Turning into an “Alley Cat”

In my list of favorite designers held in high esteem, there are many which I know are inaccessible – I will probably never wear or own an original by them and only experience their creations in a museum.  Then, I have another list of top favorite designers that are exciting in an attainable way because I do own original pieces from them.  Betsey Johnson is at the top of the latter list…I have three of her vintage inspired silk dresses from the 90’s and 2000 era.  I adored her clothing styles as a teenager!  Wishing to understand more of her career after all these years, though, I am thrilled to have finally sewed up my own Betsey Johnson dress which hails from her rise to fame under the “Alley Cat” line.  This dress is from an important year in her history – 1971, the year Johnson received the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award.

In Betsey Johnson ads from the early 1970s (such as this one), these dresses are labelled as the “frontier-look”, but her spin on such old-fashioned style has a sleek look and stylish edge.  Even though there is almost 4 yards of fabric in this dress, I am miraculously not swallowed up in frills and gathers.  Instead, I feel slim in the way it has first-rate shaping and smart details that show off the body.  This dress lacks the homeliness of the normal prairie dress with its 1970s era youth oriented trendiness.  All these points help my dress be very wearable by being versatile, something which is a classic trait for Betsey Johnson’s clothing.  This dress can be sweet and simple (the way I styled it), but when paired with my 70’s boots, different jewelry, and bold makeup, I have found it can lean more on the punk side, an influence that Betsey Johnson preferred.  Her fashion offerings – at their core – was about a punk inspired spirit of rebellion…wearing what you want, how you want, and not being afraid to show both the pretty and the gritty side of being a girl. 

Even though this dress and its fabric – both being from the 1970s – makes my garment vintage in its own right, the way it turned out would make me think it was a modern “cottage core” dress loosely inspired by vintage.  The prestigious FIDM museum says, “Johnson designed vintage-inspired prairie dresses with small floral prints.”  I stayed true to that but it turned out so fresh, I was happily surprised by that.  More so, however, I wanted to show how Betsey Johnson had an alternative means of ‘rocking’ (literally, she was popular with the pop music culture of the era) the prairie trend differently than her contemporaries for such style, the fellow American Jessica McClintock (of the 80’s Gunne Sax, see my version here) or the British Laura Ashley.  I think I found that sweet spot of interpreting Betsey Johnson’s unique style to bring my own Alley Cat to life!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  two 100% cotton prints from 1970s (or possibly early 1980s); there was 3 ½ yards of the overall dress floral and ¾ yard of the contrast floral

PATTERN:  Butterick #6531, year 1971, an original vintage pattern from my personal collection

NOTIONS NEEDED:  one 22” long zipper, some bias tape, and lots of thread – that’s it!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress came together quickly in about 15 hours of sewing and was finished at the end of October 2022.

THE INSIDES:  These cottons are fairly densely woven, so they really don’t unravel much (I can tell by the way the raw ends didn’t unravel when I washed the fabric before cutting). I simply zig-zag stitched over the raw ends inside.

TOTAL COST:  this dress was as good as almost free, since the notions I needed were on hand from my Grandmother’s stash and the cotton fabrics came from a large box of 50-something assorted vintage fabrics I bought for $10 from an antique shop. 

I spent just as much time doing preliminary preparation – tracing the pattern, sizing it up to fit me, and then cutting it out – as I did actually sewing the dress together.  Betsey Johnson’s offerings were geared to the juniors and teens market, so much so that even for those styles which are in ‘adult’ sizing (such as the dresses I have from the 90’s) are still tailored for someone short-waisted in smaller sizes.  In vintage Betsey Johnson pieces, the most commonly found ready-to-wear size is 2 through 6, and they run a size smaller than listed.  All this works for me because I am still close to my teen years’ sizing and also borderline petite, but I know this limits many women from wearing her designs.  The opportunity of having Betsey Johnson’s designs in commercial patterns opens a big door of inclusiveness by making them available for ladies of all sizes…as long as you know how to grade!  The sizing chart on the back of my pattern shows that it wasn’t offered above a size 12, equivalent to a size 6 today.  My Betsey Johnson dresses are size 4 and 6 but they fit (snugly) thanks in part to being on the bias cut.  This dress pattern is laid out on the straight grain and I did not want this to be as tight fitting, being cut in a cotton and not a silk like my other dresses.  Thus, I had to dedicate some good time to fully adjust the pattern before I could dive into sewing.

I kept in mind the sizing trend of my existing Betsey Johnson dresses and came into this project half-expecting the same from this Butterick pattern even though it was in what appeared to be the brand’s ‘normal’ adult sizing looking at the envelope chart.  However, everything I was seeing from all the measurements I was taking from off of the pattern pieces told me this was a real-deal Betsey Johnson design…I was ecstatic!  So, I graded the pattern up with an extra inch bigger than what I needed and kept the petite proportions.  It turned out just as I expected, true to Betsey Johnson sizing, and fit me perfectly with no adjustments needed (beyond what I added into the pattern pieces).  This is one of the first clear examples I have found of a commercial pattern deviating from its company line of sizing to keep the designer’s sizing model instead.  This makes me super happy because it tells me this is a true designer pattern, not one that has been altered by Butterick to bow to their guidelines. I have yet not found such designer individuality with any Vogue brand designer patterns.  This heads-up knowledge of what sizing to expect was only possible because I had the opportunity to experience the clothes from this designer.  There is a special sewing related benefit to (as I mentioned above) enjoying those designers you find that are accessible and appealing to you.  It here paid off to be a “Betsey girl”!

My chosen two cotton fabric prints are a wonderful combination that do not match yet also complement one another just enough to actually go together.  I successfully figured out how to do this with my Gunne Sax dress…which also happened to be blue printed cottons, I know.  I was aware that I could end up being overly repetitive with this dress.  Thus, I used smaller all-over floral prints with a variation on the same colors.  The busier, smaller print on the side bodice panels and the sleeves was an already hacked up remnant that someone previously had cut several pieces from before I got the fabric.  Thus, even though I say the remnant was ¾ yard, actual usable space was much smaller and I just eked out the pattern pieces I wanted.  Up close, this contrast print is in triangles of tiny flowers, much like a faux ‘quilt’ paneling.  It adds to the low-key prairie flair of the dress.  The main floral has cheerful colors of coral pinks, blues, and tints of yellow in loosely thrown bouquets.  The blue of the berries in the main fabric print are much brighter in color than our pictures captured, and I had hoped my retro style wedges (Re-mix “holiday” shoes) would have brought out some of that tone.  The shoes happened to match what was drawn on the envelope cover’s model for the view C that I went with for my version!

Many of Betsey Johnson dresses from the 1980s and newer were made of flowing silks and polyester satins, but many of her prairie and kitsch inspired garments from the 1970s seemed to be in cotton.  The envelope back called for me to use “crisp fabric” or “soft fabric”…huh?  This was a confusing either-this-or-that choice, so I went for a bit of both.  Modern cottons are too stiff to be ideal, which is why I was thrilled to use this vintage cotton – it is luxuriously soft, lofty, and flowing.  At the same time, the fabric has enough body to let the gathered fluttery sleeves have their own definition.  Yet again, I find that vintage does fashion the smart and fun way! 

Several of the other fabric options for this pattern were crepe, voile, and – the most significant mention – knits.  Betsey Johnson was involved in dance school growing up, and she and her mom would sew the stretchy body suit costumes for her performances…fueling both her creative mind and her sewing talent from a young age.  Later, in 1964, Betsey Johnson had her first designing success by making velvet trimmed “sweaters that hug the body” with a batch of crocheted fabric she acquired (as she relates in her memoir book, “Betsey”).  Johnson at that time was in her early twenties and a “guest editor” of Mademoiselle Magazine, working in the fabrics department.  She had landed her role at the magazine by winning its summer scholarship contest.  Her first step into selling her designs was initially about survival because she needed rent money to supplement her editorial job but her little tops became popular and Betsey loved the opportunity to stretch her wings.  Thus, it’s no wonder the patterns she did for Butterick in the early 1970s (under the “Alley Cat” brand, when she was creative director there between ‘70 and ‘74) all either mention or prefer stretchy woven, sweater knit, or jersey material as a fabric choice since it was her first sewing experience. 

Knit fabric in a plaid or funky print is very much a Betsey Johnson thing and it was tempting to try as I had just the thing on hand!  However, as there are more than 3 yards in my dress, I was afraid a knit would have made it hang rather than float romantically.  This exact dress design was featured in the January 1972 edition of Seventeen magazine, along with several of the other views from the pattern I used as well as Betsey’s other Butterick offerings.  In the advertisement text, which can be viewed thanks to ”Gold Country Girls” blog (page here), it is hinted that Wyeth paintings were Betsey’s inspiration behind this dress design and magazine’s photo shoot, so I think using anything other than a dense but lightweight knit would have defeated her ideal here.  Ah, see – here I go diving headfirst into every aesthetic detail.  After years of admiring her brand, I love realizing just how this pattern completely sucked me into the joy of manifesting my own personal interpretation of Betsey Johnson’s style.  Her Alley Cat line was before my time, after all, so this is different than the Betsey Johnson I grew up with…but it is no less welcome!  Visit my Pinterest board here to see more Betsey Johnson ads, patterns, and clothing from her pre-1990s era.

My only small regret to my dress is the way the fine details and design lines get lost in the print.  I am a big fan of how the waistline comes up to ride the top of my hips at the sides but dips down low for both the center front and back.  It is a beautiful design that is interesting and makes for great ease of movement.  It also seems to be a popular feature for Betsey Johnson because she reused this same undulating waistline on her other Butterick patterns (no. 6536 and no. 6529, as well as no. 3292) as well as many of her ready-to-wear dresses.  This style of waistline pairs perfectly with the different layout of gathered waist where it is only gathered in at the center back and front.  With the sides being kept smooth, this really creates a slimming silhouette that I am obsessed over.  My hips are big enough the way it is and the combination of princess seaming in torso, dropped waist, and controlled skirt gathers all help me feel that I have lot a few pounds (even if only in appearance).  Any dress which can do that is a winner.  Usually teenager’s clothing does not simultaneously work well for a grown woman’s style, but Betsy Johnson has found a way around that.

My sole slight change to the pattern was to adjust the neckline.  I raised the dip of the front scoop neck by about 5/8 inch and eliminated the facings.  I love the simplicity and smoothness to a bias finished neckline, so I went for that instead.  Bias tape does tight curves so well, especially when sewn on with a tiny seam allowance that needs no clipping, and is much less fussy than facings.  After all, Alley Cat garments were meant to be bare-bones and not high end.  This was so that her intended market of urban teens and juniors from big cities (like New York or L.A.) would find them “reasonably priced” (yet Betsey’s “always under $100” garments equal about $750 dollars today).  Imitating the finishing of a 1970s Betsey Johnson dress gave me an excuse to do machine made top stitching and basic finished seams inside (I’ve been doing a lot of nice hand stitched projects lately).  Her 1990s and 2000 era silk dresses in my wardrobe are much finer in French seams and full linings, but this “frontier frock” was the perfect way to have an easy-to-make project for myself.

This dress may not be a knockout, but it is fun and ultimately comfortable with a great fit.  I thoroughly enjoyed everything related to the creation of this dress more than I show because this was an especially personal challenge.  It pushed me to add an alternate appreciation to what I thought I knew about a designer I have already admire and respect.  Every backstory to a designer’s history tells so much about why and what they did later in their life.  For all the fame designers can garner, they are just like any other human being who deserves empathy and appreciation, after all.  So I hope this post inspires you to take a look at Betsey Johnson and realize there is so much more to the “frontier look” than you may have realized.  Perhaps her style speaks to you, like it does to me? 

Kelly’s Button Bonanza

A ground level view of my version of a Patrick Kelly dress…

Anyone who shares my name of Kelly is of course going to immediately pique my curiosity.  I have already channeled the royal actress Grace Kelly a few times (both here and here), so it was high time to dive into the history of another famous namesake.  Patrick Kelly has already been a designer I have greatly respected, admired, and been interested in.  Then, press for the current costume exhibit “Runway of Love”, presenting his life and designs, has recently brought him anew into my thoughts.  However, it was also my desire to do something worthwhile with an old dress of mine that ultimately drove me deeper in a renewed understanding of just how deserved is the renown given to Patrick Kelly. 

In his honor, I gravitated towards Patrick Kelly’s penchant for using a plethora of buttons to up-cycle a ready-to-wear black knit dress that has been sitting in my wardrobe, unloved and unworn for over a decade.  One way to understand someone is to actively put yourself in their place.  I tried to do that (in a lesser degree) by working with over 100 varied buttons to find a taste of Patrick Kelly’s joy and creativity, as well as comprehend his talent.  The resulting “new-and-improved” little black dress is my own interpretation of his vision, nevertheless, not a copy of anything Patrick Kelly made.

It’s raining down buttons on the designer Patrick Kelly in this picture!

Patrick Kelly was born on September 24, 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  As a black man growing up in the Southern states of America, he fought through his life’s setbacks, his surrounding society’s prejudices, and the partiality practiced in the fashion design world.  Eventually, he made his way to Paris with the help of his friendship with the supermodel Pat Cleveland.  In 1988, he became the 1st American inducted to the “Chambre Syndicale”, a prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry that determines which fashion design houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses.  Most people know the names of other members to the Syndicale – Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy to list just a few.  However, as an American myself, I am painfully aware of the fact that Patrick Kelly is not as collectively well-known as his fellow designer counterparts, so I am personally doing something here to help make up for that!  I love that he succeeded by being determined and dedicated to his creative vision.  It is commendable how he stayed true to himself and his simple upbringing at the same time, not changing for the sake of climbing that ladder of fame.  Patrick Kelly had a uniquely joyous personality that shines through to his exuberant designs.  He epitomizes the garish fashions of the 1980s, but in the best way possible because he was celebrating his roots, the beauty of all women, and the happiness of living.  He died young at age 35 on New Year’s Day 1990.    

Fall-Winter 1986-1987, Patrick Kelly collection, from “Runway of Love” exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco

Patrick Kelly helps me see what it means “to sew” in a whole new light.  He personally was not skilled at garment construction, and struggled with a sewing machine to the point that he threw his appliance out his apartment window in frustration one day.  Yet, from a young age, Kelly’s aunt instilled in him the basic hand sewing skills he needed to mend, repair, and provide basic garment upkeep.  His Grandma, who helped raise him after his father died, inspired him by the way she would always replace his missing shirt buttons with mismatched, multicolored buttons from her notions box.  He never forgot to appreciate his childhood memories.  After moving to Atlanta, Georgia through the 1970s to attend fashion design school, Kelly supported himself by working at an AMVETS thrift shop.  He soon began selling his first creations which were vintage and secondhand garments from the store that he upcycled, refashioned, or added decorative notions (found lost on the floors at the thrift shop) to transform into something uniquely one-of-a-kind.  

1986 – Patrick Kelly, sleeveless black knit dress with button bustier

Why is it that the sewing culture of today acts as if this practice of re-working existing items is merely an on-trend thing to do for thriftiness, personal enjoyment, or social consciousness?  Why isn’t it expressly clear to the general mainstream public that such a practice reached the level of official French couture only 40 years ago and therefore deserves a higher level of regard than it currently has?!  This isn’t even addressing the fact that you don’t even need a machine or anything other than basic mending skills to do a Patrick Kelly dress, thus challenging the very ideas of sewing stereotypes.  Yes, sewing is more than just a skill, he has shown how it is also self-confidence, perseverance, ingenuity, and (most importantly) joy in the process.

Thus, to create his preliminary ‘brand’ image in the 80’s, Patrick Kelly utilized what he could do, what inspired him, and what was immediately available to create something amazing.  Using knit tube dresses as his canvas blanks, he worked with something that is so commonplace – buttons – people can all immediately relate to his designs more than most other pieces from couture houses.  Yet, at the same time he elevated buttons on garments into an awe inspiring art form.  Such a technique may look simple to replicate, but like most really good garments, there is a highly challenging level of execution hiding under the guise of effortlessness.  I can vouch for this truth, just from the small scale button project that I attempted for myself!

To start with, my dress is more complicated than the seamless knit tubes that Patrick Kelly would work with, so I had to be adaptive enough to make my button placement different.  Every time I attempt to imitate something that has been made by a designer, my version has to be my own twist out of respect to the unique genius of each one of us.  I am not convinced by the “imitation is a form of flattery” phrase and rather prefer to believe that tapping into one’s individuality is the best tribute.  The design lines to my dress prevented the possibility of any buttons being added across the entire dress body, as many Patrick Kelly designs have.  Thus, I internalized my inner artist to feel out a way to display the buttons on my dress in a way that makes my own imaginative statement…but more on that later.  Right now, let’s dive into the how to sew on 130 individual buttons, and not the why!

My dress has a basic bodice, which joins to a wiggle skirt, pleated in at the high waistline.  It is a comfy piece that still fit me perfectly (and had pockets, too) so I felt it was worth saving.  Just the very fact I was looking for something to do with my black dress, immediately led me to think of Patrick Kelly…and there was a mixed mega bag of assorted buttons at my local fabric store which has been calling to me like a siren’s call ever since I noticed it there.  Yes, I felt bad that I was buying a new bag of buttons when there are so many large canning jars full of various vintage buttons at all the local thrift and antique stores.  I felt guilty that I was not approaching this refashion the way Patrick Kelly would have.  However, none of the button jars I came across were a colorful enough assortment for my creative vision.   

A close-up to the front neckline of my dress. See how I changed up the ways of sewing down a button?

To channel the spirit of Patrick Kelly’s works, it is important to go big and bold, choosing the brightest shades to create a true statement piece. Thus, I chose to buy two “Big Bag of Buttons” packs from “Favorite Findings”, which has an assorted mix of sizes, opacity, finish, and colors to offer.  I chose the color way that struck me as an almost neon blend of a lime green, sunshine yellow, hot pink, fresh orange, and a bright blue.  To have this burst of lively color pop off of a dark inky black background reminds me of the way Patrick Kelly wanted to be someone who could make people smile through their troubles.  He once said “There’s so much sadness in the world. And if you can stick a button on something or funny hat, I’m the one for you. I hope when they (people) think about me, they think of being happy.”    

I can’t get enough of the beautiful array of buttons I added on my dress!

Finding and choosing just one layout to settle on for decorating my dress with the plethora of buttons was an agonizing process.  I had so many different ideas I wanted to commit to, at this rate I could do plenty more Patrick Kelly inspired button dresses of my own!  Anyways, once I settled upon one idea, I laid out as many buttons as I could the way I wanted them, traced around them with tailors chalk, an then moved them out onto the floor next to my dress in the exact same lay out.  Sounds easy, right?  Not really.  It is easy to get confused when trying to match what is on the floor back onto my dress.  I took lots of quick phone pictures to help me remember the button placement along the way and sew in a way close to my original idea.  The whole process was so time consuming, needing complete mental focus. 

I quickly discovered that I had to sew one button on at a time.  At first I thought I could interlace the buttons to make the process smoother.  However, I quickly realized I had to tie each one off separately because the fabric is a knit, thus needing to stretch unconfined in between all the buttons.  Trying to remember to keep the spacing and the layout, see the chalk marks that faded with every touch, and figure out placement in between sewing every button was exhausting.  Then, keeping the entire household away from the area of the floor where I was working was stressful…if anyone kicked the buttons around, I was ruined.  This dress has definitely been the top craziest thing I have done amongst my sewing projects.  I am really curious how Patrick Kelly dresses’ insides look because I wonder if he had a better way to do this, or had some quick trick that I haven’t thought of.  Slowly seeing the design come together with every button group I sewed on was the only saving grace that gave me both hope and patience to finish this project idea. 

The buttons on the front and back skirt took me a total of 8 hours to sew onto the dress, while the neckline buttons took me almost 4 hours, for an overall total of almost 13 hours.  Whew!  This is what I was talking about when I said (above) that it may look like these kind of dresses are easy, but it’s a real eye opener to try one out for yourself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “There is more than meets the eye” are some adages that can apply perfectly to a Patrick Kelly dress, even if only talking about a paltry imitation by a home sewist like myself! 

As interesting as this dress was to refashion, it is also very interesting to wear.  Having that many buttons, even if only lightweight plastic, really does add substantial weight to the dress.  Each button pack was almost 4 ounces alone, and I used two packs.  That is half of a pound in added button weight!  I am really thankful that my base dress’ knit fabric was a thick, stable knit.  I half-heartedly thought to myself, at the outset of this project idea, that the hefty weight of the knit would hold the buttons well, but I did not realize how important having a thicker knit would be until all the buttons were sewn on.  Also, I was surprised to discover that all the knots inside the dress from where I tied off all the buttons can become slightly bothersome the longer the dress is worn.  I now wish I would have tied off the ends from the right side of the dress, under the buttons.  This issue is mostly resolved by wearing a full slip underneath the dress, but it is a point worth noting.  Finally, to hear how the buttons click together and jangle when I wear the dress is entertaining enough to make me chuckle under my breath.  It is almost like a dull chiming music for me to move, sit, or walk in my dress.  This is the most surprising effect, and one that I really enjoy.  In all this dress, has been a project chock full of surprises and curious discoveries.

Patrick Kelly designs – Woman’s Ensemble Coat and Dresses, fall-winter 1986

I wonder if these interesting ‘side effects’ are not unique to my imitation dress but also something shared by a true Patrick Kelly button garment.  Since he often worked with older vintage buttons, many of which are metal or shell, I can imagine that his dresses were even heavier than my plastic button dress.  I expect his button dresses (as he was an official couture house) to not have the harsh knots inside, as mine does…but who knows, though!  The insides of a garment tell its full story, and couture of the past often is relegated to museum collections, thus it is hard to actually be able for a curious sewist like me to discover the details found in the guts at an up-close, personal setting.  I have been looking for pictures online from listings of Patrick Kelly dresses for sale, but not many of his button creations seem to be found for sale, and neither do those listings have images of the inner garment workings.  Some things from the designer world are best left a mystery, after all, I suppose.

The artistic vision behind the placement and color choice of the buttons on my dress is supposed to call to mind the life giving symbiotic relationship of the sun and the rain.  My neckline has the ‘water’ in the blue color that trickles down in drips that fade from green to clear yellow by being touched by the sun.  The rays which stretch out from my bottom left skirt hem corner reach out towards the rain, and filter between the classic colors chosen to represent the sun – orange and yellow – and the pink…like a beautiful early morning sunrise.  Is there anything more enlivening than watching the dawn of a new day touch the wet morning dew? 

My photo location’s wall mural is a tribute to the 1980s culture.  It is has classic mid 80s computer gaming references that only those in the know will recognize.  I love that here is a giant figure of Link, the protagonist of Nintendo‘s video game franchise The Legend of Zelda.  The game dates to 1986, the same year for the Patrick Kelly button dress that were my primary inspiration!  I love how the wall mural brings out the colors in my dress, as well as referencing the way Patrick Kelly was a mixed media artist on the side.  He always began a runway show with a can of paint to spray a quick little artistic message on the back wall.

National Sewing Month (September) may be over now, but I have not yet moved on from the reflections and revelations I had in the spirit of such a dedication.  If speaking about physical project production, September is never really anything different for me because sewing is a part of my life on a regular basis.  However, celebrating such a dedication for the month prompts me to at least think back on what I have made and celebrate my achievements.  Most importantly, however, I like to reconsider the why, the what, and the ideology behind sewing.  In this quest, I have happily discovered a new appreciation for a designer I have known of but never previously thoroughly educated myself on – the great Patrick Kelly.  To me, his life and his triumphs are not just inspirational on their own apart from the fashion world, but they are also the epitome of what sewing is all about.  Please look through the pictures and explore the site links to be found on my “Patrick Kelly” Pinterest page for more on his life and his work!   

Sunshine Linen and Silken Flowers

Excuse the lack of new posts recently but an extended weekend trip to Chicago has eaten away at my free time for blogging.  However, you know what a trip away for home means for me?  New outfits were sewn!  This equates to fresh new material to share on my blog for you to enjoy!  Here is the most recent outfit project hot off my sewing machine – a summer silk hooded blouse from the 1990s and a linen early 1940s Clotilde brand jumper dress.  I couldn’t have wanted a better set to wear for enjoying my day in cheery, luxurious comfort and style.

I have learned from many visits to Chicago’s surrounding Lake Michigan beaches that not all beaches are equally temperate.  I find Chicago’s beaches to be pleasant and enjoyable to be sure, but quite windy with a cool breeze and not as warm as a Florida beach.  Lake Michigan has water that can feel like it’s refrigerated, even in the summer!  From previous visits to Chicago, I knew what to expect and mentally pictured exactly what was needed out of my outfit for our day at the beach.  I’m happy to report, my set was every bit as wonderful as I had anticipated! 

When 1940s meets the 1990s things are bound to get interesting!  All my garments are in lightweight, soft and breathable fabrics which kept the wind and the sun from turning me into a crisp.  The color scheme is richly saturated and elegantly cheerful.  The fiber content is natural and sustainable in linen blended with rayon, and silk with coconut buttons, all finished using vintage notions.  The styling is versatile and unexpected, which I love, with a fluid vintage vibe which is also timeless.  Having a hood handy kept my hair tamed for beach time or when we drove our convertible car through downtown Chicago with the top down.  I love an outfit that has some good eye-catching features with lovely tactile qualities.

I paired my me-made items with a 20-something old RTW cotton stretch tee as my base layer under the jumper dress this time.  However, the billowy blouse included in with my jumper dress’ Clotilde pattern strongly reminds me of the 40’s chiffon blouse I made to wear with these 1991 NY NY “The Collection” McCall’s trousers.  If you visit that post, you’ll see that this is not the first time I’ve combined the WWII era with the age of the Internet. 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a linen and rayon blend for the jumper dress and an all silk satin for the blouse

PATTERNS:  Clotilde sewing pattern #3559, estimated to be from the spring season of 1942, and McCall’s NYNY “The Collection” #5640 from January 1991

NOTIONS NEEDED:  thread and a bit of interfacing (I used the cotton iron-on), bias tape as well as one vintage 1950s era metal zipper for the jumper dress, some vintage rayon hem tape for the blouse, and finally a pack of coconut buttons from my local JoAnn fabric store

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse and the jumper together were a combined time of 16 hours and were finished at the end of this month of May (just before our trip) 2022

THE INSIDES:  All French seams for the hooded blouse and bias bound edges in the jumper

TOTAL COST:  Both fabrics are from my local JoAnn Fabric store, but only the linen blend is still currently in stock.  The silk was something I found many years back now when they sold limited amount of fine fabrics in the physical stores and not just online.  It was on deep discount being as it was a one yard remnant of something the store no longer wanted to carry.  My entire outfit all together cost me under $40.

Clotilde patterns, such as this one, were often for what was considered the average woman (not talking about body size average) or for the on-the-go teenage girl.  I have noticed that Clotilde patterns through the 30’s and 40’s were often knock-offs of small designers or downgraded versions of Paris fashions for the woman who wanted a practical taste of the current styles.  They were pitched in ad write-ups as easy-to-make (especially when they offered a line of notions and haberdashery to match) with design details to make them appealing enough to have an edge on the market.  The company began offering patterns circa 1925, continuing to do so through the 1960s, and expanded to become a giant in the sewing catalog industry for many years.  Ms. Clotilde passed away in November of 2011 and the Company was sold to become “Annie’s Quilt and Sew Catalog”. 

Seeing as my Clotilde pattern was ordered through The Chicago Tribune newspaper, I researched through an archival site for that publication and was able to pin this design down to somewhere between the fall of 1941 and the spring season of 1942.  As this pattern’s blouse is so similar to the sheer bishop sleeved one I already made (posted here, also intended to be paired under a jumper dress), I am leaning towards thinking both share a date of early 1942.  Jumper dresses – intended to be worn over a blouse or top of some sort – were incredibly popular offerings through the mail order sewing pattern companies of 1941 to 1942, mostly tailoring their appeal for teenagers but also for young adult women.  Jumpers are so good for beach time because it is easy to hide some shorts underneath, he he.  This jumper has a very pre-WWII influence with the full skirt with a longer mid-calf length.  Even still, it required just over a full two yards of material.

This jumper was simple and quick to make – except for the double sets of ties I had to make (I hate sewing them).  Yet, as is the normal “quirk” I find for vintage unprinted mail order patterns, I had just a bit of trouble getting this finished.  I correctly predicted it ran a tad roomy, as many old unprinted mail order patterns do.  This sizing generally worked in my favor because I took advantage of it to do a modern 5/8” seam allowance.  Even still, some of the quality to the pattern drafting was lacking, as is another normal “quirk” for many old mail order patterns.  I had to taper in the side seams smaller up to almost 2 inches on each side, only from the top edge down to the hips.  Luckily, I had greatly simplified the design so that the fitting efforts I had to do didn’t really set me back.  The biggest change to the original design was that I eliminated the back button placket closure and opted to lay that pattern piece out on the fold for a smooth, seamless look.  A vintage metal zipper was installed in the left side seam instead. 

The pattern gave little to no direction as to where to place and button the shoulder straps.  Mysteriously missing markings are another frequent occurrence to old unprinted mail order patterns.  I guess it is obvious from looking at the original design that I simplified the shoulder straps by leaving out the ruffles to them.  I pared things down to the basics even more by merely stitching the straps down to the jumper dress edge.  Why bother to make them adjustable when the pattern didn’t help me out and I’d have to figure all the buttonhole settings out myself?  The waist ties already add a level of fussiness to the style so stitching down the straps helped keep my travel wardrobe simple.  However, the pattern did call for ridiculously simple bias strip edge finishing.  I knew this design needed something more stable along the top edge, so I drafted together my own interfaced facing for the bodice.  It was two steps forward and one back during the construction process, but this was not intended to be a perfectly fitted garment…so all is well that ended well! 

The loose fit is sort of a design element based on the fact that there are waist ties to pull in the fit on this jumper dress.  I love how they are like little pointed arrows that sit at the waistline where they are top stitched down.  They help to visually slim the silhouette.  To gather in and control some of the center back waistline fullness, I stitched in a strip of ¼ inch wide elastic to the inside.  I picked a 3 inch horizontal segment at the waistline and sewed it into a 1 inch length of elastic, shirring the difference into gathers.  This was not part of the pattern but my own addition.  I also finished off the tie edges with a hand sewn buttonhole stitch for a little bit of a fine touch. 

My hooded summer blouse pattern is by far the standout piece to this outfit.  It is from my favorite NY NY “The Collection” line of McCall’s designer patterns which stretched between the late 1980s and the early 2000’s.  This will have been the seventh NY NY “The Collection” McCall’s item I have sewn.  There is a lot going for #5640 with lots of options to each and every item it offers so that an entire wardrobe of separates could be sewn of this one pattern.  The hooded blouse has the option of instead being sewn up as a wing collar and was originally supposed to be long sleeved.  How could I pass up something as uniquely amazing as a hood blouse, though!?  My amazing silk satin was just begging to me to be used to full dramatic effect and this design hit my creative happy place. 

Such items as hooded dresses or blouses were popular in the 1930s and 40’s for evening wear or resort occasions and now are rarities that sell for big money in the current vintage market.  Fashion designer houses of Valentino, Givenchy, Max & Moi, as well as Aurora De Matteis all offer their own silk satin hooded blouses today.   If I ever start my own business of offering couture finish custom-made ready-to-wear (not promising it will ever happen, though), a summer hooded silk blouse like the one in this post would be included in my collection.  It is amazing to wear and truly a useful statement piece.

As I only had one yard of silk to work with for the hooded blouse, I overhauled the design to accommodate both my shortage of material and desire to personalize this amazing design for myself.  The oversized print needed minimal seams so as to not disturb it.  This was perfect for that because there are no darts or tucks, and the entire shirt is made of only three pattern pieces.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The hood was configured to be cut on with the blouse fronts – a one piece design!  So cool, right?

The original pattern called for the front center but, as you can see, I altered this idea.  It was intended to be a pullover top with a generous box pleat giving room across the one-piece front between the buttons and buttonholes which were to be worked onto the folded edges.  I was not doing this plan with my reiteration, which has an open front like any other blouse.  It is more versatile to me this way.  I can tie the waistline together to cinch the boxy, oversized silhouette in and keep it from flying around in the breeze like a flag.  I can still let my outfit underneath be visible, too, if I keep the blouse unbuttoned.  I don’t have to risk messing up my hair or smudging the blouse with makeup by having it be a pullover.  A hoodie is one piece, and that to me becomes more like a jacket.  I wanted a hooded blouse and adapted the pattern to be such.  However, it is loose fitting and rather makes a better overblouse anyways than being worn on its own.

My silk satin was so luxurious like insubstantial butter and a cooling delight to touch…I wish you could reach through the screen and feel it with me.  Such amazing fabric deserved my bringing out the high-end finishes along with such a good design.  There are solely French seams inside, which sort of makes it hard for me to tell the right side from the wrong side out for this blouse! 

Then, I used special rayon binding to hem the bottom edge for a clean yet decorative inside.  Such a notion is not manufactured anymore (to my knowledge) and it is a joy to use.  It is like a piece of tangible happiness to see when getting dressed so I see it as worth it to use rather than hoard.  I luckily have a few whole rolls of such notions so this was not the last to be had in my stash.  Even still, you can tell which projects are more prized by me when there is rayon tape as part of the inside detailing.  I hand stitched down the front and hood cut-on self-facings as well as the hem because I couldn’t stand to see obvious thread lines anywhere else but along the shoulder line.

Why highlight the shoulder line?  I absolutely love the way the hood is one piece with the bodice front.  I am proud of how well I achieved a perfect corner down and around where the hood angles into the back bodice.  This way the dropped shoulder line can be noticeable, too.  Might as well bring attention to how creative is the one major design line to the blouse!  I chose to use an all-cotton thread to compliment the silk material, but it is a fluffier, chunkier, duller thread when compared to the satin finish.  As I said at the beginning of this post, I was going for sustainable and natural fibers here. 

Trips away from home especially give challenging incentives to my sewing plans.  Now that we have traveled again after a long span of staying at home, I am remembering anew how trips inspire me to treat myself to exceptional hand sewn pieces (those over and above my everyday wardrobe) so I can rock my self-expression while creating wonderful vacation memories.  Do you bring your own handmade wardrobe on trips with you?  Please let me know I am not alone in this.  My most comfortable, favorite pieces are necessarily also the ones I have made for myself so there is one basic reason to bring me-made items on a trip away.  Seriously, though – can’t you tell by my glow that the beach is a special place for me?  Just think of what an amazing new outfit added to that!!  There will soon be more to come of our Chicago trip – hang on to this thread.

So – next time I have a break in my regular postings, just know that it means I am either taking personal time for recharging myself or at least working on some great new content.  I truly have the best readers and you all are the best audience!  For your information, if you only knew the amazing projects already sewn that are in my backlog of things yet to share, you’d flip.  This post’s particular outfit had a special day out so recently, I had to share it right away.  It was just too good, and I hope you are glad I didn’t let this outfit wait in queue to be posted later than sooner!

A Cardin Inspired Coat, a Coral Blouse…and a Crab

The way my 9 year old is so easily savvy with the newest technology and hooked on anything electronic makes me painfully aware that I am part of a generation that grew up without the internet.  However, overdoing nostalgic comparisons makes me feel like I’m overly emphasizing my age.  Thus, I’ll try to narrow the focus of this post on both the amazing details of my outfit and its symbolism to me.  I will never cease to be amazed at how pleasantly avant-garde the fashion of the 80’s and 90’s can (on occasion) be.  I don’t think designer fashion of today can compare to it, for all our technological advancements.   

Notice the toy crab as my companion – here’s my major princess reference, as this is indeed the part two post for my Ariel (of Disney’s 1989 “The Little Mermaid”) inspired clothing.  (The part one post can be found here.)  Yet the fact I could easily start crabbing about surviving a childhood without being hooked to a ‘smart’ accessory places me as the peevish one.   Both Sebastian and my enameled Ariel lapel pin are both items from my childhood, picked up when the animated movie was first released. 

Thus, let me return to ‘89 again with both Cardin and Coveri as my inspiration this time, with a mind to further transform the pants of my first “Little Mermaid” outfit into a chic, sporty yet dressy, full collection suitable for more than just wintertime.  Using the little bits leftover of my lovely “Alta Moda” Coveri designed material, I was able to eke out a matching jacket.  Its fabulous back reminds me of a waterfall!  A scrap of outdoor cotton in a branching coral print becomes a blouse for me to enjoy the weather outdoors. 

Imagine if a track suit went high fashion in the very best 80’s way…and this is what I think you would end up with.  I absolutely, wholeheartedly treasure these pieces in a special way!  It is yet another great example of how certain 80’s styling can be timeless when well crafted, but on a personal level, these quite possibly were done in my best hand stitching work to date.  I am not one to ‘save’ my good items, nevertheless – the only way to enjoy them is to wear them!  I found it appropriate and comfortable for a trek through the woods to visit my favorite creek-side haunt on a chilly, rainy day for some water related pictures.  I would think any mermaid princess would go to a creek if that’s all she could find, or that an Ariel of 1989 would do so wearing something like this!

THE FACTS:

FABRICS:  Jacket – a 100% wool twill, marked on the selvedge “Alta Moda – Enrico Coveri”; Blouse – a Waverly brand printed 100% cotton duck (outdoor fabric)

PATTERN:  McCall’s NY NY “ The Collection” pattern #4181, year 1989, from my stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, a few hook-n-eyes, and a couple cards of buttons (new)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse took me only 4 hours to make, and was finished on March 6, 2021.  The jacket was finished on March 26, 2021, and took me about 40 hours to make.

THE INSIDES:  Clean as can be! The jacket and blouse – as both are unlined – have vintage rayon seam tape and/or French seams.

TOTAL COST:  As I said in my post about the making of the trousers, the woolen Alta Moda fabric was a rummage sale find and therefore a dollar or two, while the blouse’s cotton print came from Wal-Mart’s scrap clearance section, as it was only one yard, for $2.50.  My buttons were a few dollars more.  Altogether, my total is probably $8.00!

What I specifically love here is that a different pattern was used for these two top pieces than what was selected for the fall-front trousers (McCall’s #4537, posted here).  Even still, the jacket and blouse of this post seem to flawlessly match with the bottoms and become a perfect set.  I attribute it to the fact both patterns are from the same year and same NY NY “The Collection” line.  

According the numbers, this pattern came first before the other I used for the trousers.  I definitely will be revisiting this to sew up the jodhpurs and the paper-bag waisted skirt which are included, too.  The way these NY NY patterns have a complete wardrobe in one envelope is really the best, not to mention the awesome, unusual styling.  This is the third one I’ve posted about (my first here) and you will be seeing plenty more of this line of patterns on my blog in the future because I now have a significant number of them.  They run from the late 80’s through the 90’s and are supposed to be designer, or at least designer inspired.  I definitely recommend you trying one out for yourself!

The style lines to these pieces, expressly the jacket, reminds me two great fashion designers who were were highly successful in the 80’s.  As I mentioned in my post about the trousers, my fabric is an Enrico Coveri brand “Alta Moda” woolen from pre-1990.  Coveri worked at the “Espace Cardin”, the vast design institute set up by Pierre Cardin, when he moved to Paris in the late 70’s, before he started his own label.  (In this previous post I expounded upon more details of his life.)  I think the futuristic thinking of Cardin rubbed off on Coveri – both were men ahead of their time in the 80’s.  Coveri was designing in the late 70’s garments we associate with the “look” of the late 80’s or early 90’s, yet as he died young he does not get the credit I feel he deserves.

The blue jacket is one of several different iterations of this kind of back detail Pierre Cardin produced in 1980.

Then there is Pierre Cardin who released a “Computers” inspired collection at the turn of the new decade in the year 1980. When computer usage for the populace was a very novel and limited item still, his jackets where designed to echo the functional venting of a computer’s body (see picture at right).  The introduction of three preassembled mass-produced personal computers was just launched in 1977. IBM Corporation, the (then) world’s dominant computer maker, did not enter the new market until 1981.  I would like to suppose that, just like as he did in the 60’s with his Space Age looks, Cardin was banking on the expectation of the new frontier ahead that was seen in the new dawn of computers for all to use.

Now to me, Cardin’s short, hip-length, blue “Computers” coat is not that far off from this NY NY McCall’s jacket.  In reality, my jacket is probably closer to an early 90’s Claude Montana creation (seen on the left) at first glance of design lines.  Not knowing the construction details of either designer piece, I could just be completely off here with my references.  Yet, I see what I see and love the irony of perceiving a Cardin and Coveri influence, especially for my Ariel inspired clothing.

Back to what I’ve made.  How was this particular jacket constructed though, you may be wondering by now?  First of all, it is unlined which sounds like it should have made it easier to sew, but no – it did not.  The already confusing and challenging construction was complicated by my need to see this jacket have a pristine finish inside.  Wool is not the best medium to do French seams and a tiny rolled hem.  With some steaming, seam clipping, and careful hand-stitching, I made it work though.  The ‘waterfall’ back (as I call it – don’t know what to term this otherwise) was too flowing and beautiful to receive a ‘normal’ hem, as the instructions directed.  I made a very tiny rolled hem, which I learned by finishing the flounces on this dress, to keep the panel from becoming stiff and restricted.  Even the sleeves were French seamed!  All of the top-stitching to the hems and lapel facings was done by hand so I could keep the thread invisible.  If my fabric is high class, and I see that it has couture inspiration, I felt I should raise the bar of my finishing techniques to match.

This jacket has a lot going on when it comes to details to list, and somehow they all seem to work together.  I don’t know how, but I am in awe.  There is the extreme boatneck which leaves little of a true shoulder seam.  The sleeves are wide cut at the shoulders and taper to a snug fit at the wrist.  The curved, high front lapels can be thrown open or flapped closed for a variety in the look.  There are no bust darts, surprisingly, and I kept the front bodice smooth by substituting buttons for hooks and eyes as the trio of closures.  The waist is high, which worked out fine paired with the above-the-waist trousers.  The shoulder panel and ‘floating’ lower waistband, which sits under the bias cut ‘waterfall’, are the only two anchors keeping together the back of the jacket. 

The weirdest but coolest part to this jacket is that there is no real back.  Yes!  The flounce-like ‘waterfall’ back falls down loose from the shoulder panel, attached only at the sides.  There is a back waistband, heavily interfaced and a just a few inches wide, stretching across to connect the hems of the front bodice.  The ‘waterfall’ flounce meets only at the outer corners of the hem to bring in all the pieces.  Hidden underneath, the back is completely open.  If you lift up my flounce back, you can see my blouse underneath.  

This odd feature makes the jacket appear like a haphazard mess when it is anything other than on my mannequin or my body.  Some of the most interesting things I sew are also the hardest to explain, so I hope my pictures do some justice.  It is simply indescribably curious…and was therefore even more challenging to grade up to my size on paper, believe me.  I went into this sewing project “blind” because the pieces and instructions didn’t makes sense until I had a go constructing the actual garment.  I’m so happy this turned out and that I like it as much as I do…because if ever a sewing idea has been a gamble for me, this one was more so!

The blouse is much more low-key, to be sure.  It’s the fine tuning that makes it fantastic.  It pairs with the jacket by filling in the open neckline and paralleling the boat neckline with high-cut sleeveless shoulders.  The blouse is boxy in fit with a wide and shorter hem length.  It also has lots of small buttons to close the front…so many I had a hard time finding enough.  The buttons I chose to match – frosted aqua ones that reminded me of sea glass – could not be found anymore, so I pared the number down to 8 from the 10 that were called for.  I used the provided customized armhole facings for a change, too, so this would have a finished inside that matches the fabric of the outside.  The pique-style waffle finish to the cotton duck adds an interesting texture as well as keeping this top nicely weightless for cool summer living.

Notice how the bust darts come into the bodice from the front armhole? So different – I love it!!!

I have paired other blouses, mostly collared ones, with my jacket and trousers set, and I must say that they actually look better than the high-necked one worn here.  Sure, it came with the same pattern.  Yet, it is not the best at staying tucked into the pants with its boxy, cropped length.  I still very much like the blouse I made on its own, and I do like the fact that it is something different to wear with the jacket and pants I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own.  It perfectly fills in my “Little Mermaid” reference though its details such as the sea glass inspired buttons, the perfect ocean blue aqua tone, and a print that reminds me to give a care about the alarming damages of bleaching to coral.  Whenever separates match with plenty of other pieces in my wardrobe rather than just the set they were intended for…well, that’s a good thing I won’t complain about!

At this point I have sewn 5 items from 1989, all from McCall’s “The Collection NY NY” patterns mind you, and I think none of them are what normally comes to mind when anyone might think of the last year before the 90’s.  I actually feel quite comfortably myself in these fashions the way that I know it is still my penchant for vintage (borderline, I know) without seeming so.  It is the kind of faux “modern” wear that I can totally be on board for!  This NY NY McCall’s was a nicely impressive surprise I did not expect, yet another one of the (currently many) reasons I am enjoying a new appreciation the 80’s and 90’s. 

Designer Pierre Cardin is shown during a dress fitting for his “Computers” Coat, 1980

Just some parting reflections – seeing a couture designer like Cardin ‘honoring’ computers with a collection is weird to me.  I love irony in fashion, and so I find myself delighted yet confused at the same time.  Anything inspired by a technology 30 years back was not always flowing and elegant but often angled and overtly “sci-fi” (I’m thinking of the costumes to the 80’s movie “Tron”, especially).  This is not so much the case today, I realize, especially at the hands of Iris van Herpen

Also, I’d like to point out that a computer system is not necessarily the best friend of the traditional way of creating couture.  I am a manual, free-hand pattern drafter, so I know I am biased, but did you know that as of 2019 there is such a thing as “Algorithmic Couture”?  A body is 3-D scanned to determine its exact proportions, which are used to create customized clothing for zero waste, perfect fit, and maximum sustainability. “Algorithmic Couture aims to democratize haute couture customization culture prevalent in the 19th-century, by revitalizing how we fashion our own style through personalization in the digital design process,” said the team of “Synflux”.  Kind of like in the story for “Tron”, this “Algorithmic Couture” puts power into the hands of the user by letting the ideas of each customer be the guide for each of their projects.  Technology of today is rewriting the historic rules of couture (see this article).  In my opinion there is nothing quite like what human minds and human hands can create…I wonder if Cardin had any idea back in 1989 that computers and fashion would go this far together.

The CAD system has no doubt its benefits at the consumer level.  It can provide a multi-dimensional ‘finished product’ view at the conception stage of a design; it has helped expand the Indie brand world of patternmaking; it aids the ease of offering wide range of inclusive sizes as well as the commercial availability of various designs…all for a just a start to the list.  So much to consider! 

Making marks on pattern pieces via computer, March 1987

In 1989 Cardin had THE most fascinating interview in which he said what I feel embodies a lot my outlook on the importance of quality fashion being a normal part of how we dress, as well as the importance of it being accessible to many.  This is why I believe so strongly in the importance of great patterns for home sewers…ones that are designer or at least ones that offer unique styles to both challenge and suit every sewist’s unique tastes and body types.  Yet, I’ve learned from experience in being a patternmaker who can create a tailored custom garment, today’s modern means of digitizing patterns falls short from a quality I encounter in the early 80’s and older. (See this picture).  I am very aware of noticing that the curves, the perfect body fit, is subtly diminished the newer (90’s on up) you go in commercial patterns.  This is one of the many compelling reasons I prefer vintage sources for my sewing.  Here I go crabbing about things again.  Move over Sabastian!  You’re not the only crab.  It is clear I am an 80’s era grouch.

So how about ending with a little fun, geeky, 1989 related trivia that I find entertaining and related to computers, Cardin, and ”The Little Mermaid” animated movie?  Did you know that the first feature film to use the CAPS process, the “Computer Animation Production System” developed by both Disney and Pixar which had 2D/3D integration, was in the production of The Little Mermaid in 1989?  It was only used for very few scenes such as at the end where King Triton sends a rainbow into the sky for his daughters’ wedding (see pic below left).  Furthermore, if King Triton’s palace was a place on land I think it would most definitely be The “Bubble Palace” on the French Rivera.  This fantastic and futuristic living space was completed in 1989, and I swear it looks like something I would see on the ocean floor in “The Little Mermaid”.  Everything is round!  Pierre Cardin acquired it for himself in 1992 to live in as well as for presenting his fashion shows. 

Well…I *mostly* focused on my newly sewn princess-inspired outfit in this post!  I hope you enjoyed reading my musings here, as well as what I have made for myself, and chime in with my grousing through the comments!  What do you remember about 1989?  What strikes you about the fashion and the times of that year?  “The Little Mermaid” was my first princess, the one that completely sucked me into the realm of Disney, so Ariel was a pretty big influence for me when I think of that year.  Fashion and technology came into play for me that year also because it was my first big pageant show…bringing back memories of being in the limelight of the local media and modeling some styles that I shake my head over today.  Luckily, I like my 2021 versions of the 80’s decade much better!