Bouclé Mid-Century Shift

Achieving the ideal fit for a garment is by far the most difficult process of sewing, but also the technique that completes it.  Every article of clothing, on every human body, has a unique fit, as individual as people themselves, which will make it best serve its purpose and look its best.  Funny thing is, I have found that styles which ride the boundary between loose and baggy or body skimming (such as many 1920s or even 1960s fashions) are actually the trickiest to find such a “sweet spot” of ideal fit.  Take into account that thick but warm fabrics (like my favorite textured bouclé) can become bulky when you sew something with them, making it challenging to achieve a close fit.  There is such a thing as a chic fit that doesn’t fit the body the way we’re used to, though!  Just look to the best designers and the most famous actresses of the 1950s and 60’s to see inspiration for what I am talking about!  This 1964 semi-fitted shift dress that I’ve sewn is a perfect example.

Certain well-known designers were changing the idea of a stylish silhouette for women earlier on, making oversized and non-body fitting garments attractive and fashionable.  Most of what we think of as the 60’s “look” had its beginnings in the decade before.  By the 50’s, Claire McCardell had already crafted her “monastic dress” and Yves Saint Laurent is credited with beginning the classic “trapeze dress” (in Spring/Summer 1958), both of which are generously unfitted than the ‘normal’ garment at the time.  Jacques Fath began the ever popular swing coat fashion in outwear circa 1950 (here’s one pink example) to accommodate both the post-WWII baby boom and full skirted or structured garments which were being released.  Balenciaga was the heavyweight!  He was using sculptural garments that had a shape of their own apart from a perfect body symmetry.  Their beauty is focused on the shape of the garment itself, only hinting at the body of the wearer underneath.  In 1953 he introduced the “balloon jacket”, while in 1957 came the “babydoll dress”, the gracefully draped “cocoon coat”, and the “sack dress”.  He even worked with fabric houses to develop innovative material, like silk gazar, which would be heavy and stiff to lend itself to such stand-away-from-the-body designs.   Pierre Cardin had his fair share of influence in this matter, too – he introduced the “bubble dress” in 1954, and was known for his preference of geometric shaping and ignoring the female form (see this coat of his for one example).

These types of fashions were an alternative to the immaculate, overly shaped (wasp waited) feminine form which was popularized by Dior.  It was seen as the newest chic of the time, and a very modern approach to styling, besides the fact that they were more often couture because of the high talent it took to uniquely shape such designs.  They might seem simple at first glance but these revolutionary creations emerging in the early mid-50’s were paving the way for the next decade.

The model woman drawn on the front cover of my Butterick #3296 pattern bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, I think!  Hepburn was one of the model women for the youthful, fashion forward aura which was frequently associated with 50’sand 60’s loosely structured garments.  The coat especially reminds me of her clothes from the movie “Charades”, released the year before in 1963, but I think it’s the hat, too.  I stayed close to this with my interpretation.  This was my chance to accessorize with the only 60’s hat in my collection (and a good one, too – just look at its details), vintage wooden bead necklace, old earrings from my Grandmother, and vintage leather driving gloves.  I do want to make the coat half of my pattern at some point, but for now, a vintage 60’s hot pink pea coat matches quite well with the color, styling, and era of my dress!

After all, hot pink coats seemed to be the ‘thing’ for women’s outerwear in the 10 years between 1956 and 1966 if one looks at advertisements, movies, and designer creations for some examples.  Firstly, there is the March 15, 1956 “International Fashions” edition of Vogue magazine, with Evelyn Tripp on the front cover wearing a rose tweed cocoon coat by Zelinka-Matlick (A).  Then there is a year 1960 pink Balenciaga cocoon jacket suit (B) to be found as well as a Burda Style’s March of 1964 tweed bouclé A-line coat (C).  Ah, let’s not forget that swoon-worthy oversized hot pink coat worn by Audrey Hepburn and made by Givenchy from the 1966 movie “How to Steal a Million” (D).  So – among the many colors that are mixed in to make my dress’ bouclé (grey blue, maroon, black, pink, and a touch of orange), having a dress match with my period 60’s coat is partly why I stayed close to the pink undertones with the color of my lining.  It was also because a soft pink sweetens the dress, keeping it being too glaringly modern.  I love how the pink can be seen peeking out if you look closely inside my wide sleeves or just under the hem of my knee length dress.  Dior himself has said (in his “Little Dictionary of Fashion”) “Every woman should have something pink in her wardrobe.  It is the color of happiness and of femininity.”  I’m covered because I do have plenty of pink in my closet for every season now!

After all, the pink influence of my dress pays homage to yet another designer which had her own part to play in this kind of fashion, too – Coco Chanel, not mentioned in the above list of influencers.  Pink is one of her signature colors, and is often used with black (both colors are in my bouclé).  Chanel often used bouclé, tweed, and other textured, nubby materials for her suits and shift dresses in the 50’s and 60’s, as well.  However, to be braggingly specific, there is an uncanny resemblance that my own fabric bears to a suit set of hers from the same year of 1964 (see it listed here at the MET museum).  It is claimed that Chanel criticized the boned and uber-cinched waists that Dior was producing, in favor of a looser fitting, but still tailored look that both she and her forward-thinking contemporaries were producing.  Her collection of 1954 (when she re-opened her fashion house) is easily recognizable today – a boxy jacket with an A-line skirt – and still being worn.  Those like her who used more wearing ease with greater structure in their garments of the 50’s had more of an influence on the success of the fashion of the 60’s and beyond.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  The visible outside of my dress is a loosely woven, but thick and textural bouclé, in a fiber content of wool, mohair, and acrylic.  The inside is a super soft all cotton in a soft pink color with a pink satin facing.

PATTERN:  Butterick #3296, from the Fall/Winter season of year 1964 (see cover picture above)

NOTIONS:  I had all the thread and interfacing I needed already, as well as extra bias tape, hem tape, and a large button.  The neckline placket is actually a faux closure permanently sewn into place by this large, vintage, dusty blue, carved shell button, salvaged off of this vintage suit when I refashioned its skirt’s waistband.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was made in about 8 hours and finished on December 14, 2017.

THE INSIDES:  Since bouclé is a fraying terror of a mess along its raw edges, and I am allergic to mohair, all seams are either covered by the cotton lining or encased in bias tape.

TOTAL COST:  The fabric was stuff I had bought from Hancock Fabrics when they were going out of business, so it was only about $2 a yard.  With one yard needed of both the bouclé and the cotton (as they were 60” wide), this is a $4 dress, believe it or not!

Making the dress itself was ridiculously simple, and just a tad difficult due to the challenges of working with such a thick and full-bodied material.  I made sure to trim most of my seams allowances and even pulled a secret sewing trick I rarely use – I hammered the seams once they were stitched to make them flat, especially the front fake neck placket.  The tricky part about trimming seam allowances with bouclé is that the fabric unravels easily.  Thus, I kept the small seams together and finished them cleanly by using the bias tape over the edges.  The bias tape finish was especially tricky on the inside curve of the kimono sleeves, but I stretched It has I stitched it down as I kept the seam curved.

The back has the basic “fish-eye” darts to shape the waist, but the front holds the creative options.  There are lovely sun-ray darts coming out of the neckline to shape the chest and upper bust.  These were quite tricky to sew across the grain!  In conjunction with the long French darts to shape the dress below the bust, this dress has elegance down to an understated art.  It’s too bad the few details are not that noticeable with the blended business of my bouclé!  This was (amazingly) a 65 cent pattern.  For having both a coat and dress in one envelope, this still sounds kind of cheaply priced, even for 1964, when Simplicity patterns for one dress design were the same price and Vogue pattern were about $1.00.  Was this an unmarked designer knock-off, I wonder, because it sure does look like something out of the movie “Charades” anyway?

The pattern I had was a size too big for me – but no problem.  To have an easy fix to that, I merely left off the given seam allowance at the sides and shoulders when I cut out the dress.  Kimono sleeves can sometimes hang far too low on my almost petite frame, anyway.  Then I sewed in slightly wider seam allowances in this because it still seemed to fit too generously.  I ended up with a wonderfully loose, comfy, and ‘slightly fitted’ dress (as the envelope says) that is a perfect fit for this design.  I feel this unorthodox but simple way at approaching a pattern merely a few inches too big for me worked very well for this dress, but it probably would not be the best for a body-conscious tailored garment.  Nevertheless, I do love finding shortcuts that don’t compromise quality or fit.  Anything that puts my sewing projects from out of my fabric pile onto my back is most welcome!

My Australian and other southern hemisphere readers should appreciate the fact that this is a cold weather outfit!  (Bouclé lined in cotton is just as warm as wearing a blanket, for your information!) Even though it is finally spring here for where I live, only recently was the anniversary of Audrey Hepburn’s birthday (well it was May 4), and so I felt that this was appropriate to share.

Besides, I like to make sure I don’t get stuck in a rut of only one decade.  Not that there’s anything wrong with staying in one era for what vintage one recreates.  It’s just that I know I do enjoy all of them.  Sewing from all the decades of the 21st century also helps give me a good overview of the big picture.  Everything is connected in history – it’s not just static dates and names to remember – and this carries over into the accounting of what people have worn through those same times.  As I presented in this post, the 1950’s set things up for what defined the 60’s.  The minds of today inspire those of tomorrow.

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“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!