A Versatile Wrap-on Evening Gown

I realize it has now been 7 months since I promised to share “soon” the so-called skirt portion to my Charles James designer inspired project, my great and final clincher for the end of 2021.  Life’s ebb and flow carries me away in unintended directions more often than not!  As I mentioned without too much detail in the post for that Charles James outfit, my skirt was really an evening dress.  It happily turned out to be an amazing chameleon of a garment, thus guaranteeing me years of wear and enjoyment. 

I don’t know about you, but I really haven’t ever thought of an evening gown as being something very wearable, much less something versatile and extremely useful.  From a maker’s perspective, I love sewing evening wear but hate that there are so few occasions to wear such things.  It causes consternation that such pretty clothes hang unused and lonely in my closet.  This post’s evening dress is the answer to all such problems.  Leave it to a vintage 1950s era design to offer a smart but glamorous evening dress that is adaptable in both the way it fits and the way it gets worn!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an ivory polyester shantung, contrasted by a burnt orange poly chiffon

PATTERN:  Butterick #4919, a year 2006 reprint of a 1952 pattern, originally Butterick #6338

NOTIONS NEEDED:  one long 22” zipper, and lots of thread

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was relatively quick and easy – about 15 hours for the dress and an extra hour to make the chiffon scarf.  Both were finished on April 9, 2021

THE INSIDES:  left mostly raw and merely loosely zig-zag stitched over to prevent fraying

TOTAL COST:  I no longer remember what I paid for it, but I do recall it was a good deal for the 6 yards I bought – about $50 perhaps.

This dress has been a long time coming!  I bought the shantung and picked out the pattern to match with it – even cut all the fabric pieces out – back in 2013.  Originally, I was inspired by one of my favorite old movies, An Affair to Remember from 1957, to try and sew my own imitation of the actress Deborah Kerr’s ivory evening gown from the beginning of the movie.  I had planned on this being my entry for the “Butterick to the Big Screen” contest that the pattern Company was hosting in honor of their 150th Anniversary.  I made a Doris Day inspired blouse instead (and became the winner, after all).  The pattern and fabric pieces to this project were then bagged up together and mostly forgotten all these years…until now! 

When I laid out my “Affair to Remember” undertaking anew, I no longer felt like fully committing to reworking the pattern.  Nor was I enthusiastic about adding on chiffon scarf panels to make it closer to the movie dress, as originally planned.  Suddenly I was merely content with making it as-is out of the envelope and having a mere reference to my original inspiration.  One simple, 120” long, separate scarf was still made out of sheer chiffon, as I had bought the proper fabric anyway for this intention.  Nevertheless, I didn’t go over the top or try too hard to imitate Deborah Kerr’s gown.  I love this dress too much to wish I had deviated at all from the original pattern’s design.  It is fantastic just the way it is.  Having a subtle reference to my original inspiration gown is enough to make me happy.

Now, I am aware that all gowns are dresses, but not all dresses are gowns…except in the case of Butterick 4919.  The pattern is even more versatile than my own gown by showing it in a shorter “day” length, and recommending it to be sewn up in a cotton, jersey knit, or lightweight faille.  A gown is a long lined formal dress, while a dress is more general term for an everyday one-piece garment of both top and skirt combined.  Butterick 4919 is so versatile, and it is unlined (being simple to make), so it is really both a gown and a dress, as well as an excellent skirt, too! 

You see, the sides of the bodice are completely open, and the skirt is the only part of this gown that has closed side seams.  The skirt is a full circle skirt, which between that and the cut-on ties which close up the bodice front, is why the pattern calls for at least 5 yards of fabric, whether you are using a 60” or 45” width material.  The short straps attached to the front bodice are hooked together under the back bodice at the waistline.  Then, there is a center back zipper which closes up both the skirt and the bodice.  The front and back are attached at the shoulders, still, after all.  There is a slight halter- style taper in to the high cut shoulders.  They are gathered in at the front half and plain in the back, which was a trick to sew.

Yet, in order to fully get dressed in this garment, you need to have fun with the ties.  They are a yard and a half in length each coming out from being cut-on with the back bodice.  They can be twisted, tied, and wrapped in all sorts of ways.  I even successfully tied it halter style.  For an even cleaner, simpler look, I can go rogue and tuck the long ties into the dress and hook the shorter ties on the outside of the dress.  I wore it has a skirt by letting the entire bodice hang into the skirt portion of the dress and zipping up the back as far as the waistline – easy peasy!  The way the ivory is such basic color helps along the fact that this is one of my wardrobe’s most versatile dresses.

I did do a small adaptation to the ties.  I couldn’t bear to just skinny hem the edges to the ties, not only because I hate doing such a finish on long seams but also since the satin underside of the shantung would show.  Thus, I faced the ties with more fabric by double layering the entire back bodice.  This way there are no raw edges and two ‘right’ sides (with the nubby matte finish facing out) to the shantung.  Having double thickness to the ties might not have been the best idea – it sure makes them much more bulky around the waist.  Yet, there is no wrong side to ‘hide’ this way and less opportunity for the ties to stretch out of shape, as the ties end up being cut on the cross grain bias.  I’m conflicted as to what is the best way to really finish the ties…I feel there has to be a better way to streamline them.  For now though, all is well that ends well!

This is the only Butterick reissue that I am entirely pleased with.  So many of the other vintage or retro reprints have obviously been tinkered with by the company and seem to have wonky fitting, modernized details, and unpredictable amounts of wearing ease.  The back bodice did seem to run long, but that is normal for me to find on both reprints and originals from that era as I have a deep sway back.  The size chart given was spot on with the finished garment.  I ended up with the same as what is shown and it is even better than I expected.  What’s not to like here?  The only downside may be the amount of fabric the long dress calls for, but a discount or second-hand bed sheet set would be the perfect way to cheaply try this pattern out on a budget.  I have a feeling this dress would be utterly fantastic and dreamy in a soft cotton or lightweight linen print. 

For something so elegant to also be easy-to-make as well as comfortable is a big enough draw, but the fact that it is a vintage design still timelessly in style makes for a happy win in my estimation.  Even though this pattern is out of print, if you would like to try it for yourself there still seems to be many readily available and rather reasonably priced through sources over the internet.  The sheer amount of fabric you have to work with and the unusual construction presents a few tricky challenges, yet this wrapped gown is immensely worth the effort to sew, believe me.  It is Hollywood glam for every day.  If this dress was made in a white crepe, it could be reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s 1955 halter dress.  In a bright pink, it would imitate Betty Draper’s taffeta gown in Season two’s “The Benefactor” episode 3 of Mad Men television show.  In a cotton polka dot print, it could reference what Jane Russell wore in 1953 for an “imprint” ceremony in the courtyard at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard as publicity for the film ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.  I could go on with my ideas but I want you to add in your own thoughts, before I get carried away.  Granted, this Butterick gown is not a true halter dress as the back and shoulders not exposed.  However, it still looks the part as a classic 50’s halter dress, and that is part of the clever practicality to this gown.  You don’t need to adapt your normal lingerie and it is no less appealing for the little extra coverage!

Now that I have finally posted this outfit I started way back in 2013 and completed in 2021, I can feel like it is fully finished.  I think I will follow up with some more of these half-forgotten and need-to-be posted sewing projects of mine!  Do any of my fellow bloggers out there have a backlog queue of things you’ve made but never got around to posting?  Surely I’m not the only one!  I think we can all agree this gown was a good one to let out from my archives and share sooner than even later.  Let me know if this post becomes the reason you try Butterick 4919 retro reprint!

Simple Luxury – a 1940 Flannel Bias Nightgown

I’ve been wanting to post this for so long (two years), but it’s a nightgown so I don’t usually make sure to have make-up on and decently arranged hair in evening when I want to be cozy and relax!  This is the first part of a small three part February series of easy ways to do vintage for nighttime.  Emileigh of “Flashback Summer” blog beat me to the punch, and has a similar idea with her own “Lovely Lounging” series for February.

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Vintage fashion really knows how to make basic items so elegant and beautiful, and I think nightwear is one of the best examples of that, especially in the 1930s and 40’s.  Not that new luxury nightgowns cannot be found nowadays as well, but they tend to cost a lot of dough and are generally in static-attracting, non-breathable polyesters.  On the flip side, so many flannel nightgowns available (even today) are the “granny-style” Lanz of Salzburg type, completely vintage authentic, decent, quaint, and cozy.  Yet, I’m too afraid that a vintage one will end up tearing irreparably, so although they are so beautiful and still rather easy-to find in our town, I only own one and don’t wear it to sleep in.

100_4670-compwNow, the 1940 pattern I used for this nightgown’s post was so quick (a few hours), easy (only four pieces), required little fabric (just under 2 yards), and fits and feels wonderful to wear with the bias-cut skirt working in my favor.  This has the best of both elegance and warm comfort, not to mention it’s new and hand-made vintage.  I am totally hooked…I want one of these to wear every night!

Now you’ve also got a glimpse of our tiny 1930’s era bathroom, too.  Lucky for me I like lavender so much, since I see it every day!  We are proud to be one of the seemingly few homes in our primarily 1930’s/1940’s era neighborhood which still has many original features, especially in our bathroom.  We have lavender swirled Vitrolite tiles, powder grey/blue painted walls, and black and white tiled floor.  Odd combinations of colors were a popular craze starting in the late 1920’s…at least we don’t have colored fixtures, too!  Anyway, this architectural chat should postponed to get to “The Facts”.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% cotton brushed flannel in two prints – just under two yards of a purple and green floral with an aqua background, with an extra ¼ yard of a swirled purple print.

100_4669-compwNOTIONS:  Everything I needed was on hand already, only needs basic items: thread and bias tapes.

PATTERN:  Simplicity #3508, year 1940 (…this was such a lucky buy on Ebay, one of those where nobody bids and you get it for the dirt cheap starting price!)  By the way, look at this year 1940 Hollywood #544.  This Jane Wyman pattern is just about an exact copy of Simplicity #3508!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  From cutting out to finish took me about 3 hours.  It was finished on February 27, 2015.

THE INSIDES:  raw but nicely stitched over

TOTAL COST:  These fabrics were bought so very long ago (maybe 10 years back) from Hancock Fabrics, so I’m counting this as free.

This nightgown is a great example of a small niche in the decade of the 1940’s – pre-WWII times.  The fashion from 1940 to 1941 (and maybe 1942, for a stretch) has a very unique style in my eyes.  It shows strong influence of the styles from the decade before, the 1930’s, so much so that some early 40’s designs can be similar to as far back as about 1936.  Yet it is still the 40’s, too, so that lends its own touch to the styles.  The popular Tyrolean/Slavonic/Germanic designs of the late 30’s and the Latin American prints which spawned of the “Good Neighbor Policy” of 1933 was another way that influences carried over into the 40’s as well with such items as pinafores, peasant styles, dirndl-style embroidery, fun border printed skirts and dresses, Xavier Cugat music, novelty brooches, and unusual hats (like turbans, for one example)…this is just a short list.  Besides, rationing wasn’t in effect as of yet in America and our country’s designers were just beginning to hold their own against the other leading fashion headquarters of the world.  I see in the early 40’s a glimpse of something similar but yet apart from the rest of what 1940’s fashion became – it also gives me the sneaking haunch that had not WWII changed and influenced so much, the decade could have looked much differently than we know it.

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My duo of matching/contrasting flannel fabric has been something I’ve been holding onto for about a decade because I liked it so much and also because I wasn’t up for sewing nightwear until just a few years ago.  My original intent was pajama pants, but no – I have enough of them.  One night when I was in the strong mood to wear a vintage nightgown, I had finally felt I was holding onto the flannel long enough and laid my pattern and fabric out in the early evening and started cutting.  By late night (our bed-time) I had a new, glamorous nightgown.  Oh, thank goodness for uncomplicated, easy satisfaction projects!  I love it when you can start something and wear the results on the same day!  So many early 40’s patterns were labeled as simple-to-sew, when really they are complicated by today’s standards.  This nightwear pattern has no easy-to-make labeling, but it is truly a breeze.

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Perhaps the other best part was the fact there is no need for any closures.  No zipper, no snaps, no ties – the bias gives enough, and the pattern sizing is generous enough that this just slips on over my head.  No facings, either – just bias tape finished edges all around.  How easy can it get?  The flannel body keeps me warm enough, the sleevelessness gives me just enough to air to keep myself from being too hot, and if I’m chilly I’ll just cover up with my housecoat…another tease of what’s in the next post, sorry!

Before I forget to add fitting facts – this nightgown did run large (like 2 sizes too large).  Granted some extra room comes from the double facts that flannel gets larger as it is washed and worn besides extra ease needed to make this a slip-on gown (as I said above). However, I sewed a full front and a full back and then sewed the side seams as my last step so the fit is easily adjustable.  The nightgown pattern also was originally oh-so-very long.  I graded out about 10 inches from the length.  I do not need to trip all over an evening gown length just feel elegant in my bed wear! 100_6236-compw

The bottom hem band of contrast was added not so much to extend length (although I didn’t mind) but just to provide a matching contrast which would pair well with the tie belt.  I didn’t want just the aqua floral, not that it isn’t so pretty, but I had kept the purple swirl flannel paired with it for such a long time the two deserved to stay together.

As lovely and simple and quick as this nightgown was to make, this was (at the same time) another unprinted, hole-punched markings pattern where the pieces do not properly fit or match together.  The bodice needed to be cut smaller to fit into the skirt and the gathers didn’t seem quite equal, and I think this is mostly due to the skirt portion.  I have read before that unprinted patterns can be off-balance, because of the way they were made.  Large stacks of many, many layers of sheet are die cut and if you get one towards the bottom, its markings can be off – and anyone who sews knows that every little variation counts towards a successful finished garment.  Oh well, this is a simple enough design it was not hard to adjust, so I’m sorry if I seem like I’m complaining…just making an observation for you all just in case you happen to snag this pattern for yourself, too…and do buy it if you see it, and if it’s not too much for your wallet!

100_6224a-compwThere are plans in the works to use this pattern again, believe me.  Out of all the patterns in my collection, this one is a true asset in the way it is a good base, a tried-and-true starting point to tweak and draft off many other variations, especially some of the ever popular 1930’s era bias gowns.  Just imagine how this design would hang and drape in a lightweight sweater knit or a silk charmeuse for a dress version!  My immediate ideas for re-incarnations of my nightgown’s pattern are Simplicity #3835 (year 1941), one of these 1933 dresses or this 1935 evening dress (both from “Eva Dress”), and even this super elegant Butterick #5413 (year 1933).

For now, I just hope to make the bed jacket at some point to keep the chill off my arms when I don’t want the weight of a full housecoat.  I did make a bed jacket from a different pattern, modelling it over this post’s nightgown (link to see it here), but this was actually a present for my mother.

Stay tuned for the next installments of my vintage nightwear reveal.  Now, to decide which night wear project for myself to tackle next.  I actually have three in the queue – will you help me pick the next one?

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An Emerald Mid-1930’s Vionnet Gown

With Prom season upon us, I’d like to post about a quick and easy but awesomely elegant gown to make from the genius of history’s famous designer Madeleine Vionnet.  I love finding patterns that look the opposite of the amount of difficulty they present in the making process.  If you’ve got a handful of hours, a super fancy buckle, and several yards of nice fabric with a formal event to attend, then this pattern could be for you!  It’s the epitome of 1930’s glamour yet passes as fully modern.

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THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% polyester crepe back satin (I wish I could have used silk, but one can only spend so much dough for fabric…*sigh*)vionnet book covers - from iocolor

NOTIONS:  Just thread and bias tape were the only notions I needed, besides the buckle.

PATTERN:  Pattern #12: “Planes and Gussets”, page 84, of “Madeleine Vionnet” book by Betty Kirke (book covers image from here)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Only four hours!  It was made on the evening of December 4, 2015, with about an hour more to place and sew on the buckle and finish the ties.

100_6801-compTHE INSIDES:  All bias bound, except for the bottom hem which is on the bias and left raw with some fray check to keep the edge in check.

TOTAL COST:  the crepe-back satin was a Hancock Fabrics “Beautiful Fine Fabric” special – I bought it on sale for about $20.  The buckle was bought at an antique/vintage re-sale shop for about $35.

This Vionnet gown makes me feel so amazing and elegant, like some movie star of the silver screen of olden times.  Words to describe it would just seem tacky.  The bias moving with you and flowing around you is a lovely feeling.  Every lady deserves a good bias dress.  I have heard some women mention that only certain figures can pull off a bias dress, but I disagree.  First, women of the 1930’s were generally slender (it was the Depression) but they did wear foundational undergarments which helped with shaping.  Shaping underneath or not, nevertheless when the bias is cut well with a good design it will do a body good!  After all, I have never yet found any RTW (ready-to-wear) frock which accomplishes the bias correctly like when you find a really good pattern and make it yourself.

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Although I absolutely love it, I cannot figure out an anomaly about this gown.  The original dress which is on display online at the MET museum lists this design of evening gown as dating to 1936-1937.  However, the Betty Kirke book from which the pattern came from lists this dress as 1935.  Alright – who’s right?  Which year is this dress?  Also, between knowing what I know about fashion history and what I’ve read, the gown is both behind its time and ahead at the same moment.  The early 1930’s had a fad for the “half-naked-from-the-waist-up” styles of evening gown, then by about 1933 the styles became slightly more decent by following the fad for higher necks and shoulders covered with ruffles or poufy sleeves (discussed here at “Witness2Fashion” under “The Letty Lynton Dress” and “Very Bare Backs, 1930’s”, also see my past-made mid-30’s evening gown).  This emerald Vionnet gown has a taste of both contrasting styles.

So, I’m slightly confused but still impressed that Vionnet’s design of this post’s featured dress is from the mid-1930’s, but it goes with the Depression era perfectly when women’s clothes were excessively extravagant and richly elegant – the opposite of the (then) current economic circumstances.  Simple ornamentation is the ‘normal’ key to such clothes…the gown itself is amazing interest enough… but Vionnet’s gown calls for a unique closure to be a focus point!  How daring, but it works.  Another common feature to similar 30’s gowns are the extremely low backs and hemlines – achieving this with Vionnet’s evening gown was hard and a tad tricky.  I’ll explain further down.

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The patterns in the book are small sized with no specifications as to what percent to grade up to for full size.  I went through a copy store’s services to have them scan in, plot out, enlarge, and print my patterns since this was my first time making a pattern from this book.  The only “bench mark” I went by to know how much to enlarge was for me to pick one spot on the garment for which I could say how long it should be, and figure the rest of the garment should follow grading up properly from there.  For instance, I realized for this pattern that the length of the front rectangles, from the top of the neckline to what should be the side waist, should be about the length of my collar bone to my waist (adding in some extra inches for error).  This measurement was a define spot to realize how much to grade the book’s pattern up to…probably not the best way but wasn’t the worst either, just so as long as it worked.

As far as I could tell the pattern is made for Japanese sizes 9 AR (US/Canadian sizes 8, U.K. size 10, and European size 38).  This would make it for bust 34” (86 cm.), waist 26” (66 cm.), hip 37 (94 cm.).  I don’t remember where I read this but it seems accurate, maybe slightly smaller.  I am very close to this size so I didn’t make any changes to the fit because bias cut is a bit forgiving.

100_6776a-compAs it turned out, I could have made some small changes/adjustments to the fit, but this is just really the perfectionist in me wanting everything just right…a carbon copy of Vionnet.  Part of me wishes I had made my gown just a tad longer so it sweeps the floor like a true 30’s gown, but that’s impractical for me so my dress is just below ankle length.  Also the dip in the back where the ties make a “U” turn around the inserts could have been made a little wider for a sharper curve.  My back curve to the dress is more like a “U” that got bent open and I think only the upper tops of the inserts could be lengthened for a look more like the original Vionnet dress.  Pick, pick, pick – it’s what I do.  My dress is fine and the pattern is really easy…a tad hard to adjust.

The pattern for this evening gown is awesomely simple and so awkwardly large.  Except for 100_6593a-compthe little parallelogram-shaped piece which completes the back dip, the dress is made of one huge shape.  I really don’t know how someone who doesn’t have ample floor space or a gigantic table can cut this dress out.  We have large open floor spaces at our home but even still it was maxed out to lay out 3 yards of 60 inch fabric in a single layer.  This also had to be done when no one was around to walk in the house but me!  As you can also see in my picture, I let the natural end of the fabric’s width dictate the seam where the dress would have a panel joined in to complete the dress.  I did not follow the “joining line” on the pattern, as I wanted minimal seams (the dress seems to have been accommodating for the 35 inch or 45 inch fabric widths normal for those times).

I believe the key to this dress being a success is 1.) the necessity of making the neck high and back low and 2.) the placement of the buckle.  Firstly, the back dip needs to be low, low…like right at or above the waist because if not, the bias will not spread out over the bum properly.  The neck needs to be high (close to the collarbone) for the back dip to be in the right place but also because it keeps the front in proportion, especially when it comes to adding the buckle which brings the dress in.

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Thus, secondly, I found from looking at the original garment from Vionnet at the MET and experimenting with the placement on my own dress that the buckle has to be at a “sweet spot” on the body to reach the intended shape, drape, and look.  There is a triangular space above your belly button that is between your ribcage just about big enough for the palm of my hand to cover.  When the dress neckline comes to reach or go just under your collarbone (where it needs to hit), THIS SPOT between the ribcage and above the waist is where the buckle should go on the dress.  Why am I so strong on this?  I have seen plots of Vionnet’s garments where it proves how her clothes where designed with the composition of the natural lines of the body and its muscles in mind so it makes sense to me for her to pull the dress in at the same place where your body is “pulled in”…not where it pivots.  Also, when the buckle is placed in that “sweet spot” the dress naturally flares out over both the bust and the waist/hips, creating the illusion of a small middle and at a more proper waistline, too.  Conventional dressing knows nothing of the power of working with the body, and most people (including me) get so wrapped up in the only spots we focus on – waist, hips, bust, and maybe shoulders or other points, too.  The comfort spot of “the waist” is different on everyone, but the buckle’s “sweet spot” is the same on everyone, and a very strong point in the body as it is…a good place to hang the dress.DSC_0584a-comp

The ‘leaping gazelle across the pastoral scene’ on the original buckle is so beautiful and also very appropriately classic to the 1920’s and 1930’s.  An image widely used on anything and everything to home and eating pieces to fashion (see my very own Elgin Compact, at right) and ornamental purposes, the leaping gazelle is an Art Deco carryover from the peaceful Art Nouveau era.  The 1930’s 100_6803a-compideal enjoyed reliving the Grecian past, through flowing, body-conscious dressing, and no one expressed this better than Vionnet, so the carved ivory buckle on the original gown could not be any more perfect.  My own buckle, however, takes on the more uber-fancy and bling-loving side of the Art Deco era though it does have some swirling to the design.  My buckle reminds me of costume jewelry with all its gems and details but it is some sort of fine metal (sterling silver, maybe) because it polished up nicely, even though the gems are probably fake.  I also pinned another authentic vintage 1920’s or 1930’s pin to keep my back straps in place at the back of my neck.100_6755a-comp

We went back to the proper time period and location where a dress like this would have been worn for our photo shoot location – the Chase Park Plaza.  This hotel in downtown was newly completed in 1931 “as an opulent Art Deco masterpiece despite the Great Depression.”  Many famous people have walked the Chase Park Plaza’s hallways and stayed under their roof, and with Art deco splendor around every corner need I say why I felt even snazzier modeling my fancy evening gown?!