“Big Apple Plaid” 1924 Frock

New York might have seen this outfit as the smartest dressing in year 1924, but it sure wouldn’t fly on streets of today.  How things have changed almost 100 years later now!  Nevertheless, I’d like to be up-to-date for 1924 and flaunt about in a more historical style for a change of pace!

For most of the 1920s, the decade did not look like the stereotypical “flapper” that everyone reverts to.  Realistically, they were quite conservative in their long length and loose fit, and almost dowdy to our modern eyes.  To recreate them in a way that makes them appear better than a costume takes a bit of a different mindset (such as understanding the underwear which gave them their weird shape) and attention to the finishing details.  This project was more challenging in the way that I self-drafted all but the three main body panels – which were from a true 20’s design – so I could copy an image from a year 1924 “National Suit and Cloak Co.” catalog which had caught my creative eye.  Having the perfect fabric and trimming on hand certainly helped convince me to make something wearable of the idea.  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% cotton

PATTERN:  Butterick #1101, from October 1926 (I know the precise month/year only because of the comprehensive Butterick pattern dating charts provided here by “Witness2Fashion”. This pattern is from when Butterick started a new design style and numbering system so that is easy to track!)

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread, interfacing remnants, embroidery thread, and extra trimming (soutache and satin grosgrain ribbon) from my stash.  The creamy yellow ball buttons down the front are vintage from my grandmother’s stash of notions.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was finished on April 17, 2020 after about 10 hours put into the dress.

TOTAL COST:  This project is as good as free – the fabric had been in my stash for over a decade before becoming this dress, and the trims were something I got for a dollar each years back…who’s counting after all that time?!?

I will bet that the actual inspiration dress was made just a bit differently, but I did the best I could interpreting a small image into an actual garment using what knowledge I have of the era.  My dress is a comfy cotton which makes it a great dress for a low-budget historical dress, yet I have an inkling the original “fancy checked suiting” might have been a wool or slubbed rayon.  The trim I used is modern but exactly the same as something straight out of the 1920s – soutache and satin grosgrain.  The way I layered them together they create a low-key but very complex detail that garments of the era were so good at inventing.  It can be one thing to like a dress you see in a catalog, but then ending up liking it on yourself can be a whole different thing altogether.  Luckily, I think I personalized my interpretation of the chosen inspiration image just enough for me to enjoy wearing this, no matter how odd of a style this era’s true fashion can be!

The body of the dress fit right out of my vintage pattern.  Now granted when I say “fit”, I mean that in a 1920s way of being very loose, unfitted, and with straight lines.  Since I am an hourglass body type and my hips are ever so slightly my widest body feature, making a 1920’s fashion means I need the entire dress to be a tube which is as wide as my hips plus a generous wearing ease of about 4 or 5 inches.  Yeah, that sounds very unappealing, doesn’t it?!  This is why sizing charts on patterns of this era are not dependable (going by age?) and not easily understood.  Even though the bust was too big for me, I needed it for the hips because you don’t curve in the side seams to find a modern fit for true 1920s dress.  It’s not intuitive to make clothes fitting like this for someone living today.  The only thing I did change up was to cut out the sleeves on the bias grain to accommodate my larger upper arms needing more room for mobility.

I traced a paper copy of the pattern to work with even though the tissue was in fantastic shape and still pliable.  This true vintage pattern copy will be a great starting point for any other early or mid-1920s dresses I have a mind to make!  Ah, the version on the cover with the scalloped, two-tiered skirt portion is calling to me.  Only, I know I would definitely add beading and embroidery along the hems if I did sew up that cover dress…and there is enough going on in my life for quite a while now for me to add in something which would be so time consuming.

Making this little 1920s cotton dress was relatively quick and simple.  It was figuring out the details which took all the thought and bother!  As I have said for most of my historical projects (by which I mean 1920s and earlier), they look like nothing but awful, ugly failures up until adding one little detail which suddenly brings everything you’ve worked on together.  For my 1917 dress, it was adding both the lace on the front piece and rosette ribbon on the sheer hems which made it appear like an actual dress and not just a concoction of fabric.  For my 1912 walking suit, it was the hat that added that extra oomph I was lacking.

Here with this project, it was at first the arrow points I embroidered at each end of the faux pockets at the hipline that made this idea work, but that wasn’t enough – then the collection of ten front placket buttons made the whole project come together.  Ah, the power of the ‘little things’ is never to be underestimated.

Figuring out what trims and notions to add was more difficult than drafting all the add-ons to that basic 20’s sack which was to be my dress.  At least with drafting patterns, it is all math and technical measurements!  Making up one’s mind about finishing details can be the hard – but fun, too!  Using the main body of the dress as my base line, and my little inspiration image for reference, I self-drafted the giant ‘pilgrim’ collar, the front placket pieces, and sleeve cuffs (which I didn’t end up using).  For the front bias flounce coming out of the placket, I used a Simplicity #Simplicity 4593, year 2005 skirt pattern for reference (such as figuring what grainline to choose) and then proceeded to draft my own according to the size I needed.

It was tricky to discern proportions.  On a 20’s dress that is over the body much like a sack, how do you properly visualize where the natural waistline and hips actually are?!  I had to make my front placket fall lower than the 1924 fashion image might show because it was hard to get the dress on otherwise (as my front placket was a workable closure, not just for show).  Once I figured that out, then I could measure the flounce piece to match, and estimate how to strategically make the most of my just under 3 yards of trim.  I ended up with only a few inches of soutache/ribbon leftover and nothing but small scraps left for the dress’ cotton, which is incredible after starting out with over 3 yards (45” width)!  Whew, I just made this idea work.

I kept the dress’ insides and construction simple – raw seam edges, bias tape in lieu of “proper” neckline facing, and all machine stitched seams.  Because the dress’ fabric was so see through, I skipped out on doing true welt pockets and did the easy ‘fake’ version.  The front placket has just five large hook-n-eyes (also true vintage) underneath because this dress hails from a time when it was still considered improper to have the means of closing one’s dress in plain sight.

You bet I’m wearing my 1920s combination underwear (posted here) underneath!  Believe me, modern underwear only brings attention to the fact that this style of dress is baggy and unfitted, besides the fact it doesn’t give the full historical effect.  Honestly, the early 20’s are super comfy to wear and not confining in the least, like a good nightgown.  If it wasn’t for all the other accessories, I would be ready for bedtime, ha!

I’ll admit, this project has been languishing as an unfinished project for two years before now.  The fact I am staying at home more is for some reason helping me have the fire to finish projects started, cut, and ready-to-sew.  It is so hard to have the gumption to sew something that will not see possible everyday wearing like much of my post-1930’s vintage garments.  Yet, my great impetus for finishing this project finally was recently happening to find the perfect hat to match.

All of my accessories here are vintage – and the hat is the cherry on the top!  It is a true-to-the-era original from around the same period as my dress.  It has a crown of silk velvet, with velvet ribbons around the brim, and was handmade by a talented home milliner by all that I can tell.  Sure there are a few chews to the velvet, but the wool base is untouched and the silk lining is not shattering.  To think this is in such good condition for being a century old blows my mind, and I am tickled to be wearing it with such a complementing outfit.

My shoes are true to the early 20’s with their pointed toe and French heel, yet they are of 1980s era.  The 80’s had a resurgence of many old styles, and besides 100 years ago, from my knowledge they are the only decade that came back with a strong, hourglass-style curving French heel (quite hard to come by otherwise).  Generally, 1980s shoes are unwanted today and can be found in plenty at my local thrift stores – happily they are also great for providing great 20’s style footwear that is in much better condition than their original counterparts.  Mine are a lovely suede leather and bring out the burgundy colors in my set!

Even the building backdrop to my pictures was built in 1924! How cool is that?

I do believe this to be a nice “street dress”, meaning something that would be worn out of the home to do things like shopping downtown or business-related duties.  It is too nice for a housedress, but the fact that my version is of cotton brings it down a level from, say, a ‘Sunday best’ kind of wear.  Sure, all those glitzy evening gowns or luxurious party dresses are so easy to gravitate to, but personally I appreciate the clothing that was more for everyday living.  It is more of a teaching opportunity/learning experience then.  I learn from the research and actual sewing which goes into my making such an outfit.  In exchange, I find that I can wear such an outfit to living history events or for historical presentations and my clothing only helps others both learn from me as well as feel welcome to ask questions.  It’s a win-win!

Undomiel and her Numedor Knight

Fantasy worlds can be quite lifelike and believable.  Fiction can seem more convincing than reality, especially when – in book form – the writing is realistically superb.  Then the reader’s imagination is traveled through space and time by the magic of the written page.  This can be especially true of stories which have make-believe creatures that have been known for centuries, such as dragons, elves, dwarves, and wizards to name a few.  The stories of the great J.R. Tolkien stand high as a remarkable, memorable tale of very credible and well-crafted fantasy, even rising to the likes of a cult classic.  To tell you the truth I am more of a C.S. Lewis Narnia gal, but I am almost as equally ‘into’ the Lord of the Rings world, as well as my husband.

I have been wanting to recreate something from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies ever since all three were out, thus this project is very fulfilling as it has been so long in coming!  Even better yet, I was extremely happy to have my son want to jump on board with my costume and match me for yet another themed Halloween!  Recently, the film trilogy had been out again to re-watch in the big theater near us and my son has now seen snippets of them, as well, so the fire for these films were renewed for us.  With a medieval and renaissance themed event going on at our local Science Center, too, and everything I needed for my own outfit on hand (thanks to having everything ready to whip the dress up for the last 14 years), I felt now was the time to make good of an extended sewing project plan!

Besides the fact I saw the films again now, why am I just writing about our Halloween outfits when it’s almost Christmas, you may be wondering (guess if you weren’t thinking about it before, you are now).  Well, as other detailed oriented Lord of the Rings movie fan will understand it is around the middle of December that the trilogy films were always released.  Everyone who has seen our outfits always guesses my son and I are supposed to be Guinevere and King Arthur (kind of a gross pairing for us when you think about it), so I’m wondering how many die-hard fans of Lord of the Rings are out there today.  Unfortunately, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy most likely killed off a good part of the fandom (those movies are SO bad, it’s no wonder).  Yet, I merely remember that the enduring beauty of the original written tales still remain and there are many more of Tolkien’s stories yet for me to read and many more costumes yet to be remade for myself, he he!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  My dress – crushed panne polyester velvet, red hammered-finish crepe-back satin, and a golden small mesh netting; My son’s ‘chain mail’ tunic – silver oversized mesh netting

PATTERNS:  My dress – Simplicity #4940, year 2004; My son’s tunic – no pattern but my own…self-drafted!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress took about 20 hours to make and my son’s tunic took about 3 hours both were finished at the end of July 2018.

THE INSIDES:  all clean from serged (overlocked) seam edges

TOTAL COST:  Having all the materials on hand for my dress since over a decade cut down on costs, and the grommet setting machine (more on this later) was paid for with a birthday gift certificate, so the only costs were on my son’s ‘chain mail’ – about $10 or less.

These outfits were incredibly fun to make, they turned out great (better than expected, actually), and were much easier coming together than envisioned.  I actually can’t wait to dive into more medieval and renaissance garments, because these time periods are my favorite specialty to study and research in non-fashion related fields.  I’m contemplating a 14th century low class woman’s set and a 16th century noblewoman’s gown, besides more Lord of the Rings costumes that are still tantalizing me.  My son would look so cute in a jerkin and doublet, I think, and I’d love to turn my hubby into a 14th century pilgrim on the El Camino de Santiago.  There’s too many ideas in my head and too little time!  Luckily, my hometown is actually a small hub for what we call “Medievalism studies” and “Creative Anachronism” so we would definitely have places to wear such old historical fashions and reasons to study them if I want to wear and sew more! Yay!

I realize that there are many historical inaccuracies to both of our outfits.  But hey – these are costumes based on a fantasy movie, and made with the purpose to go out and have fun, so I love the fact that the craving to do thorough research beforehand, like my other historical creations, as abated and I could merely sew our outfits to completely please ourselves and have them finished sooner than later.  This is my first dive into a new era of clothing and I couldn’t be happier!  If both me and my son don’t want to have to take our outfits off once they are on, but continue to swirl around and pretend play, than that is the best sign of success I could hope for.

It might be selfish of me, but can I just start by addressing my Arwen gown?  It was the more involved to make anyway.  This was inspired by her famous “Death dress”, worn when her strength was fading away as she is becoming less elf and more human in “Return of the King”.  “I wish I could have seen him (Aragorn) one…last…time…” she says in this dress as her Evenstar falls and shatters.  That scene was so emotional in the movie.  There is a large influence of early medieval Celtic in the swirling detailing of the Rivendell elves and so I incorporated much of that into my version as well.

However, I could not reconcile myself with (nor achieve) the long and perfectly shiny and wavy tresses like Arwen, so I choose a more historical, half fictional (Star Wars, anyone?) hairstyle option of braided side buns option I liked better on myself, anyway.  The chiffon headcovering was left off for some pictures so you can see the gown better or just to make this outfit easier to play in, but a medieval woman would not have went without one!  My simple ‘crown’ (as my son calls it) is a brass sheeting strip from my father-in-law toolbox of scraps leftover from old jobs.  We folded it into thirds and rounded into a headband ring.  I have a faux leather strip taped to the inside otherwise the brass turns my forehead green.

The main body of the dress has some a-mazing shaping (see this Instagram post of mine), especially for the upper body, thanks to the multiple princess seams (which are a big ‘historical’ no-no for medieval gowns, but whatever).  I sized down so I would have a snug fit since I knew my fabric, the panne velvet, was very stretchy.  Choosing this sizing was a good idea here.  There is over 4 yards of material just for the dress body and most of it is the full, flare of the dress’ panels below the hips.  This makes this such as elegant dress with lovely, princess-like swing as I walk, but the dress is very heavy.  I had to raise the shoulders by just over an inch to accommodate the dress being pulled down by the skirt portion.  I am secretly wearing my 1905 Gibson Girl era petticoat under this dress.  “Kind of weird” you might say, but the dress looked like an awkward, limp, wet rag of a thing hanging on me without the mid-calf fullness the 1905 slip provides.  With the slip, there is a much better silhouette overall plus it keeps the back train from tangling up under my feet!

Now onto the dramatic sleeves!  It took some training while wearing to figure out how to move, think ahead, and overall deal with these kinds of sleeves, but once you learn how not to clear a table mistakenly, get your arm stuck in a door, or drop them in a toilet (all of which I’ve done), they are so poetic.  I loved finding ways of doing fight scene moves so that the hanging sleeve would swirl around and look awesome, like what the actress Bridget Reagan did in the tv series “Legend of the Seeker”.  My ultimate sleeve action inspiration is from the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and what she was able to do (playing a blind girl) in the beginning action scene to the “House of the Flying Daggers” 2004 martial arts movie (watch it here).  I know it sounds silly to play-act with your sleeves but movies have a strong influence and with all this odd amount of extra fabric, you have to admit that sounds entertaining, right?!

The fashion folds that are holding the top forearm extra sleeve length out of the way of my hands were directly inspired by both Olivia De Havilland’s costumes in the year 1940 “Robin Hood” movie and this Balenciaga coat from the fall of 1950.  It was a simple matter of tacking the sleeves down at regular intervals to a stable runner (like ribbon) underneath.  I think this is much, much nicer than a tie gathered casing (as the pattern calls for) and much better not having a sleeve top seam (I cut on the fold, instead).  I did make the sleeves a lot longer (by about 12 inches) than the pattern calls for, too, in order to do this pleating.  I also lengthened the hang of the sleeve bottom so it would end closer to the floor and could come to more of a point than a rounded curve as the pattern dictated.  The inner seam through the bottom sleeve drape was flat felled as it is visible.  I guess you can tell already, but I chose the satin shine for the outside and the crepe for the inside.

My sleeve’s upper half (bicep portion) has so many layers to it!  The first layer is the panne velvet, the same as my dress.  Then it is layered over with a golden mesh material.  Finally, my fancy ribbon (expounded on the next paragraph) was stitched along just on the other side of the seam allowances at my shoulder top and lower sleeve seams.  Next to the neckline – which has multiple layers of fabric with the facing, interfacing, and woven golden trim stitched along it – the upper sleeves are the thickest and most complex to finish parts to the dress.  I needed to add little snap-closed ribbon lingerie straps inside the tiny shoulder seams of this dress just to keep the sleeves from slipping off.

The ribbon I used for both my belt and sleeve trimming is the pride and joy of my whole outfit.  It looks like a reproduction of the margin decorations from the Book of Kells (800 A.D.) combined with the saturated tones of a 16th century Safavid manuscript and is amazing…quite heavy, rich in color, and detailed…woven like a tapestry.  I had about 6 yards of it stashed away since about 2004, and I must have found it at an incredible deal or else my mom would not have let me buy it (she never liked me spending a lot towards something I liked without an immediate plan to use it).  Its swirling designs are just like the crowns worn by Arwen or Galadriel.  This ribbon is subtle enough to not overpower, yet detailed enough to add a touch of complexity and finery suited (so I feel) to an Arwen inspired dress.  There is actually a heavy nail sewn to the bottom hang of my belt to weigh it down.  A snap connects the elbow of the Y around my waist.  I know a belt is not part of Arwen outfit, but just like my hair, it is a bit more of a historical touch that helps my version please me better than an exact copy.

There were no corsets but a natural look for women of 14th century dressing, and the lacing to their clothing closings were just that…closures.  From what I have seen, back then eyelets would have been hand worked or (later) metal rings sewn on along the edge for the lacings to go through.  I needed to make about two dozen eyelets and wanted the flashy prettiness of golden metal modern ones.  Only, I was not going to hammer each one of them in by hand, but that was the only way I had available.  Thus, I put a birthday gift certificate to good use, did a last minute run to the fabric store, and splurged on a mechanical hand pressed hole punch and eyelet setter.  It looks like a pliers on steroids!  I chose the “Crop-A-Dile” by “We R Memory Keepers” brand tool and it is so ridiculously easy, makes very uniform eyelets which are sturdy, and it has so many useful function options (it can even do snaps!), I love it.  In 30 minutes I did all two dozen eyelets cut and set through four layers of fabric with interfacing in between.  It was so fun to have such a helpful tool that takes any stress out of a complicated technique.  I have been disappointed by fancy tools before but this might be the one that has worked so much better than expected – best gift ever, even if I did pick it out.

Now, for my son’s mock chain mail tunic!  From close-up, the mesh material reminds me of tiny backyard fencing.  I had been looking for something for a while beforehand and this was the best, the most reasonable, and most available material we found.  I do believe it conveys the jist of a chain mail tunic well enough though, and when it gets wet (it rained Halloween evening) it only becomes all the more sparkly!  He loved his tunic, most importantly, but I’m glad the medieval event we attended in our outfits had examples of the real deal armor, weapons, and chain mail both on display and on re-enactors so he could get a hands-on realization of the genuine thing!

I traced a pattern for a two-piece kimono sleeve tunic off of an existing t-shirt that currently was a tad roomy.  This had to be a pullover so I added a bit extra room around the t-shirt, besides seam allowance.  The shoulders and side seams were the only thing I stitched (the edges don’t fray) and I’m glad because sewing such a stiff metallic material that was mostly open was a pain.  I used mesh seam tape to give the stitches something to hold onto.  Next, his hood was drafted using the proportions of and existing hood, and then changing the shape so it would cover his neck and fall over and around his shoulders and chest.  The hood was lined in black cotton to keep the mesh from scratching his face and keep the texture of the material in the spotlight.  He wore a black turtleneck top under the tunic, and quilted black pants which kind of reminded me of a fencer’s padded practice gear.

His serious face cracks me up. Anyone recognize the Monty Python reference?

His armor is admittedly cheap plastic but it really added a lot to the tunic and it makes him feel oh-so-tough.  For my dream outfit (which are quite extra sometimes!), I was really tempted to find some fake bird wings in white to add on the sides of his helmet or even a black capelet so he could be more clearly a Numedor knighted guard of Gondor (the White City).  Yet, I realized that no one would “get it” and the extra fuss would be make his costume more complicated…meaning less fun for him.  For example, when we came home Halloween evening after trick-or-treating, hubby was trying to get decent pictures and our dachshund was incredibly curious and acting hurt at being left out, so our son, with his armor on, only began using his imagination.  It’s the tale of when our “killer” dachshund came with “vicious plans” to lick to the death (ha!) and my brave 6 year old knight threatened with his sword and shield to rescue the fair maiden. My hero…

Fiction is very much intermingled with the truth when it comes to history, for better or for worse, and the older you go (like medieval) it is even harder to separate the two.  Sometimes you have to accept them both when it comes to manuscripts because some legends, whether true or false, were part of those time’s belief system and culture.  To take such fanciful understanding away would leave a blank spot in our modern understanding of ancient pictures and thought processes.  A large percent of manuscript illuminators and textual writers were monks who never left their monastery walls, after all, while the rest were mostly young students with an extremely fanciful and active imaginations (margin doodles are sometimes quite shocking!).  The difference between fact and fiction is something we still have to define and process even today with all the information availability we have at every turn.  Perhaps our modern medieval mish-mash costumes are seriously more perfect than if we had be wearing veritable real thing.  I still open up wardrobes with a playful curiosity which makes me feel I’m in Lucy Pevensie’s shoes and can clearly picture the mischievous, animated face of Bilbo Baggins!

A 1917 Fairy-Tale

For some reason, circa 1917 garment styles for women are so dreamy, artistic, and fantastical, to me it’s like something out of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, the First World War version.  Fashion was art, and art presented fashion in a way that is unrivaled, so that its appeal has not waned these past 100 years.  Women’s faces were drawn as delicate as a porcelain doll and their hands as graceful as a Goddess.  Their clothes are full of vivid and interesting color pairings.  Their silhouettes might be oddly inhuman in their attire, but somehow they appear harmonious, comfortable, with an entrancing complexity in design.  The background settings seem peaceful, idyllic, and dreamy.  It’s no wonder some teens’ era details are making subtle appearances on some modern runway clothes this year (see Chanel’s Haute Couture Collection, numbers 35, 38, 61, 63) and recently (Oscar de la Renta Spring 2012 dress or Gattinoni’s Spring/Summer 2012 couture).  The aura surrounding those old styles certainly were not a reflection of the reality of the times, however.

It is now the anniversary of Armistice, today November 11th.  This year’s Veteran’s Day is special as we are celebrating a benchmark century since a pact was signed for a cessation of the fighting of the Great War.  Thus, this year was high time that I figured out for myself the late 19-teens’ incredible niche in historical fashion, and an event this summer at the National World War I Memorial (in Kansas City, Missouri) had given me an excuse to do it, tangibly, in a glorious, flowing and feminine style.

Caught in between the 1920s and the late Titanic era, 1917 (1916 and 18, as well) clothes for women was neither the long lean lines of the era before nor was it the barreled torso silhouette of the one after.  Circa 1917 women’s fashion did take one thing to the extreme – the below the bust, almost Empire waistline, an interesting fad compared to the moderately high waist seen about 1914 and the almost hip length waist of the early 1920s.  Late WWI style was a beautiful middle ground that disappeared very quickly and only lasted a few years.  There was an overabundance of details, textures, interesting colors, and unusual features…many times in the same garment.  It was like an over-the-top display of quality, creative, and hand-crafted fashion before the clutches of mass-market RTW or the practicality following the post-stock market crash 10 years later would take over.

Now, let’s put a few things into perspective for a broader view of circa 1917 in my country.  By the late teens, the US had about 2,000 amusement parks.  As the culture of leisure carried over from the Gilded Age, and people seemed to be seeking thrills and adrenaline pumped delights with their free time, it was the beginning of the golden age of roller coasters (ca. 1919) due to the innovations of entrepreneur John Miller.  Menswear was beginning to break free of its Edwardian appearance and accepting the idea of “sportswear”, while women’s fashions were becoming more open to an independent woman, free to move through life without a full-length corset or a man to marry out of necessity.  The first Jazz music recording was commercially released to help usher in a whole new popular genre of listening pleasure and matching that with new active styles of dancing.  The United States officially acquired both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  Things were looking up.

Yet, for a darker perspective, there were also three to five percent of the world’s population dead from the Spanish Influenza epidemic (1918 to 1920).  WWI’s fighting was announced as begun for America in 1917 then hastily over in 1918, with about 13 major battles fought and counting about one man out of every thousand dead. President Wilson seemed to be wrapping it up for the nations, and the world was dealing with the aftereffects of the first Great War very unsuccessfully in my opinion.  On our own turf there were ‘problems’, as we had sixteen Americans executed by Pancho Villa and the southwest region in danger as part of our involvement in taking sides for the Mexican Revolution.  Dissatisfied workers in several unions in Seattle, Washington, seeking higher wages after toiling hard producing ships for WWI, went on America’s first general strike, where over 65,000 workers protested for 5 days.  Supposedly the strikers were under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, leading to a “Red Scare”.

So – as much as the fashions of the late teens were dreamy, artistic, and evocative of ethereal beauty, the world of the mid to late 1910s was anything but a fairy-tale.  Face value can sometimes be just that…a dream, a wish for something better, visual trickery.  This is why the only modern item you will see on my 1917 dress is perhaps the most important one – an enamel red poppy flower pin from the National World War I Memorial.  We need to remember, respect, and learn of the sacrifices and the stories of the Forgotten Generation to make sure the Great War is not disregarded.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Cotton print (aqua background with a very Art Deco geometric design in purple) for the base layer of the dress, with a sheer lavender poly chiffon as the overlay for both dress and hat.  Basic white cotton sateen for the dress’ collar and ‘bib’ front panel.

PATTERN:  a Past Patterns Company reprint of a McCall #8159, from November 1917

NOTIONS:  Many prized notions went onto this dress to give it its necessary finishing touches – some are true vintage, some are special coming from family, and others are uniquely hard to find.  More about them in the body of my post.  Only the best…and I believe it shows!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  I worked on this dress on and off for a few months and finally finished it on June 28, 2018 after 50 plus hours.  The hat took only 2 hours to refashion.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound with the sheer sleeves, over skirt, and bodice armscye French finished

TOTAL COST:  All my fabric was bought at my local JoAnn’s Fabric Store, with all the finishing trims and notions already on hand (free), I spent around $40.

Fashion was very important to women of the time and magazines of the latest modes of dressing even more so.  “A reaction of the emergence of fashion photography, an annual subscription to an exquisitely illustrated fashion and lifestyle publications could cost as much as a car in 1914”.  During World War I, Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s Magazine alone had over a million subscribers each. No wonder the best artists were hired for illustrations – for one case in point, the great couturier Mainbocher started off as a fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue after serving in WWI.  Erté and George Barbier are more examples.

However, for one who wants to sew a ‘copy’ of such fashions, these drawings are important only so far as to figuring out what colors, what details, what silhouette to achieve to look authentic.  Construction and closing methods are a mystery.  That is why I started with a copy of a true original pattern…because nothing beats the real thing, right?  So, I had a good starting point but not much to go on because if you think vintage a la 1930s or 40’s patterns are lacking in instruction thoroughness, well, you’ve never seen an antique pattern.  I literally had only two small paragraphs and one tiny layout diagram to go by as my guide.  This is why my next resource was both textual research and sourcing old 100 year old garments for sale online to see physical specifics.

It wasn’t until the 1930s (pretty much) that the way a garment closed on the body was visible and buttons were more than just a means of decoration or display of wealth.  The mid to late teens era kept the closures well hidden in seams or under more fabric and therefore a bit mysterious.  This dress has the very common (for 1916 to ‘18) ‘bib’ front bodice vest piece that does the double duty of both covering the front closures and completing the waist by continuing on as a cummerbund-sash to be tied in a fancy bow behind.  It’s sort of hard to show, but underneath the bib panel, hook-and-eye tape closes the center front, with a few more single hooks for the small side seam opening (covered by the cummerbund wrap around).

On its own, the front covering is a large T-shaped piece.  It has every edge self-enclosed in a facing double and was the last thing directed to be added on to the dress.  Even then it is only lightly tacked on at the right top edge while it hook-and-loops closed at the left corner.  I have seen some of these ‘bib’ frontispieces for sale separately and so I can conclude that some of these were meant to be removable.  This is quite smart, really!  They could easily be cleaned gently by hand this way, without needing to launder the whole dress, too, and most of the prettiest decorations and precious haberdashery could be added on the frontispiece with no fear of being beat up by a general washing.  Most of the antique original ‘bib’ pieces that I have seen have been in the finest linen or silk, since (at that time) most of the wool was going to soldiers’ uniforms and the cotton was making canvas gaiters, satchels, and tents for the war.  Mine is sateen so it has a slight shine that the camera images aren’t really picking up, but I more than made up for the basic material with lots of detail and meticulous hand work.

First of all, plain whites need something extra to make them look fancy and not, well…plain.  This is a dress from the teens, anyway and more subdued excess (within reason) the better was the rule!  My primary add-on was the buttons on the bib front, I knew these were a definite choice.  They are true teens era buttons, in glass, painted in a rich purple over the nubby top texture (see a closer picture on this Instagram post).  They look like fresh tiny mulberries to me – mmm!  To prevent the paint from chipping, as it was starting to do already, I applied a light painting of clear top coat, such as is used on fingernail lacquer.

Then came the lace!  This is a heavy cotton lace which my husband bought for me over a year ago in Italy when he went on a business trip to Milan.  As much as it pained me to use it and not stash it, the Belgium-style lace was just what I had in mind and looks like embroidery from afar.  If I could have come up with a shortcut way to tack it on I would have, but instead it took me several extra hours of hand stitching to tack it down along the bib top along the neckline, along the bib front waistline bottom, and the bottom end of the sash just above the tassels.  Do the sash end tassels make it look like I have servant call pulls?  Maybe, but crazy things work in teens fashion and not only do the tassels weigh the ties down but add color and interest from behind.

Finally, to connect the aqua in the under (base) layer of the dress, which you don’t see much of above the knees, I added matching colored feather stitching along the collar edge. Let’s briefly address some good, old-fashioned, quality hand-stitching – it used to be much more than just straight and basic. Until about the teens and no later than the mid-1920’s, hand sewing, even if was just necessary for top-stitching, was detailed, incredibly tiny, precise, and very understated for the time and high quality it shows. It is a skill too lovely to only admire, with feather stitching in particular as my new fascination for hand stitching. This stitch is an embroidery technique which can be ornamental sewing when worked with single threads and it uses loops caught and pulled to make a vine design.  My favorite tutorial to learn feather stitching from can be found here if you want to learn too.  It’s not hard, but the challenge is to be uniform and consistent with spacing.  My collar needed top-stitching and it needed something to give it pizazz while being authentic – feather stitching took care of all of that at once.

Other than the detailing, the dress was really pretty simple to make and the fit was spot on.  After all the skirt was just a basic gathered skirt.  Every pattern piece was pretty much basic geometrics – no darts or fancy shaping, either.  Once the front closing mystery was understood the bodice was simple, too, as were the sleeves…very modern with their flared shape known as “angel” style.  (Look closely and you will see the small fishing weight on the inner sleeve end to make the chiffon hang!)  I must add, the dress while in progress did look like a total piece of trash all the way up until it was almost done.  I just kept hoping for the better as it was being assembled and plugging through the project.  Now I’m so very glad I persevered.

The pattern was my size technically, but I don’t like the lack of a “mistake cushion” that tiny 3/8 inch seam allowances provide so I added an extra inch all along every seam allowance to make them bigger and also “just in case” the fit was wrong.  I remembered that the 1920 blouse pattern which I used before had small shoulders – and I have big arms – so I slashed and spread this pattern’s sleeve tops before cutting out in the chiffon.  With my little changes, this pattern fits perfectly and turned out just like a 1917 dress from a fashion magazine, so I think!

The hem ran very long, again similar to both the 1920 and 1914 skirt patterns I have already used, but this is meant to be for a wide hem.  These wide and deep hems in early 20th century historical fashions really help to shape them, kind of like a stiffening, and need to hand pick-stitched down.  This dress’ hem has a slight “Hobble skirt” reference by the way is tapers in slightly slimmer for the last 8 inches above the hemline.  To emphasize the widening of the upper half of the skirt, the sheer overlay was cut in a high-low hem.  The more fashion images you see in the 1916 to 1918 range, the more it seems that every skirt overlay (and they were popular) had either a hem decoration and/or a curiously shaped hemline.  I went with both because it struck me as working well for this dress.  The arching sheer skirt compliments the arching bodice panel and the purple flower trim I added along this edge brings an overall harmony to the dress with the same trim being used on the sleeves.

With slightly shorter hemlines making it easier for women during the War to move around, it was also the opportunity to show off one’s pretty ankles in fabulous decorated stockings!  I have been holding onto these flocked, floral, vine-patterned, ivory stockings for a very long time just because I knew they were unusual, and now they were just what I needed.  Highly decorative embroidered or painted stockings, “clocked” hosiery as it’s called, had been immensely popular in the 18th century, but had a very strong comeback in the mid to late teens as soon as the skirts were slimmer and shorter.  Many 1910s and 20’s stockings enjoyed the “new” aspect of fashion even to the point of being very fantastical – see this post for snake and bird hosiery!  To say ‘Clocked’ stockings means they have an added design up the ankle, where traditionally a ‘gusset’/wedge has been added to give it shape – very racy considering it wasn’t until the later 1920’s that hosiery was considered as something other than underwear!

Of course, none of this outfit would have the proper look and feel without a good foundation.  Happily, I already had my under layers already me-made and available.  The late teens was in a weird position with regards to underwear.  Things were starting to change over to the looser, more modern two-piece “bra and bloomers”.  The corsetry that was around no longer had such long, lean lines and full body coverage (like what I wore under my 1914 ensemble).  I do not have a shorter late teens corset (like what the blogger “The Dreamstress” has put together).  The main idea is to have no bust support (keep the girls flat!) and volume around the knees with your slips and knickers, so I opted for the early 20’s underwear set I did have…envisioning myself as a very fashion-forward woman doing so!  Over the underwear went a reproduction sleeveless slip which was identical in style lines to this earlier teens era slip which I blogged about here.  The front is a lovely eyelet and the lack of sleeves was perfect for the sheer arms of my dress.

After all my efforts invested in the dress, there was no way I was starting from scratch for my headgear, too.  Thus, the hat is a refashion of a dated 80s or 90’s piece which became a very plausible authentic match.  I made use of something from my wardrobe I never really wear and not only beautified it, but turned it into something I needed anyway – win-win, right!?  Many summer hats in the teens had wide but sheer brims, whether it was made of lace in a wire frame, rows of ribbon, chiffon, or an open mesh.  The last kind was exactly what I had in my dated hat, it only needed a rounder, mushroom-style crown that needed to be much fancier before being closer to authentic.  In order to totally match with the dress, I used the small remnants left of the purple chiffon to loosely wrap (and gently, invisibly hand tack) around the crown, finished off with an intricate burgundy and purple ribbon remnant to match the colors of the buttons and the tassels.

My accessories are all some sort of vintage, except for the waist watch hanging from a chain at the waist of my ‘bib’ front bodice panel.  That was bought new because it looked like a hanging watch I have from my Great Grandmother, only I wouldn’t dare use that one out and about so this is a memory-free and guilt-free replacement.  However, I did have no qualms about using and bringing the umbrella you see.  This is a treasured find, though.  It is a true 1910s (or early 1920s at the latest) piece I found for a deal in perfect condition.  The fabric is dyed silk, and so is the tassel to match, with the handle is covered in leather.  My necklace is vintage 1930s I believe, and carved mother of pearl, actually.  The earrings are of the 1940s from my Grandmother.  The purse is something I actually made for my 1920 outfit, but luckily the colors and the style pairs up perfectly here, too, I believe.  I did find some vintage 1960s leather heels to match, since strappy shoes, and especially French heels, too, were what was popular back then.

Our photo location is an appropriate backdrop as this building was originally built after the turn of the 20th century as a publication headquarters for a women’s’ fashion magazine mogul, Edward Gardner Lewis.  It was constructed in the fancy French neo-classical “Beaux-Arts” style, and acres of the surrounding area were bought up by Lewis to build an equally beautiful upper middle class neighborhood.  Luckily, most of this area of University City is well preserved and the homes look every bit as beautiful as it probably did in the teens and twenties.  They just don’t make architecture like they used to.

There is something so inherently satisfying to spending such excess in time, materials, and personal investment on something beautiful, worthwhile, and creative weather it’s a building or on a dress. I can attest that in the sewing sphere, it is addictive. It hails back to a time when sewing was a true art using one’s hands, when making clothes was more about crafting beauty than just getting clothes for one’s back, and before commercial-fast fashion had its full stranglehold on the garment industry. Quality in the small details is sorely needed today…only our world today needs to understand that it doesn’t come quickly or in bulk quantities.

When you think about WWI in terms of this, though, society needed bulk quantities of lasting quality in order to supply the troops, and yet somehow the world stepped up to provide.  What wool moths and decay have left behind, luckily many of these uniforms are still in great condition and fully wearable today.  It is heartening to see the amount of extant WWI items that are being worn and displayed with pride and a spirit open to seeing and learning from the past anew!  Even though this great centennial will now be over, I hope this era of history keeps being understood and remembered.  My next Great War project will be a women’s military uniform.

“WWI is a romantic war, in all senses of the word. An entire generation of men and women left the comforts of Edwardian life to travel bravely, and sometimes even jauntily, to almost certain death. At the very least, any story or novel about WWI is about innocence shattered in the face of experience.” quote from Anita Shreve.  I hope my dreamy, fairy tale style dress outfit tells one small part of the great story.  Let us commemorate the fallen yet celebrate what peace we have today.

Three Eras of Ladies’ Changing Underwear Styles – Part One, Teens Era

For the last few years on my blog, it seems as if I use the holiday of Valentine’s Day as an excuse to post about ‘underthings’ in February.  As much as I like sewing intimates, I really don’t like showing them off in public, even if it’s not myself modeling them!  However, they are so pretty, a bit challenging to make, something I am proud of, and very informative to learn from.  So, I’ll continue the trend for yet another year by sharing some of the historical and vintage base layer underclothes which have made some of the outfits from the past year before so successful! 

So – just to show how far history progressed towards “modern” underthings, and how quickly it happened in a short period of time (30 years), I will share lingerie that I have made of the 19-teens, 1920s, and 1930s into a ‘revealing’, two-part post series.  Sometimes you can recognize progress and differences better when we take an overall look behind!  This post will be about the finishing piece to my pre-World War I set – a princess seamed slip.  This slip is the in-between to the first layer of underclothes (posted about here) which are covered by the corset, and the true fashion garments such as a blouse, skirt, and/or dress (such as this 1914 outfit of mine).

A good outfit starts from the inside out, and this is especially true the further back in historical dressing you get.  Fashion affected the style of underclothes, but at the same time the underclothes also influenced the fashion.  It was a tug of war, a give and take, with one influencing the other and being influenced in return.  The silhouette that we know a year or decade in past fashion to have had that shape because of what came underneath.  At the same time, throughout the most recent centuries the shape of women has been controlled and dictated by the underclothes that are made and expected to be worn.  Thus, the clothes and what is under them both worked to craft a certain image.  When the mode of dressing changed, underclothes necessarily had to go adapt with it.  Sometimes, as in the case of closed crouch knickers or panties that appeared in the late teens or 20’s, the underwear – not the outerwear – was the first step towards a desire for change, a new, public demanded, progressive thinking for women.  This co-jointed history between the under and outer layers was especially true up until the 1960s primarily.

But even if your reasons are not at all for history’s sake, making vintage undies is awesome!  I find that the teens to 30’s variety are so much more comfortable to wear than modern underwear, and much more fun and easy to sew…yes, really!  Especially when you use the kinds of materials that they would have had (such as cotton or silk), do you really get the full effect of how luxurious and lovely such items can feel.  With all the wires, padding, and image crafting features that add to the difficulty in finding that perfect fit for modern (at least American) lingerie, vintage forms (circa late teens through the 30’s) let your body have its own natural glory, and merely cover in a beautiful fashion and (if anything) only lightly support compared to previous eras.  How can that not sound enticing?!

Time is not wasted either on making vintage underwear because generally they can still work for today’s living.  My teen’s era underlayers (sans corset) might look interestingly odd by standards of today, but are ridiculously comfy.  Granted, they won’t work well under modern clothes, but still would make great night wear.  Most historical base layers were meant to be interchangeably left on at the end of the day as night wear anyway!  My simple 1920s Kestos style bra is hands down the best ever for comfort and ease in– no wonder it was the one of the first commercially produced bra with separate cups!  And 1930’s tap pants and bandeau bras are indulgent little slices of the Hollywood finery which was a part of everyday day life back then – whether seen or unseen!  Both the Kestos bra and the 1930’s tap pants will be in the next post, but can definitely work into modern clothes, perhaps not the knit ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of fashions (with no zipper or tailoring), but definitely a nice, well-fitting skirt and blouse combo or dress.

Every little detail counts in sewing, but particularly so with vintage and historical underclothes.  Every ruffle has a reason and something as small as buttons over hook-and-eyes point to the state of events and conditions of living.  You can read old clothes, past sewing patterns, and out-of-print fashion images like a small history book if you look at them with the right eyes and inquiring mindset, and that is more than even true of underclothes.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% cotton broadcloth – both bleached and unbleached.  The beige colored unbleached cotton is left over from my year 1920 blouse, posted here.  

PATTERN:  Past Pattern’s reprint of a Ladies’ Home Journal Pattern #9206, circa 1912 to 1916

NOTIONS:  I needed wide eyelet for the hem as a shortcut to making ruffles myself.  So, I bought some poly/cotton blend border-stitched eyelet, about 5 or 6 inches wide, at my local Jo Ann’s store.  The cotton, two-tone string that was used for the neckline also came from Jo Ann’s store, but had been bought on clearance the year before for another project.  All the rest of what I needed came from my Grandmother’s stash of vintage notions.   

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The slip was finished on March 10, 2017, after about 4 hours.

THE INSIDES:  The inner edges are basically overcast, for a simple but relatively clean finish.

TOTAL COST:  All cottons were on hand in my stash already, so I’m counting them as free, like the notions from my Grandma, so my only cost was the eyelet, which was rather pricey (so I think), about $15.

This was such an easy, fun, well-fitting, and pretty make, I’m tempted to make another one out of a fashion fabric, something other than basic cotton, so I can wear it as a nightgown!  As this is a veritable reprint of true original pattern, the instructions are one paragraph of text, crude and overly brief to the modern eye used to clear, pictorial, and long-winded explanations.  If you can be confident in yourself, and see the design lines, you will see that this is really simple requiring nothing really too out-of-the-ordinary or complicated.  I think of old sewing patterns’ basic instructions as not being simple so as to leave you hanging…just so you can prove to yourself you really know more than you think and can do well on your own!

When it comes to 1920’s and earlier, pattern sizing can be randomly ill-fitting or unexpected.  Not so with this pattern!  It says it’s for a bust 34”, which is technically too big of a size wearing the era appropriate corset, close enough to be just my size in modern ‘natural’ sizing.  I cut out the pattern “as-is”, with no changes to the sizing or anything whatsoever, and it turned out great!  You don’t really want this to be on the smaller fit, you want it to be loose and slightly blousey.  But at the same time, the lovely princess seamed shaping darts keep this slip skimming the body, and make it easy to tuck into the skinny, high-waited skirts of the era.  I love this pattern.

The neckline is nothing but a simple, skinny casing with a tie to bring it in a fit it around the neck.  I considered sewing on a separate bias band to do the job, but instead I turned under the neckline twice and had the string run through the hem that I made.  I used the silly, contrast two-tone string not only because it was on hand and it was cotton, but honestly – it’s a fun little touch.  You can’t tell me that just because those ladies back then were wearing corsets and looking all decent and lady-like that they didn’t have a little fun with their underlayers.  Besides, look at the hem…something this frilly is definitely fun!

I went for the shorter length and it ends on my 5’ 3” figure somewhere between mid-calf and my knee.  It only looks a lot longer in our pictures because of the fullness at the hem and also on account of the angle my cameraman (aka, husband) was using to take the pictures.  This length and version of the pattern is perfect for those early to mid-teens era fashions, with their long and skinny, tapered hems.  Hem ruffles and gathered fabric below the knee create the silhouette of the legs that marked this part of the decade.  Skirts and frocks at this time skinny high waists (slightly higher in the back), with long hiplines that flared out into the widest part – just above and/or below the knees – to taper back in at the hemlines.  As soon as I made this slip and had it on, it struck me…of course!  How else would a skirt or dress get such a pouf out in just the right place with a slip or petticoat with ruffles right there to do the job?  Poufy drawers help with that, too.  Here again, the underwear makes the styles, and the styles are made possible by the underwear.  On a practical basis, I would think that a shorter slip would also be good for being unencumbering to footwear of the times.  Women were often wearing high-lacing boots, or at least fancy, fine stockings with the then-new ankle baring heels.  Besides the hem of my historical fashions have very wide hems – this is the case of my 1914 hobble skirt that I have worn over my slip so far.  A shorter length slip would not be absolutely necessary until the fuller, easier-to-move-in fashions of the WWI era (1914 to 1918) arrived.

This slip does button down the back – a tell-tale sign that women at this time had assistants helping them in and out of their clothes.  The time of female independence had definitely not come yet and class gentrification was strong.  For my own slip, I made the back placket, and proper button holes with old teens era carved horn buttons to match…only to realize that it was generously sized enough that I didn’t need to unbutton it to get it on.  So, I just to stabilize the back, make sure it stays closed, and make things simpler in the long run, I hand tacked each button and button hole closed (for now, at least).

Now, you might be wondering, “What’s up with the weird paneling and funky colors to the back half?”  If you didn’t see it before, I guess you see it now.  I wanted to “make-do” with what I had so I went all experimental.  A few scraps of basic, white, cotton rectangles in weight matching the beige fabric were pieced together to form a solid back piece then hand-dyed the white scraps to match as best I could with what was on hand.  As much as I would like a “perfect” looking garment, I am much happier using up and making the most of what’s on hand.  Besides, doing something resourceful like this is much more satisfying in the long run, as well as giving me a much more interesting story to share!  After all, I feel that if I’m going to experiment on something, might as well do it on underwear.

This was my very first tea dye, and I am very pleased!  We happened to have cold brew instant tea bags on hand already, and I own the book “Making Vintage Accessories” by Emma Brennan (great book, btw) to show me how to do it.  I was so excited to see how the dye turned out that I now wish I had left it in the tub longer than 2 hours, but the color is closer than I imagined I would get at all, so I’m happy.  I did add salt so that the color would “set” so I don’t know if I could do It again for a darker color.  The color did not change much at all on the eyelet has it was a cotton and polyester blend.  Man-made materials are no fun – they do not have all the possibilities that a basic, traditional woven like cotton has!

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on the lingerie of the next two decades.