A Peggy Carter Outfit as Undercover as a Shield Agent

This post is a week later than I intended it to be, but for a girl like myself with a rich Irish heritage on both sides of my family, seven days after St. Patrick’s day isn’t bad for celebrating either.  Any and every day is good for reveling in one’s heritage!  I always find it so perfect that the holiday for wearing green comes around for us just as the season of spring does, as well.  Verdant hues are the newest cloak being worn by nature, as well.  Spring also means school break, however, and as a mom it is always such a challenge to accomplish anything I had previously intended during our son’s time off at home.   

Thus, finally, I’m so excited to be sharing another amazing Agent Carter recreation unlike all the rest I have finished.  It is secretly a one-piece jumpsuit – surprise!  By choosing two different colors and types of material for the top and bottom half I enjoy the appearance of separates.  Yet, my top stays perfectly “tucked in” and my high-waisted, wide-legged 40’s style trousers stay up in place…because it is an easy-to-dress-in, all one garment kind of jumpsuit!  I still faithfully recreated Agent Peggy Carter’s outfit from Season Two, episode 3 ‘Better Angels’, of the 2016 television series.  

It has pockets!!!

I laugh in enjoyment over the sneaky deception of the way I made my version.  As I make mention of in my title, I feel this jumpsuit version is so very suited to Peggy’s smart but sensible personality.  It is also a bit deceptive in plain sight just like so much of her life as an agent of the S.S.R. (or should I just say S.H.I.E.L.D., right).  Also, it is has a bright and cheerful “Leprechaun” green which, between the versatile fabrics I used that are perfect for cooler in-between temperatures, makes this my favorite classy-but-casual vintage inspired outfit for spring (or fall, too, of course).  The best part is the fact I used a modern (therefore relatively easily available) sewing pattern as my verbatim source for this outfit.  Leave it to Peggy Carter to keep inspiring me to sew myself clothes that become such wardrobe winners which I feel great wearing.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  the top blouse half is a Kona brand all-cotton in “Leprechaun” color; the bottom trousers are a heathered grey brushed suiting bought here from Fashion Fabrics Club, in a 63% Rayon 16% Viscose 12% Linen 8% Silk 1% Lycra blend; the lining for the bodice was also used for the side seam pants pockets and that is a basic lightweight polyester in a dark green color.

PATTERN:  Butterick #6320, year 2016

NOTIONS NEEDED:  I needed lots of thread, interfacing, one long 22” invisible zipper for the center back closing, and I used one vintage dark green Bakelite buckle for the belt.

THE INSIDES:  all nicely finished in bias tape for the trouser half, otherwise all other raw edges are invisible due to the bodice lining.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This jumpsuit felt time consuming.  After over 30 hours put in, it was finished in March 2020.

TOTAL COST:  The trouser fabric alone cost me $35 for two yards, and the bodice was $7 for one yard.  The lining was on hand leftover from another project years back so I’m counting that and the buckle from my stash as free.  My total cost with the other notions is $50.

Now, one really never gets to see my project’s inspiration outfit on Agent Carter for very long in the “Better Angels” episode, and even then, it is mostly only her green blouse that we see in detail.  That’s okay.  The trousers are basic 40’s era suiting bottoms and the blouse carries the brunt of the meticulous design lines, after all.  Peggy’s green top had these shoulder panels which wrapped from the back to the front where they create a wide, curved sweetheart neckline before they end under the armpit.  The rest of the center front to the blouse has a dipped neckline which gathers into the bottom of the shoulder plackets to create bust fullness. 

All of these details were already there on Butterick #6320 pattern – yay!  The most obvious variance is having a plain, flat front with the lack of a buttoned front opening, such as what Agent Carter’s original blouse had.  I like this pattern’s smooth front better, just the same as I chose puffed sleeves over plain sleeves with a hem notch as Peggy’s original had.  I recreated those sleeves on this other Season Two blouse (posted here).  Also, these trousers are a comfy, pleated front while Peggy’s version had a smooth, fitted front.  I have made several smooth front 40’s pants for myself already anyway (see here and here).  For as much as I try to ‘copy’ Peggy’s outfits, I always make sure to stay true to my personal wearing preferences so I can have my Agent Carter garments be everyday clothes and not just cosplay costumes.  Also, I like to honor the ingenuity of the designer, in this case “Gigi” Ottobre-Melton, by not making an exact copy.

From the soft shine of the original blouse on Agent Carter, I assume it was silk.  I cannot tell what material her trousers were but they seem to be a thick rayon suiting to me.  My chosen fabrics are more basic and casual, albeit very nice.  Kona cotton is synonymous for quality, especially being a Robert Kaufman product.  It is thick but soft, durable with minimal shrinkage, and the colors don’t bleed (important as I am making a dual color, two material jumpsuit).  I always appreciate the fact Kona cotton certifies that no harmful chemicals were used in its production, processing or finishing. 

I felt it was important that my trouser fabric be something a lot more textured than the blouse to imitate the appearance of two separate items.  The material I chose is a blend of most of all my favorite materials (rayon, linen, and silk) in a very unusual way – a twill with a flannel finish.  Nevertheless, it has a wonderful drape, great medium weight, and a finish which has it perfect for a menswear-inspired suiting look. 

The brushed finish makes this a slightly bit itchy (but I wear pants liners underneath to counter that) and the linen in it makes this wrinkle some, too.  However, the blend it is in also has the pants portion to this jumpsuit be much more breathable and multi-seasonal than one would expect by the look and feel of it.  I am happily surprised by the success of this jumpsuit project.  The way I was combining two such opposite fabrics had me worried from the outset, as did the fact I had spent a decent sum of money on the supplies in the first place.  The bodice was a beast to sew (more on this in a minute).  This had to turn out or I would have been devastated. 

I found the ‘bust-waist-hips’ sizing of this pattern to be spot on, yet the fit and proportions were off.  The way this is drafted on paper, the pattern is only made for tall ladies.  I do not consider myself truly petite at about 5’3” in height, and my torso length (from the back of my neck to high waist) is a common 15” (plus some).  As it was, the bodice was far too long, as were the trousers.  The pattern called for a 2-something inch hem…I had 10 inches in excess to hem these trousers on the long side for me (I have to wear heels in this jumpsuit).  I had to bring in the shoulders by about 2” to pick up the bodice so that the underbust seam rests where it should be landing.  

This pattern will NEED some adapting for most anyone who tries out this design, from my experience.  It is especially important to learn this from the outset at the pattern stage as the complex and fully lined bodice doesn’t give much room for adapting after it is completed.  Take into account that the curved shoulder panels have to be redrawn at the joining seam if you also need to take this design in to fit if you choose to sew this for yourself, too.  Please do not let my warning dissuade you from trying this pattern – I highly recommend it.  I love the many options it offers with the variety of sleeves and the option of a skirt bottom.

The bodice was extremely fiddly and tricky and takes some slow, meticulous going to sew it right.  I have seen some sewists who have made this pattern for themselves skip some details as well as the lining, but I recommend going all the way for this fabulous design.  Yes, interfacing the entire bodice seems like overkill, but I did it anyway.  Now that my jumpsuit is finished, I think it does help the bodice become a stable ‘anchor’ to the pants below and not be pulled down by that much fabric. Yes, it looks like there are way too many markings needing to be made to the fabric at the cutting out stage.  As a stickler for doing things right from the outset, I sucked it up and copied all of the balance marks, squares, triangles, and circles.  They all end up being extremely necessary and very helpful towards making construction much less confusing.  Even still, the gathering around the curved shoulder placket above the bustline was the trickiest part of all to perfect.  Luckily, the smooth inner lining (completely different pattern pieces from the exterior front top) help to bring the bodice together and right the seam allowances. 

Before I added the lining, I thought the bodice looked messy and was being pulled too much by the attached trousers.  Sure, I ironed the top along the way, clipping where necessary and pushing the seam allowances the right direction.  Once the lining was in, I had matched the lines of both the lining bodice and exterior bodice so I could hand tack them together ‘in the ditch’ of the seams.  My doing this interior seam matching was over and above what the instructions told me to do, but worth it.  After all, it was only then that the bodice was suddenly substantial enough to hold the weight of the 2 something yards of attached pants and therefore not have unreasonable wrinkles.  All the ‘good side’ edges have no visible stitching because I had stitched the seam allowance edges for the neckline to the lining as further hand finishing over and above what was called for.  I love the chic and professional appearance my extra efforts give, even though it is not clearly noticeable until up close…which nowadays, social distancing prevents that!  The lining, though a bother to cut and sew (besides being unseen), completely makes this jumpsuit work out.

My self-fabric belt is the “cherry-on-the-top” to the two-piece deception of this jumpsuit.  This was something not originally part of the pattern but something I added.  However, it is not your normal belt on account of the center back zipper closing.  I slid my vintage belt buckle over the belt strip and centered it between the two ends.  Then the center of the belt with the buckle was lightly hand tacked to the center front of the jumpsuit’s waistline.  I further attached the belt to the side seams of the jumpsuit.  This was done out of convenience for both dressing and bathroom visits.  Nobody wants to pick up something off of a public bathroom floor!  Also, I had no plans on wearing this outfit without the belt at all.  Two oversized snap help the loose belt ends lap closed over one another across the back once the back zipper is closed.  I am always justly wary of having anything Bakelite – normally buttons, but here it’s the buckle – going through a washing machine cycle so I now realize I will either have to clip away the threads that tack down the belt or hand wash this jumpsuit.  Oh well.  The finished project here makes up for any bother needed to take care of it along the way.

Here I’m at my parents’ front yard mailbox, wearing an old 90’s corduroy blazer over my Agent Carter jumpsuit. I love that my mom decorates for every seasonal holiday!

This month’s green outfit of mine not only celebrates the equinox and St. Patrick’s Day, but also has a subtle nod to Women’s History Month.  This outfit honors the strong ladies who have influenced my life.  Agent Carter has inspired my fashion style, my sewing preferences, and my personal confidence.  Yet, no vintage outfit of mine is ever complete without something of my grandmother’s – whether it be her earrings, gloves, scarves, or such accessories I have inherited.  My Grandma is so sorely missed these past four plus years. She was the strongest, bravest, most resourceful, intelligent, caring, compassionate, and beautiful woman I could ever aspire to be.  It is her gold “Lady Elgin” 1940s watch which is the item I am never without for every Agent Carter outfit of mine.  Peggy Carter was never without her Nana’s watch in the first half of Season 1’s show…and I guarantee you my watch will not have the same sad fate as her’s did.  

I think it is a fantastic tradition for women to honor the previous generation’s women though continuing to wear (albeit gently) their heirlooms.  I like the keep some familial treasures stored away, yes indeed.  However, there are others which I feel deserve to be enjoyed and thus have a renewed appreciation through the connection they carry.  You know, many people have said I look like my Grandmother when she was young…but I also have people I don’t personally know tell me I look like Agent Carter on many occasions. What a happy connection this is as well as the best compliments I could ever hope to receive!  I know my Grandmother would want me to be as proud of myself as she was of me.  I can only hope and try to be as amazing a woman as she.   If I can sneak in a little Agent Carter reference by just doing my own vintage style along the way, too, well…I am blessed.  It must be the lucky Irish in me. 

Channeling Crawford’s Adrian

I realize the strong shoulders of the 1940s decade is an intimidating turnoff for many, but I embrace them in all their forms.  For whether they are obnoxious or poufy as they can be or just plain sharply tailored, I see the 40’s strong shoulder line as not only a crucial part of the fashion in, before, and after the WWII decade, but also a very interesting garment point often neglected.   Such can be as fun to perfect as they are even more entertaining to see and construct in all its differing varieties.

A strong, exaggerated shoulder line can do wonders for certain body shapes, as I think it does for mine.  Although I am border line petite (just over 5 feet tall), I do not feel that my waist and hips are small enough in proportion to the rest of me, so the appearance of wider shoulders creates an illusion of the ideal body lines (tiny hips and waist).  This is nothing new…I am just copying off of what worked for the famous actress Joan Crawford, when the equally famous Adrian used this same “trick” as what had been done in the 1830s and 1890s to distract the public eye away from conceived body faults about the midsection and create a certain image.  As famous as well-known as both those names are, they had figured out something spot on that we who are in no manner Hollywood sweethearts can still imitate to our advantage.  From a fascination of Crawford’s high, dramatic hairstyles to my amazement for Adrian’s penchant of precise pin striped garments, from the basic need for warm winter wear to the desire for an unusual item to try and sew, I have combined it all to end up with something that is an unexpected way to power through the cold!

This jumper dress was made for a recent trip to visit the historic garment district in Kansas City, Missouri for the exhibit “Suited Up: Tailored Menswear, 1900 to 2017”.  This section of town is claimed to have been (at one time), second only to New York in breadth of territory!  This cozy outfit let me be a wintertime tourist in handmade, menswear-inspired style!  My shoes were very comfy for all day walking – they are Chelsea Crew brand “Gala” heels, reproduction vintage spectators.  My blouse underneath is a resale store item, but my jewelry is true vintage from my Grandmother.  I realize that all put together like I am, this is a more obviously vintage outfit than most other dated fashions that I make and wear, but I’d like to think that it is a statement enough to be attractive in its own way.  I believe the general public that only relies on RTW is so ready for fashion to be something more appealing to them personally other than what is out there.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a heathered brown pure wool with an ivory pin striping

PATTERN:  Simplicity #1238, year 1944, a jumper-dress

NOTIONS:  The main notion used – the numerous buttons down the front – are a prized vintage card authentic to the 1940’s which had been found at our favorite local antique store.  The rest of what I needed – the thread, interfacing, bias and hem tapes, as well as shoulder pads – are modern notions and were already in my stash of supplies.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was made in about 25 to 30 hours…I took my time to get details done just the way I wanted them!  It was finished on February 9, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  As this was pure wool, it was therefore rather a rather itchy fabric which would fray a lot at every raw edge.  Thus every seam was finished off with bias tape, with the hem covered in a lace tape for a fun and feminine finish!

TOTAL COST:  This wool was a gem of a fabric I found in my local Jo Ann’s Fabric store.  I don’t remember what the cost was purely because this kind of fabric is so lovely and hard to come by in brick-and-mortar stores here, so I had to have it regardless of cost.  Nevertheless, I had a discount coupon and 40’s patterns do not need a whole lot of fabric, so – for just over 2 yards I think I spent under $30.

Ah – Adrian and Crawford…one would not be as famous without the other, but I suggest Adrian owed more to Crawford than the other way around.  Crawford had been in movies since the 1920’s, but her broad shoulders served her well in the boyish and hip hugging fashions of the era – she was the right body for the mode of dressing then.  When the 1930’s came along and Crawford was starring in movies where she played as a softer, sexier and wildly talented woman, she needed a signature style to match in Hollywood.  In 1932, Crawford wore a dress designed by Gilbert Adrian know as the famous “Letty Lynton Dress”, a white organdie dress with big puffed sleeves which were covered in ruffles, to make her look feminine and demure.  It is often credited with being the first movie fashion to be widely copied and sold for the public.  Crawford’s wide shouldered dress gave the impression of a tiny waist and slim hips, and the illusion created by Adrian was suddenly in steady demand with popular fashion whether that garment was in a store, from a sewing pattern, created by a tailor, or from other designers.  This would last strongly through the 1940’s, recurring again in the 1980s, when heavily padded and extreme shoulders were common.  Crawford’s movie roles in the 40’s became harder, stronger, and frequently troubled, and so her large shoulder signature style stayed with her but changed to match until after Dior’s “New Look” styles became the craze.

In Adrian’s own story from the book, Creating the Illusion, he said that Crawford insisted on full freedom of movement with her arms, so much so that he had to leave excess fabric which was then padded to not appear sloppy.  I do notice that many 1940’s era vintage patterns leave extra room in the shoulders, and I regard that as room you need for shoulder pads!  But whether the use of padding came from Crawford’s fit preferences or Adrian’s direct styling for her body, between the two of them it is a silhouette and a technique that was influential and unmistakable.  Crawford was Adrian’s perfect outlet to manifest the genius of his talent.  It took the perfect actress in the perfect outfit to make the world notice her clothes to a point that the world how the copy that fashion for themselves.  Unlike today, the designers were something to think about afterwards, as the Academy Awards for Best Costume Design wasn’t started until 1948.  Adrian designed the costumes for Joan Crawford in more than twenty-eight movies.  Granted, he did wonders designing spectacular, mind blowing outfits for other actresses, but it is how Joan Crawford wore what he made that had a outreaching effect that is still being discussed and understood today.

Now, the original design for this jumper-dress on the envelope cover is much more understated than how mine turned out and I wanted it this way!  Since I was wearing this to see an exhibit on menswear, I wanted something strong and broad as the famous London-cut padded suit for guys of the early 40’s with a hint of the outspoken Zoot Suits.  Adrian himself was a perfectionist at suits and loved to show the height of his ability by having stripes show off the seam lines (see this 1948 suit at the New York MET museum for only one example).  Following these trains of thought, I also was tempted to add a welt pocket on the chest like a true suit, but as you can see I thought otherwise in the end.  I do love how my jumper dress ends up having a double collar, as I wear the shirt underneath on top of the jumper lapels to cover the wool and keep it from itching my neck.  This is better than a man’s vintage suit which doesn’t have this double collar benefit!  Sewing it was much easier than making a complete suit but has all the same feel as one in a dress version.

I have seen such a unique kind of clothing as a jumper-dress before in a few other 1940s and 1970s patterns and I really like the whole idea of it – a one-piece garment that can be worn with a blouse underneath like a jumper or still work being worn alone as a dress.  The famous actress Gene Tierney wears a very similarly styled jumper-dress, in a lovely light blue sans blouse underneath, in the 1945 movie “Leave Her to Heaven”.  The banded armscye (as this kind of shoulder extension that looks like a sleeve is called) was stiff and sticking out on its own on Gene Tierney, and I used heavy interfacing to copy that appearance.  However I have found an extant jumper-dress in rayon crepe that has a limp, unstructured banded armscye and it is amazing how one small detail as the weight of interfacing can change the whole “look”.  I have even seen a banded armscye which is highly decorated on this fancy 1940’s blouse, or one used upside down in this 1930’s evening gown.  The more you look at fashion from the past, the more you see the variety our modern RTW fashions are missing. 

The pattern for a banded armscye has the general shape of an almond because it is folded in half to be a double layer self-facing piece.  However, this “mock sleeve’’ needs to have a much lower dip, meaning the side seam is closed at a much lower point than regular garments with a true set-in sleeve.  There is a triangular insert piece that can be added to the bottom point of the armscye where it ends at the side seam, meant for when this is worn alone as a dress.  Of course, for this to be that versatile it would not be made from a wool but out of a gabardine, linen, or rayon of some sort, or something else multi-season with some body because I don’t like the ‘limp’ look of that extant dress I mentioned above.  You have to just go all the way for some styles like this – to carry off powerful fashion is obviously being committed to a style that is every bit as strong as you are…or want to be!  Crawford often said that she never went out anywhere unless she looked like “Joan Crawford the movie star”, so I’m supposing that this powerful fashion of hers was like being vested in more than clothing.  Clothing has been described as armor that makes us feel whole or keeps us safe from what brings us down.

The design was deceptively simple, really.  It wasn’t much harder than a shirt with a skirt attached, but it was the tailoring and details that I spend most of my time on to make this.  The layout required a large amount of brain power to have the stripes match as impeccably as an Adrian inspired garment could become.  I must say I was impressed at how well this pattern fit on me and came together, as some 1940s Simplicity patterns can be not that great, so the design deserves credit for my success – and I am quite pleased with this!  I love how the pin striping miters in at the seams, and even ended up matching so well where the darts meet the skirt at the waist.  I even somehow got the collar to match!  To highlight the design and lay around with the striping, I had the banded armscye be horizontal while the rest of the dress was generally vertical.  Adrian was a fan of a geometric approach to clothing.

Making all those buttonholes down the front and matching the buttons in place is and will always be such an exhausting thing to do for me, but every time I see such a garment finished it becomes so worth it in the end.  This garment is especially the case because I used an intact card of vintage buttons, which I was so excited yet reluctant to use.  It’s not that I want to just stash such treasures, or just hold onto them because they do not serve their intended purpose or get to shine just sitting in my collection!  It’s just somehow harder to incorporate an old notion into my modern vintage when I feel that I have to separate it from its lovely, dramatic, pristine display placement on a perfect condition button card.  Such notions like this remind me of how upscale and respected home sewing used to be, besides the fact that the quality of our modern notions have dramatically gone downhill!  The buttons match so well with the wool in color, but it seems to me that their complex face makes them a subtle but still noticeable detail.

I am quite proud of the statement 40’s hairstyle I pulled off with this outfit!  Joan Crawford seemed to wear her hair high up above her forehead on top her head frequently circa 1944 (see here and here), as did her fellow actresses Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard to name a few.  Their hair is similar but seems to be more of a comb over than an under roll like mine, making it closer to a Dorothy Gray style.  Realistically, I am not an actress and I needed a hairstyle to stay in place all day!  With a lot of hairspray and pins, it did stay!  Beseme brand “Red Velvet” lipstick completes the vintage look.

So – do you think you will try the over-emphasized shoulder look for yourself?  Do you love it the way I do?  Say yes to the shoulder pad!  Knit fabrics nowadays have people so used to a close body fit, but extra fabric and shoulder pads to structure the body can and does have its benefits if your body shape is something waist and below you’re self-conscious about.  1950s hip exaggeration works the other way around, making your waist and above seem smaller.  I’ll stop there.  All I’ll say is that’s the not-so-advertised benefit of vintage – you can choose an era or styles that work well to compliment your body!  What do you like yourself most wearing?  Are you on the camp of Bette Davis or on Joan Crawford when it comes to the subject of their long-lasting feud? (I’m neutral on that feud, BTW!)