The “Ivory Explorer” Dress

A trip to ancient Egypt with or without James Bond calls for the right dress, wouldn’t you say?  Even if I’m only dreaming, and even if I never really leave town, my newly made “Bond Girl” dress is still a wonderfully chic way to channel the “safari” fashion of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Following the lines of my inspiration – Barbara Bach from the 1977 film “The Spy Who Loved Me” – my dress pattern was adapted to be more ‘explorer’ oriented while still keeping a pocket-free, clean silhouette to be suited for a warm weather environments other than the land of the Sahara.

The perfect vintage accessories were on hand to make my outfit so very “Bond Girl” matching.  The imitation alligator leather briefcase is vintage from my mom, circa late 60’s early to mid-70’s when she was beginning her professional career.  I love how it compliments my outfit in so many ways, especially in era appropriateness, besides being similar to what was used in the movie.  It really was my purse for the evening, not just a prop, and the nicely divided pockets inside made it very handy!  The earrings and necklace are also 60s or 70s era, from my Grandmother.  My shoes are my longtime standby comfortable wedge heels, Sam & Libby brand, although much more restrained than Barbara Bach’s high heeled Mary Janes.  Not everything is carbon copy to the movie – my buttons are a bit darker and I did wear my hair in an ultra-high, fluffy ponytail just like it was drawn on the pattern envelope cover!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% linen – soft, slubbed, off-white, and near handkerchief weight – for the main body of the dress and 100% cotton sateen in a rich ivory color for the belt, collar, and front buttoning placket.

PATTERN:  McCall’s #9585, year 1968

NOTIONS:  Nothing but thread, some interfacing remnants, and a card of vintage wooden buttons from my Grandmother’s stash were all that I needed, and were all on hand.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was a two evening dress project – very fast and easy, even with my changes!  I spent maybe 5 or 6 hours in total, divided between two evenings.  It was finished literally as I was getting ready to go out wearing it – October 6, 2017.

THE INSIDES:  So nice!  French seams with the rest covered by the collar and button placket.

TOTAL COST:  My dress’ two fabrics were bought at JoAnn’s a few months back for under $30 (as best I remember).  However, I did not use all of each, I have 2/3 yard of linen left and 1/3 of sateen, both of which will go to other projects.  Thus my total price for this dress should be about $20 or less.  Since when can a woman have a linen dress of this quality and design for such a price?!  Awesome stuff happens when you can sew…

Afar from the dusty regions of the world, the safari style mostly finds its place in the grimy urban jungle.  Hollywood’s choice of subject matter of the times helped popularize this style idealism – Born Free of 1966, The Extraordinary Seaman of 1969, Mississippi Mermaid of 1969, and Hatari of 1962 to name a few examples.  Catherine Deneuve and Faye Dunaway became the poster girls for the style.  The real credit, however, to the fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent for his expedition line of clothing.  It was supposed to bring a powerful sort casual class, that’s comfortable with an air of Amazonian confidence and capability to women.  1967 and ‘68, the year of the McCall’s pattern I used, were when his safari designs were in the limelight, with several famous pictures of both him and two models wearing his creations at the doors to his groundbreaking Rive Gauche prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) boutiques (one picture here).  It was his “Saharienne,” or Safari jacket, that was part of his first wave of RTW in September 1967.  However, this branch of culturally influenced clothes branched out into laced up dresses, pocket-laden suits, one-piece rompers, and now this Safari look has many forms and is in perennial popularity.  Visit my “Safari” Pinterest board for more inspiration!

My expedition dress has a gentle nod to the Saint Laurent style with its simpler style.  It seems most safari styles are in hue of tan or khaki, and have a plethora of patch, pleated pockets and fine details.  My own Bond girl dress has details but with more of a flawless sophistication I appreciate, no doubt because I associate myself from the woman who wore it in the movie.  Barbara Bach and I both have brown hair and a darker skin tone, and this is not my first dress from this movie, so forgive me!  Egypt does have sand and heat like Africa, but a slight twist on the style – bringing it to a glowing ivory – seems to put her above the elements (as if Bond girls are angels!), in a deceptive play with perception, rather than an earthy tan like true safari styles.  Ancient Egyptians would have frequently worn clothes in undyed linen, anyway, especially for sacred functions.  For me, the ivory brings it out of the casual side more easily, depending on how I style it.  Not that this dress isn’t comfy as if it were a casual dress, because the relatively wrinkle-free linen and the fit makes this effortless to wear.  I guess you can tell I just really think the costumes are first rate in “The Spy Who Loved Me”.  As this project is my second time around, I also think I definitely have another style icon in Barbara Bach.

For being labeled as a “Quickie” pattern, this dress pattern is top-notch!  Most other “Jiffy” and “Simple” and “Quickie” pattern I have tried have all been alright, but either they were so simple they did not need fitting or were just a plain mess to get tailored to myself…until now!  It totally reminds me of what I normally find with the vintage Vogue patterns and 1940s era McCall’s.  There is nice curving along the side seams and perfectly proportioned darts.  This pattern is another one of those that pretty much fit me directly out of the envelope, too.  I have a handful of these patterns that seem meant for my body, and it is like a seamstress’ security blanket to know you can rely on them to be easy to make and like on yourself.  Once you find a pattern like this, it’s a form of gold!

It really took some math to draft my own placket here because this is the widest one I’ve sewn yet.  It wasn’t really hard through, but I did have to remember to cut the dress front on the fold to eliminate the center seam.  Once the placket was in, then I figured out how much longer to draft the collar so I would reach parallel with the edges of the button placket.  I had the temptation to go all out and attempt to make an all-in-one collar and placket piece, but no…a “Quickie” pattern doesn’t deserve to have something added to it which would blow my brain up trying to figure it.

Both collar and placket strips were stabilized with sturdy interfacing so that they would standout somewhat from the rest of the dress and give it something to body, dimension, and interest.  (Something closer to this Yves Saint Laurent dress from Winter 1967.)  Granted the fact that the collar and placket was in a richly creamy colored sateen with a subtle shine already provided some contrast without clashing with the rest of the linen dress.  With the stiffness of the placket, I was luckily able to get by with only 5 buttons leaving some major spacing in between.  The way the collar opens up and stands on its own away from my face…I’m so in love.  I do also adore the way the changes I added bring out the basic but well-tailored fit of the pattern without any add-on details to detract from it.  As much as I cannot do without pockets, this dress needed to go without.

Small details unnoticed at first glance really do make all the difference here.  Lovely French darts were used for the bust and waist shaping while shoulder darts (which actually end at the top of the shoulder blade) offer superior freedom of movement.  For some reason I even found the sleeves and armholes to be much more generous and comfortable than most other 60’s and 70’s patterns I’ve used.  I even cut to the pattern’s original hem length too, and it ends at a nicely demure mid-knee length which comes up to a more risqué mid-thigh when I sit – yay for a sneaky hot little number!  The skirt rides up only because of the slight pencil skirt shaping from the hips down.  This is not an A-line dress but more of a straight cut with subtle curving.  My 1967 plastron jumper had the same kind of skirt, too.  I often assume that most 60’s dresses are A-line so I wanted to point out that this one is a good kind of different from the era’s ‘norm’.  I cannot wait to make another version of this dress for the winter in a long sleeve, perhaps slightly shorter version.

Going back to my title, it is regrettable that the thing which my Egyptian explorer dress shares in common with any kind of Yves Saint Laurent African safari dress is ivory.  This time I’m not just talking about the color of my dress.  Sadly, modern Egypt harbors one of Africa’s largest domestic animal ivory markets.  Hippos are (surprising to many) very lethal and kill about 3,000 every year and elephants can be equally dangerous – quite a different story from the cute nursery drawings of them we grow up seeing.  Many do get killed because of the encroaching of civilization upon the animals’ territory. With bone and man-made imitation being attractive and suitable substitutes, using animal ivory for inlays and carved accessories and artwork at the cost of endangering nature’s most fascinating creatures is even more irresponsible.  Yet, this practice is still going on.  In Africa and elsewhere, it is the elephant and the boar that are targeted.  In Egypt, it is the hippopotamus’ ivory, together with imported elephant tusks which are popular.  The Egyptian government has apparently been working to reduce the trade, but the illegal black market still works to both supply and demand.  Sorry to include a small soap box preaching here, but facts are facts and sadly this doesn’t seem to be recognized as a world problem.

“Bond girl” or ivory trade subjects aside, I now have a great new dress to explore my own urban jungle and take on the errands and duties of my city living in a new vintage style.  Maybe that’s the deeply set attraction of Safari styles – we all have some degree of desire for an expeditionary adventure of some sort which teaches us new things and enlivens the spirit.  Even if it’s just an article of clothing or a book or a piece of art, a tactile thing can still give a small taste of that.  Are you an “explorer” soul – in your own city or abroad?

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Lines of Wheat on the Bias

Early fall or late summer is a lovely season to me where I live.  It has warm days, which I like, in between cold snaps that preview the next season to come.  Together with the richness of colors building in the trees, interesting smells in the air, and enjoyable holidays on their way (familial birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Halloween), I really do wish I could hold on to this season for longer than it lasts, and not just because I despise winter.

My newest vintage 1930s sewing project, featured here, is I feel a perfect transition garment which takes into account all that I love about late summer and early fall.  Stripes the golden color of wheat as well as fluffy clouds in the sky are on an earthy, textured linen dress, which has a fascinating use of the bias grain line.  Vintage accessories from my Grandmother – gloves, earrings, necklace, and a brooch of double wheat sheaves – together with my Jeffrey Campbell leather lace-up shoes, a silk scarf, and a hat I refashioned to be an accurate 30’s shape all are meant to play with the richer colors of the fall season and thus bring out the muted stripes which highlight the amazing design of this dress pattern.

This was actually my outfit for our recent trip to Chicago, Illinois.  Yes, I traveled and explored the busy city downtown in fully accessorized vintage style and loved it!  And just think…this dress is linen too!  What I discovered from the compliments I received from passer-bys is that apparently this dress is a transition piece in another way.  It is not glaringly vintage, yet still completely true to year 1933.  That is a trademark of a truly classic, lovely design!  It is interesting enough in design that (especially made in striped fabric) it doesn’t scream for attention yet certainly can turn interested heads…almost like a toned down Wallis Simpson fashion for the modern vintage aesthetic.  It is also simple enough in silhouette and sewing difficulty that it can be whipped up easily to suit many differing occasions depending on how one finishes or accessorizes.  Case in point – this dress (before hemming) turned out very long on me and it looked very good with fancy jewelry and evening shoes…I can see a solid color satin or crepe ankle-length version of this dress making a wonderful elegant style!  Oh no, another project idea in my future!

Sorry, I know you can’t see all of my dress’ neck and shoulder details with my scarf, but the dress really looks better for it…and Chicago is a city with a cool wind, indeed!  Scarves were popularly worn like this in the 1930’s (see this article for more info and tips on using scarves) but they make such a great multi use fashion accessory in any era.  I cannot do without a scarf more often than not.  As for further clarification about my refashioned hat, it is modern, in straw, and something which I’ve had for years.  It started out with the popular modern “bucket” style crown and I merely pinched it in from the inside at the center top so it would have a proper vintage shallow crown with a very 1930s style ridge down the center.  The excess crown inside is folded flat and was hand stitched down in place.  Easy-peasy and oh-so-handy, this hat is a great way to protect my face while complimenting my wardrobe using both something on hand and my penny-pinching capabilities!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  slubbed, thick 100% linen

PATTERN:  McCall’s #7153, a 2015 issue of a year 1933 design

NOTIONS:  Nothing but thread and some interfacing was pretty much needed.  A true vintage buckle was used to finish the belt as well as some stitch witchery bonding web. 

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This came together rather quickly – it was made in about 10 to 12 hours and finished on August 6, 2017

THE INSIDES:  Mostly French with the some seams in bias binding.  So clean!

TOTAL COST:  This fabric was bought when the now defunct Hancock Fabric’s was closing.  This lovely linen was about $2 a yard…so I suppose this dress cost me about $6. How awesome is that!?

As someone who very frequently works with true vintage original sewing patterns of all decades in the 20th century, I can say I can recognize features of a vintage design and sort of estimate when something has been changed.  As much as I do love my new dress and am generally impressed with this pattern, there are a few things I am not happy with and strike me as ‘off’.

First of all, there are small separate triangular panels which are sewn on at the true waist at the top of the side front skirt panels.  This could have been on the original but I highly doubt it – there is no waistline seam to the similar side skirt panels in the back!  For a long and lean bias 1933 dress like this one, why would this small panel be separate without an obvious purpose?  A depression era pattern knew how to combine ingenuity and elegance in dressing with a complicated appearing simplicity and this small odd feature doesn’t strike me as ringing true to that habit.  Either way I do not like it one bit.  I should have just matched it to the top of the skirt side panels, taped it on there and cut the piece as one long part extending up to the bodice with no side seam.

The presence of the jarring, random horizontal waist seam remnant presents several ‘problems’ in my experience.  It places too much importance on precise matching of the grain line and fabric print – if this small section is off it will be noticed.  It mars the elegant and beautiful stripe work to the dress if the belt is not “just-so” over the seam…and with normal living’s body movements, a garment will not stay “picture perfect” anyway!  Besides, my true waist seems to be slightly higher naturally and a belt carrier wouldn’t help by keeping it down where it doesn’t want to stay.  After all, year 1933 was still coming off of the 20’s ideology and that year’s dresses were rarely defining the waist with a modern, boring horizontal seam, instead frequently opting for a wide panel, side gathering, interesting paneling, or similar gently hinting methods.  This ugly, tiny waist seam remnant needs to meld into the rest of the dress.  I made the pattern ‘as-is’ so I could learn from it – did I ever!  Please do my recommended change for your version…one little extra step will make your version of this dress so much better!

My beef about the waist seam aside, look at the lovely details to the rest of the front!  The tiny stripes matched up pretty well, and all the seams matched up impeccably.  This dress’ stripe paneling reminds me of something along the lines of two of my favorite American designers/dressmakers Elizabeth Hawes and Muriel King, both of whom I admire for their stunning mitering methods (among other things).  Mitering, often understood as a woodworking term for right angled joints, was appropriated by dressmakers in circa 1934.  Its earliest proponents outside of America were the French couturier Marcel Rochas and a young Balenciaga. (Info from the book Elegance in an Age of Crisis from FIT.)  However, Elizabeth Hawes used a bulls-eye pattern on the bias in the middle of the torso for a 1936 dress, a method very similar to the styling of this McCall pattern.  Not meaning to brag, but the tiny, muted color stripes of the linen I used for my dress also reminds me also of the subtlety of Balenciaga’s cotton 1938 dress.  If I can sew for myself anything that I feel can “knock-off” the designers that both I and history admires, that’s a big win!

Not to divert from my glowing praise, but my second complaint with this vintage reprint pattern was actually the same fitting problem as their other year 1933 re-issue (McCall #7053).  They both turn out to have a very droopy shoulder seam in their kimono sleeves, which makes me think it is something that McCall’s does to the patterns and not the patterns themselves.  After all, their Archive patterns are not really re-prints…from my understanding they are new drafts off of images and/or line drawings of old patterns they had issued in the past.  I have sewn using vintage original patterns from both 1931 and 1934, both of which have kimono-style sleeves, and neither of them have given me the same problems I have with the 1933 McCall’s Archive issues.  However, it is an easy fix.  I sewed the long kimono shoulder/sleeve seam about 2 inches further in from the original 5/8 seam allowance.  That’s a lot, isn’t it!  This dress was severely droopy.  The sleeves are very open anyway so taking out some doesn’t make much of a difference.  When I sewed the sleeve/shoulder seam in smaller I also straightened it out – originally it has a dramatic curve that I think does not work out at all.  The weird puckering curve in the shoulder seam is a big, obvious turn-off on the model version of the envelope cover.  Other than the drooping shoulders, I did find the body of the dress to fit pretty much true to the size chart for the bottom half, and slightly a size big for the top half.

Many 1930’s dresses have a very figure hugging bias which I’ve heard many women say won’t work for everybody.  This one seems to have a bias grain just gentle enough for shaping yet not enough to be overly clingy.  The best part about the bias in both the skirt and the bodice is there is no closure needed!  That’s right – no zipper, buttons, hooks, or snaps.  It’s just plain easy.  I know the instructions show a center back zipper, but those can be hard to do on oneself and sometimes also hard to keep the top pull from sagging down.  I believe McCall’s threw the back zipper in to ‘modernize’ the design.  The dress stretches wider easily from the smart grain line layout so why a zipper?!  I see how the zipper weirdly bubbles out and warps the loveliness of the bias on the back of the model’s dress on the pattern cover.  “Keep things simple, silly” (to put it mildly) is an engineering principle that is worthwhile to remember when engineering clothing, too.

This McCall’s pattern is not the best re-issue of a vintage style, but it does make for a very nice dress, with designer touches that is highly underrated once you get past its “meh” cover and fitting issues.  This is a good pattern I would recommend everyone to have on hand to try.  Once you make one successful version, I believe you will use it again, as I plan on doing.  Don’t let the sole sleeve version deter you – there are many types of sleeves that could be added to a short kimono style like this one.  There are no closures needed and deceptively easy to sew.  Do you need any more reason to try this one?  Come on…I want to see many more inspiring versions from all of you talented and lovely bloggers out there!

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