I Got Big Sleeves, and Don’t Care!

Last years’ “Designin’ December” challenge hosted by Linda at “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!” gave me the gumption to step up and make my own personal version of a 1937 Schiaparelli outfit I had long admired.  Well, this for this year’s 2018 Challenge I’ve chosen another Schiaparelli design to sew up in my own interpretation!

I was determined to be inspired by a Schiaparelli creation that has always amazed and mystified me – a Spring year 1951 voluminous sleeve blouse made of organdy, worn with a slim satin skirt, modeled in the original photo by Della Oake (click on “Show More” to read about her).  How was this garment to wear and move about in?  What is the symbolic inspiration Schiaparelli was thinking when designing it?  As a seamstress’ point of view, how were those sleeves made?  What did their pattern look like?  All these questions in my head could only be answered if I made my own version, I felt.  This is what I love about the “Designin’ December” challenge…I use it to push my boundaries and learn new things.  This project definitely has done that for me again.

I tried my best and, although my sleeves are not anywhere as dramatic as the original which inspired me, I am happy to say I think I succeeded in making a comparably impressive and recognizably similar blouse.  This doesn’t just meet look-alike appearances…it also has a generous movement for any pose or movement.  Yay!  I can officially say I am ending my 2018 year of sewing with a big bang!

My outfit is completed worn with a true vintage silk faille black pencil skirt and my Grandmother’s vintage earrings.  The vintage skirt is the bottom half of an old local “Martha Manning” brand suit set that I have dated with near certainty to 1952.  So my skirt is also very age appropriate to the date of my inspiration blouse!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a “burnout” velvet, also called “devoré” fabric

PATTERN:  self-drafted sleeves, but the cuffs and main body are from a vintage year 1951 McCall’s #1651

NOTIONS:  all I needed was thread and a fabric covered button kit (¾ inch)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was finished on December 20, 2018 after 30 something hours spent to make it.

THE INSIDES:  All fancy and clean in French seams.  As this is a sheer blouse and the material is very delicate and fine, French seams were the only way to go!

TOTAL COST:  On sale, with an end of the bolt discount since I took everything that was left, I bought almost 3 yards for the price of one regular price yard – $30.

People say that high fashion/designer style doesn’t make much practical sense.  This particular Schiaparelli blouse, when shared on social media, seems to frequently receive comments that compare it to having wings for flying, or picture the mess those sleeves would cause during serving or preparing a meal.  In reality, yes – that would be a problem and no, we can’t fly with some full sleeves.  As I have quoted before, though, Stefano Gabbana (of Dolce & Gabbana) has said, “Fashion makes people dream -this is the service it gives.”  Regular everyday clothes are boring and practical enough, in my opinion.  We need gloriously inventive and fantastically impractical clothes to realize something different and amazing is out there, and perhaps find a wonderful middle ground between the two by doing what I and all the participants of “Designin’ December” are doing.

Personally, I think a good percent of what is paraded down runways today is completely unwearable for many except the rich and famous, but that doesn’t keep me from still finding it all interesting and fun to follow because good and bad ideas alike are still creativity and inspirational.  Vintage designer fashion (also, my opinion) had a closer connection to and influence on everyday fashion, and the 1950s especially had a flair for the fantastic silhouettes and elegant fashions, so I love the way making and wearing this pared-down Schiaparelli-inspired blouse is so very wearable.  How often is a blouse exciting nowadays, much less sleeves?  But, hey…why shouldn’t it be so?!  Our desire for what is new and different can bring out the romantic dreamer in any of us, and fashion is a readily seen and popular medium for such inventiveness because we can literally and visibly wear our taste and personality!

The phrase “something up your sleeve” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to this blouse.  I have room for it!  I actually started from scratch and drafted these sleeves myself from a basic block.  As far as I know there is nothing close to what I wanted and I didn’t feel like looking.  Anyway, I wanted to totally own this pattern and comprehend a new level of pattern drafting – another reason to start from a basic beginning.

These sleeves not just have extra volume.  Notice they still have a normal armscye (shoulder/armhole sleeve) with a hint of the vintage puff tops and the sleeve length down my arm is a basic ‘normal’ span for the top half.  I knew the design was more complex than what might be first thought.  The extra fabric is concentrated to under my arm on each side of the sleeve seam and all the drape and interest culminates at the front bottom.  This might not be how Schiaparelli’s version was constructed because there isn’t a whole lot to see in the one picture that is out there of that blouse, but I’m ‘reading’ it from the knowledge I currently have of both fabric draping and pattern making.  To ‘read’ backwards through a finished garment to reach the flat patterning stage is perhaps one of the hardest parts of trying to re-make something you see.

The funny this is that in the process of trying to figure out how to make these Schiaparelli sleeves I was helped by a finding a designer copy.  The great courtier herself, the mysterious (also French) Madame Grès had included very similar sleeves on a 1969 taffeta gown that was popular enough to be made in several solid colors over the course of almost 10 years.  As there were plenty more pictures of this designer copycat in many more poses, I could understand the workings of such a sleeve.  Yes – granted the Madame Grès dresses are in a much stiffer material (hence the full-bodied shaping compared to my Schiaparelli look-alike), but the fact that I had two designers to be inspired by for this one style makes me laugh a little at the trials of staying original and bittersweet taste of the ‘flattery’ of imitation.  Navigating the big fashion scene must be tough.

Engineering these sleeves was only possible by realizing the basic principle that you slash and spread directly where you want to add in extra interest.  I used my old pattern drafting manuals to change the sleeve block into a basic full bishop sleeve then adapted it to be as you see it from there.  My finished sleeve pattern was 60 inches wide by about 1 ¼ yards long, so both sleeves took a total of 2 ½ yards of material.  This is significant in the light that the main body of the blouse only needed ½ yard.

I religiously stuck to the vintage pattern for the main body as well as the sleeve cuffs.  The Schiaparelli blouse is a 1951 design and as this McCall pattern has fantastic details worthy of a designer besides being from the exact same year.  Besides – it is shown is a sheer fabric just like I was going to use to copy what Schiaparelli did!  Out of all the sheer chiffons and printed organzas I was contemplating, went with my personal preference and chose a French fabric (“devoré”) to copy a French design.

It has my favorite color purple, an enticing sheerness enough to fulfill both vintage trends and the modern one, and an interesting fabric pattern that I think is so much more appealing than the Schiaparelli polka dots!  It is so much better to ‘own’ a ‘look-alike’ by staying true to your own personal taste when it varies from the inspiration.  Especially when it comes to designer garments, not copying them line for line, fabric exactness and all, is actually more respectful to the individual talent of both you and the couturier in my opinion.

The scalloped, curved cuffs and collar were so challenging!  They don’t even show up very well compared to the rest of the blouse but that’s okay…the little details are always stand-out fantastic in designer garments, too.  As I was working with a mostly transparent material, I went with sheer and clear, slightly stiff organza in lieu of interfacing for inside the cuffs and collar.  This always works well for my sheer creations, but with the detail to the cuffs and collar, I had to snip seam allowances within ¼ inch or less and take my time with the edge top-stitching.

I wanted standout buttons to close up this blouse because figured the more detail the better, right?  I originally had big ideas of hand beaded buttons but I reckoned that would be too hard to push through a button hole.  No – there was enough going on and enough time spent already, I self-argued, so covered buttons made out of the velvet portion of the fabric are plenty ‘specialty’ for me.  I chose a larger size button kit because the Schiaparelli blouse’s buttons were oversized, too.

Buttonholes in such a sheer, delicate material as the velvet could have been a problem that I avoided with a little mesh seam tape under the stitching.  I totally avoided letting wide buttonholes messing with the fancy scallops in the cuffs by having them close by lapping over with tiny hook-n-eyes.  This is how I noticed the Madame Grès sleeves closed!

It’s amazing what a sleeve can do.  So often arms are regarded as too functional.  These giant sleeves do not really get in the way of life as much as you’d think, and my blouse happily seemed to attract many admirers like flies to raw meat.  To see mere functionality of the body as a barrier to limitless creative expression is sad to me – our arms are a means of expression, love, passion, and all the best activities of life.  Why not provide them with all the feelings that suit them?!  To make one’s arms beautiful and elegant at every angle through the use of clothes is a wonderful achievement.  I haven’t yet had an inner sense for the inspired perception that Schiaparelli might have had for dreaming up these sleeves besides the recurring life theme of a butterfly.  Just as the wings of a butterfly give it a new life and a certain sense of liberty in its fragile beauty, so a romantic and impractical sleeve blouse such as this is freeing in its unusualness of silent communication.

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