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…

Red Roses for a Vintage Style Lady

Admittedly, for someone that briefly worked as a florist, I’m not much of a real roses fan.  Don’t misunderstand, I regard them as simply beautiful, and when in quantity add up to a good day’s total at the cash register.  As a customer, though, they just wilt too quickly for their cost.  Even the outdoor bush and plant variety always seem to soon enough become sick or mutated and die in our yard, sadly.  Now I have the kind of roses whose beauty will last and make for a great deal!  Heck with the old song, “Red Roses for a Blue Lady”.  These are roses for a lady who likes vintage styles!

Here is yet another garment where I’ve repeated what I know I love in a project – channeling a feminine ‘Betty’ outfit from the television show Mad Men again (second season this time; other Betty dresses here and here) and also using a true vintage fabric (my most recent one here).  As good fashion never really goes out of style, I do think this dress has the same qualities as the costumes of Mad Men, period-appropriate but also timeless and fashionable even to modern viewers.  I paid attention to details like I had all the time in the world, and did tons of hand stitching, even adding seed beads, for a dress which is my own perfect Valentine’s Day treat!

My fabric choice is a pristine condition, polished, printed cotton from the 1950s (surmised from many recurrent similar extant garments of that era).  I found it as a lonely piece at a steal of a price thrown in the corner of an antique mall shop.  How could I just leave it with its saturated red goodness at that cost?!  So – a good fabric deserved a really great pattern…one that has intimidated me every bit as much as I adore it.  I came upon a find, I saw a perfect project in mind, and I have conquered it!  However, the finished wiggle shaping ends up making my body look like a very shoulder-and-hip-heavy hourglass ‘Joan’ silhouette that I really am not used to but am completely taken by nonetheless!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a true vintage cotton lined and contrasted in a solid black cotton broadcloth

PATTERN:  Simplicity #2727, a ”Slenderette” pattern, year 1958 (I plan on coming back to this and making the jacket, yet!)

NOTIONS:  The basics I needed were on hand – thread, interfacing scraps, a hook and eye – but the zipper (22”) and the beads I bought recently just for this as I realized exactly how I was going to detail it!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  It took me about 10 hours to finish, but I actually spent a handful of hours just on figuring out the pattern piece layout before cutting out…there was no room for error…or the pattern pieces, really…

THE INSIDES:  A fully lined dress means all inner seams are not to be seen…

TOTAL COST:  This vintage fabric was only 8 freaking dollars, people!!!  The cotton lining I received for free, and the beads were only $2.  So this is an under $10 dress!  Such a deal.

Why, oh why is it that the best fabrics I find seem to frequently come in small cuts?  It’s like some sewing Karma wants to test me at every turn and always make sure my projects are a challenge.  This rose fabric was in a ridiculously small 35 inch width (one of the reasons I can estimate the vintage) and was a hairs breath under 2 yards long.  Under the envelope back listing for 35” width fabric, it says I needed 3 yards for this dress.  Yikes!

The only way I could make things work was to piece together a full one side back bodice panel and to add a horizontal waist seam to what had been intended as a smooth center front.  The print is complex I do not think the extra seams are noticeable but I know they are there, nonetheless (well, so do you now).  The center dress panel change especially makes me a bit sad (seen or not) because I loved the streamlined look of it with one-piece, streamlined, princess-style drafting as on the original design.  Not too shabby of a compromise, though, and at least the lining was cut properly without extra seams!  Granted, every piece was butted up against one another when laid out, so it’s a lucky thing I did not have to grade up in size at all.  The skirt had to be shortened by about 5 inches and the kick pleat eliminated to make things work, so I was literally left with nothing but tiny triangles of scraps leftover.  Although stressful, even mind stretching, it feels so good to be super-efficient and determined with a project idea!  If there’s a will, there’s a way, as the saying goes.

I am glad I had put off tackling this sewing project until now when my sewing skills are where they are at.  The overall dress was not hard to make.  It was the detail points that were the challenge, which was a difficult one that I have not had in a while.  Luckily, I had some practice ahead of time to help me out on the trickier spots of this dress.  A few of the projects I have made already have had some of same the details I encountered in making my red roses dress when all of them were in one project.  The underarm bodice panel/kimono sleeve combined into one element reminds me very much of my 1955 Redingote, as does the belt attached in at a front waist dart.  The side paneled bodice shaping is just like on my recent 70’s style Burda jumper.  The pleats which cover up a seam, like the ones at my waist, are call to mind the pockets on my “Spring Green” Easter suit of 1954.  It is good to challenge oneself, but at the same time I want to stress it is beneficial to work up to that scary hard pattern by finding projects ahead of time which prepare your skills for a successful turnout.  A fruitful finished sewing creation makes all the difference in confidence and estimation of worth in time and effort.

The bodice panels turned out the best I’ve ever done yet, happily, thanks to knowing what to expect.  I do love the way such a design element in the garment provides the best ever shaping for ones bodily curves, besides being the most comfortable form of a kimono sleeve…better than one with underarm gussets.  Look for something similar to try for yourself – you will love the way it wears!  Only, I thought the bust for this pattern ran large until I put on the period-appropriate longline bustier.  Then, suddenly I had that curvaceous 50s figure and a perfect fit that put me in awe.  So, a word of warning – in a 50’s pattern, beware that their curving accounts for more than what modern women are used to with the lingerie of today.  Unless you are willing to try a different style of underwear, or unless you find such a design element in a pattern from another decade closer to now, the wonderful shaping which you will find with a bodice panel/kimono sleeve combo might be more than you expect.

Those front waistline pleats where the belt is attached were the toughest part to tackle.  It took me about 4 attempts to figure them out correctly…but just look at them!  They remind me of the interesting pleats which can be found on some 50’s or maybe 60s couture garments.  Two of the pleats that provide the slight hip poufiness are angled out and folded down.  The pleat that encloses the belt and bodice side panel seam is perfectly vertical and folded towards the other two pleats away from the center front…so confusing on paper but awesome finished properly.  The fabric makes it really hard to photograph these details as clearly as I see them.

I’m not complaining about this wonderful fabric one bit, though!  Modern cottons are sadly missing out on the lovely sheen which vintage polished cotton has, not to mention the saturated dying process that makes it almost reversible.  Yet, vintage polished cotton is a bit sheer and stiff on its own, thus another solid opaque layer was needed under my dress for a non-transparent and natural-bodied hand to the fabric.  Besides, I am silly and would rather make a whole second dress as a lining so as to have an impeccable, second skin finish inside…not just to cover all the seams but mostly to eliminate the fussy neck facings.  Having more than enough cotton lining gave me an opportunity to cut the dress out the way it should have been with no adaptations.

Except for the major seams inside, all else to this dress was hand stitched invisibly.  This has been the first garment where I really sense that my hand sewing skills have grown to be similar to my machine skills – accurate, fast, and efficient.  The lining is hand tacked to the zipper (which was also hand installed to the point it is as good as invisible); the neckline, sleeve hems (after a machine added ¼ inch bias binding), and skirt hems (after lace tape added to the under edge) hand finished.  Not that it matters – who else but me really sees inside or even gets close enough to notice the details?  Whatever.  It’s that choked-up, happy emotion I get inside seeing the unnecessary extra particulars so fine as I’m dressing.  It makes you feel special, and reminds me that the beauty inside a person, like a garment’s inside, although unseen, is the best part.

It’s these same sentiments and the urge to try something new that prompted me to add a bit of beading to the neckline.  Not that the neckline is not a statement in itself!  This is one of the best fitting boatnecks I have come across, and the little notched front heightens the neck and shoulder emphasis by centering under the pit between the collarbones.  I merely added some clusters of 4 to 6 seed beads at a rose center which might be near the neckline center top edge, with a few smaller 2 or 3 bead accents on some petal tips as shading.  I was tempted to go and add the whole package of beads so it would show up better, but there is something I love about the understated elegance to not going overboard.  I do not want gaudy or distracting details to subtract from the dress and its fabric, and the more I bead, the more there is pressure to turn it into some sort of defined design…then my beading skills have to be better.  I did attempt to make a simple 3-D flower out of strings of beads to add on the end of the back waistband.  It’s not perfect, but pretty nonetheless, and just the perfect touch if I do say so myself.

Vintage is admired and long lasting because of its understated quality and beautiful ingenuity…these are the details I miss the most in modern ready-to-wear.  So, if I can bring a small part of that back in my own life and be the example, then I am happy.  If I can remind others they are worth feeling good in their skin by a wonderful dress, and that creating is good for the soul, than my garments are beneficial to more than me alone.  Hopefully with the time, attention, and care I put in towards my dress project, this red roses vintage fabric will have a lovely new life for many more years to come!  I know this dress will be seeing more than just a Valentine’s Day wear!