Peggy’s Faux Bolero Dress

It was the day after that terrible, unexplained explosion at the Isodyne Energy Facility.  She was fighting through so much internally and externally – confusion, loss, blame, and a gut suspicion of a truth that she cannot prove.  At least she was the only one who had the humanity to get to know the missing scientist, no matter what his skin color.  Although she did not have the time to establish the connection she was inherently hoping for, she did understand him enough to mourn that he was only another senseless innocent in the long list of persons she seems to be the cause of their destruction.  Rightly or wrongly, those are her feelings.  Yet, the rest of the world around her only wanted the ‘facts’ about last night tied up in a nice little package, so that the truth for them was what they expected to hear.  SHE was the one needed by those in power to sign off for their lies – willingly or not was the threat.  What might our heroine wear for such a scene?  How can her fashion translate her strength showing through her weakness, her conviction to stand for veracity as the sole woman among a sea of lying, well-connected men?

Luckily, Peggy did have some true friends to turn to in such an hour.  Fortunately, also, the wonderful costume designer Gigi Melton has already come up with the perfect, amazing, and striking answer to a scene such as this, as well as other incidents just as powerful.

The heroine, Peggy Carter of the “Strategic Scientific Reserve”, dons the signature color of her female adversary – purple.  As someone who perennially wears blues, reds, and browns, she combines it with a new-to-her tone from the other end of the spectrum…green.  A professional looking faux two-piece outfit becomes a convenient one-piece dress.  Bold but sensible courage is manifested in Peggy’s fashion as well as character. Now, with my sewing capabilities, some fabric remnants, and an old pattern, I have my very own copy of Marvel’s Agent Carter’s dress for the above described scenes from Episode 3 of Season Two, “Better Angels”.

I love how Peggy’s words perpetually cut through the crud around her and are searingly direct, like a hot knife in hard butter, especially for this scene.  Truthfulness with others is what she is best at, and those scenes in which this memorable dress is worn, she oozes an assertive yet feminine, complex yet simple, and full on 40’s look!   “Better Angels” episode helps demonstrate why I have such respect for her and why I admire her character – an everyday superhero capability is tinged with a very relatable humanity and touching empathy.

April 9 is the anniversary of Peggy’s birthday, and it’s annually a day to celebrate a character that has brought so much into our lives by taking part in the “International Agent Carter Day”.  This is one of my favorite days of the year!  For such a day this year, I will post one of my very favorite Agent Carter outfit “copies” I have done.  It also happens to get the most compliments everywhere I go wearing it!  All this was made in one yard of deep eggplant purple gabardine and a few scraps of bright China silk leftover from a past project.  I adapted a true vintage 1946 pattern to both keep to the era and find the real historical version – thus I’m not just copying a Hollywood garment.

Of course, anyone who knows me knows I love a great pair of shoes, especially one that perfectly matches a color in my outfit.  Thus, I set out to find some true vintage shoes which would parallel the olive green B.A.I.T brand heels in the show.  There are some more modern decades, such as the 60’s or 70’s, which mimic 1940’s shoe styles, with slightly different heel shapes.  They are frequently much more wearable because of their not-so-fragile-as true-40’s footwear, however.  So, after much searching, I found a pair of lovely suede and polished leather, woven front, peep-toe heels in my size, in the exact matching green as my center bodice!  These are so comfy and really complete the outfit, yet they sadly blend in too well with the grass to be seen when I’m in a yard!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a rayon/cotton blend gabardine, combined with china silk (leftover from lining this 40’s jacket-style blouse) for the contrast, and full lining in the bodice with all cotton broadcloth.

PATTERN:  McCall #6377, year 1946

NOTIONS:  I had all the thread I needed, and I used interfacing scraps and a zipper from on hand

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on September 10, 2018, in about 10 hours.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound

TOTAL COST:  The one yard of purple gabardine was a remnant found for about $5 at Wal-Mart, the silk was scraps (I don’t count the cost of such small pieces), and the “American Classics” cotton was yet another remnant, this time found at JoAnn for a few dollars.  This dress cost under $10!!!

Faux boleros on a one-piece garment or even just color-blocking – like this dress – seemed to have been a ‘thing’ starting in the late 1930s through 1940s, from what I have found so far through extant garments and similar sewing pattern designs.  This collage is only a small portion of what inspiration I have come across.  These are all a very smart – perfect for using small cuts of fabric, but nevertheless make the most fun out of fashion as well as the most streamlined outfit ever!  The bottom right extant late 1930s dress is the one that I specifically channeled here with my tweak to add a bit of Agent Carter my vintage pattern.  That inspiration garment had the arched, faux cummerbund mid-section as well as the shiny silk contrast bodice panels which worked perfectly with my need to fit every pattern piece on small remnants.  The more concise the pieces, the better to fit onto scraps!

Getting my bodice to look like a faux bolero required me to retrace it out onto paper, cut out that copy, and re-draft it into a few extra pieces.  Yet, to keep all of those pieces together nicely – besides validating the accuracy of my re-drafting and provide a clean interior – the bodice lining is the one-piece design of the original pattern.   I was so happy to be using my lovely leftover silk in a project which would highlight it.  As I had only used it for interior lining in the project before, this silk literally now has its opportunity to shine.  Yet, the silk is so much lighter compared to the substantial thickness of the gabardine, it sometimes appears quite wrinkled.  China silk is not the best at holding its own on a fashion design.  There’s exceptions to the rule as you can see here, but it really is best as a lining.  I wouldn’t trust the China silk to not rip or tear apart on its own if I hadn’t lined the bodice.

The best part of sewing a two-tone dress (total irony here) is having to switch between colors with the spools and bobbins of thread in my sewing machine.  It is a real pain!  This is why I did the side zipper and several other sections by hand.  Not to brag, but I can use whatever color of thread on whatever color of fabric and make the thread invisible!  Such a technique is a very useful skill, just sharing a heads up!  I kept the machine top-stitching to the purple portion of the bodice only because gabardine doesn’t look as terrible showing thread as silk would.  Silk is such a fine fabric, I feel like it deserves better (most of the time) than machine stitching!  I know, silly me!

There’s something to be said about dressing in character.  When you try to copy someone else’s wardrobe, no matter how much you like it on that other individual, you are not dressing for yourself until you own it and make it yours, whether through a tweak to the garment or a change of mental outlook for example.  I – and many other wonderful women who call Peggy Carter their heroine, like me – find that Captain America’s “Best Girl” only raises us up and makes us stronger and more confident in ourselves when taking on her persona through wearing her wardrobe.  Agent Carter is such a special character to emulate.  She is so relatable and inspiring in so many ways that to imitate her is like manifesting a braver and bolder version of yourself, which needed Peggy’s help to show itself.  Let’s all “know our value” today and every day!

Working in the Quad-angle

I recently realized a gap in my winter wardrobe.  Amongst all my warm self-made dresses and cozy skirts in lofty wool or tweed, none are from the 1930s decade.  My trip in February to Los Angeles (and Las Vegas) gave me the perfect excuse to amend this discrepancy!  We were to stay at a grand Art Deco era hotel “the Biltmore” – an early home to the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscars.  You all can tell how much I love an appropriate background setting for my vintage adventures, so I came prepared with a wonderful mid-30’s boucle dress which now fills in the gap in wintertime gear!

This dress completely plays upon my combined love for Art Deco geometrics and the mathematics of sewing.  It is a dress chock full of right angles.  The boucle has darker brown threads in perfectly right angles, and the faux pockets continue the play.  There are gusset panels at the underarms.  My gloves have zig-zagged cuffs and my chest decoration is dashes.  Even the buttons I chose are squares.  This circa 1934 dress is on the very cusp of the shift in the decade’s dresses going from so very angular and Art Deco Influenced to soft, flowing, and feminine after 1935.   Even my hat refers back to the early 30’s with its close-to-the-head fit that pairs with a short hairstyle, much like the late 1920s, and it has very linear velvet trimming wrapping around the crown.

Granted, most of the pictures in this post were taken when back home in our town, because sometimes we’re too busy having fun on a trip to stop for photos.  However, it just goes to show that this dress is much more than just a splurge creation for a special trip.  It is a new favorite!  My accessories – all vintage except for my shoes – are also mostly acquisitions from the same trip, as well.  (Any color in gloves which are older than the 1950s is hard to find in town, but I prefer trying them on before buying, after all.)  It felt like this outfit was just meant to be, and although it has been hard to wait, apparently ‘now’ was finally the perfect time to pick up this project and make it wearable.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an acrylic blend, fuzzy, chenille-like boucle; contrast pieces in a light polyester crepe; bodice and collar lined in crepe poly lining

PATTERN:  Excella pattern #5288, from circa 1934 (no later than 1935)

NOTIONS:  My buttons and my side zipper are true vintage from the 30s or 40’s.  Other than that, all other supplies are new and mostly from on hand – embroidery floss, thread, bias tape, and interfacing scraps.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was sewn in about 20 hours (yeah, it gave me a bit of trouble) and finished on February 12, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  The bodice is fully lined, but the skirt seams have clean bias bound edges.

TOTAL COST:  This dress cost me under $5!  The buttons, zipper, and floss were my few recent expenses and the only ones I’m counting.  Everything else (all the fabrics) was either scraps or came from on hand in my stash for what seems like forever…so there as good as free!

This dress has subtle (but fantastic and unusual) points to it that set it a bit apart from the run-of-the-mill 1930s design.  The skirt pleats are folded oppositely to the norm – the side panels are folded in knife pleat manner towards the center on top of the middle panel.  I have not yet found another 1930s design which has underarm gussets…combined with the wide, cut-on, kimono sleeves this style of bodice is what is considered traditional for the 1950s!  The collar does not extend all the way around the neck and ends in an angle on either side of the collarbone to leave the front button closure standing alone all the way down the center front bodice.  If I want a slightly different look than an all-buttoned-up neckline, I can open up the top button hole and give the appearance of a collar (thanks to the full lining).  The belt is an extension of the bodice in the way the belt carries on the descending buttons.  A back view is rather plain comparatively, with a basic two piece skirt and a bodice with waistline pleats for a slight pouf above the belt.  The era of the 1930s never ceases to amaze me with its curious variety of fashion, but even still, this is a rare bird of a style, I believe!

Finishing this dress was an old commitment finally fulfilled.  The project idea had been in my sewing queue for several years (and the fabric for at least a decade before that) but I knew my chosen design would require some real pattern work before being usable.  Firstly, I needed to trace it out so as the grade in wider (more modern) seam allowances.  Besides, I’d rather not take the chance of ruining the old original tissue pieces.  Secondly, it was incomplete.  Sometimes I can get a good deal on patterns which would otherwise be pricey by being open to ones which are missing pieces and in danger of being thrown away.  Pattern drafting feels so worthwhile when it can go towards bringing these old pattern gems back to being usable and complete again.  This way it’s also done not for money but driven only from dedication.  Granted, this dress did not have any major pieces gone – only the collar, facings, and decorative corner panels – but just drafting them successfully from scratch feels like a big deal to me now that the dress has come together!

Excella Pattern Company was a subsidiary of Pictorial Review Patterns, so if it is anything like its parent corporation, I’m assuming this dress is a higher-end style which is either from epicenters such as Paris and New York, or knocked-off of a designer’s creation.  Even though I see that the pattern number points to the probability that this is 1935, the design is so very 1934 (which I played upon with my hat which can be definitively dated to the same year).  This is weird because these patterns were usually ahead of the curve when it came to the newest styles.  Nevertheless, for as simple and “easy” as this might seem upon a general glance (especially when compared to other Excella & Pictorial Review patterns of the time) I could tell it was a high-end design by the way the small details that you don’t see demanded so much extra time.

I didn’t need the missing neckline facing pieces as I went ahead with my own plans and fully lined the bodice.  Yet the contrast collar, faux pockets, and belt were actually part of my never-ending scrap-busting attempts.  You see, I had bought some reproduction 1930s style, high-waisted, wide-legged trousers for my husband a few years back and they needed a very deep hemming job for them to be his length.  The fabric was a lovely, thick, crepe finish material and I had two big 6 by 24 inch-something rectangles leftover which happened to match so very well with this boucle.  I figured so very correctly that those pieces I wanted to be in contrast wouldn’t need much fabric anyway, and the dull crepe is a perfect non-flashy but pleasing material to do the job (a ‘pretty’ brown tone can be so hard to come by).   Yay for making the most of every little bit I bother to save!  My husband finds this use of those scraps amazing in the way I even so much as kept track of those remnant pieces, and then remembered my fabric stash (and planned projects) well enough to figure such a pairing.  As I said above, I feel this project was meant to be!

Perfecting the details took up more time than to bring the basic dress together, but I do believe such attention makes a world of difference from merely handmade to the Parisian chic Excella and Pictorial Review patterns were known for.  Perhaps the most obvious detail is the decorative stitching added onto the front chest faux pockets.  Rows of thread are shown on all the angular panel pieces on the pattern cover, and I was (still am) unsure how much I like the detail, so I kept it only to the chest panels.  No need to bring more attention to the hips, so I heard when I asked for advice.  I used embroidery floss for the job, and stitched it by hand during the car ride across the desert from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.  The instructions seem to indicate the rows of thread are to be tiny, close to one another, and stitched down by the machine, but I wanted something much more decorative than that…something that shows off my time and handiwork.

Additional embroidery floss went towards stitching on arrow points at the opening of the skirt pleats.  The boucle is very loose, and the skirt is unlined, and so the arrow points not only add a bit of couture finery but also make sure the fabric stays together at one of the most stressed seams to the dress.  There are hand stitched thread belt loops all around the waist to keep my self-fabric skinny belt in place over the bulky waist seam.   All hems and the neckline edges, as well as the zipper, were also hand stitched in place for a dress that has very little visible seaming thread showing.  The only semi-shortcuts I took is to make regular stitched buttonholes as well as making the belt front closure not a true workable button – there is a hidden double hook-n-eye.  These are not really shortcuts, I know, but I worked on such fine finishing everywhere else, so I had a silly sense of guilt.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to go to such lengths.  Maybe it’s for the satisfaction of creating something beautiful to the best of my ability.  Perhaps it’s merely the perfectionist in me.  Maybe I’m trying to fill in for the lack in quality that RTW nowadays does not generally offer.  Deep down I want to make something that will last, something that will be treasured, something alike to what makes vintage garments so appealing and enduring even today.  Every time I doubt myself yet still take the time to construct something well, I see the finished look and love it – it makes it all worthwhile.

Anyway – back to the dress before I wrap up this post!  It might seem a bit out of the traditional season for rust toned ochre.  However, orange isn’t just for fall (I have a whole Pinterest page dedicated to this).  As much as this dress can come across as an autumn season frock, I see it more as an apricot color, or a warm, earth-toned beige.  It’s a lovely, cheerfully muted color for a very early springtime for some pleasant February days.  It’s also a color I most admire in the built environment of our home city, too.  I love decorative terra cotta elements, the fine crafted brick work that our town is known for, and the combination of a glorious sunset blending its colors with the rich architecture.  Now I have a dress that matches well with that!  Even though I probably will not be wearing this dress any more this year until autumn comes so many months away, I have this wonderful 30s dress waiting for those cold days ahead so I can rock the Deco Era no matter what the weather!

Hidden Opacity

There is so much “extra” that goes into completing an outfit, especially with vintage styles because that can include a bunch of things that are overlooked today.  This might include gloves, jewelry, hats, and even more hidden and not so noticed items such as lingerie…proper slips and the like.  Necessary, matching underclothes and accessories often came with vintage garments originally, yet, most sadly, a large number have these items missing today.  There must be some mysterious gremlin or just some badly run estate sales which misplace those matching slips for vintage sheer dresses, or those self-fabric belts which somehow are sadly missing to complete an outfit!  Perhaps their former owners wore such items to death and they didn’t survive.  Anyway, this leaves one who can sew plenty of extra work to make items that will not be seen and be underappreciated (as a whole), yet just as necessary to bring a vintage original piece back to life.

What cannot be seen doesn’t mean it is not important.  Take this lovely vintage late 50’s or early 1960’s dress which came into my possession.  All I got was just the dress. Now, I am not in the least complaining!  It fits me, is in perfect condition, has wonderful details, and has my favorite colors.  However, it is missing its belt and definitely needing more than just your average slip to be complete it.

Now, the ‘trick’ of a classy, ladylike sheer dress is to be revealing yet not show enough to look like a tart.   So, that opacity which is needed can be an opportunity for fun – you can make that slip naughty, add whatever details or go basic, and even have fun with the color.  What is great about making an underslip is that, firstly, it is all about you – it is the most indulgent selfish sewing which is still justified because of its necessity.  It is all for your viewing (unless you post a picture of it) and your intimate wearing.  Secondly, I love the irony in that you are wearing it but yet it is both seen and yet not detected!  Such little things as a slip or a belt is also a great way for one who sews to make a little extra effort and both put your personal touch on a vintage piece and restore it at the same time.

After all this chatter, what I did make to go under my vintage dress was a deep burgundy-tinted purple satin crepe slip.  Any shade of purple is my favorite color, but I love the way it prevents any see-through and adds an interesting tone of color to the sheer dress over it at the same time.  I do like going darker than lighter with my underslips (as I did for this 1930’s dress) – it makes the dress more obviously sheer yet still highlights your underwear discreetly.  The print on this vintage dress is so busy you can’t notice the dark slip here, though.

The funny thing is, that on its own, my slip actually looks like a sundress to me.  It has nice details, but it still is rather basic overall and provides full lingerie coverage.  Oh well, I wanted something that rather looked like a dress actually because I had other plans for this slip.  There is another sheer outfit – one that I will post in the coming months – which I like wearing over this slip as well.  The neckline on this outfit is a deep V, so I want the slip to fill in the décolletage for me.  I love making one piece become a useful, working staple in my wardrobe.  Already this slip has proved its worth and is used more often than I had imagined.  Yay – so many times the simplest projects are the most useful.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  For being a polyester, this fabric is soft, flowing, and very good quality.  It has a darker, more burgundy color satin side, and a lighter, purpler buff crepe side.  I used the satin side facing out on my slip.  This is the second time I am using this fabric – the first time was to make the ‘pocket’ flaps and the belt for my 1955 Redingote jacket (post here).

PATTERN:  Advance #5552, year 1951 (I’m dying to make the dress from this pattern as well!!!)

NOTIONS:  Nothing but thread and bias tape (to cover the raw edges inside)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was whipped up in only 4 hours and made in one afternoon (on May 11, 2016)

TOTAL COST:  as this was clearance fabric, and I only used under two yards, this is a $3 slip.

Just a few posts back I mentioned that circa 1951 is one of my new favorite time periods for fashion…well here’s another one to add to that count!  This slip does have a classic 1950s “New Look” shape of the times to it with the full skirt and trim waistline.  I’m supposing the cover drawing is slightly deceptive the way the woman is so tall and the skirt is so full.  I have to wear a poufy petticoat, but without that I would have to sew horsehair braid to the inner hemline to get my version to actually copy that image.  Many times the idealism on drawn envelope covers makes us think our projects will turn out differently than they really do…but that’s okay to a point for me – we all love a good and glamorous pattern image, but the line drawing to a design are the meaty reality at the end of it all.

There is a waistline zipper in the side seam – there was no other way to get that trim waist shaping.  A zipper in the side seam of a slip seems really odd today, doesn’t it?!  I learned from sewing this 1940s slip that such a closure feature isn’t really a problem until I wear another garment which also has a zipper on the same side.  A zipper on top of a zipper is not comfortable.  This was the 50’s though – fashion was above comfort.  My Grandma has told me the corsets from that time were torture.  At same point I might re-install my slip’s zipper on the opposite – the right side – as clothes so that there is no overlapping.  It feels odd when I get dressed to find my zipper on that side but it turns out better for the overall comfort of wearing.  This is not the 50’s anymore and after all this is my sewing, so I am darn well going to customize it however I’d like!

The bust shaping here was also definitely tailored for a 1950s bra, maybe even a bullet bra or one-piece corsetlet.  There was sooo much extra room!  I brought a lot of the extra in by sewing a much larger seam allowance in the top half of the center bodice seam.  Otherwise, the little trio of radiating horizontal tucks did a fine and unusual job of allowing room for the bust.  I have seen this manner of shaping once before on the Simplicity #8252 (originally #8270 from 1950) but the reissue has French darts, too, which my slip dress doesn’t have.

Advance patterns have funky sizing issues in my experience, so as much as I wanted to make the sheer dress from this pattern, too, I felt that making the slip first was a good way to test out the proportions.  Many Advance patterns run small, and this one kind of held true to that.  The overall length (unhemmed) was evening length (remember how I said the cover drawing made the model too tall?) and the bust was generous (expected because of the lingerie popular for the time) but otherwise the waist was inhumanly small.  I sized up for the waist and hips for this slip from looking at the pattern tissue on me beforehand.  It’s a good thing I did, otherwise this would not been a success…only a headache to fix.  Now I know what to expect when I make that wonderful sheer dress that is the rest of the pattern.

From the best estimating I can do, I am guessing that my slip is a bit early for the actual dating of the true vintage dress that I wear with it.  As I mentioned in the beginning of my post, I am estimating this dress is late 50’s or early 1960s after finding a few sewing pattern covers and fashion photography images.  There is a year 1958 Simplicity #2411 pattern with a similar back neckline drape, kimono sleeve, and rounded neck.  There is an unidentified late 50’s Butterick with an even more exact back neckline sash drape.  However, the closest and classiest look-alike to my vintage dress is actually from Nina Ricci of 1960 – this has a similar silhouette and fabric colors and print.

However, my dress has a label of “Marcy Lee of Dallas, Texas”.  Marcy Lee was one of the over 100 blossoming clothing companies that began in the mid 1930s (circa 1933, actually) of Dallas, and this line capitalized on the marketability of low-cost cotton housedresses (info from here).  For being an affordable “housedress”, this is still a lovely dress, with amazing details, a classic style, and appealing design.  I really can’t say the same about the cheap and basic cotton knit clothes that are sold today!  Even though this dress is made of the most delicate cotton gauze, somehow it still was made well enough to hold up all these years so I can wear it today.

The details to the closing of this dress gave me the inspiration to adapt my own sewing.  When I was making my 1951 wide collared dress and I couldn’t figure out a front closing method to replace the side zipper, I used the front fly method off of this dress to know what to do.  This was a gift to me in more ways than one because it actually taught me how to do something in my sewing I would not have known otherwise.

As much as I do not advocate wearing vintage garments as a clothing source, because such regular wearing without constant care and respect can render these old clothes torn, destroyed, and eventually non-existent, I do think it is important for everyone to handle, see, and experience at least some kind of old clothing on their back at some point.  Just seeing such clothes confined and displayed from a distance in a museum does not have the same personal effect for people as being subjectively tactile with them.  Find your local shop or resale boutique and enjoy yourself, open your mind to the new details you will see, and start trying things on!  It might take awhile to find something that both fits and looks good on you, but find something that you absolutely love and care for it like a good friend.  It will give you a whole new insight on the clothes of today, help any sewing skills you might have, and let you love yourself with a style as unique and individual as you are!  If you are up to it, you can even be a hero or rescuer for some of the ones that need some tender loving care (see this ‘save’ of mine), or be the one to fill in the missing parts such as I did here.  Finding clothes that earn your respect can help you wear attire which help you esteem your body shape as it is in way that I don’t see many modern clothes doing for the masses.