Kelly’s Button Bonanza

A ground level view of my version of a Patrick Kelly dress…

Anyone who shares my name of Kelly is of course going to immediately pique my curiosity.  I have already channeled the royal actress Grace Kelly a few times (both here and here), so it was high time to dive into the history of another famous namesake.  Patrick Kelly has already been a designer I have greatly respected, admired, and been interested in.  Then, press for the current costume exhibit “Runway of Love”, presenting his life and designs, has recently brought him anew into my thoughts.  However, it was also my desire to do something worthwhile with an old dress of mine that ultimately drove me deeper in a renewed understanding of just how deserved is the renown given to Patrick Kelly. 

In his honor, I gravitated towards Patrick Kelly’s penchant for using a plethora of buttons to up-cycle a ready-to-wear black knit dress that has been sitting in my wardrobe, unloved and unworn for over a decade.  One way to understand someone is to actively put yourself in their place.  I tried to do that (in a lesser degree) by working with over 100 varied buttons to find a taste of Patrick Kelly’s joy and creativity, as well as comprehend his talent.  The resulting “new-and-improved” little black dress is my own interpretation of his vision, nevertheless, not a copy of anything Patrick Kelly made.

It’s raining down buttons on the designer Patrick Kelly in this picture!

Patrick Kelly was born on September 24, 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  As a black man growing up in the Southern states of America, he fought through his life’s setbacks, his surrounding society’s prejudices, and the partiality practiced in the fashion design world.  Eventually, he made his way to Paris with the help of his friendship with the supermodel Pat Cleveland.  In 1988, he became the 1st American inducted to the “Chambre Syndicale”, a prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry that determines which fashion design houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses.  Most people know the names of other members to the Syndicale – Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy to list just a few.  However, as an American myself, I am painfully aware of the fact that Patrick Kelly is not as collectively well-known as his fellow designer counterparts, so I am personally doing something here to help make up for that!  I love that he succeeded by being determined and dedicated to his creative vision.  It is commendable how he stayed true to himself and his simple upbringing at the same time, not changing for the sake of climbing that ladder of fame.  Patrick Kelly had a uniquely joyous personality that shines through to his exuberant designs.  He epitomizes the garish fashions of the 1980s, but in the best way possible because he was celebrating his roots, the beauty of all women, and the happiness of living.  He died young at age 35 on New Year’s Day 1990.    

Fall-Winter 1986-1987, Patrick Kelly collection, from “Runway of Love” exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco

Patrick Kelly helps me see what it means “to sew” in a whole new light.  He personally was not skilled at garment construction, and struggled with a sewing machine to the point that he threw his appliance out his apartment window in frustration one day.  Yet, from a young age, Kelly’s aunt instilled in him the basic hand sewing skills he needed to mend, repair, and provide basic garment upkeep.  His Grandma, who helped raise him after his father died, inspired him by the way she would always replace his missing shirt buttons with mismatched, multicolored buttons from her notions box.  He never forgot to appreciate his childhood memories.  After moving to Atlanta, Georgia through the 1970s to attend fashion design school, Kelly supported himself by working at an AMVETS thrift shop.  He soon began selling his first creations which were vintage and secondhand garments from the store that he upcycled, refashioned, or added decorative notions (found lost on the floors at the thrift shop) to transform into something uniquely one-of-a-kind.  

1986 – Patrick Kelly, sleeveless black knit dress with button bustier

Why is it that the sewing culture of today acts as if this practice of re-working existing items is merely an on-trend thing to do for thriftiness, personal enjoyment, or social consciousness?  Why isn’t it expressly clear to the general mainstream public that such a practice reached the level of official French couture only 40 years ago and therefore deserves a higher level of regard than it currently has?!  This isn’t even addressing the fact that you don’t even need a machine or anything other than basic mending skills to do a Patrick Kelly dress, thus challenging the very ideas of sewing stereotypes.  Yes, sewing is more than just a skill, he has shown how it is also self-confidence, perseverance, ingenuity, and (most importantly) joy in the process.

Thus, to create his preliminary ‘brand’ image in the 80’s, Patrick Kelly utilized what he could do, what inspired him, and what was immediately available to create something amazing.  Using knit tube dresses as his canvas blanks, he worked with something that is so commonplace – buttons – people can all immediately relate to his designs more than most other pieces from couture houses.  Yet, at the same time he elevated buttons on garments into an awe inspiring art form.  Such a technique may look simple to replicate, but like most really good garments, there is a highly challenging level of execution hiding under the guise of effortlessness.  I can vouch for this truth, just from the small scale button project that I attempted for myself!

To start with, my dress is more complicated than the seamless knit tubes that Patrick Kelly would work with, so I had to be adaptive enough to make my button placement different.  Every time I attempt to imitate something that has been made by a designer, my version has to be my own twist out of respect to the unique genius of each one of us.  I am not convinced by the “imitation is a form of flattery” phrase and rather prefer to believe that tapping into one’s individuality is the best tribute.  The design lines to my dress prevented the possibility of any buttons being added across the entire dress body, as many Patrick Kelly designs have.  Thus, I internalized my inner artist to feel out a way to display the buttons on my dress in a way that makes my own imaginative statement…but more on that later.  Right now, let’s dive into the how to sew on 130 individual buttons, and not the why!

My dress has a basic bodice, which joins to a wiggle skirt, pleated in at the high waistline.  It is a comfy piece that still fit me perfectly (and had pockets, too) so I felt it was worth saving.  Just the very fact I was looking for something to do with my black dress, immediately led me to think of Patrick Kelly…and there was a mixed mega bag of assorted buttons at my local fabric store which has been calling to me like a siren’s call ever since I noticed it there.  Yes, I felt bad that I was buying a new bag of buttons when there are so many large canning jars full of various vintage buttons at all the local thrift and antique stores.  I felt guilty that I was not approaching this refashion the way Patrick Kelly would have.  However, none of the button jars I came across were a colorful enough assortment for my creative vision.   

A close-up to the front neckline of my dress. See how I changed up the ways of sewing down a button?

To channel the spirit of Patrick Kelly’s works, it is important to go big and bold, choosing the brightest shades to create a true statement piece. Thus, I chose to buy two “Big Bag of Buttons” packs from “Favorite Findings”, which has an assorted mix of sizes, opacity, finish, and colors to offer.  I chose the color way that struck me as an almost neon blend of a lime green, sunshine yellow, hot pink, fresh orange, and a bright blue.  To have this burst of lively color pop off of a dark inky black background reminds me of the way Patrick Kelly wanted to be someone who could make people smile through their troubles.  He once said “There’s so much sadness in the world. And if you can stick a button on something or funny hat, I’m the one for you. I hope when they (people) think about me, they think of being happy.”    

I can’t get enough of the beautiful array of buttons I added on my dress!

Finding and choosing just one layout to settle on for decorating my dress with the plethora of buttons was an agonizing process.  I had so many different ideas I wanted to commit to, at this rate I could do plenty more Patrick Kelly inspired button dresses of my own!  Anyways, once I settled upon one idea, I laid out as many buttons as I could the way I wanted them, traced around them with tailors chalk, an then moved them out onto the floor next to my dress in the exact same lay out.  Sounds easy, right?  Not really.  It is easy to get confused when trying to match what is on the floor back onto my dress.  I took lots of quick phone pictures to help me remember the button placement along the way and sew in a way close to my original idea.  The whole process was so time consuming, needing complete mental focus. 

I quickly discovered that I had to sew one button on at a time.  At first I thought I could interlace the buttons to make the process smoother.  However, I quickly realized I had to tie each one off separately because the fabric is a knit, thus needing to stretch unconfined in between all the buttons.  Trying to remember to keep the spacing and the layout, see the chalk marks that faded with every touch, and figure out placement in between sewing every button was exhausting.  Then, keeping the entire household away from the area of the floor where I was working was stressful…if anyone kicked the buttons around, I was ruined.  This dress has definitely been the top craziest thing I have done amongst my sewing projects.  I am really curious how Patrick Kelly dresses’ insides look because I wonder if he had a better way to do this, or had some quick trick that I haven’t thought of.  Slowly seeing the design come together with every button group I sewed on was the only saving grace that gave me both hope and patience to finish this project idea. 

The buttons on the front and back skirt took me a total of 8 hours to sew onto the dress, while the neckline buttons took me almost 4 hours, for an overall total of almost 13 hours.  Whew!  This is what I was talking about when I said (above) that it may look like these kind of dresses are easy, but it’s a real eye opener to try one out for yourself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “There is more than meets the eye” are some adages that can apply perfectly to a Patrick Kelly dress, even if only talking about a paltry imitation by a home sewist like myself! 

As interesting as this dress was to refashion, it is also very interesting to wear.  Having that many buttons, even if only lightweight plastic, really does add substantial weight to the dress.  Each button pack was almost 4 ounces alone, and I used two packs.  That is half of a pound in added button weight!  I am really thankful that my base dress’ knit fabric was a thick, stable knit.  I half-heartedly thought to myself, at the outset of this project idea, that the hefty weight of the knit would hold the buttons well, but I did not realize how important having a thicker knit would be until all the buttons were sewn on.  Also, I was surprised to discover that all the knots inside the dress from where I tied off all the buttons can become slightly bothersome the longer the dress is worn.  I now wish I would have tied off the ends from the right side of the dress, under the buttons.  This issue is mostly resolved by wearing a full slip underneath the dress, but it is a point worth noting.  Finally, to hear how the buttons click together and jangle when I wear the dress is entertaining enough to make me chuckle under my breath.  It is almost like a dull chiming music for me to move, sit, or walk in my dress.  This is the most surprising effect, and one that I really enjoy.  In all this dress, has been a project chock full of surprises and curious discoveries.

Patrick Kelly designs – Woman’s Ensemble Coat and Dresses, fall-winter 1986

I wonder if these interesting ‘side effects’ are not unique to my imitation dress but also something shared by a true Patrick Kelly button garment.  Since he often worked with older vintage buttons, many of which are metal or shell, I can imagine that his dresses were even heavier than my plastic button dress.  I expect his button dresses (as he was an official couture house) to not have the harsh knots inside, as mine does…but who knows, though!  The insides of a garment tell its full story, and couture of the past often is relegated to museum collections, thus it is hard to actually be able for a curious sewist like me to discover the details found in the guts at an up-close, personal setting.  I have been looking for pictures online from listings of Patrick Kelly dresses for sale, but not many of his button creations seem to be found for sale, and neither do those listings have images of the inner garment workings.  Some things from the designer world are best left a mystery, after all, I suppose.

The artistic vision behind the placement and color choice of the buttons on my dress is supposed to call to mind the life giving symbiotic relationship of the sun and the rain.  My neckline has the ‘water’ in the blue color that trickles down in drips that fade from green to clear yellow by being touched by the sun.  The rays which stretch out from my bottom left skirt hem corner reach out towards the rain, and filter between the classic colors chosen to represent the sun – orange and yellow – and the pink…like a beautiful early morning sunrise.  Is there anything more enlivening than watching the dawn of a new day touch the wet morning dew? 

My photo location’s wall mural is a tribute to the 1980s culture.  It is has classic mid 80s computer gaming references that only those in the know will recognize.  I love that here is a giant figure of Link, the protagonist of Nintendo‘s video game franchise The Legend of Zelda.  The game dates to 1986, the same year for the Patrick Kelly button dress that were my primary inspiration!  I love how the wall mural brings out the colors in my dress, as well as referencing the way Patrick Kelly was a mixed media artist on the side.  He always began a runway show with a can of paint to spray a quick little artistic message on the back wall.

National Sewing Month (September) may be over now, but I have not yet moved on from the reflections and revelations I had in the spirit of such a dedication.  If speaking about physical project production, September is never really anything different for me because sewing is a part of my life on a regular basis.  However, celebrating such a dedication for the month prompts me to at least think back on what I have made and celebrate my achievements.  Most importantly, however, I like to reconsider the why, the what, and the ideology behind sewing.  In this quest, I have happily discovered a new appreciation for a designer I have known of but never previously thoroughly educated myself on – the great Patrick Kelly.  To me, his life and his triumphs are not just inspirational on their own apart from the fashion world, but they are also the epitome of what sewing is all about.  Please look through the pictures and explore the site links to be found on my “Patrick Kelly” Pinterest page for more on his life and his work!   

Ceiling Paint Splatter

1986 was an interesting year with many definitive events that I am sure anyone who experienced in some degree will not forget.  There was the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the arrival of Hailey’s comet.  There was the Chernobyl accident and the Iran–Contra affair.  There was the debut of both the Oprah Winfrey show as well as the stage musical “Phantom of the Opera”.  Wow, right?! There are recognizable parallels to 1986 recently, between the popularity of a new Top Gun movie (gosh, Tom Cruise has barely aged) and the current Russian aggression (evocative in some ways of the Cold War’s nuclear brinksmanship).  Reminiscing along this vein, I finally bit the bullet and sewed up a crazy print dress tied to that definitive year, using a pattern from a largely unknown designer.  This is one project I have long wanted to make, and I am thrilled over my resulting dress.  It is so enjoyable, cute, and comfortable!

My dress was inspired by another event of 1986, one that was momentous to the entertainment industry – the music video to Lionel Richie’s song “Dancing on the Ceiling”.  Out of all the music videos out there, this is one that I absolutely wish I could go back in time and be a part of.  I am an absolute Lionel Richie fan the way it is, but I even more so adore the energy and craziness to this specific song and its accompanying video.  It reportedly cost somewhere around $400,000 for only 4 days of shooting, making it the most expensive short form music video production at the time.  

The music video was directed by the great Stanley Donen, whose most celebrated works include Hollywood’s classic films such as Singin’ in the Rain, Royal Wedding, and Funny Face.  The director Donen said that Richie actually adapted easier and quicker to the rotating room used in the video than Astaire did while shooting similar scenes in his 1951 film Royal Wedding.  It is an energy release for me to even just listen (but also dance) to when I indeed feel like I need to crawl the ceiling from being so cooped up inside with nothing of great fun to do. 

The combination of colors and crazy prints that the party-goers in the music video are wearing inspired me to gravitate to a multicolored cotton that is a riot of color.  Lionel Richie is the bold color focus while the band and extras are black and white (or silver) tones, so my dress is the general scheme in one package.  To me it is a print inspiring energy and absolute elation, exuding a feeling which seemed so appropriate for a dress inspired by the music video to “Dancing on the Ceiling”.  If you paint on the ceiling, it is bound to splatter, right?  And if you had a party on the ceiling, it would definitely need to be repainted, right?  So goes my fanciful way of thinking. 

Sewing my own garments may be more like creating a dream or interpreting my own art, I suppose, when I realize how imaginative I approach some of my projects, such as this one.  I hope you enjoy this wild throwback dress, and it’s even crazier photo backdrop location – the Museum of Illusions in Chicago, Illinois.  This place had an exhibition which gave me the opportunity to actually live out my dream of dancing on a ceiling, even if it is just an illusion!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton lawn in a Lady McElroy “Artistic Vibrance” multicolored print lined with a bleached cotton muslin

PATTERN:  Butterick #3854, year 1986, a Kathryn Conover pattern from my personal stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  two 7/8” black ball buttons, lots of thread, and two packs of ¼” wide double fold bias tape

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was a 10 hour project and was finished on May 24, 2022

THE INSIDES:  the waistline is bias covered but side seams are left raw

TOTAL COST:  The Lady McElroy fabric alone cost me about $25 and the muslin lining was $5

This 1985 sports set is in a print very similar to my dress’ fabric!

This dress immediately helps me remember that the trippy color craze of the early 90’s was really a result of the late 1980s.  Coming before the age of the internet, it used to take a while for trends to catch up and turn mainstream!  Think of the titular intro screens to the television series Rugrats, which came out in 1991, and you can see the similarities with my dress’ 80’s inspired print.  The cotton lawn was slightly sheer, and being in a white, it needed a lining, for sure.  The bright white bleached muslin I used as lining seems to help the colors in the print pop by brightening the white background.  

I actually toned down some of the bold contrast and overall busyness to this design by switching up a few design details.  I also simplified the already easy-to-made dress.  There is no facing needed or complicated finishing here but only binding along all the entire neckline, which continues into the waistline seam.  For this purpose, I chose a thinner bias edge binding rather than ½” wide as the pattern wanted, as well as using pre-made packaged notions rather than cutting the needed strips myself.  Smaller edging makes the dress more delicate than clunky so that it is like controlled chaos.  I wanted this to be a wildly fun 80’s dress, but didn’t need it to turn into an immediate eyesore. 

This sediment is only another reason I switched to a clean and tailored pleated skirt rather than a mere overall gathered seam.  Especially as I was fully lining the skirt, pleats were necessary anyway to tame any bulk.  I enjoy the kind of math that sewing calls, for and rather enjoyed figuring out the depth and amount of pleats much more than if I would have set in gathers.  I always like to customize at least something from every pattern’s design!  I suppose I’m merely flattering myself to feel as though I improve upon patterns with some of my changes.  Yet, I think such is definitely the case with this design…sorry, Ms. Conover!

Kathryn Conover is the designer listed on this pattern, and she released a good number of dresses through Butterick for several years in the 1980s.  As she has a history of offering her fashionable designs for the last 50 years, it is a shame her name is not more widely recognized.   I can totally relate to her Midwestern practicality and upbringing, being a Midwesterner myself!  Her designing focus was centered on dresses that should “withstand the seasonal vicissitudes of fashion, in fabrics that endure and retain their luster.  However her primary aim,” she insisted in the interview, “is for a woman to put on one of my dresses and feel better about herself.”   Read her full interview in April 1983 with the New York Times (link here, from which comes the previous quotes) to understand the price points, ideology, and status of her brand in the early 1980s. 

She was a dressmaker in a literal sense of the word – no suits, separates, or anything else!  Her love of sewing began as a hobby, but she then worked her way through the University of Minneapolis by collecting clothes from thrift shops, restyling them and selling them. (I have a soft spot for refashions, so she seems like my kind of gal.)  Her own line of clothing was founded sometime in late 70’s, with her first collection immediately gaining the attention of specialty stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Niemen Marcus, and Lord & Taylor.  She sold her ready-to-wear through these stores and others until her line was ended in 1992.  Conover served as design director for the Liz Claiborne dress division from 1991 to 1993, where she introduced some of her collections through Perry Ellis.  She cited overly trendy fads and the liberal use of denim through the decade of the 90’s for a lack of popularity for the kind of dresses that she wanted to offer, what Conover refers to as having ”a strong classic undertone.” 

I respect the way that Conover was unlike many designers who adapted with the changing times.  She stayed true to her own tastes and desires to the point that she was not afraid to stop what she was doing to try something new in her career.  Conover brought back a line of dresses through the company Ronni Nicole for a short period of time in 2007 and the year after.  She began her own bridal consulting in 2003, which morphed into her working as a couture wedding gown creator for “The Knot”.  She is 74 years old this year!

I can’t help but wonder if my interpretation of her pattern is enough on brand to be true to Ms. Conover’s idealology.  I do have a Pinterest board created (see link here) for you to see a sample variety of her work from the 1970s through 90’s.  My dress’s print is no less full of 80’s obnoxiousness than any other Kathryn Conover dresses from that era, as can be seen in my Pinterest board.  The dropped waist is classic style point of the 1980s, when the era bought back modern versions of French heeled shoes and straight-lined flapper dresses, both inspired by the 1920s.  Many of her designs of the mid 80s seemed to integrate a dropped waistline, with or without some curve emphasis.  I think she would be pleased with my replacing the gathers with pleats as she did this for similar designs such as Butterick #3019 (those bows across that open back bodice are simply fantastic).  To complete my outfit, I’m wearing true vintage 80s heels, crafted with real snakeskin toes which have the primary colors plus green on them.  I then paired the dress with my grandmother’s 80s clip-on earrings.  The funny thing is, since I was going full 80s, even the fact I had an unexpectedly crazy curly hair day became a styling point to match.

There are a handful of copies of my dress’ pattern, Butterick #3854, out to be found for sale, and I definitely recommend it if you find yourself remotely interested in this design.  It is so easy to make, with no facings or zipper needed, and is a step-in dress, for ease in dressing.  Two buttons in the front are the simple closure in this double breasted style!  One word of warning – this dress is proportioned for very tall body.  Even if you are of average height, you will need to do the petite alteration as shown on the pattern pieces.  The bodice was the correct length for my 5’ 3” frame.  Even still, the skirt was really long.  I did the petite alteration to the dress and the skirt still came to my ankles, so I had to do a deep hem.  This ended up in my favor because a thick hem nicely, but gently weighed down the skirt (so I didn’t have a Marilyn Monroe moment walking along Downtown Chicago) and keeps the fabric opaque.  The arm opening is comfortably generous and adds to the general loose and breezy classy air of the dress. 

Do not be dismayed if you try this dress out for yourself and discover that it has a roomy ease amount.  If you look at the model image on the cover and the version I made for myself, it is fitted but not snug, tailored but still generous – and that is the beauty of a good design, the trademark of a designer creation.  Not everything has to be skin-tight to look good…that is a modern mentality and inaccurate.  Slip into all the good points about the 1980s.  You may just find, like I did, that a tailored fit on the higher end of wearing ease can be a gloriously exhilarating experience which doesn’t have to mean frumpy.  Rocking the 80’s doesn’t have to mean something gaudy to wear when it is coming from the hands of lesser-known, but no less talented, United States designer Kathryn Conover.     

Conover’s self-named line of clothing might not have lasted all that long yet I am very glad I tried out a taste of it for myself through the hands-on means of a sewing pattern.

A Blouse to Match with My Grandmother’s Jumper

Grandma Emma May, late 1940s

One of the many tough things about 2021 was losing the last grandparent I had left.  Now I am an orphaned granddaughter, as I see it.  My maternal Grandmother passed away last spring.  Despite the heartache, I have been blessed by having the family pass down to me a handful of items that were left from her belongings, particularly her vintage clothing.  The several items from her post WWII wedding period and before are too incredibly tiny for me to wear (22” waist) and will be preserved as family heirlooms.  They will also be the basis for me to recreate them from scratch in my size, but that’s for a future project.  However, I was also given my maternal Grandmother’s 1950s woolen tweed jumper which that does just fit me.  Of course I had the perfect matching fabric on hand that was just pleading to be sewn into a blouse to match!  I am proud to dress like my Grandma! 

Let me point out that while the only me-made part of this post will be my bow-neck blouse, my Grandmother’s woolen jumper is also handmade…by her!  She had worked for many years at a major North American department store nearby (no longer around) but shopping there, nevertheless, was reserved for Easter, Christmas, and a special occasion.  All else was sewn at home by her, and by my mom and her sisters as they got old enough.  Funny enough, I was also bestowed her sewing machine, the “newest” one she bought when my mom was older so she could have the zig-zag stitch – but that is a story in itself which I will not dive into here. 

I’ve always heard that my two Grandmothers were very proficient, capable seamstresses and I have seen proof of that with my dad’s mom, but now I have seen it firsthand for my mom’s mom.  This jumper is very well made with a Bamberg rayon lining, perfectly matching thread for the seams, a hand-stitched hem covered on the inside in rayon tape, and overall finished in every way the same as I would aspire to do.  It makes me want to cry.  I guess sewing truly runs in my blood but to find exactly how alike this affinity is with my Grandmother after all these years of not knowing…I’m at a loss for words for this but it is something very special to discover. 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  1 ½ yards of a dated 80’s polyester satin

PATTERN:  Simplicity #9559, from the year 1980

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but lots of thread, a handful of buttons, and some interfacing scraps

TIME TO COMPLETE:  I whipped this blouse up in about 10 hours, and finished on May 21, 2021

THE INSIDES:  Pristine in clean French seaming with hem tape along the bottom edge

TOTAL COST:  The material was a remnant from a rummage sale bin that I paid a few dollars for, so this is as good as free.  The buttons came from the notions stash of my husband’s Grandmother.

Grandma Emma May would have been in her early 30’s when she made this jumper, based on how the design lines are so very similar to this 1956 pattern which I have sewn from already.  My chosen blouse pattern matches with the era of the dated fabric I chose for it – 1980s – but the style is very classic and aligns perfectly with the popularity of sweet collars in the 1950s and 1960s.  Polka dots never go out of style, but this blouse – being in a gaudy 80’s satin – has a polka dotted shine woven in for double the texture, double the print!  Too bad someone has to get into my personal space bubble to actually notice such a detail on me in person.  Sometimes the best details are for my special enjoyment only, much like my favorite technique of French seam finishing to the edges inside.

The bow neckline may look simple here and the envelope cover plainly basic but the finished garment is subtly crafted to be an elevated tweak on the style.  The trick here is how the tie neckline is not a straight cut piece, but a tailored, curvy one which is cut on the bias and left free of interfacing.  This concoction makes it hang so nicely, effortlessly, smoothly against the body, and tie so softly.  I would love Simplicity #9559 for this reason alone, but it also happens to fit me precisely and was easy to make.  I will definitely be coming back to sew another iteration.  Of all the tie necklined garments I have sewn, I think this one may be my favorite.  It is right up there next to this 1946 black crepe tie neck blouse, which I just posted earlier this month.  The width of the ties, the open but still conservative neckline, as well as the practical seaming in to main body is what wins me over.  If you find this pattern online to buy, do pick it up for yourself.  It is super cheap everywhere I see it for sale, but that is only because it is a hidden gem.

My sleeves have a deep hem so that I have the option of wearing them like a longer short style or roll them up to a cuff, as the pattern intended.  I have not tacked the cuffs down because I like the versatility to decide to change up the look.  The blouse’s overall length turned out rather long, which is fine because it blouses out whenever I wear it tucked in a skirt so the generous length is helpful to keep this silky blouse tucked in.  The silkiness of the polyester is much more appreciated than normally – Grandma’s jumper is quite itchy and the smoother the layers underneath means the raw wool might not work its way to tickling my skin!

The case for the historical accuracy of 22” center back zippers is again put to rest her with my Grandmother’s jumper.  It has a long metal zip down the back for ease of dressing.  My Grandmother was a practical and sensible woman, and seeing this feature makes me laugh because it is totally her.  As they are not commonly seen, though, so I am supposing that 22” metal zippers must have been a bit more expensive than the ‘normal’ side zip.  Grandma was super sensible with money especially, but I could see her justifying the purchase because of the ease a center back zipper offered.  She was a busy working mom with a handful of girls to take care of – Grandpa was a busy man himself at that time with two jobs. 

Anyways, to get back on topic, I have talked about the issue of the long, full length vintage center back zipper in old (primarily 1940s and 50’s) dresses, jumpers, and house frocks in this post.  Agent Carter’s trademark red and navy blue dress from Season one of the television show was true vintage and it had a center back zipper, as does this blue late 40’s vintage dress in my wardrobe.  I cannot vouch for the Agent Carter dress, but my vintage blue late 40’s dress has all the features of being handmade, just the same as Grandma’s jumper.  If anyone has seen a center back zipper on a vintage garment as well, come join with me in this discussion and let’s de-bunk a popular myth of old clothes only having those difficult side zippers!

The rest of my Grandmother’s clothes are so fancy, they would not have been as wearable as this jumper even if they did fit me.  They include her velvet wedding dress from 1947, what we surmise to be her bridesmaid’s dress from her brother’s wedding the year after, and some sort of fancy late 1930s or early 1940s fancy semi-sheer silk dress from when she was an older teenager. See picture below. 

The best part about Grandma’s collared peach moiré bridesmaid’s dress is that she must have used the same pattern as was used for the bridesmaid’s dresses for her own wedding – it’s the same style.  For further proof that my Grandmother is ever the practical one, as I said above, there were two different sleeves which she made and kept with the dress, which is sleeveless.  There were long, full length gloves to mimic long sleeves and short sleeves ready to fit into the dress, both made of the same moiré fabric!  I am happy have recently found a late 1940 Advance brand sewing pattern which will be perfect to help me sew my own copy of this dress, as I mentioned above. 

The silk dress from her teen years is so amazing in quality and details, as is her wedding dress, that they deserve their own post, so I will only add here that they also seem to be handmade.  They were probably by Grandma Emma May herself, since her mom – my Slovak Great Grandma we called “Baba” who happily was alive until I was 10 – enjoyed more cooking, quilting, and artistic ventures than complex apparel sewing.  (I know this from the many visits and good meals she offered us at her house.)  To have one’s family stories be able to be recounted through the lens of just a few inheritance garments places of whole level of gravity upon something as basic as clothing. 

I’m sorry (but not really sorry) if these family tales make this post a bit uninteresting or at least confusing to be such a different approach than my ‘normal’ bog offerings.  However, it does me good to write about such things – it helps me remember, is therapeutic to share, and hopefully helps you connect with your own past as well as with me.  Do you also happen to have any family stories which are tied up with a garment which has been passed down to you?  What are your best tips for preserving a velvet wedding gown that has been turning an ivory-toned brown?  Is there anyone else you know who has had the opportunity to personally experience their older generations like a Great Grandparent, or even a Grandparent, or am I that much of a rarity?  Drop me a comment, and let’s talk about Grandmas and old clothes, please! 

A Cardin Inspired Coat, a Coral Blouse…and a Crab

The way my 9 year old is so easily savvy with the newest technology and hooked on anything electronic makes me painfully aware that I am part of a generation that grew up without the internet.  However, overdoing nostalgic comparisons makes me feel like I’m overly emphasizing my age.  Thus, I’ll try to narrow the focus of this post on both the amazing details of my outfit and its symbolism to me.  I will never cease to be amazed at how pleasantly avant-garde the fashion of the 80’s and 90’s can (on occasion) be.  I don’t think designer fashion of today can compare to it, for all our technological advancements.   

Notice the toy crab as my companion – here’s my major princess reference, as this is indeed the part two post for my Ariel (of Disney’s 1989 “The Little Mermaid”) inspired clothing.  (The part one post can be found here.)  Yet the fact I could easily start crabbing about surviving a childhood without being hooked to a ‘smart’ accessory places me as the peevish one.   Both Sebastian and my enameled Ariel lapel pin are both items from my childhood, picked up when the animated movie was first released. 

Thus, let me return to ‘89 again with both Cardin and Coveri as my inspiration this time, with a mind to further transform the pants of my first “Little Mermaid” outfit into a chic, sporty yet dressy, full collection suitable for more than just wintertime.  Using the little bits leftover of my lovely “Alta Moda” Coveri designed material, I was able to eke out a matching jacket.  Its fabulous back reminds me of a waterfall!  A scrap of outdoor cotton in a branching coral print becomes a blouse for me to enjoy the weather outdoors. 

Imagine if a track suit went high fashion in the very best 80’s way…and this is what I think you would end up with.  I absolutely, wholeheartedly treasure these pieces in a special way!  It is yet another great example of how certain 80’s styling can be timeless when well crafted, but on a personal level, these quite possibly were done in my best hand stitching work to date.  I am not one to ‘save’ my good items, nevertheless – the only way to enjoy them is to wear them!  I found it appropriate and comfortable for a trek through the woods to visit my favorite creek-side haunt on a chilly, rainy day for some water related pictures.  I would think any mermaid princess would go to a creek if that’s all she could find, or that an Ariel of 1989 would do so wearing something like this!

THE FACTS:

FABRICS:  Jacket – a 100% wool twill, marked on the selvedge “Alta Moda – Enrico Coveri”; Blouse – a Waverly brand printed 100% cotton duck (outdoor fabric)

PATTERN:  McCall’s NY NY “ The Collection” pattern #4181, year 1989, from my stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, a few hook-n-eyes, and a couple cards of buttons (new)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse took me only 4 hours to make, and was finished on March 6, 2021.  The jacket was finished on March 26, 2021, and took me about 40 hours to make.

THE INSIDES:  Clean as can be! The jacket and blouse – as both are unlined – have vintage rayon seam tape and/or French seams.

TOTAL COST:  As I said in my post about the making of the trousers, the woolen Alta Moda fabric was a rummage sale find and therefore a dollar or two, while the blouse’s cotton print came from Wal-Mart’s scrap clearance section, as it was only one yard, for $2.50.  My buttons were a few dollars more.  Altogether, my total is probably $8.00!

What I specifically love here is that a different pattern was used for these two top pieces than what was selected for the fall-front trousers (McCall’s #4537, posted here).  Even still, the jacket and blouse of this post seem to flawlessly match with the bottoms and become a perfect set.  I attribute it to the fact both patterns are from the same year and same NY NY “The Collection” line.  

According the numbers, this pattern came first before the other I used for the trousers.  I definitely will be revisiting this to sew up the jodhpurs and the paper-bag waisted skirt which are included, too.  The way these NY NY patterns have a complete wardrobe in one envelope is really the best, not to mention the awesome, unusual styling.  This is the third one I’ve posted about (my first here) and you will be seeing plenty more of this line of patterns on my blog in the future because I now have a significant number of them.  They run from the late 80’s through the 90’s and are supposed to be designer, or at least designer inspired.  I definitely recommend you trying one out for yourself!

The style lines to these pieces, expressly the jacket, reminds me two great fashion designers who were were highly successful in the 80’s.  As I mentioned in my post about the trousers, my fabric is an Enrico Coveri brand “Alta Moda” woolen from pre-1990.  Coveri worked at the “Espace Cardin”, the vast design institute set up by Pierre Cardin, when he moved to Paris in the late 70’s, before he started his own label.  (In this previous post I expounded upon more details of his life.)  I think the futuristic thinking of Cardin rubbed off on Coveri – both were men ahead of their time in the 80’s.  Coveri was designing in the late 70’s garments we associate with the “look” of the late 80’s or early 90’s, yet as he died young he does not get the credit I feel he deserves.

The blue jacket is one of several different iterations of this kind of back detail Pierre Cardin produced in 1980.

Then there is Pierre Cardin who released a “Computers” inspired collection at the turn of the new decade in the year 1980. When computer usage for the populace was a very novel and limited item still, his jackets where designed to echo the functional venting of a computer’s body (see picture at right).  The introduction of three preassembled mass-produced personal computers was just launched in 1977. IBM Corporation, the (then) world’s dominant computer maker, did not enter the new market until 1981.  I would like to suppose that, just like as he did in the 60’s with his Space Age looks, Cardin was banking on the expectation of the new frontier ahead that was seen in the new dawn of computers for all to use.

Now to me, Cardin’s short, hip-length, blue “Computers” coat is not that far off from this NY NY McCall’s jacket.  In reality, my jacket is probably closer to an early 90’s Claude Montana creation (seen on the left) at first glance of design lines.  Not knowing the construction details of either designer piece, I could just be completely off here with my references.  Yet, I see what I see and love the irony of perceiving a Cardin and Coveri influence, especially for my Ariel inspired clothing.

Back to what I’ve made.  How was this particular jacket constructed though, you may be wondering by now?  First of all, it is unlined which sounds like it should have made it easier to sew, but no – it did not.  The already confusing and challenging construction was complicated by my need to see this jacket have a pristine finish inside.  Wool is not the best medium to do French seams and a tiny rolled hem.  With some steaming, seam clipping, and careful hand-stitching, I made it work though.  The ‘waterfall’ back (as I call it – don’t know what to term this otherwise) was too flowing and beautiful to receive a ‘normal’ hem, as the instructions directed.  I made a very tiny rolled hem, which I learned by finishing the flounces on this dress, to keep the panel from becoming stiff and restricted.  Even the sleeves were French seamed!  All of the top-stitching to the hems and lapel facings was done by hand so I could keep the thread invisible.  If my fabric is high class, and I see that it has couture inspiration, I felt I should raise the bar of my finishing techniques to match.

This jacket has a lot going on when it comes to details to list, and somehow they all seem to work together.  I don’t know how, but I am in awe.  There is the extreme boatneck which leaves little of a true shoulder seam.  The sleeves are wide cut at the shoulders and taper to a snug fit at the wrist.  The curved, high front lapels can be thrown open or flapped closed for a variety in the look.  There are no bust darts, surprisingly, and I kept the front bodice smooth by substituting buttons for hooks and eyes as the trio of closures.  The waist is high, which worked out fine paired with the above-the-waist trousers.  The shoulder panel and ‘floating’ lower waistband, which sits under the bias cut ‘waterfall’, are the only two anchors keeping together the back of the jacket. 

The weirdest but coolest part to this jacket is that there is no real back.  Yes!  The flounce-like ‘waterfall’ back falls down loose from the shoulder panel, attached only at the sides.  There is a back waistband, heavily interfaced and a just a few inches wide, stretching across to connect the hems of the front bodice.  The ‘waterfall’ flounce meets only at the outer corners of the hem to bring in all the pieces.  Hidden underneath, the back is completely open.  If you lift up my flounce back, you can see my blouse underneath.  

This odd feature makes the jacket appear like a haphazard mess when it is anything other than on my mannequin or my body.  Some of the most interesting things I sew are also the hardest to explain, so I hope my pictures do some justice.  It is simply indescribably curious…and was therefore even more challenging to grade up to my size on paper, believe me.  I went into this sewing project “blind” because the pieces and instructions didn’t makes sense until I had a go constructing the actual garment.  I’m so happy this turned out and that I like it as much as I do…because if ever a sewing idea has been a gamble for me, this one was more so!

The blouse is much more low-key, to be sure.  It’s the fine tuning that makes it fantastic.  It pairs with the jacket by filling in the open neckline and paralleling the boat neckline with high-cut sleeveless shoulders.  The blouse is boxy in fit with a wide and shorter hem length.  It also has lots of small buttons to close the front…so many I had a hard time finding enough.  The buttons I chose to match – frosted aqua ones that reminded me of sea glass – could not be found anymore, so I pared the number down to 8 from the 10 that were called for.  I used the provided customized armhole facings for a change, too, so this would have a finished inside that matches the fabric of the outside.  The pique-style waffle finish to the cotton duck adds an interesting texture as well as keeping this top nicely weightless for cool summer living.

Notice how the bust darts come into the bodice from the front armhole? So different – I love it!!!

I have paired other blouses, mostly collared ones, with my jacket and trousers set, and I must say that they actually look better than the high-necked one worn here.  Sure, it came with the same pattern.  Yet, it is not the best at staying tucked into the pants with its boxy, cropped length.  I still very much like the blouse I made on its own, and I do like the fact that it is something different to wear with the jacket and pants I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own.  It perfectly fills in my “Little Mermaid” reference though its details such as the sea glass inspired buttons, the perfect ocean blue aqua tone, and a print that reminds me to give a care about the alarming damages of bleaching to coral.  Whenever separates match with plenty of other pieces in my wardrobe rather than just the set they were intended for…well, that’s a good thing I won’t complain about!

At this point I have sewn 5 items from 1989, all from McCall’s “The Collection NY NY” patterns mind you, and I think none of them are what normally comes to mind when anyone might think of the last year before the 90’s.  I actually feel quite comfortably myself in these fashions the way that I know it is still my penchant for vintage (borderline, I know) without seeming so.  It is the kind of faux “modern” wear that I can totally be on board for!  This NY NY McCall’s was a nicely impressive surprise I did not expect, yet another one of the (currently many) reasons I am enjoying a new appreciation the 80’s and 90’s. 

Designer Pierre Cardin is shown during a dress fitting for his “Computers” Coat, 1980

Just some parting reflections – seeing a couture designer like Cardin ‘honoring’ computers with a collection is weird to me.  I love irony in fashion, and so I find myself delighted yet confused at the same time.  Anything inspired by a technology 30 years back was not always flowing and elegant but often angled and overtly “sci-fi” (I’m thinking of the costumes to the 80’s movie “Tron”, especially).  This is not so much the case today, I realize, especially at the hands of Iris van Herpen

Also, I’d like to point out that a computer system is not necessarily the best friend of the traditional way of creating couture.  I am a manual, free-hand pattern drafter, so I know I am biased, but did you know that as of 2019 there is such a thing as “Algorithmic Couture”?  A body is 3-D scanned to determine its exact proportions, which are used to create customized clothing for zero waste, perfect fit, and maximum sustainability. “Algorithmic Couture aims to democratize haute couture customization culture prevalent in the 19th-century, by revitalizing how we fashion our own style through personalization in the digital design process,” said the team of “Synflux”.  Kind of like in the story for “Tron”, this “Algorithmic Couture” puts power into the hands of the user by letting the ideas of each customer be the guide for each of their projects.  Technology of today is rewriting the historic rules of couture (see this article).  In my opinion there is nothing quite like what human minds and human hands can create…I wonder if Cardin had any idea back in 1989 that computers and fashion would go this far together.

The CAD system has no doubt its benefits at the consumer level.  It can provide a multi-dimensional ‘finished product’ view at the conception stage of a design; it has helped expand the Indie brand world of patternmaking; it aids the ease of offering wide range of inclusive sizes as well as the commercial availability of various designs…all for a just a start to the list.  So much to consider! 

Making marks on pattern pieces via computer, March 1987

In 1989 Cardin had THE most fascinating interview in which he said what I feel embodies a lot my outlook on the importance of quality fashion being a normal part of how we dress, as well as the importance of it being accessible to many.  This is why I believe so strongly in the importance of great patterns for home sewers…ones that are designer or at least ones that offer unique styles to both challenge and suit every sewist’s unique tastes and body types.  Yet, I’ve learned from experience in being a patternmaker who can create a tailored custom garment, today’s modern means of digitizing patterns falls short from a quality I encounter in the early 80’s and older. (See this picture).  I am very aware of noticing that the curves, the perfect body fit, is subtly diminished the newer (90’s on up) you go in commercial patterns.  This is one of the many compelling reasons I prefer vintage sources for my sewing.  Here I go crabbing about things again.  Move over Sabastian!  You’re not the only crab.  It is clear I am an 80’s era grouch.

So how about ending with a little fun, geeky, 1989 related trivia that I find entertaining and related to computers, Cardin, and ”The Little Mermaid” animated movie?  Did you know that the first feature film to use the CAPS process, the “Computer Animation Production System” developed by both Disney and Pixar which had 2D/3D integration, was in the production of The Little Mermaid in 1989?  It was only used for very few scenes such as at the end where King Triton sends a rainbow into the sky for his daughters’ wedding (see pic below left).  Furthermore, if King Triton’s palace was a place on land I think it would most definitely be The “Bubble Palace” on the French Rivera.  This fantastic and futuristic living space was completed in 1989, and I swear it looks like something I would see on the ocean floor in “The Little Mermaid”.  Everything is round!  Pierre Cardin acquired it for himself in 1992 to live in as well as for presenting his fashion shows. 

Well…I *mostly* focused on my newly sewn princess-inspired outfit in this post!  I hope you enjoyed reading my musings here, as well as what I have made for myself, and chime in with my grousing through the comments!  What do you remember about 1989?  What strikes you about the fashion and the times of that year?  “The Little Mermaid” was my first princess, the one that completely sucked me into the realm of Disney, so Ariel was a pretty big influence for me when I think of that year.  Fashion and technology came into play for me that year also because it was my first big pageant show…bringing back memories of being in the limelight of the local media and modeling some styles that I shake my head over today.  Luckily, I like my 2021 versions of the 80’s decade much better!