Mermaid Out of Water

Following up on the heels of my last post, a 1954 qipao, here’s another Mandarin dress inspired by the 1930s era from the modern designer Andrew Gn.  “From the Paris catwalk directly to my wardrobe” thanks to Burda Style, this is home sewing at par with the designer world.

This is much more elegant than my first qipao, definitely meant for evening wear with its train.  The fabrics are much nicer and higher quality, too, than the printed cotton of the last qipao.  It’s also much more sensual and body-conscious, just like the original mine was inspired by – Nicole Kidman’s “Charity Ball” gown from the 2008 movie “Australia”.  It was the year 1939, and Lady Sarah Ashley was auctioning off herself (to dance with, I must clarify) to benefit the Missions for children, the “Forgotten Australians” as they are known, so she definitely dressed the part for that evening to win a large bid.  This is my third (and probably my last for this year) submission to the Unfinished Seamstress’ “Sewing the Scene” Challenge.

This evening dress is my very first mermaid shaped garment, and I am head over heels for what this does to my curves.  Why have I not worn something like this before?  Where has a mermaid gown been all my life?  Whatever – I have one now that I am very happy with…in fact I hate having to take it off once it’s on, especially as the first layer against my skin is lovely silk!

For more about the culture, history, and meaning to a qipao dress, please visit my previous post.  This one is admittedly designer, so it is linked more to the fashion scene than a pure culture garment.  In fact, the designer Tony Ward now appears to be knocking off Andrew Gn’s Burda release with some of the neckline on the gowns in his Spring/Summer 2018 collection (see Look #33 of his Couture garments, and see this look from his ready-to-wear)!  However, the Singapore-born Andrew Gn does have the privilege right to make a fashion qipao more than Tony Ward, and besides Gn did it first with his Fall 2017 Ready-To-Wear collection.  The designer Andrew Gn, as described in the Burda magazine, is a cosmopolitan designer who is heavily influenced by art and antiques.  He respects the worth of a good vintage item and finds creative expression universal.  Personally, he is ¼ Japanese and ¾ Chinese, but studied at London, New York, and Milan before opening under his own label in 1996 after being an assistant in Emanuel Ungaro’s atelier in Paris for just a year.  Ungaro is one of my modern designer icons, so it comes as no surprise to me that I like the work of his pupil Gn!  Traditional meets modern, and East merges with the West under Andrew Gn.

The pattern for this dress is only to be found in the monthly magazine issue and unfortunately not online to buy and download at all.   This edition of the magazine (February 2018) is totally worth buying, though – this is the best Burda month I have seen in a long time, there are so many patterns that are unique, lovely, and attractive.  Besides, nowadays how often do we get a copy to make for ourselves of what is seen is the catwalk?  This outfit counts as my August make to the “Burda Challenge 2018” for which I pledged a garment a month.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a combo of both polyester crinkle chiffon and rayon challis for the dress and true vintage all silk crepe for the under slip

PATTERN:  Burda Style #123 Gown, from the February 2018 magazine for the dress (see it on the runway here) and a vintage year 1942 pattern, Simplicity #4352, used once before, for the slip

NOTIONS:  All I really needed to make this set was really thread – lots of it – and some little scraps of interfacing for the Mandarin collar.  The neckline buttons are modern and were also on hand along with the scrap 6 inches of thread elastic.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress itself took about 15 hours while the slip took maybe 6 hours.  Both were completed on August 20, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  Clean due to the serged (overlocked) seams on both pieces – there were too many very long princess seams between the slip and the dress to do the insides as a French finish!

TOTAL COST:  The vintage silk was part of a trade at a local shop, and the dress’ fabrics came from my local JoAnn’s fabric store, maybe about $60 for 6 yards. 

Coming directly from a designer, I sort of find it oddly ironic that I became my own designer for this dress and slightly adapted the armscye to mirror my inspiration dress from the “Australia” movie.  Of course, looking at the original dress and its line drawing, you can see I left out the sleeves.  I do love them, and would love to make a winter velvet version of this dress just so I can see this design with those sleeves, but they did not fit in with my ideal of a visually obvious “Australia” movie copy, or even just a Mandarin dress for the summer.  It was a very easy adaptation.  I redrew the pattern tissue so that the center front and the center back panels’ curving seam kept going up to graze the outer end of the shoulder line.  The effect is like a pared down cap sleeve all-in-one with the dress. I also dipped the bottom of the armscye under the arm to be lower and more open, ending in a V-shape for both beauty and full movement.  Besides, the sleeve change, I shortened the front third of the hem to the dress so that the hem would graze the top of my feet with heels on.  I left the back and side hem original length.

Now, as for any Burda Style pattern, printing and/or tracing is necessary to have a usable pattern to lay on your desired fabric.  My pattern was traced from the inserts in the magazine issue, and most Burda Style Designer patterns are only in the magazines, but most other patterns are available online as a downloaded PDF that needs to be printed out and assembled together.  What works best for me is to use a roll of thin, see-through medical paper to trace my pieces out.  It’s at this preliminary step that you pick out your proper size.  Some people add in your choice of seam allowance width directly to the pattern while some as they are cutting out the fabric pieces.  A scissor with a magnetic ruler guide helps immensely to quicken along the step to getting a finished pattern prepped.  Sorry to repeat something you might already know, but this is just an “FYI” for those that don’t.

I did find the sizing for this dress to be spot on, very exact.  I made my ‘normal’ size that I choose with Burda patterns, based off of their measurement chart and this finished out perfect for my body.  Granted there is a good amount of shifty give in the dress between the fine crinkled chiffon and random bias.  This is part of the reason I get by with leaving out any closures (except for the neckline, of course).  Yes – there are no zippers, hooks, or anything to the waist of both the dress and slip.  This is a pop-over the head outfit.  I didn’t want a zipper to awkwardly pucker or bubble the fabric out, and with lowering the cut of the neckline by a few extra inches, the dress goes on me just fine with all seams sewn up.  An all silk slip is smooth and slippery, like a weightless second skin, and it has similar seaming so it slides on easily as well with no closure either.

As wonderful as this turned out, it was almost the project that was never made due to the unexpected amount of material needed. Be prepared to have lots and lots of yardage on hand in order to make this dress because I soon realized this is a total fabric hog of a project.  I rather disregarded the instructions in disbelief when they called for 6 whopping yards of fabric, in 60” selvedge width. Really?!  The pattern pieces were very skinny (and very curvy, I must add, for a proper mermaid fit).  The bottom flared out very wide though.  The pattern segments were also unmanageably long as they are all one-piece princess seams from neckline to hem.  I felt that ‘surely if the pieces are staggered, and laid out oppositely I can make the dress work’ out of the 4 yards of chiffon I had on hand.  Four yards is really the most of any fabric I have on hand or generally buy.  There is only one other fabric in my stash that is a cut of 6 yards, and it is a winter brocade saved for a fabric hog 1950s dress pattern.

I really wanted to use this butterfly print as there was something about it that I felt needed to be an Asian influenced, 1930s inspired garment for evening elegance.  I don’t know how that approbation works in my head but some fabrics just naturally get designated to certain patterns without much of a though, like the two are meant to be together.  This time, there was no seeming way to make things work.  Four yards of fabric is only enough for three pattern pieces.  The dress has four pattern pieces in total, so I needed more for one last piece.

My husband is the one that saved this project by finding the exact same print, at the exact same JoAnn’s store where the first fabric was bought, only this time it was in an all rayon challis.  As long as it was the same print I had something to work with…thank goodness for JoAnn’s repeating a print design!  As the rayon would be heavier and also opaque compared to the chiffon. The most obvious pattern piece to designate this for was the two center back panels.

This way the train is weighted down nicely and the sheer effect is tamed by having the front the primary focus while the back is only simple lines without the slip being seen there to distract.  Also the back panels are the longest piece out of the four with the train – the biggest fabric hog.  The hemline is a full almost 10 inches longer than floor length on my 5’ 3” frame.  Two yards was just enough of a cut from the rayon for the center back panel, that’s how long it is!  As it turned out, I am glad to have used two fabrics for this dress.  How often does something like this happen, though – the same print in two different materials?  I love the feeling of how the train floats and flows behind me as I walk if I let it down (see a short video here on my Instagram).  If I hold it up it looks like I have wings, like a butterfly myself, or like a mermaid tail.  However, I wouldn’t have a mermaid tail out of water now would I?!

A little bit of the rayon form of my dress’ butterfly print also went to the Mandarin collar.  I was planning on laying cotton between the sheer to make the collar opaque and not see-through before I realized I had to use the rayon.  This made my work easier.  I doubled up on the interfacing and ironed it to the wrong side of both the outer and inner collars.  This way at least something holds the dress together because the rest of it certainly isn’t going the help.

I realize that most the dresses with this wide open, almond shaped neckline which dips down to Timbuktu do not have anything but skin (and cleavage) showing.  I do not care for how blatantly this sensualizes such a style of dress too much for my taste.  This is an opportunity to make a superior quality slip in a contrast color to fill in that void in the front.  The sweetheart neckline is one of the most universally popular and flattering, and a visible slip is a more discreet yet still tantalizing detail, so I prefer such a gown worn this way, not just because it is like the movie original.  It is really much more wearable this way anyway.

My basic everyday vintage slip pattern got the deluxe makeover here!  The way I made it first using basic rayon challis has it my go-to wardrobe basic.  There was no guesswork sewing this up as I had done it once before and made notes of my grading add-ons, but I took more time on the small details.  First, I added 12 more inches to the hem of last time to end up with an ankle length slip. Then, I hand stitched the self-fabric bias facing down by hand.  Skinny self-fabric bias spaghetti straps are over my shoulders.  I don’t have many long gowns to match but I’m hoping to get good use out of this slip.  After all, I did splurge and use true vintage fabric.  I am not one to use that fact as a reason to completely save this garment – no, I want to totally enjoy it, so maybe this would make a good nightgown too, if I want to wear it but have nowhere to go.

My accessories were carefully curated to make sure this was an outfit all about me – my take on a runway trend, my personal skills to make what else I needed, and some old favorites from on hand to compliment.  Following the trend of Andrew Gn’s Fall 2017 collection where the models mostly wore tassel earrings, I found mine at a local shop, handmade in three layers of gradient colors from out of my butterfly print.  My hair decoration is made by me, with three plastic flower heads attached to a hair comb with floral wire and floral tape.  My florist’s training came in handy here and I am so happy and proud at how this turned out.  My shoes are “Lola” peep toe strap heels from Chelsea Crew, the same as what I wore her for my Grace Kelly dress copy.  My bracelet is actually a hair scrunchie from when I was little, but it always used to pull my hair out so it’s always served me better as a bracelet.

This was a bit of a hard project to handle, as dreamy as it is to wear.  Between the struggle to find enough fabric for the dress, the “sacrifice” of multiple yards of vintage fabric, and all the large scraps which were leftover from the making of this outfit, it was almost painful.  I am very thrifty (as much as can be expected) with my sewing, making use of every scrap, getting only fabric that I have an idea for, and squeezing patterns on cuts too small for an easy layout.  Not too often am I liberal with my sewing, but extravagance is just that – an indulgence, a surrendering of practicality for the ideal of beauty, the effort towards a creative reality.  This is closer to how couture works, or at least designer productions, as well.

The outlook, the artistic vision is priority along the creative process, and then the special someone who gets to wear the finished product, and the resulting feelings upon wearing, are then the pride and crowning glory after the last of the finishing touches have been made.  This is a designer dress, after all, and I’m using my best vintage fabric to complete it as a ‘copy’ of something from Hollywood, inspired by the decadence of the era of elegance itself – the 1930s.  Why was I expecting something sensible here?!  Sometimes making (and wearing) the extravagance of what exactly you want, what you feel great in is intoxicatingly enjoyable.  I am sensible enough to not do this all that often, but with this dress it is so nice deep down.  Can I use the excuse that my birthday is in August?  I may just have to find as many excuses to wear this as I possibly can, too.

Dust Bowl Dress

Of all the times that were tough to live through in the last 100 years of American history, it was the 1930s in my opinion.  Yes, the 1940s were no doubt hard as well with the rationing, and every decade has its struggles and challenges, I am sure.  From what I heard from my Grandmother and from reading old periodicals of the times, however, it seems that the 1930s was a struggle just to make it through each and every day.  There was an alarming lack of jobs, and therefore a battle to get the money and food you needed.  It challenged all ages to see how much you could do without and yet still survive, with the goal of ‘making it’ although (for much of the Depression) no certain end was in sight.  The 1940’s at least had ‘the war’ and ‘those serving’ as its definite goal.  Sorry to be bleak but facts are facts to me.

Nevertheless, fashion of the 1930s seemed to generally have the intent of telling the opposite story and conveying an everyday beauty that did not necessarily scrimp because of the pervading conditions of the times.  A certain elegance was expected to be kept up.  All of this was rubbish in the face of the “Dust Bowl”.  It was just clothes on one’s back and a gritty, plain old effort to live, breathe, and eat.  Most of us have seen the famous government sponsored photographs of Dorothea Lange (the picture above is only one of many). If you haven’t, well you should.  This situation in the lives of our poorer fellow men, women, and children is frequently forgotten in the popular 30’s glamour.  Hopefully, such is acknowledged in my newest vintage-inspired sewing of a comfy and very un-pretentious feedsack printed cotton house dress, topped off with a basic, crushable, bright blue hat.

As much as I like dresses, this was out of my comfort zone, even though I have been planning on making this project for the last three years.  I do love useful and practical dresses, because a good part of my life does not call for the lovely, elegant clothes I desire to make and wear.  Thus, when a recent trip to the country we were planning gave me no excuse to put it off any longer, I whipped this dress up (because it was easier than I had expected) and loved wearing it (because it is so comfy and cool for a summer day)!  Of course, no proper 30’s dress for a day in to sun is complete without a hat, I whipped up a wonderful Depression-style hat to match too!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Dress – 100% cotton; Hat – a dense, low nap, polyester velvet for the visible exterior and a poly lining for the inside crown

PATTERNS:  Dress – Burda Style “Drawstring Dress with Peter Pan Collar” pattern #123, from April 2014, for the dress; Hat – Simplicity #8486, the “Snow White” 80th Anniversary pattern

NOTIONS:  Everything I needed for the dress was on hand as this was a long awaited project (mentioned above) – the oversized rick-rack, the thread, and interfacing.  The two buttons are true vintage from the stash of my hubby’s Grandmother.  The hat only needed supplies on hand – interfacing and thread.  The ribbon around the hat is a true vintage cotton velvet supply from my Grandmother’s stash.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was a one evening project.  It was made in about 5 hours on July 20, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound

TOTAL COST:  As the dress’ fabric was bought a few years before I came up with a plan for it (which was 3 years back) I no longer remember how much I paid for this.  I do know what store this came from though – the selvedge says it is a JoAnn’s Fabric Store Exclusive print.  The velvet was on clearance at JoAnn’s and 1/2 yard only cost me $4.50…and I still have enough for another hat!

Why was the dress out of my comfort zone?  It is just almost too homey and old fashioned for my general taste with most of what I make and wear.  Yes, I this is definitely NOT my first time sewing with a feedsack print (see my first, second, and third here), but this dress style fits in so comfortably with the fabric that my new dress doesn’t seem all gloriously bright and shiny but already broken in, as if it has already been loved and used for some time yet.  This is a good thing, and what I wish more of my makes felt like this, but I am not used to it.  Now that I have such a kind of dress, I don’t know what to think, but the cute practicality, cheery details, and simple femininity of it wins me over to loving it.

 Also, I generally want an authentic vintage style that is just as attractive and wearable for today, and although this is definitely suitable for today and will be worn with a maker’s pride, it is more obviously old-fashioned (the way I made it) than much of what I create.  There is no fashion-forward style I can point out, or designer influence here, just an everyday sensibility and a taste for the finer things on a very utilitarian level.  This kind of dress was what many women wore in the 1930s.  Not every woman looked as elegant as we might be led to think, especially when so many necessary duties of living were much more toilsome than today. (Washing is just one example…machines to do the job still required much hands-on attention and personal time to get clothes clean!)  A dress like this one was what was worn to get done those jobs of cooking, cleaning, and such.  It definitely had it place then and I’m enjoying finding a place for it today, too.  A frock like this makes house work or casual time feel much more elegant than doing the same in t-shirt and jeans for me.  This very appropriately part of my ongoing blog series “Retro Forward with Burda Style”.  It is also part of my one a month” pledge for the Burda Challenge 2018.

Now, as for any Burda Style pattern, printing and/or tracing is necessary to have a usable pattern to lay on your desired fabric.  My pattern was cut out from a downloaded PDF assembled together after being printed out onto paper, but it can also be traced, using a roll of thin, see-through medical paper, from the inserts in the appropriate magazine issue (although the older issues are harder to find).  It’s at this preliminary step that you pick out your proper size.  Some people add in your choice of seam allowance width directly to the pattern while some as they are cutting out the fabric pieces.  A scissor with a magnetic ruler guide helps immensely to quicken along the step to getting a finished pattern prepped.  Sorry to repeat something you might already know, but this is just an “FYI” for those that don’t.

Looking at the finished garment in the example picture for the pattern on Burda’s site, I chose to go down a size for the bodice half and went up a size for the hips.  This was a good move because I have a great fit – originally, above the waist is generous while the hips are quite snug…too snug for the hip pockets in my opinion!  This why I left them out and opted for something more authentic, which also happens to be so much more fun – a fancy patch pocket.  I drafted my own rectangle for this, something about the size of my hand, and then added to the top a parallelogram which was a diagonal half of the square.  This was cut out in both my print and the contrast solid, with both facing one another, so that the point could be pulled down to become pleasantly, complimentarily noticeable, and trimmed with rick rack along the angled edge.  The pocket pulls the grey touches in the dress’ collar and waist ties together as a whole quite nicely.

There were a few things I left out and added on to the dress (besides the pocket). I did lengthen the hemline by 5 whopping inches.  This way I was able to use the selvedge along the hem and save myself a finishing step.  I wanted a dress that was closer to a true 30’s mid-calf length – I do find this length quite complimentary.  Besides, it keeps my knees covered (I’m self-conscious about my chubby knees) and yet is not long enough to get in the way of my ankles.  I also left out the sleeve ties because I disliked the idea of something that fussy.  Trying to fix something on one’s sleeve with the opposite arm is tough – I’ve done that before.  There is enough interest going on in the bodice with the collar and crossover placket that a basic hemmed kimono sleeve suits it better, I think.

The collar came together nicely, but boy was it a long and unusual pattern piece.  I was halfway expecting a very wonky fit, but no – it turns out a lovely face-framing shape which creates a wide neckline.  I love how the wide open neckline prevents this dress from being too conservative, also.  The only minor complaint is that it lays funny in the back half of the neckline.  After I had stitched the rick-rack under the edge, I was forced to sew the collar to the dress for about 6 inches across the center back.  I also found out that the wide open neckline reveals the bias facing used to finish the collar and neckline edges along the inside.  Luckily, I used a matching grey, but this is an important word of warning to anyone else who might consider making the pattern.  Definitely use a facing material that you won’t mind if it is seen because this design makes it visible.

Normally, I am not one for gathered waists, whether they be drawstring or elastic.  Anything that adds bulk at my waist – no thanks!  This was yet another ‘out of my comfort zone’.  However, I gave this one a try and I am quite happy with it.  The instructions had said to sew the casing on the fabric inside (wrong side) at the waistline, as the dress’ only real seaming (besides the sides) are on the upper chest (bodice) – there is one continuous piece for the entire dress body.  Instead, I sewed the waist casing on the outside (visible side) since I had cut that piece out in the matching dress fabric.  Then the tie for inside the casing was cut and made in the contrast grey.  Yet, rather than having the ties come out of the casing at the center front as the pattern directs, I also switched the opening to the center back.  Waist casings always seem their bulkiest at the spot where they open.  The nice casing is mostly covered up because the ties are so long I can wrap them around to the front…kind of like having a belt attached – so easy.

Last but not least, I’m not forgetting the hat!  On its own and how they style it on the pattern cover, this hat does look a bit cheesy.  However, once I had put the ribbon band on, had my hair styled, and wore it with the dress, it looked a lot better to me.  I think you really need to use a quality material for this hat for it to turn out plausibly and not seem like a costume prop.  Otherwise this is a great hat that has just enough of a brim to keep the sun off my eyes yet not be overwhelming.  It is crushable, sized well, and fits nicely on the head.  It was super easy to put together, even with doing a full lining and interfacing all of the pieces.  A hat project this successful that only took a few hours is an awesome win even if it’s not a new favorite accessory.

My major tip to have this hat turn out is to use alternate interfacing.  I used a stiff heavy weight sew-in interfacing and sandwiched it in the brim while I went with a lightweight iron on for the head crown pieces.  This is important – you want the brim to have the most body (you really shouldn’t have a wonky brim here…this isn’t the 70’s).  Yet you need a soft crown that isn’t completely floppy either.  Two weights of interfacing for the different parts of the hat work great.  What really finished off the hat and gave it the perfect fit and shape was doing a full crown lining, too.  In lieu of sewing the lining into the hat when the brim and crown were sewn together, and then finishing the headband seam with a ribbon (as most hats have and as the instructions direct), I merely turned the lining’s seam allowance under and invisibly had stitched it to the edge of the hat body.  Sometimes hat bands can be scratchy on the forehead, and I don’t have the proper Petersham ribbon on hand anyway.  Having the lining start immediately makes sure this hat slips on and off my head without messing up my hair at all and feels quite good on the forehead.  I was able to make the most of the car ride into the country by sewing the lining down while being a passenger!  Ah, the benefits of being a modern vintage seamstress.

As much as we take advantage of our modern machines today – why, I used the sewing machine to make my outfit, the radio to keep my ears occupied while working on it, the computer to see the program for the day, and the car we used to get to the event – I find it funny that the ingenuity and efficiency of the old 100-something year old farm equipment we saw still is a marvel.  And yet, it is these same technological advancements in farming that were blamed for causing the “Dust Bowl” era storms.  The efficient and deep cuts such farm equipment made into the ground broke up deep roots that held the dirt together and made quick work of something much more grueling done by hand giving farmers the opportunity to forget to rotate fields with rest.  This weirdly made me reflect on what the unfavorable aftereffects might be from the technology we take for granted today.