Of all the items I have made in my life, it is hard to believe that only now is my very first sewing using a designer Vogue pattern! Even though this might not be the most spectacular or glamorous project to start with, the beauty is in the details and the rich, significant background of the designer. This is also a very comfortable and useful dressy set, to boot! I present my year 1976 suit set of Sybil Connolly, the leader and founder of Irish Couture.
First of all, I want to say that I am counting this as part of my 21st century progressive Easter day creations I have been making since 2013, starting with a dress in the year 1929 style. Since that Easter day outfit, I make something from the following decade for the next year’s holiday. (See my 1930s Easter dress here, and my 1940s one here.) Only since I made this set from the year 1954 did I begin keeping with suiting. This year 2018 was naturally supposed to be something from the 1970’s (after this one last year from 1960), but as our Easter day turned out to be incredibly cold and snowy, this suit set had to be put off being showcased until the next spring holiday – Mother’s day! Happily, the grass and trees were overly lush and green by the time I wore my new vintage suit set!
FABRIC: a cotton-rayon blend “linen-look” material, in a solid orchid color for the contrast and a floral for the rest of the set. Leftover polyester lining (in a matching orchid pinkish purple) from my stash was used to line the jacket inside.
PATTERN: Vogue #1503, year 1977
NOTIONS: I pretty much had everything I needed – thread, zipper, interfacing, and bias tape. The only thing I needed to buy for this specifically was a button making kit for matching fabric buttons!
TIME TO COMPLETE: This was a relatively easy pattern for being a detailed designer project – but of course leaving out the skirt lining step helped, too. I made my suit set in about 25 hours’ worth of time and it was finished on April 8, 2018.
THE INSIDES: I’ll admit I took the easy road here for the internal finishing. My seams are covered by the lining for the jacket body, left raw for the sleeve seams inside the arm, and bias bound for the skirt. Bias seams are not my preference for making my own copy of a designer garment, neither are raw edges, but this fabric doesn’t really fray and I wanted my set done for Easter-time…only I didn’t wear it for Easter anyway! Oh well.
TOTAL COST: This fabric was bought on deep discount when the now defunct Hancock Fabrics had been closing several years back. I believe I bought the fabric for about $2 a yard. With about 3 yards used, and the notions I bought, this suit set cost me just over $10…how awesome is that?!
For some reason, I found it incredibly difficult to find a dressy suit set from the decade of the 1970s. I have a sneaky suspicion that this is due to the casualness that the youthful-oriented and stretchy knit fashions introduced, as well as the greater political and social liberties of women. Enough said. Whatever the reason, suits of the 1970’s seem to be quite relaxed, mostly with pants for the bottom half, and frequently with a tunic-style jacket or a safari-style over shirt. Leave it to a designer to offer my taste just what I was hoping for but having trouble finding! This suit feels unpretentious, but still polished, as well as being timeless with a 70’s flair. It was just enough of a challenge to make, yet still easy enough to enjoy the sewing. It has unexpected details to make my creative heart flutter yet these are subtle enough to go unnoticed to the casual observation. Besides, now I have the opportunity to both appreciate and share the story of a designer that deserves to be better known.
Ireland had long been considered a country without its own fashion. Sybil Connolly changed that. She had been brought up in Waterford County, and trained as an apprentice dressmaker in London starting in the late 1930’s at seventeen and by the time she was twenty-two (WWII times) she was a workroom manager and company director for Jack Clarke, a fashion retailer in Dublin. In 1954, Carmel Snow, then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, discovered Sybil Connolly who had just come out with her first collection, featuring the use of her native Irish fabrics and embellishments, most notably Irish linen, only the year before. With the combined help of the Irish exports board, Connolly launched Irish Couture into an international spotlight with her introduction to New York’s fashion scene. What she made often showed a woman’s natural body form (in contrast to the likes of Balenciaga) with such dresses as her white crocheted evening dress that was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine in August 1953. Her inspiration the sentiment “A woman’s body is inside. It breathes. It moves. So I must see movement in a dress.” By being true to herself, her tastes, her roots, and her determination, she stood out in the fashion world, gave women attractive options to wear, and gained a new respect from the world for her culture. By March of 1955, Vogue magazine was mentioning Dublin in the same sentence as Paris, London, and Milan!
Connolly was adamant about using her fashion line to support business and export trade in Ireland, by not only using Irish textile manufacturers, but even employing over 50 local women to hand make some of her laces. At the Glencolumbkill Agricultural show in 1956, she had said, “I feel that as long as we can show such beauty in design and texture as we do in our Irish cottage industries, we cannot ever be called a vanishing race.” Click here for a “Glamourdaze” article to watch (in color!) Sybil Connolly’s 1957 fashion show at a lovely Irish castle. Most of her designs at this time were inspired by rural, traditional garments and materials. This is cultural approbation at its finest.
For me, I have strong Irish roots on both sides of my family, Sybil Connolly’s work is a personal thing that touches a tender spot. I too love and appreciate the fine laces that my Irish (paternal) Grandmother hoarded (which I now have) as well as the Irish simple beauty of life that my Irish (maternal) Grandfather enjoyed. If you follow my blog you have already seen and read my great appreciation for linen, in all its forms. Now, I know – my suit is not real linen. It’s made from modern linen-look fabric. It’s also not in a solid color, as was her wont in her creations. However, I feel that this is me personalizing my own Sybil Connolly fashion, and I can see this step as something she would approve. I love a linen-look fabric, and I LOVE a purple print…so, this is a set that is all me, for me, designed by a woman that I respect who has my same cultural ties.
This pattern is from 1976, though, decades after the height of her career (the 1950s). She had dressed all the most well-known social and political names such as Jackie Kennedy, the Rockefellers, and Liz Taylor through the 60’s and began designing for Tiffany & Co. (glassware) as well as releasing luxury home goods (such as fine table linens) by the 1980s. So this, pattern was at the far end of her fashion career, when she was trading talents. I have seen that her mid-to late 1970s patterns have very similar, repetitive qualities to my own pattern’s set. Many of her skirts (excepting her trademark hand-pleated, taffeta-backed linen skirts) have the same paneling with pockets (see Vogue #2998). Many of her garments had a recognizable continuity even in 1992 as they did 40 years earlier.
Often, designers who began in the pre-WWII times (such as Mainbocher) had difficulty dealing with the harshly contrasting ‘hip’ and youthful trends of the 60’s-70’s-80’s. However, she was a multi-faceted woman (she even wrote books!) and found a way to keep her head up apparently to still have wonderful, lovely designs like this pattern for many decades. That is pure ingenuity and a stamp of a classic style. Connolly maintained that she knew, as all women designers should, that “good fashion does not need to change”.
One of the major details which slightly dates this suit is the enormous collar. This is so 1970s and a natural style for Connolly to adopt here to be on point for 1976. An oversized collar is the most common, recognizable feature to shirts and jacket necklines that I see and make from the 1970s. Other than that, the rest of the details are pretty timeless, and finely crafted. The sleeves are the classic two panel style seen on most suits. The body of the jacket has a princess seam running vertical down through the bust, starting from sleeve and running to the hem, separating the front from the side panel. The side bodice panel has a sneaky extra shaping dart close to where the side seam is while the back is pretty bare bones, yet still shaped nicely. As this is supposed to be a warm weather jacket, I didn’t line the sleeves and I left out the shoulder pads to keep this lightweight.
As I left off the bias tube belt the pattern called for to wear over the jacket, I instead made sure to keep another accessory detail that can be spotted on the example garment shown on the pattern envelope cover. Can you find it? I made my own clip on fabric flower to match for the collar! I used the 1950’s Dior-style bias method (which you can see here or here) to start with and slightly adapted it so the flower is more compact like a double rose. Making fabric flowers is my new favorite thing to do with my scraps. Not only does it use leftover fabric, but I end up with a wonderful matching accessory. Plus it’s fun (very important) and is an excellent way to practice precise hand sewing. Small-scale, often time-consuming details like this fabric rose remind me of the labor of love which went into Connolly’s creations.
My favorite feature to this set is possibly the smart button placket to the jacket. It is only on the exterior front, made a bit more obvious by my solid contrast color. There is only a wide facing on the inside. This is unusual but lovely. I couldn’t find it in my heart to break up the color and texture of the front placket by using anything other than matching fabric buttons, so I bought a kit to make them myself. I feel like this brings the jacket’s detailing to a whole new level equal to a designer pattern.
My next favorite feature is the smart pockets in the unexpected gore design of the skirt. It is a four panel (or gore) skirt with no side seams. There are center panels in the front and the back, with one wrap-around panel to either side. The waistline has small darts coming out of it, ending at the high hip, adding shaping there in the absence of a side seam. I think I have only seen no side seams with a side seam darts with my 50’s pencil skirts (here and here), so it is another uncommon feature for the 70’s. With such seaming, do you know where the zipper closing went? In the left back side seam. This makes it kind of tricky to close unless I twist it around to the front of me while dressing. The pattern called for a flap closing back much like the front buttoning fly to men’s trousers and historical breeches. I simplified that by sewing one side closed then adding a zip in the other. Then I continued with the contrasting color I had been using on the jacket to make the skirt waistband out of the solid orchid color linen-look, as well.
I suppose you have noticed my hands slipped into some well hidden front skirt pockets. What you may not have detected was how the skirt is a straight A-line shape from the front, while the back is gently fuller. Anyway – back to the pockets! They are so handy in the way that they are deep and generous to hold many things, and they are at the perfect height for my arm length. The pockets inside swoop in towards one another, and to keep them that way there is a small length of bias tape to connect the two. Whenever there are pockets like this I always think of them in connection to a kangaroo, because they give me room to hold things over my tummy!
The pattern I had was a slightly bigger size than what I needed, so I used the same method I used for this 60’s dress. I cut off the seam allowance on the side and shoulder seams, and made slightly wider seam allowances. Read more about it in this post. I’m really liking the perfect fit I end up with this method.
I am now quite eager to dive into my next vintage Vogue designer pattern. I have already bought a few more while I was in the post-project happiness – among them ones from the 80’s and 90’s for my Easter suits of the next two years! I love how designer patterns give me a reason and opportunity to learn more about the talents, individuality, and biography of garment creators that made it big. Unfortunately some of them have been better remembered in history than others! In fact I prefer the forgotten or little known designers because it helps me associate myself better with them. I might be sewing using a designer pattern, but most importantly anything I make means I become my own designer. Home sewing is so underestimated. One person does all the jobs of a whole fashion house.
Sybil Connolly had bystanders remark of her (at a party she attended in 1946, before she had her own line of clothing) that “Wearing her own designed dress, she was her own best model.” That is my ideal, to have me – the creator of what I make – be the foremost representation for what can be accomplished at the hands of a dedicated seamstress. It’s like wearing your art on your back and being your own silent spokesperson for what you do. Whether it gets seen or appreciated, that fact should alone make one who sews happy. You don’t need what you make be strutted down the runway to be proved it’s worthwhile…nowadays, half of what is seen on the runways is trash in my opinion anyway. Just make sure what you make for yourself is 100% you for you to show the beauty, individuality, and artistry to the powerful talent of sewing!