If the last gasp of the Art Deco era could be a color, I would say it is unmistakably a pastel baby blue. Many people do not know that a beautiful but mutated form of the geometric architectural style prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s was still strong in the WWII era. We often think of fashion as being inspired by nature or movie costumes or world events but I see a correlation between the blue angled buildings of 1940s Streamline Moderne era and many of the powerful, angular garment designs of the Second World War. There is no better example of this than the frequent use of plastron features on ladies’ dresses between 1942 and 1947. Of course, I had to interpret such a pairing through my sewing…
This follows on the heels of my first post of the year where I shared a 1988 dress with a plastron front which has strikingly similar elements to this mid-1940s dress. The 80’s frequently rehashed many WWII era points in its clothing styles but you gotta go back to the source to figure things out. Firstly, I addressed what a “plastron” is in this post here – it is generally defined as a type of interfaced chest yoke that fills in the hollow between the shoulders and bust and frequently extends down to the hipline. The fact that it was so popular in the 1940s can be seen in this 1943 leaflet, which has several different plastron style dresses, and Constance Talbot’s sewing book from 1947 which defines the word. Just as Streamline Moderne architecture was seen as sleek, futuristic, and modern for its times, no doubt a plastron front was regarded in a similar mindset.
In our town, Streamline Moderne architecture is defined as the end of the Art Deco built environment, lasting between 1936 and 1945 (with a slightly earlier timeline for Europe). The building behind me is a perfect, classic example of the American interpretation of the style despite the fact it is merely a façade front added circa 1943 (the year of my dress) to the lowest level of a brick late 19th century building. Its “rounded and sweeping lines” of chrome-plated trim reminiscent the means of wind resistance used on trains, ships, and autos. It has minimal ornamentation and color on an angular plan, highlighted only with the creamy blue glass tiles called Vitrolite. Many Streamline Moderne buildings were made working through the last funds of the Public Works Administration, the second half of the New Deal agency that made grants for construction to local governments between 1935 and 1944, so no wonder it had an Art Deco air. Even though the building behind me had been a small department store in its heyday, it has the same look of the Greyhound bus stations built across the U.S. during the Streamline Moderne period. The idea of the style was to add movement and convey the sense of travel to something stationary, after all. My photo’s location has been named the “Paris style” building ever since its 40’s refresh, to give us mid-west people a trip over the ocean to France where the Moderne style all ‘began’ (at the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts).
A plastron dress is not so unlike the buildings of its times. Plastrons really widen the shoulders and slim the waist (especially when in a contrast color), just like what the 40’s and 80’s preferred. Streamline Moderne buildings are impressive in a confident but pleasing manner, just like WWII women’s fashion. A well-tailored garment can add complimentary appearance movement to our bodies – whether stationary or not – and can transport us to a happy, confident place in our internal mental vision. A smartly designed garment can deceive and please the eyes with the visual appearance of a sleek form. They are not much different after all!
FABRIC: a slub-textured, navy and oatmeal colored linen and rayon blend, with the solid contrast being an all rayon challis, and the entire dress body fully lined in a buff satin finish poly lining
PATTERN: Simplicity #1777, reprinted in 2012, originally Simplicity #4463 circa 1943
TIME TO COMPLETE: Making this dress took me about 20 hours, and it was finished on November 4, 2014
THE INSIDES: Nice! The side seams and armscye are finished in bias tape, and the plastron facing covers up the center pleating, but all the rest of the seams are French.
For as much as I love this dress, it is a problematic re-issue because it had been significantly changed from its original 40’s design. The blog “Black Tulip Sewing” has an excellent and very eye-opening post that clearly lays out the differences between her original (Simplicity #4463) and the reprint.
No wonder I had problems shaping the back waist (it ran long and wasn’t curved nicely)! As much as I made a deal in the post of my Agent Carter dress about how full back zippers were apparently a real “thing” in the 1940s – albeit unusual – I had problems with all the curving that was drawn into the center back seam. This gave me a suspicion something was off even before I saw The Black Tulip’s post. There was supposed to be a side zipper or neckline closure.
Looking at The Black Tulip’s blog review, this dress’ skirt was supposed to be flared and have most of its leg room from the shaping in the side seams creating a general A-shape. The reprint has a basic straight skirt, then added so much more pleating in the front, at and around the bottom of the plastron, to account for fullness and ease of movement instead. However, it only made things quite bulky and challenging to sew (although the fanned out darts are quite beautiful). 1940’s patterns are generally pretty smart the way they are originally and such dramatic changing does not do anything but harm when you’re starting with something just fine to begin with. Leave the good stuff alone, Simplicity. Unnecessary fiddling is nothing but a waste of everyone’s time. Luckily, ever since 2016, Simplicity started staying true to the vintage lines for their reprints…only now, they are no longer giving us any past styles it seems – boo hoo.
That being said, I’m glad I persevered through all the quirks that made this a pain to sew and fit. Fully lining the dress was probably not the best idea, but the linen blend material was thin and loosely woven so I didn’t have much of a choice. One step which I am glad I did do was heavily interface both the inside (lining) and outside plastron. If I hadn’t, no amount of clipping would have disguised or held up to the thick seam allowances sandwiched in between. These older Simplicity vintage reprints often have smaller sized sleeves so I thought ahead and cut mine on the bias. The sleeves are still closely fitted but at least the fabric is not restricting. Besides, I really like the change in texture I get just by cutting the sleeves on cross-grain. I do wish I had added a few extra inches to the hem length. I only hemmed by adding bias tape on the edge and turning that under because I did not want to make the dress any shorter. Can’t win at everything all the time!
What proper 40’s outfit would be complete without hat and gloves? I even bought out my old shoes clips! All accessories are true vintage, yet only the hat had a makeover before it could pair with my dress. It was originally from the 1970s. Those 70’s fedoras are close to a proper 40s hat…but as the saying goes, “close only counts with hand grenades”, ha! It had a really deep pinch at the tippety-top of the crown that kept the hat sitting too high on my head. Luckily, it was an all woolen hat. These are easy to re-block with some hot steam!
I first stuffed the inside of the hat with a very tightly wadded up bath towel, rolled into a ball. Some sort of inner base – be it a kitchen pot or wooden mannequin head or bundled towel – is necessary to both help shape and protect the hat as well as keeping it from shrinking too much when it cools down. Then, with my iron on its highest steam setting, I kept shrinking the tacky pinches out of the crown. You never really touch the wool (unless you cover it with a pressing cloth) only come close with the seam. Being careful of my hands, I would reach in and flatten/reshape the crown in between good steaming episodes. As you can see, I kept a fedora double ‘pinch’, but just made it more shallow and higher up on the crown. I made the mistake of coming too close to some of the fabulous iridescent feathers on the side of the hat and they shriveled up and wilted, needing to be cut off. Thus, there are less feathers and more weird fluff than I would like to decorate the hat but at least I ended up with something I like better – and will wear more – than leaving it in its original state.
Unfortunately, both my dress and many 1940s Streamline Modern buildings are generally underappreciated today. My dress was just fit when I first made it so many years back now, but my body has since changed slightly since then and I am no longer comfortable in it. This post’s dress is currently hanging on my part of the rack where clothes go that need a bit of tailoring or repairs to be wearable again (it is a very small portion of my closet, fyi!). Luckily, I have been holding onto a good yard leftover of my linen blend material, so giving myself a little extra room will be an unidentifiable fix the way I am planning it.
Sadly, many 80-something year old buildings which are being stripped of their ornamentation or completely torn down are not as easy to bring back to life as my dress. Either in the rush towards ‘modern’ improvement or from neglect over time, such architecture is beginning to disappear (especially in my town). When it’s gone, it’s really gone, because both the capacity to and general desire to recreate such things are missing today. That only means that part of our story – the tale of our city, our collective history – is absent, too. In the US, our societal account is not as ancient as Rome or Athens, for two well-known examples for contrast. Thus, it’s important for us to learn to appreciate the built environment that we do have and learn how to transition it into today while learning about what storied locations which have been lost to time and relegated to memory. If making one simple dress can help me do just that, than I am pleased. I love how finding such little hidden gems gives my research-loving mind a wonderful purpose to find out about and understand. Here’s a toast to those awesome photo backdrops which make me feel like I’ve stepped back in time while wearing my self-made vintage! Here’s a wish to having these great spots stick around all over the world so everyone else can visit and enjoy them, too!