress.  

At left is the underarm gusset first being sewn into the cotton lining. At right, I am showing the left side seam in the dress – you can see the sleeve gusset, zipper, and hand-stitched finishing details.

Since the cover illustration hides some of the dress’ details, let me give you a little general summary.  There is a basic four paneled ¾ circle skirt, and a simple dual darted back bodice (which I cut on the fold to eliminate the back seam), so the minimal pattern pieces were good for a bigger print like my polka dotted sheet.  Under the arms, there are gussets that form part of the sleeve.  This unique feature is the same as (seen here) the sleeves on my Princess Anna dress, sewn from a vintage Burda Style pattern.  Since that Burda pattern comes two years after the date of this post’s dress date of 1953, I found this an interesting nugget of information, but especially found it helped immensely to have done this type of sleeve gusset before. 

Other than the gussets, the majority of unique details to this design are in the front bodice.  It has an asymmetric faux wrap bodice, which creates a center front notch for interest at the neckline.  There is one deep knife pleat in each front wrap’s side seam to create soft fullness for the bust.  Yet, for as straightforward as this bodice may sound, I actually made it a bit more complex in construction so I could end up with a better finish.    

All the reviews I read through online about this dress pattern consistently mentioned 3 shortcomings to the bodice design if you sew it according to the pattern – a wrap front that is too shifty and revealing, a neckline that does not keep its shape, and finally facings which are fussy and cumbersome.  These issues were able to be ‘fixed’ through adding in a full bodice lining.  For the final touch, I added a trio of flower buttons along the chest of the bodice wrap so that it can stay down in its proper place.  The buttons add a little touch of fun and prettiness to this otherwise unadorned dress and keep the neckline notch looking as it should.  I wore limited jewelry (my Grandma’s earrings and an Easter hat, at least) to let my dress shine, with the pretty neckline details taking center stage.

My first step to making the bodice was to use the facing pieces only to cut out heavy weight interfacing for ironing down to the undersides of the entire neckline (for both my lining cotton and my polka dotted fabric).  This way the neckline was doubled up in support to keep its amazing face-framing shape and prevent the front notches from drooping (a problem I also read about in blogger’s reviews).  I only sewed together the back darts, the shoulder seams and godets with the right side seam at this point. The lining then was sewn in the method were all the raw edges were tucked inside for a smooth inside that needs no fiddly facings.  I bag sewed the sleeve hems before I tacked the lining down to the waistline and sewed the skirt to the bodice, wrapped over in front right over left. The white bed sheet was slightly see-through, so I needed a lining anyways, but doing so gave me a great solution to improve upon the bodice construction.  I am always willing to go the extra mile in my sewing projects if it will make even the smallest improvement to my satisfaction with the finished garment. 

Perhaps the best perk to sewing this dress together finally is discovering that it pairs spectacularly well with a short jacket that I sewed together years back.  This Burda Style “kimono jacket” has its own post which can be found over here.  Sadly this fabulous piece has hardly had any enjoyment out of the closet until now due to nothing specific ever really turning it into a “set”.  No other sweater or blazer or jacket in my closet matched with my dress, anyways, and this way my outfit is all me-made!  I love how the open lapels show off the neckline notch and decorative buttons on my dress.  I think the full skirt pairs well with the jacket peplum, too.

It is so funny how dressy and useful – in an unexpected way – something as mundane as a bedding can become.  My last bed sheet dress was even fancier than this one – a designer inspired 1950s Burda Style dress, posted here.  A micro-fiber bed sheet set went towards the lining of this 1990s jumper-sundress, posted here.  At the same time that I bought the aqua polka dotted sheet I used for this post’s dress, I also bought the tan floral bed sheet which went towards this 1940s dress, posted here.  I even had a post (here) about a top and a shopping bag both sewn from pillowcases.  It is not about the quantity or quality of what you have to work with, but how you use your supplies when it comes to sewing.  Even the most ordinary items can look glam or at least fuel your joy by supporting your creative ideas. 

Similar to the way sewing has given me an appreciation for using the most unexpected items others may take for granted, I found a new appreciation for bunnies at the Easter Selfie Room visit.  I realize the older generations do not view rabbits in a good estimation, especially anyone who has any interest or occupation related to the outdoors.  In our garden, they are such a bother (I’ll stop short of calling them a menace because they are cute, you have to admit).  Then again, I have loved the tales of Beatrix Potter since my childhood…so I can partially empathize with the plight of bunnies, too, at least from Peter Rabbit’s point of view.  The domesticated bunnies I met that day were soft and cuddly, curious and relatable, as well as free with their love and affection.  I was disarmed and touched!  What a delightful new experience, made even more special because I had the chance to share that event with my parents! 

I hope your Easter, if you celebrate it, is a wonderful, peaceful day full of happiness.  I hope the blessings that the beauty of nature can provide cheer your heart and soothe your spirit.  Also, I hope you have an outfit to wear to brighten your day, just as I have done for myself yet again this year!  I trust you’ve found an extra dose of rabbit appreciation through the critter cuddle pictures in this post.  Don’t forget to leave a carrot out for the Easter bunny!

Jungle Animal Pink Knit 1950s Wrap Blouse

As I just had my WordPress blog’s anniversary, I’ve become nostalgic for the good old days of blogging a decade ago.  Even without being reminiscent, at the beginning of every year I think of the sewing challenge “Jungle January” that the blog “Pretty Grievences” began in 2013 and hosted for several years afterwards.  This year, for some reason, I especially miss it.  Thus, I’ve sort of been doing my own little adherence to that theme anyway this 2022.  I always seem to have animal prints on hand, and even though it is no longer January I would like to share something I made last month in the spirit of the challenge.  I previously posted my son’s tiger printed pants so it is my turn back in the spotlight with my variation on the theme! 

On a whim, for a last-minute getaway we had a few weekends back, I whipped a new top together out of a one yard knit remnant and a “quick ‘n easy” vintage pattern which has been on my radar recently.  This simple little project was everything I hoped for to take with me for the getaway – it was cozy warm, cute but classy, comfortable yet fitted, and sewn in a few hours…what could be any better?  It has a fantastic, artistic array of animal spots in a soft, feminine color combination!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a thick brushed finish knit which is 90% polyester and 10% spandex

PATTERN:  Butterick #7640, from spring of year 1956, original vintage pattern from my personal stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  I just needed thread, some bias tape (which I made myself of a pink satin fabric remnant from on hand) and two buttons (salvaged off of a pair of my son’s worn out school pants before they were thrown away)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This took me 6 hours in one afternoon and evening on January 8, 2021

THE INSIDES:  left raw

TOTAL COST:  This was a discounted one yard remnant for JoAnn Fabrics, bought for $8.25

I always itch for something new – no matter how small – to bring with me to wear for every trip we take.  I do not buy ready-to-wear, so I sew for this desire just as I do normally and almost always use what is on hand.  I’m awfully practical, even when I splurge.  Honestly, I do not want to add to my existing fabric stash at this time, yet sometimes a little something new and fresh from what is on hand can be just what I need for inspiration.  We’ve hardly been anywhere since early 2020, thus I especially wanted something new even though we only had a little more than a week’s advance notice for the short trip we were to take.  Having spent $8 on a remnant roll makes my sensible side happy.  The way my top is an easy to make and easy to wear vintage design while still looking very modernly chic makes the rest of me happy.  This was a new fabric indulgence I discerned what to do with immediately so it never went to my stash and is being enjoyed in my wardrobe right away. 

The easy-to-make vintage pattern I used was even more simplified by using a knit.  However, there was only one way that using such a stretchy material worked out here rather than the called-for woven crepe, taffeta, faille, or chambray.  My pattern was a size too small for my measurements and I didn’t feel like grading it up!  Nevertheless, as a knit needs negative ease to account for stretch, the small size worked out in my favor here.  I found a perfect fit in the end after all!  What is still not accounted for is the fact that the envelope back calls for 1 5/8 yard of material and I was able to easily squeeze a long sleeved wrap top with a peplum out of .97 worth of fabric – less than a yard!  All the details I listed to the top are fabric hogs, but by flipping some pieces wrong side up I easily made it work with no compromise to the grain line or pattern layout. 

I did not have enough scraps leftover to tie end closures so I adapted by having both ends close with a button and thread loops.  In lieu of facings, some bias cut pink satin scraps on hand were folded in and used instead as a pretty way to keep the neckline stable yet still use up something on hand.  When I said I simplified this pattern, I really meant that in an extreme sense.  However, I find any 1950s dolman sleeved bodice (where the sleeve is cut as one piece with the main body and tapered in at the wrist) like this one is always easier to be more efficient for both layout and fabric amount.  They are also comfortable sleeve drama that was popular in the 1950s, which I may have something to do with the fact there are so many 1 yard or less projects from this era.  Everything about this project working out on one yard was only possible because the selvedge width was 54” wide and I was using a smaller size pattern.  Anything narrower in width and I would have at least been forced to go with ¾ sleeves or cull the peplum.  

I had no real choice but to abridge the pattern to a point because almost everything was missing from the envelope.  I believe this was one of the many patterns in my life which have been handed off to me by others looking to downsize their own stash as I do not remember buying it.  Either way – there was nothing but the main body front, main body back, and one waistline tie end present.  The long sleeves had been cut off the main body at the short sleeve lines, and I felt very lucky indeed to have them still included since everything else was missing.  I had to draft my own peplum pieces basing my design off of both the garment measurements and the drawings on the envelope back.  I would like to revisit this pattern again in the future (with a lovely vintage striped cotton in my stash) and give myself a reason to draft the rest of the pieces – the collar, neckline facings, sleeve cuff, and second tie end.

For such a cheap, quick project I wanted to spruce it up a bit with something extra handmade.  I had picked up 3 strands of turquoise dyed Wagnerite (a natural mineral) over the Black Friday JoAnn sale last year at $2 a pop.  In an hour, I finally turned those pebbles into a double strand necklace to bring out the beautiful aqua undertone in the print as well as match the handcrafted earrings bought from a gem, mineral, and fossil show.  I love crafting my own jewelry for outfits.  It showcases just another of the many aspects to my maker’s talents.  It is also an unexpected way to continue my self-made closet besides personally curating my individual style.

I paired my blouse with a ready-to-wear wool tweed bias cut skirt that I have enjoyed in my closet for the last 20 years.  It mimics the figure hugging skirts styles that were a not so well-known fad of the 1950s.  French fashion of the era in particular, but in general the higher end fashion scene worldwide, revived the curve baring, slim fitting, bias cut skirts of the previous 1930s decade for an elegant variation on the more widely known “wiggle” look.  I felt my top’s peplum would complement my hourglass body type in such a skirt.  Along this vein, I am wearing my 1930s inspired ankle boots from Hotter shoe company because the weather that day was cold, rainy, and messy for traveling. 

I will not be straying too long from the jungle, so if you love this top’s print as much as me you will not be left hanging.  I love animal prints too much to not come back to it soon enough.  I have an amazing rayon knit border print that has an animal theme and I intend to finally sew a summer dress using it this year.  If nothing else, I hope I have given you yet another idea of what to make with those smaller sized vintage patterns that seem to be so plentiful on the market…sew them up in a stretchy knit and take advantage of the forgiveness the material bestows!  This is an especially great way to use one yard cuts (my favorite challenge to conquer) as those smaller sized patterns use even less fabric…every little bit counts! 

Next up on my blog, I will feature the opposite of this simple knit top while still using one precious yard, though.  For a full teaser drop, it is a very complex blouse design made using a fine silk with the upcoming Valentine’s Day as its subtle theme.  Until then, have a great February 14th!  

Winter “Petal” Gown

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.

THE FACTS:

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.

Additional versions (circa 1953) of the Charles James dress originally worn by Babe Paley – see the Victorian influence?!

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.  

Hawaii of ’59

Riding on the heels of my last post, a play set inspired by the Disney Polynesian princess Moana, here’s a quick little post on yet another tropical outfit – one that is much more elegant, but simpler, yet just a fun and versatile as the last.  I just finished these pieces after being further motivated by my diving into the history of Hawaii, particularly what led up to the year when it became America’s 50th state.  That specific history is sadly rife with colonialism, division, greed, and cultural identity issues.  Yet, Hawaii finally becoming part of the Union in the year 1959 is something to celebrate that deserves its own fantastic outfit here on my blog, especially when I had some amazing fabric a friend brought back for me her trip to the island!  This is my outfit for my pretend getaway while still comfortably staying in my hometown, he he.

My new crop top dates to 1959, but my skirt is my own self-draped design using the Hawaiian fabric from my friend.  She has family ties to the island herself and was excited to see what I would make of it after discussing my ideas for the skirt with her.  This is not a cultural outfit, nor is it trying to be.  This is merely a vintage top infused with a bit of a Hawaiian flair because of the skirt.  Yet, it is enough of a cultural nod with the traditional hibiscus print on the skirt that I wanted to clarify myself.  For these pictures, the local Botanical Gardens’ greenhouse conservatory, the “Climatron”, was my background setting – it was opened in 1960, the year after my top’s pattern, and houses many tropical vegetation. 

Inside the “Climatron”

I have never been to Hawaii myself, so I don’t know anything to compare to location-wise, but at least my fabric is properly sourced.  Even for my last Hawaiian inspired sewing creation (an Ana Jarvis from Agent Carter outfit), I also ordered that fabric direct from a Hawaii barkcloth shop via online.  I always try to make sure a cultural fabric I’m using comes directly from the ethnicity which is my inspiration – it helps the artisans, promotes their craft, and gives proper respect to the heritage.   This is especially important to recognize in light of the fact that yesterday was “Discoverer’s Day” in Hawaii, celebrated on the second Monday in October since 1971 “to honor all discoverers, including Pacific and Polynesian navigators”.  Many experts now believe that the Polynesians ‘discovered’ both North and South America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus, anyway!  It is important to remember that Hawaii has been annexed as a U.S. territory since 1898, but America has had an interest in the island since the 1840s, so the native cultures have had a long struggle to keep their own traditions and identity alive.  Let’s honor the Polynesian culture as well as Indigenous people!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% rayon for the Hawaiian skirt fabric and a 100% linen (leftover from this 40’s jumper) for the top

PATTERN:  for the top, Simplicity #8460, a year 1959 design reissued in 2017, originally Simplicity #3062

NOTIONS NEEDED:  two 9 inch zippers and lots of thread

THE INSIDES:  The top is all French seamed (even the armscye) and the skirt only has one seam, and that was closely zig-zagged along the edge for a faux serged (overlocked) clean edge

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse was finished on October 4, 2021 and took only about 4 hours from start to finish.  The skirt took me longer, as I didn’t use a pattern – maybe 6 hours altogether – and was finished a few days after the top.

TOTAL COST:  The skirt was reasonably priced for the two yards I had my friend pick up for me (yes, I paid her later) and the linen had been in my stash so long it’s free in my mind!

I am further tying this outfit in with my previous Moana inspired outfit on a basic level because I used the same fabric for part of both sets.  Yes, that is correct!!  That brown jumper I made was originally bright orange like my top because this is what I sewed out of the one yard (plus scraps) that was leftover before dyeing that project a new color.  However, this is much more culturally influenced that that previous set.  Even still, as much as Moana has been the starting point of interest to whatever recent historical inquiries or research I have carried out on the Pacific Islands, she is actually the second protagonist of Polynesian descent in a Disney animated feature.  The first was Lilo with her older sister Nani from Lilo & Stitch.   

These pieces were a refreshing project because I was both going rouge and being inventive.  I have been doing this a lot with my sewing lately.  It keeps my creative juices flowing to draft something myself, or at least interpret a pattern in an unexpected manner.  I went through a bout of no-sewing in July through the end of August, although you wouldn’t have guessed it on my blog.  I have such a backlog of good things I’ve made but haven’t posted so my blog’s supply of material seems endless sometimes!  Anyways, these creative projects that are just what I want to make at the moment are giving me life.  I don’t care if it is October, this is exactly what I wanted to sew and wear.  Luckily, the combo of the orange and the purple here gives me an opportunity to still wear this for the last throes of summer warmth that we often have in October.  I hope to be wearing this set much more again as soon as it gets warm again next year.  For now I plan on wearing the orange top with all my fall season skirts the next month! 

Along that vein, I guess I will dive into the details about my little vintage linen crop top.  The original pattern calls this an “unlined, sheer, short jacket” actually because it is shown sewn in a lace and meant to be worn as a cover up to the included “sleeveless sheath dress” (the base item to this set).  I am surprised the ’59 pattern calls it a jacket.  After all, it is sheer and designed to have an open back with no closures, other than hem and neckline bindings which extend into ties.  I guess this is not much different from a short cropped, no-closure bolero jacket, however looking at the line drawing alone gave me a different idea.  Line drawing are such a basic starting point, devoid of any influence, it always helps me come up with original thoughts.  I chose to see this garment reinvented as a wear-alone top, aka blouse. 

I cut it out with no changes, and sewed it up just the same as I would have if it was sheer lace – French seams inside.  Down the center back, though, I installed a 9 inch zipper which opens up only to the middle of the shoulders and closes at the bottom hem.  Above that zipper, I sewed the center back together just for a few inches only to open up again into a neckline keyhole opening.  This is a top that has a close fitting neckline and the back keyhole vent is just enough for me to slip this over my head.  Only then did I finish the neckline as the pattern directs, with the back neck closing in extended ties that are one with the binding (cut from the same fabric as the top).  I could finally try on the top at this point…only to discover it was terribly boxy and oversized.  It was also much more of a ‘belly top’ than I had realized it would be, only because of the way it was pulled up when I reached up to fix my hair.  The only place it fit was in the shoulders.  I was glad I had saved the hem binding for the last step.

I am wearing my Grandmother’s vintage jewelry set here!

I started fitting it to myself at the side seams, which had originally been very vertical, by tapering in a large 1 inch chunk which started at the hem and ended in the armpit at my original French seam on each side.  Then, I added in under bust darts which come up from the hem and called it done, finishing the edge with similar binding as the neck.  I knew a snug fit would not be ideal here with a tight woven linen and after the way the shoulders fit so comfortably as-is.  So I have my top tailored with a relaxed fit that does its proper job by not flashing others my lingerie…only some of my midsection skin, which I really don’t mind.  As long as my high-waisted bottoms are on, whether a skirt or pants, I am fine!  I love this fun little number.

The skirt is definitely my favorite of the two, nevertheless.  It is so elegant and, best of all, a custom one-of-a-kind design made by me.  This is even better than my self-drafted items because this was draped with myself as the mannequin.  This was tricky, as I was draping in an unconventional manner, but well worth it.  Draping is different than drafting – patterning is optional if you start with a good fashion fabric and very little goes to waste.  Drafting produces a technical design base from which to pattern and cut material to turn it from 2D to something 3D that fits the curves of a human figure.  Draping is a very ‘organic’ way of approaching design because there is no pattern needed and one only has to work with the fabric, and pinch, pin, tuck, dart, or otherwise shape the material as inspired to then fit the body form (in my case, myself).    

What I love about draping is the way the fabric can dictate the design, as was the case for this Hawaiian skirt.  I worked around what would let the print of the pattern shine to its optimum level while still becoming a pleasing and elegant design.  When a fabric is really good – and this Hawaiian rayon is absolutely luxurious – it is best to be attuned to its own “personality” and let it dictate of what it wants to be.  Sometimes, as is often the case for one-off couture creations for famous people, the occasion they have to attend or even the personality of the wearer (think of the MET gala) can be the driving force behind the crafting of a custom draped design.  In this case, a pattern is often made from the designer’s original draping creation, to be patterned up and re-made out of the final fashion fabric by employees.  In my case, I had enough confidence to dive right into my good fabric because I had a general idea of what – hopefully – my final result was to be. 

Two different views of the same front closure – because a zipper in a dart is confusing to show!

I aimed for a design that needed as few as possible seams.  I had two yards of a 35 inch width fabric and wanted to leave it as “untouched” and natural as possible.  I experimented in front of a mirror wrapping and pinching the fabric on myself to estimate what design might work best and also figure out how much (and where) to take out the excess material.  As it turned out, with only four tapered darts, 6 inches wide for a few inches below the waist tapering to nothing for the length of 20 inches, were placed in between the blank spaces left by the upward trailing border print.  The two center darts were turned outward away from one another to create a kind of “sack-back gown” effect.  The next two were turned to run the same direction, thus creating another layer of the “sack-back gown” effect along each side of my hips.  The only other seam, running the full length of the width, was created by stitching the two cut edges together.  This became the center front seam. The zipper was installed into the dart that was also put into the center front, just the same depth and length as the other previous four darts.  As the final step, I turned both selvedges inside by 2 inches and this was both the finished bottom hem and upper waistband.  I was able to fulfill my goal AND fit an aesthetically pleasing layout to my body. 

As I clarified above, I was not trying to make this a cultural garment, but as I was experimenting with draping placement there may have been subconscious inspiration from the vintage early 60’s Polynesian line of sewing patterns.  Many of their dresses have a slight nod to 18th century garments with their frequency of either a gathered or pleated sack-back to their Hawaiian muu-muu dresses.  Check out pattern no. 150, pattern no. 183, or the popular no. 121 (as modeled on the fantastic Tanya Maile) for just a few examples.  I will admit, I have the 18th century on my mind…I just finished a 1780s gown and just planned out a pattern for a shorter hip length sack-back gown (called in French a “pet-en-l’air”; see picture below at right).  A ‘watteau back’ is formed by wide box pleats hanging from a high shoulder yoke and extending to the hem in an unbroken line.  I translated this into a skirt form, unintentional at first then only realizing it as my skirt was coming along. 

Wide watteau pleating really makes the fabric print look like it was meant for this design, I think, but the true effect comes to play when I walk in this skirt.  It has a controlled flow around me in a way that makes me feel like a queen and silently, happily squeal inside.  The visual impression is still slimming because of the straight, tapered, and columnar effect of the front half of the skirt that the side pleats form.  There is something so indescribably graceful to authentic hula, and that was the elegance I wanted to translate into my Hawaiian fabric skirt.

I hope you enjoyed this tropical foray for these last two posts, and that whatever the weather you may have where you live, your day was uplifted for a few moments.  I will be continuing the rest of October with more posts related to the stereotypical seasonal celebrations of the month – such as fall, Halloween, and princesses with Germanic heritage to their stories.  I hate to see summer go, every dang year, though.  I always make sure to send out the warm weather with some grand finale outfits, and this year’s creations were especially delightful in more ways than one. 

Thanks, as always, for reading and following along!