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  A frock is a now outdated term for a dress of any length or style.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!

White, Orange and Green

There is nothing 100% “from scratch” in the outfit that I’m posting this time, as this is (mostly) about a current refashion of a 1940s blouse I’ve already made back in 2013. Yet, I have paired it with a “new” woolen skirt that I refashioned after finding it chewed up during storage in our cedar closet.  Together, this is a fresh take on two existing items in my closet which needed some care and attention…and that deserves its own post, right?!  After my previous post on my Victorian skating ensemble, I thought I’d keep things simple and mix things up by showing how I keep up pieces in my wardrobe.  In order to earn its keep in my closet, each item needs to be something that fits as well as something I love.  I have no qualms about putting something I’ve sewn through a scissor and under the sewing machine to have that happen!  I made it, I can fix it up, too.  Beyond that, though, this set is the perfect colors to wear for St. Patrick’s Day – the white, orange, and green of their national flag!

I couldn’t help but title my post after the song that this outfit calls to my mind.  It is an Irish folk song which supposedly rose out of the 1919 to 1921 War of Independence but got a popular revival in 1989 from the album “Home to Ireland” by Spailpin (listen to the song here).  It is almost my favorite Irish song album – I have loved it since my childhood!  “The Rising of the Moon” song is not to be missed and “Three Young Ladies Drinking Whiskey Before Breakfast” will get your toes tapping.  I am proudly very Irish through both sides of my family as well as my husband’s side, so this is not just celebrating a holiday which is alien to me but happily honoring my heritage!  Although some of my Irish ancestors may have preferred to sport orange for today, I align more with the wearing of green, so I love how this outfit unites all the colors just as the flag does.  (If you know your Irish history, you’ll understand this one without looking it up!)

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  The fabric for the blouse is from a seasonal collection of soft 100% cotton quilting fabric, lined in a matching rust orange color 100% cotton broadcloth

PATTERN:   Simplicity #1692, a 40s era re-release from 2013 (it’s one of their 85th Anniversary patterns), originally Simplicity #1093 from year 1944

NOTIONS:  I really had everything I needed on hand – thread, zipper, and bias tape.  The single button at the back neck closure is probably close to being the correct era for my vintage blouse, and comes from my special familial vintage button stash.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My blouse originally (first incarnation) took me about 10 hours to be done back in October 2013.  In the fall of 2021, I spent another 5 hours to renew the blouse into its latest version. 

Both pieces have recently been discovered to be too small on me, but the skirt also had damage so I had more than one incentive for altering them.  Now that we are coming out of two years of isolating and staying at home, I have to get to know the full potential of my closet again.  A good amount of my pieces have not been touched in a while because of the pandemic, and although my body has mostly either stayed the same or lost weight through it, the same cannot be said for my upper arms and hips. In some of the cases, letting out my 5/8 inch seam allowances is enough.  In other garments I find that I will need to add in gussets, side panels, or re-work the bodice.  These have now gone to my “need to alter, fit, or refashion” drawer. 

I still like these items enough to want to give them TLC or perhaps a whole new spin in the future.  After all, I invest myself in everything I make and probably 90% (or more) of my wardrobe is self-crafted at this point.  I am happy with what I have and don’t need to start a project from scratch to use my sewing capabilities.  Taking care of what I have is sustainable and responsible, I feel.  I am just sad to see how my body changes add to my already large enough make-do-and-mend pile.  How have the last two years affected your wardrobe?  Do you find things fitting you differently or have your style tastes just changed…maybe both?  Do you enjoy altering and mending or is it pure drudgery for you? 

What was wrong with the blouse in the first place?  You may be wondering this because the blouse has ended up looking close to the same way as when I originally made it – just short sleeved.  Well, I wasn’t going for a different spin, just the same look in a bigger size.  The armscye was already close fitting when I first made the blouse.  Its sleeves were now uncomfortable, losing any ‘reach room’ and the hips were too snug to zip down past the waistline.  Also, at this point – since my sewing skills have improved – I was quite embarrassed by my beginner’s efforts at making a buttoned cuff on long sleeves.  Thus, the long sleeves were sacrificed to become side panels to add room.  It was easier than digging through my containers of scraps in the unlikely hope that there would be a remnant large enough to help my need for a refashion!  One sleeve was divided in half to make two panels for the bodice sides, while the other sleeve went towards the neckline (see next paragraph).  The original zipper was unpicked out of the blouse and re-inserted in between the front main body and the left side panel.

Just adding in width was not enough to fully open up the sleeves for more shoulder room.  I also unpicked the sleeves from the bodice and re-sewed them in at ¼ inch seam allowance (the original blouse had 5/8 inch seam allowance).  That was better but my big arms were still pulling at the neckline.  So I opened up the neckline, loosened up the center front gathers, cut the neck more open by ½ inch, and sewed over the edge a brand new bias band (cut from the second sleeve, as mentioned above).  This time I left lots of excess length at the back closure to the neckline’s finishing bias band so I can button it in a way that is more open.  This assuages my claustrophobia over tightly necked garments, and widens out the shoulders a bit.  I was able to cut two more small bias strips for finishing the two sleeve’s hem ends.

The brown all-wool skirt was something I have had since my late teen years.  I had forgotten about it in our cedar closet for the last decade and it was not properly stored.  I believe it was carpet beetles which found it, because moths make bigger chews holes.  Nevertheless, the skirt had most of its significant chews from the hipline up to the waist.  Being a long ankle length to begin with, I merely cut off the top 1/3 of the skirt (keeping the side zipper, albeit short now), newly tapered in the side seams, added darts to fit, and finished the waistline with bias tape.  Any tiny holes left can be patched up easily since the wool is lofty and loosely woven. This was super easy refashion.

Much better than buying raw supplies, I use garments I already have as material for my sewing ideas.  This time, these two items were more of a refitting I suppose versus a total re-fashion.  Both my skirt and blouse are much more versatile and wearable now more than they ever were, so this is not just about ‘saving’ them, I feel.  A mid-length skirt is more all-weather, just the same as making short sleeves on my blouse.  My blouse is double layered (lined in all cotton) and the wool skirt is cozy so shortening their length has turned them into something I can wear for cooler days in the spring and fall, not just for the cold of winter.   This way I have the opportunity to layer them.  Paired over my blouse to bring out the green is an old favorite store bought corduroy blazer back from my teen years. 

To conclude, I wish a happy St. Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate!  To read more on some of the ways I celebrate this holiday, as well as the fancy green-themed vintage dress I may pick to wear today, please visit this Instagram post (linked here).  The fact that St. Patrick’s Day is always immediately followed by the first day of the verdant season of spring always gives me an excellent reason to be on a spell of fascination for anything green.  Here’s your tip off as to what may be featured in my next blog post!

Carolyn Ramey – the Undergrad Designer of the 1930s

Goodness knows that young college students are in need of some good wardrobe choices.  They themselves might not realize this fact, from the seemingly perpetual loungewear that I see being worn at my local campuses.  How to choose good wardrobe items is yet another life skill, a taste that needs to be learned by young people just like anything else, to have a good foundation for the future.  Most nice clothes seem to cater to adults, however.  If they don’t, they are either too trendy, too sexy, or too professional for an aspiring young person’s needs, and the designer of such is an adult. 

Elle Woods from the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde”

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a teen creating designer clothes for her own age group?  I’m not talking about clothes that are something unaffordable or used for creating a status symbol – something that is handily just what is sought after to be worn (even if that is an inherent desire is currently undeveloped in them).  Something that would raise the bar a bit from pajama pants and a tee without any compromise on comfort would no doubt be appreciated today.  Few people realize that a well-cut garment can and should be just as comfy as any loungewear.  Ready-to-wear fashion rarely offers this ideal combo, but vintage patterns do!  There’s no reason to live the most formative years of your life looking like you just rolled out of bed.

This ideal scenario for collage students’ fashion actually happened midway in the decade of the 1930s through the largely unknown young designer Carolyn Ramey – marketed as “the Co-ed designing for her fellow collage girls, juniors, and debutantes”.  She attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia , graduating in 1937 majoring in Applied Arts while at the Home Economics department.  (In 1931, Drexel began offering degrees through the School of Home Economics)  Her dress designs for girls her own age were inspired by yearly trips to Paris, London, and Milan on summer break as well as a frugal practicality, especially when it came to her trademark “date night frock” and “Campus Modes” lines. 

Both collections were already popular by her freshman year when she had her own fashion column and sewing pattern line in both “The Country Gentleman” magazine and the Chicago Tribune newspaper.  Luckily, her mother Mary Grace Ramey was a public fashion expert herself, and her Grandmother Caroline King was the long-time editor of “The Country Gentleman” magazine, so it helped that the young Carolyn had connections.  However, she seemed to honestly be thinking about the needs and problems of her fellow young ladies and wanted to help out the budgetary, social, romantic, and school-related aspects of their lives with the inventive designs which she had apparently been creating since her high school. 

Well, now I have tried out one of Ms. Ramey’s designs for myself – her “very first to be made from her fall season wardrobe”.  I am happy to have whipped up this luxurious and super comfortable evening gown in one night!  I am one happy (albeit modern) customer of her ideas and can attest they seem to be everything old newspaper articles touted them to be! 

Another one of Carolyn Ramey’s fetching (Paris inspired) designs!

This may be my new favorite 1930s era creation.   With only 5 major pattern pieces, and various extra pieces and recommendations included for style variations, this dress pattern is a pure goldmine of a find to me.  I picked up this pattern on a whim many years back now as it was a steal of a price.  I didn’t realize until recent research how amazing yet unknown is the history the behind this pattern and its designer.  I am thrilled to have finally come around to sew something of it!

Carolyn Ramey promised in a Chicago Tribune article from December 27, 1936 that her pattern designs aim to “look like a proverbial cool million…correct in cut, comfortable to wear, and dynamically flattering” even while being “sewn without much trouble”.  I find this 100% true with the one pattern I have in my stash, and from what I see in the several others I found via Internet images (such as this one).  My interpretation here may be a bit more chic than what a collage girl of the 1930s would prefer, but it is every bit true to the era with its semi-sheer burnout velvet and aura of sumptuousness.  Ms. Ramey’s preference for “simplicity imbued with charm” certainly helped me make the most of my fancy fabric, but what makes me really happy here is the way I seem to have merged her two different collection’s ideologies into one. 

The pattern used was from her Chicago Tribune “Campus Modes” line, yet I put my own twist on it by using velvet, which is along her “Date Night Frock” way of thinking.  To her, a date night dress should be “smart enough to merit appraisal, yet not conspicuous enough to be gaudy” as she said in the “Drexel Triangle” university newspaper of January 22, 1937.  She believed “that ‘date frocks’ must have enough snap about them to make them stand out in a crowd” without being “too conspicuous”, while campus wear needs to reflect “the spirit of youth” but be the perfect transitional wear to escort them into the professional world.  I see this dress as checking off both boxes.

It seems Carolyn Ramey’s “date frocks” line was through personal consultation and made to order as they were “her particular hobby”, from the meager information I have found.  Her “Campus Modes” was a weekly pattern release and fashion advice section in the Chicago Tribune starting January 3, 1937 and lasting until 1940, as far as I can tell.  She was not a “one ball juggler” – she even tried something new in June 1937 and presented a young Men’s fashion show for Drexel University.  Also, between 1935 and 1938, Carolyn Ramey designed the official uniform sets for the National 4-H Club (just as her mother had done in 1933) to continue her personal mission of clothing young ladies smartly and sensibly.  Sadly, all information on her seems to fade into non-existence after 1940.  I would love to find out what happened to her after her college rise into popularity.  In all the articles I could find she always said that she intended to continue designing.  I wish I could at least see a picture of her to have some visual connection.  I am just glad I can shed a bit of light on her life and career through this blog post!  

THE FACTS

FABRIC:  a polyester “devoré” burnout velvet

PATTERN:  a vintage original “Designer Carolyn Ramey” Mail ordered pattern from the Chicago Tribune, No. 8581, year 1938

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but thread!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was begun and completed in a space of about 4 hours on November 3, 2021

THE INSIDES:  poly velvet doesn’t fray, but still ‘sheds’, so I merely zig-zag stitched over the edges

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric cost me about $30 something dollars from JoAnn fabrics…I bought it several years back and no longer exactly remember!

The happiest coincidence of finding some really great information relating the Carolyn Ramey is the fact I have found the original newspaper article advertising the release of the pattern that I have.  This is how I am able to date the pattern to August 7, 1938.  I never get to do such a precise tracking, especially for a mail order pattern.  Unfortunately, Newspapers.com and many of my other sources for info on Ms. Ramey and her work is either a pay-per-view site or from a link that has since disappeared off the internet.  Nevertheless, you happily get the highlights of what I’ve gleaned here! 

Many of the dress’ fine-tuned details are hidden by the oversized ‘print’ of the burnout velvet I used, so let me run through them for you.  It’s the seemingly simple designs that need the highest quality fine tuning to look chic instead of sloppy, after all, and this pattern has it all.  I’ll start with the most noticeable feature – the uber-wide and waist deep dolman sleeves (also known by the more modern term ‘batwing’).  They are seamed into a fitted bodice, quite an unusual take.  Most dolman sleeves are cut as one piece with the body and do not have an armscye.  Leave it to an indie designer to put her own spin on something!  The way the bodice is darted under the bust, with a natural shoulder seam which dips into a V-point at the side waist seam, really fits it to the body.  This variety of dolman sleeve controls the fullness of the dramatic sleeves more than the ‘normal’ one-piece dolman cut would offer.  

In Carolyn Ramey’s newspaper commentary for this pattern, she says the combo of these sleeves and the slender skirt will “make you look as slim as a reed” and is a “simple yet sophisticated” combination. “The sleeves are full except at the wrist” and the long skirt has tailored, curvy vertical seam lines to make it appear bias cut when it is really straight grain cut.  She says “it is extremely easy dress to sew” and she is not wrong, for it has taken me much longer to write my post about the dress than the four hours I spent to make it from start to finish.

No closures were needed here and this pops over my head – a completed outfit in an instant.  This isn’t what the pattern called for, but I simplified it.  There was supposed to be a duo of a back button placket and a small side seam waist closure, but velvet is not conducive to being bound into a stiff buttonhole or zipper. Carolyn Ramey even suggests a full center back zipper down the back of the dress, if possible (remember this pattern is from 1938, so this is a fashion forward thought).  I merely left the back neck open for 6 inches down with a small hook and eye at the top.  Carolyn Ramey talks up her patterns as being versatile and adaptive to customization.  This is after all the ideal of every home sewing pattern – use it as a tool to cater to your ideas and needs.  For every pattern release through the Chicago Tribune, she gives recommendations of variations, and my pattern – for one example – includes some extra little pieces to aid in making those modifications.  How honest is that for Ms. Ramey to want her users to reimagine her designs for themselves!

I am imagining another version of this dress in a soft and nubby monotone tweed, with a shorter ‘street’ length, and maybe with a collar, too, for a whole new spin.  A plaid suiting, tunic length version –to be worn with a skirt or wide trousers – may be quite interesting, as well!  I can even picture this in a liquid ivory satin for a fantastic wedding dress!  I have so many ideas for this pattern, and so little time to sew or such few places to wear half of my creative notions. 

I have no place to complain, though.  Out of all the things we have to be thankful for this holiday season, I am always thankful for my sewing capabilities and my handmade wardrobe those skills have given me.  Furthermore, I love to be thankful for women like Carolyn Ramey who had a passion to help others and gave an excellent example of following your dreams…especially when that medium is through sewing!  It gives me encouragement and hope for my own undertakings.  It fires up my historical curiosity and belief in the worth of my research.  Let us support small enterprises, creative makers, and independent businesses everywhere this weekend and show how grateful we are.  The people who channel their artistic inspiration, drawn from the beauty of life, into something you can buy deserve to be supported and appreciated.  I am merely a local maker, and my work comes from happy customers in town, spread by word of mouth, so I understand how important it is to let where money is spent do the talking.  Shop small businesses this weekend, stay thankful, and keep on stitching, my fellow sewists!  Drop me a comment if you enjoyed learning about Carolyn Ramey!

Free From My Tower

I suspect that many of us can now empathize (or commiserate) to some small degree with the fairy tale girl Rapunzel, who was locked up in a tower for the whole of her young life.  Being kept from social situations, apart from friends and family, as well as seeing the same limited spaces all too frequently during the pandemic has been very trying for me…I can’t dare to imagine a 16 year solitude!  Thus, I am here portraying a Rapunzel liberated from her tower, barefoot and free amongst nature, wearing my interpretation of a Bavarian Edelweiss dirndl to honor the Germanic version of the fairy tale.  My hair may not be blonde, nor is it remotely long enough to be comparable Rapunzel’s tresses, yet I was really feeling the part here nevertheless.  Enjoy the fun vintage spin with cultural heritage that I wove into my dirndl for a Bavarian take on this popular character – yet another installment to my ongoing Disney inspired “Pandemic Princess” blog series

The classic “Rapunzel” is a fairy tale that Friedrich Schulz printed in 1790 in Kleine Romane (Little Novels), followed by the Brothers Grimm publishing it in 1812 as part of Children’s and Household Tales.  Tied to the witch of the story, Rapunzel’s name is given to her because of the German word for a salad vegetable.  Although the Grimm’s recounting of the fairy tale is the most prevalent version of the “Maiden in the Tower” in the western literature, the basic storyline has strong origins to French and Mediterranean tales rather than to Germanic oral folktales, as once believed.

However, the only version that I particularly enjoy is Disney’s “Tangled” from 2010. It’s a 3D animated film loosely based on the Rapunzel fairytale with an added, appealing twist – she’s born a princess with magical hair whose ‘rescue’ is tied to the character redemption of the handsome scoundrel Eugene, aka Flynn Rider. 

Do not be confused though, as I am posting this just before Halloween – it is not meant to be a costume!  I am of German ancestry myself, and esteem and appreciate wearing a garment which is intrinsic to the story of my heritage.  Cultural attire of any kind is NEVER a costume for misinterpretation or joking about.  I made this as a true dirndl, attempting remain authentic to its heritage while also being modern enough to be very wearable for me to enjoy outside of Oktoberfest or ethnic settings.  If you go by past standards, yes, I am channeling someone that I am not – an unmarried girl of the Alpine region – with my choices of color and style inspired by a commercial Disney retelling of an old German fairytale.  Yes, I am sadly missing and apron here, too…I normally do follow a more old-fashioned expression for this kind of clothing.  This is only a ‘costume’ for me in the older, sensible, “uncountable noun” term of the word – a set of clothing, just like anything else in my wardrobe, for expressing who I am in this time and place, not a characterization of another race or culture.

Dirndls of nowadays, however, are not as confined to older traditions that designate them to be a visual statement on your state and condition of life (I will address more on this topic further down in my post).  Today we have to freedom to wear what we want, how we want.  Nevertheless, cultural clothing like a sari, a kimono, a kilt, or a dirndl (for just a few examples), always needs to be worn with proper context, understanding, and respect.   I have sadly seen way too many ‘influencers’ on social media this month wearing a dirndl has a costume, especially for “Lord of the Rings” themed Hobbit parties.  History has many deep tales to tell and perspectives to teach, along with amazing people to hear about, so let’s open up to all those lessons by respecting garments that express cultural identity.  Is there a garment for you that signifies your ancestor’s’ heritage?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton Alexander Henry fabric dated to 1999 (seen on the selvedge) in the “chloe” floral print, with solid color jacquard woven cotton for the contrast front and sleeves, a sheer matching colored poly chiffon for the ¾ length undersleeves, and fabric leftover from sewing this vintage hat went towards making the tiny tubing which is my front dirndl lacing

PATTERN:  Butterick #6352, a vintage inspired Gertie design

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread, lots of interfacing (for the entire bodice), one zipper, and a set of traditional dirndl hooks

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was sewn in about 20 hours and it was finished on October 7, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound edges

TOTAL COST:  practically nothing – this fabric was picked up at a second-hand thrift sale where fabric is sold for $1 per pound.  The 3 yard cut of this thick, substantial fabric was kind of hefty, so it was probably just a few dollars.  The rest of my supplies was all items on hand for longer than I remember or leftover from another project, so I’m counting that stuff as free!

I loved being able to start off this project with such a high end cotton with starting place tied to that of Disney and a date that reminds me of just how long “Tangled” was in the works before its completion. The concept of an animated film based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Rapunzel” originated from Disney supervising animator Glen Keane in 1996.  Keane pitched the idea in 2001 to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner who approved it, but requested the film to be computer-animated. 

My 1999 fabric hits right in between those preliminary dates for the film.  Alexander Henry is a premier textile design house, producing original cotton prints for product manufacturers and home sewists alike from their talented artists who hand-paint each design the line produces.  Their business is located in Burbank, California which is also the corporate headquarters for Walt Disney Studios!  We drove through Burbank on our way in to Los Angeles a few years back, and it was so nice, with great shopping opportunities!  I love weaving in little details and cool correlations to my outfits, but especially so when they all come together without even trying, such as for this dress.  It also happened to be the perfect purple-pink orchid tone for a Rapunzel frock!  It was such a soft, thick, and fabulously lovely cotton!  I love how serendipitous this project came together.

Now, knowing that Disney’s story base was the German version of Rapunzel, I looked beyond the artistic license of the animation to see that her dress was intrinsically a dirndl.  It was the laced front, the puffed sleeves, (faux) apron, and the neckline shaping that give it away for me.  This would make total sense, anyways.  Dirndls are an established manner of local dressing, an organic means of freely expressing cultural identity, for Bavaria, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and more.  They are not just for Oktoberfest.  “Fashion With Renée” relates that back in 1626, the Bavarian Prince, Maximilian I created a ‘dress code’ to show people’s rank in society. The law separated people into seven groups and noted that farmers (and the lower class workers) were not allowed to wear imported clothing…and thus the dirndl was adopted for women, just as the lederhosen was for men.  The Bavarian Alps are located in what is now Germany (since 1945) near the southern border of the federal state of Bavaria and continue across the border into Austria.  

“Girl Sewing”, 1869 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a great example of the romanticism of the peasant life that brought the dirndl to the consciousness of the aristocratic class. Our picture is of an original oil painting, from a 2019 exhibit at the Memphis, Tennessee Brooks Museum of Art.

Beginning in the early 1800s, aristocrats, upper classes, and even artists romanticized rural living of the Alpine regions.  That eminent Habsburg the Archduke Johann of Styria (briefly Regent of Germany in 1848 to ’49) sported traditional Tyrolean styles in his coats and jackets, and his famous nephew, the Emperor Franz Joseph I, was a great hunter of the Alps who also was an aficionado appreciative of the rustic designs of the region.  In 1900, two Jewish brothers, Julius and Moritz Wallach, opened a clothing store in the Bavarian city of Munich and had the clever and successful idea of marketing dirndls and lederhosen as a kind of urban “rural chic”, transforming them into a fashion trend.  The Wallach name was renowned for their famous custom printed folk textile prints, even offering fashion shows of Bavarian and Austrian wear in their cloth.  (See this excellent blog post here for more info on the Wallach history.)  Thus the dirndl (and lederhosen, too) became both more universally adopted and overall more vibrantly fashionable.  Much of this energy and growth was snuffed around the time WWII began, only for Germanic clothing to find a comeback for the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich.   Today in 2021 they are having a moment in popularity again with an exhibit “’Dirndl – Tradition Goes Fashion” at the Mamorschloessl palace (former summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph I) in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria.

Vivienne Westwood dirndl on display at the “Tradition Goes Fashion” exhibit in Bad Ischl, Austria, 2021.

On a local level, in the 150 years before the 1940s, many new, organic traditions were evolving around the dirndl to make the wearer’s marital, economic, and regional status be something visibly recognizable by the every detail of one’s manner of dress. For example, an apron knot tied on a woman’s left hip meant she was unmarried, the right meant married, while the center back meant she was either engaged or otherwise working at her job (so leave her alone).  Married women were more restricted in colors to choose from while single girls were permitted the flowered hair crowns and the prettiest variety of tones.  These are just a few of the many, interesting, and beautiful traditions surrounding an old-style wearing of the dirndl.

The rich pastel colors that Rapunzel is wearing properly designates her as a young unmarried woman while the laced bodice with the dirndl hooks ties it to the Alpine region, which would be the perfect place to hide the tower the witch uses to imprison her.  However, I am so excited to have thought out not just her dress but about the main symbol associated to Disney’s Rapunzel – the golden sun of her parents’ Kingdom of Corona.  I see it as reminiscent of an edelweiss flower, also called the “mountain star”.  

The Edelweiss is such a long-standing Alpine symbol – it’s still on everything from Swiss airline planes, beer cans, club logos, coats-of-arms, money, and certain uniforms for army officials and mountain troops in Germany and the Bavarian Alps.  Again, it was the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I who popularized a renewed passion for the edelweiss flower in 1856, when he made a point of gifting the flowers, picked during a hike in the mountains, to his beloved wife the Empress “Sissi”.  As I wanted a simple outfit without jewelry, the most natural (and practical) way to add this Alpine symbol was to order a set of edelweiss flower dirndl hooks, ordered direct from a shop in Bavaria that sells tract supplies (link here).  The pattern called for loops to be sewn in anyway, so decorative hooks for the front tie was a prettier, more interesting, more authentic to have a laced-front dirndl.  The way they show the long and short petals radiating out in a staggered, wavy fashion perfectly embodies Disney’s Rapunzel Corona sun symbol while still being specifically Bavarian.  I love how beautiful the hooks are on my dress. They bring out the color of the golden flowers in the print and shimmered in the sunset glow for this post’s pictures.  

Lacing is not necessary to the front of a dirndl, but one of the many decorative elements that are optional yet also traditional.  Because it is not a corset, a dirndl normally has a closure on its own separate from embellishments – here the dress has a center closing zipper.  Lacing is a traditional Bavarian feature, but dirndls often have a front buttoning closure instead, especially ones from Germany (such as a “Black Forest” dirndl, which I have posted more about here).  A dirndl has a stable, substantial bodice, which is why it was fully interfaced just as the Gertie pattern instructs.  Most Gertie patterns call for boning, which I thought would have been overkill here, so I did leave it off for my version.  Dirndls have a close fit with little excess wearing ease, which was how the pattern fit anyway after choosing my matching size according to the given chart.  It is not confining, though, but fits me perfectly because of the pattern’s excellent curving drafted into the princess seams. 

The way a dirndl’s front bodice panels (in between the lacing) are often in a different fabric, or at least highly decorative either by adding embroidery or lace, is reminiscent to their old and hazy origins to a corset.  Either way, for my center panels I used a heavy cotton jacquard that alternates stripes with a tiny floral.  It was just a remnant on hand, and it happily matched the Alexander Henry print I used for the rest of the dress.  Disney’s Rapunzel had striped sleeves so I was originally led to choosing this contrast fabric from my stash so I could have a similar look on my dress, but then carried it over into the front panels to incorporate it into the dress, just as many dirndls do.  The open U-neckline is another classic dirndl feature, and such a pretty one for framing the face.  I see dipped U-necklines pop up a lot in the late 1940s (see this ’49 one I made back when I started blogging) into the 1950s, and Gertie herself says this pattern of hers is strongly 50’s inspired, after all.   

Whether or not the skirt is the easy part depends on how much detail and what level of quality you want to achieve. Some dirndls have tiny, even pleats going completely around the waist, and the high end ones are sometimes smocked, but many are merely gathered into a waistband – the simplest method by far. I chose that last mentioned option, using fabric left (about two yards) from cutting out the rest of dress, making sure to have the selvedge be the hemline to save myself some trouble!

My chiffon undersleeves are a custom addition.  Not only do they bring my dirndl closer to a Rapunzel look alike, but they help my dress look polished.  They add a nice touch of color and a differing texture that helps make it more interesting, in my opinion.  They help my puffed short sleeves stay controlled, most importantly.  I did wear my dress for a short time without the undersleeves, and the puff sleeves crept up my arm and ended up looking weird.  I just used a very basic, skinny fitting, long sleeve pattern piece from another pattern (don’t remember which one), sewed it in under the puffed sleeves, and then shortened to the length I wanted.  The two sleeves are tacked together around the cuff of the outer puff sleeves and the hem kept simple by a bead of Fray-Check liquid.

It was so awesome how this Gertie pattern has so many authentic dirndl details under the guise of being a cute, vintage style dress.  This is a great pattern I highly recommend.  Granted, it is a mark of 20th century modernization for a dirndl to suddenly be a one-piece garment, instead of separates – skirt, dirndl (under) blouse, dirndl (vest) blouse, apron, and an optional collar.  Just like any other culture, traditional clothes tend to evolve along with the changing needs and the present history of the culture they are a part of, yet traditional elements still remain.  In the decades between WWI and WWII, the groundbreaking research of Austrian Jewish anthropologist Eugenie Goldstern showed how the Alpine culture has not been static, or overly set in its ways, but has adapted over the centuries since ancient times when King Charlemange was hunting in the region and was impressed by the sturdy, warm Loden cloth of the region.   

Many of the cultural stereotypes for Germany originate from the Bavarian Alps, yet ironically it only composes less than 10% of Germany’s total area.  All too often stereotypes have the facts warped or screwed up to the point that the actualities are understood in a distorted way.  Popular understanding of history doesn’t automatically equal truth.  I love to uncover facts that get overlooked or forgotten for a clearer picture.  I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the history, lore, and traditions surrounding a dirndl – if you fancy more, read my last post on the other German fairytale princess Snow White, as well as my post on my “Black Forest” dirndl interpretation.  Maybe the next time you hear of Rapunzel, or visit an Oktoberfest, I will have given you a different, deeper outlook!  As you can tell, I became totally invested in taking on this particular fairytale through the lens of my heritage.  I do admire a girl who can grow her hair that long.  I’m pretending I’m the Rapunzel who got her hair cut after being free from her isolation, ha!