A Cardin Inspired Coat, a Coral Blouse…and a Crab

The way my 9 year old is so easily savvy with the newest technology and hooked on anything electronic makes me painfully aware that I am part of a generation that grew up without the internet.  However, overdoing nostalgic comparisons makes me feel like I’m overly emphasizing my age.  Thus, I’ll try to narrow the focus of this post on both the amazing details of my outfit and its symbolism to me.  I will never cease to be amazed at how pleasantly avant-garde the fashion of the 80’s and 90’s can (on occasion) be.  I don’t think designer fashion of today can compare to it, for all our technological advancements.   

Notice the toy crab as my companion – here’s my major princess reference, as this is indeed the part two post for my Ariel (of Disney’s 1989 “The Little Mermaid”) inspired clothing.  (The part one post can be found here.)  Yet the fact I could easily start crabbing about surviving a childhood without being hooked to a ‘smart’ accessory places me as the peevish one.   Both Sebastian and my enameled Ariel lapel pin are both items from my childhood, picked up when the animated movie was first released. 

Thus, let me return to ‘89 again with both Cardin and Coveri as my inspiration this time, with a mind to further transform the pants of my first “Little Mermaid” outfit into a chic, sporty yet dressy, full collection suitable for more than just wintertime.  Using the little bits leftover of my lovely “Alta Moda” Coveri designed material, I was able to eke out a matching jacket.  Its fabulous back reminds me of a waterfall!  A scrap of outdoor cotton in a branching coral print becomes a blouse for me to enjoy the weather outdoors. 

Imagine if a track suit went high fashion in the very best 80’s way…and this is what I think you would end up with.  I absolutely, wholeheartedly treasure these pieces in a special way!  It is yet another great example of how certain 80’s styling can be timeless when well crafted, but on a personal level, these quite possibly were done in my best hand stitching work to date.  I am not one to ‘save’ my good items, nevertheless – the only way to enjoy them is to wear them!  I found it appropriate and comfortable for a trek through the woods to visit my favorite creek-side haunt on a chilly, rainy day for some water related pictures.  I would think any mermaid princess would go to a creek if that’s all she could find, or that an Ariel of 1989 would do so wearing something like this!

THE FACTS:

FABRICS:  Jacket – a 100% wool twill, marked on the selvedge “Alta Moda – Enrico Coveri”; Blouse – a Waverly brand printed 100% cotton duck (outdoor fabric)

PATTERN:  McCall’s NY NY “ The Collection” pattern #4181, year 1989, from my stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, a few hook-n-eyes, and a couple cards of buttons (new)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The blouse took me only 4 hours to make, and was finished on March 6, 2021.  The jacket was finished on March 26, 2021, and took me about 40 hours to make.

THE INSIDES:  Clean as can be! The jacket and blouse – as both are unlined – have vintage rayon seam tape and/or French seams.

TOTAL COST:  As I said in my post about the making of the trousers, the woolen Alta Moda fabric was a rummage sale find and therefore a dollar or two, while the blouse’s cotton print came from Wal-Mart’s scrap clearance section, as it was only one yard, for $2.50.  My buttons were a few dollars more.  Altogether, my total is probably $8.00!

What I specifically love here is that a different pattern was used for these two top pieces than what was selected for the fall-front trousers (McCall’s #4537, posted here).  Even still, the jacket and blouse of this post seem to flawlessly match with the bottoms and become a perfect set.  I attribute it to the fact both patterns are from the same year and same NY NY “The Collection” line.  

According the numbers, this pattern came first before the other I used for the trousers.  I definitely will be revisiting this to sew up the jodhpurs and the paper-bag waisted skirt which are included, too.  The way these NY NY patterns have a complete wardrobe in one envelope is really the best, not to mention the awesome, unusual styling.  This is the third one I’ve posted about (my first here) and you will be seeing plenty more of this line of patterns on my blog in the future because I now have a significant number of them.  They run from the late 80’s through the 90’s and are supposed to be designer, or at least designer inspired.  I definitely recommend you trying one out for yourself!

The style lines to these pieces, expressly the jacket, reminds me two great fashion designers who were were highly successful in the 80’s.  As I mentioned in my post about the trousers, my fabric is an Enrico Coveri brand “Alta Moda” woolen from pre-1990.  Coveri worked at the “Espace Cardin”, the vast design institute set up by Pierre Cardin, when he moved to Paris in the late 70’s, before he started his own label.  (In this previous post I expounded upon more details of his life.)  I think the futuristic thinking of Cardin rubbed off on Coveri – both were men ahead of their time in the 80’s.  Coveri was designing in the late 70’s garments we associate with the “look” of the late 80’s or early 90’s, yet as he died young he does not get the credit I feel he deserves.

The blue jacket is one of several different iterations of this kind of back detail Pierre Cardin produced in 1980.

Then there is Pierre Cardin who released a “Computers” inspired collection at the turn of the new decade in the year 1980. When computer usage for the populace was a very novel and limited item still, his jackets where designed to echo the functional venting of a computer’s body (see picture at right).  The introduction of three preassembled mass-produced personal computers was just launched in 1977. IBM Corporation, the (then) world’s dominant computer maker, did not enter the new market until 1981.  I would like to suppose that, just like as he did in the 60’s with his Space Age looks, Cardin was banking on the expectation of the new frontier ahead that was seen in the new dawn of computers for all to use.

Now to me, Cardin’s short, hip-length, blue “Computers” coat is not that far off from this NY NY McCall’s jacket.  In reality, my jacket is probably closer to an early 90’s Claude Montana creation (seen on the left) at first glance of design lines.  Not knowing the construction details of either designer piece, I could just be completely off here with my references.  Yet, I see what I see and love the irony of perceiving a Cardin and Coveri influence, especially for my Ariel inspired clothing.

Back to what I’ve made.  How was this particular jacket constructed though, you may be wondering by now?  First of all, it is unlined which sounds like it should have made it easier to sew, but no – it did not.  The already confusing and challenging construction was complicated by my need to see this jacket have a pristine finish inside.  Wool is not the best medium to do French seams and a tiny rolled hem.  With some steaming, seam clipping, and careful hand-stitching, I made it work though.  The ‘waterfall’ back (as I call it – don’t know what to term this otherwise) was too flowing and beautiful to receive a ‘normal’ hem, as the instructions directed.  I made a very tiny rolled hem, which I learned by finishing the flounces on this dress, to keep the panel from becoming stiff and restricted.  Even the sleeves were French seamed!  All of the top-stitching to the hems and lapel facings was done by hand so I could keep the thread invisible.  If my fabric is high class, and I see that it has couture inspiration, I felt I should raise the bar of my finishing techniques to match.

This jacket has a lot going on when it comes to details to list, and somehow they all seem to work together.  I don’t know how, but I am in awe.  There is the extreme boatneck which leaves little of a true shoulder seam.  The sleeves are wide cut at the shoulders and taper to a snug fit at the wrist.  The curved, high front lapels can be thrown open or flapped closed for a variety in the look.  There are no bust darts, surprisingly, and I kept the front bodice smooth by substituting buttons for hooks and eyes as the trio of closures.  The waist is high, which worked out fine paired with the above-the-waist trousers.  The shoulder panel and ‘floating’ lower waistband, which sits under the bias cut ‘waterfall’, are the only two anchors keeping together the back of the jacket. 

The weirdest but coolest part to this jacket is that there is no real back.  Yes!  The flounce-like ‘waterfall’ back falls down loose from the shoulder panel, attached only at the sides.  There is a back waistband, heavily interfaced and a just a few inches wide, stretching across to connect the hems of the front bodice.  The ‘waterfall’ flounce meets only at the outer corners of the hem to bring in all the pieces.  Hidden underneath, the back is completely open.  If you lift up my flounce back, you can see my blouse underneath.  

This odd feature makes the jacket appear like a haphazard mess when it is anything other than on my mannequin or my body.  Some of the most interesting things I sew are also the hardest to explain, so I hope my pictures do some justice.  It is simply indescribably curious…and was therefore even more challenging to grade up to my size on paper, believe me.  I went into this sewing project “blind” because the pieces and instructions didn’t makes sense until I had a go constructing the actual garment.  I’m so happy this turned out and that I like it as much as I do…because if ever a sewing idea has been a gamble for me, this one was more so!

The blouse is much more low-key, to be sure.  It’s the fine tuning that makes it fantastic.  It pairs with the jacket by filling in the open neckline and paralleling the boat neckline with high-cut sleeveless shoulders.  The blouse is boxy in fit with a wide and shorter hem length.  It also has lots of small buttons to close the front…so many I had a hard time finding enough.  The buttons I chose to match – frosted aqua ones that reminded me of sea glass – could not be found anymore, so I pared the number down to 8 from the 10 that were called for.  I used the provided customized armhole facings for a change, too, so this would have a finished inside that matches the fabric of the outside.  The pique-style waffle finish to the cotton duck adds an interesting texture as well as keeping this top nicely weightless for cool summer living.

Notice how the bust darts come into the bodice from the front armhole? So different – I love it!!!

I have paired other blouses, mostly collared ones, with my jacket and trousers set, and I must say that they actually look better than the high-necked one worn here.  Sure, it came with the same pattern.  Yet, it is not the best at staying tucked into the pants with its boxy, cropped length.  I still very much like the blouse I made on its own, and I do like the fact that it is something different to wear with the jacket and pants I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own.  It perfectly fills in my “Little Mermaid” reference though its details such as the sea glass inspired buttons, the perfect ocean blue aqua tone, and a print that reminds me to give a care about the alarming damages of bleaching to coral.  Whenever separates match with plenty of other pieces in my wardrobe rather than just the set they were intended for…well, that’s a good thing I won’t complain about!

At this point I have sewn 5 items from 1989, all from McCall’s “The Collection NY NY” patterns mind you, and I think none of them are what normally comes to mind when anyone might think of the last year before the 90’s.  I actually feel quite comfortably myself in these fashions the way that I know it is still my penchant for vintage (borderline, I know) without seeming so.  It is the kind of faux “modern” wear that I can totally be on board for!  This NY NY McCall’s was a nicely impressive surprise I did not expect, yet another one of the (currently many) reasons I am enjoying a new appreciation the 80’s and 90’s. 

Designer Pierre Cardin is shown during a dress fitting for his “Computers” Coat, 1980

Just some parting reflections – seeing a couture designer like Cardin ‘honoring’ computers with a collection is weird to me.  I love irony in fashion, and so I find myself delighted yet confused at the same time.  Anything inspired by a technology 30 years back was not always flowing and elegant but often angled and overtly “sci-fi” (I’m thinking of the costumes to the 80’s movie “Tron”, especially).  This is not so much the case today, I realize, especially at the hands of Iris van Herpen

Also, I’d like to point out that a computer system is not necessarily the best friend of the traditional way of creating couture.  I am a manual, free-hand pattern drafter, so I know I am biased, but did you know that as of 2019 there is such a thing as “Algorithmic Couture”?  A body is 3-D scanned to determine its exact proportions, which are used to create customized clothing for zero waste, perfect fit, and maximum sustainability. “Algorithmic Couture aims to democratize haute couture customization culture prevalent in the 19th-century, by revitalizing how we fashion our own style through personalization in the digital design process,” said the team of “Synflux”.  Kind of like in the story for “Tron”, this “Algorithmic Couture” puts power into the hands of the user by letting the ideas of each customer be the guide for each of their projects.  Technology of today is rewriting the historic rules of couture (see this article).  In my opinion there is nothing quite like what human minds and human hands can create…I wonder if Cardin had any idea back in 1989 that computers and fashion would go this far together.

The CAD system has no doubt its benefits at the consumer level.  It can provide a multi-dimensional ‘finished product’ view at the conception stage of a design; it has helped expand the Indie brand world of patternmaking; it aids the ease of offering wide range of inclusive sizes as well as the commercial availability of various designs…all for a just a start to the list.  So much to consider! 

Making marks on pattern pieces via computer, March 1987

In 1989 Cardin had THE most fascinating interview in which he said what I feel embodies a lot my outlook on the importance of quality fashion being a normal part of how we dress, as well as the importance of it being accessible to many.  This is why I believe so strongly in the importance of great patterns for home sewers…ones that are designer or at least ones that offer unique styles to both challenge and suit every sewist’s unique tastes and body types.  Yet, I’ve learned from experience in being a patternmaker who can create a tailored custom garment, today’s modern means of digitizing patterns falls short from a quality I encounter in the early 80’s and older. (See this picture).  I am very aware of noticing that the curves, the perfect body fit, is subtly diminished the newer (90’s on up) you go in commercial patterns.  This is one of the many compelling reasons I prefer vintage sources for my sewing.  Here I go crabbing about things again.  Move over Sabastian!  You’re not the only crab.  It is clear I am an 80’s era grouch.

So how about ending with a little fun, geeky, 1989 related trivia that I find entertaining and related to computers, Cardin, and ”The Little Mermaid” animated movie?  Did you know that the first feature film to use the CAPS process, the “Computer Animation Production System” developed by both Disney and Pixar which had 2D/3D integration, was in the production of The Little Mermaid in 1989?  It was only used for very few scenes such as at the end where King Triton sends a rainbow into the sky for his daughters’ wedding (see pic below left).  Furthermore, if King Triton’s palace was a place on land I think it would most definitely be The “Bubble Palace” on the French Rivera.  This fantastic and futuristic living space was completed in 1989, and I swear it looks like something I would see on the ocean floor in “The Little Mermaid”.  Everything is round!  Pierre Cardin acquired it for himself in 1992 to live in as well as for presenting his fashion shows. 

Well…I *mostly* focused on my newly sewn princess-inspired outfit in this post!  I hope you enjoyed reading my musings here, as well as what I have made for myself, and chime in with my grousing through the comments!  What do you remember about 1989?  What strikes you about the fashion and the times of that year?  “The Little Mermaid” was my first princess, the one that completely sucked me into the realm of Disney, so Ariel was a pretty big influence for me when I think of that year.  Fashion and technology came into play for me that year also because it was my first big pageant show…bringing back memories of being in the limelight of the local media and modeling some styles that I shake my head over today.  Luckily, I like my 2021 versions of the 80’s decade much better!

1930 “River City” Beach Pyjamas

Living the Midwest of America, I am surrounded by land and thus far away from any real beach.  However, I am surrounded by rivers, streams, and creeks!  The lack of real coastlines doesn’t stop me from sewing myself a set of 30’s beach pyjamas, complete with a matching short sleeved jacket cover-up.  These pieces are the ultimate vintage garment for casual living, so good they’re timeless, really.  It is yesteryear’s equivalent of a loose fitting, wide legged jumpsuit that’s as unassuming as your nightwear yet flawlessly chic.  They are now over 100 years old now, being born of the atmosphere of leisure following the end of WWI, and were the first popular trousered garment to be worn in public for women.  After spending too long being overly anxious to take on such an unusual project, I have now conquered and succeeded in coming up with some ‘new’ vintage for my wardrobe that I absolutely love.

It is actually quite hard to photograph black in a way to always show that my bottom half is actually divided and not just a skirt.  Between the breeze on the flood wall where I was and the evening light, it was challenging to demonstrate these beach pyjamas as truly trousers!  This is half of why I like them, nevertheless…they are a sneaky bit of a chameleon garment, especially since I made the jacket cover-up reversible!  Its look is variable at any given moment.  Passerby people probably wondered, “Is she wearing a dress or is that a sort of a jumpsuit?  Wait, how does she get that on?  Is it vintage or some modern resort wear?”  The resolutions are not obvious merely looking at my pictures either, I’m guessing.  All will be answered in this post! 

For these pictures, I am at what is one of the most classic spots for St. Louis’s Downtown – the Mississippi riverfront at the base of our emblematic monument “The Arch”.  Behind me is the famous Ead’s bridge.  My hometown is called “The Gateway to the West” for more than one reason, among which is the fact that our location is prime for travel and transport of goods among the river route.  The Eads bridge added to our prestige as the first south of the Missouri river, now the oldest still existing to span the “Mighty Mississippi” river.  It was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, named for its designer and builder, James Buchanan Eads, and completed in 1874 with a dedication ceremony by President Ulysses S. Grant

The Eads bridge was installed and built with what was then pioneering technology, so much so that it still holds several records for its construction feats.  Happily, due to recent (but costly) maintenance, it still is being used for its original purpose to this day.  I suppose I am one of those old-fashioned locals that takes a higher pride in our useful, historic bridge – a symbol of St. Louis that now takes second sitting to ”The Arch”.  Both are equally tied to the river town that we are, and therefore the perfect backdrop for celebrating some regional pride while in my vintage summer fashion!  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  the black portions are a 100% rayon crepe, while the contrast is a 100% cotton quilting print.  The jacket lining and pyjama facings are in a bleached, sheer, white cotton muslin.

PATTERN:  Past Patterns Company “Beach Pajamas and Jacket Pattern”, circa 1930 reprint

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and one zipper for the pants side seam

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The pyjamas were finished on August 28, 2019, after 30 something hours of sewing.  The cover-up coat was made in 4 hours, and completed on September 4, 2019.

THE INSIDES:  The jacket is fully lined, the pyjamas are French seamed

TOTAL COST:  The cottons were from my local JoAnn Fabric store, the rayon was an online purchase – both bought many years back now.  I have no idea as to my total cost anymore.  Keep in mind, though, that beach pyjamas need a lot of material – almost 4 yards (45” width) for the solid black and 2 yards for the print contrast.  

Just to clarify before I go any further here – in the United States (where I live), we tend to use the spelling “pajamas”, so by now you may be thinking I have plenty of typos.  Yet, that spelling is all too commonly associated with nightwear today for those who are not accustomed to the past fashion history for this term.  I am using the term “pyjama” because of the way this garment was spelled when it first became popular.  When including a “y”, the term also strongly alludes to its European origin.  Beach pyjamas blossomed at the Italian Lido in Venice and the French Riviera in the 1920s, especially so at the hands of Chanel.  She took it upon herself to turn them into the fashionable pieces we know them as today versus the practical, sun protective cover-ups they were in the late 1910s when they began to be worn on beaches and not just indoors.  There have been other sites who have written extensive, informative posts on the history of beach pyjamas (such as “The Vintage Woman” magazine, the BBC, the British Pathé, or “Messy Nessy”) so I will not do so myself, here.  I have already addressed the early beginnings of bifurcated bottoms for ladies in this post of mine on the history of the jumpsuit, after all.  I’ll not repeat myself, but now at least I have explained myself!  

The preliminary challenge I faced in sewing my own beach pyjamas was deciding on what design to choose.  There are so many reprints and vintage inspired patterns out there now!  Check out this post at “Vintage Gal” for some inspiration.  I personally gravitated towards the Past Pattern one, as it was a set with a cover-up and it had complex seaming.  I knew it would also be difficult to adapt to my needs as it is a much larger size than what I needed.  Nevertheless, I am a long-standing patron of that company.  I love the quality and accuracy of their pattern reprints. Therefore I painstakingly pinched out a total of almost 6 inches from the width (spread out in many small ½ increments), then equaled up the horizontal bust-waist-hips points, and trued up all the lines.  This was quite tricky to do with the contrast pieces being so very zig-zagged along the joining seams, but I chalked it all up to being good for me to gain practice in grading.  Sheesh.  Yes, I do tend to be hard on myself.

I meticulously measured the heck out of everything after I was done re-sizing to make sure at the beginning that this would fit.  My chosen “wearing ease” was about 3 ½” so I could have something in between a close and a loose fit.  I only had one chance at this with the ‘only just enough’ amount of chosen fabric I had on hand!  That being said, testing the fit of a paper pattern is nothing like actually cutting and sewing those same pieces out of a slinky rayon crepe.  My finished pyjamas fit just a little more loosely than expected, which was fine because that’s what helps make them the effortless, breezy casual and cool summer garment that they are, but – all in all – turned out perfectly!  Once it is understood how to ‘read’ and refine a pattern at the preliminary stage, it can save much grief, time, and cost of material.    

It was interesting to construct as a wrap-on garment and is a bit counter-intuitive to put on.  I couldn’t bear to sew a welt “window” opening right through the center front of the bodice for the one wrap waist closure tie.  This was how the pattern instructs.  I felt the rayon was too supple for that and I liked the simplicity of a solid main body since the contrast was busy and bold.  So I improvised slightly.

Unlike most wrap-on dresses or jumpsuits, this one – as I made it – does not have one tie slip through a gap at the opposite side seam.  I merely attach the left wrap, which is sewn to the pants halfway across the front up until the center front seam, to the right side seam from the inside seam allowance.  I chose to close it with a button (on the end of the left wrap) and buttonhole elastic (on the right side seam).  This way the closure is both adjustable and comfortable and it is also easier to close with the elastic.  Then I take the other wrap half, the top wrap which has a tie at its end, across the front over to the left side seam, which has another tie end attached to the side seam just above the zipper.  I like to wrap the ties fully around my waist, as if a belt, and finally pull up the zipper.  Now I am dressed!  Explaining the process makes it seem a lot more complicated than it really is.  However, through the explaining, I am also laying out some of how it is constructed as well.  I hope you are encouraged or at least have your interest piqued enough from my description to try this pattern out for yourself!

As if this closing manner isn’t curious enough, sewing on the curved and pointed contrast panels made for a hearty trial for my skills.  I added to my woes by drafting the hem contrast in a curved and pointed manner to mirror with the neckline paneling.  A major part of the challenge was on account of the differences in “hand” between the loose rayon crepe and the stiffer quilting cotton.  It is not a combo I would recommend, yet I made it work.  It took me having to take my good old time not stretching the grain of the rayon, being very precise and clipping all corners and curves of the tiny seam allowances.   

Don’t get me wrong – having the contrast hems, neckline, belt ties, and jacket be something more substantial gave great support to the overall beach pyjamas.  When you have 3 plus yards of a heavier draping material for the rest of the main body, which you do need to have the general air of a proper beach pyjama, it would look like a sloppy, wet rag hanging on me if it wasn’t for stabilizing the contrast.  For clean insides, I faced those printed cotton parts but did not interface them.  They didn’t need to be made thicker, just finished nicely for me to be fully happy with my work.  I just adore how Art Deco the cotton contrasts are with the sharp angles of the design lines and the zig-zag print!  Here, I would like to take a minute to unashamedly brag at how sharp all my corners turned out.

The cover-up jacket was a super simple project, one that I adapted slightly, as well.  I shortened the long sleeves and curved the front corners of the hem.  There were only three pattern pieces to the jacket and no closures so – in theory – it should be easy to match up the crazy print.  If only I wasn’t so short on fabric, I could have had the pleasure of matching precisely, boo hoo! At least it was also easy to fully line.  The way the lining cotton is quite sheer has me doubting whether or not I can truly call this reversible, but all raw edges are clean by being completely hidden…so I think the word can still apply.  I did draft the shoulders to be a bit more generous for my thicker upper arms, and it’s a good thing I did.  The jacket seemed to run a bit small already so I didn’t have to grade out quite as much as I did for the beach pyjamas.  Otherwise it was breeze to come together.

 It’s nice to have something like this cute little extra matching piece to keep the chill away for when I step indoors amid cold air conditioned buildings or out in the cool of a riverside on a summer night in Missouri. Hopefully in the future I will have an actual beach trip to plan for…and then I can bring my vintage pyjama set and wear them on a location proper to both their history and their name.

This outfit is such a personal accomplishment for me on so many levels, some of which I’ve already mentioned.  A more analytical reason of mine is that a year so long empty on my 30’s decade page – 1930 – can finally be filled in on my blog.  I have been having some difficulty finding a design from that year which I felt was something I could make.  Sure, I have seen many old catalog images and fashion prints from that year which are to die for, yet the perfect pattern and inspiration combination hadn’t struck me for anything else but these beach pyjamas.  Now I have something really good to add to that section to start off my decade page with a bang!   

“No Chance! No Way! I Won’t Say It…”

…I won’t say – out load – I’m in love…with 1990s fashion, that is!  (Congrats to the person who can already recognize the song reference!)

Such news is a bit awkward to admit for me but it is a wholehearted truth now, especially after making this post’s project.  The dive of renewed interest in the classic Disney princesses last year via sewing my “Pandemic Princess” series of course necessitated acknowledging the fashion of the 90’s.  This ‘confession’ in my fashion taste comes only a few years after I reluctantly acknowledged I had fallen for the 80’s back when I made this Givenchy suit (posted here).  Then, my 1996 Emanuel Ungaro suit anchored my positive views of that era.  Previous to a year ago, I have not sewn anything from the 90’s since I was a teenager.  Ah, what am I turning into!?  This time, I can be completely justified in blaming my change of heart on the intensely independent, highly charismatic, acutely cynical, and generally unrecognized princess Megara of the 1997 animated film “Hercules”.  

Meg inspired me to make a flowing, Grecian-inspired maxi dress which highlights her trademark colors of purple and golden yellow, using both a soft polyester print and a sewing pattern from the era of the 90’s.  My dress – like Meg’s – has an empire waist, skinny shoulder straps, long and curving princess seaming, and an ankle skimming length.  Yet, true to the gunge fad of the era from which the movie was released, I am not content with it to be just a sundress.  I’m wearing this as a jumper layered over a slouchy, dated, thrifted turtleneck.  Practically speaking, this dress is too pretty to keep for just the warm weather anyways! 

However, the real inspiration which helped me channel my Meg dress was the character Phoebe (portrayed by actress Lisa Kudrow) from the television show “Friends”.  A sundress over a knit top is 100% Phoebe’s style!  Fashion aside, I believe Phoebe to be Meg’s 90’s twin in traits and personality.  (Seriously, though, I could see them liking the same assorted, haphazard fashion, too).  They both have a sarcastic, dry humor because they see the world free of rosy tinted glasses after having become very street-wise.  They both are admirably, boldly unafraid to speak what is on their quick-witted minds.  Nevertheless, behind the jaded outlook, both women are still soft-hearted, innocent, and sentimental.  Phoebe is my favorite character out of “Friends” and Megara is the Disney ‘anti-princess’ who has more recently earned my high esteem for being “a big tough girl” who can “take care of herself”.  This outfit of mine compliments the strong and soft sides which I share in common with both spunky screen ladies.

Funny enough, the statue behind me in the garden is Juno, the Roman equivalent of Hera, queen of the gods in Greek mythology.  In the myth and not the Disney version, Hercules was the son of Jupiter, the supreme god of Olympus, and Alcmene, a mortal married woman.  Juno, the wife of Jupiter, hated Hercules because he was the most famous and successful of Jupiter’s numerous illegitimate progeny.  I could only image what a first meeting with Hercules’s family might be like for Megara.  Nevertheless, I imagine Meg could hold her own very well with the militaristic Juno.  Even though my background setting isn’t as classical as I would have liked, I do enjoy the subtle nod to the Hercules by including Juno.  That not all, however!  At the same Botanical Garden, we also found a fountain of Persephone, the wife of Hades and the Queen of the Underworld.  After the foul way Hades used Meg when he had her under a soul bondage, the myths seem to show he had learned how to (somewhat) respect a woman by the time he married Persephone.

I want to give a shout out to the seamstress Eszter (on IG here @em_originals) for encouraging me through the power of a good review to use the dress pattern I did.  Don’t you just love it when someone else has – and makes something of – the same vintage sewing pattern as one you have on hand?  It always feels so remarkably serendipitous.  She thoroughly and kindly answered my questions about what fabric she used and how her version came together.  Go take a look at how lovely her dress looks on her (see it here)!  Good things happen when sewists unite! 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 90’s era polyester leftover from lining my 1996 Ungaro suit; fully lined in a beige polyester cut out of some microfiber bed sheets

PATTERN:  New Look #6306, year 1994

NOTIONS NEEDED:  I needed lots of thread and two zippers (I’ll explain why further down)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress took me about 20 hours’ worth of time and it was finished on November 4, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  The inner raw edges are left raw but there is a full body, floating lining which covers up the mess.

TOTAL COST:  practically free!!! Read on…

How I acquired the base materials for my Meg dress is a bit of an odd story.  Firstly, the printed fabric was practically free, being donated to a $1 a pound rummage sale.  The lining was a dirt cheap find of some gently used bed sheets.  Then, the pattern for this was actually picked out of the alley’s dumpster behind our house.  I couldn’t just leave a perfectly fine sewing supply behind when it was just an arm’s reach away…for free!  At first I was overly curious to find out who nearby sews like me (so I could meet them) and then I was struck by the fact that this single pattern was thrown away.  The fashion of the 90’s wasn’t always great but also wasn’t 100% trash.

It’s semi-explainable (especially when it comes to the 1920’s to 40’s) how certain eras of original sewing patterns have expanded in popularity and pricing in just the past 10 years yet it’s also odd how other eras remained static.  The 90’s and 2000 era patterns are clearly still underappreciated, largely disliked, and yes – often very recognizably stereotypical in styling.  Yet, now that my 1993 vehicle can officially register for “antique” license plates, it has made me think past the wry laugh and personal offense that news caused me.  I do see 90’s styles creeping into the RTW offerings and oddly being picked up by the younger generations who know nothing of the era like those of us who lived through it.  1990s logos, shows, and trends are as vintage to my 9 year old son as the 1960s were to me as a child.  My view of what constitutes “vintage” has been slowly changing along with my growing fascination for 1990s fashion.  I am understanding more than what meets the eye, and growing beyond my set prejudices towards how I regard the fashion of a decade within my lifetime.  I am not the only one, though.   

Colleen Hill is curator of costume and accessories at the prestigious Museum at FIT in New York.  Her upcoming, critically acclaimed special exhibition is entitled “Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties”.  I recently received my order of the companion book to the exhibit and have since poured over the rich content.  It portrays a restless decade where the last 10 years before the turn of the century were “modern to retro, from glitz to glamour, from puritan to pretty, from military to minimal, only to max out at the finale with an opulent flourish of beading and a rash of irony.”  (Quote from Harper’s Bazaar writer Marion Hume’s December 1999 editorial.)  What I found the most interesting was the chapter on “Retro Revivals”. 

“Fashion historians often distinguish between the terms: ‘retro’ is generally used to describe clothing that was worn within living memory, and ‘historical’ encompasses influences from the more distant past” the book says.  Sadly, it doesn’t distinguish where “vintage” falls.  The book goes on to quote art historian Elizabeth Guffey, “Retro considers the recent past with an unsentimental nostalgia.”  So does this make the 90’s vintage to me and not retro, as I am nostalgic about growing up in that era while my son views 30 years ago in a curious but unsentimental way?  The quote continues, “It is unconcerned with the sanctity of tradition; indeed, (Retro) often insinuates a form of subversion while sidestepping historical accuracy.”  Ah, yes I do take a more accurate sewing outlook on my 50’s era and older things I make, but what if I do the same for my 90’s projects?  This post’s dress is sewn with a fabric and pattern truly from the era.  “1990s fashions were at once looking back and planted firmly.  Were creators scared of the future or simply celebrating the past?  It appears to be both” said the 90’s design critic Herbert Muschamp

No wonder I appreciate the 90’s!  It is a decade peppered with the influences of the past 20th century’s fashions, all of which I already sew, wear, and love.  I already frequently find a way to put a vintage spin on the modern clothing I make.  Furthermore, it is relieving to now embrace the styles and the modes of dressing from the 90’s that I admired on others and wanted to sport, but was too awkward or not in the right place to do so.  I also enjoy appreciating the last great era for USA made clothing and a recognizable continuity for long-standing design houses, as well as the beginning of an individualistic approach to fashion.  Thus, to me, based on where I am in life and the way I approach 90’s fashion, I am calling it vintage.  This might not be your view and that is fine.  After reading the FIT museum book, I believe that placing this era is up to each person’s interpretation.  If you haven’t noticed the subtle changes to my site happening in the last few months, I would like to point out there is now a decade page for my 1990’s creations added to the header bar of my blog.  I’m so happy to see it there and might add some of my teen years’ makes (which I still wear) on that page in the future.

That being said, I could not get away from a soft demonstration of one of the decade’s earliest and most memorable trends – grunge.  I never had and have not yet found the courage for a full blown embrace of the trend because I never liked the music scene tied to it, but deep down I’ve always still liked elements of it.  Grunge is about practicality over image, economic sense with second-hand items, and comfort pieces.  I wore a loose fitting, rayon knit turtle neck I picked out at a thrift shop back in early 2000s, so it’s possibly from the 90’s.  My little ballet flats have been with me many years, too, and I love the low-key toughness of the multiple buckles.  I am not above loving what I have on hand for many years.  My earrings (from this local shop) were the only new purchase for this outfit – they have Herc’s dad Zeus’s logo lightning bolt coming out of the cloud of Mount Olympus.

Grunge was a very anti-establishment movement, and designer Mark Jacobs (for Perry Ellis), actress Winona Ryder, and “Sonic Youth” band bassist Kim Gordon all were prominent influencers in the trend.  Part of Grunge for women was the wearing of pretty floral dresses from decades before in such a way that you pair them over a tank and pants with chunky black boots, a denim jacket, and a chunky sweater.  The Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley dresses of the 80’s were part of this, as well as the floaty vintage frocks of the 30’s, or the printed tees of the 60’s era.   The height of the Grunge aesthetic was short lived, though.  My FIT museum book “Fashion in the Nineties” says that Vogue editor Anna Wintour expressed relief in a 1994 letter to the editor, by saying Grunge was drifting out of fashion.  The way I interpreted my Megara dress hits all the right notes of 1994 fashion.  Granted this is a date 3 years earlier than the “Hercules” film, but as I associated my inspiration with Phoebe from “Friends”, which began in 1994, that year seemed like a good date to go with.  The year 1994 has so very many designs which are so similar to the point of redundancy – empire-waisted maxi dresses with princess seams.

After all of my rambling on about the era and provenance of it, this dress was actually very simple to sew.  It was a bit time consuming because of all the long seams, the full lining (which was merely a second copy of the dress), and the tiny hemming required.  Even still, I can’t believe I made a completely bone-headed mistake in the midst of construction.  I forgot to combine the back bodice pieces with the back skirt before sewing in a near perfect hand-picked zipper. 

Not every day is my best day, and some days I am just lucky to have the family’s basic necessities taken care of…but I was still devastated by my oopsie.  I powered on in the most non-impactful way by merely adding in a 5 inch separating zipper to the back bodice segment of this dress, above the lower 22 inch zipper.  Yes, I do end up with two zippers up the back.  Yes, I feel terrible about this.  There were tears involved.

Nevertheless, I am proud I made the best of it, resisting the urge to throw it across the room and give up, because I love this dress.  I don’t think the dual zippers are even noticeable, after all.  The fit to the pattern was spot on and I think the hem flaring looks spectacular.  My dress makes me feel very tall, elegant, and curvy.  I garner so many compliments when I wear this!  I can’t wait to continue to wear it as a sundress this summer.  Copying Meg’s manner of styling gives me the best excuse to also brush on my favorite purple eye shadow colors and draw my best winged eyeliner, too. 

The 1997 animated film “Hercules” was very much a product of its time – it references the “Buns of Steel” exercise videos as well as Nike’s famous Air Jordan sneakers,  the muses are merely a jazzy version of the group En Vogue, and then – for goodness sakes – Michael Bolton sings the theme song!  There was no way an ancient interpretation was going to be as wearable as a 90’s manner of looking at Megara, the human princess of Mount Olympus.  The fresh new write-up for the film was not remotely mythological accurate, after all, but still a fun kind of different for Disney’s Renaissance period.  This dress (jumper, depending on the weather) similarly has to be one of my most enjoyable and out-of-the-ordinary kind of ‘practical royalty’ make for my “Pandemic Princess” series.  Here’s a toast to the sassiest Disney princess of them all!

The Legacy of Jessica McClintock

Fashion historians can talk about classic styles, definitive outfits, and remarkable designers until they’re blue in the face, but a humble Gunne Sax dress seems to outlast them all with its quaintness, audaciousness, and romanticism.  A Gunne Sax dress is a dressed down and nonchalant kind of finery.  It embodies a longing for a dream world, a sense of nostalgia attached to a sense of ‘what used to be’ that is their great appeal…incidentally also something to be found (in some degree) in every generation.  The persevering passion over this style of dressing, which has seen a renewed comeback over the last year, is made all the more poignant with the recent passing of Jessica McClintock (as of February 16, 2021).  

She was the brains behind crafting a popular American version of the English Laura Ashley style.  She had enough of a thumb on her times (70’s and 80’s) to use ingenuity to propel her both her Gunne and later independent McClintock brand to something anchored in the bedrock of fashion history.  This, my tribute to her long lasting legacy, was already crafted last year, yet only now I have a strong spur in my side to post this very special, pet project.  Much time, attention to detail, and emotional connection was poured into this venture.  Yet, often it’s the exceptional things I sew which are the ones I also am the most reluctant to share…and this project certainly falls in such a category.  By interpreting anew a kind of dressing that permeated my childhood and curated my lifelong taste in clothes, I have come full circle…and I just have to share this benchmark moment!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  All vintage printed 100% cottons from the early 1980s (I can tell by the selvedge stamps)

PATTERN: Vogue #9076, year 2015

NOTIONS:  Except for the thread and interfacing, all other notions are true vintage from the 1930s.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on December 9, 2020 after over 40 hours (lovingly) spent.

THE INSIDES:  From the waist and up is lined, and the skirt seams are cleanly covered in bias tape.

TOTAL COST:  I acquired the fabrics for this dress through a vintage shop that was going out of business last year on account of the pandemic.  A whole big box of fabrics was $25, and these were some of the many cuts in there.  This whole dress cost me mere pittance.

I just have to admit it to all of you – I am old enough to just remember the frilly, feminine, prairie dresses when they were the original fad (circa 1969 to 1989).  This was before they became cliché, only to eventually transform into the stylish trend of post-pandemic life.  Hello, “cottage core” and the “Target Dress Challenge” fads of today…what you’re pushing is really not a completely new thing, as many seem to half-acknowledge when they call it “retro”.  The source for this ‘look’ comes from a respectable designer label of less than 50 years ago.  It is not gonna be as attractive as can be when it is reworked through the cheap “fast fashion” means and thought of as costumes from “Little House on the Prairie”.  Hey, I understand we all need some fun and laughter nowadays, but no rehashing can come close to the beauty of a true Gunne Sax…unless I hope you’re talking about my version here. 

I sincerely hope I have given McClintock’s vision true justice here.  Sure, I’ll admit I did use a modern pattern to make my dress.  Nevertheless, it had all the trademarks classic to a Gunne Sax.  I hate to brag but I’ve worn my dress to a vintage shop which primarily sells such an aesthetic and they thought I was wearing a true Gunne.  Cue the internalized glee!  You have no idea how special this dress project is to me, and how successful I was at bringing a perception to life is the cherry on the top.

Her label’s offerings had an admirable excess of materials and perfection of detail not commonly associated with more modern ready-to-wear.  I needed almost 7 yards of material to make my version – 6 ½ yards of the 45” width floral print and ½ yard of the contrast blue!  Nevertheless, Gunne Sax original items were also created with easy-care materials at a modest price point for a universal appeal and accessibility.  As I mentioned in my “Facts” info above, my dress is all cotton, and being a vintage thrift find, too, it was luckily a bargain for all this yardage (which would otherwise generally be expensive).  The print has the classic “cabbage roses” which are quintessential for both Jessica McClintock as well as the decade of the 1980s.

She incorporated qualities of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with a bit of Renaissance touches, to her designs – high collars, lace, and loads of buttons.  This was very anti-establishment and a bold experiment for the times.  Just think about how stark of a difference a Gunne Sax is from the proper 50’s styles or the Mod 60’s fashions.  Yet, the early 70’s was also riding off of the liberated ideals of the Flower Child and Ossie Clark explosion of the late 60’s.  Anything goes as far as style today, when leaving the house is an occasion in itself.  I say a Gunne Sax has to be one of the best ways to be ultimately comfy but still pretty in an instant.  One of these kind of dresses is like being in a princess dream while awake.

It all started for Jessica McClintock about 1969 when she invested $5,000 from her savings and became partners with Eleanor Bailey, who was the head of design and production for the Gunne Sax Company.  According to Bailey’s son, the name was a somewhat ‘sexy’ adaptation of the gunny sack – rough, burlap bags used for potatoes and sack races (info from here).  Eleanor soon stepped down, leaving McClintock to head the (then) small local San Francisco dress boutique.  McClintock refined the prairie style of the offerings into something “incorporating romance and beauty, and an elegant sensuality, into every product she designed” (from her obituary).  Very soon after she began selling profitably internationally, even branching out into offering nightwear and perfume. 

The first store under her own label, Jessica McClintock, was opened in San Francisco in 1981, which then fully merged with and took over the Gunne Sax line in 1987.  Many women who were teens and twenty-somethings in the 80’s (or even 90’s) know her line of dresses as the coveted, ideal prom pick or a preferred choice for a casual outdoor wedding event – all more formal wear than her previous line.  In 1997, “Women’s Wear Daily” ranked her brand under the “Top 100 most recognized”, ranked as the 7th behind Cartier and Tiffany.  McClintock once joked that she probably used more lace in her offerings than any other label.  In 2013, after 43 years in fashion, Jessica quietly decided to retire at 83, yet she continued to be a part of the brand under the direction of her son Scott.

My mom made most of my nice clothes for me as a child (before my teen years), as I mentioned in my previous post where I said how the color blue frequently appeared in my wardrobe.  Well, this project has several different shades of blue!  I made a few of my casual clothes myself back then, and I overall liked that most of my wardrobe had a general theme of lots of lace, pretty colors, quaint cotton prints…all features common to a Gunne Sax.  I even had ruffled pantaloons to wear under my childhood dresses!  Just because I was too young for a trend that was popular for girl 10 or more years older than me (at that time) doesn’t mean my mother and I were not fashion conscious enough to incorporate it into my younger styles!  As a teen, my sewing skills were not up to the details incorporated into a Gunne Sax, thus making my own back then was out of the question…but then again I did not have an occasion to need something like that anyway.  Now, all these years later, such is no longer the case!

Sadly, I have not yet handled or seen in person a true Gunne Sax dress to have a baseline for my re-interpretation.  They are much too popular and pricey right now for me to be able to do that.  Buying one for myself back when they were out sadly did not happen either.  However, I have studied pictures of many originals offered through Etsy, Instagram, or Pinterest and I have heard that they are often cleanly lined inside.  Being a Vogue, the pattern I used calls for full bodice lining and exhaustive details already, making a lie out of the “easy” rating on the envelope back.  There isn’t any complex technique called for per se, it’s just a lot of tight corners, precise stitching, and intricate piecing required.  This was a pattern worthy of becoming a Gunne Sax!  I chose the view C dress with the puffier sleeves and wider cuffs of view A.  Then I also added a wide ruffle at the skirt hem to make the skirt longer and more like popular Gunne styles of the late 70’s and 80’s.

I feel that I “improved” the slightly poor instructions in certain places to achieve cleaner finish.  Firstly, you are instructed to sew in the bodice lining in such a way that most of the seams, including the waistline, is exposed.  With just a little extra step, and some forethought, I have my bodice lining cover the inner body raw edges.  A clean inside adds so very much to the wonderful experience of this fantastic dress as a whole.  It would be a shame – in my opinion – to go through all the bother of making its exhaustive detailing and leave out one or two little touches which will add nothing visibly impressive yet something so special to see for your own personal pride.  Besides, a cleanly finished inside is so much more comfortable to wear.  A bulky waist seam is always better for comfortable wearing enjoyment when it can be covered if you’re going to add lining anyways.

Secondly, I know how much of a pain making tiny bias loops are in the first place, and how hard it is to have them become small loop closures which both actually stay in place and look nice.  I could see such a closure being bulky along the front and you can’t clip the extra allowance down because (as some blog reviewers sadly experienced) the loops will have a tendency to slip out of the seam.  After noting the details on true Gunne Sax dresses, I opted for something similar and used vintage loop tape. 

I bought this vintage loop tape understanding it to be from the 1930s on account of the decorative cotton twill tape which is the base for the loops.  I do believe the dating to be true after finding the exact same notion on one of my 1930s negligees.  Yay!  This makes the front closing daintier, lends my make to be especially unique, and is considerably more stable of a closing than bias fabric loops.  Practically speaking, nevertheless, there really wasn’t much fabric leftover to turn into button closings.  I hand stitched the trim down just along the underside edge of the finished right front closure.  It was too pretty of a notion to bury in the seam during construction.

However, a Gunne Sax is never overly straightforward, but always has a tasteful amount of unnecessary flourish.  To match with the 30’s era loop tape, I chose a vintage cotton lace trim to add to most of the seams where the contrast panels join the main dress fabric.  This was sold to me as a 1910s to 1930s era vintage notion, and the unusual feel of the cotton, the slight fading of the color, the irregularity of the design, and the intricate detail to the trim all lead me to believe this dating.  Still, I’m not 100% positive this is correct. Either way, I was ecstatic over the way it was the perfect match in color.  I love the way it adds the right amount of detail without also being fussy or distracting.  It nicely blends in the transition between the two fabrics.  It mirrors the way almost every classic Gunne Sax has decorative trimming along the bodice seams.  After seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trim was added to my dress, I was blown away at how adding the perfect notion can help a project pop.  I had 3 ¾ yards of the lace on hand and I had only 3 inches leftover when I was done.  It was luckily just enough length to work!

A Gunne Sax has an aesthetic of yesteryear, so I added vintage, Depression-era carved pearl buttons from the stash of my Hubby’s Grandmother.  Yes, more 1930s notions!  I sewed them down right alongside the seam where the underlap goes on the left side.  (The underlap covers up any gape along the button closure.)  My sleeve cuffs do feature non-working buttons, however.  I used buttons which were somewhat imperfect (that’s all I had left after finding 9 matching ones for the front) and I didn’t want any more fuss to work with just to get dressed.  I can roll my hands together to make them smaller and just slide the sleeves on but yet they are still snug enough to fit fine during a wearing.  One little bit of a cut corner isn’t going to hurt, right?

After all this, don’t get me wrong, though – I always chose very modern, bold, bright colored things when it came to my fashion modeling for department stores, my choice of a bicycle, or kind of Barbie doll I preferred in my grade school years.  Yet, Jessica McClintock often spoke of her belief that “Romance is a beauty that touches the emotional part of our being.”  The frilly, dreamy garments from my childhood are the ones which remind me of memorable occasions which were part of what makes the ‘me’ of today. 

Based on the year printed along the selvedge of the main fabric, I am dating this dress to 1982, which is before I even existed.  Nevertheless, the pandemic has helped me embrace my past and appreciate my loved ones in new ways. 

Sewing my own Gunne Sax is one of the many avenues I can tangibly materialize such familial nostalgia…which is why I’m wearing my childhood locket necklace, too.  I received this as a gift from my parents when I was 13.  Inside, it still has the old pictures of my mom and my dad back from when we had an unforgettably fun family vacation the year after.  

For better or for worse, it’s funny how what we wear can be so inexorably tied to the affections and reminiscences of life!  I know I will have many new, wonderful memories in the future while wearing this old-style Gunne Sax recreation of mine!  As the phrase for the modern McClintock brand says – every day is a celebration of life.  There is yet another McClintock dress in the works as I write this…