Indian Angrakha-Style Robed Dress

For anyone who follows the traditions of India, October often ends up being a celebratory month in which the festival of Navratri ends and Diwali begins.  Navratri, meaning ‘nine nights’, is one of the most popular and widely celebrated Hindu festivals in many parts of India and lasted September 26 to October 5 this year.  Diwali, the “Festival of Lights” associated with both the principal Goddess Lakshmi as well as the end of the Indian fiscal year, begins October 24 in 2022 and is 5 days of family, food, fireworks, colored sand art, special candles and lamps. 

I always celebrate these occasions in spirit where I am, far away from India.  Nevertheless, I’ve been having a hard time getting back into anything after having a bad time of catching Covid at the end of August.  However, choosing a traditional “buti” flower block print cotton, I found a project both easy to make and wear which is just the pick me up I needed to reignite my spirit, get back into sewing again, and launch me into the mood for this month’s Indian festivities.  As I am slow to think and accomplish much currently, I was so happy earlier this month to finish sewing an “Angrakha” in time to honor the theme colors of the last two days for Navratri.  The peacock green on my dress commemorates day 8 and the bright pink of day 9 is from my dupatta shawl, which was bought from the Devon Ave. Indian district in Chicago!  This garment is supremely comfortable, colorful, and fun, but also is the perfect ethnic item to wear for these celebrations!   

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an all-cotton hand-stamped block print direct from India through “Fibers to Fabric” shop on Etsy

PATTERN:  McCall’s #6428, year 1978, from my personal pattern stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, some ethnic Indian loop trimming from a New Delhi artisan sourcing shop “Cat Fluff” on Etsy, and some random items on hand to make the Angrakha’s tasseled tie ends

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was sewn in about 10 hours and finished on September 27, 2022

THE INSIDES:  cleanly zig-zag stitched over the edge in several layers to imitate serging (overlocking)

TOTAL COST:  I bought 4 yards of this material on a seasonal clearance sale and together with the trimming my total cost comes to just over $20.

a traditional silk brocade Angrakha

In brief, an angrakha is a double-breasted, wrapped, long sleeve outer robe that is asymmetrically tied closed at the left side of the high waistline and traditionally paired with loose Indian trousers.  The earliest mention of this word specifically can be traced back to the 16th century!  An angrakha was historically worn by men of Rajasthan (state in northern India) either as a soldier’s robe, when there was a quilted inner panel under the double-breasted chest, or as a court robe for royalty when made of the best silk brocade with rich trimmings.  By the 19th century, it had evolved to be a garment made of sensible cottons, but now today it is also worn in public by men and women alike of varying ethnographic backgrounds and locations.  It even has progressed into varying lengths – long as a special occasion dress, short as a daily wear tunic, or mid-length as a multi-purpose robe or fancy suit (when there are matching trousers and dupatta shawl). 

The angrakha is supposedly derived from traditional outfits of Rajasthan’s neighboring state of Gujarat and can be seen in some of their Garba or Dandiya performances for Navratri. Gujarat is, after all, the only state that erupts into a nine-night dance festival, one of the longest in the world! Each night of Navratri, all over the state, in villages and cities alike, people gather in open spaces to celebrate their feminine divinity. Oh, how I wish I was there to experience that for myself…just picture the blaze of color, energy, and excitement such an event must be!

The literal meaning of the word “Angrakha” is ‘something that protects your body’, and thus I searched (and obviously found) a robe pattern from which to base my make off of.  A modern robe still embodies the very definition of this Indian ethnic garment and – just like an angrakha – is a layer that is not worn alone but over a full set of clothes underneath.  I serendipitously found the perfect source in a vintage pattern from on hand!  It is a nighttime set pattern, but robes made of the right fabric can be definitely appropriate for wearing outside the confines of the home.  I remembered how the fashion of the 1970s had revisited many different historical influences and the empire waist, full skirt, minimal seams, and wrapped closure was everything I needed for a modern yet traditional interpretation of an angrakha. 

I adapted just a few things to the pattern to both make it fit me better and be more ethnically an angrakha.  The pattern I had was a medium (the sizing was in general increments and not precise numbers) so it was much bigger than my measurements.  The sleeve length was originally very long and I had to fold up the pattern tissue to the exact length needed because I was including the full selvedge edge along the cuffs.  The main body was very wide and I folded out an inch out of each bodice piece, taking out a total of 4 inches.  Even still the main body turned out too generous, and not the proper angrakha silhouette.  Just reshaping the underarm seam into a right angle, rather than a soft curve, worked wonders to bring in some shapeliness to the bodice and provide all the reach room I needed.  To continue the reshaping, I also straightened out the sleeves into stovepipe style rather than the pattern’s given bell sleeves.  The most traditional garments of any culture are often composed of very basic, simple shapes and so it seemed proper to turn the design lines for this angrakha into something very angular and geometric.

An integral part to the angrakha is the tasseled tie closure for the asymmetric wrapping.  As I said above, I meant to channel modern India’s take on a historically ethnic style so I deviated from the traditional double tied closure.  Things were kept simple for my angrakha with one sole tie.  I went really inventive by coming up with something suitable and used a turquoise green colored shoelace that I happened to find in my notions stash.  Then I sewed down two matching colored cotton tassels (leftover from this tunic project, posted here) over the ends.  A shoelace string is much sturdier than any ribbon or cording I had been considering anyway!  I stitched thread chain loops over the shoelace tie at both ends of the waistline where it needed to be connected.  Yet, my thread loops do not catch the ties, which run under the loops so the waistline can adjust to whatever feels comfortable for the day.  With the tassels at each end, the tie however cannot come out of the thread loops, providing assurance that it will not get lost but is staying put.  

See the two thread loops holding the tie in place?

I was not doing an overall elasticized waist like the pattern called for, but I was making the bodice smoothly tailored with only the skirt portion gathered.  Thus, I had to add a few darts in the bodice – under the bust for the front panels and under the shoulders for the back panels.  The waistline shape was trimmed to be more like a historical men’s angrakha, where the front waistline lands at a higher true empire height while the back waistline dips lower to hit just above the true waistline.  I did not line this robe, or used any facings, but I just used the selvedge border for all hems and simply turned in the neckline edge under the loopy Indian trimming.  The bodice panels with the long cut-on sleeves took just over a yard, which left me with the 3 yards of fabric for the skirt portion.  Four whole yards of fabric was just enough to work for this project! 

As I expounded upon in this post of mine about the making of a Rajput Sherwani coat, dyeing and block printing traditions have always been rich throughout the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Sindh.  Their textiles had been exported to places as far away as Egypt and Africa centuries before the British control there popularized the exporting of their chintz, block prints, paisley shawls, and silks to England, America, and the Dutch colonies. The fabric I chose is a classic, buttery, whispery soft Indian cotton.  The predominant dye color to my chosen print is also in the background.  In modern times, I tend to see this color called turquoise.  This color can be seen as a blue or a green depending on the person, so I find this label for such a shade as too generalized and confusing.  To India, the natural (often botanical dyes) dyes that are often used turn this shade greener toned than anything else, and this way blues are easier to clearly identify.  This block print matches with the Pantone shade of “Blue Grass”, but I see it in person, in indoor light, as the traditional “peacock green”.  It is complimented with shades of true Indigo (Pantone “Sapphire”) for the print, as well as “Dusty Lavender” in the border – all my favorite colors!  

Milk Thistle

The overall print, called the ‘field’ area, is filled up of ‘buti’, tiny stylized almond shaped floral motifs carved in wood for stamping purposes.  ‘Buti’ is an Indian Marathi word that means ‘something hidden or kept hidden’ and the best part of these stylized florals is reading secrets within the creatively rendered botanical representation.  Here, the fabric looks to me to show a milk thistle plant, known in Hindi as “doodh patra”.  It has long been popular in India as a flowering herb that provides therapeutic properties as well as a multi-purpose oil (extracted from the seeds).  The portrayal of this plant is for me a subtle nod to the angrakha’s late medieval origins – the thistle was a favorite decorative and symbolical element of manuscript illuminations, tapestries, and brocades of the olden times. 

However, on a practical level, such a print shows the Gujarat influence to my interpretation of an angrakha, as that is the Indian tradition that I most closely associate with through our Indian friends.  I know I am biased, but I will insist that Gujarat has the superiority when it comes to cotton production, embroidery, and tie dyeing.  Yet, I know Rajasthan (particularly the capitol city of Jaipur) is tied to the history of the floral motif block print.  I love the way that my angrakha combines both state’s textile histories into one fantastic garment that has a richly interesting history all on its own. 

I am thrilled to have a new type of Indian clothing to wear as part of my ongoing efforts to participate in the culture of India through their wonderful festivities.  This angrakha is my new favorite wardrobe item so I have not been shy from wearing it out to eat, to do errands, and more!  I think it is so important for respectful cultural representation to be something seen outside of limited ethnic circles so that the public can that have a chance to see, respect, and learn.  India has such an enthralling history with a depth which can be intimidating to a newcomer, but I hope coming across someone like me can become a moment of enlightenment for others.  I love sharing all things related to my sewing, especially history and culture!  For this angrakha, its bold but attractive combo of colors in a relatable wrap-on style seemed to really bring out the questions and comments from people I came in contact with. 

Most people never understand what is the clothing of the people of India beyond a stereotypical tunic, trousers, or sari…but there is so much more variety than that!  It would be a great honor if my blog could be the source for opening any reader’s mind to just some of the interesting nuances to what the residents of India actually do wear and how it is beautifully tied to their culture, their heritage, their self-expression, and their talents.  I adamantly believe the world would indeed be a dull place if it wasn’t for the flourish of color and wondrous handiwork that the fashions of India bring to the globe. 

Here’s a wish for a peaceful, renewing, and happy Navratri festival!

Botanical Garden Block Printed Dress

It’s comforting to know that some of the best things in our world have not changed and only stayed the same as they have been for centuries.  As India just celebrated their Independence Day August 15th, I’m specifically thinking of how so many of the heritage fiber arts in that country are practiced the way they were so long ago.  Why mess with a good thing when it is perfect as-is, right? 

What comes from the earth is kept a part of the earth the way the fabric of India is produced.  Indian cotton is grown and harvested naturally, first of all.  Then, plants, spices, and vegetables are used for dye, the earth is utilized for resist stamping or setting, and artisans turn everything together into an organic whole.  All this adds up to a very eco-conscious manner of creating some of the most beautiful and wonderfully comfortable fabric this world has to offer.  It is an honor and a special experience to make and wear something that involved so much love and attention just for these few yards!  There’s no better way I can think of to celebrate India’s long fought freedom than to enjoy a respectful all-in dive into appreciating the beauty to one of the many fascinating facets of their culture.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton content for the print, fully lined in a tan beige tone Bemberg rayon satin

PATTERN:  McCall’s #7894, year 2019

NOTIONS NEEDED:  I just needed lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on June 9, 2022 in about 20 hours

THE INSIDES:  loosely zig-zag stitched along the raw edges to reduce fraying

TOTAL COST:  The Indian cotton fabric from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy cost me $15 (I got this on a half-price sale) for 3 yards, while the rayon lining was another $15 for 3 yards from Fashion Fabrics Club.

There are many sites that dive into the nuances of block printing so I will not overly dive into the process here but this link through Saffron Marigold and this page through Vogue of India can be a good start to inform yourself.   I merely want to stress that it is of utmost importance to make sure you are buying from a source which employs fairly paid workers and does the craft the traditional way…no mere printed fake outsourced versions, please.  There are many knock-offs to be found, especially in ready-to-wear (which is in it for the visual aesthetic and nothing more), but this does the opposite of esteeming a craft that deserves only awe-inspiring admiration.  Historically, the textile history of India is not about being carelessly machine made but being the work of caring human hands.  Support the heritage craft of India by doing some conscious purchasing if you want some block prints for yourself!

This being said, there are some pro and cons to keep in mind.  Be aware that most block prints are in a width no wider than 45” so take that into account when planning out a project.  This is why I was squeezing this dress in on 3 yards when 4 yards probably would have been better.  Rich toned block prints can bleed out their dye in the first one or two washings so be careful to wash them with similar colors.  The cotton of India, though, is buttery soft, whisper thin, and among the easiest to sew material you could ever imagine.  It is a dream to wear, sew, and work with!  Besides, this material is the best way possible to effortlessly stay cool in the heat of summer. 

The positive qualities of Indian cotton also means that it is often less than opaque.  Busy prints hide any see-through issues more than not.  For this dress, however, I did not feel like a sheer look nor did I want to feel obliged to wear an underslip, so I fully lined the cotton.  Bemberg rayon is magnificently breathable, moisture wicking, and a very good imitation of silk, so it is the perfect pick for keeping this dress lightweight, comfortable, and an effortless summer staple.  Knowing how to work with fabric and how to use it to its best advantage is a large portion of the planning and figuring that goes into any sewing project.

With all of this positivity I am expressing towards this dress, it was really difficult for me to successfully sew.  I may sound crazy, but I loved doing the yards and yards of ruffles which go in between the seams.  Doing the ruffles in this buttery soft fabric was easy after all but the process really centered me, calmed me down, and helped me enjoy the extra effort.  I just think I relaxed a bit too much and didn’t think to look ahead at the pattern for issues.  Then, I had to be creative and fix the dress’ fitting issues after it was fully finished.  Also, there was a total oops moment where I sewed in the most perfect invisible zipper – even matching it through the intersecting points where the ruffles meet – only to realize after the fact that it is on the right side and not the left.  Considering the effort it would take to switch sides, I am leaving the zipper well enough alone. 

The wrong-sided zipper just added to the many little ways this dress was such a frustrating bother to sew, even though I love everything about it…the details, the fit, the style, and how perfectly it matched with my fabric.  I’m actually happily accepting of all the dress’ ‘faults’ which happened because I’m working on being gentler on myself with my self-imposed expectations of perfection.  I actually love my dress all the more for reminding me what it feels like to embrace the fact I am only trying my best and cannot always be up to par.  The beauty of a handmade block print are the little irregularities in the coloring or stamping.  Why shouldn’t my sewing be all the more beautiful for showing the way I persevered and made the most of my ‘mistakes’?!

I rounded up to a size bigger because I wanted a looser fit, and this worked out great.  Having a looser fit keeps the overall garment easy and comfy to wear.  Tight clothes are uncomfortable in the summer for me.  Nevertheless, having a loose fit is especially important here since I wanted the option of wearing silk Indian trousers underneath for a more ethnic look, as you see it in my pictures.  With a looser fit, the bodice front wrap stays closed without gaping open.  Most importantly, though, I discovered the hips in this pattern run really small, even with going up a size!  By letting out the seam allowance to 3/8” on each side seam I had just enough to recover the fit and keep this wearable.

Another point to mention is how this pattern seems to have been drafted for very tall girls.  The torso is very long and not average proportions.  Comparing the line drawings to my finished dress, everything seemed to droop lower on my body.  The bodice-to-skirt seam needs to be slightly above the waist and the left point where the two ruffles meet at the side seams needs to land at the high hip.  The finished dress wasn’t doing this on me.  I needed to pick up the upper bodice to raise up all the rest of the dress without ruining the design lines. 

Disguising while correcting this faulty fit after the fact was all done before I had set the sleeves in, so I luckily had I bit more freedom to alter the bodice.  First, I made a 2 inch horizontal tuck across the back bodice right across the shoulder line, making my dress appear as if it had a shoulder panel much like a man’s dress shirt has.  This picked up the dress, for sure, but the front became wonky.  To evenly pick up the front half of the dress, I took 2 inches of the front bodice under the shoulder line and tucked that under the shoulder seam.  Then I top stitched down along the shoulder seam.  The excess fabric was not taken in evenly in the front as on the back I realize, but the dress doesn’t give any funky fit for this fact, and I am thrilled to have found a way to fix the fitting issues with no marring of the original design or unpicking of stitches.  The sleeves merely have a bit more gathers to them for my alterations to the bodice, but I love puffed sleeves already from sewing designs of the 1930s era.  All is well that ends well, here. 

A handful of further personal variations to the design deserve a mention, as well.  The asymmetric look of the skirt’s ruffles struck me as a tad odd in the way they abruptly end at the bodice.  I realized that the front ruffle joins the bodice seam at just shy of the same point where the underwrap to the bodice ends.  So I ran with this detail and added extra ruffles to just that half of the neckline, thereby continuing the asymmetric line and adding some unity between the bodice and skirt.  I had the neckline ruffles go across the back of the neckline and end at the shoulder on the opposite side so they can be visibly a part of the bodice from behind, as well.  I also lowered the slit opening so it didn’t open up so high up on my thigh.  Finally, I also disregarded the elastic guide for the sleeve hems and cut whatever length felt comfortable around my arms.  Sewing for yourself is all about customizing to your personal taste and desires, so don’t forget to throw those instructions out the window every so often and make what you want, how you want!

Even though I make what I want how I want it, for Indian and other ethnic material I always do my research and let a respectful interpretation of that culture influence my sewing in such cases.  I want to give cultural fabrics their proper place so I can learn from and honor those cultures yet still also invest my own personal story into what I sew.  In the case of this project, I first bounced some design ideas off of our Gujarati Indian friends to see if I was on the right track.  Then, I got in touch with the seller of my fabric and found from her the details to the print that I chose for this dress.  Apparently, these types of multi floral designs on a single print are called “bagh” – which means “garden”.  Lotus, marigolds, hibiscus, rose, Chameli (Jasmine) are common depictions.  Gardens are often shown as the setting for many joyful and sacred artistic depictions in Indian art of both Hindu and Muslim manuscripts.  Thus, I found a beautiful blooming wall of flowers at a local Garden shop to pose in front of to emphasize the glorious theme printed on my dress’ fabric.  I was bringing my own garden to a flower garden…oh, the lovely irony!

The overall creative stylization of Indian block prints are such a heritage craft that my dress’ fabric can be recognizably similar to an 18th century skirt or a textile dating from the Renaissance.  The floral imagery to Indian block prints has not changed all that much and my historian heart rejoices at such a continuity.  My original plan for this fabric was to make The Dreamstress’ “Amalia” jacket (ca. 1780) from Scroop patterns, after all.  However, Indian block prints have a history of being very desirable and sought after in olden times when imports had long lead times and exporting was a dangerous job.  Thus, many countries sought to “knock-off” the visual look of such fabrics with their own colonial practices.  I do not want to be the source of continuing a painful narrative history and wanted this garden fabric to be turned into something practical, wearable, and a source of joy.  I believe I succeeded. 

Happy 75th anniversary of being an independent country, India!

Inverted Floral Wrap Dress

Just as a mirror has two faces or a coin has two sides, so is there symmetrical inversion in botany.  I have channeled this natural state of balance into a vintage wrap dress for the ultimate challenge in forethought and clear-headed pattern planning.  I do normally gravitate towards asymmetrical designs. 

However, I was directly inspired by the dual personality of the Marvel villain Madame Masque, as seen in my favorite television series Agent Carter (Season two of 2016) as the stylish Hollywood starlet Whitney Frost, set back in the time of the 1950s era.  The last scene for Whitney sets her up for the future villain she becomes.  Watch it for yourself here on YouTube. She is shown as unhinged, delusional, and desperate to live her old life even as she is disfigured from the power she found searching for a new way of existence.  However, we are viewing her situation through the lens of a mirror image which distorts her reality. 

Whitney Frost, Season Two, episode 10 of the Agent Carter show

Her dress was appropriately two-faced, with a pleasing feminine floral on one side for her Hollywood alter-ego and a deep purple on the other side to reference the Dark Matter which resided in her.  This beautiful ruse is the scene that I sought to imitate.  As short as it is (only 1 minute) the clip is very telling – Whitney Frost’s sadistic and selfish ways left her with the opposite of everything good that her gifted intelligence could have achieved.    

THE FACTS: 

FABRIC:  The solid portions are a cotton and poly blend broadcloth, while the other half is an all-cotton handmade block print direct from India, fully lined in a thin bleached muslin cotton for opacity

PATTERN:  Anne Adams #4803, from the year 1952, labeled as a “Wrapron” jumper-dress-apron, vintage original pattern from my personal stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and some bias tape for finishing the edges…that is it!  No zippers or interfacing, or buttons – pretty simple!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was made in about 30 hours and finished on June 13, 2021

TOTAL COST:  Two yards of the floral block print was ordered from DesiFabrics on Etsy for $26.  The rest of the fabrics came from my local JoAnn Fabric shop – 2 yards for the purple and 3 yards for the muslin.  My total is about $45.

There has been a semi-intentional year 1952 spell lately on my blog.  This is the third post in a row to feature something I have made dating to that year in fashion history!  1952 saw the full transition of women’s’ fashions away from the last vestiges of late 1940s influence and took on the styles which would be the classic silhouettes and design lines for the rest of the era.  This third consecutive post of a 1952 dress combines a sample of the predominant fashion trends for that year (mentioned previously) into one project.  I will explain!

My last post – a Cinderella inspired dress – had a simpler version of the same inverted floral look as this post’s frock.  The latter was my test project for gearing up for a full interpretation as the one in this post and diving all in to the challenge of trying out some tricky mirror image paneling.  What I learned along the way is that there is no secret technique to help make the process easier.  Everything is in terms of opposites and cut single layer.  This kind of inverted paneling of two fabrics is just plain craziness to sew and plan.  My best advice is to work on such a project when you have a clear head and limited distractions.  Write out ahead of time which pattern piece will go to which fabric so as to have a visual guide.  Also, have some extra fabric as a little ‘wiggle room’ in case you mess up figuring which pattern piece to cut from which fabric.  Trying to create a two-fabric dress was easier for my Cinderella dress as the McCall’s pattern I used was clearly printed.  Unless you’re looking to make things harder for yourself, do not try such a style when working with an unprinted tissue pieces, which was the case for the mail order pattern I used for this Whitney Frost dress.

In the princess-themed post mentioned above, I spoke of how 1952 had some definitive fashion trends that are easy to spot, but I’ll now add wrapped dresses to the list.  Before Diane Von Fustenburg got credit for popularizing wrap dresses in the 1970s, they had been a creative “craze” in the 1950s.  Notice how this post and the former of my last three (my Charles James look-alike) both are 1952 dresses that wrap closed in some such way! 

1952 was definitely a benchmark date to the prevailing wrap trend, as evidenced by an overwhelming amount of that particular style for that year.  Butterick even had a specific tag line for their popular wrap pattern #6015 of 1952, calling it the “Walk-Away Dress” (reprinted as Butterick 4790), but all the other pattern companies of the time came up with their own version over the following few years afterwards.  It seems rather clever to me that Anne Adams took the “it can be a full body apron or a dress” creative approach to tagline and market their wrap dress and keep if different from Butterick’s offerings.  Advance also came out with another apron-dress wrap in #7811 (see it here).  McCall’s had rather fashionable wrap dresses for the time, but they did offer their “Instant” wrap-around apron dress in pattern #2104.  Simplicity Company even came out with their wrap dress in #2466 which was tag lined as the “Answer” dress so you can look presentable enough to answer the door in a matter of seconds.  Simplicity’s “Answer” dress is surprisingly similar to my Whitney Frost dress in the way it has both a print and a solid at contrasting sides.

The first reason I chose the Anne Adams “wrapron” dress pattern for Whitney Frost’s inverted floral dress was for its basic design lines.  It was the only early 1950s dress pattern in my stash that had center seams both front and back and a similar overall style.  Sure, I realize I could have just thrown in extra seams but I wanted my base pattern to be just what I wanted from the start.  With so much figuring to account for already, I didn’t need to add one more alteration for me to think about.  I have also been aching to try one of the many early 1950s wrap dresses, and this one seemed to me to have the best chance for success.  It seems as if every vintage sewist has tried Butterick’s classic “Walk-Away Dress” and been deeply underwhelmed – I was not going to walk into that trap.  Even still, every wrap dress – including the most successful – is a frustrating beast to sew.  They are shifty things that do not have one set way of fitting and tend to have a mind of their own.  Their adjustability is to their benefit at the same time.  Bodies are not static and fluctuate quickly – even from the morning to the evening my body has different measurements.  A wrap dress accommodates all of those changes! 

I was hoping for a rousing victory out of this project, of course, and inspiration from the Agent Carter show has not once let me down, always spurring me to create my wardrobe’s best pieces.  I have found that this specific wrap dress turned out to be perhaps my best fitting wrap and amongst my all-time favorite dresses.  It was quite an experience to sew (as expected) but most of that was simply the combination of mirror imaging the two fabrics and the fact that vintage mail order patterns run roomy.  If you want the same look as my dress without dealing with an unprinted, fickle sized, true vintage original like what I used, I have noticed that the modern reprint Simplicity #8085 is a strikingly similar pattern.  However, I have not tried this reprint for myself.  Using that pattern, nevertheless, you would need to draft in a front V neckline and a center front seam.  Then, you could add in some sleeves, just as I did. 

For some reason it seems as if most of the 50’s wrap dresses do not have sleeves.  They are easy to add on where sleeves are wanted but missing and help keep the garment anchored nicely on the body.  Depending on the design, make sure to add in at least an extra inch to the inner armhole edges to a sleeveless frock if you are going to sew in sleeves.  I drafted my very own sleeve pattern here because I wanted exactly what was on the original Whitney Frost dress which was my inspiration.  They have pleated top caps which almost give the illusion of a puff sleeve from a decade or two previous to 1952.  The hem is also pleated in but with half the number as on the cap.  I love how cute and comfy these sleeves turned out to be, and how they enhance the overall dress and level up its elegance.  The dress looked very casual and was clearly an apron-derived style before sleeves.  With them, it is 100% Whitney Frost’s class and suddenly a refined dress that is low-key hiding the fact it is a wrap.  I love the little epiphany moments that every step of making a garment reveals.

The scene of Whitney Frost hallucinating at a vanity dresser’s mirror only lets us see her dress from the chest up, so it left me a lot of creative license to imagine the full frock for my imitation.  I ended up primarily basing my dress off of similar extant dresses, content with only a strong reference my inspiration garment.  However, I found an interview of the actress Wynn Everett off screen (click here to watch it for yourself) which gives a waist up view of the inverted floral dress she wears in that last scene for her character.  In the interview, the shine off her dress and semi-transparency of the fabric tells me it is a lightweight satin, perhaps silk in content.  Finding a remotely matching satin print was exhausting and fruitless after several years of intermittent searching, so I went for something that would guarantee to bring me joy – an Indian cotton “buti” block print

These fabrics always have the most beautiful floral stamps and are the most luxurious cotton to be had.  Through this route, I easily found more than one option that would easily mimic the print on Whitney’s two-faced dress.  Looking at the extant 1950s dresses that encouraged my inspiration, they were all cotton, and using such a material would keep this dress practical and wearable for many occasions, after all.  Summertime is much more pleasant when one is wearing Indian cotton…and India’s Independence Day is coming up August 15th!   

In the understanding that Whitney Frost and Agent Carter are very much alike in many ways despite being each other’s nemesis, I have merged a hair accessory that matches with a Peggy dress into this outfit.  Season Two occasionally has Agent Carter vested in purple, Whitney’s trademark color, depending on where she stands in the plot or how her actions have affected others.  There is scene in episode 2, called “A View in the Dark”, where Peggy is glamorous and acting according to her own designs (both of which is tied to Whitney’s character).  This is also when Peggy is garbed in all purple.  I made my own copy of her jeweled, floral purple hair comb to complete my copy of that dress from the episode.  To get a good view of Peggy’s hair comb, please go watch this short clip for yourself here.  More details about this yet to come, though!  That hair comb really seemed to fit in all too well to the character development I see tied into both leading ladies.  It fancies up the dress, too, since I had to go with a string of pearls as my necklace – pearls are Whitney’s most common jewelry choice.

Peggy always wore her Nana’s 1940s watch, just as I do, but she gravitated more towards a gold tone whereas Whitney wore silver metals.  I again blended in both characters by wearing one of my Grandmother’s special watches, her only one in a silver tone.  I have done what research I can and estimate it to be from circa 1952 – how perfect, right?!  It is in a 14 carat gold with tiny diamonds set into the sides of the face, so I wonder if this was a wedding gift piece, as she was married about that time.  As you can see, this was indeed a special outfit for me to bring out such special accessories.

For starting off with a basic looking wrap-apron design and some cotton fabrics, I think I really pulled off this idea better than I ever expected and turned into a very fun and appealing dress.  Wherever I go in this dress, I always get a number of compliments and positive comments, so apparently it is something which others would like to have as well, if ready-to-wear offered such a thing.  Please go view my Pinterest board on “Wrap-on Dresses and Tops” for a plethora of inspiration.      

I hope I have given you some encouragement to give wrap dresses a try or maybe try them anew if you have been disappointed in them before.  This mirrored paneling of two different prints is a great way to use up two smaller cuts of fabric and makes it seems creatively intentional.  I find it unexpected that wrap dresses seem to have been a popular medium for such a dual fabric style in the 1950s.  I hope you agree that the character of Whitney Frost was a good choice for me to channel for this project idea because I feel wonderful wearing my finished dress…every bit as pretty as a summer flower! 

Light in the Dark

We just recently had the first day of winter in what has already seemed like a very bleak year. Bleh. Yet, with the arrival of this 2020 solstice I am reminded there will only be more daylight from here on out up to the coming of summer.  It’s so close to the end of this miserable year that this fact in itself bestows a great hope, as well.  Holding onto the light in the dark is the only thing that can help us make it through the tough times.  The way the Indian festival of Diwali (of a few weeks ago) is always a close prequel to the date of Christmas became more symbolical than normal this year with the pandemic.  Thus, I went all out and sewed a special kurta tunic dress for both occasions, something which plays on the whole idea of radiance in a season of gloom to bring out the happiness to such holidays.  The gold touches, the pretty bright colors, and especially the shiny ethnic “mirror work” added to my project all combine to make this the most fun and unusually festive outfit I have made yet!  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  the kurta tunic dress is a block printed viscose, rayon, and cotton blend challis in the palest yellow background with a red trefoil bead print

PATTERN:  McCall’s #7254, year 1994, from my pattern stash

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread and one 22” back zipper…that’s it!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Hand stitching down the trim took me so much longer than the making of the dress itself!  The garment was sewn together in November 20, 2020, and sewn together in 4 hours.  Hand applying the neckline and wrist trimming took me another 5 hours.

TOTAL COST:  Three yards were $30, ordering it direct from India from the Etsy shop “Fibers To Fabric”.  The trim was $4 for 1 yard, from the same shop. Altogether, my kurta cost me under $40.

This Christmas I will be as decked out as our tree with all the symbolism I annually associate for this lovely holiday!  I mostly just want to end the year looking and feeling my best without trying too hard.  This outfit does that for me.  It is in the Indian ethnic style that brings me so much joy and fascination.  Here I am both dressed up yet quite comfy, fancy but covered up to stay warm in the cold, and uniquely dressed in a style that honors India’s traditions as well as my own.  I do always love a slinky 30’s era gown or a strapless 50’s cocktail dress, but this year I was only in the mood for something much more wearable.  I am not yet acclimated to the cold and have no desire to freeze for the sake of fashion.  It is possible to be covered up and warm in winter yet still be jazzed up, too.  I can ‘have it all’ sometimes.

Take some tips from the culture of India when it comes to alternative colors to wear for colder seasons.  Cheerful and bright or even light toned colors are worn for all seasons in (especially Northern) India especially for formal wear, ritual occasions, and by the upper castes.  The beautiful diversity of religions which have existed in India for centuries – Islam, Jain, Sikh, Buddhism, Bahai, Christianity, and more – have provided a collective influence on the general fashion traditions of the greater Hindu impact to the country.  Thus, where Northern India has a greater Muslim influence through Punjab and the Rajput princes, as well as Jains in Gujarat, you’ll often find the colors of orange, red, yellow, and green in their garments.  I welcome this tradition. 

My country often only associates pretty pale tints, pastels, and other bright colors with warm weather.  Climate does not dictate clothing colors in India as in America.  In the darkness of winter, I do find soothing and festive tones can be more uplifting than black for some holiday glad rags. I personally need to be cheered up by what I am wearing in winter more than summer, anyways.  Otherwise it is way too easy to become uninterested, bored, and apathetic at bundling up to stay warm and dressing to deal with inclement weather.  Covering up my clothes with a coat is never exciting, but neither do I like my summer wardrobe to have all the fun.  Channeling, yet all the while understanding, the traditions of India is my happy answer for lovely winter attire.

I am all around festive when you just focus on the general outfit details.  There is bright scarlet hue on the print – and red is just about THE quintessential Christmas color.  It is also the color reserved for those extra special occasions in life for the tradition of India – this years’ Christmas is rather in that place for me.  I need to celebrate the fact I made it through the year this far!  The pale yellow reminds me of the warm glow of my favorite clear lights to decorate a tree.  Added touches of gold fancywork honors the story of the Magi who were guided by the glistening star of Bethlehem to present gifts to a king.  The mirrors around my neck reflect every little ray of light around me just the way I hope to do as a person.  See – it really is a special outfit for me!

In this most recent post, I address the terminology of what a kurta tunic is, and how such is worn and can be styled, so I will not refresh all of that information here.  This time, I merely want to show how such an item is not hard to make for yourself and how it can easily be worn as a modern midi dress, too!  So many patterns you probably have in your own pattern stash would likely work to become an Indian-style kurta tunic dress.  Something with form complimentary lines (such as the princess seamed panels on this project, or merely a tailored fit) and a non-confining skirt are preferred.  This kurta’s full, flared skirt hem makes it especially festive compared to my last kurta with its slim-line silhouette.  This one’s cotton and rayon blended material is certainly not as formal as my last kurta either, with its gold “zardozi” embroidery and silk sari material.  Kurtas come in such a variety for every person’s taste and life occasion.  They are sensible yet beautiful, not over-the-top yet finely decorated, feminine yet simple.  They are so wearable I must share my love for them with you!

The decade of the 1990s especially had a burgeoning plethora of dress and tunic designs which could be easily given a directly appropriate Indian ethnicity.  Why is this the case?  Since the 70’s “hippie” era, fashion has been using as the grossly loose slang term “Bohemian style”. The highly publicized visit of the Beatles to India in the late 60’s for meditation with the Maharishi is well documented to have had a powerful influence of bringing the East’s culture into a new awakening for the West. It took off again in the 90’s as “Boho” – think of Lisa Bonet and Winona Ryder or Gwen Stefani (wearing an Indian “bindi” forehead dot in the video of the 1995 song “Don’t Speak”).  Often that era’s “Bohemian” style has its roots or inspiration coming from the “Fabulous East”, after all, and not truly Czech as it might sound.  “Bohemian” now is often used as a blanket term for not understanding proper ethnicity for loosely Indian referenced clothing under the guise of being “artistic”.  Using the term in that way absolutely repels me. 

Interpreting ethnic styles for yourself is not wicked but it is important to still honor and understand cultural interpretation properly.  Do not throw on tassels, flashy mirror trim, or whatever comes to mind just because you want to follow a fad…and then still call it ethnic, though – that is the not-very-respectful common ideal of “Boho” fashion.  There is a balancing act that needs to be done.  It is always the best idea to error on the side of understanding and consideration than to not do so.

Admittedly, without the trousers or even a longer skirt layered underneath, this kind of kurta could look like your basic western world dress on steroids.  However, I do want the proper ethnic way to wear it which also coincidentally keeps me warmer in the cold, anyway.  The red skinny pants I wore in my day pictures match my jacquard dupatta shawl as well as bring out the color of the block print (which sadly somewhat faded in the first trip through the wash cycle).  The pants are now an older project of mine – these 1950s era jeans I made back in 2018 (posted here).   They do keep my ensemble a very subdued kind of finery.  I did attempt to make a pair of much more posh skinny trousers to bring my look up to the next level (you can barely see them in my night time pictures).  I chose a gold foiled pleather material using a newer Burda Style pattern…and the project turned out to not be the rousing success I had hoped.  They do complement the gold trimming on my dress!  Those gold pants will be posted in a separate post coming soon enough.

My ‘necklace’ and my ‘bracelet’ are both parts of a separate trim applique bought direct from India and sewn directly onto my garment as embellishment.  This makes for ease of dressing.  Yet, adding such mirror work around the neckline or chest is one or the popular ways in India to place such a decoration on a kurta.   I definitely bring a whole disco ball kind of party with me by just the neckline trimming alone!  Little holograms float onto the walls around me while I wear this inside anywhere, bringing a smile to my face which starts from the inside of me.  How many garments can do that?!  No wonder the Jain religion firmly believes wearing such mirror work wards off the “evil eye” and mischievous spirits. 

Mirror work, properly termed as “Sheesha” or “Shisha”, originated in 17th century Iran and means “glass” in Persian.  It is said to have been brought to India through various travelers during the Mughal era.  It is a type of embroidery which attaches small pieces of reflective metal to fabric.  In recent times, mirrors are used but traditionally flakes of mica, beetle wings, polished tin, cut silver slivers or coins of money have been chosen for this purpose.  Different shapes and sizes are chosen to be affixed on to the fabric by special cross stitch embroidery that encloses the mirror, and provides it a casing.  My post’s project makes use of an imported trim that had the mirror work embroidery done on a stiff mesh jute backing, with beading and decorative gold yarns in between.  I merely had to hand stitch around the trim to attach it to my garment’s neck and cuffs for an instant look of the real “Shisha” embroidery.  I realize the 5 hours it took to sew the trim down is nothing compared to what it would have taken me (or another more experienced embroiderer) to work the real thing directly onto what I made.

Mirror work is used to embellish and decorate a variety of items such as saris, dresses, skirts, bags, cushion covers, bedspreads, wall hangings, religious offerings, and more. Mirror work is most common in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana, hence these three states form the major hubs for mirror work.  In fact, it is a significant enough local craft to Gujarat that it has its own term – “Abhala Bharat’.  Nevertheless, this type of embroidery is widespread in India, but the usage and placement designates the origin.  The Jats of Banni make use of mirrors of varying sizes and shapes to embellish their entire fabric. The Garari Jat community on the other hand, make use of tiny mirrors embroidered on to the yoke of the dress with multicolored threads. The Kathi embroidery of Gujarat makes use of mirrors by stitching them onto either the portion of the eyes in a print of animal faces or the center of a flower.  “Shisha” is probably one of the most flashy and distinctive of Indian decorations and a tradition loved worldwide.

It’s amazing how the trim adds so much ‘wow’ factor to such a simple design!  From the beginning, this was a really an easy-to-make project that became elegant by its lovely fabric and excellent fit.  I didn’t need to do any extra tailoring – it fit me perfectly as-is straight out of the envelope!  So then I go and add the trim and suddenly…bam!  I have a wonderful kurta.  I am tickled at how this looks so much more ‘extra’ than it really felt creating it.  Using both fabric and trim sourced from India to come up with something to properly honor the ethnicity made this a very satisfying project, too, just the same as every one of my Indian inspired makes.

Out of all the traditional holiday attire in red, green, or black that I have sewn before, this one unexpectedly embodies all that I associate and love with the precious end-of-the-year holidays.  For 2020, I needed as strong a reminder as possible to bring me up to remembering everything special to me about such festivities.  The process of creating this was almost like relaxing therapy at the same time because this year had been so different – and the holidays for us a bit altered and low-key – so I might as well go along with everything.  I have been secretly sewing many frothy, princess-inspired, and over-the-top dresses behind the scenes as my ‘quarantine escape’ for most this year, so it was time to slow down, make a change, and make an unconventional low-key holiday outfit which is 100% exactly what I needed at the moment.  I am just plain wiped out at this point in the year – but what a way to end my year of sewing!  Not that one project remotely makes up for what 2020 put me through, but if I end the year with the perfect sewing project for the moment maybe I can feel like something ended on the right note…no?

Here’s to 2021!  Wishing you and those you love a year of happiness and health, with a strong beacon of light in every dark time which may come your way.  See you here next week – next year!