This “new” vintage dress which I have recently made is an all-around transitional piece, in more ways than one. It offers a print and fabric and colors all perfect for the varying temperatures of both fall and spring. At the same time, as a vintage/historical garment, my dress is a mix of styles and fashion ideals which were used through three decades: the 20’s, the 30’s, and the 40’s. Wow…that’s a lot to go into something to wear! It might be unusual, and certainly different – but a neat different.
Two different fabric types and the ability to snap on (or off) matching long sleeves make this 1931 dress a versatile winner in my wardrobe. My dress has the appearance of a separate blouse and a skirt in one neat vintage project. I really love the way I can dress for cooler weather without wearing the “traditional” dark colors associated with it (see this post for another floral fall/winter dress of mine). This is an all-around comfy, easy-care, nice but casual dress.
FABRIC: The olive green bottom half is in a rayon poly blend linen-look fabric, while the top bodice and sleeves are in a peach floral Swiss dot cotton. The lining for the bodice Swiss dot fabric is a orange-peach cotton broadcloth. All of these fabrics were bought at Hancock Fabrics store. My 1 1/2 yards of peach Swiss dot fabric was bought 7 to 10 years ago. It’s been in my stash for a while, and I am very glad to find such a wonderful use for it – finally! The linen-look fabric was bought spring of 2013 (last year) when I had originally hoped to get around to making the dress. This year (2014), I bought the broadcloth for the bodice lining.
NOTIONS: I had on hand an old 30’s buckle, the thread, interfacing, bias tapes, and snap tape that I needed. Buttons for the long sleeve cuffs, extra snap tape, and a side zipper were the only notions I had to buy.
PATTERN: a year 1931 McCall reprint from Past Patterns #6611, a “dress with waist yoke” in several sleeve and fabric combination options
TIME TO COMPLETE: Well, 8 to 10 hours were all it took to finish the dress, and it was done on August 23, 2014. The matching long sleeves took at least 10, maybe 12, hours to be finished on October 3, 2014.
THE INSIDES: All seams except the side seams and neckline are covered with bias tape. The neckline is self-enclosed by the lining (I’ll explain later how this worked) and the side seams are left raw to eliminate extra bulk and to make it easy to do fitting adjustments.
TOTAL COST: As the Swiss dot fabric was bought so long ago, I’ll count it as free. As for the only expenses, the linen-look for bottom and the other notions I bought, the grand total probably comes to $12.00 or less.
The main body of the dress, without the sleeves, was very easy and quick in coming together. As you can see in the pattern picture above at left, the assembly instructions were themselves very simplistic – just one page of layout breakdown with about 8 sentences of directions. However, looking at the dress pattern pieces together with the ‘cover envelope’ picture rather makes construction self-explanatory. The only construction detail that is entirely up in the air for you, the seamstress, to decide is how to put the dress together. A basic, but semi-thorough, knowledge of different seams is needed to know (for instance) that the middle front and back panels of the dress are best when added to the skirt in a lapped method. Bias tape was also wonderful to cover the curvy seams of both the inner edges of the middle section and the bottom hem to what is a half-circle skirt.
I love how these old patterns allow you to learn, expand, and use your sewing skills by providing such simple instructions. I feel it gives seamstresses more respect than laying out some detailed, dreary, and possibly confusing directions. Granted, I know complicated instructions are needed and quite useful sometimes. It’s just that sewing in an advanced form used to be common knowledge years ago, thus old patterns were created for such a person. Those of you that feel comfortable with your skills, will also enjoy making these old patterns with simple instructions.
There are only just a few points in constructing my 1931 dress where I deviated (just a bit) from the assembly diagram to personalize and accommodate my taste. To start with, I sewed the front and back neckline first – yeah, first. I wanted the neckline to be nicely self-enclosed in between the Swiss dot and lining cotton by sewing the seams right sides together, clipping the curves, turning out, then top stitching in place. As I had raised up the scoop neck by about 1/2 inch, I had trouble fitting my head through, so I had to unpick several inches in from the neck to add a snap placket to the left shoulder seam (see picture below). I hate sewing in snaps…this part of the job was tough. The length of the skirt was also extremely long which necessitated a chop off of about 3 1/2 inches to reach the proper mid-calf length.
Fitting is very important when it comes to making this pattern reprint. The dress needs to be slightly roomy everywhere else except the hips. I saw on the front of the ‘cover envelope’ drawing that the pattern specifically pointed out that “this garment fits closely at hips”. O.k., I thought to myself, I need to grade the pattern down to my size, so I’ll make sure to get close but maybe just a little big when it comes to the fit. You can always take something in, but when something too small…well that’s a problem. Just so as to make fitting this dress to my body easy, I did something different from the construction instructions – the entire front pieces and then the entire back pieces are sewn up in two separate, full dress length panels. This method left the two side seams (with a zipper in the left hip/waist) the very last thing done to complete the dress. With three sections composing the length of the dress, there would be no way to adjust the sides if done otherwise. In the finished dress, my down grading sizing turned out fitting perfectly, but I finally realized (once it was on me) how important it is to fit snug on the hips. The bottom skirt is rather heavy, and, without the tight hip fit, the whole dress gets weighed down, thus losing the proper “blousing out” of the upper bodice. There is a delicate balance trying to find a good hip fit for this dress – tight enough to hold the dress where it should be but not too tight to rip seams or make the dress wrinkle up uncomfortably. After a handful of trial and error attempts, I feel I have found the perfect hip fit (for now at least).
Having a belt, especially when you can use an old 30’s buckle like I did, also helps to hold the dress up in place and balance out the harmony between the two fabrics. I finally did an experiment with the belt I made to match my dress, one which has been in the creative “back-burner” of my mind. Before I sealed off one end, I slipped in a venetian plastic window blind slat in to the long belt tube. Of course the blind slat is stitched in place at the ends, but at least this way I have a bendable but sturdy belt on which there is no top stitching or interfacing. It sounds strange, I know, but it works, and I like my idea…although I probably will not do it again.
I really find the silhouette of this dress even more dramatically interesting with long sleeves. This dress does nothing for the bust or the shoulders (a very 1920s characteristic) while the long vertical emphasis of both the fit and the design of the main dress body stresses the hips (also of the 20’s) and lengthens the body (late 20’s). With the long sleeves on the dress, they further the vertical emphasis, but widen it slightly, by beautifully drawing attention to the hips in a very unique manner. I can’t figure out the reason for the three horizontal pin tucks – I can only think that they balance out the vertical lines of the dress. The little bias flare of the bottom gives it a slight 30’s touch and the blouse top with its kimono sleeve style and U-neckline is definitely very 40’s (see my version of this blouse). Besides all the styling, the use of Swiss dot fabric is very authentic for the era. See this post by Marianne at Fintage for a classic example of the 30’s beautiful use of Swiss dot fabric.
When it came to making the sleeves, there are absolutely no instructions whatsoever. As long as you know how to make sleeve cuffs, this is not a problem – how to achieve the look of the cover drawing was the cause of consternation. The pattern pieces do not clarify how many pieces to cut out of the cuff and the sleeve band. Thus I ended up cutting out four of each cuff and sleeve band (two for each sleeve) and one each of interfacing. According to the cover drawing, the cuffs looked like they are supposed to be in a turned back style, so I was going to face the cuff and sleeve band pieces with interfacing inside to achieve that look (see the left picture). I believe my method to be the correct way to have done the sleeve cuffs, and, although I can’t guarantee this, the way they turned out is truly lovely with the way they curve. The stable sleeve cuffs make for a nice finish for the poufy “bat wing” style sleeves above them. At first I was concerned that the sleeves hang too low on my arms by the way the seam ends an inch or so below my elbow. Looking at the cover envelope drawing again confirmed for me that they are supposed to fit that way. The sleeves take a bit to get used to once they are on just because I’ve never had anything like them, but it doesn’t take long to love wearing them!
Tiny 1/4 inch coral pink buttons close up the inner cuff of my sleeve band. Since I didn’t included a closure method when the cuffs were made, I got inventive to make something work. Braided thread loops are great but are time-consuming. Time was something I wanted to cut down on at this point. So, I threaded a tapestry needle with 1/8 inch light pink satin ribbon and wound it through the cuff seams making three loops. It looks dressy and it was easy at the same time.
My idea for snap on and snap off long sleeves came from seeing this feature on an old 1920’s pattern. How ingenious and versatile, I thought! Nothing extraordinary was needed to do – the short sleeves were hemmed like a normal sleeve, and the long sleeves had a small band sewn on to both finish the edge and give room for the snap tape. Sewing on the snap tape to the sleeves and getting both sides to match snaps was a long, time consuming, hand sewing torture that was made better by getting it done in the car. Nothing like getting the most out of my passenger time to get my hand sewing done! It really made all that hand sewing fun to do it in the car. I want to do more sewing during car trips! I’m wondering if a 1931 lady would have been able do sew as a passenger in their cars.
This project was unknown territory for me. It certainly brought me out of my comfort zone which is a good thing. I thrive on a challenge and it helps me hone in on my skills. My 1931 dress is one that is a surprise to me. Every time I wear it out and about, I get a bit unsure and self-conscious thinking that it is too-vintage or unusual, but then I always seem to receive a positive compliment. All I know is I think I’ve re-discovered a piece of history long over looked and forgotten. I’m a lucky girl to get to make and wear such a piece. Anyone care to join me and sew up their own version?
Our photo shoot’s backdrop is a neighborhood apartment complex, which has the name “Crystal Tower” due to a superb use of decorative glass in the vitrolite tiles and blocks. It is wonderful example of how everyday living had a touch of Art Deco glamour in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s – the three decades included in my dress. Perhaps, if you search in detail behind me in our pictures, you should see the “Crystal Tower” logo with its nautical cursive theme. Even though the building was actually built in 1940, towards the end of the Deco style period, the building materials and design had been used similarly for a decade or two before, so our backdrop is authentic to my 1931 dress (historically speaking). There is an excellent blog page at B.E.L.T. Stl which shows more details of the “Crystal Tower” apartments, if you’re interested. For using such a homey, down-to-earth place for a photo shoot, I certainly think it neat to see such forethought and attention to detail in vintage construction. Look forward to more of these Art Deco era living places in some upcoming blog posts.
As always, please check my Flickr site, Seam Racer, for more pictures.