A Blouse to Match with My Grandmother’s Jumper

Grandma Emma May, late 1940s

One of the many tough things about 2021 was losing the last grandparent I had left.  Now I am an orphaned granddaughter, as I see it.  My maternal Grandmother passed away last spring.  Despite the heartache, I have been blessed by having the family pass down to me a handful of items that were left from her belongings, particularly her vintage clothing.  The several items from her post WWII wedding period and before are too incredibly tiny for me to wear (22” waist) and will be preserved as family heirlooms.  They will also be the basis for me to recreate them from scratch in my size, but that’s for a future project.  However, I was also given my maternal Grandmother’s 1950s woolen tweed jumper which that does just fit me.  Of course I had the perfect matching fabric on hand that was just pleading to be sewn into a blouse to match!  I am proud to dress like my Grandma! 

Let me point out that while the only me-made part of this post will be my bow-neck blouse, my Grandmother’s woolen jumper is also handmade…by her!  She had worked for many years at a major North American department store nearby (no longer around) but shopping there, nevertheless, was reserved for Easter, Christmas, and a special occasion.  All else was sewn at home by her, and by my mom and her sisters as they got old enough.  Funny enough, I was also bestowed her sewing machine, the “newest” one she bought when my mom was older so she could have the zig-zag stitch – but that is a story in itself which I will not dive into here. 

I’ve always heard that my two Grandmothers were very proficient, capable seamstresses and I have seen proof of that with my dad’s mom, but now I have seen it firsthand for my mom’s mom.  This jumper is very well made with a Bamberg rayon lining, perfectly matching thread for the seams, a hand-stitched hem covered on the inside in rayon tape, and overall finished in every way the same as I would aspire to do.  It makes me want to cry.  I guess sewing truly runs in my blood but to find exactly how alike this affinity is with my Grandmother after all these years of not knowing…I’m at a loss for words for this but it is something very special to discover. 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  1 ½ yards of a dated 80’s polyester satin

PATTERN:  Simplicity #9559, from the year 1980

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but lots of thread, a handful of buttons, and some interfacing scraps

TIME TO COMPLETE:  I whipped this blouse up in about 10 hours, and finished on May 21, 2021

THE INSIDES:  Pristine in clean French seaming with hem tape along the bottom edge

TOTAL COST:  The material was a remnant from a rummage sale bin that I paid a few dollars for, so this is as good as free.  The buttons came from the notions stash of my husband’s Grandmother.

Grandma Emma May would have been in her early 30’s when she made this jumper, based on how the design lines are so very similar to this 1956 pattern which I have sewn from already.  My chosen blouse pattern matches with the era of the dated fabric I chose for it – 1980s – but the style is very classic and aligns perfectly with the popularity of sweet collars in the 1950s and 1960s.  Polka dots never go out of style, but this blouse – being in a gaudy 80’s satin – has a polka dotted shine woven in for double the texture, double the print!  Too bad someone has to get into my personal space bubble to actually notice such a detail on me in person.  Sometimes the best details are for my special enjoyment only, much like my favorite technique of French seam finishing to the edges inside.

The bow neckline may look simple here and the envelope cover plainly basic but the finished garment is subtly crafted to be an elevated tweak on the style.  The trick here is how the tie neckline is not a straight cut piece, but a tailored, curvy one which is cut on the bias and left free of interfacing.  This concoction makes it hang so nicely, effortlessly, smoothly against the body, and tie so softly.  I would love Simplicity #9559 for this reason alone, but it also happens to fit me precisely and was easy to make.  I will definitely be coming back to sew another iteration.  Of all the tie necklined garments I have sewn, I think this one may be my favorite.  It is right up there next to this 1946 black crepe tie neck blouse, which I just posted earlier this month.  The width of the ties, the open but still conservative neckline, as well as the practical seaming in to main body is what wins me over.  If you find this pattern online to buy, do pick it up for yourself.  It is super cheap everywhere I see it for sale, but that is only because it is a hidden gem.

My sleeves have a deep hem so that I have the option of wearing them like a longer short style or roll them up to a cuff, as the pattern intended.  I have not tacked the cuffs down because I like the versatility to decide to change up the look.  The blouse’s overall length turned out rather long, which is fine because it blouses out whenever I wear it tucked in a skirt so the generous length is helpful to keep this silky blouse tucked in.  The silkiness of the polyester is much more appreciated than normally – Grandma’s jumper is quite itchy and the smoother the layers underneath means the raw wool might not work its way to tickling my skin!

The case for the historical accuracy of 22” center back zippers is again put to rest her with my Grandmother’s jumper.  It has a long metal zip down the back for ease of dressing.  My Grandmother was a practical and sensible woman, and seeing this feature makes me laugh because it is totally her.  As they are not commonly seen, though, so I am supposing that 22” metal zippers must have been a bit more expensive than the ‘normal’ side zip.  Grandma was super sensible with money especially, but I could see her justifying the purchase because of the ease a center back zipper offered.  She was a busy working mom with a handful of girls to take care of – Grandpa was a busy man himself at that time with two jobs. 

Anyways, to get back on topic, I have talked about the issue of the long, full length vintage center back zipper in old (primarily 1940s and 50’s) dresses, jumpers, and house frocks in this post.  Agent Carter’s trademark red and navy blue dress from Season one of the television show was true vintage and it had a center back zipper, as does this blue late 40’s vintage dress in my wardrobe.  I cannot vouch for the Agent Carter dress, but my vintage blue late 40’s dress has all the features of being handmade, just the same as Grandma’s jumper.  If anyone has seen a center back zipper on a vintage garment as well, come join with me in this discussion and let’s de-bunk a popular myth of old clothes only having those difficult side zippers!

The rest of my Grandmother’s clothes are so fancy, they would not have been as wearable as this jumper even if they did fit me.  They include her velvet wedding dress from 1947, what we surmise to be her bridesmaid’s dress from her brother’s wedding the year after, and some sort of fancy late 1930s or early 1940s fancy semi-sheer silk dress from when she was an older teenager. See picture below. 

The best part about Grandma’s collared peach moiré bridesmaid’s dress is that she must have used the same pattern as was used for the bridesmaid’s dresses for her own wedding – it’s the same style.  For further proof that my Grandmother is ever the practical one, as I said above, there were two different sleeves which she made and kept with the dress, which is sleeveless.  There were long, full length gloves to mimic long sleeves and short sleeves ready to fit into the dress, both made of the same moiré fabric!  I am happy have recently found a late 1940 Advance brand sewing pattern which will be perfect to help me sew my own copy of this dress, as I mentioned above. 

The silk dress from her teen years is so amazing in quality and details, as is her wedding dress, that they deserve their own post, so I will only add here that they also seem to be handmade.  They were probably by Grandma Emma May herself, since her mom – my Slovak Great Grandma we called “Baba” who happily was alive until I was 10 – enjoyed more cooking, quilting, and artistic ventures than complex apparel sewing.  (I know this from the many visits and good meals she offered us at her house.)  To have one’s family stories be able to be recounted through the lens of just a few inheritance garments places of whole level of gravity upon something as basic as clothing. 

I’m sorry (but not really sorry) if these family tales make this post a bit uninteresting or at least confusing to be such a different approach than my ‘normal’ bog offerings.  However, it does me good to write about such things – it helps me remember, is therapeutic to share, and hopefully helps you connect with your own past as well as with me.  Do you also happen to have any family stories which are tied up with a garment which has been passed down to you?  What are your best tips for preserving a velvet wedding gown that has been turning an ivory-toned brown?  Is there anyone else you know who has had the opportunity to personally experience their older generations like a Great Grandparent, or even a Grandparent, or am I that much of a rarity?  Drop me a comment, and let’s talk about Grandmas and old clothes, please! 

“Dark Academia” of the 1940s

This is just a small sampling of my favorite old books in our home library.

Of all the trends from the last couple years that I have been fully on board with such as Cottage Core (merely a ‘prairie dress’ revival) or the over-the-top decadence of a Princess inspired dress, there has also been Dark Academia.  Granted I am a bit late to have anything to show for this one by now, but the weather is gloomy and I am recovery mode from the last two years – so I am in the mood to share my darker toned, more serious themed sewing projects that have been hiding in the undercurrents. 

I do understand the Dark Academia trend because the aesthetic has been 90% of what I have been since I was a child.  Research always has been my forte, learning is a joy, and studying is the pursuit of my lifetime. More often than not you will often find me thinking inquisitively, reading intensely, writing furiously, or speaking passionately about many varied subjects.  Besides, having a basement that was a literal library of antique books makes Dark Academia not even feel like a trend to me but something natural. 

As it is nevertheless still going strong although no longer ‘new’, I might as well get around to show how I’ve been visibly channeling Dark Academia through my fashion with some of my older makes, such as this 1940s “poet blouse” from the previous post, seen also in my outfit here.  As is the custom for Dark Academia, this set is heavily inspired by the classic menswear of Britain in the 1940s, particularly the plaid suits of the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII) and the plaid styles seen on elite university campuses – such as Oxford – in the 1930s. 

I was actually inspired to sew my outfit soon after finishing my mid 1940s Glen plaid suit set (blogged here) back in 2016.  This set is actually made out of the exact same kind of luxuriously soft rayon suiting material as was used for my Glen plaid suit just mentioned.  I knew I was bound to love whatever I sewed of the material anyway but an unabashedly masculine interpretation of the rich plaid really made it interesting!  I delight in the juxtaposition created by choosing a skirt over trousers or plus fours (another campus mode and Edward VIII influence here), but it was really just a shortage of yardage which helped that decision be made.  Sometimes it seems as if the fabric truly speaks in regards to how it should be fashioned.

Being a favorite look of mine for winter that has taken too long to finally appear on my blog, you will see more than one way to work it as we have had a few different locations for our photos.  A black toned pairing of my set in a local book shop gives it the Academia Goth vibes, while a white me-made blouse (which I posted here) underneath when outdoors lightens it up to purely menswear inspired.  You should see what my red Agent Carter blouse (posted here) or even a beige blouse does!  It is truly versatile, so soft, quite comfortable, and fetching to wear I am so glad to have this vest and skirt in my wardrobe. 

THE FACTS:

FABRICS:  a plaid lightweight rayon suiting, complimented on the vest with a solid Kona cotton

PATTERNS:  Burda Style “Franzi vest” pattern #9302 and an old original McCall #6338 pattern from the year 1945  

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and a good amount of interfacing combined with a card of buttons, carved abalone shell buckle, and a metal zipper – the last three items are true vintage from the 1930s or 40s

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The vest came together in about 8 hours on January 16, 2020.  The skirt was sewn much earlier on December 5, 2018, and was also sewn in 8 hours.  Both pieces took longer to make because I did so much hand finishing.

THE INSIDES:  So clean!  The vest is “bag” lined so there are no seams showing but the skirt has bias bound edges

TOTAL COST:  I vaguely remember purchasing this fabric many years ago at my local JoAnn store.  It was almost a remnant at a length which was barely over a yard, so I got it at a discount.  The cotton solid which was used on the vest was remnants on hand from making this vintage 50’s coat, so I’m counting it as free.  The notions were bought at a rummage sale for about $1.  My total was about $12 in total.

The book store’s kitty was such a dear to me!

The 1989 film Dead Poets Society as well as Donna Tartt‘s novel The Secret History, published in 1992, both telling a story that takes place within a group of classics students at an elite New England college, have been credited as being the inspiration for the Dark Academia literary genre.  It emerged as a subculture on Tumblr in the mid-2010s, then – during the past 2 years – exploded as a trend on the visual based TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. 

I never knew until recently that there was a term for old-style enjoyments I grew up with, so much so that if there was a checklist for Dark Academia I could fill in so many boxes.  Why, I have used an initialed wax seal kit for sealing special letters since I was a teen!  I excelled at my Latin studies and happily had read a good number of Classic literature in high school.  My proficiency at fancy lettering like calligraphy even eared me money for a time.  I have always had a weak spot for all plaids, but also always have been adding subtle Goth or punk undertones to my ‘modern’ style (I blame this on my teen music preferences for Evanescence and Avril Lavigne).  At the same time, I have also deeply enjoyed classical music since I was 10 and have worn glasses since about that age, as well.  See?  My list could go on.  Jump years forward to me as an adult, when I fully incorporated vintage style into my everyday wardrobe and begin wearing more historical styles, and I have Dark Academia down to a T…then realize there is a name for this kind of thing.  It feels weird to be called out so distinctly.

Depending on what influencer is channeling it, however, the trend can sometimes seem snobbish and exclusive, in my estimation, and some elements are problematic.  By romanticizing a time (Victorian) when the privileged society put an emphasis on liberal education, it can have classist undertones.  Also, it is important to realize that people can have an academic drive purely so they can better their professional or personal life.  To have one’s education be a mere pleasurable luxury is a Romanization longed for as an ideal for many (“beauty for the sake of beauty” as Nathanial Hawthorne believed) but made difficult to attain in a capitalist society.  Furthermore, the trend revolves around the handful of highest premier institutions – how many of us who actually strive to take advantage of higher education actually will be at Oxford or Harvard?  Not that to attend there isn’t indeed something to aim for or be proud of, but for most that is not an option.  I am just as happy at my local University.

Nevertheless, I live for the literary geek, driven studiousness, and fashion aesthetic parts to it but embrace a very modern, diverse interpretation of the term.  While the advantages of a real life book is never to be underestimated, I will be a ‘heretic’ of old-school learning and admit that a good amount of research can be done through a computer’s resources.  This has been especially necessary for me over the past few years in particular when ‘in real life’ was not possible.  A quest for knowledge and yearning to learn should be nourished in whatever form it takes so as to be accessible for all, regardless of one’s income or neighborhood.  As long as you know how to sort out misinformation or at least find what you are searching for, the internet is a library, too, just without a proper moderator.  Thus, I still have a preference.  To actually have the opportunity to experience what an old book can share is something tactile, memorable, and uniquely worthwhile…something I hope every one of you can find a way to enjoy if you so wish!

This outfit is something I wish others could experience for themselves, too, as it was pretty easy to make and incredibly fun to wear.  Sadly, though the patterns are not easy to find.  The vest pattern is a really oldie at least from 2007.  I believe I acquired it in 2012 when Burda advertised the pattern anew.  The fantastic part about it is not just how wonderfully curvy and fitted it is for the female figure but also the fact that the pattern had been a free PDF download.  That’s right – free!  Sadly that is no longer the case…the pattern is not to be seen on their site anymore, free or not.  My skirt pattern is a vintage original, and those are generally a gamble to try and find but an Internet search occasionally yields a couple copies for sale (I see a 32” waisted one on Etsy at the moment).  I heartily recommend both patterns, regardless.  They are came together without a hiccup with a true-to-size fit. 

Surprisingly, both patterns were so very economical, as well.  The skirt – true to 40’s era rationing – only needed just under one yard, which left the vest to be made with a third of a yard plus scraps.  It was perfectly doable, but still a bit of a squeeze.  I had to get inventive to fit in all the pattern pieces while also trying to match the plaid.  This was a very stressful step.  I laid down all the pieces for both patterns on my fabric and thought the layout over for a day, rearranging and adjusting each piece a little here and there during that time, before I felt confident enough to cut. 

Please notice that the skirt’s back kick pleat and the vest’s side panels had to be cut on the bias.  At first this was done out of necessity but I like it so much better than if I had followed proper directions.  So often the little make-do tweaks I throw into my projects become the best part.  Every little challenge that arises in my sewing projects forces my inventiveness, and I love that.  The bias kick pleat insert panel makes the feature more interesting than basic and helps it hang softer.  The bias to the vest breaks up the monotony of the plaid and gave me leeway to not match seams precisely (although I tried to anyway).  All is well that ends well, as the saying goes.

I did have to interface the every individual piece of the vest as well as every dart and seam to the skirt.  This suiting was a bit lighter in weight than its Glen plaid relative and would pull apart too easily.  Luckily the fit was not snug.  I used a medium weight cotton interfacing for both vest and skirt, and it kept the slippery, shifting fabric in its correct shape for the vest construction in particular.  After one wearing of the skirt I soon found out that just ironing down the interfacing over the darts was not enough, so I stitched them down, hiding the stitching within lines of the plaid. 

To continue stabilizing the fabric at all points of stress, I made a decorative choice for the center point of the skirt’s back kick pleat and chose to embroider an arrowhead as a bar tack anchor.  It is a subtle touch that keeps the fabric together in the loveliest way possible.  I chose to use a satin finish embroidery floss in a deep red for the arrowhead to bring out the color undertones of the plaid.

Nuances to the skirt include a deep 5 inch hem to help weigh down the lightweight material, a center front decorative vertical pleat, and a pointed waistline button placket.  I hand stitched the entire hem, zipper, and waistband because (at first) I couldn’t find a thread color which would blend in.  Then it was because I am a stickler for how going the extra mile elevates a handmade garment from merely made to finely crafted. 

This idealology extended to the vest…completely hand stitched except for the lapel flaps and inner seams.  Nuances to the vest are otherwise much more simplified than the skirt.  There is no real (meaning properly faced and pad stitched) collar lapel – it is merely an extension of the inner full body lining.  The waistline lapels are also for faux pockets, just for decoration purposes, sewn down with a button.  I seriously debated about making welts so I could have real pockets, but my dislike of sewing welts won over the decision.  At least the back waist strap is real and working, with an old buckle cinching in the fit of this curvy vest.  The fitted cut is so impressive on its own, and needs just a bit of help from the back buckled belt.  Such a tailored fit drawn for feminine curves helps this set be so sharp, stronger in impression than just a “wearing my man’s clothes” kind of look.  The practical straight cut of the skirt with its fine detailing is something strongly reminiscent of great vintage suit.  Altogether, it comes together for a tight outfit, no matter how I style it.     

It is said that the general shutdown of in-person learning at schools prompted the resurgence of Dark Academia.  It was supposed to be a push pack from the challenges presented by virtual learning and a nostalgia for how classical schooling used to be, even if that look back extends to the not-so-distant time before the use of the home internet.  Just think back to the effort and restrictions of finding information when books – or people with the knowledge in books – where only available during business hours, by phone, or in-person visits.  It is not that school from home is without great challenges – believe me, it was tougher than I ever imagined it would be for our son – but many complaints of virtual learning seem negligible in hindsight.  Channeling vintage fashion as one of the many ways to connect to that old style of learning is great for me because that completes what I grew up with.  It helps me feel more connected with Generation Z, for sure!  I find it incredibly interesting – and flattering – that the younger generation wants to connect to that.  I’ll join in anew with them on it!

The “Dark Poet” Blouse

Now that the holiday season is done, I am feeling just how severely 2021 has wiped me out in more ways than one.  It was not the sewing – what I blogged about and what I made was one of the best parts to 2021.  Nevertheless, it was hard to find my mojo again after a 3 month spell of no sewing over last year’s summer.  My Charles James recreation helped me feel back on track as well as some secret really good projects I will share soon enough.  Our drab, cold, and inclement weather is not helping out my energy levels, however, so I might as well roll with it.  ‘Easy’ sewing patterns are indeed a fun treat for me at certain times, but detailed patterns always deeply satisfy creative needs…and I need to focus on something rewarding that gives me a boost right now.  I’m up for blogging the comfort of my go-to decade (the 1940s) with its effortless elegance and class.  How about something which mimics the darkness of a winter night, with twinkles in the details bright and clear as January’s stars?  

This blouse has been enjoyed in my wardrobe for years since it was made back in 2015, but it never found its way onto my blog until now.  Sadly, I had worn this blouse to a few funerals for close family members who died in Januaries past, so for some time it has been something I wanted to forget.  Finally, I am in a place to be delighted to expound on this shadowy dream of a blouse.  I am now ready to let it have its time in the limelight to let you know about one of my (now many) sewing projects which have too long gone unshared.  

I see this as a blouse loaded with a low-key creative flourish I enjoy so much.  I play with the ties, change them up as I wear the blouse, and throw my arms around in a more dramatic manner.  It makes me think of the stereotypical idea of the artistic type (primarily poets, but also painters and sculptors), living in blouses and shirts with large drapey sleeves and a frilly bow, ruffle, or obnoxious collar at the neck.  I’m not saying the stereotype is at all correct…typecasting is often wrong.  Then again, however, the artists, writers, and sculptors of societies such as Lord Byron of Romanticism, Oscar Wilde in the Victorian Aesthetic Movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelites, or William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement did wear eccentric, romantic garments which reflected their idealism.  This is not too far off from the ruffled antique blouses which the Beatnik crowd of the 1960s preferred, a topic I blogged about here.  

I’ve always thought, “Don’t those sleeves only get in the way?!” or “Isn’t the decorative neck fussy?” but also, “Yes, I would love to live in fancy fabrics!”  Even though my version of the “Poet shirt” is black (they’re traditionally white) with fashionable touches, this 1946 blouse somehow reminds me of that “artistic” image.  It has helped me to know the answer to my queries.  Sure, the voluminous sleeves do lend an air of elegance and character, and the neck ties offer customization as well as a bit of something extra.  A garment this luxurious in lovely rayon crepe makes it supremely comfortable and a joy to wear – and a good state of mind and body is optimal for creativity, right?!  Something romantic, something overly impractical, gives one a sense of freedom, both to think outside that which is basic and expected.  After all, dressing purely for your own aesthetic tastes is the ultimate living expression of wearable art, in my opinion.  This January, my art will be a dark poet aesthetic…but I am starting to veer towards pink looking ahead to Valentine ’s Day!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  2 yards of 100% rayon crepe

NOTIONS:  Except for the black fabric covered shoulder pads which I bought, I had everything else on hand that I needed – thread, interfacing, the hem tape, snaps, and even the buttons (which were from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother).

PATTERN:  McCall #6716, year 1946, vintage original pattern in my stash

TIME TO COMPLETE:  I spent 10 to 12 hours on this in total, and it was finished on February 3, 2015

THE INSIDES:  Oh so lovely!  Every seam is French finished, with vintage 100% rayon hem tape on the bottom and facing edges.

TOTAL COST:  I no longer remember…

As I do every so often, I channeled the cover envelope’s inspiration exactly and made my blouse out of a flowing, solid black, luxurious rayon crepe.  I went even more de-luxe with my choice of doing clean French seams inside (mentioned in “The Facts”), shiny dual-toned both silver and gold buttons outside, and adapting to have a cufflink closure on the sleeves.  This blouse is totally “in-your-face” post-WWII extravagance!  I adore it!  At first I wasn’t sure that the top-heavy details that widen the shoulders and add volume to one’s top half could work on me, one who is on the margin of being petite.  But here again, the decade of the 1940’s really does work well for me.  Designers of those times knew how to engineer some pretty awesome clothes, with special features that do complement the figure beautifully. 

Luckily, the blouse is designed to be generally loose and flowing, so I didn’t have to fuss over the perfect fit.  The only part which is fitted is the neck and wrist cuffs.  The rest is somewhat tapered in at the waist and hips, and the shoulders are loose (meant to be filled in with thick padding) so I needed it in the ballpark of general overall fit.  This isn’t a style that is supposed to be fitted close the body anyways.  I had to grade up dramatically in the sizing, as my original was a 30” bust.  This was a bit tricky to up-size, and in the end I estimate I fell on the slightly generous side of the intended proportions. 

The comfy fit is reined in by the most fantastic, unusual shoulder line.  It prevents this blouse from being a tent on the body in the most stylish manner.  It’s like some sort of mitered set-in sleeve with a hint of the raglan style from behind.  This was quite tricky to finish with French seams.  The wide shoulder-chest panel to the blouse really hides the big shoulder pads I added inside – and I needed properly 40’s era wide, sharp shoulders to be the anchor the whole look of the piece! 

There is something to be said for the benefits of perfecting a loose fit.  Nowadays everything seems to be worn tightly, but then again modern society of the last few decades has become so used to every garment having stretch.  Just because something can be squeezed into doesn’t mean it truly fits in the professional understanding of the term.  On the opposite spectrum, if a ready-to-wear garment isn’t skin tight it is too often baggy, especially when it comes to fashions for women who need a bigger size number on the label.  Loose clothes don’t have to mean the body is something to hide or that someone still wants to be in night clothes…but there are viable times and reasons for that, too, don’t get me wrong.  Frequently such tent-like styles seem to indicate the manufacturer was out of design ideas.  There is a good in-between state that I think this blouse hits.  I say bring back the 4 or 5 inch wearing ease for certain designs.  I am over the modern 2 inch (or less) wearing ease which causes “drag lines”, something many have been accustomed to being standard when they are only an indication of ill fit.  Make comfy dressing fashionable.  Let us sewists help bring back in popularity better fitting garments with our bespoke creations.  If anything, at least just give your local tailor some business – let them show you how comfy a proper fitting garment can be.  We survived the last two years…we all deserve it.

It’s funny to realize today that this blouse was made before I created my 1951 giant-sleeved Schiaparelli inspired blouse, so since then I have learned a lot about how to sew, wear, and do activities in clothes which have a voluminous amount of fabric.  Compared to that designer inspired blouse I just mentioned (which did take over 3 yards), this one seems so much tamer.  A lot of people seem to be very turned off by the idea of generous sleeves, but in reality a neckline with an attached scarf, tie, bow, or fluff of some sort is much more bothersome in my experience.  Once I made this 1933 kerchief tie neck blouse back in 2016 I learned about fussy necked tops pretty quickly.  Here I prefer the more casual air of an untied bow neck, but doing it so causes my ties to dip into a wet sink or a plate of food before I can stop them.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t change a thing about my make, and love to reach for it from my closet no less for its bother. 

The purse you see me with is a special accessory in my wardrobe – an authentic 40’s Corde bag.  It is one in an often hard-to-find excellent condition, so I have hand sewed a little hand strap into the inner corner to keep my hands off of the Corde detailing.  Luckily, it is both wide-bottomed and deep enough to hold much more modern necessities than conventional vintage purses.  Look at that lovely Lucite charm at the zipper and the shell pattern of the cording!

The grey skirt that I’m wearing with my blouse in these pictures is actually a RTW item bought from a name brand department store about 15 years back.  I see it as having a classic shape that pairs quite appropriately for my 1940s look, as well as items from many other decades.  It is in a rayon blend suiting, and has a slimming cut down to mid-thigh (contrasting well with the loose blouse above) with a bias flare below due to the many panels that make up the design.  The high waist and the skinny fit is why I think this skirt pairs best with my loose blouse, but other skirts in my wardrobe match, as well.  I love it when I can work existing pieces from my wardrobe to end up with a ‘new’ and very fluid vintage-style outfit which comes across as also being contemporary. 

A decade ago now, I locally found the pattern I used for this blouse for a deal, and had to l laugh to see it dated to one of my favorite years from that era (1946)…I’m so predictable.  Making anything from the decade of the 1940’s is irresistible to me, but this particular one had my name written all over it with the shirring, interesting seaming, and drama galore.  Usually black is not a comfort color for me but despite it being my funeral attendance blouse for a few times, this is as smooth and mellow of a treat to me as a shot of good bourbon.  Now if I start waxing poetic while wearing it you’ll know I’m really letting the aesthetic of this blouse get to me.  That’s okay…it is 2022 now.   We all probably could write a story or some prose on what we have been through in the last few years.  I’ll keep blogging and writing here about the things I make that get me through both the tough and the good times.  So, thanks for following, I appreciate your reading what I have to share, and cheers to a new year ahead!

Winter “Petal” Gown

One of the main things I miss the most during winter is the lack of blooming beauties of nature.  How’s a warm-weather-loving girl supposed to survive months without green grass, pretty flowers, and the comforting sound of rustling leaves?  Even still, I will admit their dormant and withered state has its own loveliness.  Winter’s withered vegetation holds onto its amazing potential for future blossoming under the cloak of an unassuming, bland, natural-toned exterior.  Scientific explanations aside, it is rather like an annual miracle, a kind of superpower, if you think about it in a child’s point of view.  Let me celebrate the awesomeness of nature in winter through some high fashion for this year’s “Designin’ December” challenge, sponsored by Linda at “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!” blog.  I am channeling the great American couturier Charles James, and hopefully looking like a drooping but elegant winter petal doing so, with my muses being two famous gowns from circa 1950. 

The way I understand it, there are definite phases in Charles James’ life.  In the 1930s, he had moved from millinery to making garments, designing pieces ahead of his time inventing wrap dresses and “sculptural fashion” such as a futuristic puffer jackets.  He also took control of the Charles James brand by licensing his company under his name in 1935.  In the 1940s, James made important marketing connections, working with Elizabeth Arden, Lord & Taylor, and Bergdorf Goodman as well as being photographed by the famous Cecil Beaton for Vogue.  “Mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery is his forte,” Vogue noted of James in 1944, as he continued offering luxurious dresses despite war-time rationing, at times even using inventive fabrics.  Then, there is the man of his first (of two) COTY award of 1950 in which his work was defined by over-the-top, 10-something pound full-skirted evening gowns – equipped with caging and immense boning since they were almost always bare shouldered – that only high society’s wealthiest women could afford.  This last and most defining period of his design is what I am channeling with my sewing, although I think the first 30’s portion had the greater talent because I respect the avant-garde.  Charles James retired in 1958 and died in 1978.

Unfortunately, I cannot personally connect to either time period of James’ life, as he is not remotely on my list of favorite designers.  It has been said he would lock his seamstresses in his shop if he felt they were not “working hard enough”, and being the fiery personality and obsessive perfectionist that he was, made very few friends he could keep.  Between his irresponsibility in financial matters and his inability to ever deliver an order on time to a client, I feel too distracted by the drama of his life’s story to fully appreciate his work, and I do not welcome the erotic undertones he subtly included in his dresses.  By all means, nevertheless, please do your own research on the life, the works, and ingenuity of Charles James so you can make your own opinion.

His design house did not outlive him so he is not known as well as his genius warrants.  Charles James was an influence not worthy of being so largely unacknowledged.  He inspired the likes of Christian Dior, Salvador Dalí, and Balenciaga while Chanel and Schiaparelli (one of my top favorite designers) were included in his exclusive list of clients.  Thus, I admire his work and ingenuity enough that some of his creations warrant my saving pictures of them for remembering later.  Other things he is famous for actually repel me – I must respect my natural reaction.  Thus, it is a big deal for me to even be attempting this designer imitation in the first place.  Do not anticipate any other direct Charles James inspiration to be seen here again on my blog, unless I happen to remake James’ famous “Taxi” dress of 1932.  So enjoy this probable one-off Charles James appreciation post here, and come delight with me in the monotone loveliness of nature in winter.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% cotton thick novelty ribbed velveteen, lined in a poly crepe, for the top and a polyester nubby ivory shantung for the bottom half of my outfit

PATTERNS:  Simplicity #1409, a year 1955 original, from my personal pattern stash, for the ‘petal’ top and a Butterick “Retro” #4919, year 2006 reprint of a 1952 pattern (originally Butterick #6338) for the skirt portion

NOTIONS:  lots of thread, bias tape, and two zippers                                                           

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The shantung dress worn as a skirt was finished on April 9, 2021 in 15 hours while my bodice was finished on December 16, 2021 after 16 hours (8 hours hand stitching, 5 hours by machine, and 3 hours of re-drafting the pattern).

THE INSIDES:  My top is fully lined while the shantung part has its raw edges zig-zagged over to reduce fraying

TOTAL COST:  The novelty velvet for the top was a remnant found on clearance at JoAnn fabric store at $4 for 7/8 of a yard.  Lining for the velvet was a no-cost choice – it was a bed sheet originally and leftover from sewing this 90’s era sundress.  The shantung was bought 10 years back from a local store, which is out-of-business now, so I no longer remember the cost.  I did buy 4 yards of the shantung and I always bought fabric from that store on some sort of discount…maybe I spent $7 a yard.

The iconic “petal dress” of 1951, in cream and olive toned satin, was my main inspiration ever since I happened to acquire my Simplicity #1409 pattern.  The pointed hip detail was an unmistakable reference.  James described the the dress as a “curving stem of velvet…above 25 yards of blowing, billowing (silk) taffeta.”  According to the Chicago History Museum, which has a black and white version in its collection, “If James were not so clever, the Petal’s twenty-five yards of material would have created an undesirable bulk at the waist. He solved this by stitching most of the material to petal-shaped hip panels and only one layer to the waist seam.” It makes the torso appear as an upside down stalk, with the hip points being what is technically called the “sepal” to flowering plants, with the skirt becoming the petals.

Later, I happened to stumble across an image of another Charles James dress from the year 1950 on which the red velvet bodice had the same “W” notched neckline as my Simplicity #1409.  This red and white Charles James dress was famously worn by Mrs. Barbara Paley, the wife of the founder of CBS, as well as Mrs. Dominique de Menil, a rich art patron in Texas, besides being featured in the 2014 “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.  Now I had a stronger reason to blend both features together, just as the pattern has it, which was actually just the way I liked it!  I noticed that both had velvet bodices and know that both have much more complex technical detailing than I realize from only looking at pictures.  I was not doing anything that couture in the one week I had to recreate this.  There was also a black and white variations James made of this inspiration dress, as well (see it here).  However, I gravitate towards James’ versions with more color.  My intent with my simpler, blended version here was merely to do my best work and capture the spirit of both dresses in one.

My dual inspiration garments were both dresses, but here I have turned my interpretation into a two-piece set.   You’d never guess, would you?!?  Charles James was inventive and came up with unusual combinations, so I thought my choice might be (remotely) along his way of thinking.  A big difference between us might be the way I was driven by a desire for versatility and practical finery, and not a desire for pure extravagance with my ‘copy’.  Only this month (yes, very last minute), when I decided on this particular designer project, it struck me that a vintage 1952 dress I sewed in ivory shantung earlier this year was the perfect color and silhouette for pairing with a Charles James “petal” dress look-alike.  Wearing it skirt-style, with the wrapped bodice portion hanging inside, saved me the time and money, and is just what I wanted anyway!  The full dress will receive its own post very soon because it is just so good, so versatile when worn as intended, and a sneaky movie costume look-alike, too.  It is a 4 seamed full circle skirt with a wrap bodice which is the most useful evening gown you could ever want.  I am ecstatic over it…but for now, the ‘skirt’ will not be addressed anymore in this post.  So stay tuned!

I have actually been sitting on this Charles James inspired project for the last few years.  There is a perfect time for every one of my sewing projects – I let inspiration happen when it naturally comes or when my free time allows.  Up until now, the tweaking that my chosen pattern needed as well as the lack of easily finding the “perfect” fabric has together discouraged me from tackling this idea.  The pattern I had for the ‘petal’ blouse was a Junior misses (teenager) pattern in petite proportions as well as a tiny bust-waist-hips ratio.  It needed dramatic resizing before being useable for me.  I had to trace the two bodice pieces out to tissue paper and cut, splice, and tape it all back together into something for my measurements.  I wanted the set-in shoulders to hug the outer point of my real shoulders so I cut and spread open the sides of the neckline to adapt.  The original red 1950 gown hugs the end of the shoulders but has a flap-like collar, too, while the classic “petal” gown is mere skinny straps – neither were to my taste.  I always stick to my personal preference first over any desire to copy verbatim any original – no matter how good that may be.  

I made so many tweaks and customizations to my tissue paper pattern ‘copy’ I feel as if it is my design now more than something directly owed to the original vintage pattern.  I recognize that my chosen pattern is from a date which is several years later from the Charles James original inspiration dresses, but he was fashion forward and home sewing companies no doubt had their hands full keeping up with all the great designs that were exploding right and left during the 1950s.  I have read from reputable sources that Charles James ‘revived’ the Petal design in 1958 as a ready-to-wear dress for the junior market, but I have yet to find solid proof of this.  So I guess my Simplicity pattern from 1955 was both ahead and behind for its time, coming after the original 1949 Petal dress but before James’ release for teenagers.

As I mentioned above, my favorite (and the one I see the most) of the “petal” dress has a sort of brownish, earthy, green velvet bodice.  I had a novelty velvet on hand, only recently bought, that was an olive-toned tan with an ombré sheen – very deluxe looking and close enough in reference.  It is obvious Charles James apparently liked working with velvet, and his 50’s era creations were highly structured.  I figured this thick ribbed material – which was almost like a heavy corduroy – would be very suitable.  I did not bone the seams or add any internal structure to the bodice because of the sturdy weight of my velvet.  I figure I can come back and add boning channels with some hand stitching if I choose to at a later date.  Inside is merely a lightweight lining to give it a fine finish and smooth feel against my skin.  The lining also helps stop the way the raw edges were disintegrating into little fuzzy lint balls everywhere I was working.  It was a messy project that definitely added to our normal household amount of dust.  It turned out looking so cleanly tailored when finally finished, though!

I expected this velvet bodice was going to be easy-to-make – so I thought.  There were only two pattern pieces, few seams, and the pattern (since it was re-drafted by me) was exactly my size now but it became a beast that I could hardly bear to finish.  The points of the hem and the neckline, the sharp curves around the arm openings, and a mirrored pairing of the lining with its velvet bodice all severely tested my normal desire for perfectionism.  I did so very much hand stitching on everything but the internal darts and right (zipper free) side seam for the sake of my said desire for perfection…I guess I am not too completely unrelated to Charles James as I may think. 

My fingers have never before been so sore and torn up from the hand stitching through the layers of tough velvet…I was to the point of tears only halfway though.  At the same time, I am never very comfortable using a metal thimble and would rather adapt my stitching strategy by using a different finger.  I tore up the skin of almost four fingertips by the time I was finished.  Yet, I have a boundless determination to not leave my sewing projects hanging.  I try not to have unfinished endeavors.  I also had a deadline for it to be part of the “Designin’ December” challenge!  As you can see, I powered through, with stitches that are not as perfect as I might have liked but still finely done, for a top which turned out just as wonderful as I had happily imagined.

Additional versions (circa 1953) of the Charles James dress originally worn by Babe Paley – see the Victorian influence?!

Early on, the hip hem points vaguely reminded me of Tinker Bell, the fairy in Disney’s 1953 animated Peter Pan movie.  Fairies are forest creatures and protectors of the woods, after all and often modeled after flowers in the visual arts.  Even more so, though, my two inspiration dresses are very much reminiscent of the elegant open necklines, close fitting bodices, liberal use of luxurious material, and artful skirt drapery of women’s older historical clothing.  The Victorian bustle era, 1850s caged skirts, the 18th century court gowns with hip panniers, and the corseted shaping of the Edwardian period all were sources of inspiration for the 1940s and 50’s gowns created by Charles James.   He just did a more modern, individualistic interpretation of those old styles, but the principles of boning, caging, draping, and overall artful reshaping the female figure are still there.  Every famous quote from every other designer about wearing a dress – such as “What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it” by Yves Saint Laurent or “It’s not about the dress you wear but it’s about the life you lead in the dress” by Diana Vreeland – is blown away by the overwhelming power of a Charles James frock.

My personal recreation is nowhere as extreme as what the courtier who was my inspiration would have chosen, although I am wearing a heavily boned original 1950s body fitting brassiere underneath.  Comparing my version to the original dress, I am now also half-wishing I had worn a couple of my floofy 50’s petticoats underneath instead of just one.  My outfit seemed very grand with a grandly swishy skirt when I was wearing it for these photos – I was knocking things over!  As I’ve mentioned before, this is meant to be my practical, made-in-one-week, using-what-was-on-hand version of something extremely high fashion.  Since this turned out something less dramatic than the original yet still immediately recognizable, I am very still proud I was able to pull off what I did.  I am very proud I worked through the pain and trouble to perfect those points, corners, and invisible hand stitching, too.

This was a tough sewing project for me to end the year on, but one that – just like my other “Designing December” entries from past years – is something which ends my year of sewing on a grand note.  It’s like going out in fireworks to have my last project of the year be about attaining for myself those seemingly unattainable designer pieces I languish over as a photo on my computer.  Now all I need is an excuse of some event to wear this glamorous outfit somewhere…soon!  Petals are the showiest part of a flower after all, and this “Petal” set is just begging to be seen at a dinner party or dance somewhere.  I will be a walking bouquet!  Until then, this dress will be only live vicariously through this blog post.  So I’ll send off 2021 with my special “Petal” outfit, to offer some natural beauty for entering into the cold and quiet darkness I despise about January.  I wish you a New Year a peace, health, beauty, and happiness.