A Tale of Gujarat

Every August I observe in spirit with India celebrating its Independence on the 15th.  I use the clothing that I make for the day reflect my understanding, respect, and wish to be united with them in pondering on their past, commemorating 1947, and hopeful for their future.  My first Indian influenced garment for August 15th was this dress I made back in 2017.  I unfortunately had to skip repeating that last year, so I am making up for it by sewing a handful more vintage-influenced Indian fashion this year!

The first one I’d like to present this August is a different kind of garment – a Rajput inspired Sherwani-style summer coat – to honor the traditions of India that I know through some close friends. 

One of the reasons why India is my favorite culture not expressly my own is on account of some “adopted family”, long-time friends of my husband that are as close as blood relatives.  Their primary tradition hails from the Gujarat territory of India, with family from and still in Kutch.

The Gujarat region history is intertwined with that of the Rajput dynasty.  The last Hindu ruler of Gujarat was in 1297!  “For the best part of two centuries (at the end of the 14th century until the 16th century) the independent Rajupt, Sultanate of Gujarat, was the center of attention to its neighbors on account of its wealth and prosperity, which had long made the Gujarati merchant a familiar figure in the ports of the Indian ocean.”  Why was it important that the Gujarat trader was proficient at spreading their wares, and what did they have to offer? Among other things, it was mostly textiles…and this is what peaks my interest.  As our adopted family has showed me, Kutch has mind-blowingly beautiful, region-specific ways of dying silk sarees, but Gujarat had an empire in cotton and are still India’s largest producer of the fiber.

According to Dr. Ruth Barnes (“Indian Cotton for Cairo”, 2017), fragments of printed cotton made in Gujarat, India were discovered in Egypt, which provides evidence for medieval trade in the western Indian Ocean. These fragments represent the Indian cotton traded to Egypt during the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries.  Similar types of Gujarati cotton was traded as far East as Indonesia.  Their local art has been in high demand over the centuries, and all you have to do is see the real thing (watch out for modern imposters or look-alikes from other regions!) to understand why.

I must confess though – the block printed border print cotton I used is hand-stamped from a company in Mumbai (old Bombay).  Gujarat was under the authority of the Bombay Presidency since the 1800s and later, after India’s Independence in ’47, the Bombay State was enlarged to include Kutch.  The mother of our adopted family knows how to speak the official language of Mumbai.  It wasn’t until May of 1960 that there was a split in the Bombay State along the Gujarat-speaking north.  So my fabric is a sort of a hybrid, a close relative by association.  It was the closest thing I could find in both colors and print pattern to my original inspiration as well as something that would set the occasion for this coat.  More on this further down!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  all-cotton, with the print from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy and the lining a bleached muslin

PATTERN:  a Mail Order pattern A526, designed by Dalani, with its envelope stamped with the date of January 1976.

NOTIONS:  I had everything I needed on hand – lots of thread, heavy canvas sew-in interfacing, and true vintage wooden toggles from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother’s notions box.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This jacket was whipped up in the matter of two afternoons just before a trip to visit our Indian friends out of town.  It was finished on June 17, 2019, in about 10 to 15 hours.

THE INSIDES:  What inside edges? This coat is fully lined.

TOTAL COST:  I ordered 4 yards of the Indian cotton (you need to always be on the generous side with a border print) at a sale price of $5 a yard – so $20.  The plain cotton lining was from JoAnn on sale at about $1.50 a yard. As everything else was on hand my total cost is just under $30.

A Sherwani is a knee-length coat buttoning at the neck worn by primarily men of the Indian subcontinent, for the shortest and most basic definition.  “Originally associated with Muslim aristocracy during the period of British rule, it is worn over a kurta (tunic)” and several other combinations of clothing (from Wikipedia).  There are other coats and jackets in the Indian tradition, such as the Achkan or Nehru, and both are related to the Sherwani in style details and history.  However, the qualities of a Sherwani are a flared shape from the waist down (where it opens up to reveal the layers underneath), a straight cut (not as fitted), a longer length, stiffer (heavier weight), more formal in special fabrics, and fully lined.  Yup – I’ve got all those boxes checked off!

Thus, even though I am using a vintage pattern as my starting point, I hope that my coat has a timeless, cultural aura about it.  Nevertheless, let’s not ignore I am wearing here a customary men’s garment!  Together with the fact this Sherwani is asymmetric, this is a much updated type of twist on a custom yet still reflecting the modern India of today without losing its past traditions.  In modern India, women are wearing Sherwanis and there is more variety of expression in materials and decorations used.  (For more info and visual candy on this subject, see this page here.)  My husband has tried my coat on, and with a man’s propensity to stronger shoulders and lack of hip curves, this coat actually looks better on a guy than on myself, in my opinion.  It is a truly unisex garment here the way either of us can wear this in a culturally sensitive manner and also fit in its forgiving cut.  What a rare bird my Sherwani is in so many ways among all the sewing I have done.  A summer coat in the strongest Indian tradition I have channeled yet that can be worn by men or women alike?  Yes, please.  I’m more than happy to welcome it into my wardrobe.

My preliminary inspiration was this 1970 woman’s wedding coat from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  It was designed by Richard Cawley under Bellville Sassoon, hand-painted by Andrew Whittle and named “Rajputana” for the marriage of an Englishwoman (see her full outfit here).  The “Rajputana” coat even had its own feature in the November 1970 issue of Vogue magazine! Wedding garments in India are normally inclusive of gold and red, but as the Rajput princes followed the religion of Mohammed, they did not necessarily follow the region’s traditions.  White and lighter colored garments to the rest of India (especially saris) are reserved for formal wear, ritual occasion, and upper castes, and even for mourning in the Hindu religion.  The Jain sect of Gujarat wear more white than elsewhere in India, as far as I can tell.  Thus, my coat further reflects Gujarat, Rajput and the thriving textile trade the region was excelled at.  My interpretation also stays true to the 70’s, coming only six years later than my inspiration.  The top I wore under my jacket was a past 70s make of mine as well (see it here) and rather than trousers to match (which I don’t have) I went for a basic A-line rust linen skirt.

The original pattern shows this as a wrap dress, and sadly I have not been able to find anything about its designer, “Dalani”.  Besides finding a few more mail order patterns (from the 70’s and 80’s) and a few dresses credited to a “Dalani II”, I feel like digging into the source for this design is a sad dead end.  Dalani’s trend seems to be for loose and simple cut dresses and wrap-on robes.  Yet to me, there was no way such an overwhelming amount of fabric was going to look good as anything other than a coat, in my opinion.  It was so easy to adapt this to becoming a Sherwani.

Wooden buttons are traditional to India, and the fabric company generously sent a baker’s dozen along with my fabric, but a Sherwani only closes at the neck.  So, to avoid disrupting the lovely border with buttonholes, I used two wooden toggles on the asymmetric flap and orange loops on the left shoulder.  This method closes the jacket yet leaves it loose to flare open below the waist like a proper Sherwani.  Following grainlines, I laid the jacket out so that the border just ran along the bottom hem.  A separately cut border strip had to be mitered, redirected around the bottom corner and up the front, for it to be as you see it.  I blended my adaptation so seamlessly you’d think it was printed like that, right!?  Happily I found the exact color thread to match the orange along the border and I hid my tiny top-stitching in the stripes.   My sleeve hems also had a pared down version of the border applied in the same manner.  This border print was only on one selvedge edge and luckily I only had literally 5 inches to spare by time I was done…my ‘overbuying’ of 4 yards was apparently just enough to squeeze by

As I mentioned in “The Facts” above, actual construction was easy and the main body of the jacket came together in only two afternoons.  The sleeves are cut on with the main body so there were only 3 pattern pieces here.  One gi-normous back piece is laid on the fold and ends up looking like the capitol T, and two front pieces like an upside down L – a properly squared off body for a Sherwani except for the flared sleeve cuffs which give it a subtle nod to its 1970s origin.  It was all the attention to detail that took at least half of the total time spent to finish.

The highlight of the details to me is the most understated one – the quilted border to the lining.  This is what makes this all-cotton coat closer to a real Sherwani.  Such soft cottons could make this feel like a housecoat without some body.  Neither did I want to entirely stiffen the silhouette – it is boxy enough!  Thus, one layer of lightweight cotton canvas sew-in interfacing is “quilted”, in rows ½ inch parallel, to the muslin lining’s underside.  The quilted interfacing was stitched before sewing the lining inside.  It is as wide as the border is on both sides of the asymmetric front edges and also was cut to form a stable “collar” that extends out from the neck to the shoulder.  This way the main body of the jacket is loose enough but it still keeps its shape and feels so much more substantial, besides having an understated detail that I have come to expect of Indian clothing.

I have seen similar interfaced line stitching on Anarkali dresses but, goodness, it is a lot harder to do than it looks.  My machine heated up enough from the rows of long stitching that I needed to turn it off and give it a break halfway though.  It was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a while.  But can I remotely find a way to have my effort show up well in a picture?  No – it’s white stitching on white cloth.  Oh well, art is sometimes made for the sake of art…and this Gujarati tribute was worth it when I saw our adopted family appreciate the details I included in this Sherwani.

India has such a beautiful richness of culture and tradition.  There is so much, in so many varying facets, to learn about.  The way what people wear in that country speaks for their state and caste in life, their region of the land, the occasion of the moment, their religion…is something so admirable, besides being any fashion historian’s dream.  Quality that we expect out of couture garments is a normal part of Indian fashion and their strong ethnic pride is what I admire the more I get to know of the country and its citizens, both ones who live in my country now and those who still live there.  The trip to see our ‘adopted family’ included a stay at their home and my first visit to see her parents, so my coat was appropriate for an important few days of meeting people for the first time and catching up with others.  It was also quite comfy in the southern heat outside and absolutely perfect for cold indoor air conditioned inside!  My sewing feels so worthwhile when I can use it as a means of respect to our friends and their culture.  Look for more India inspired fashion to come here on my blog!

Sweatin’ to the 80’s

My fascination with validating the 80’s is only just beginning after sewing my Givenchy Easter suit…and what better way to continue than with some fun and practical separates!

I absolutely love the feminine pinks to this outfit, the strategically straightforward details, and the casual chic aesthetic of it.  Each piece is comfortable and roomy yet well-designed enough to not be baggy.  Each has niceties enough to save them from being too practical yet they are so versatile and definitely made for easy living.  The top should work well dressed up, when paired with a skirt (thinking of this late 70’s one) in particular.  The shorts look good ‘fancied up’ as you see for this post but I want to also pair them with a tube top, tank, printed tee, or denim shirt for more casual options.

Does my new set scream 80’s to you?  I don’t think so, but that’s exactly what it is according to the patterns and even the fabric I used (for the shorts).  I even brought out my childhood hair scrunchies and ‘jelly’ shoes for a big time rewind.  I really do think the 80’s has more appealing styles to it than many people realize.  Let’s give it another chance – you just have to get past the stereotypes!  After all, I suppose we do need to welcome it into the sphere of “vintage” technically, now!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  shorts – a semi-sheer cotton/poly border print vintage 70’/80’s fabric lined in a solid blue cotton broadcloth; blouse- a cotton/poly blend linen look fabric in a pinkish purple orchid color (leftover from making this suit set)

PATTERNS:  McCall’s Easy pattern #9525, year 1985 for the bottoms together with a Mail Order Printed Pattern no.9251, from the very late 70s or early 80s, for the blouse

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots of thread, some interfacing, a hook-n-eye for the waistband, and two covered buttons to make to match the top.  The side zipper for the shorts was leftover from taking out one of the two zippers I had put into these past-made 1940s shorts.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The shorts came first and were finished on July 1 after about 10 to 12 hours, while the top took only 5 hours and was done on July 8 (both 2019)

THE INSIDES:  So clean, just the way I like them.  The shorts are fully lined for hidden seam allowances while the top has bias bound edges.

TOTAL COST:  The vintage fabric for the shorts was bought from Kirsten at “Verity Vintage Studio” through an Instagram de-stashing sale and cost me only $5 for the one yard.  The lining cotton for the shorts was about $6.  The material for the blouse was leftover from a past project (mentioned in the fabric section of ‘The Facts’) and before that had been in my stash too long to remember, so I’m counting it as free, along with the zipper.  My set only cost $11!

Pleated waist, roomy fit pants and shorts are back in force this 2019.  Whether those who influence and those who follow the trends know it or not, many current forms of this fad are just a rehash of the 40’s and – yes – the 80’s.  All you gotta do is compare design lines for proof.  (Check out the newest “French Poetry Patterns” Orion shorts or the Burda Style #107A “Pleated Bermuda Shorts” for two examples to sew!)

Many in the vintage making and/or wearing community have already been sporting the old style roomy trousers, but it is always nice to see a past style so many have been enjoying for years become mainstream, if only for a year.  The same applies to many modern summer crop tops and roomy pull-overs – they’re only sneaky vintage integrated into 2019 fashion.  Put both things together in 80’s style with my means of interpretation – and voila!  You have an outfit such as this!

With my newest 80’s outfit, I am mostly proud of yet another interesting and unexpected way to use a border print fabric along with what I think are my best scallops yet (despite the fact there are only two of them).  This is proudly a duo of one yard projects, as well!!  I am racking in all the good points I can here!  My wardrobe is sorely lacking in shorts anyway and a top that can both be casual or dressy is much appreciated.  I try not to get stuck in a rut with what I sew.  Making what I actually can use in my life and don’t yet have in my closet is always good to sew.  Doing so in a way that it is both a refresher amongst my sewing projects and also an opportunity for a new learning curve is a little creative niche that I love to find.

Now, let me start with the shorts.  I am not that big of a fan of pleated waist bifurcated bottoms admittedly, but hey – these looked really cute on the pattern and I figured the border print being vertical would help.  Only one selvedge edge having the border and only one yard at my disposal made me have to choose sides for the geometric, mock-embroidery print.  The back is plain and the front has both borders.  I had to fold the fabric in an unusual fashion for this to work out.  Most fabrics are folded selvedge to selvedge, the width in half (this is how I buy them off of a cardboard bolt in my local stores).  The shorts’ fabric had to be folded oppositely so my preferred border layout could work.  Even though this fabric was sheer, it was really a tight woven so if was going against the grainline it wouldn’t have mattered.  Luckily, it lined up anyways.

The pattern called for an elastic gathered back half of the waist, but really…that would be too obviously 80’s and is not my ‘cup of tea’.  So I catered the shorts to have a flat waist all around with darts above the booty, and a side zipper.  Of course, the full lining was also not part of the pattern and my idea, as well.  The fabric was super sheer…so I went with an opaque royal blue lining as it was a color already in the print, so lovely as a contrast, and definitely opaque.  Full lining sure makes for a smooth feel inside and deluxe look, though!  Finally, I left out the in seam pockets.  As sad as I am to not have pockets, I didn’t want them to puff out the pleated front more than necessary.  I just might come back to these shorts at a future date and add in a back welt pocket or two.  We’ll see!

My top – or is it really a blouse? – was just as easy to sew as the shorts.  Only a handful of hours to commit at a time is the most I’m really capable of this busy summer anyway, and that is all I needed to whip this sweet little number together.  I made this even easier by not having truly workable button closings at the neck.  It isn’t constricting to the dressing situation just to keep those lovely fabric covered buttons just for looking pretty and perfect, so I’m all in for a little sewing cheat.

The line drawing lies about the smart simplicity of its design and true finished shape.  The bust dart shaping on the left side is sneakily hidden within the seam which leads to the neckline detail – very nice touch – and the back shoulders have some darts that only appear on the pattern pieces themselves.  Also, as you can see, my top turned out so much boxier than the drawing would make you think.  At the same time, however, I am not at all surprised because this is a pullover top.  No zipper, no closures with a woven material means it has to be a slightly generous fit, right?  Overall, I think the actual garment is much nicer than the line drawing, but disappointingly not the same.  At least it’s better to have good surprises in store with a sewing pattern than be let down at the end of working with it, I suppose.

Never mind the difference, I freaking love this blouse anyway.  It ends up appearing so very 1950s to me.  I think it is the kimono seamed, cut-on sleeves and the feminine detailing.  This is only one of a handful of recent instances where I have seen the 80’s refresh a 1950s look, and the fact is insanely curious to me.  The 1980’s is well known for more exaggerated versions of WWII 40’s fashions.  If my shorts were long length they very well would look 40’s, much like these “Marlene” trousers I’ve made, no doubt.  Yet, the closer you look for variety in 80’s women’s clothing, you can see the occasional 1890s look (quaint puff sleeve dresses with full skirts, such as Princess Diana’s 1981 wedding) or the 1920’s drop-waisted flapper style dress and even some draped, soft 30’s inspired garments.  Yes, I’ll admit there are some just plain terrible ideas, too, that I can’t imagine looking good on any body type.  Check out my Pinterest board on the “Power 80’s” to see more inspiration.  However, it all makes me think that perhaps the 1980s was a decade that offered more options of dressing than we realize, rehashing all sorts of things from the 90 years before so that maybe the only think that quintessentially sticks to label it are the worst experiments (neon bomber jackets, “Hammer” pants, etc.).

Whatever – I love this post’s outfit combo.  It might not be the most body complimentary outfit but each are comfortable and useful handmades that are a successful experiment of a foray into a newly vintage decade.  I find my happy sewing place in the most unexpected ways sometimes!

Mystery Mail Order Split Skirt Jumpsuit

This is my attempt at a compromise between skirts and pants, technically ‘culottes’…with a vintage interpretation.  I’m not exactly sure if this is the best look on me, especially with the mid-length wide bottoms, but I love it despite such misgivings because it is so comfy, different, and a creative use of a border design (if I do say so myself).  This is by no means my first jumpsuit (see my others here and here), only my first faux-dress one!

My title alludes to the mystery vintage pattern I used to make my culottes jumpsuit.  It was one of those many mail order patterns of the modern mid-century, but what was particularly bothering me was I could not date the design.  I estimated that the design was early 60’s (or even late 50’s for a stretch) based on the hairstyle alone.  Then, I shared the pattern on Instagram, and someone apparently knew enough based on the pattern number to date this to circa 1962.  I still don’t know what company or newspaper this particular one came from, and if anyone can tip me off, please, do share!  For now, though at least I know what decade to understand this…but whatever past time it is from, I like my new and unusual jumpsuit!

This is my submission for the “Sew Together for Summer” challenge of 2019, co-hosted by the blogger at “Sew Sarah Smith” with the Instagrammers Suzy at “sewing_in_spain” and Monika at “rocco.sienna”.  This year’s theme is jumpsuits, dungarees, overalls, playsuits, and rompers…something one piece that has bifurcated bottoms.  This garment certainly falls in this category!  However, one is never enough of a good thing so this is just my first part for the challenge…part two will be a full 50’s playsuit, coming soon since the closing date is June 21!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a lightweight chambray cotton denim with a border embroidery stitched along the selvedge; facing in a lightweight plain cotton

PATTERN:  a Mail Order pattern no.1495, ca. 1962

NOTIONS:  I needed lots of thread and bias tape to finish the edges (chambray frays like crazy otherwise), with some interfacing and four waistband style hook-n-eyes

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This took me about 10 to 12 hours to make and was finished on May 18, 2019.

TOTAL COST:  just under $30

Whatever company this pattern was from, I am impressed.  For such a simple, unassuming line drawing and such a basic looking pattern (unprinted tissue, simple instruction sheet) it was sneakily complex.  The entire neckline and shoulder strap was one large and unusual shaped continuous piece that took copious amounts of pins, patience, and expertise to make correctly.  The pleating needed precise marking at the cutting out stage and lots of ironing afterwards.  Happily, I didn’t have to deal with much fitting issues – according to my tissue fit and preliminary measurements, this mystery mail order pattern ran one size smaller than what was listed, and I was correct.  Other than having to adjust this jumpsuit’s slightly long torso, it turned out pretty much perfect for me as it was straight out of the envelope.

Split skirts have interesting construction, especially when they are pleated like this one.  They also make for very large pattern pieces!  The deep pleats that meet at both the center front and back hide the crotch seam and make it look like a skirt.  I figured correctly that it made a better box pleat to sew the center fold-line together from the inside rather than just top-stitching the creases down next to one another, as the pattern instructed.  Depending on how much wear this jumpsuit sees, I might come back later and embroider on some “arrow heads”, the proper (and beautiful) way to stabilize the ending point of a pleat to prevent or stop a hole from forming in the fabric.

I normally hate box pleats in skirt backs because they rarely stay looking nice between sitting and everything life calls for, but a good hot steam of the iron keeps them pretty good.  The box pleating in the back was a lot more challenging than the front, needing much hand stitching, because of the center zipper running through the middle.  You are basically trying to have a fold line end right where the edge of the zipper teeth are!  I made sure to have a bit extra ease in the fit because if something like this fit snugly the back pleats over the zipper would not come together at all and only pull apart.

A border running above a hemline is rather conventional, so my favorite part of this jumpsuit is the way I have the embroidery border wrap around the neckline, too.  It really balances out all the interest at the hemline, in my opinion, and brings just enough attention to what might be lost otherwise – the fabulous strap design which is the closing method.  This jumpsuit has wrap-over-from-the-back straps, pretty much like overalls, that end as wide, cornered tab closings on the front of the bodice.

The pattern called for buttons to close the shoulder tabs, but they are the only thing holding up the 2 something yards of fabric in the skirt.  Thus I opted for two strong sliding hook-and-eyes to close each strap…but with the back zipper I really could have just sewn the front tabs down permanently and not had them workable.  Oh well!  It’s always way cooler to have the tab closings actually work, and at least I know what garment to raid if I ever need some last minute notions for another project.

The open, eyelet-style embroidered border presented several creative challenges.   First off, the dress’ neckline and straps needed a facing to complete the eyelet without making it obvious the openings in the embroidery designs were being filled in.  The only answer to that was to make the facing a similar weight plain white cotton, and interface it in likewise cotton interfacing, as well.  Secondly, after completely hand stitching the entire neckline and shoulder straps and tab closings, I was bracing myself to do more of that to the hem.  However, the hemming was easy once I just figured on following along with what was already there.  Then I was able to use a close zig-zag stitch (much like a loose button hole stitch) on my sewing machine and just follow along with the scalloping of the bottom to the border.  I’m tricky like that!  Hubby shook his head at me like I was cheating out of doing the hem right – but hey…I’ll save myself both time and bodily misery where I legitimately can.

Speaking of misery, in order to give my culotte jumpsuit a ‘test run’, I wore them over to frolic and play in my parents’ backyard (the backdrop for our pictures).  Yup, my new jumpsuit is certainly great for jungle gym climbing, puppy dog chasing, and general child level play!  However, my ‘test run’ (watch it here) sure caused me so much achy arms and tired legs for the next several days afterwards!  I suppose I need more play clothes like this if only to have a reason to exercise while having fun like I did that day.

Being a Spectator

“Being is always a two-way street: as soon as you are aware that you can see, you will also know that you can be seen – and judged.” (From “Why is Caring About Fashion Considered So Unserious?” by Madison Moore.)  Now this is a rather harsh way of looking at a basic human reaction, and it does make us sound rather vain and self-conscious, but it’s unavoidable.  All the way back to Adam and Eve in the Bible story, who covered themselves because they were afraid of being seen by God, clothing ourselves is intertwined with self-awareness, personality (hidden or manifested), inner or outward expectations, and scrutiny under the sight of others.  This is all the more prevalent today, in our world of Instagram and Pinterest, which feeds off of and provides a seeming endless sea of images.  There’s no harm in such digital age resources, in my opinion, provided one gets out to see and experience real people in real life more than one spends the time to observe remotely via a computer or phone screen.

Public events happen to be the best places for bystander watching.  This sounds bad, but let’s face it – we’re a curious race.  It’s where people come to be entertained by the main attraction of the moment as well as find amusement in turn watching those who are present.  Everyone’s a spectator.  This makes me think – is there a style for being a spectator?  Why don’t many people even bother to dress our best anymore when going out in public, especially for fancy, special events?  How much do we dress for ourselves compared to how much we dress for others or for society?  Whatever does this have to do with my normal fashion-history-sewing blog postings, you may be wondering, too.

Well, there is a style of vintage garments and footwear which is labelled as “Spectator” fashion, and I have taken the Marvel’s Agent Carter interpretation!  In the very first episode of Season Two to the television show, “The Lady in the Lake”, she sets off the plot with a bang in a very striking, post WWII year 1947 rich red dress outfit.  She wears this fully accessorized set to the ultimate place and event for the sport of both being a spectator and watching them – horse racing!  To mirror her location, I had my own visit to a Clydesdale horse ranch.

Most people know the shoe version of Spectators – what we also call “Two-Tones”.  Perhaps the most well-known spectator style footwear might be saddle shoes or the quintessential “Lindy Hop” lace up flats of the Rockabilly 1940s and 50’s youth.  But Spectator styles were for fashion too, mostly in the form of a nice, collared dress, which was comfortable yet tailored and easily fancied up or down as needed.  I cannot find anything more definite than these consistent trait details, besides the fact they seem to have been quite popular in 1950 (here’s one example), petering out by circa 1954 (see this pattern), and are seen mostly in solid colors or low-key prints such as tiny polka-dots, for one example.  I need to do more research digging to be more specific on Spectator fashion, but it was certainly “a thing”.

Each piece to my whole outfit is very much a red and white, two-toned spectator-style item.  My only real variance from my inspiration was gladly changing the details to a more authentic and personally pleasing hat and shoe style.  Yes, I could have done a mirror-image “copy”, but opted not to follow exactly the Agent Carter outfit as seen in the program.  As with the rest of my Agent Carter “copies”, I ride a fine line between adhering to the movie inspiration and being true to history, but being authentic to my own taste for the 1940s always wins out for me.  I work so hard to find true vintage patterns that are strikingly similar, capturing a recognizable essence of my inspiration, and luckily the costumes are generally so good at being authentic themselves I really don’t have to sacrifice much at all to have the best of both worlds!

My Spectator dress is completed by one of my favorite millinery hat making projects.  A dingy, stained, and unwanted true vintage late 30’s or 1940s hat was rescued, refashioned, and spruced up into a new, bright life as a dramatic late 40’s/early 50’s style to match my outfit.  Hats, after all, are something not to be without when it comes to showing up at the horse races I know, such as Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

My shoes are – of course – spectator style in red and white.  The ones seen on Peggy (of Chelsea Crew brand) are more of a 1920’s style spectator with the T-strap and pointed toes and quite expensive to buy everywhere they are found.  I personally prefer the likes of a true 1940’s heel on my feet, so for myself and for the outfit’s sake I went with a platform, peep-toe, and sling back heel from B.A.I.T brand footwear.  I think these are much more of a power shoe to bring this outfit up to the commanding and flashy woman that Peggy Carter needed to be for the occasion of her visit to the races.

This is my second entry to the “Sewing the Scene” sewing challenge sponsored by the “Unfinished Seamstress” blogger.  After all my efforts to mimic my inspiration outfit, this is still more than just a Hollywood copy for me, and not cosplay either.  This outfit will gladly be worn as part of my vintage-inspired wardrobe because Agent Carter is something which is part of my everyday life.  In fact…I wore this dress to get my official driver license picture for my renewal!  How’s that for bringing my inner Agent Carter into my ordinary duties!?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a polyester suiting fabric from JoAnn’s Fabric store for the dress and a poly felt for the hat

PATTERN:  a “1st Place Prize” mail order pattern No. 1993, which I can date with confidence to year circa 1947

NOTIONS:  I used two zippers I had on hand, a true vintage metal one for the back neck opening and a modern matching red one for the side closure.  I had on hand the interfacing that I needed and plenty of thread otherwise.  The piping I made myself of leftover satin blanket binding and macramé cording!  The satin blanket binding went towards the hat as well as me-made bias tape of dress fabric leftovers.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Ugh!  After way to much hand-stitching to remotely tolerate, about 40 (probably more) hours, this dress was finally finished on July 12, 2018.  The hat was refashioned in one afternoon/evening soon after, in about 5 hours.

THE INSIDES:  All clean in either French seams or bias bound seams

TOTAL COST:  about $35 was spent of the dress fabric, about $5 for the hat felt, and $20 to buy the vintage hat.  If I count the $10 deal I got on the shoes and the cost for my other accessories, the total outfit cost is about $100.

The outfit was quite a challenge to make – by far one of the hardest outfits to make, Peggy Carter related or not.  For the dress, I blame the crummy fabric I chose for a lot of my problems.  The fabric was the right color red to be sure, readily available in a local store, with a nice slightly textured finish, and a good multi season weight.  It was just too man-made in the way it acted, as if it was such an unnatural fiber that it was fighting being made into something worthwhile every step of the way.  I had to do meticulous hand-stitching for almost everything to get the dress to turn out halfway decent and not messy or cheap looking…I mean the fabric was rather pricey after all!  I was convinced into believing anew the need to go on a personal strike against polyester and other man-made materials.  For the hat, the main issue was dealing with something wonky and beat up and trying to revive it.  The man-made felt I used is again “man-made”, yet it worked out well for this refashion.  This hat could not be cleaned and it was the wrong colors but the right shape…when looking past all of its faults from the wear and tear of time.  Polyester felt was a weight which was thin enough to not make covering the existing hat too bulky, and I don’t think it is obviously an imitation of wool.  When making one’s dream outfit, sometimes price, budget, and available materials sure does make things more of a challenge than it need be!

The pattern itself presented its own challenges along the way.  From the very beginning, though, a big chunk of the extra time it took to be finished with this set was even before I could cut.  The sizing needed such a major change (it was for a tiny 30” bust).  I traced out the entire dress onto sheer medical paper so I both wouldn’t have to ruin the original and could gradually, in small segments, add in the 4 inches I needed widthwise.  Besides resizing, the only other design change I made was to the reshape the neckline.  I widened out the top angle of the neckline so that it would be more squared off and the two corners would land at the middle of my collarbones.  I raised the bottom drop of the key-hole neckline higher by just a few inches, so it would at least cover any cleavage (unlike Peggy’s dress, which shows way too much in my opinion).  Even still, it turned out quite low.  What would the original neckline have been like at this rate?! 

In order the finish the neckline edge, anchor down the piping, and accommodate the newly shaped neckline, I drafted my own facing accordingly.  This is really a dress about visible facing after all – that is the quickest, cleanest, and reasonably easiest way to do the neckline.  The whole of the dress is about the decorative chest, anyway. I made the new facing a replica of the neckline shape and made it an even 2 ¾ inches wide all the way around.  Then I made my own piping and stitched that along the outer facing edge.  Keeping the curves and corners to this step was so tricky but extremely necessary to the design.  Finally the facing was sewn onto the neckline, wrong side (dress inside) to the right side (visible facing).  This way the edges are finished (as I mentioned) and the piping is both covered and regulated in width away from the edge all in one step.

The finishing to this step was the hardest part because everything was invisibly tacked down with tons of hand-stitching which was tortuous to do.  So many pins were needed to keep everything in place in between the episodes of stitching, and my hands and arms became so scratched up and wounded.  The back neckline zipper was absolutely needed but only complicated things further with the piping ending there, too.  Sorry to complain!  In the end, though (after much steam ironing) I do believe the detailing turned out well, but not as perfect as I had hoped.  All those layers and the piping makes the neckline quite stiff, and it puckers slightly sometimes.  However, I do believe the proportions of the key-hole neckline are quite the same as Agent Carter’s dress, so I’m happy.  Yet, I feel now as if I can say I passed some sort of “trial by hand stitching”.  I definitely have a greater respect for the costume department of Agent Carter, now.

The criss-cross straps that finalize the drama of the neckline are shown to be more like a woven design right at the bottom of the key-hole according to the original pattern.  I merely repositioned them to match with Peggy’s dress.  The X over Peggy’s heart is a recurring theme throughout Season Two, as you can see in another copycat dress I made already here.  It is used when she is vulnerable – caught between needing to finish her hardest mission yet while being emotionally torn at the same time.  Love has come into her life again in a whole new way she didn’t see and didn’t expect. With Peggy however, it often seems that love is intertwined with heartbreak.  So – this dress is a strong statement of her both moving on to another chapter in life yet still staying the same strong woman as before she lost ‘her’ Captain America.  She still seems to receive more than her fair share of grief, in my opinion.  I suppose all it does is go to show just how strong and resilient she can be…though not tough enough to refuse to open her heart.

Only the year before this design, the bombshell actress Lana Turner had popularized decorated keyhole necklines when she wore several in the sultry 1946 movie, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (see fashion pics here).  One of the only times she isn’t wearing white in the film, her black dress has white trim a few inches out from the edge to outline the shape of the keyhole neckline.  It looks all too similar!  Agent Carter was apparently only keeping up with Hollywood to wear this neckline style.

Otherwise, there is not much to say about the rest of the dress.  It has very basic shaping and almost boring darts and seaming.  That’s okay – the body of the dress needs to take a backseat to the neckline.  I kept the sleeves as they were designed, even though they are so different from my inspiration dress, because not only did they turn out cute in my opinion, but they are very easy to move in and provide a great 40’s shoulder widening appearance.  They are quite loose around my arms, but the rest of the dress also had a giant amount of ease to match.  I had to pare off about two inches from each side seams, and take off several inches from the hem.  This brand of pattern company must run really generous.  I guess I didn’t need to do all of that massive resizing after all.

Enough said about the dress – now I’ll talk about the hat!  Originally it must have been quite stunning – to me it has an almost sea-faring pirate feel and the back tassel bumble is an interesting addition.  Many late 30’s and early 40’s hats were similarly obnoxious in style with wide brims.  As I found it, there was an ugly black stain on the crown, and the brim had some rips or moth holes.  The brim edge wire was terribly twisted and kinked, too.  It needed a re-fashion, or else I cannot see anyone wanting it in that condition.

I hate seeing vintage items on their last leg, and I really didn’t want to make a hat from scratch to match my outfit…so I fulfilled both in one step!  Now I know my refashion tuned the hat into the bowl or platter style popular in the early 50’s, but it evokes the post war fashion of 1947, the year Dior unveiled his “New Look”.  It also shows how little details in shape and finishing can change a style so much!

My very first step was to unpick the stitching of the grosgrain ribbon along the edge, to then be able to unpick the millinery wire stitched on the edge.  Next, I took the tassel bumble off and stitched up the back brim slit opening.  Then the hat received an all-over steam ironing!  This flattened out the wavy brim and freshened it up in both smell and shape.  Now the hat was ready to be covered.

I started by covering the bottom underside of the brim using the dress fabric.  I made three rows of stitching from the edge for decorative looks and to keep it in place.  Then the crown was covered by gently stretching out my felt over the existing hat, and my knee was the best thing to put inside to keep in shape while I was doing this.  Stretching the felt made the two layers stick the one another better than stitching the two layers together.  If I was working with a wool felt, I would have soaked it in water before stretching it, but the polyester felt wasn’t going to work like that.

Finally, the top crown was covered with more felt, hand stitched down along the inner and outer edges, then my self-made bias tape, made from the same dress material, was stitched along the edge for the finishing touch.  The last thing was to make a tube of the leftover white satin left over from making the piping, and gently hand-tack that from the inside to where the brim meets the crown.  Agent Carter’s original hat had two different colors and textures of red just like my hat, but I just could not bring myself to copy the trim.  The original hat in the television show hat grey velvet trim with a matching bow, and to me it looks too much like a costume that way, and too over-the-top.  I like the classy simplicity of how I decorated my hat – again, not distracting from the dress, but definitely part of it by sharing the same materials.

It is remarkable how much this outfit forces me into a new outgoing spirit that is almost more than I can handle if I’m not quite feeling myself.  It’s all good stuff, though.  I’ve never really been a girl who is all about a red dress…it comes from reading the book “The Scarlet Letter” or watching Scarlett O’Hare show up at Ashley’s birthday party in the movie “Gone with the Wind”.  Besides, my mom never let me buy outfits in red when I was growing up.  I had only one fancy red dress, and that was reserved for a Valentine’s Day father-daughter dance to attend as a pre-teen.  Now, I’m rediscovering the empowerment of the color.  I even went all out with the color by treating myself to the complete Agent Carter red accessories as seen on television, too – cheaper copies of her Ray-Ban sunglasses, Besame brand “Red Velvet” lipstick (from the Agent Carter collection), her same mother-of-pearl flower earrings, and a true vintage alligator leather handbag.  If I’m going to enjoy the shade of crimson, and go all out in one of my most time consuming Agent Carter outfits yet, then it has to be absolutely awesome from my head to toes and everything in between.

Now I am truly a classic spectator…dressing up in my best, decked in a flag-your-attention set of red, sticking to two tones, and definitely realizing I am seen.  I may therefore be arbitrated, too, but then I am not afraid of it because I feel great in what I wear when I make it.  Besides – I am not afraid of others judgment in this outfit in particular.  I have a sneaky suspicion that it will get favorable opinion from others anyway.  I’ve already had someone drive buy and offer a compliment to me the very first day of putting it on.  There must be something with spectator fashions, because here I am talking about the self-consciousness, personality, and preparedness for scrutiny arising just from what I am wearing.  Clothing certainly adds a necessary complexity and interest to the human existence.