A Pre-Raphaelite Reverie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FACTS:

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

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

NOTIONS:  lots of thread and one zipper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Logo Plaid

As this is a follow-up to my Disney-inspired Pocahontas outfit, made for my “Pandemic Princess” series, it is aptly tied to the songs from the 1998 sequel “Journey to a New World”. To Pocahontas in the sequel, that new world is Britain, specifically London – “What a Day in London” song.  With her visit (following her marriage to John Rolfe in real life), her history became even more deeply linked to both Britain and America – “Between Two Worlds” song. I couldn’t think of a more glaringly ironic match (in many ways I will address later on in this post) than for me to make a trench-style coat made of cheap but iconic English Burberry plaid fleece.  Yet, the logo plaid must not have been out of place in the forest as a wild deer was photo bombing me throughout, totally edging in on my spotlight – “Things Are Not What They Appear” song.  Beyond adding a watermark, these are real, unaltered pictures!  How can I brag about my coat when the deer has an even prettier, more useful one on her back?!?

This was yet another one of my many remnant stash-busting projects.  I only had one yard of Burberry plaid fleece, half a yard of black fleece, and leftovers from other projects to help me finish this one off.  Yay for a smart use of fleece, the fabric I love to hate, in a print I very much enjoy!  This coat is a very versatile and a breathable weight of warmth.  It was a quick undertaking which ended up looking much better than I imaged it might.  My projects which use up scraps really make me inventive in a way for which I am proud.  In conjunction with that incentive, my “Pandemic Princess” series is also inspiring me push my Disney dreams farther than just one outfit per leading lady.  Oh, what have I started!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC: the exterior black and Burberry plaid fabrics are polyester fleece, the inside lining is burgundy polyester crepe (leftover from sewing this 1930s lounging robe), the inner layer is pre-quilted cotton covered batting, and the under collar together with the front facings are cotton sateen

PATTERN:  Simplicity #1320, year 2014

NOTIONS:  I had everything I needed on hand already – interfacing, a few buttons (ornate brass ones, leftover from this historical skirt), and lots upon lots of thread.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This coat took me about 25 hours to make.  It was finished on February 19, 2021.

THE INSIDES:  any raw edges inside are cleanly concealed by the full lining.

TOTAL COST:  As I have had the two fleece remnants on hand for the last 10 years, and the all other supplies were leftover from past projects, I’m counting this coat as free!!!

The prestigious Burberry Company began in 1856, but found its home in London by 1891 when Thomas Burberry opened a shop in London’s West End.  Thomas Burberry is credited invented and patenting gabardine in 1888 – the breathable, weatherproof and hard-wearing fabric revolutionizing rainwear – which up until then had typically been heavy and uncomfortable to wear.  Then, its fine, waterproof outerwear happened to make the term “trench coat” an anchor in fashion history by having an adapted version of his “Tielocken coat” the standard issue for officers during World War I.  The recognizable Burberry logo plaid was then introduced in the 1920s.  Afterwards, in the 70’s and 80’s, the brand’s tartan print suddenly was no longer solely worn inside their garments as a lining when it turned into a preppy U.K. elite symbol (aka, the “Sloane Rangers”).  It became a visible status symbol.  Yet by the next decade, it was also one of the most widely counterfeited brands of the turn into the 21st century.  Over the years, Burberry has evolved and today it’s much more of a lifestyle brand that you can see on catwalks and fashion shows – no longer just known for making a trench coat.

British soap opera star Daniella Westbrook in that infamous head-to-toe Burberry outfit of 2002

In the late Nineties, the Burberry print began a trendy revival courtesy of the “logo wave”, which was all about sporting Gucci belts to Chanel bags and Louis Vuitton wallets.  As a teen at that time, I was one of the biggest fans of the tacky, over-the-top usage of the knocked-off Burberry tartan on anything under the sun.  (Oh, what was I thinking!?!)  Now, I am much more restrained but still enamored by the fashion plaid print.  All I ever bought of the Burberry brand as a teen was an expensive Pashmina Burberry neck scarf at a fine retailer and the brand’s classic eau de toilette.  Now, I am breaking out of that shell by making of this coat.  I’m returning back to my teenage fascination and half reliving something I never got to do growing up…only half because this is not a true, trademarked Burberry material.    

I am not one for brand flourishing myself – of course not, when I sew my own clothes.  Yet, a Burberry plaid is my long restrained weakness.  At the same time, however, it is so gaudy in my mind that I never knew what to do with it or how to pair together with a pattern.  I figured to tone it down with a darker contrast remnant on hand and – even though both cuts are only cheap fleece – treat them like a finer coat fabric to hopefully end up with something which might not be tacky.  At least the coat turned out better than I expected while being nicely tailored and cozy warm!  This was a successful experiment and yet also a weird one to see finalized after all these years.

I sort of blended the lines between a trench and an over coat, just for practical purposes. A trench coat is designed to protect you against rain while an overcoat is designed to protect you against the cold. A trench coat is lightweight while an overcoat is heavyweight.  For my coat, the fleece outside is fluffy polyester, so it really doesn’t get wet easily even though it is not waterproof.  I tested this truth out later the night of our pictures when I played in our son’s snow fort, which was beginning to melt.  I stayed warm and dry and most of the wet snow either rolled off or could be brushed off of me.  Usually one has to layer up to be warm in a trench coat because it is merely supposed to be waterproof appropriate gear for all seasons.  Yet, I am a person sensitive to the cold so I upped the game on my version with the cozy quilted cotton layer between the exterior fleece and polyester lining.  It is a coat which is in between lightweight and heavyweight, as all materials are pretty lofty load individually. 

This is still double-breasted like a proper trench coat, with a large stormproof collar that can be turned up enough to completely protect most of my face from the elements, if I so need.  However, my coat’s collar is wonderfully modern in the way it is asymmetric and the tailored princess seams and color blocking reflects the new fitting and color options which the new Burberry line has to offer.  The length of a trench coat is traditionally to just below the knee. However, nowadays one can find trench coats in various lengths: full, knee, three-quarters and short.  So I suppose I can call this a very personalized, updated version of a 90’s Burberry inspired trench coat.

Amazingly, this was a very easy coat to make, even with complicating the construction by fully lining and layering it.   There are no darts, no chalk markings to make, and every seam is straightforward with first rate shaping drawn into the seam lines.  The fit was spot on, too.  I went up one whole size because I was planning on adding extra layers into the coat and that was to right move.  I have full and unrestrained freedom of movement.  More or less, I cut out 3 whole coats – fleece, quilted cotton inner layer, and lining poly – so I was happy the two pieces for the front (doubled into four) and two pieces for the back (double cut sides with one center on the fold) were simple.  The facings and the under collar had sew-in interfacing to back them up as they were a thinner material in key areas which got double-breasted and needed structural support. 

I did sew each layer to the coat separately, but hand tacked the quilted cotton inners to the eternal fleece plaid along their matching seam lines “in the ditch” to eliminate shifting of the layers.  It was important remember to shorten the sleeves and the bottom hem of the quilted inner layer by cutting off 1 ½ inches.  It is very difficult and bulky to hem quilted cotton and thus I wanted to account for the turn-under hemming to the fleece and lining only.  I also had to make the seam allowances ¾ inch to the quilted cotton and poly lining so the inner layer fits inside as slightly smaller than the eternal coat layer.  I found out some these tricks of how to work with pre-quilted cotton material (as well as how breathable but pleasantly warm it can be) as I made this 1940s jerkin vest for our trip to Denver, Colorado back in 2019.  I also knew from making this 60’s cocoon coat how shifty fleece could be when you try to sew it into something structured.  So, I combined both of what I learned from two separate winter past projects into this newest, latest, dare I say, just about the best coat I have finished so far.   

I like the unusual and slightly easier route of making handmade chain stitched thread loops along the right front closing edge in lieu of buttonholes.  The fact it is black on black color along the front is the only way I like this feature, otherwise I think thread loops would be too weirdly obvious.  The instructions called for fabric loops.  However, I know how those sort of things are fussy to add in a seam and more often than not pull out of a seam anyway if not anchored to a base of some sort (seam tape, bias strip, etc.) along the seam allowance.  I used heavy upholstery thread for making my coat’s thread loops and attached the loop bases to the interfacing inside the coat edge, so these closures are definitely stable. 

For some weird reason, my last Pocahontas inspired outfit finally gave me a decent idea as to what to do with long hoarded, one yard remnant of Burberry looking fleece.  Luckily, I was able to sew it together quickly enough to take advantage of the same photo shoot against the breathtaking backdrop of my favorite creek after the most recent snowstorm.  This coat’s earthy colors pair nicely with my Pocahontas separates (in the previous post), but also work well as an item from the era of the release dates to the Disney films.  All the elements I desired for this project were fulfilled, only Pocahontas’ Disney story is the opposite of everything this logo plaid stands for.  At the same time, it suits her aesthetic so well at the same time.  Let me explain.

I like using irony to drive home a point.  Pairing an overworked fashion print with the raw, pure beauty of nature is amusingly contrary enough.  Yet, modern fashion is synonymous with the throwaway culture severely detrimental to our world of today, threatening the very existence of living things, and fleece is one of worst offenders being a petroleum-based product which will not break down.  Thus, I only use fleece when I do because it is already on hand in my stash from before I became more conscious of the environmental impact of what we wear.  For many years now, fleece is something I will not buy and love to generally hate (ugh, plastics).  However, I am a firm believer in making use of what one has, and doing that effort well enough so that item lasts.  I believe this is the most sensible thing to do with questionable products such as fleece.

Hopefully what I have done here would be Pocahontas approved if she knew where I was coming from with my reasoning.  It does have colors I believe she would like – after all, a deer I met out in the wild didn’t seem to mind one bit!!

“For whether we are white or copper skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains…

You can own the Earth and still
All you’ll own is Earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind”

Cold Shouldered

An ice queen wouldn’t really feel frigid temperatures, I would assume, so she can dress purely for beauty, aesthetics, and the power of her position, right?  Okay, we have that understood.  It wouldn’t be too assumptive either, would it, for the next step to be automatically suppose that character also has certain affectionless traits of a queen who has the capability to freeze water and produce snow?  Perhaps.  However, Disney’s animated “Frozen” movies both 1 and 2 (2013 and 2019, respectively) counter some of such widely set understandings of such a particular fantasy female character.  Ice queens are almost always given a villainess arc in other related stories and films, yet Disney’s version becomes (dare to say) thawed by love and warmed of heart yet still upholds her powers and magical capabilities.  It’s weird and kind of a disappointing change for me, but hey – Elsa does have some awesome cold-shouldered fashion in common with her fellow more malevolent ice queens, so I can definitely roll with that!

Because I am not really a frosty temperament nor am I tolerant of the cold weather, I am happy to have found a way to make an open shouldered gown warm to wear, vintage styled (of course), and practical all at once for a personal interpretation to an ice queen character.  Of course I needed the proper crown and jewelry to match the part, so I also crafted a crystal crown and ring for my set, too.  This is part two of my newest 2021 blog post series called the “Pandemic Princess”.  Part one can be found here – it is my remake of a dress worn by Anna, the sister of Elsa from “Frozen”, so this is kind of like a sequel post to that one. 

Yet, this princess post’s outfit is inherently different since I do not relate to Elsa (as I discussed at the end of my previous post).  Inspired as well by the old Hans Christian Anderson “Snow Queen” tale, I however, mainly incorporated strong references of my preferred ice queen, one who is just as enthralling as she is scary.  She jumps off alive from the pages of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia…the White Witch called Jadis.  She is a not a true queen of course (those who know the books understand) but she still reigns over her spell of an eternal winter with such an iron hand that there is no Christmas.  She is not a character to ‘like’ necessarily but I find her captivating as appalling in her mystery and importance to the story.  The seven Narnia Chronicles are just about my favorite books ever and the strong character of Jadis has formed my idea of a snow queen.  Disney did do a fantastic job at outfitting actress Tilda Swinton to become a great visual interpretation of the White Witch in the 2005 “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” movie

One of the White Witch’s trademarks is her wearing of fur to symbolize her ruthless brutality to the creatures of Narnia.  A polar bear may be pulling her chariot one day then become a coat the next…ugh.  (See several examples here.)  After all, Jadis did wear as a collar the mane of the great Aslan the day after killing Him.  My outfit gave a further nod to the character of Jadis in a fair and humane way by wearing either my Grandmother’s vintage 50’s era fur coat collar or a cut of white polyester faux fur, leftover from a coat my mom made me as a child.  These added items were my refuge to keep such a dress with an open neckline warm to wear in the cold, anyway.  Such a style is called cold-shouldered for a reason, but it only becomes literal when the wearer is also frigid in personality.  I was doing my best at looking the part of a stern snow queen in many of these pictures, but it is really hard not to smile in an outfit this fantastic.

Both Elsa in “Frozen” as well as Narnia’s Jadis only wear open shoulder dresses.  The White Witch prefers dramatic, heavyweight dresses though while Elsa of “Frozen” sports lightweight, sparkling, elegant finery.  Both queens incorporate elements of the Hans Christian Anderson Snow Queen, who looked “as if (her dress) had been made from millions of star shaped flakes.  She was beautiful as she was graceful.”  (The classic Anderson Snow Queen also has a chariot and is portrayed in images wrapped in furs like the White Witch.)  All of these ladies gravitate to pastel blues, greys, and white tones (with exception of “Frozen Fever”).

Being worn with bare shoulders, I realized early on that my snow queen creation had to be a dress yet still be closer to a coat.  I wanted it out of a warm and sturdy material to channel Jadis, yet something soft and lovely in sheen to incorporate Elsa.  An all-cotton textured chenille which was found in the decorator’s fabric section on clearance at my local JoAnn store was just the ticket.  It has a white, frosty overtone to the dusty blue because of the fluffy nap (similar to a quality velvet).  Yet the substantial ‘hand’ to it, being a decorator material, is perfect to hold up a strapless dress.  You don’t see much of chenille anymore, both in stores and in fashion today, and that’s a shame.  It is lovely fabric that I remember liking a lot back in the 80’s and 90’s as I was growing up.  This flashback gave me an idea of what direction to look for choosing my pattern design.

Off shouldered vintage dresses are almost every time something super fancy, for evening wear, or not remotely utilitarian.  This was not something I wanted for my “Pandemic Princess” collection, as I said in my announcement post.  I need a “pretty princess” dress I can wear anywhere and everywhere, as often as I want!  I remembered how the 80’s and 90’s (cue the tip from the chenille) were so good at attractive avant-garde fashions which took unexpected creative spins on many ‘traditional styles’.  I found a “New York New York, The Collection” Designer pattern, a McCall’s #4442 from 1989, that hit all the right buttons for me.  It is part body fitting coat, part feminine dress, but altogether powerfully asymmetric enough to suit placing myself ‘in the shoes’ of an intense queen character.  Except for my shoulders, I could be covered up in the cold, too, in the ankle length and long sleeves – just like Elsa!

As weird as the pattern pieces for this looked on paper, the making of the dress turned out fantastic!  The fit was spot on, instructions were clear.  My dress is remarkably easy to move in, as well, and comfy.  It has raglan sleeves.  Pleated darts in the front from the neckline down which shape the bust yet open to give ease in the hips.  There are also pleated darts in the back which are sewn in from bottom to waist to give an amazing bloused back but fitted booty.  As proof, just freaking check out that silhouette the dress gives from behind!  There is a tapered skinny skirt and skinny long sleeves.  The front cover did a horrible job at portraying all of these fantastic details, and the back only gives tiny, limited line drawings.  Under the cover of the loosely sketched fashion illustration, it hides a gem inside.

I made a few slight changes to the design.  An asymmetric closure ends in a pleat which opens up into a walking slit (which I moved from being a kick open style in the back).  After all, Elsa’s “Let It Go” song dress has that infamous thigh-high front slit and sensual fit!  As I didn’t want to deal with closing all those buttons nor try to stitch in buttonholes through the thick fabric, I sewed the buttons down permanently to have the front be a mock closing.  They are silver foiled mock crystal squares to nod to the ice queens who inspired me. Then, I added a left side seam closing invisible zipper to compensate for the faux buttons.  Due to a small lack of fabric (buying an end-of-the-bolt on clearance meant I was ½ yard too short for what I needed) the sleeves are indistinguishably two-pieced along the elbow.

As chenille frays like crazy, all seams are finished inside with a double zig-zagged stitch to imitate overlock stitching from a serger, while the bottom hem and sleeves has vintage rayon hem tape in turquoise.  The instructions impressively called for very fine finishing techniques similar to what I see in Vintage Vogue Special Design patterns or modern Vogue designer ones.  I felt the chenille just couldn’t handle French seams or an additional edge binding, though.  I can wear a slip in lieu of lining and the fabric is not scratchy.  It was important to keep such an odd but fantastic dress simple. 

Speaking of simple, when prepping my supplies for the making of this dress I was prepared to tolerate the possibility of adding in an internal structure (boning or horsehair trim) to either the body or neckline of this dress.  I honestly had no idea going into this if it would just end up a nightmare of a project.  Luckily, it was not – only remarkable easy.  This was so different a style, I didn’t know what to anticipate!  I soon found that as long as I properly interfaced the front placket and the wide neckline facing as the pattern recommended, as well as found a snug fit for the waist and below, the dress stays up and in place. 

The pattern called for little shoulder inserts if a full cold-shoulder is not wanted.  I actually cut out these pieces of a skin-toned power mesh and had them ready to sew in, only to try on the dress and love it as-is with a fully bare neck and shoulder line.  The pattern has a wide facing which stabilizes the ‘collar’.  It was a weirdly wonky piece that I cut out of a dark green cotton and ironed heavy interfacing to the wrong side.  As crazy as that piece looked flat on tissue paper, it did the trick.  I adore the way this neckline frames my face and is low-key drama.  Without being snug, the wide neck opening is also not sloppy on my body.  It stay perilously on the curved ends of my shoulders so perfectly.  This is a mysterious wonder of a design. Did I say enough times already that I love this dress?!? 

Unlike the White Witch in the Disney film, my dramatic up-do is ALL my own hair!!!

Mirroring the way ice forms into defined faceted, geometric shapes, I chose natural crystal quartz to make my own crown and ring set to match my outfit.  Sterling silver findings give it that cold shine.  Back when I was at my local craft and hobby store buying the crystals, I was walking around the section for findings when I saw an ad for wire wrapping.  I liked the appearance of that technique and figured it might be a way to attach the quartz stacks to become jewelry.  This was my first try and I know there is vast room for improvement but I am happy my crazy idea was a success. 

I wound the wire in and around one quartz column then wrapped the rest of the frame to become the ring.  The crown’s crystals were wrapped around the center of a necklace wire.  This way I have not only made a crown, but also something I can wear as around the neck to make the most of my time, money, and supplies.  There are screw off nobs at the ends so I can even slide off the crown’s quartz crystals and reuse the necklace if I ever want to.  I’m all about splurging on something as superfluous as crown, but at the same time I’m also incredibly practical, you see.  What carat is the rock I am wearing, I wonder?  To match, my earrings are vintage 1950’s faux diamond pieces from my Grandmother.  My dark beige boots from my White Witch inspired photos are of the 1980’s era from my mom.  

Hey, Olaf! “Do you wanna build a snowman”

All of the ice or snow queen characters are so inherently sad, so I hope my version of such a role is a much happier, brighter spirited one.  A kiss of the Snow Queen blinds the mind’s eye of the little boy Kai – another kiss from her would have killed him.  Jadis only shows a mock kindness to Edmund so that she can later kill him and his siblings.  Elsa finds herself alone internally due to her powers, even after the power of love allows her to physically touch her family and friends.  Most all of us now know the crippling deprivation of seclusion in some manner since the pandemic of 2020 hit. 

As frosty as these queens are, they have now become easier to empathize with through the bitter loss of social contact in today’s society.  This post’s pictures were taken around Christmastime decorations and after a long-awaited snowfall.  Thus, combined with my fantastic new outfit and the company of my immediate family, there was a lot of fun to be had behind the scenes.  This makes for a joyful, novel understanding of the snow queen persona I undertook by creating this outfit.  I hope this shines through to you as you read this post and enjoy the images.  Let’s not turn into snow queens ourselves, but work on finding ways to let love break through the icy solitude and cold seclusion of the world today.

“Even if there is no Narnia, I will continue to live as a Narnian!” -quote from The Silver Chair. We had fun playing out the parts from the stories with our son!

A Tale of Gujarat

Every August I observe in spirit with India celebrating its Independence on the 15th.  I use the clothing that I make for the day reflect my understanding, respect, and wish to be united with them in pondering on their past, commemorating 1947, and hopeful for their future.  My first Indian influenced garment for August 15th was this dress I made back in 2017.  I unfortunately had to skip repeating that last year, so I am making up for it by sewing a handful more vintage-influenced Indian fashion this year!

The first one I’d like to present this August is a different kind of garment – a Rajput inspired Sherwani-style summer coat – to honor the traditions of India that I know through some close friends. 

One of the reasons why India is my favorite culture not expressly my own is on account of some “adopted family”, long-time friends of my husband that are as close as blood relatives.  Their primary tradition hails from the Gujarat territory of India, with family from and still in Kutch.

The Gujarat region history is intertwined with that of the Rajput dynasty.  The last Hindu ruler of Gujarat was in 1297!  “For the best part of two centuries (at the end of the 14th century until the 16th century) the independent Rajupt, Sultanate of Gujarat, was the center of attention to its neighbors on account of its wealth and prosperity, which had long made the Gujarati merchant a familiar figure in the ports of the Indian ocean.”  Why was it important that the Gujarat trader was proficient at spreading their wares, and what did they have to offer? Among other things, it was mostly textiles…and this is what peaks my interest.  As our adopted family has showed me, Kutch has mind-blowingly beautiful, region-specific ways of dying silk sarees, but Gujarat had an empire in cotton and are still India’s largest producer of the fiber.

According to Dr. Ruth Barnes (“Indian Cotton for Cairo”, 2017), fragments of printed cotton made in Gujarat, India were discovered in Egypt, which provides evidence for medieval trade in the western Indian Ocean. These fragments represent the Indian cotton traded to Egypt during the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries.  Similar types of Gujarati cotton was traded as far East as Indonesia.  Their local art has been in high demand over the centuries, and all you have to do is see the real thing (watch out for modern imposters or look-alikes from other regions!) to understand why.

I must confess though – the block printed border print cotton I used is hand-stamped from a company in Mumbai (old Bombay).  Gujarat was under the authority of the Bombay Presidency since the 1800s and later, after India’s Independence in ’47, the Bombay State was enlarged to include Kutch.  The mother of our adopted family knows how to speak the official language of Mumbai.  It wasn’t until May of 1960 that there was a split in the Bombay State along the Gujarat-speaking north.  So my fabric is a sort of a hybrid, a close relative by association.  It was the closest thing I could find in both colors and print pattern to my original inspiration as well as something that would set the occasion for this coat.  More on this further down!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  all-cotton, with the print from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy and the lining a bleached muslin

PATTERN:  a Mail Order pattern A526, designed by Dalani, with its envelope stamped with the date of January 1976.

NOTIONS:  I had everything I needed on hand – lots of thread, heavy canvas sew-in interfacing, and true vintage wooden toggles from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother’s notions box.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This jacket was whipped up in the matter of two afternoons just before a trip to visit our Indian friends out of town.  It was finished on June 17, 2019, in about 10 to 15 hours.

THE INSIDES:  What inside edges? This coat is fully lined.

TOTAL COST:  I ordered 4 yards of the Indian cotton (you need to always be on the generous side with a border print) at a sale price of $5 a yard – so $20.  The plain cotton lining was from JoAnn on sale at about $1.50 a yard. As everything else was on hand my total cost is just under $30.

A Sherwani is a knee-length coat buttoning at the neck worn by primarily men of the Indian subcontinent, for the shortest and most basic definition.  “Originally associated with Muslim aristocracy during the period of British rule, it is worn over a kurta (tunic)” and several other combinations of clothing (from Wikipedia).  There are other coats and jackets in the Indian tradition, such as the Achkan or Nehru, and both are related to the Sherwani in style details and history.  However, the qualities of a Sherwani are a flared shape from the waist down (where it opens up to reveal the layers underneath), a straight cut (not as fitted), a longer length, stiffer (heavier weight), more formal in special fabrics, and fully lined.  Yup – I’ve got all those boxes checked off!

Thus, even though I am using a vintage pattern as my starting point, I hope that my coat has a timeless, cultural aura about it.  Nevertheless, let’s not ignore I am wearing here a customary men’s garment!  Together with the fact this Sherwani is asymmetric, this is a much updated type of twist on a custom yet still reflecting the modern India of today without losing its past traditions.  In modern India, women are wearing Sherwanis and there is more variety of expression in materials and decorations used.  (For more info and visual candy on this subject, see this page here.)  My husband has tried my coat on, and with a man’s propensity to stronger shoulders and lack of hip curves, this coat actually looks better on a guy than on myself, in my opinion.  It is a truly unisex garment here the way either of us can wear this in a culturally sensitive manner and also fit in its forgiving cut.  What a rare bird my Sherwani is in so many ways among all the sewing I have done.  A summer coat in the strongest Indian tradition I have channeled yet that can be worn by men or women alike?  Yes, please.  I’m more than happy to welcome it into my wardrobe.

My preliminary inspiration was this 1970 woman’s wedding coat from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  It was designed by Richard Cawley under Bellville Sassoon, hand-painted by Andrew Whittle and named “Rajputana” for the marriage of an Englishwoman (see her full outfit here).  The “Rajputana” coat even had its own feature in the November 1970 issue of Vogue magazine! Wedding garments in India are normally inclusive of gold and red, but as the Rajput princes followed the religion of Mohammed, they did not necessarily follow the region’s traditions.  White and lighter colored garments to the rest of India (especially saris) are reserved for formal wear, ritual occasion, and upper castes, and even for mourning in the Hindu religion.  The Jain sect of Gujarat wear more white than elsewhere in India, as far as I can tell.  Thus, my coat further reflects Gujarat, Rajput and the thriving textile trade the region was excelled at.  My interpretation also stays true to the 70’s, coming only six years later than my inspiration.  The top I wore under my jacket was a past 70s make of mine as well (see it here) and rather than trousers to match (which I don’t have) I went for a basic A-line rust linen skirt.

The original pattern shows this as a wrap dress, and sadly I have not been able to find anything about its designer, “Dalani”.  Besides finding a few more mail order patterns (from the 70’s and 80’s) and a few dresses credited to a “Dalani II”, I feel like digging into the source for this design is a sad dead end.  Dalani’s trend seems to be for loose and simple cut dresses and wrap-on robes.  Yet to me, there was no way such an overwhelming amount of fabric was going to look good as anything other than a coat, in my opinion.  It was so easy to adapt this to becoming a Sherwani.

Wooden buttons are traditional to India, and the fabric company generously sent a baker’s dozen along with my fabric, but a Sherwani only closes at the neck.  So, to avoid disrupting the lovely border with buttonholes, I used two wooden toggles on the asymmetric flap and orange loops on the left shoulder.  This method closes the jacket yet leaves it loose to flare open below the waist like a proper Sherwani.  Following grainlines, I laid the jacket out so that the border just ran along the bottom hem.  A separately cut border strip had to be mitered, redirected around the bottom corner and up the front, for it to be as you see it.  I blended my adaptation so seamlessly you’d think it was printed like that, right!?  Happily I found the exact color thread to match the orange along the border and I hid my tiny top-stitching in the stripes.   My sleeve hems also had a pared down version of the border applied in the same manner.  This border print was only on one selvedge edge and luckily I only had literally 5 inches to spare by time I was done…my ‘overbuying’ of 4 yards was apparently just enough to squeeze by

As I mentioned in “The Facts” above, actual construction was easy and the main body of the jacket came together in only two afternoons.  The sleeves are cut on with the main body so there were only 3 pattern pieces here.  One gi-normous back piece is laid on the fold and ends up looking like the capitol T, and two front pieces like an upside down L – a properly squared off body for a Sherwani except for the flared sleeve cuffs which give it a subtle nod to its 1970s origin.  It was all the attention to detail that took at least half of the total time spent to finish.

The highlight of the details to me is the most understated one – the quilted border to the lining.  This is what makes this all-cotton coat closer to a real Sherwani.  Such soft cottons could make this feel like a housecoat without some body.  Neither did I want to entirely stiffen the silhouette – it is boxy enough!  Thus, one layer of lightweight cotton canvas sew-in interfacing is “quilted”, in rows ½ inch parallel, to the muslin lining’s underside.  The quilted interfacing was stitched before sewing the lining inside.  It is as wide as the border is on both sides of the asymmetric front edges and also was cut to form a stable “collar” that extends out from the neck to the shoulder.  This way the main body of the jacket is loose enough but it still keeps its shape and feels so much more substantial, besides having an understated detail that I have come to expect of Indian clothing.

I have seen similar interfaced line stitching on Anarkali dresses but, goodness, it is a lot harder to do than it looks.  My machine heated up enough from the rows of long stitching that I needed to turn it off and give it a break halfway though.  It was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a while.  But can I remotely find a way to have my effort show up well in a picture?  No – it’s white stitching on white cloth.  Oh well, art is sometimes made for the sake of art…and this Gujarati tribute was worth it when I saw our adopted family appreciate the details I included in this Sherwani.

India has such a beautiful richness of culture and tradition.  There is so much, in so many varying facets, to learn about.  The way what people wear in that country speaks for their state and caste in life, their region of the land, the occasion of the moment, their religion…is something so admirable, besides being any fashion historian’s dream.  Quality that we expect out of couture garments is a normal part of Indian fashion and their strong ethnic pride is what I admire the more I get to know of the country and its citizens, both ones who live in my country now and those who still live there.  The trip to see our ‘adopted family’ included a stay at their home and my first visit to see her parents, so my coat was appropriate for an important few days of meeting people for the first time and catching up with others.  It was also quite comfy in the southern heat outside and absolutely perfect for cold indoor air conditioned inside!  My sewing feels so worthwhile when I can use it as a means of respect to our friends and their culture.  Look for more India inspired fashion to come here on my blog!