A Smock-Frock from 1938

Today, a smock is understood as a variant of an apron – it is a loose over-garment worn to protect one’s clothing.  A frock is a now outdated term for a dress of any length or style.  Both terms may sound like something quite frumpy to wear.  Yet, I have the contrary to show as proof that a smock-frock can be fashionable.  Our modern understanding of many items we take for granted in common living are often sorely lacking in a realization of full historical context.  “Dig a little deeper” is my intuitive response after being an academic researcher for many years! 

In sewing, using vintage patterns is a good practice for opening one’s eyes to facets of fashion history previously either unknown or forgotten, as they leave enticing trails of interest in bygone definitions.  Recently, an old original 1938 Marian Martin pattern design I acquired and used for my early spring sewing has made me realize a new term – the smock-frock.  For as simple and unassuming as this newest dress project is (daily wear vintage clothes in comfy cotton are so handy to have in my wardrobe), it has certainly led me to discover yet another aspect from the annals of fashion.  Nevertheless, whether or not this dress taught me something along the way to completion, any dress that ends up being as easy to wear as a nightgown yet looks street worthy chic – with pockets as big as a small purse – is a winner in my estimation!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a printed cotton

PATTERN:  Marian Martin #9602, year 1938

NOTIONS NEEDED:  all I needed was thread and some bias tape for some simple neckline finishing

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was a quick project, made in about 7 hours and finished in February 2022

THE INSIDES:  I merely stitched over the edges a few times to prevent any fraying, and trimmed any fly-away threads from the fabric for clean but semi-raw edges

TOTAL COST:  On sale at my local JoAnn Fabrics store, buying 3 yards of this fabric cost me about $27

Happily, the seller that I purchased from studied up for the listing and included information from an old newspaper ad which was selling my same pattern.  Thus, that person’s amazing preliminary research is the only reason I know why Marian Martin no.9602 is called “a smock-frock” design to begin with.  Now, to appropriately continue my terminology tirade from above, a smock-frock is basically a centuries old garment primarily worn by British laborers and working class people.  Only in the last 150 years did it turn into a comparatively decorative garment to wear on its own for children’s play and ladies’ housework.  Smock-frock garments often had extensive embroiderd hand stitched work (for an alliteration of the word) to control the overall generous fit in precise places  on the garment.  This type of embellishment became highly decorative between the Victorian times and the 1930s, being more ornamental than a pure design element, and its popularity muddied the understanding of the term smock-frock.  

To make things more confusing, in the history of the clerical world, a frock is an outer garment…but so is an apron.  The Wikipedia page says, “It is uncertain whether smock-frocks are ‘frocks made like smocks or ‘smocks made like frocks’ – that is, whether the garment evolved from the smock, the shirt (or underdress) of the medieval period, or from the frock, an over garment of equally ancient origin.”  All this boils down to the fact that this late 1930s smock frock was a meld of the words, besides being a relatively modern take on two very ancient type of garments.  I am surprised this garment-related form of the term was even still in use enough for 1938 to add it onto the pattern description.  It is so close to what I would term a plain housedress, or even a hostess dress (which I explain in this post here) if sewn up of a decently nice material.  Smocking – as a style of stitch – has continued to be popular beyond the 1930s primarily on cultural inspired clothing or novelty designs as well as children’s clothes.

I am wondering if the use of this term here is because Marian Martin designs were something catered to smaller, rural town residents even though the parent company to the pattern line was based in New York City.  Living away from a big town can be someplace where old terms are still commonplace, so a smock-frock would have been well known amongst agricultural worker’s families of the 1930s. I do take note that the cover illustration portrays a young woman modeling.  I wonder if the design of this pattern would have been something that the older generations would have gravitated to before the youth of 1938 would have.  You can clearly see the Depression Era thrifty sensibilities in the fact that this pattern could be used to make several different designs – dresses with two differing necklines and closures, or an apron.  There are many possibilities here!  Marian Martin is a distant cousin to the lines of Anne Adams, Alice Brooks, American Weekly, and Laura Wheeler (needlework) – all patterns were owned by the same parent company at one point or another (see more info on that here). 

Having sewn a handful of patterns from this group of mail order patterns (my previous Marian Martin posted here, an American Weekly dress posted here, and an Anne Adams pinafore posted here), I have found them to generally run on the larger fitting size.  This one did not disappoint.  It was marked as a bust 32”, hips 35” and so I graded in 4 inches to bring it up to my size according to the instruction’s chart.  As it turned out, I had to pinch out a total of 4 inches overall as I was fitting this dress to myself during construction.  The realization of that blows my mind at just how large this pattern’s size was…lucky thing I was able to save this project from drowning me in fabric!  The hemline even came down to the ground on me according to the “dress length” as given by the pattern.  Refitting all the princess and side seams, as well as re-cutting the neckline and armscye made this easy-to-make design a bit more time-consuming.  It was still pretty simple to sew these adjustments because there was no pattern matching to worry about and I was fitting it along the way to completion. 

I knew ahead of time that the busy print would conceal the smock-frocks details, but they are simple and few so I was okay with that happening.  There are princess seams which divide the back and the front into a six panel dress.  There are big, generous pockets tucked in between seams to the front side panels just at hip length.  Then, the sleeves have puffed caps and a box pleat at the outer centered hem.  Finally, two ties come out from above the front princess seam just above the pockets so as to bring in the waist and shape the dress by tying in the back.  The attached ties make this dress reminiscent of a hostess dress, as I mentioned above (and posted about here).  It is the fact I have the ties – and the way I gave up fitting the dress to me any further after bringing it in by 4 inches – which lets me get away with no zipper or buttons or closure.  Contrary to the pattern, I cut the center back on the fold and lowered the V neckline so that this was an easy-peasy slip-on garment. 

A word or two needs to be said about my ascot neck scarf.  I made that, too!  It was cobbled together into being a long, tapered rectangle of two scraps leftover from making this sheer chiffon 1950s redingote.  A small French seam goes down the center to connect the two scraps, then went to my local sewing room and used their serger (overlocker) to stitch a tiny rolled hem edge finish.  I love making my own scarf!  It is yet another little but very useful outlet I recently discovered to use up scraps of lightweight material.  My neck is often chilly in both air conditioning and cool spring or fall days.  Also, my hair styles need protection from wind and rain, so I use sheer scarves a lot in all seasons.  This handmade version was just the thing I needed in lieu of a necklace or contrast belt to give my dress a splash of something extra.  It kept my neck cozy for these pictures, too, as the sunshine was warm that day but spring is still slow in coming here.  The neckline is pretty basic otherwise.  A vintage stick pin keeps my scarf in place on my dress, here tied in the manner of an ascot.

My fabulous shoes bring my dress way above its original humble smock-frock designation, but they are such a fun pairing here I couldn’t resist!  They are part of my latest and greatest shoe splurge purchase.  Miss L Fire Company was going out of business a few months ago so I *had* to snatch up several styles I have longed under deep clearance prices.  These are the popular Miss L Fire “Clarice” heels, made of color blocked leather suede panels with tie ankle straps.  These color blocked beauties make me forget I have heels on, but really elevate my outfit, as well as anything else I pair with them.  Just as I did with my scarf, I wanted to channel everything I love about the panache that 1930s street wear displays with killer accessories.  Even if this is just a homely cotton dress, I can show how versatile it is my making it fancier than it really is!  A great pair of shoes always helps in such a situation.  Believe me, there is no better company for statement footwear with high quality and superior comfort. Miss L Fire’s offerings are so well made and so comfortable but so standout chic, it is a true loss that they are relegated to the second hand market now. 

There is so much more I could have written in regards to smock-frocks, but I didn’t want to end up boring anyone and end up with too long of a post.  I have just found so much depth of interest in the history behind this basic little dress I whipped together!  What I didn’t mention above, is the irony of how it combines the masculine (through the working man’s shirt smock) with the feminine (a frock dress) in such a unique way.  Even still, the supreme mockery to my 1938 incarnation of a house-frock is the fact that it turned out so appealingly cute.  It is meant to be so utilitarian as to not give a darn about keeping it pristine yet I will be sad the first time it gets marred.  I don’t want to destroy it too quickly, but I also don’t want to let that hold me back from enjoying this dress whenever I want.  This is why I made it – to be worn, appreciated, and practical.  The print is so busy it shouldn’t be too noticeable when I do eventually end up staining, tearing, or otherwise using my dress as the pattern intended.  If this was going to be a true smock-frock, it was going to have to live up to its name and be a practical, work-horse kind of piece for me.  I always need these kind of clothes.  They truly do take a beating, though, but I think appear none the worse for their wear.  This mid-1940s dress is my go-to well-worn housedress, next to this cranberry cotton shirtdress, and my “Dust Bowl” Burda dress.  I am happy to have a real-deal 1930s house dress now, as I have only had ones from the 40’s until now!

I really hope to sew with this pattern again in the future using yet another charming cotton print, so this is not a one-hit-wonder here.  Perhaps next time I will choose the short, hip-length smock version that buttons down the back and has the Peter Pan collar.  Maybe I will just sew another dress version because it so handy and darn comfortable.  I also want to try out the “Edith Smock” from “Pattern Union”.  It is a zero-waste design with amazing details and a style strongly reminiscent of working smocks of old, only with large roomy pockets and billowy sleeves for the modern romantic in you.

I hope you enjoyed this little post on my smock-frock, and learned about a new facet of fashion history.  Please, give this post proper credit if you share elsewhere what you learned about here.  Also, remember to stay inquisitive and keep finding answers to the interesting questions of your own making.  Perhaps you will uncover something that will fascinate, teach, and entertain you just as much as I have found in the process of creating and wearing my smock-frock!

Hoppin’ Dots! My Bunny Day Dress

What would Eastertide be without bunnies?  This year, I made that stereotype an enjoyable reality by actually spending some time with some real, live domesticated bunnies at a local photography studio.  They were hosting the visit of a rabbit rescue foundation to offer some Easter picture opportunities for the public as well as adoption prospects for the bunnies.  Why does Easter enjoyment need to be relegated to just children when adults can do something like get dressed up and hold some sweet fluffy bunnies?!  This is my kind of fun! 

I hope you enjoy my Easter post, which will attempt to be not just about the cute critters I am holding but also featuring my newest handmade holiday dress. It was whipped together out of a thrifted bed sheet.  Am I really ever completely leaving my sleeping quarters if I am wearing a bed sheet for the day, even if cut, pleated, and manipulated in the most glamorous manner?  I love how when you start with a fabric designed to be pleasant on the skin like a bed sheet, the resulting project is so wonderfully relaxed.  This was easy to make, had a spot on fit right out of the envelope, is comfy to wear, and has just the right amount of details.  This is perfect for what I am looking for Easter 2022 – I just want to stay relaxed, but eat well, and enjoy my day.  This swishy, simple dress is just the thing! 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 60% cotton/40% polyester blend twin sized bed sheet (66 by 96 inches) for the dotted material and some cotton/poly blend broadcloth remnants to line the bodice for opacity

PATTERN:  Vintage Vogue #1043, a year 1953 pattern reprinted back in 2008

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of interfacing, thread, some bias tape, and one zipper for the side seam

THE INSIDES:  my dress’ bodice is cleanly lined while the skirt seams are nicely covered in bias tape

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress was completed in about 15 hours and finished on April 9, 2022

TOTAL COST:  pittance – the sheet cost just under $2 and the zipper and bias tapes were from a $1 a bag rummage sale find

The soft aqua colored polka dot print is easy on the eyes yet still cheerful.  I know the print is symmetrically round dots but it still somehow reminds me of multitudes of Easter eggs.   As I have said before (in this post), I am generally not a fan of polka dots and it has taken me years to be a bit more than tolerant with wearing garments which have that sort of print.  Yet, the irony to using this bed sheet for my dress is compounded in the fact I picked this up from a thrift shop a decade ago now…when I really didn’t like polka dots at all!  I love any aqua or teal color though, and I am always up for trying new things in my sewing project choices so I picked it up.  The fact the sheet was less than $2 also helped convince me to purchase it!  I had paired Vintage Vogue #1043 with the polka dotted sheet from the very beginning when I brought it home, and only just now felt the time had come to sew this project as I originally envisioned it.  I was finally ready for a full-on polka dot dress.  

At left is the underarm gusset first being sewn into the cotton lining. At right, I am showing the left side seam in the dress – you can see the sleeve gusset, zipper, and hand-stitched finishing details.

Since the cover illustration hides some of the dress’ details, let me give you a little general summary.  There is a basic four paneled ¾ circle skirt, and a simple dual darted back bodice (which I cut on the fold to eliminate the back seam), so the minimal pattern pieces were good for a bigger print like my polka dotted sheet.  Under the arms, there are gussets that form part of the sleeve.  This unique feature is the same as (seen here) the sleeves on my Princess Anna dress, sewn from a vintage Burda Style pattern.  Since that Burda pattern comes two years after the date of this post’s dress date of 1953, I found this an interesting nugget of information, but especially found it helped immensely to have done this type of sleeve gusset before. 

Other than the gussets, the majority of unique details to this design are in the front bodice.  It has an asymmetric faux wrap bodice, which creates a center front notch for interest at the neckline.  There is one deep knife pleat in each front wrap’s side seam to create soft fullness for the bust.  Yet, for as straightforward as this bodice may sound, I actually made it a bit more complex in construction so I could end up with a better finish.    

All the reviews I read through online about this dress pattern consistently mentioned 3 shortcomings to the bodice design if you sew it according to the pattern – a wrap front that is too shifty and revealing, a neckline that does not keep its shape, and finally facings which are fussy and cumbersome.  These issues were able to be ‘fixed’ through adding in a full bodice lining.  For the final touch, I added a trio of flower buttons along the chest of the bodice wrap so that it can stay down in its proper place.  The buttons add a little touch of fun and prettiness to this otherwise unadorned dress and keep the neckline notch looking as it should.  I wore limited jewelry (my Grandma’s earrings and an Easter hat, at least) to let my dress shine, with the pretty neckline details taking center stage.

My first step to making the bodice was to use the facing pieces only to cut out heavy weight interfacing for ironing down to the undersides of the entire neckline (for both my lining cotton and my polka dotted fabric).  This way the neckline was doubled up in support to keep its amazing face-framing shape and prevent the front notches from drooping (a problem I also read about in blogger’s reviews).  I only sewed together the back darts, the shoulder seams and godets with the right side seam at this point. The lining then was sewn in the method were all the raw edges were tucked inside for a smooth inside that needs no fiddly facings.  I bag sewed the sleeve hems before I tacked the lining down to the waistline and sewed the skirt to the bodice, wrapped over in front right over left. The white bed sheet was slightly see-through, so I needed a lining anyways, but doing so gave me a great solution to improve upon the bodice construction.  I am always willing to go the extra mile in my sewing projects if it will make even the smallest improvement to my satisfaction with the finished garment. 

Perhaps the best perk to sewing this dress together finally is discovering that it pairs spectacularly well with a short jacket that I sewed together years back.  This Burda Style “kimono jacket” has its own post which can be found over here.  Sadly this fabulous piece has hardly had any enjoyment out of the closet until now due to nothing specific ever really turning it into a “set”.  No other sweater or blazer or jacket in my closet matched with my dress, anyways, and this way my outfit is all me-made!  I love how the open lapels show off the neckline notch and decorative buttons on my dress.  I think the full skirt pairs well with the jacket peplum, too.

It is so funny how dressy and useful – in an unexpected way – something as mundane as a bedding can become.  My last bed sheet dress was even fancier than this one – a designer inspired 1950s Burda Style dress, posted here.  A micro-fiber bed sheet set went towards the lining of this 1990s jumper-sundress, posted here.  At the same time that I bought the aqua polka dotted sheet I used for this post’s dress, I also bought the tan floral bed sheet which went towards this 1940s dress, posted here.  I even had a post (here) about a top and a shopping bag both sewn from pillowcases.  It is not about the quantity or quality of what you have to work with, but how you use your supplies when it comes to sewing.  Even the most ordinary items can look glam or at least fuel your joy by supporting your creative ideas. 

Similar to the way sewing has given me an appreciation for using the most unexpected items others may take for granted, I found a new appreciation for bunnies at the Easter Selfie Room visit.  I realize the older generations do not view rabbits in a good estimation, especially anyone who has any interest or occupation related to the outdoors.  In our garden, they are such a bother (I’ll stop short of calling them a menace because they are cute, you have to admit).  Then again, I have loved the tales of Beatrix Potter since my childhood…so I can partially empathize with the plight of bunnies, too, at least from Peter Rabbit’s point of view.  The domesticated bunnies I met that day were soft and cuddly, curious and relatable, as well as free with their love and affection.  I was disarmed and touched!  What a delightful new experience, made even more special because I had the chance to share that event with my parents! 

I hope your Easter, if you celebrate it, is a wonderful, peaceful day full of happiness.  I hope the blessings that the beauty of nature can provide cheer your heart and soothe your spirit.  Also, I hope you have an outfit to wear to brighten your day, just as I have done for myself yet again this year!  I trust you’ve found an extra dose of rabbit appreciation through the critter cuddle pictures in this post.  Don’t forget to leave a carrot out for the Easter bunny!

My First Vintage Original 1920s McCall Pattern

I have had the pattern I used here in my stash for the past 10 years and only just recently made time to sew together something wearable with it.  It’s not that I’ve been procrastinating.  I’ve had this all planned out, even down to being paired with fabrics to match the cover styling, but it always was delayed in lieu of more pressing ideas or plans.  The 1920s is not a vintage look I generally reach for in my wardrobe.  No more is this the case – yay!  With such a comfortable, enjoyable, and well-designed dress, I am in love with the 1920s like never before. 

This particular pattern design is special because it was my first acquisition of one of those fabulous, collectable McCall releases between the mid 1920s and early 1930s.  Patterns in that time frame have colorful, engaging cover envelope illustrations, instructions in three languages, and easy-to-follow instructions printed in blue-line directly on the tissue paper pieces.  Most of these features are what we are used to today, but were exceptional and uncommon for that time, unlike anything else out there back then.  No reproduction pattern can offer the same thrill.  The old originals are a joy to use, delightful to work with, and an investment…I am a big fan, needless to say. 

Even though old patterns of that kind have climbed significantly in price over the last decade, I have been lucky to find some great deals over the years to build upon this first acquisition.  Now, I have a handful of these amazing McCall patterns.  Yet, for me the first one of its kind for my stash had to also be first one to sew from.  It was the easiest to envision from the beginning, too, channeling the cover in strikingly similar manner.  My dress pops over the head with no closures for an instant boost of fun!  The quadruple pleats, the short skirt, and lack of sleeves conveys a small taste of the thrill that the free-spirited ‘flapper’ women must have felt.

With this first 20s era McCall project being such an enjoyable success, I am so excited to plan out fabric and buttons from my stash to pair with the rest of my old printed McCall patterns…which will be made in good time.  No need to rush, but I also don’t intend to procrastinate!  I love being able to add to my ‘everyday’ 1920s wardrobe with items like this dress that are a wonderful combo of being historical with a modern appeal. 

I am wearing a true 1920s original woolen felt cloche hat with my dress, for an extra bit of the real deal!  Just like the condition of the pattern itself (more on this below), my hat is amazing to be in such a great state for almost 100 years in age.  Why, there is even the original feather cockade and decorative felt buttons – and no moth chews!  Most vintage original 20s era cloche hats are much too small for my combo of thick hair and wider crown.  This one was not only in my size but only $5 – amazing, right?!?  I had planned on a modern pulled back hairdo with a low, tight bun.  Yet my 1928 McCall sewing project suddenly had pizazz when worn with this special hat to end up with a full outfit that I adore.  I find myself wanting to wear this outfit more than any other 1920s garment I have made.  I’m so happy my hubby caught such great pictures.  Can’t you just hear some hot jazz music in the background looking at them…because I can!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton, both for the print and the solid contrast as well as partial lining

A close-up of the fabric’s print

PATTERN:  McCall #5624, stamped with a date of December 18, 1928 under the envelope flap

NOTIONS NEEDED:  just lots of thread – no closures or interfacing needed…pretty simple

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress came together in about 12 hours, with 2 extra hours to reproduce the pattern.  The dress was finished in April, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  raw but clean are the interior edges, merely stitched over a few times to reduce fraying

TOTAL COST:  I no longer remember where it was bought or how much I spent for any of my fabric for this project because it was purchased soon after I acquired the pattern 10 years ago.  But I needed just over 3 yards of printed cotton (at 45” width) as well as 2 ½ yards of cotton for the contrast and lining.

My very first step, as I considered using this pattern, was to make a copy of it.  The original tissue paper was in remarkable condition and much stronger, thicker, and overall higher in quality than any other patterns I have dealt with.  This is remarkable (and impressive) when you consider that it is over 90 years old!  Even still, as there were many markings to trace out and since I want to preserve this pattern, I went to a copy shop and printed out a paper copy for myself.  The grief I felt just making one or two small tears in the tissue by copying it justified my decision to not use the original pattern tissue.  Normally I hand trace most of my patterns onto sheer, lightweight medical paper, but I wanted all the text, instructions, and the general feel of the original on my duplicate McCall, as well as a more durable paper  Thus, a photocopy was my preferred option here. 

envelope back

1920s patterns are always such a unique combo of simple yet complicated, and this style seemed even more so than normal.  Printed McCall patterns of the late 1920s are indeed more exceptional in detail than the ever popular beginner’s “One hour project” shift dress.  Even still, the pattern pieces are very straight cut and angular – no side seam curves, minimal darts, and very little body fit is required for a true-to-the-era silhouette.  Sounds simple right?  Let me explain.

For every other decade that followed the 1920s, the bust fit has been the primary aim.  However, for the 1920s, what will fit over your hips is the guide for the size you choose, as evident on the size chart of this old McCall pattern.  My hips are about 38” around so this patterns was perfect because it was for a 40” finished hip.  The entire rest of the garment is more-or-less follows suit to be about a 40 inch circumference column, from the shoulders to the hipline.   That sounds weird, right?!  It might make the garment easy to sew in theory but it takes attention to the fine details to make wearing a sack look this good.  Also, it is contrary to most conventional ideas of how a dress should lay.  To a 1920s dress, a snug wearing ease (2 inches) is needed for the hips and a looser ease (4 inches) for everything else above that. 

Crafting 1920s clothes with an authentic silhouette becomes all about making the clothes wear you in the best way possible (without looking forced or overly baggy) to create the slender, boyish, ‘gamine’ image preferred.  Luckily, my strong shoulders are just about the same width as my hips, so I feel like I can make it work with my hourglass figure by hiding my waist under the straight lines of true 1920s designs.  This true-to-the-era ideal that I aim for is harder to achieve on some bodies more than others, and many people who sew the 20s merely choose to sew their flapper era projects with a modern fit.  That’s perfectly fine, too – to each their own!  I find there is a very teachable lesson in aiming for authenticity of fit for sewing the clothes of the 1920s. 

The rest of the pattern pieces here – the angled neckline jabot but especially the pleated skirt – followed suit by being very basic in shape but miraculously turning into something so beautifully dimensional and tailored.  It is such mathematical beauty and the precise use of simple engineering that makes me adore the Art Deco era, yet also makes its garments challenging to make.  They are confusing in their utter simplicity.  They require precision in marking folds, pleats, and more on the fabric at the cutting stage.  Exact piece matching is necessary, as well as accurate stitching, at the sewing stage.  All of this, combined with the era’s juxtaposition of our set ideas of bodily appearance, has sewing a 1920s pattern feel like a special conquest to me.  I like the kind of challenge they present, though.  It is a welcome change of mindset which keeps my sewing skills fresh and non-habitual.  It makes me ‘switch gears’ as the phrase goes.  Understanding different means of how to flatteringly tailor and create garments for myself assists me later on when I am paid for making clothes to fit the bodies of my customers, who are varied and dissimilar than my own.

For all my talk of how 1920s designs are generally straight lined, the little details are geometric and add subtle shaping and dimension to this dress.  For example, there are knife pleats in the front shoulder line for gentle bust room.  There is also the tiniest bust dart coming horizontally out from the side seams.  Together these add room for the bosom, but only just enough – the 1920s brassieres were about minimizing (or flattening) what nature has bestowed!  Additionally there is the tiniest amount of gathers eased in just at the high hipline to create a comfortably boxy shape to the torso.   

The dropped skirt-to-bodice seamline sits at the low hipline and is not plainly horizontal but has an upside down V in the middle of both the front and back…kind of like a spike on a cardiogram.  Then, there are four clusters of quadruple box pleats in the skirt to add controlled ease of movement in the most appealing way.  The pleats are stitched down in place to the point where my leg bends from my hip.  The skirt is the only portion of the dress that I lined using the rest of the same golden contrast solid cotton as can be seen on the neckline and arm openings.  The printed cotton is rather lightweight and thin, but more importantly the extra weight the lining lends really helps this dress hang nicely.  The slightly heavier skirt portion ever so gently pulls down the dress, keeping it from creeping up on my body and wrinkling as 20s garments tend to do on me.  It is not natural for me to wear a dress so hip-centric.

The entire neckline is the one thing on the dress that is not subtle.  It totally tries to steal the show!  Sneakily, it is also the facing for finishing the neckline, at the same time.  These old patterns are terribly smart and knew how to do sewing at such a higher level than any commercial pattern offered today!  Here the neckline is interesting both coming and going with a jabot hanging in the front and ties hanging in the back.  Firstly, though, how about a brief definition?  “Jabot” is a French word that originally described the crop of a bird, so that is not very complimentary to use for a pretty piece of clothing.  Nevertheless, a jabot, also known by less impressive names such as ‘court bib’ or ‘neck doily’, is a decorative accessory attached at the neckline consisting of lace or other fabric falling from the throat, cascading down the chest.  The kind on my 20s dress is reminiscent of the stiff, crisp variation worn by barristers of old, being one without frills and pleated from a simple square.  It has a properly Art Deco air to it!  Jabots are not a stranger to me, however.  This early 1930s blouse that I made years back had a sort of jabot that is part of the wrap neckline, and my 1880s Victorian ice skating ensemble was accented by a frilly, lacey, 1930s tie-on jabot collar. 

To sew such a detail for this dress, the jabot piece was faced in the same fabric for clean finishing, and then edged in the golden cotton pieces to form the perfectly squared off neckline.  This made for a very odd and confusing piece to work with on its own, especially since the last 14 inches of both opposing ends are turned into tubes for the back ties.  Then, the golden edging alone is sewn onto the inside (wrong side) of the neckline, so it can be turned to the right side of the dress and topstitched down for a clean and decorative finish in one step.  Both the jabot and the back ties hang freely because they are attached to the contrast edging and not directly tacked to the dress.  As much as I adore the skirt’s clustered quadruple pleating, this neckline definitely wins one of my “favorite detail” awards.

Among all the years of fashion I sew, the 1920s has certainly been a decade which has seen the most improvement during my 10 years of blogging.  My higher skill set gives me the confidence to even pick up this old McCall pattern, something which had totally intimidated me back when it was first purchased.  My sense of style in the era has been slowly forming, assisting me to be more comfortable with the era.  This gives me confidence to both wear and make real deal fashion from the era.  It helps that I have been using true vintage patterns for my last several projects rather than winging it from modern based designs.  To have a true 1920s direction that an original pattern can lend that authentic aura to the finished project and the instructions are a learning experience good for one’s sewing skills.  Happily, there are more reprints of the older patterns now more than there were a decade ago when I first started acquiring antique originals.  You don’t have to wait for the happenstance pattern find or pay a pretty penny to work with these fantastic 1920s McCall patterns.  I highly recommend you try them out for yourself, even if only a reprint.  

I hope I have given you a small taste of how amazing and modern an almost 100 year old pattern can be.  The old McCall patterns are not backwards nor old-fashioned in manner of instruction and construction, for as dated as their styles may be.  They are printed, and in three languages – Spanish, French, and English.  How much more contemporary can you get?!  Hopefully, finally owning the 1920s shows in this modern interpretation of an old original pattern.  I feel like this is the first 20s era project (amongst the ones I can authentically date) in which I have the confidence, enjoyment, and wardrobe versatility that I normally have when wearing my go-to decade of the 1940s.  Not that I don’t still love all the 20s projects I made that came before now.  I do!  It’s just that I found ‘the one’ perfect for me to have a renewed sense for the era.  Look for more 1920s sewing projects here on my blog for the rest of the year.  I have too many empty gaps in that decade page on my site…I want to fill them up!

Winter “Petal” Gown

One of the main things I miss the most during winter is the lack of blooming beauties of nature.  How’s a warm-weather-loving girl supposed to survive months without green grass, pretty flowers, and the comforting sound of rustling leaves?  Even still, I will admit their dormant and withered state has its own loveliness.  Winter’s withered vegetation holds onto its amazing potential for future blossoming under the cloak of an unassuming, bland, natural-toned exterior.  Scientific explanations aside, it is rather like an annual miracle, a kind of superpower, if you think about it in a child’s point of view.  Let me celebrate the awesomeness of nature in winter through some high fashion for this year’s “Designin’ December” challenge, sponsored by Linda at “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!” blog.  I am channeling the great American couturier Charles James, and hopefully looking like a drooping but elegant winter petal doing so, with my muses being two famous gowns from circa 1950. 

The way I understand it, there are definite phases in Charles James’ life.  In the 1930s, he had moved from millinery to making garments, designing pieces ahead of his time inventing wrap dresses and “sculptural fashion” such as a futuristic puffer jackets.  He also took control of the Charles James brand by licensing his company under his name in 1935.  In the 1940s, James made important marketing connections, working with Elizabeth Arden, Lord & Taylor, and Bergdorf Goodman as well as being photographed by the famous Cecil Beaton for Vogue.  “Mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery is his forte,” Vogue noted of James in 1944, as he continued offering luxurious dresses despite war-time rationing, at times even using inventive fabrics.  Then, there is the man of his first (of two) COTY award of 1950 in which his work was defined by over-the-top, 10-something pound full-skirted evening gowns – equipped with caging and immense boning since they were almost always bare shouldered – that only high society’s wealthiest women could afford.  This last and most defining period of his design is what I am channeling with my sewing, although I think the first 30’s portion had the greater talent because I respect the avant-garde.  Charles James retired in 1958 and died in 1978.

Unfortunately, I cannot personally connect to either time period of James’ life, as he is not remotely on my list of favorite designers.  It has been said he would lock his seamstresses in his shop if he felt they were not “working hard enough”, and being the fiery personality and obsessive perfectionist that he was, made very few friends he could keep.  Between his irresponsibility in financial matters and his inability to ever deliver an order on time to a client, I feel too distracted by the drama of his life’s story to fully appreciate his work, and I do not welcome the erotic undertones he subtly included in his dresses.  By all means, nevertheless, please do your own research on the life, the works, and ingenuity of Charles James so you can make your own opinion.

His design house did not outlive him so he is not known as well as his genius warrants.  Charles James was an influence not worthy of being so largely unacknowledged.  He inspired the likes of Christian Dior, Salvador Dalí, and Balenciaga while Chanel and Schiaparelli (one of my top favorite designers) were included in his exclusive list of clients.  Thus, I admire his work and ingenuity enough that some of his creations warrant my saving pictures of them for remembering later.  Other things he is famous for actually repel me – I must respect my natural reaction.  Thus, it is a big deal for me to even be attempting this designer imitation in the first place.  Do not anticipate any other direct Charles James inspiration to be seen here again on my blog, unless I happen to remake James’ famous “Taxi” dress of 1932.  So enjoy this probable one-off Charles James appreciation post here, and come delight with me in the monotone loveliness of nature in winter.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% cotton thick novelty ribbed velveteen, lined in a poly crepe, for the top and a polyester nubby ivory shantung for the bottom half of my outfit

PATTERNS:  Simplicity #1409, a year 1955 original, from my personal pattern stash, for the ‘petal’ top and a Butterick “Retro” #4919, year 2006 reprint of a 1952 pattern (originally Butterick #6338) for the skirt portion

NOTIONS:  lots of thread, bias tape, and two zippers                                                           

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The shantung dress worn as a skirt was finished on April 9, 2021 in 15 hours while my bodice was finished on December 16, 2021 after 16 hours (8 hours hand stitching, 5 hours by machine, and 3 hours of re-drafting the pattern).

THE INSIDES:  My top is fully lined while the shantung part has its raw edges zig-zagged over to reduce fraying

TOTAL COST:  The novelty velvet for the top was a remnant found on clearance at JoAnn fabric store at $4 for 7/8 of a yard.  Lining for the velvet was a no-cost choice – it was a bed sheet originally and leftover from sewing this 90’s era sundress.  The shantung was bought 10 years back from a local store, which is out-of-business now, so I no longer remember the cost.  I did buy 4 yards of the shantung and I always bought fabric from that store on some sort of discount…maybe I spent $7 a yard.

The iconic “petal dress” of 1951, in cream and olive toned satin, was my main inspiration ever since I happened to acquire my Simplicity #1409 pattern.  The pointed hip detail was an unmistakable reference.  James described the the dress as a “curving stem of velvet…above 25 yards of blowing, billowing (silk) taffeta.”  According to the Chicago History Museum, which has a black and white version in its collection, “If James were not so clever, the Petal’s twenty-five yards of material would have created an undesirable bulk at the waist. He solved this by stitching most of the material to petal-shaped hip panels and only one layer to the waist seam.” It makes the torso appear as an upside down stalk, with the hip points being what is technically called the “sepal” to flowering plants, with the skirt becoming the petals.

Later, I happened to stumble across an image of another Charles James dress from the year 1950 on which the red velvet bodice had the same “W” notched neckline as my Simplicity #1409.  This red and white Charles James dress was famously worn by Mrs. Barbara Paley, the wife of the founder of CBS, as well as Mrs. Dominique de Menil, a rich art patron in Texas, besides being featured in the 2014 “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.  Now I had a stronger reason to blend both features together, just as the pattern has it, which was actually just the way I liked it!  I noticed that both had velvet bodices and know that both have much more complex technical detailing than I realize from only looking at pictures.  I was not doing anything that couture in the one week I had to recreate this.  There was also a black and white variations James made of this inspiration dress, as well (see it here).  However, I gravitate towards James’ versions with more color.  My intent with my simpler, blended version here was merely to do my best work and capture the spirit of both dresses in one.

My dual inspiration garments were both dresses, but here I have turned my interpretation into a two-piece set.   You’d never guess, would you?!?  Charles James was inventive and came up with unusual combinations, so I thought my choice might be (remotely) along his way of thinking.  A big difference between us might be the way I was driven by a desire for versatility and practical finery, and not a desire for pure extravagance with my ‘copy’.  Only this month (yes, very last minute), when I decided on this particular designer project, it struck me that a vintage 1952 dress I sewed in ivory shantung earlier this year was the perfect color and silhouette for pairing with a Charles James “petal” dress look-alike.  Wearing it skirt-style, with the wrapped bodice portion hanging inside, saved me the time and money, and is just what I wanted anyway!  The full dress will receive its own post very soon because it is just so good, so versatile when worn as intended, and a sneaky movie costume look-alike, too.  It is a 4 seamed full circle skirt with a wrap bodice which is the most useful evening gown you could ever want.  I am ecstatic over it…but for now, the ‘skirt’ will not be addressed anymore in this post.  So stay tuned!

I have actually been sitting on this Charles James inspired project for the last few years.  There is a perfect time for every one of my sewing projects – I let inspiration happen when it naturally comes or when my free time allows.  Up until now, the tweaking that my chosen pattern needed as well as the lack of easily finding the “perfect” fabric has together discouraged me from tackling this idea.  The pattern I had for the ‘petal’ blouse was a Junior misses (teenager) pattern in petite proportions as well as a tiny bust-waist-hips ratio.  It needed dramatic resizing before being useable for me.  I had to trace the two bodice pieces out to tissue paper and cut, splice, and tape it all back together into something for my measurements.  I wanted the set-in shoulders to hug the outer point of my real shoulders so I cut and spread open the sides of the neckline to adapt.  The original red 1950 gown hugs the end of the shoulders but has a flap-like collar, too, while the classic “petal” gown is mere skinny straps – neither were to my taste.  I always stick to my personal preference first over any desire to copy verbatim any original – no matter how good that may be.  

I made so many tweaks and customizations to my tissue paper pattern ‘copy’ I feel as if it is my design now more than something directly owed to the original vintage pattern.  I recognize that my chosen pattern is from a date which is several years later from the Charles James original inspiration dresses, but he was fashion forward and home sewing companies no doubt had their hands full keeping up with all the great designs that were exploding right and left during the 1950s.  I have read from reputable sources that Charles James ‘revived’ the Petal design in 1958 as a ready-to-wear dress for the junior market, but I have yet to find solid proof of this.  So I guess my Simplicity pattern from 1955 was both ahead and behind for its time, coming after the original 1949 Petal dress but before James’ release for teenagers.

As I mentioned above, my favorite (and the one I see the most) of the “petal” dress has a sort of brownish, earthy, green velvet bodice.  I had a novelty velvet on hand, only recently bought, that was an olive-toned tan with an ombré sheen – very deluxe looking and close enough in reference.  It is obvious Charles James apparently liked working with velvet, and his 50’s era creations were highly structured.  I figured this thick ribbed material – which was almost like a heavy corduroy – would be very suitable.  I did not bone the seams or add any internal structure to the bodice because of the sturdy weight of my velvet.  I figure I can come back and add boning channels with some hand stitching if I choose to at a later date.  Inside is merely a lightweight lining to give it a fine finish and smooth feel against my skin.  The lining also helps stop the way the raw edges were disintegrating into little fuzzy lint balls everywhere I was working.  It was a messy project that definitely added to our normal household amount of dust.  It turned out looking so cleanly tailored when finally finished, though!

I expected this velvet bodice was going to be easy-to-make – so I thought.  There were only two pattern pieces, few seams, and the pattern (since it was re-drafted by me) was exactly my size now but it became a beast that I could hardly bear to finish.  The points of the hem and the neckline, the sharp curves around the arm openings, and a mirrored pairing of the lining with its velvet bodice all severely tested my normal desire for perfectionism.  I did so very much hand stitching on everything but the internal darts and right (zipper free) side seam for the sake of my said desire for perfection…I guess I am not too completely unrelated to Charles James as I may think. 

My fingers have never before been so sore and torn up from the hand stitching through the layers of tough velvet…I was to the point of tears only halfway though.  At the same time, I am never very comfortable using a metal thimble and would rather adapt my stitching strategy by using a different finger.  I tore up the skin of almost four fingertips by the time I was finished.  Yet, I have a boundless determination to not leave my sewing projects hanging.  I try not to have unfinished endeavors.  I also had a deadline for it to be part of the “Designin’ December” challenge!  As you can see, I powered through, with stitches that are not as perfect as I might have liked but still finely done, for a top which turned out just as wonderful as I had happily imagined.

Additional versions (circa 1953) of the Charles James dress originally worn by Babe Paley – see the Victorian influence?!

Early on, the hip hem points vaguely reminded me of Tinker Bell, the fairy in Disney’s 1953 animated Peter Pan movie.  Fairies are forest creatures and protectors of the woods, after all and often modeled after flowers in the visual arts.  Even more so, though, my two inspiration dresses are very much reminiscent of the elegant open necklines, close fitting bodices, liberal use of luxurious material, and artful skirt drapery of women’s older historical clothing.  The Victorian bustle era, 1850s caged skirts, the 18th century court gowns with hip panniers, and the corseted shaping of the Edwardian period all were sources of inspiration for the 1940s and 50’s gowns created by Charles James.   He just did a more modern, individualistic interpretation of those old styles, but the principles of boning, caging, draping, and overall artful reshaping the female figure are still there.  Every famous quote from every other designer about wearing a dress – such as “What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it” by Yves Saint Laurent or “It’s not about the dress you wear but it’s about the life you lead in the dress” by Diana Vreeland – is blown away by the overwhelming power of a Charles James frock.

My personal recreation is nowhere as extreme as what the courtier who was my inspiration would have chosen, although I am wearing a heavily boned original 1950s body fitting brassiere underneath.  Comparing my version to the original dress, I am now also half-wishing I had worn a couple of my floofy 50’s petticoats underneath instead of just one.  My outfit seemed very grand with a grandly swishy skirt when I was wearing it for these photos – I was knocking things over!  As I’ve mentioned before, this is meant to be my practical, made-in-one-week, using-what-was-on-hand version of something extremely high fashion.  Since this turned out something less dramatic than the original yet still immediately recognizable, I am very still proud I was able to pull off what I did.  I am very proud I worked through the pain and trouble to perfect those points, corners, and invisible hand stitching, too.

This was a tough sewing project for me to end the year on, but one that – just like my other “Designing December” entries from past years – is something which ends my year of sewing on a grand note.  It’s like going out in fireworks to have my last project of the year be about attaining for myself those seemingly unattainable designer pieces I languish over as a photo on my computer.  Now all I need is an excuse of some event to wear this glamorous outfit somewhere…soon!  Petals are the showiest part of a flower after all, and this “Petal” set is just begging to be seen at a dinner party or dance somewhere.  I will be a walking bouquet!  Until then, this dress will be only live vicariously through this blog post.  So I’ll send off 2021 with my special “Petal” outfit, to offer some natural beauty for entering into the cold and quiet darkness I despise about January.  I wish you a New Year a peace, health, beauty, and happiness.