As of this past April, my country of America began commemorating a century since we entered into World War I, when we added our hearts, efforts, and supplies to the rest of the nations who had already been fighting. As someone who sews and likes to dive right into history, I guess it’s no wonder I took to making my own outfit from the era as my effort at remembering history. Besides being commemorative, our local art museum hosted an exhibit linked to the era of my outfit, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade”, and it gave me an actual destination to wear my historical garb. Their “photo opportunity wall” was the setting for many of our pictures. You see how I blend right in at a 1912 Millinery Parlor shop? Also, the newly released “Wonder Woman” movie, which has a WWI setting, was the final odd but added impetus behind making my suit set. My reasons are varied, but deeply rooted in the history that I love.
1912 to 1914 was a true transitional period of history and my outfit, as I planned it, intends to pay homage to this. 1912 is roughly the end of the Titanic era, in which fashion still gave a clear visual definition of who was in and who was out of money. 1914 marks the beginning of World War I and the founding steps towards democracy of fashion and greater freedom in many realms of life. I realize I am riding a fine line between pre-WWI and post WWI with my outfit but it has been two years in coming, and I couldn’t be happier with my first foray into both sewing and wearing teens era fashion! During those two years, my outfit has been well-researched, long thought out, and lovingly worked on for a while now. Most all of my details are tied to a historical fact. Now I feel as if I have a historical statement piece with a story to tell about the history Great War.
Of course the best way to place myself in the shoes of a woman from circa 1914 was to go all out and do my outfit authentically from the inside out. Yes this means the underwear, the corset and the whole bit! You can see my past post about the under layers here, although I have yet to post about the teens era slip I have since made to complete the underpinning ensemble. Without the right underpinnings my set did not have the right silhouette, nor did I have the correct posture, ahem. Wearing a long line corset does make me realize just what a no-slouching posture really is, and it makes me appreciate the comfort of actually sitting in a chair to relax, not just the dainty ‘perching’ that I do in my teens corset. Plus, it smoothes out all the ‘bumps’ that were undesired for the times, something which modern underwear only ‘supports’, if you know what I mean!
I believe this combo of blouse, jacket, and skirt (not forgetting the hat) is technically called a “walking suit” even though a slim hobble skirt is not the best for walking. Yet, I did not find this fashion as confining as many humorous cartoons (such as those by the satirist Benjamin Rabier) and other images make them out to be.
Circa 1914, the hobble skirt was widely worn, yet was being frequently and publically made fun of. Then there was Paul Poiret, who backtracked on what he claimed he created and introduced the freedom and progressiveness of harem pants. Jeanne Paquin, the first major female courtier, is supposed to have created a version of the hobble skirt which included pleats for ease of movement for the new, more active woman. My own skirt is a combo of Paquin and Poiret – it has a trio of asymmetric pleats that are stitched down halfway up to free up my knees. The world itself was fighting for the death of the skinny hobble skirt. Active women who become a part of the workings of society were sorely needed and anything whatever fashion stood in way of that was destined to depart. A suit such as mine was meant for a time in history when a woman of society was merely meant to be a figurehead and present an ideal image of her status. By 1914, such a suit set was in its last, glorious, waning sundown. Wearing this outfit was nothing too terribly uncomfortable, but it was a bit confining in its own right, which did take some getting used to. It helped me realize why the fashions of the 1920s came about.
When the newly enlisted soldiers left on the boats to go off to the Great War, many ladies wore their best “going away” clothes. Not only was it dressing up to see their men off, but it was also one last big splurge, or indulgence, before buckling down into rationing and a full-hearted war effort. I think this set certainly falls into the “going away” category! I had ideas for even more finery I could have added, like a pocket watch, extra pockets, and more buttons. I might get to that yet, but for now what I have is something finished and totally wearable.
The Great War had far-reaching implications on the previously active global import/export marketplace, thus there was an absence of much that had to do with the clothing, fashion, and textile industry. Imported dyes, which had been coming out of Germany, became rare thus leading to a more frequent wearing of black and neutrals. This is besides the fact that many people (especially mothers, wives, and sweethearts) were in mourning, anyway. My own outfit greatly reflects this historical point, by using primarily black and grey tones together with two neutral cream colors to calmly brighten things up.
The war effort also caused heavy rationing/unavailability of leather, wool, and cotton (which, among other materials, were going towards supplies such as uniforms and tents). Ladies had to wear more silks, with the occasional rayon blend (invented in 1910). Heavy rationing applied throughout many countries and America wasn’t excluded, but it did have situations a bit easier comparatively. Straw, with some linen, were also somewhat rationed, so substitutes from paper were invented in counties like Russia and Germany, and “Jean cloth” (yes, denim) was resorted to as a leisure cloth. At the beginning of the war, however, most walking suits still tended to be in “practical” and breathable pure linen. As I am in the USA, I felt it would be fitting for me (if I was living back then) to have such a set as mine in linen, lined in a very basic cotton. Non-war effort cottons like gingham and batiste were nonetheless used and still popular for housedresses, anyways. Many women who weren’t involved in manual, farm, or food related work were enlisted into the textile industries or assigned to convalescence and hospital needs sewing, so I imagine access to rationed fabric was not entirely off-limits for all women. Thus, my outfit is a mix of some fabrics and materials which would have been a luxury and some which would have been used for an authentic early war-time suit. Restrained opulence was common with early and mid WWI clothes (see this for one example) since – after all – old habits die hard. The Titanic era didn’t go down overnight like the famous ship did…
Asymmetric designs were incredibly popular at this point in fashion, being used on blouses, skirts, suits, and dresses for both day and evening – no doubt from the Art Nouveau influence. The asymmetric trend probably had to do with the ‘new’ draping of fabric on the body (Grecian idealism) for evening and tea gowns as well as an elegant and avant-garde desire to break away from the sweetness of the Edwardian period before. I wanted my suit set to have some asymmetric loveliness…I do love how the trend continued into the 1920s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s so strongly.
Even during WWI, common luxuries could frequently be taken with neck line collars, since they needed such a small amount of material. This is why my single asymmetric collar with matching sleeve cuffs are from an expensive, all-cotton, burnout velvet tapestry. My top collar is from the same fabric as my skirt to add continuity to the outfit, plus I see it as a practical, “making-do” touch to use up every last scrap!
“Making-do” was greatly encouraged in many aspects of life, more so when it came to fashion, especially when it came to hats. Headwear was a necessity that a lady would not do without and publications of the times stepped up to the need to show how homemade hats could be done easily, inexpensively, yet with a no less fashionable appearance. My own hat started out as an inexpensive, basic floppy-brimmed hat blank bought from Wal-Mart…of all places. (Pardon the pins in the picture at left – it was here a work-in-progress.) It is made of a thick 100% wool felt so it is an accurate and proper hat making material, just something that might have been an expensive luxury for 1914 – all the more reason a woman of those times would have re-fashioned it herself!
Feeling united with the war effort extended into the modes of fashion with many hats and clothing mid or late in WWI possessing details which had a very obvious, albeit past, military influence. Napoleonic Era hats were frequent, and I channeled the old-time tricorne hats with my own re-fashion (although I know it’s probably more 1917-ish to do this). My favorite part is how my hat looks so different from every angle it’s seen.
The top heavy, floral, opulent picture hats of the early teens were shrinking in size by the time the decade was nearing it midpoint. World War I nudged hats to become more compact, with many non-flower related decoration and interesting features to the brims. They were often trying to create more of a straight-line silhouette to the rest of an outfit…pretty much like my own hat does (especially thanks to the feathers)!
The overly frequent and outlandish use of birds on millinery in the decades leading up to WWI led to many protective steps to ensure the survival of many kinds of flying creatures, the most well-known being the founding of the Audubon society. At the turn of the century, the Audubon Society offered 5 public lectures on such topics as “Woman as a bird enemy”. In 1910, the Audubon Plumage Law reigned in extravagant millinery practices harmful to wildlife, which is why I’m using humane but no less elaborate pheasant feathers.
There are a few modern re-makes that I snuck in to help complete the overall outfit. Firstly, what you see under my suit jacket is more like the sensible and fully wearable option to the little neck dickies in the Butterick pattern. I am wearing a full blouse, something that is a modern re-make my mom bought for me maybe a decade ago. I am sure as fashionable as a woman of circa 1914 might have been, no doubt she would have appreciated the practical option of taking off her jacket, versus the façade of the neck-only dickies. My blouse has a hidden button placket up the front, which would have been in the back for a true-vintage piece, but this is undetectable enough to not detract from my overall authenticity. At my neck, I am wearing a “Downton Abbey” brand brooch I had bought from a Department store years back. I think it is the perfect touch! My glass bead earrings are from my Grandmother’s jewelry collection.
Finally, my boots are something that I found at Wal-mart (of all places) about 17 years back. They are only vinyl, yet they do have working grommet and hook closures plus a semi-French heel, so close enough is again wonderful. Not that I wouldn’t be willing to spend a bit of money to have my ideally perfect outfit…but when I have items ‘close enough’ on hand already, that’s even better because what I’ve been holding on to for years can get its long-awaited opportunity to be useful and shine.
FABRIC: Suit Jacket – 100% linen exterior and a cotton lining with a combo of cotton brocade and linen for the collars; Hobble Skirt – 100% linen; Hat – Wool felt hat blank
PATTERNS: Suit Jacket came from Butterick #6108, a 1912 pattern; the hobble skirt was made using a Past Pattern, a copy of a Pictorial Review #5462, circa 1911 to 1913; the hat was self-drafted from looking at era authentic fashion plates and photos
NOTIONS: Surprisingly, much of what I needed came from on hand, as it needed not all that odd of supplies. I went through lots and lots of thread (of course), and I covered most all the inner seams of the jacket in bias tape. The skirt’s inner waistband has a ribbon from my stash, and hook-and-eye tape (which I always try to keep on hand) goes in the side closure. Vintage fancy buttons for the skirt pleats look as if they could be authentic jet, but they’re only deceptive plastic. They came from the stash of my dear departed Grandmother. Cotton interfacing (another vintage notion I always try to keep on hand) went into the collars and sleeve cuffs. The only notions I had to buy was the frog closures for the jacket, the pheasant feathers (from Hobby Lobby), and the hemp ribbon (found at the Dollar Store).
TIME TO COMPLETE: The skirt was made first, and was finished on March 28, 2017, after only 8 hours. The jacket was done on April 20, 2017, after only 20 hours. The hat was made on April 21, after only an hour or two.
THE INSIDES: I finished everything so nicely in bias tape.
TOTAL COST: The linen for the jacket exterior was made from a combo of one vintage tablecloth (found at rummage sale for $1) and a one yard cut of linen bought at Wal-Mart about 17 years back (old enough to be counted as free). The cotton jacket lining was on sale at Jo Ann’s Fabrics for $2 a yard at 4 ½ yards (about $9). The damask collar was $10 for half of a yard (coming from the expensive home furnishings section) and the grey toned linen for the skirt and single jacket collar was also only $2 a yard, bought when Hancock Fabrics was closing its business ($4 for only 2 yards). The frog closures actually came from the button section, and so were a bit more expensive. The supplies for the hats cost me a total of only $20. So…added up, this outfit is a total of about $50. Not a bad price for not cutting any corners with what I wanted!
As to the actual sewing, each piece really easily came together. Making each was no harder than regular sewing and, when I think about it, actually more fun and informative! The biggest challenge to making this set was the fact that I had to put on all the appropriate matching under layers (meaning the underwear combo, corset, slip, and blouse) each time I wanted to try on my suit jacket and skirt, see if they fit, and tailor them appropriately. If I was going to do what a woman of those time would have done, fitting the suit to any other shape would have been pointless – a modern shape has too many buldges. This caveat was not all that bad as it sounds. Sure it was a bit of a bother, I was dedicated. You know, the best part is it got me used to dressing into and wearing the Titanic era garments, so much so that it was not all that odd when I actually got around to wearing the full outfit out and about in public.
I found the fit of both patterns to be at generous. The skirt pattern ran a few inches big and I had to make a giant pleat/tuck kind of adaptation down the center back as a fix, while the jacket was just a tad generous so I went down in size to find my perfect fit. Other than this tip, my two garments needed no other change and were made as-is. The skirt needed a giant 8 inch hem, but the wide hem helped properly which down and round out the bottom like interfacing. Keep in mind that the teens era skirts have longer backs than fronts as the corsets were designed to smooth out the bum and back curve so they naturally sat higher from behind. As I am quite skinny in my corset, I had to even out the hem, anyway. The jacket sleeves were slightly brought closer into the armpit for more reach room – and yes, I do have full and comfortable movement! I suppose I could have shortened the sleeves for my lightly petite frame, but they’re ok. I did add a ribbon closure inside the jacket to help keep the wide open neckline closed better, with a small hidden hook-and-eye at the point where the asymmetric collar ends.
My biggest shortcut to sewing the jacket was to line each ivory linen jacket piece with the black lining. I didn’t want any seam allowances showing through the light colored linen. Backing the pieces in the back knocked out ‘two birds with one stone’ by providing opacity and lining. I just then finished off the seam edges with bias tape and top-stitched them down in their proper directions. Not the best way, I know, but it gets the job done almost just as nicely yet quicker. I do not like to take more time than is reasonable on an outfit that will not see all that much wearing.
(I’d like to title this next picture, “Hello ladies, may we chat?”)
I originally planned on a fully hand-made, from scratch millinery creation for the hat to match my outfit, but I was running short on time before the event I was to attend. This is why I re-fashioned a hat. The wonderful Tanith Rowan (blog here) was of assistance to be at this step, and even provided a few helpful links to free newspaper archives for some awesome yet relatively easy patterns from 1912 and 1913. I have plans for those hats yet on another future teens era project, but for now I think this hat is just what my outfit needed. No kidding – my set was “meh” or even “good” but still missing something until I put the hat on and it turned into amazing! The power of hats is truly underrated. They add so much to an outfit and a person…and with a hat like this, it can even add height when you have dramatic feathers!
If you’ve made it this far reading, thank you for joining me on my tirade about my efforts to make the perfect World War I commemorative outfit. I have a special Pinterest board dedicated to my inspiration for this project – please visit it here.
So much of what has happened in the past is linked to why things are how they are in the present and clothing can be used as a tool to help tell such a story. I like to share how my sewing skills help me accomplish that. Look for more (and perhaps less involved) WWI era and older historical clothes to come here on my blog!