“Winter Soldier” Blue Suit Dress

I despise the cold and hate the season of snow and dead looking trees.  Grey skies and a body not tolerant of bundling up in layers combines to make the fact that we’re at the beginning of what is officially winter now gives me no reason to celebrate.  In my mind I’m like a “winter warrior” that endures through the tough season…wearing my own made garments to make staying warm much more enjoyable than it could be.

This post’s suit dress is from 1955 and to me is the best of me putting up with the past cold season in lovely vintage style.  I love this!  Warm (but not bulky) boucle, slimming design, interesting asymmetric features, and mid-50’s chic fashion.  There’s even a good influence of Agent Carter inspiration, courtesy of Peggy’s Smithsonian interview from the movie “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, to combine for one awesome result, if I do say so myself.  (Watch the whole 3 minute clip here…warning, it’ll make you cry!) My dress may not be as “line for line” a copy as some of my other Agent Carter makes, but it is definitely similar in a way that is clearly recognizable, even if I do only have one lapel!  Life is better with a little bit o’ Peggy in it!

A good Agent Carter dress in 50’s era class deserved an amp up in some quality features.  Perhaps that’s why this dress is the first to have me hand-stitch everything when it came to finishing – the side zipper, all top-stitching, and all hemming.  As one who hates hand work due to achy wrists and a bad neck, this is a truly strong statement to how I feel about this (not just a slight brag) that my “Winter Soldier” dress is the first to have deserved such treatment.  It deserved it, believe me, but all that hand stitching taught me some unexpected but much appreciated lessons on a new outlook to certain aspects of sewing.  More about this down later!

To “top off” my set is one of my favorite vintage hats that I own – a rich navy velvet halo hat, also asymmetric in style, complete with a matching velvet vintage clutch purse.  My gloves are also vintage, so I guess my suede, patent toed heels are the only real modern accessories of my outfit!  This kind of asymmetric halo hat found great popularity for a short period of time (about 1948 to 1953), so my hat is a tad early for the actual date of my pattern (1955).  However, as the “Smithsonian Interview” scene was supposed to be in 1953, it is right on spot in both year and complimentary style, I do believe.

My lipstick is my favorite crimson shade, “Red Velvet” from Besame Cosmetics.  “Red Velvet” goes on so smooth and is intense in pigment.  It often lasts through eating a meal!  Anyway, I’m naturally swayed in favor of “Red Velvet” – it’s the color that the Agent Carter actress Hayley Atwell wears whenever she’s in character, so it is only fitting to pair it with this Captain America outfit.  I love how subtly patriotic and richly cheery it makes my mellow winter blue suit dress!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an acrylic/poly/rayon blend boucle lined in a crepe-finish polyester

PATTERN:  Simplicity #1353, year 1955

NOTIONS:  I had all the interfacing, thread, and other notions needed (bias tapes, shoulder pads, zipper) in my stash already.  Yay for using what’s on hand for a project that easily comes together!  The buttons are vintage from my Grandmother’s collection.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was finished on February 11, 2017, and took me about 20 or more hours to make.

THE INSIDES:  All cleanly bias bound, as boucle shreds like a maniac otherwise!

TOTAL COST:  The boucle had been in my stash for I don’t even remember how long.  It was one of those good materials that I hold onto until I find a very convincing reason to use it!  My lining was something from my longtime stash, as well, so I’m actually counting this as free!

I’ve never gone wrong knocking-off or copying a Peggy Carter outfit for myself, and this dress only continues the good trend, even though it is from the next decade than we’ve traditionally seen her in.  It is definitely 50’s, but it still has the strong shoulders with waist and hip slimming features that looked so well on her in the 40’s.  In classic Peggy style, my dress is a wonderful combo of appearing impeccably put-together in a garment which is comfortable and practical.  This is a soft, not stiff or even itchy, suit dress in just the right weight to keep me warm yet without being overly toasty indoors.  I have no idea if such an ideal dress exists in RTW (I am highly skeptical there is), so I am extremely thankful to be able to put my sewing capabilities to use to make my own “copy” of a garment worn by my fashion muse, Agent Peggy Carter.

Sewing this dress was a real pleasure.  Sure it had its challenges, especially when it came to getting sharp corners to the collar and adding in the skirt pleats.  The boucle was lofty and nubby making it hard to be so precise with such details.  As tempting as it was to just pin it all down in place and whiz through to tack it down with a machine stitch, I couldn’t stand the thought of a harsh stitching line around the edges standing out against the lovely speckled boucle.  I wanted a finish that would blend in with the boucle invisibly and there was only one way to do it.

Many times I feel an inner unwilling tolerance to the necessity of doing a large amount of hand stitching, most due to my resulting physical discomfort.  This time, I slowed down and took time to give it the detailed work it deserved, coming to a new realization of the power of time lavished and well-spent on a special quality which sets handmade clothes apart in best of ways from RTW.  When a certain hand-made technique would make a particular garment be finished with a quality which would bring it to another level, a handmade garment can receive that treatment whereas a RTW dress made in a sweatshop or factory setting will not…ever.  Bureaucratic time restraints and the frequently penny pinched fast fashion system has too many limitations on the quality of what can be offered in stores.  A home dressmaker’s common constraints are often finding “free time” and availability of easily found or affordable supplies!  As efficient and productive as I am with what I make, I do not like to see what quality I want be sacrificed to time constraints…especially not after this dress.  What I found is that when I relaxed and appreciated my hand sewing like never before, it was not as uncomfortable to my body or as terribly drug out as I had expected.  It’s amazing what a new outlook can do.  I really do believe that quality concerns must be one of the many reasons I sew.  I just hadn’t seen this before I had this dress to give me an example and come face-to-face with it.  Poor quality is one main reasons why store bought clothes so quickly end up thrown or given away, and become uninteresting.  High quality is one of the main reasons why a vintage garment from 50, 70, or more years ago is still existing in such good condition and are such a treasured treat to wear.  I want to learn from time-honored lessons.  Be warned, though – a French seam or a hand-picked zipper and hems can totally “spoil” you in a very worthwhile way!

Speaking of details, other than the aforementioned challenges with the points and corners arising from the nature of the fabric, the rest of my challenges were mainly about fit and the asymmetric front.  You see, asymmetric designs are always an interesting departure from the “norm” because suddenly you don’t have one pattern piece which is laid on a double layer of fabric for an easy, instant result of both right and left sides.  Ever since this 1947 asymmetric dress, I realized the importance of making sure your patterns are all equally facing “right side up” when laying them down on the single layer of fabric, otherwise you don’t end up with a “left” and a “right” piece with the good side of the fabric on the outside.  When you are cutting double fabric layers with one piece you don’t have to think of this detail.

Also, the fit was a bit unexpected on this pattern.  The bodice turned out generous, but the skirt turned out slightly small.  Bringing the seam allowances out and then in at the proper areas helped this matter but even still, this was a weirdly unique fitting fluke for a 50’s pattern.  Oh well, this gave me an opportunity to use some thick 80’s style shoulder pads from my stash so as to fill in the extra fabric to the bodice, pick it up, and square it off.  You’d never have guessed such big shoulder pads were in there, right?  I’m always amazed at how vintage fashions benefit so discreetly from exaggerated shaping!  Shape definition is something this decade of the 50’s was known for being good at – creating and emphasizing the ‘ideal’ hourglass shape.

From the back the dress merely looks like a lovely, tailored, but basic dress.  The sleeves quietly amp up the details – they have darted French cuffs (similar to these on this 30’s blouse I’ve made), cut on-one with the sleeves and merely faced.  Now it’s the front that carries the weight of the intricacies!  It might look like a wrap, but that’s only part of the guise.  The “wrap” is sewn down from the waist to mid-thigh were the skirt releases up into a double pleated opening for fashionable freedom of movement.  The pattern only called for a solo oversized button to ‘hold down’ the collar’s left lapel, but as I had a matching smaller sized button I added it above the waist to help keep the bodice wrap closed a little better and add to the asymmetric appearance.  I will definitely be trying out pulling a small scarf through the collar lapel buttonhole, just like the cover envelope shows, for a whole different visual effect!

My background is meant to lend a professional and city living kind of air to my outfit besides being rather accurate in era.  However, for clarification, my background building is special…just about the last of its kind in the area, an icon in the history of the famous Route 66.  It is an early 50’s office space, a late successor in the style of the infamous Coral Courts Motel, which had been just a block up the street.  Glass block windows and golden bricks with decorative aluminum work began in the 1940 and 1950s as a way to build the bridge between late Art Deco and early Mid-Century architectural styles.

The end of this post brings me to think of a quote from Sir Ranulph Fiennes, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”  I see he’s described by The Guinness Book of Records as ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’ so his quote may not be the best from a fashion point of view, but technically it’s still every bit as appropriate.  From my point of view, I really don’t see how, if you can sew or knit, why your clothes can’t be every bit as warm AND as fashionable as you would like!  Beat that you cheap store bought dresses that only make me freeze in the winter…or you worthless sweaters that have unravelled on me after a few washes.

What is your favorite winter garment to make or favorite winter fabric to use?  Do you like the dressy luxuriousness of velvet, the loftiness of fleece, cozy comfort of a knit, or the warmth of a classic wool?  Do any of you find yourself infatuated with boucle as I am?  If you haven’t experienced this fabric for yourself, you need to!  Let me know your special way of rocking your winter style!

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India’s independence, 1947

What better way to celebrate 70 years since India’s independence than with a culturally-influenced vintage 1947 dress which commemorates that momentous year.  Not only did I find a lovely, symbolical, amazing border print rayon challis for my India’s tribute dress, but I came up with (what I’ll admit) my most creative use yet of both a sewing pattern and fabric print.  More often than not, the ideas that pop in my head surprise myself,   especially when they come out as planned!

This dress deserved the trip to visit and appreciate our town’s Hindu Temple, one of the largest of its kind in our country.  It is a stunning piece of architecture and the most appropriate place I could think of locally to observe an event that impacted the religion and culture of India.   For those of you reading that know about this point in history, yes, I know it technically wasn’t just India that received independence (due to Jinnah), and yes, I am fully aware of the strife, turmoil, genocide, and hard times that both preceded and followed August 15, 1947.  I enjoy history and learning – it is the opposite of a chore – so I have read and researched an overwhelming amount of information regarding all areas relating to India and Pakistan’s freedom.  But don’t worry – I will not fill up this post with all of that here.  I only want to let you know how much depth and appreciation for a culture and an event from their past has went into this dress.  Designing, sewing, and posting about my Indian-influenced 1947 dress is not just about a creativity I am proud of doing, it also a manifests my deep amazement at what determination and a belief in one’s convictions can do for people…in this case, India 70 years ago.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% rayon challis, bought from “Simply Fabric of Oakland” Etsy shop

PATTERN:  a Marian Martin pattern #9208, year 1947

NOTIONS:  All I needed was thread, a bit of interfacing in the form of cotton broadcloth scraps, and a zipper – noting odd or out-of-the-ordinary, so it was all on hand already.  I’m still on the fence as to whether or not to add in shoulder pads!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was made in about 15 hours and finished on September 2, 2016

THE INSIDES:  Nicely French seamed

TOTAL COST:  As you can see on the site, 3 yards of fabric (I bought plenty extra to have more of the border print) cost me $18 – so reasonable for as silky the quality is and how unique the print is!For some reason this pattern seemed to run very large.  Most of the mail order and now-defunct companies such as Du Barry, Hollywood, etcetera, frequently seem to run generous, but this pattern was technically an inch smaller than my real measurements (32 bust), and it sewed up as if it was a 35 or 36 bust with a very long waist.  I had to take out almost a whole two inches off of the bodice bottom just to have the waistband come close to my true waistline…and it still is not as high as I would like.  Of course, rayon challis is so drapey and flowing it can make a garment seem a bit bigger than if the same was sewn in a cotton or some such stable woven.  However, this one was a true oddity I believe, and as cool as the design is, the sizing and some of the balance marks were just plain off.

Mail order patterns I see are rarely officially dated.  Most of the times I go by postage stamp codes and style lines, with the occasional notes scrawled down which sometimes have a date.  From my research, the postal stamp is mid to post-WWII, with this asymmetric paneled style being so very specific to circa 1947, as well as very frequently used for Marian Martin line.  (See my Pinterest board “Asymmetric” for examples.)  There are some dresses and patterns similar in the years 1946 and ’48, but the average year comes back to ’47 and with my India-theme going on, I am going with 1947 for this project.  Besides, the silhouette is lean and elegant to this dress, and the full, quarter circle bias skirt in the front only (yes! so lovely) is something obviously later post WWII, when fashion was gearing up for a whole ‘new look’ of the 50’s.  The ‘straight off the heels of rationing’ patterns of 1946 would never have a skirt like this one…the likes of which are not to be seen since pre-WWII, year 1939 (such as my Whitney Frost “Superior” dress).  I originally had the notion of making this dress pattern a full wrap-around button down designer-knock-off design, like this one in the book “Forties Fashion” by Jonathan Walford.  But, no, not this time around…This dress is sneakily not draped even though it looks like it – it is actually asymmetrically paneled, sewn like that with the borders facing in.  The only true drape is in the back – a separate sash attached and hanging down from the one shoulder to anchor at a loop in the opposite side’s waistband.  This I added…it was my own idea both to use extra fabric (practical level) and to make it closer to a true Indian garment, one that would be appropriate for religious occasions (culturally respectful level).

My fusion of western and cultural influence in my dress is not just something from me – it is something that the most well-known (native, non-British) ladies were doing at the time in post WWII India.  One of the most inspirational women of our modern times actually gave me the idea for this outfit – Maharani Gayatri Devi, princess of the Indian princely state of Jaipur.  Many of her most well-known pictures (such as the early 40’s ones by Cecil Beaton or the one I’m including from The Calcutta Telegraph, 1945) show her wearing a sweetheart neckline dress, with a sari sash across the front, a look I sought to imitate by having the border print swoop directly parallel with one angle of the neckline.  She was a successful politician (winning in a Guinness recorded “world’s largest landslide”), and a supporter of the cultural arts and learning for girls, so she was much more than just a pretty face, although she was known for her beauty and fashion sense.  Also, post 1946 saw a boom, a resurgence of the already steamrolling Bollywood business and famous actresses such as Nargis all could be seen post WWII wearing dress styles very similar to my own – especially in the 1949 movie Andaz.

The border to this fabric was lovely – multi-layered like a sedimentary rock and therefore very useful for many purposes and fun to play with.  The border started along the selvedge with the dark green strip, which I used as the waist band for high contrast.  Small snippets of the green can be seen on my one shoulder and at the bottom asymmetric hip seam, but I didn’t want that color to stand out as much anywhere else besides the waistband.  Next, come layers of dizzying, fanciful, decorative scroll work and relief images, such as one would find on a building.  These layers were lined up with one side of the sweetheart neckline, and the asymmetric front dress panels.  Boy, was this step tricky!  I actually miss cut, and luckily I had just enough extra fabric to make a new bodice piece.  The border on the upper bodice piece dissipates down, while the lower hip panel has the border going up towards my head, making the whole of my front middle appear as if it’s a swath of a sari wrap.  The only full border is on the long sash that I made.  This sash come from the one shoulder which has the border print, and it can hang down loosely, but I mostly like it when it drapes across my back, made possible by looping into a small bias tube casing I added in the waist of the opposite side, where the side zipper closes.

The fabric’s background is equally as lovely and intricate, but the toned down colors of khaki and white hide the print which adds to the symbolism of the dress.  If you look closely there are ceremonial decorated elephants in white!  Elephants definitely one of the animals of importance to the culture of India, partly – no doubt – due to the fact Ganesh, one of the best-known and most worshiped deities in the Hindu pantheon , has the head of an elephant.  However the pachyderms on my fabric are so fancy they are they look like the ones paraded through festivals, such as the Dasara festival at Mysore or the amazing Tysar Purim festival.  Elephants are at the entrance of the temples and were heavily used for construction of large structures such as temples and palaces.  They represent some wonderful attributes, such as strength and prosperity, and the rare white elephants (like on my dress) actually represent rain to India’s culture.  Luckily, it wasn’t inclement weather for our pictures, only a lovely sky to match the “Krishna blue” on the Hindu temple behind me.

To match the rich, dark colors in my dress, I wore my B.A.I.T. “Violet” peep-toe heels in forest green.  This is a killer 1940’s style heel that is synonymous with Agent Peggy Cater, used (in a navy blue) for the first season of the Marvel television show Agent Carter.  These are not that comfortable at all, and the ball of my foot aches and my toes sort of go numb after only several hours of wearing…not good, I know.  However, I got a good deal for these and they do match with a lot in my 40’s wardrobe, so, for relatively short periods of wearing, these shoes are awesome.  I put a lot of thought and detail into my hairstyle, too, although you can’t really see it in the pictures.  It is a mix of ethnic and 40’s, just like my dress – each side has a twist up which ends on top my head, with victory rolls and pompadour rolls front and back, sort of like this picture of the actress Brijmala.  With my ethnic brass hoop earrings, my outfit is set!

Sadly, I do not have enough places or reasons to wear my Sari inspired dress as often as I would like.  It is not something that fits many general occasions.  I think I will just have to put it on and wear it when I want to – there is no sense making something I love otherwise!  Often times, the vintage pieces I wear get people I meet and even random bystanders around me to make comments, ask me questions, and get a conversation going.  I like this, even welcome it – it is an opportunity I enjoy.  Hopefully, this dress will give off the same mojo as my other vintage outfits (whatever that is…) and get me and others talking.  We do have some very good friends that are just like family – they have parents who lived through the years of change in India, as well as distant relatives still in India – so this dress, and my research associated with it, will hopefully lead me to have an understanding of their culture like never before next time we talk.

I hope this post has inspired and informed you a bit regarding a little known facet of history which has had so much to do with making the modern world be as we know it today.  Please take a few moments on this anniversary of India’s independence to look up some extra info if you’re really motivated!  Let me suggest the short and sweet “Rarely Known Facts About India’s Independence and Partition” or the chock full of videos and pictures “Five Things You Didn’t Know About India’s Independence” for starters.

As always, thanks for reading!

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