The Legacy of Jessica McClintock

Fashion historians can talk about classic styles, definitive outfits, and remarkable designers until they’re blue in the face, but a humble Gunne Sax dress seems to outlast them all with its quaintness, audaciousness, and romanticism.  A Gunne Sax dress is a dressed down and nonchalant kind of finery.  It embodies a longing for a dream world, a sense of nostalgia attached to a sense of ‘what used to be’ that is their great appeal…incidentally also something to be found (in some degree) in every generation.  The persevering passion over this style of dressing, which has seen a renewed comeback over the last year, is made all the more poignant with the recent passing of Jessica McClintock (as of February 16, 2021).  

She was the brains behind crafting a popular American version of the English Laura Ashley style.  She had enough of a thumb on her times (70’s and 80’s) to use ingenuity to propel her both her Gunne and later independent McClintock brand to something anchored in the bedrock of fashion history.  This, my tribute to her long lasting legacy, was already crafted last year, yet only now I have a strong spur in my side to post this very special, pet project.  Much time, attention to detail, and emotional connection was poured into this venture.  Yet, often it’s the exceptional things I sew which are the ones I also am the most reluctant to share…and this project certainly falls in such a category.  By interpreting anew a kind of dressing that permeated my childhood and curated my lifelong taste in clothes, I have come full circle…and I just have to share this benchmark moment!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  All vintage printed 100% cottons from the early 1980s (I can tell by the selvedge stamps)

PATTERN: Vogue #9076, year 2015

NOTIONS:  Except for the thread and interfacing, all other notions are true vintage from the 1930s.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on December 9, 2020 after over 40 hours (lovingly) spent.

THE INSIDES:  From the waist and up is lined, and the skirt seams are cleanly covered in bias tape.

TOTAL COST:  I acquired the fabrics for this dress through a vintage shop that was going out of business last year on account of the pandemic.  A whole big box of fabrics was $25, and these were some of the many cuts in there.  This whole dress cost me mere pittance.

I just have to admit it to all of you – I am old enough to just remember the frilly, feminine, prairie dresses when they were the original fad (circa 1969 to 1989).  This was before they became cliché, only to eventually transform into the stylish trend of post-pandemic life.  Hello, “cottage core” and the “Target Dress Challenge” fads of today…what you’re pushing is really not a completely new thing, as many seem to half-acknowledge when they call it “retro”.  The source for this ‘look’ comes from a respectable designer label of less than 50 years ago.  It is not gonna be as attractive as can be when it is reworked through the cheap “fast fashion” means and thought of as costumes from “Little House on the Prairie”.  Hey, I understand we all need some fun and laughter nowadays, but no rehashing can come close to the beauty of a true Gunne Sax…unless I hope you’re talking about my version here. 

I sincerely hope I have given McClintock’s vision true justice here.  Sure, I’ll admit I did use a modern pattern to make my dress.  Nevertheless, it had all the trademarks classic to a Gunne Sax.  I hate to brag but I’ve worn my dress to a vintage shop which primarily sells such an aesthetic and they thought I was wearing a true Gunne.  Cue the internalized glee!  You have no idea how special this dress project is to me, and how successful I was at bringing a perception to life is the cherry on the top.

Her label’s offerings had an admirable excess of materials and perfection of detail not commonly associated with more modern ready-to-wear.  I needed almost 7 yards of material to make my version – 6 ½ yards of the 45” width floral print and ½ yard of the contrast blue!  Nevertheless, Gunne Sax original items were also created with easy-care materials at a modest price point for a universal appeal and accessibility.  As I mentioned in my “Facts” info above, my dress is all cotton, and being a vintage thrift find, too, it was luckily a bargain for all this yardage (which would otherwise generally be expensive).  The print has the classic “cabbage roses” which are quintessential for both Jessica McClintock as well as the decade of the 1980s.

She incorporated qualities of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with a bit of Renaissance touches, to her designs – high collars, lace, and loads of buttons.  This was very anti-establishment and a bold experiment for the times.  Just think about how stark of a difference a Gunne Sax is from the proper 50’s styles or the Mod 60’s fashions.  Yet, the early 70’s was also riding off of the liberated ideals of the Flower Child and Ossie Clark explosion of the late 60’s.  Anything goes as far as style today, when leaving the house is an occasion in itself.  I say a Gunne Sax has to be one of the best ways to be ultimately comfy but still pretty in an instant.  One of these kind of dresses is like being in a princess dream while awake.

It all started for Jessica McClintock about 1969 when she invested $5,000 from her savings and became partners with Eleanor Bailey, who was the head of design and production for the Gunne Sax Company.  According to Bailey’s son, the name was a somewhat ‘sexy’ adaptation of the gunny sack – rough, burlap bags used for potatoes and sack races (info from here).  Eleanor soon stepped down, leaving McClintock to head the (then) small local San Francisco dress boutique.  McClintock refined the prairie style of the offerings into something “incorporating romance and beauty, and an elegant sensuality, into every product she designed” (from her obituary).  Very soon after she began selling profitably internationally, even branching out into offering nightwear and perfume. 

The first store under her own label, Jessica McClintock, was opened in San Francisco in 1981, which then fully merged with and took over the Gunne Sax line in 1987.  Many women who were teens and twenty-somethings in the 80’s (or even 90’s) know her line of dresses as the coveted, ideal prom pick or a preferred choice for a casual outdoor wedding event – all more formal wear than her previous line.  In 1997, “Women’s Wear Daily” ranked her brand under the “Top 100 most recognized”, ranked as the 7th behind Cartier and Tiffany.  McClintock once joked that she probably used more lace in her offerings than any other label.  In 2013, after 43 years in fashion, Jessica quietly decided to retire at 83, yet she continued to be a part of the brand under the direction of her son Scott.

My mom made most of my nice clothes for me as a child (before my teen years), as I mentioned in my previous post where I said how the color blue frequently appeared in my wardrobe.  Well, this project has several different shades of blue!  I made a few of my casual clothes myself back then, and I overall liked that most of my wardrobe had a general theme of lots of lace, pretty colors, quaint cotton prints…all features common to a Gunne Sax.  I even had ruffled pantaloons to wear under my childhood dresses!  Just because I was too young for a trend that was popular for girl 10 or more years older than me (at that time) doesn’t mean my mother and I were not fashion conscious enough to incorporate it into my younger styles!  As a teen, my sewing skills were not up to the details incorporated into a Gunne Sax, thus making my own back then was out of the question…but then again I did not have an occasion to need something like that anyway.  Now, all these years later, such is no longer the case!

Sadly, I have not yet handled or seen in person a true Gunne Sax dress to have a baseline for my re-interpretation.  They are much too popular and pricey right now for me to be able to do that.  Buying one for myself back when they were out sadly did not happen either.  However, I have studied pictures of many originals offered through Etsy, Instagram, or Pinterest and I have heard that they are often cleanly lined inside.  Being a Vogue, the pattern I used calls for full bodice lining and exhaustive details already, making a lie out of the “easy” rating on the envelope back.  There isn’t any complex technique called for per se, it’s just a lot of tight corners, precise stitching, and intricate piecing required.  This was a pattern worthy of becoming a Gunne Sax!  I chose the view C dress with the puffier sleeves and wider cuffs of view A.  Then I also added a wide ruffle at the skirt hem to make the skirt longer and more like popular Gunne styles of the late 70’s and 80’s.

I feel that I “improved” the slightly poor instructions in certain places to achieve cleaner finish.  Firstly, you are instructed to sew in the bodice lining in such a way that most of the seams, including the waistline, is exposed.  With just a little extra step, and some forethought, I have my bodice lining cover the inner body raw edges.  A clean inside adds so very much to the wonderful experience of this fantastic dress as a whole.  It would be a shame – in my opinion – to go through all the bother of making its exhaustive detailing and leave out one or two little touches which will add nothing visibly impressive yet something so special to see for your own personal pride.  Besides, a cleanly finished inside is so much more comfortable to wear.  A bulky waist seam is always better for comfortable wearing enjoyment when it can be covered if you’re going to add lining anyways.

Secondly, I know how much of a pain making tiny bias loops are in the first place, and how hard it is to have them become small loop closures which both actually stay in place and look nice.  I could see such a closure being bulky along the front and you can’t clip the extra allowance down because (as some blog reviewers sadly experienced) the loops will have a tendency to slip out of the seam.  After noting the details on true Gunne Sax dresses, I opted for something similar and used vintage loop tape. 

I bought this vintage loop tape understanding it to be from the 1930s on account of the decorative cotton twill tape which is the base for the loops.  I do believe the dating to be true after finding the exact same notion on one of my 1930s negligees.  Yay!  This makes the front closing daintier, lends my make to be especially unique, and is considerably more stable of a closing than bias fabric loops.  Practically speaking, nevertheless, there really wasn’t much fabric leftover to turn into button closings.  I hand stitched the trim down just along the underside edge of the finished right front closure.  It was too pretty of a notion to bury in the seam during construction.

However, a Gunne Sax is never overly straightforward, but always has a tasteful amount of unnecessary flourish.  To match with the 30’s era loop tape, I chose a vintage cotton lace trim to add to most of the seams where the contrast panels join the main dress fabric.  This was sold to me as a 1910s to 1930s era vintage notion, and the unusual feel of the cotton, the slight fading of the color, the irregularity of the design, and the intricate detail to the trim all lead me to believe this dating.  Still, I’m not 100% positive this is correct. Either way, I was ecstatic over the way it was the perfect match in color.  I love the way it adds the right amount of detail without also being fussy or distracting.  It nicely blends in the transition between the two fabrics.  It mirrors the way almost every classic Gunne Sax has decorative trimming along the bodice seams.  After seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trim was added to my dress, I was blown away at how adding the perfect notion can help a project pop.  I had 3 ¾ yards of the lace on hand and I had only 3 inches leftover when I was done.  It was luckily just enough length to work!

A Gunne Sax has an aesthetic of yesteryear, so I added vintage, Depression-era carved pearl buttons from the stash of my Hubby’s Grandmother.  Yes, more 1930s notions!  I sewed them down right alongside the seam where the underlap goes on the left side.  (The underlap covers up any gape along the button closure.)  My sleeve cuffs do feature non-working buttons, however.  I used buttons which were somewhat imperfect (that’s all I had left after finding 9 matching ones for the front) and I didn’t want any more fuss to work with just to get dressed.  I can roll my hands together to make them smaller and just slide the sleeves on but yet they are still snug enough to fit fine during a wearing.  One little bit of a cut corner isn’t going to hurt, right?

After all this, don’t get me wrong, though – I always chose very modern, bold, bright colored things when it came to my fashion modeling for department stores, my choice of a bicycle, or kind of Barbie doll I preferred in my grade school years.  Yet, Jessica McClintock often spoke of her belief that “Romance is a beauty that touches the emotional part of our being.”  The frilly, dreamy garments from my childhood are the ones which remind me of memorable occasions which were part of what makes the ‘me’ of today. 

Based on the year printed along the selvedge of the main fabric, I am dating this dress to 1982, which is before I even existed.  Nevertheless, the pandemic has helped me embrace my past and appreciate my loved ones in new ways. 

Sewing my own Gunne Sax is one of the many avenues I can tangibly materialize such familial nostalgia…which is why I’m wearing my childhood locket necklace, too.  I received this as a gift from my parents when I was 13.  Inside, it still has the old pictures of my mom and my dad back from when we had an unforgettably fun family vacation the year after.  

For better or for worse, it’s funny how what we wear can be so inexorably tied to the affections and reminiscences of life!  I know I will have many new, wonderful memories in the future while wearing this old-style Gunne Sax recreation of mine!  As the phrase for the modern McClintock brand says – every day is a celebration of life.  There is yet another McClintock dress in the works as I write this…

Picnic – Party of One

I don’t know about you, but I need to find time for myself more than ever in these crazy times.  A bit of self-care or at least a few moments of relation, or maybe even a little treat for oneself, is a respite necessary to get you through all the unending, demanding, crucial work that needs to be done.  A small, simple picnic – even if that means staying at home for it – can be just the remedy…especially when that includes a special adult drink!  I’m bringing the gingham and the linen cloth already with what I have on.

Looking to make the most out of small cuts of fabric floating around in my stash, I settled upon this fun 1980s era summer set.  Although this might look like just an interesting sun top with a basic pair of shorts, it is secretly more than that in intention.  It is a set that was a learning process for something bigger down the line…a sort of a training exercise on both how to do corsets and how to make something useful from even less than one yard of fabric.  I succeeded on both accounts here and ended up with a new summer outfit that I love unlike anything else currently in my closet!  What better reason to treat myself to a picnic, anyway?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  TOP – a polyester poplin in a golden yellow ‘tangerine’ gingham print from here at “Stylish Fabrics” on Etsy, with the body fully lined in cotton muslin and the peplum lined in a white polyester remnant (as I do these other peplums here and here); SHORTS – a heavy weight khaki 100% linen

PATTERNS:  McCall’s #8067 (from my personal stash) from year 1982 for the top and Simplicity #1887 from year 2012 for the shorts

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread, heavy interfacing, elastic, eyelet set, zip ties, seam binding and bias tape, and finally long lacing cord

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The gingham corset top took me only 5 hours to make, but an hour to retrace and resize, and an extra 2 hours to set the eyelets.  The shorts took me 5 hours to make from start to finish.  Both were finished around June 24, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  The top is fully lined, so there are no raw edges to be seen.  The shorts have all vintage bias tape with bright peach rayon seam tape for the hem.

TOTAL COST:  The short’s linen has been in my stash for so long I am counting it as free.  The muslin scraps and the poly lining for the top were also paltry remnants floating around for too long, so they’re as good as free too.  The rummage sale notions were pennies.  My only real costs were some of the special notions, eyelets + washers from here ($8) and zip ties ($3), and the gingham which I bought 2 years ago for $5.50.  Altogether I spent about $18 for this outfit set.

As simple as these two little pieces might look, they needed special supplies so they were a bit stressful to work with and challenging to gather.  I am dangerously low on certain sizes of elastic, and interfacing, basic cotton, as well as elastic are very hard to come by today so I was counting on this project being worth using my special supplies.  I also went ahead and ordered special corset specific eyelets, enameled in white (then had to wait for them to arrive, ugh) and had my husband pick up specific zip ties from the hardware store (which he needed to visit anyway).  I believe the lacing cord I use for the front of my top came off of a piece of clothing from my son that no longer fits into.  True vintage rayon bindings and bias tape (which my son helped me find at a rummage sale) were also used because I wanted these to be special from my point of view when I get dressed, even though they might not appear so from the outside.  So there were a lot of supplies from a lot of different locations and sources which involved creative thinking, anticipating the mail, and everyone in my household helping towards the cause.  Who knew sewing could be a family effort?!

Now, just like polka dots, gingham is my least favorite print.  I will avoid it at all costs.  So what possessed me to try this?  I’m always up for trying new things in my sewing, my husband said that tangerine color would look good on me, and bold, obnoxious prints always strike me as appropriate to the 1980s, to list a few reasons why I went for such a cheap little fabric splurge.  I needed a little bit extra to get free shipping on everything else I wanted to order from Stylish Fabrics at that time, anyway.  The big, obvious geometry to the print gave me just what I like, too – a challenge to see how well I can do some pattern matching.  I’m weird in that way…other people avoid prints that require too much effort to match, but for myself, I say “Bring it on!”  Luckily, I didn’t have to try too hard because this little top pattern was pretty basic, and there wasn’t any reason to attempt match with the bias cut ruffled peplum.  Yet, just look at those side seams!  Yes, they are hard to find because I matched up the gingham pretty darn well, if I do say so myself.  For the first time, I am liking gingham!

In the future, I really want to finish some of the historical projects I have had plans for over the course of many years past.  Yet – as any costumer knows – you have to start from the inside foundations before you can create the lovely outer garments.  I have ordered a circa 1840s corset kit from the Past Patterns Company so I can complete the rest of the undergarments I already have and finish my dress that I started 15 plus years ago.  Thus, I figured this little summer top would be a good project to make me a bit more comfortable and acclimated to the idea of a making a corset.  I took cues from cosplayers who teach via social media how to make a comfortable, non-historical corset on a budget with items easily acquired.  Just like I have seen others do, I used zip ties in place of proper boning.  Then, I strategically placed layers of interfacing in place of an overall heavy material.  Specialty eyelets are the only notion I did not scrimp on.

I could just picture this little summer top being all wrinkled up across the body and puckering out along the laced front if I hadn’t decided to have given it lightweight corset structuring.  This was my idea, to be clear, and not part of the original pattern’s instructions.  Granted, I also know that a modern or even a cosplay corset is not quite the same as a historical one, and the eyelets and boning will certainly be more time consuming and precise on my 1840s one.  All the same, though, this little structured summer 80’s top help me wrap my head around a certain idea.  It is not at all uncomfortable to wear – rather it feels good to know it will keep its shape and look good no matter how I sweat, move, or sit.  It’s funny, though, how the complexity I took towards making it is disguised under the image of an easy summer sun top!

As my body portion was fully lined in cotton, I immediately eliminated the upper edge facings.  Instead, I lengthen the facing pieces to extend from the neckline down to the bust and cut them out of heavy interfacing which was ironed to the lining cotton.  The sides of the top got a lightweight interfacing strip, as well as shoulder straps and the front eyelet edge.  Where the eyelets were to be installed, the self-fabric facing was turned under so there are plenty of extra layers there for support without interfacing.  The eyelets were a pain to install, did not go in consistently (even with using a pricey setting machine), and the back washers do occasionally pop out (but pop back in again, thankfully).  I blame some of this on the channels of ‘boning’ (zip ties) which are on either side of the eyelets.  Nevertheless, the front turned out so well!  I was terrified I would make a mistake putting in the eyelets and completely ruin my project.  That didn’t happen (almost did, at one point) so anything wearable out of this experiment is a success.

The peplum was actually the real risky detail, in my opinion, because I was super skeptical of it from the beginning.  “Hey,” I thought, “I have worn several different peplums before and I don’t want this to be a belly top, so I will give it a go.”  You know what?  I still don’t know if I love it, but I don’t hate it.  The peplum is kinda cute.  It sure is different, I will give it that.   Yet, too many unusual and new things in one project might be too much for me to handle.  Maybe this is why my shorts pair so well with the top, the way they are pretty basic.

Sure, these shorts are a bit baggy, wrinkled, and a simple elastic waist – but, after all, they are super comfy, a delightfully soft linen, and easy to put on.  They are just what I need in my wardrobe, and something I find myself wearing again and again this summer, so they are a winning project even if they don’t appear as fashionable as I had imagined they might.  Even though this is not an 80’s pattern itself, it has all the marks of being one, and so I’m counting the whole set to be of the same general time frame as my top.

For the shorts, I chose the size which I normally go with for modern Simplicity patterns.  Although they have a good yet loose fit, I could have went down a size for a more body conscious shape.  In this design, there is a lot of booty room, which I normally need, yet this is almost too much.  I definitely want to use some rayon crinkled gauze to revisit this pattern again and make some pants, so I will keep my lesson in mind for next time!

I do love the front waistband detailing and the deep, generous pockets.  These are the saving features to this design.  The flat front waistband keeps the bulk of the elastic waist away from the tummy (much appreciated) and the deep pockets combined with the baggy fit let me stash my phone and all sorts of items…and no one will know the better!  Why is it I feel I have to sew shorts, pants, and skirts myself to actually have bottoms that have such practical and complimentary features?!  Why can’t RTW items take cues from what people might really need and offer amazing items such as this?  I am only glad it is so easy to whip together the handiest little items – like these shorts – that I find myself wondering how I did without before.

Even though I had only one yard of each fabric, I did not use the full yard of either.  Amazingly, I only used barely over ½ yard of each, but then again, you all know how extremely efficient I am at finding an economical pattern layout!  Thus, these two are true scrap busting patterns.  Anything close to a yard is often considered a remnant, but a half yard is an obvious true leftover.  I’m not yet sure what I will exactly do with the remnants from this outfit.  It so easy to burn through my scraps to make cute and useful face masks, but I really think I ultimately want to save these fabrics to go towards something more creative and unexpected.  We will see.

Hubby laid out his old great Aunt’s handmade quilt for the celebratory occasion of my first time in this set…and what could be more appropriate for a picnic?!  I am connected to a whole slew of makers through both sides of my family, both women and men who were not afraid to make a living at one point in their life by being equipped with a needle and thread.  I am proud and happy to carry on a part of that.  Just the same, knowing when to stop and recharge is equally important when you work for yourself, especially at home.  “Picnic – party of one, you’re place is ready!”  Yes, please.  I’ve got a sangria in hand, so I’m just fine.