“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!?
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.