Bittersweet

This time of the year always makes me a bit melancholy.  There’s just something about the beauty of gradually realizing summer is fading into fall, and seeing the season gently usher in the upcoming cold I despise.  I am not one to have Halloween in my blood the minute September rolls around.  Instead, I like to let the fall season come in barely perceptible stages, as it does naturally, and enjoy its every transition.  The sun might be just as bright but there is a different smell in the air.  The cricket chirps are louder without the competition from tree frogs and cicadas.  The night settles in a bit earlier.  Fall’s entrance is indeed bittersweet in emotion, which is why I find it so ironic I love the shades of bittersweet, the plant, because it also is the time of the year I can appropriately wear the most gloriously rich earthen tones of that vine – browns, tawny shades, dusty green, a wine red, and hues of gold.  This little vintage number is early fall embodied in a dress!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a sheer printed polyester crepe for the dress and some colored jute ‘ribbon’ with some leather cording scraps for the belt

PATTERN:  Vintage Vogue #9295, reissued in 2018, labeled as a year 1940 design.  The original pattern was Vogue #8241, an “Easy to Make One-Piece Frock”, featured in Vogue Patterns booklet for March 15, 1939.  What is up with the confusion of the original date on the cover of the reprint?  My me-made belt was made with no pattern…just an idea in my head!

NOTIONS:  I needed nothing but the basics – thread, some skinny ¼ inch bias tape, and a small 14 inch side seam zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Even with all the fine finishing inside, this dress took me only 5 or 6 hours to complete and the belt was made in 30 minutes.  Both were finished in May of 2020.

THE INSIDES:  All French seams

TOTAL COST:  This dress is practically free as all my supplies came from a local sewing rummage sale where everything was $1 per pound of weight…so my frock may be a dollar at the most!  My belt was made from some sort of multi-colored jute ribbon I bought on clearance many years ago when the now defunct Hancock Fabrics was closing.  I bought 2 yards of it for about $5.  The leather cording is leftover from a hat I had on hand (free).  This is a $6 outfit!!!

This is quite an interesting dress, full of contradictions.  First of all, it is a very classic dress design for 1939, with a very basic general construction and silhouette yet very interesting, tricky-to-make little details.  It is a sweet and feminine dress and tries to be complimentary with no real body shaping profile to it at all.  It is certainly not your 50’s take on a ladylike style, nor even a 40’s ‘I’m-ready-for business’ style…this is softer and more delicate without being girlish.  Even though the drawing makes one think this pattern might be scaled for a very tall woman with long legs, the proportions seem to be the opposite.  Sewing my dress as-is straight from the tissue, no fitting adjustments, it turned out perfect for my almost petite height (5’3”) and my short (14 ½”) back-of-neck-to-waist ratio.  The envelope’s yardage chart recommends anywhere between 2 ½ yards to 3 yards depending on the fabric width, yet – believe it or not, but I am the queen of optimal pattern placement – I was able to eke this dress out of 1 ¾ yards, with no compromise on grainline.  What gives here?  Overall, this was a quick treat to whip together and is a new dress that I absolutely love to wear, so I will not complain…not a bit.  I’m just warning every reader not to read this dress by its cover.

The full skirt, puff sleeves, and the bloused-out bodice are the obvious, and well-known visual giveaways for its original date.  Yet, somehow, the way Vogue styled their model and sewed up their sample dress made it seem more like a 1980s garment.  Weird, right?  That is an unfortunate reference which I do believe has turned off a number of sewists from potentially picking up this pattern to try it out because anything blatantly 80’s seems to repulse many.  As I said above, do not judge this by how Vogue has marketed it.

The decade of the 80’s does not give me an immediate adverse reaction and neither do puff sleeves, and so I tried to focus instead on the line drawing and give the design a chance.  I’m so glad I gave it a go!  It does have a bloused-out bodice that is something not all women will have a taste for today, yet it is very authentic, if you look at how garments fit women in old photos from the 40’s.  This dress has good lines, but it just cannot make up its mind what decade it wants to be in, and is not as timeless as other vintage designs.

 I dare to say it has a “cottage core” or “Laura Ashley” aesthetic at heart, with everything I still love about the 30’s, 40’s, and 80’s, so I’m there for it!  It is as comfy as a glamorous nightgown, with no need to feel to have a certain body image, yet it is as pretty as a picture perfect picnic and as breezy as a romanticized run through a field of flowers.

The one major change I did do on this dress was to simplify the neckline.  The pattern calls for a short back neck zipper to be put into a slashed and faced opening, and then self-fabric bias facing to be sewn along the neckline and sleeve edges.  As my fabric was a delicate crepe, and sheer too, I disliked the idea of a bulky back neck zipper.  I tested out the opening space of the finished neckline and guess what – you really don’t need that closure!  The dress can easily pop over my head without it, thankfully, because I think the dress is much better lacking the back neckline zipper.  Then, I used vintage cotton solid brown pre-made bias tape in lieu of self-fabric facings.  I love the simplicity and bit of contrast that this little step added.  Granted, I still made sure to cut the pre-made vintage bias tape out according to the patterns measurements for the given facings, just so I knew I was still keeping to the correct neckline.  I love it when some of my sewing work is already done for me with pre-made supplies, yet by using such quality vintage notions, I’m not just taking it easy – only adding a singular touch and putting my stash to good use.

Such a subject brings me to unashamedly brag about the total splurge of my really good vintage supplies on a finish that no one but me will ever see in real life – old rayon hem tape.  This stuff is so wonderful, and if you’ve never tried it, please find yourself some, use it, and you’ll thank me.  The wide and full skirt of this dress needed a deep hem to hang properly and have the proper weight, yet doing so is normally a slightly tricky technique.  It requires the cut raw edge to be gathered softly in to fit.  A regular folded-under edge is harder to do with this kind of a hem and, even on a soft material like this crepe, can turn out bulky and noticeable.

To get the nicest hem that is also invisible when worn, soft rayon hem tape is an incomparable wonder which does the job perfectly.  One long edge is sewn onto the cut edge of the skirt and then the other edge of the hem tape is sewn down to the body of the skirt.  The fabric merely ‘hangs’ from the hem tape instead of being firmly sewn together to the body of the skirt.  A light steaming sets the hem and controls the gathers.  Being out of the silkiest rayon, it gathers in so nicely and its lovely variety of colors that can be found make for a cheerful little splash of added beauty.  I chose a sky blue pack from on hand, and it contained a 3 yard length which was just enough for the skirt width with an inch or two to spare.  I do get a little concerned every time I use one of these vintage rayon hem tape packs because I know they are a limited resource and are not made anymore.  When they are gone, they will not be coming back.  Yet, what good will such items do me stashed in my notions drawers when they can be used and both bring me joy on my handmade garments as well as teach me a better way to do a sewing technique?  I rest my case.

Keep in mind the tiny, 1/8 inch pintucks are oppositely directional. They fold towards the center for both the front and the sleeves.  This was quite a challenge to accomplish when also sewing the edges into the skinny bias tape along the edges, but a little hand stitching finished off what I could not do using my machine.  Since the neckline and sleeve pintucking is practically the only major detail to this dress, it is well worth the extra time it demands.  There were so many thread ends to tie off though!  I can imagine how wonderful the pintucks would look on this dress if it was made of a solid color fabric.  They do stand out on my version by difference in texture alone, but are a bit lost in the print overall sadly.  Who knew making so many tiny stitched pleats could make such a difference in shaping when you do about a dozen of them!?

I paired my dress with a simple handmade belt, too.  I had two yards on hand of this novelty ‘ribbon’ made out of different colored jute.  I figured it would brighten the dress up a bit to add in more color -the late 1930s frequently combined unexpected tones to great success, anyway.  So I cut the two yards into half (for two one yard portions) and sewed them together lengthwise using a zig-zag stitch to end up with double the width.  I instantly had one wide belt.  Next, bias tape was sewed over the two raw edges for a clean finish, and then the edges were turned under and stitched down to form a loop on either end for the leather lacing to go through.  My belt kind of has the same idea as the one that came with the pattern, but was more fun to construct because it was my own idea.  I somehow like the belt better when the lacing is at my back and not the front.

The rest of my accessories are mostly vintage originals.  My earrings are from my Grandmother, while my straw hat is a 1930s mint condition original and a lucky find, as well as my kidskin leather driving gloves.  My velvet vintage purse is the only item that is from the 1940s and not the decade before.  Since the dress is sheer, under it I wore this deep purple, full-skirted, opaque 1950’s slip that I sewed awhile back now.  The two-tone heels are reproduction Miz Mooz brand.  I highly recommend anything from this vintage inspired shoe company…it’s like walking on air, they’re so comfy, especially their heels, and crafted with high quality (I have several pairs from this brand now, he he).  Altogether jazzed up, I went for a visit to our neighborhood “five and dime” candy shop to sweeten the melancholy I get from early fall.

I realize that readers on the other side of the world from me are just now easing into spring.  That is the other season of transition, kind of like fall, but with much more of a cheerful flourish.  I understand – which is why a dress like this could also be very appropriately a spring dress, too!  A little multi-season sewing is the most bang for my time spent, and hopefully a good inspiration for my readers no matter where you live.  Have I convinced you to pick up this pattern and give that 2 yards of material which is floating in your stash a chance to shine with this pattern?  What are your favorite tones of the fall season?

Conifer Night

Conifers are the mysterious ones among their fellow hard woods, the trees – they stand fully clothed when others go naked in hibernation.  They jealously kill the grass over their ‘feet’, have unfriendly prickles for ‘leaves’, and cast mellow, unholy shadows when they are planted in a huddle together.  Their perennial greenness is cheering, though – providing color and shelter outdoors in winter, the resiliency they represent ends up decorating our living quarters at the holidays!  Combining an overcast rainy evening with a patch of winter green becomes embodied together in this comfy set of viridescent and navy hues.

After my last 1940s suit from post WWII times, I’d like to share another focused on a slightly earlier time frame of the late 30’s to early 1940’s.  The now past holidays for all things green (St. Patrick’s day and Christmas) originally inspired me to keep to a certain color scheme linking each piece together.  This set is sans jacket, but at least it does have a statement hat!  This is also put together (like the last one I posted) with a mix of re-fashioning and sewing from scratch.  Just the same, it is also for winter, again composed of a span of years and fashion influences, and has a blouse pattern from 1941 as its common separate.  A vintage look, or a new outfit is only a re-fashion or a simple sewing project away!  This was relatively easy and fun to whip together, with only one pattern needed and lots of inspiration.  I do like to keep my styling connected to the past for the best practical glamor.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a semi-sheer 30% silk/70% cotton blend for my blouse, a cotton flannel for my skirt, and a poly felt for my hat

PATTERN:  Simplicity #3714, year 1941, for the blouse.  The skirt was made with no pattern. The hat is loosely based off of Vogue #7464, view D

NOTIONS:  I bought the base for the hat at Wal-Mart (sounds weird, but I’ll explain down below), but everything else cane from my stash – the buttons are vintage “Schwanda” brand from the 1950s, the zipper is vintage (metal teeth), the wire for the hat came from hubby’s workbench, the interfacing was scraps on hand, and matching thread was already here.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse was made in about 15 hours and finished on December 18, 2017.  My skirt’s re-fashion took me about 6 hours, while I spent no more than 4 hours to make the hat – both finished only days before Christmas 2017.

THE INSIDES:  French seams for the blouse, bias finish for the skirt

TOTAL COST:  The hat cost me a total of $5; the blouse cost me $6 for two yards; I’m counting the skirt as free as it had been on hand for so long.  Thus my total outfit cost is under $12 – how awesome is that!

Although this is a winter outfit, these pieces are quite versatile on their own, especially the lovely blouse in its soft silk blend ordered direct from China!  The way silk breathes and adjusts to one’s body temperature makes it fabulous and perfect for any and every outdoor or indoor climate.  When combined with the easy care and softness qualities of cotton, it is such a winning blend (would be perfect for some heavenly bedsheets!).  This blouse can definitely be dressed up but also be quite casual, especially when used as a layering piece under a sweater.  Having semi-transparent sleeves keeps me covered in a very lightweight, yet dressy way that also both keeps me at a good temperature and are easy to roll up to short length for summer.  I am slightly obsessed with its creamy celery green color and loving what it does for my light olive skin tone.  This blouse is really the one new piece of my outfit that will be a dependable workhorse in my wardrobe, besides being the one linchpin which inspired the whole set’s idea.

The rest of my ensemble is from items on hand – even my true vintage gloves and earrings but especially in regards the skirt!  Originally, it was something I haven’t put on in years, though I did wear it many times when I was in my early to mid-teens.  I was more of a wall-flower then, not as comfortable in my skin, and was always cold in the winter.  If I went out in the cold, I liked my skirts long so I could wear boots and pants underneath, and I liked them basic because I probably preferred to keep my coat on (whether inside or out) and not be seen anyway.  The skirt was ankle length, A-line shape, with a wide elastic waistband and in-seam pockets on both sides.  Yet, it was not worn enough to pill up or look as well-loved as it was…prime for a refashion.  I know the skirt is definitely for cold temperatures being a flannel, yet it’s lightweight enough to not completely be a one season piece, either…which makes my sewing the most bang for the little time spent to freshen it up.  A good rich toned plaid is one of the many fabric weaknesses of mine, and perfect for the 1940s, so a basic WWII era skirt it was going to be so it could match with my silk-blend blouse.

The pattern for my blouse has been used twice already, for my basic brown version and my “Leave Her to Heaven” look-alike.  I have this pattern down pat, but I love it no less for being the third time around…it’s a winner.  However, I did decide to tweak it a bit.  I spread the fullness of the thick single shoulder darts into three tiny darts of descending lengths which get shorter as they get closer to the sleeve caps.  It is an understated detail that feels very feminine and tailored.  I also added a bit more length in the sleeves with a little more fullness.  The sleeves are single layer of fabric so they are slightly sheer and delicate, perfect for the puffier shape.  The main body of the blouse has been double layered so that it would be both opaque as well as darker in color.  Instead of cufflink holes, as I do on most of my dressy blouses, I chose some wonderful pastel flower shaped buttons from my Grandma’s stash.  They really emphasize the creamy, bright color of the fabric in a way that cheers me up in winter and makes it perfect for summer, too.

My skirt was a pretty basic re-fashion, all I was basically doing was reshaping it.  I cut off the elastic waist first (keeping the side pockets), then chopped of only enough from the long hem to make a new, wide, interfaced waistband.  However, I needed to tailor the waist before adding that waistband!  This was the tricky part, trying to figure out how to take the waist in and how much to bring in.  This step took way too long and caused a lot of unpicking.  I had plenty of other more interesting ideas (pleats, a placket) that I tried before I settled for the basic, darted straight line skirt style you see.  Just a simple hem made, the zipper and waistband set on and my refashion might not look that dramatically different from its the original state.  It was merely fine-tuned and I hope classic enough to not just be a “vintage” style item.  Just imagine my skirt paired with tights on my legs and platform shoes or slip-on mules topped with a modern oversized sweater and a big belt…yup, it should be pretty variable.

Now, my hat is definitely and unequivocally old-style.  I have long admired the late 30’s (see this article) and early 1940s oversized drama hats.  This hat style seems to go by several names – most frequently called either the pancake hat or beret.  It just kind of subconsciously seeped into my realization to just start with a placemat. It’s round and lightweight and the perfect base for that kind of hat, but then again this is not the first placemat hat I’ve made (see this one here).  First I covered the hat in felt, but that was way too plain.  I had to spice it up.  I pleated the felt in an Art Deco style throwback in three tiny pintucks that angle in to disappear before they reach the other edge.  Art Deco details persisted through the 30’s into the post-WWII times, mostly in the built environment, so the pintucks call to mind my love of architecture.  A sculpted hat is sort of like architecture the way they are structured works of art, sometimes reaching for the skies, and craftily perched on the human head the way buildings cling and hold onto God’s good earth no matter what the angle.  I actually need my giant hat pin to keep this one on my head.

I wanted to make sure the placemat kept its shape, so, before I sewed the bottom half of the hat to it, I hand tacked an electrical wire to the underneath edge.  This was a good idea that ended up being a bad idea.  Electrical wire was the scrap I most immediately found on my hubby’s workspace and it was much too heavy for the job…why I need my hat pin.  I should have used my lightweight floral wire instead (as I don’t have any proper millinery wire).  We live and learn, and although this was not the best success, it is neither a failure.  It is a very wearable experiment that I love.  It turned out 100% better than my husband had expected and cost me pittance so what could be more awesome than that?!  I now had the perfect finish to my outfit and tried a new hat style I have long admired, besides learning what to do the next time!  The little silly hat front décor is straight out of my head, also made out of the same felt, and merely something cute and decorative to break up the overwhelming shape.

I love practicing the idealistic challenge and thrifty, global conscious practice of taking my wardrobe from years past and things on hand to use with my talents to update it for my current life and fashion tastes.  It’s not because it’s the new “in” thing to do, though…neither are we on that tight of a budget.  It’s purely because I want to.  I have been doing this for so many years, way before it was a trend, I am used to looking for what is on hand before I buy.  My husband calls it a version of shopping…where I go downstairs and rummage through my stash of unworn, but sentimentally attached garments I no longer want to wear the way they are to find something “free” to rework it and feel like I end up with a “new” piece of clothing.  Add in a fully new, made-from-scratch item, like my blouse, which was easy and fast to make in a natural fiber, and top it off with a luxurious statement hat made from ridiculously simple home decorating supplies on hand…and I get my fashion and overall creative fix satisfied.  You don’t need much money or supplies to be crafty and start sewing.  There’s a bounty of stuff nearby somewhere just waiting for a second chance.

 

Kaleidoscope Colors

As a child, my kaleidoscope used to enchant and fascinate me.  I would love all the bright colors changing and mixing with every spin, and the patterns it created were something which reminded me of a snowflake with personality, making the most of whatever light you directed the toy at.  Now that I know how it works and have so many things on my schedule, sadly my kaleidoscope is packed away and not seen anymore.  However, I do have this blouse, a grown-up girl replacement!

Modern day winter wardrobes tend to be so droll and dreary compared to the fun with color the late 30’s enjoyed.  That decade combined and paired the most unusual colors in the most creative and attractive ways.  Bright and crazy colored stripes, however, are so classic to the late 30s and oh-so-popular again today.  It’s no wonder – they are like a ray of welcome and much needed sunlight in the world of everyday fashion!  True vintage items in such a stripe print today get sold so fast at high-prices that sadly such style garments are out of the question for many others like myself…and true vintage fabric like it is even harder to find in a usable, stable condition.  Reprinted modern versions don’t often do the 30’s striping justice either, which is why I am so happy to have recently found a newly printed crepe which does match the old-time mix of happy colors.  Together with a tried-and-true 1940 pattern, which has been adapted to copy a 1938 style, I have what may be my most complimented me-made garment yet!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% polyester crepe for the fashion fabric, and a scrap of cotton broadcloth the line the shoulder panel inside

PATTERN:  Hollywood #1991, year 1940

NOTIONS:  I had all the buttons and thread I needed.  The buttons are vintage from the stash of my husband’s Grandmother

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was made in about 8 hours and finished on October 10, 2017

THE INSIDES:  nice French seams inside

TOTAL COST:  under $15

This was really a simple blouse to make, but the fabric and the sleeves are what helps to make the blouse standout.  I got rid of the angled panels to the original pattern and cut this version in all sharp geometrics, which complements the stripes.  The collar was re-drawn to be pointed, and the wide front (as well as back) upper bodice was made completely horizontal.  I lengthened the blouse hem as I eliminated the attached waistband.  As the golden yellow stripe was missing from the color sequence across the blouse front because of the way I cut, I added the ocher tone in through my choice of buttons.

I was basing my new composition to the 1940 Hollywood pattern off of images of true vintage patterns I do not have but admire, old fashion advertisements, and past photographs of both celebrities and regular women wearing striped blouses which have a crazy assortment of color.  It seems as if this trend is concentrated in between the years of 1938 and 1940.  I can’t help but wonder if that mode of fashion was begun with the lovely “Alimony” evening gown (year 1937) from the American designer Elizabeth Hawes.  However, it seems that multi-color striped garments after that designer were frequently in housecoats or sportswear pieces.  To see more inspiration of late 30’s to early 40’s multi-striped garments see my Pinterest board here.

My very favorite multi striped garment for inspiration is in the Agent Carter television show Season Two with the character of Ana Jarvis.  Ana favors late 30’s style in her wardrobe, and her blouse in the episode 5 “The Atomic Job” is a true and striking sample of the best from that period.  The only obvious difference between hers and mine is that Ana’s is satin with a waist tie front, and mine is a crepe finish with a regular blouse middle.  She was the cheerful, hopeful, and helpful backup character that was supporting all the others embroiled in the possible-death mission of the “The Atomic Job” episode, and her wardrobe shows this fact.  I want my wardrobe to reflect my happy inside…or if my day is going badly, I want it to cheer both me and others up.  Elsa Schiaparelli has been quoted as saying, “Color gives me ecstatic pleasure” from her book “Shocking Life”.  I’m so in agreement, and so are many people I think.  It’s a shame that out of the many people who compliment me on my blouse, many admit that even though they want it off my back they really wouldn’t wear it.  I’m guessing it’s because they just have a certain color comfort level they’ve grown used to and might even be afraid of being too flashy or too different.  Whether my colorful garment flags people down or not, we all know need color in our lives and regular RTW fashion certainly doesn’t seem to realize that so this blouse’s kind of different is good!

The wonderfully wide bishop sleeves with its big cuffs and puffed shoulder tops are the only thing I left as the pattern designed…and why not because they are killer amazing!  The pattern for such a full bishop sleeve with such forearm-encompassing cuffs was almost confusing because it was as wide as it was long.  Just like for my recent 1962 “Beatnik Blouse”, the sleeves atop big cuffs are so much shorter than “normal” long sleeves I am used to and it throws me off.   It also takes a good deal of both seam allowance clipping and ironing to harness so much gathering into a cuff so it stays flat.  The cuffs have dual buttons with close under embroidered thread loops along the edge.  These are rather hard to do on myself but I like how they keep the cuffs wrapped flat and snug around my lower arm verses buttonholes.

Can we set aside a minute just to gush over my jaw-dropping belt!?  This was a very lucky and therefore ridiculously affordable second-hand find for me, and is a ‘dream belt’ come true!  All in leather and detailed tooling all around front and back, it is a perfect bold and statement piece to complement the already outgoing feel of my blouse.  Actually, though – the late 30s was all about statement belts anyway, especially wide ones that had complex or unusual closings, anyway.  The only thing is, I haven’t yet figured out if the buckles are supposed to be worn at the top or on the bottom!

Yes, I realize I have been posting a good number of both blouses and shirts lately, but this has been what I have been sewing most of this year!  Separates are to me the salt and pepper of my everyday dressing.  Especially when it comes to vintage garments, having something that looks nice, yet is still casual, and definitely comfy as well as practical for whatever life throws my way for the day is what I can never get enough of.  The 1930s had this down to an art, in my opinion.

I must admit I never thought I would be wearing all those colors I admired so well in the light coming through my kaleidoscope.  I have been searching long for the right fabric to remake this now popular vintage trend for myself.  Now that I can do so, I have something to resort to for the long, dreary, chilly cold weather season we experience here…because warm weather garments shouldn’t be the only clothes which get the prettiest colors.  Do yourself a favor and don’t be afraid to try a new color in your wardrobe today!

Stitching History from the Holocaust

A month ago now, we as a family took our annual trip up to Chicago, Illinois.  It was fantastic as usual, but this time we extended the trip a bit more north to go up and visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well.  The main reason for this was because I wanted to visit an exhibit I have been interested in for the last several years, “Stitching History from the Holocaust”.  It was being presented at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum – a beautiful, peaceful place off of Lake Michigan – until September 16 so sorry for the very late notice if you were interested!  It was too good of an exhibit not to share, and so I hope this post fills you in a bit if you have not seen it yourself.  I do believe the exhibit will be traveling to three states within the next year, though, so check their website’s schedule  if you want to see this for yourself!

Hedy and Paul Strnad

The exhibit tells the stories of several different unrelated families who had a link to both the sewing craft and the town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  However, the primary focus is on Hedy Strnad, a 30 something year old with a talent for sewing and fashion design living in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who perished in the Holocaust.  Despite her and her husband Paul sending letters to his cousin in Milwaukee requesting visas to come to America, along with 8 samples of stunning garment drafts as a proof of professional and business competency, they could not get out in time to survive.  As far as is known, they were still alive in 1943, and could have died months before the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp they were held at was liberated in 1945.

The talent, the contributions to society, but most importantly the people’s lives lost in any human genocide is such an irreparable tragedy.  Personal stories ended before their time can and will never be completed.  Most of the time, as if the case with Hedy and Paul Strnad, there is no body, no certain date of death, and only vague sense of closure.  I’ve realized all this and took it to heart before I visited the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee.  However, this particular exhibit really connected this aspect of the past to history for me in a way nothing else has done before, and brought the Holocaust to my sensibilities in a very realistic and touching manner.  It was not just because of the sewing aspect either…although I will admit that did help me bond to it!

You see, my great Grandmother’s parents had emigrated over here from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s before the turn of the century.  My Czech heritage (on my mother’s side; I’m German on my father’s side) is an important part of life that we still keep up by attending ethnic dinners and keeping in mind some of the old country habits and words that my mom remembers from her “Baba”.  Even I remember her making homemade spatzles and kolachkes all the way up to when she was 93…she had a long life.  I can’t help but wonder if my mom’s distant relatives had waited to come over, if things might have been similarly frightening and miserable for them as the stories I read in the exhibit.  It also makes me proud to find out – after all these years – that my culture has such a wonderful, if rather unknown and underappreciated, standing in the fashion scene!  Now, at least, we can now see and appreciate what was the ingenuity of a strong woman that was Hedy Strnad and get a small taste of what had been the strong fashion scene of pre-WWII Prague.  I’ll bet Hedy never would have thought she would be as well known in the 21st century as she is!

As simple as they look at first glance, there is incredible detail and ingenious styling to all of these outfits…our photos do not give them justice.  Hedy’s garments are a stunning example of how the couture scene of the independent pre-WWII Czechoslovakia (1920s & 30’s) was lively and renowned. Prague couture was known for its precision, craftsmanship and elegance; it was completely current with international style trends (thanks to local couturiers visiting fashion shows around the world, purchasing design rights, and importing trims, fabric, and women’s publications) yet still maintained a strong Czech flair.  It seems that many socialites and Eastern European actresses who didn’t want the avant-garde styles of Paris, or thought that America was just either too casual or heavily influenced by Hollywood (and London, well they excelled at menswear then), considered Prague to be the place to find tasteful, chic garments.  If you’re curious, read up on Hana Podolska and Oldrich Rosenbaum for just two examples of star fashion houses.  Prague’s burgeoning film industry made explicit the link between the possession of fashionable clothing and elevated social status for Czech people of the late 30’s. The city’s rapidly developing high society required clothing that expressed and symbolized its lofty European ambitions for its future.  Now Prague is the last thing on anyone’s mind when it comes to fashion.  It’s so sad.  I can’t help but wish such progress hadn’t been ended – I would have loved to see what would have come of it!

From the top rung to the bottom of all of this, thoroughly modern Jewish men and women were drafting, making, and marketing Prague’s fashion scene – not just associated with mending or second hand selling as they had been before WWI. Traditional Jewish values of modesty and such were ‘updated’ to be on par with a smartly dressed woman of 1939 – full, bias knee length skirts, high and draping or tie necklines, and good tailoring that shows off a slim and athletic body ideal for the time.  Such assimilation into everyday culture around them protected many Jews in Bohemia – some were immune until their business expired after the events of February 1948, but most were either sent to the “ideal” concentration camp Theresienstadt, or their demise came when their country fell with them.

When you think about American fashion of the late 30’s, I realize that things came full circle.  If American fashion was considered too sporty or too dressy, at the same time late 30’s women in the States were also wearing clothes in the style of the distant cousin to Bohemia – Tyrolean hats, belts, jackets, and dresses.  Before the end of World War I, many designers in Prague that blossomed in the Interwar Period (1918 to 1948) gained at least some of their experience in Vienna, after all.  It’s funny – other countries’ influence on American fashion was prevalent, even into the mid 1940s (at the latest) but those other countries were working hard to define themselves through garment styles and find their own niche of styles and creativity that set them apart.

As was stated in the exhibit, no one really knows whether Hedy Strnad was part of a bigger design house or in charge of her own independent business.  Prague fashion operated much in the same way as they did in France at the time of the Inter-War period.  After all, the French designer Paul Poiret was legendary in Prague not in the least because he had staged fashion shows here during the 1920s!  A couturier (usually the owner) headed each “house”, setting the style of the company and managing a team of designers, illustrators, saleswomen, models, cutters, tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses.  In Prague, though, the largest fashion houses were family affairs, with sons, daughters and spouses all joining in.  To see the rest of Hedy’s designs – the other four outfits – please visit my Flickr page here.

For most of us of today who do sew, it’s either a hobby, an interest, a job, or a something which fulfills our needs. But once you have read the story of “Jack Marcus’ Sewing Machine” and how he was sewing to survive death, you will never take the talent for granted.  This is the first story presented in the exhibit and it could not speak any stronger for itself.  I will end my post with a condensed version of the text from the card next to this amazing vintage sewing machine.

“Jack Marcus of Warsaw survived the Holocaust by perseverance and sewing for his Nazi captors. At 15, Jack fled and hid at his mother’s insistence when all the Jews in his hometown, including his family, were loaded onto trucks for execution. Knowing useful work was essential to his survival, he went to a labor camp where his father had been taken to die. Jack was soon transported to Auschwitz where he was forced to sew caps for his Nazi captors, and practice on their clothes the tailoring skills he learned from his grandfather. At the end of WWII, a battalion of American soldier liberators employed Jack as their tailor. Jack was then able to immigrate to America in 1947, and settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1950 where he met and married Marlene, whose family had fled from the same Polish town before the war. He continued his profession as a tailor. One of the first things he bought with his own income was this Pfaff model 60 sewing machine. After more than 30 years as his own boss as a tailor, Jack retired and devoted himself to speaking at schools about his Holocaust experiences and doing community work. Jack Marcus died on January 25, 2017 at the age of 91.”  His experience is another thread in the incalculable patchwork narrative that is “Stitching Histories from the Holocaust”.