I have had the pattern I used here in my stash for the past 10 years and only just recently made time to sew together something wearable with it. It’s not that I’ve been procrastinating. I’ve had this all planned out, even down to being paired with fabrics to match the cover styling, but it always was delayed in lieu of more pressing ideas or plans. The 1920s is not a vintage look I generally reach for in my wardrobe. No more is this the case – yay! With such a comfortable, enjoyable, and well-designed dress, I am in love with the 1920s like never before.
This particular pattern design is special because it was my first acquisition of one of those fabulous, collectable McCall releases between the mid 1920s and early 1930s. Patterns in that time frame have colorful, engaging cover envelope illustrations, instructions in three languages, and easy-to-follow instructions printed in blue-line directly on the tissue paper pieces. Most of these features are what we are used to today, but were exceptional and uncommon for that time, unlike anything else out there back then. No reproduction pattern can offer the same thrill. The old originals are a joy to use, delightful to work with, and an investment…I am a big fan, needless to say.
Even though old patterns of that kind have climbed significantly in price over the last decade, I have been lucky to find some great deals over the years to build upon this first acquisition. Now, I have a handful of these amazing McCall patterns. Yet, for me the first one of its kind for my stash had to also be first one to sew from. It was the easiest to envision from the beginning, too, channeling the cover in strikingly similar manner. My dress pops over the head with no closures for an instant boost of fun! The quadruple pleats, the short skirt, and lack of sleeves conveys a small taste of the thrill that the free-spirited ‘flapper’ women must have felt.
With this first 20s era McCall project being such an enjoyable success, I am so excited to plan out fabric and buttons from my stash to pair with the rest of my old printed McCall patterns…which will be made in good time. No need to rush, but I also don’t intend to procrastinate! I love being able to add to my ‘everyday’ 1920s wardrobe with items like this dress that are a wonderful combo of being historical with a modern appeal.
I am wearing a true 1920s original woolen felt cloche hat with my dress, for an extra bit of the real deal! Just like the condition of the pattern itself (more on this below), my hat is amazing to be in such a great state for almost 100 years in age. Why, there is even the original feather cockade and decorative felt buttons – and no moth chews! Most vintage original 20s era cloche hats are much too small for my combo of thick hair and wider crown. This one was not only in my size but only $5 – amazing, right?!? I had planned on a modern pulled back hairdo with a low, tight bun. Yet my 1928 McCall sewing project suddenly had pizazz when worn with this special hat to end up with a full outfit that I adore. I find myself wanting to wear this outfit more than any other 1920s garment I have made. I’m so happy my hubby caught such great pictures. Can’t you just hear some hot jazz music in the background looking at them…because I can!
FABRIC: a 100% cotton, both for the print and the solid contrast as well as partial lining
PATTERN: McCall #5624, stamped with a date of December 18, 1928 under the envelope flap
NOTIONS NEEDED: just lots of thread – no closures or interfacing needed…pretty simple
TIME TO COMPLETE: This dress came together in about 12 hours, with 2 extra hours to reproduce the pattern. The dress was finished in April, 2020.
THE INSIDES: raw but clean are the interior edges, merely stitched over a few times to reduce fraying
TOTAL COST: I no longer remember where it was bought or how much I spent for any of my fabric for this project because it was purchased soon after I acquired the pattern 10 years ago. But I needed just over 3 yards of printed cotton (at 45” width) as well as 2 ½ yards of cotton for the contrast and lining.
My very first step, as I considered using this pattern, was to make a copy of it. The original tissue paper was in remarkable condition and much stronger, thicker, and overall higher in quality than any other patterns I have dealt with. This is remarkable (and impressive) when you consider that it is over 90 years old! Even still, as there were many markings to trace out and since I want to preserve this pattern, I went to a copy shop and printed out a paper copy for myself. The grief I felt just making one or two small tears in the tissue by copying it justified my decision to not use the original pattern tissue. Normally I hand trace most of my patterns onto sheer, lightweight medical paper, but I wanted all the text, instructions, and the general feel of the original on my duplicate McCall, as well as a more durable paper Thus, a photocopy was my preferred option here.
1920s patterns are always such a unique combo of simple yet complicated, and this style seemed even more so than normal. Printed McCall patterns of the late 1920s are indeed more exceptional in detail than the ever popular beginner’s “One hour project” shift dress. Even still, the pattern pieces are very straight cut and angular – no side seam curves, minimal darts, and very little body fit is required for a true-to-the-era silhouette. Sounds simple right? Let me explain.
For every other decade that followed the 1920s, the bust fit has been the primary aim. However, for the 1920s, what will fit over your hips is the guide for the size you choose, as evident on the size chart of this old McCall pattern. My hips are about 38” around so this patterns was perfect because it was for a 40” finished hip. The entire rest of the garment is more-or-less follows suit to be about a 40 inch circumference column, from the shoulders to the hipline. That sounds weird, right?! It might make the garment easy to sew in theory but it takes attention to the fine details to make wearing a sack look this good. Also, it is contrary to most conventional ideas of how a dress should lay. To a 1920s dress, a snug wearing ease (2 inches) is needed for the hips and a looser ease (4 inches) for everything else above that.
Crafting 1920s clothes with an authentic silhouette becomes all about making the clothes wear you in the best way possible (without looking forced or overly baggy) to create the slender, boyish, ‘gamine’ image preferred. Luckily, my strong shoulders are just about the same width as my hips, so I feel like I can make it work with my hourglass figure by hiding my waist under the straight lines of true 1920s designs. This true-to-the-era ideal that I aim for is harder to achieve on some bodies more than others, and many people who sew the 20s merely choose to sew their flapper era projects with a modern fit. That’s perfectly fine, too – to each their own! I find there is a very teachable lesson in aiming for authenticity of fit for sewing the clothes of the 1920s.
The rest of the pattern pieces here – the angled neckline jabot but especially the pleated skirt – followed suit by being very basic in shape but miraculously turning into something so beautifully dimensional and tailored. It is such mathematical beauty and the precise use of simple engineering that makes me adore the Art Deco era, yet also makes its garments challenging to make. They are confusing in their utter simplicity. They require precision in marking folds, pleats, and more on the fabric at the cutting stage. Exact piece matching is necessary, as well as accurate stitching, at the sewing stage. All of this, combined with the era’s juxtaposition of our set ideas of bodily appearance, has sewing a 1920s pattern feel like a special conquest to me. I like the kind of challenge they present, though. It is a welcome change of mindset which keeps my sewing skills fresh and non-habitual. It makes me ‘switch gears’ as the phrase goes. Understanding different means of how to flatteringly tailor and create garments for myself assists me later on when I am paid for making clothes to fit the bodies of my customers, who are varied and dissimilar than my own.
For all my talk of how 1920s designs are generally straight lined, the little details are geometric and add subtle shaping and dimension to this dress. For example, there are knife pleats in the front shoulder line for gentle bust room. There is also the tiniest bust dart coming horizontally out from the side seams. Together these add room for the bosom, but only just enough – the 1920s brassieres were about minimizing (or flattening) what nature has bestowed! Additionally there is the tiniest amount of gathers eased in just at the high hipline to create a comfortably boxy shape to the torso.
The dropped skirt-to-bodice seamline sits at the low hipline and is not plainly horizontal but has an upside down V in the middle of both the front and back…kind of like a spike on a cardiogram. Then, there are four clusters of quadruple box pleats in the skirt to add controlled ease of movement in the most appealing way. The pleats are stitched down in place to the point where my leg bends from my hip. The skirt is the only portion of the dress that I lined using the rest of the same golden contrast solid cotton as can be seen on the neckline and arm openings. The printed cotton is rather lightweight and thin, but more importantly the extra weight the lining lends really helps this dress hang nicely. The slightly heavier skirt portion ever so gently pulls down the dress, keeping it from creeping up on my body and wrinkling as 20s garments tend to do on me. It is not natural for me to wear a dress so hip-centric.
The entire neckline is the one thing on the dress that is not subtle. It totally tries to steal the show! Sneakily, it is also the facing for finishing the neckline, at the same time. These old patterns are terribly smart and knew how to do sewing at such a higher level than any commercial pattern offered today! Here the neckline is interesting both coming and going with a jabot hanging in the front and ties hanging in the back. Firstly, though, how about a brief definition? “Jabot” is a French word that originally described the crop of a bird, so that is not very complimentary to use for a pretty piece of clothing. Nevertheless, a jabot, also known by less impressive names such as ‘court bib’ or ‘neck doily’, is a decorative accessory attached at the neckline consisting of lace or other fabric falling from the throat, cascading down the chest. The kind on my 20s dress is reminiscent of the stiff, crisp variation worn by barristers of old, being one without frills and pleated from a simple square. It has a properly Art Deco air to it! Jabots are not a stranger to me, however. This early 1930s blouse that I made years back had a sort of jabot that is part of the wrap neckline, and my 1880s Victorian ice skating ensemble was accented by a frilly, lacey, 1930s tie-on jabot collar.
To sew such a detail for this dress, the jabot piece was faced in the same fabric for clean finishing, and then edged in the golden cotton pieces to form the perfectly squared off neckline. This made for a very odd and confusing piece to work with on its own, especially since the last 14 inches of both opposing ends are turned into tubes for the back ties. Then, the golden edging alone is sewn onto the inside (wrong side) of the neckline, so it can be turned to the right side of the dress and topstitched down for a clean and decorative finish in one step. Both the jabot and the back ties hang freely because they are attached to the contrast edging and not directly tacked to the dress. As much as I adore the skirt’s clustered quadruple pleating, this neckline definitely wins one of my “favorite detail” awards.
Among all the years of fashion I sew, the 1920s has certainly been a decade which has seen the most improvement during my 10 years of blogging. My higher skill set gives me the confidence to even pick up this old McCall pattern, something which had totally intimidated me back when it was first purchased. My sense of style in the era has been slowly forming, assisting me to be more comfortable with the era. This gives me confidence to both wear and make real deal fashion from the era. It helps that I have been using true vintage patterns for my last several projects rather than winging it from modern based designs. To have a true 1920s direction that an original pattern can lend that authentic aura to the finished project and the instructions are a learning experience good for one’s sewing skills. Happily, there are more reprints of the older patterns now more than there were a decade ago when I first started acquiring antique originals. You don’t have to wait for the happenstance pattern find or pay a pretty penny to work with these fantastic 1920s McCall patterns. I highly recommend you try them out for yourself, even if only a reprint.
I hope I have given you a small taste of how amazing and modern an almost 100 year old pattern can be. The old McCall patterns are not backwards nor old-fashioned in manner of instruction and construction, for as dated as their styles may be. They are printed, and in three languages – Spanish, French, and English. How much more contemporary can you get?! Hopefully, finally owning the 1920s shows in this modern interpretation of an old original pattern. I feel like this is the first 20s era project (amongst the ones I can authentically date) in which I have the confidence, enjoyment, and wardrobe versatility that I normally have when wearing my go-to decade of the 1940s. Not that I don’t still love all the 20s projects I made that came before now. I do! It’s just that I found ‘the one’ perfect for me to have a renewed sense for the era. Look for more 1920s sewing projects here on my blog for the rest of the year. I have too many empty gaps in that decade page on my site…I want to fill them up!