For some reason, circa 1917 garment styles for women are so dreamy, artistic, and fantastical, to me it’s like something out of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, the First World War version. Fashion was art, and art presented fashion in a way that is unrivaled, so that its appeal has not waned these past 100 years. Women’s faces were drawn as delicate as a porcelain doll and their hands as graceful as a Goddess. Their clothes are full of vivid and interesting color pairings. Their silhouettes might be oddly inhuman in their attire, but somehow they appear harmonious, comfortable, with an entrancing complexity in design. The background settings seem peaceful, idyllic, and dreamy. It’s no wonder some teens’ era details are making subtle appearances on some modern runway clothes this year (see Chanel’s Haute Couture Collection, numbers 35, 38, 61, 63) and recently (Oscar de la Renta Spring 2012 dress or Gattinoni’s Spring/Summer 2012 couture). The aura surrounding those old styles certainly were not a reflection of the reality of the times, however.
It is now the anniversary of Armistice, today November 11th. This year’s Veteran’s Day is special as we are celebrating a benchmark century since a pact was signed for a cessation of the fighting of the Great War. Thus, this year was high time that I figured out for myself the late 19-teens’ incredible niche in historical fashion, and an event this summer at the National World War I Memorial (in Kansas City, Missouri) had given me an excuse to do it, tangibly, in a glorious, flowing and feminine style.
Caught in between the 1920s and the late Titanic era, 1917 (1916 and 18, as well) clothes for women was neither the long lean lines of the era before nor was it the barreled torso silhouette of the one after. Circa 1917 women’s fashion did take one thing to the extreme – the below the bust, almost Empire waistline, an interesting fad compared to the moderately high waist seen about 1914 and the almost hip length waist of the early 1920s. Late WWI style was a beautiful middle ground that disappeared very quickly and only lasted a few years. There was an overabundance of details, textures, interesting colors, and unusual features…many times in the same garment. It was like an over-the-top display of quality, creative, and hand-crafted fashion before the clutches of mass-market RTW or the practicality following the post-stock market crash 10 years later would take over.
Now, let’s put a few things into perspective for a broader view of circa 1917 in my country. By the late teens, the US had about 2,000 amusement parks. As the culture of leisure carried over from the Gilded Age, and people seemed to be seeking thrills and adrenaline pumped delights with their free time, it was the beginning of the golden age of roller coasters (ca. 1919) due to the innovations of entrepreneur John Miller. Menswear was beginning to break free of its Edwardian appearance and accepting the idea of “sportswear”, while women’s fashions were becoming more open to an independent woman, free to move through life without a full-length corset or a man to marry out of necessity. The first Jazz music recording was commercially released to help usher in a whole new popular genre of listening pleasure and matching that with new active styles of dancing. The United States officially acquired both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Things were looking up.
Yet, for a darker perspective, there were also three to five percent of the world’s population dead from the Spanish Influenza epidemic (1918 to 1920). WWI’s fighting was announced as begun for America in 1917 then hastily over in 1918, with about 13 major battles fought and counting about one man out of every thousand dead. President Wilson seemed to be wrapping it up for the nations, and the world was dealing with the aftereffects of the first Great War very unsuccessfully in my opinion. On our own turf there were ‘problems’, as we had sixteen Americans executed by Pancho Villa and the southwest region in danger as part of our involvement in taking sides for the Mexican Revolution. Dissatisfied workers in several unions in Seattle, Washington, seeking higher wages after toiling hard producing ships for WWI, went on America’s first general strike, where over 65,000 workers protested for 5 days. Supposedly the strikers were under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, leading to a “Red Scare”.
So – as much as the fashions of the late teens were dreamy, artistic, and evocative of ethereal beauty, the world of the mid to late 1910s was anything but a fairy-tale. Face value can sometimes be just that…a dream, a wish for something better, visual trickery. This is why the only modern item you will see on my 1917 dress is perhaps the most important one – an enamel red poppy flower pin from the National World War I Memorial. We need to remember, respect, and learn of the sacrifices and the stories of the Forgotten Generation to make sure the Great War is not disregarded.
FABRIC: Cotton print (aqua background with a very Art Deco geometric design in purple) for the base layer of the dress, with a sheer lavender poly chiffon as the overlay for both dress and hat. Basic white cotton sateen for the dress’ collar and ‘bib’ front panel.
PATTERN: a Past Patterns Company reprint of a McCall #8159, from November 1917
NOTIONS: Many prized notions went onto this dress to give it its necessary finishing touches – some are true vintage, some are special coming from family, and others are uniquely hard to find. More about them in the body of my post. Only the best…and I believe it shows!
TIME TO COMPLETE: I worked on this dress on and off for a few months and finally finished it on June 28, 2018 after 50 plus hours. The hat took only 2 hours to refashion.
THE INSIDES: cleanly bias bound with the sheer sleeves, over skirt, and bodice armscye French finished
TOTAL COST: All my fabric was bought at my local JoAnn’s Fabric Store, with all the finishing trims and notions already on hand (free), I spent around $40.
Fashion was very important to women of the time and magazines of the latest modes of dressing even more so. “A reaction of the emergence of fashion photography, an annual subscription to an exquisitely illustrated fashion and lifestyle publications could cost as much as a car in 1914”. During World War I, Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s Magazine alone had over a million subscribers each. No wonder the best artists were hired for illustrations – for one case in point, the great couturier Mainbocher started off as a fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue after serving in WWI. Erté and George Barbier are more examples.
However, for one who wants to sew a ‘copy’ of such fashions, these drawings are important only so far as to figuring out what colors, what details, what silhouette to achieve to look authentic. Construction and closing methods are a mystery. That is why I started with a copy of a true original pattern…because nothing beats the real thing, right? So, I had a good starting point but not much to go on because if you think vintage a la 1930s or 40’s patterns are lacking in instruction thoroughness, well, you’ve never seen an antique pattern. I literally had only two small paragraphs and one tiny layout diagram to go by as my guide. This is why my next resource was both textual research and sourcing old 100 year old garments for sale online to see physical specifics.
It wasn’t until the 1930s (pretty much) that the way a garment closed on the body was visible and buttons were more than just a means of decoration or display of wealth. The mid to late teens era kept the closures well hidden in seams or under more fabric and therefore a bit mysterious. This dress has the very common (for 1916 to ‘18) ‘bib’ front bodice vest piece that does the double duty of both covering the front closures and completing the waist by continuing on as a cummerbund-sash to be tied in a fancy bow behind. It’s sort of hard to show, but underneath the bib panel, hook-and-eye tape closes the center front, with a few more single hooks for the small side seam opening (covered by the cummerbund wrap around).
On its own, the front covering is a large T-shaped piece. It has every edge self-enclosed in a facing double and was the last thing directed to be added on to the dress. Even then it is only lightly tacked on at the right top edge while it hook-and-loops closed at the left corner. I have seen some of these ‘bib’ frontispieces for sale separately and so I can conclude that some of these were meant to be removable. This is quite smart, really! They could easily be cleaned gently by hand this way, without needing to launder the whole dress, too, and most of the prettiest decorations and precious haberdashery could be added on the frontispiece with no fear of being beat up by a general washing. Most of the antique original ‘bib’ pieces that I have seen have been in the finest linen or silk, since (at that time) most of the wool was going to soldiers’ uniforms and the cotton was making canvas gaiters, satchels, and tents for the war. Mine is sateen so it has a slight shine that the camera images aren’t really picking up, but I more than made up for the basic material with lots of detail and meticulous hand work.
First of all, plain whites need something extra to make them look fancy and not, well…plain. This is a dress from the teens, anyway and more subdued excess (within reason) the better was the rule! My primary add-on was the buttons on the bib front, I knew these were a definite choice. They are true teens era buttons, in glass, painted in a rich purple over the nubby top texture (see a closer picture on this Instagram post). They look like fresh tiny mulberries to me – mmm! To prevent the paint from chipping, as it was starting to do already, I applied a light painting of clear top coat, such as is used on fingernail lacquer.
Then came the lace! This is a heavy cotton lace which my husband bought for me over a year ago in Italy when he went on a business trip to Milan. As much as it pained me to use it and not stash it, the Belgium-style lace was just what I had in mind and looks like embroidery from afar. If I could have come up with a shortcut way to tack it on I would have, but instead it took me several extra hours of hand stitching to tack it down along the bib top along the neckline, along the bib front waistline bottom, and the bottom end of the sash just above the tassels. Do the sash end tassels make it look like I have servant call pulls? Maybe, but crazy things work in teens fashion and not only do the tassels weigh the ties down but add color and interest from behind.
Finally, to connect the aqua in the under (base) layer of the dress, which you don’t see much of above the knees, I added matching colored feather stitching along the collar edge. Let’s briefly address some good, old-fashioned, quality hand-stitching – it used to be much more than just straight and basic. Until about the teens and no later than the mid-1920’s, hand sewing, even if was just necessary for top-stitching, was detailed, incredibly tiny, precise, and very understated for the time and high quality it shows. It is a skill too lovely to only admire, with feather stitching in particular as my new fascination for hand stitching. This stitch is an embroidery technique which can be ornamental sewing when worked with single threads and it uses loops caught and pulled to make a vine design. My favorite tutorial to learn feather stitching from can be found here if you want to learn too. It’s not hard, but the challenge is to be uniform and consistent with spacing. My collar needed top-stitching and it needed something to give it pizazz while being authentic – feather stitching took care of all of that at once.
Other than the detailing, the dress was really pretty simple to make and the fit was spot on. After all the skirt was just a basic gathered skirt. Every pattern piece was pretty much basic geometrics – no darts or fancy shaping, either. Once the front closing mystery was understood the bodice was simple, too, as were the sleeves…very modern with their flared shape known as “angel” style. (Look closely and you will see the small fishing weight on the inner sleeve end to make the chiffon hang!) I must add, the dress while in progress did look like a total piece of trash all the way up until it was almost done. I just kept hoping for the better as it was being assembled and plugging through the project. Now I’m so very glad I persevered.
The pattern was my size technically, but I don’t like the lack of a “mistake cushion” that tiny 3/8 inch seam allowances provide so I added an extra inch all along every seam allowance to make them bigger and also “just in case” the fit was wrong. I remembered that the 1920 blouse pattern which I used before had small shoulders – and I have big arms – so I slashed and spread this pattern’s sleeve tops before cutting out in the chiffon. With my little changes, this pattern fits perfectly and turned out just like a 1917 dress from a fashion magazine, so I think!
The hem ran very long, again similar to both the 1920 and 1914 skirt patterns I have already used, but this is meant to be for a wide hem. These wide and deep hems in early 20th century historical fashions really help to shape them, kind of like a stiffening, and need to hand pick-stitched down. This dress’ hem has a slight “Hobble skirt” reference by the way is tapers in slightly slimmer for the last 8 inches above the hemline. To emphasize the widening of the upper half of the skirt, the sheer overlay was cut in a high-low hem. The more fashion images you see in the 1916 to 1918 range, the more it seems that every skirt overlay (and they were popular) had either a hem decoration and/or a curiously shaped hemline. I went with both because it struck me as working well for this dress. The arching sheer skirt compliments the arching bodice panel and the purple flower trim I added along this edge brings an overall harmony to the dress with the same trim being used on the sleeves.
With slightly shorter hemlines making it easier for women during the War to move around, it was also the opportunity to show off one’s pretty ankles in fabulous decorated stockings! I have been holding onto these flocked, floral, vine-patterned, ivory stockings for a very long time just because I knew they were unusual, and now they were just what I needed. Highly decorative embroidered or painted stockings, “clocked” hosiery as it’s called, had been immensely popular in the 18th century, but had a very strong comeback in the mid to late teens as soon as the skirts were slimmer and shorter. Many 1910s and 20’s stockings enjoyed the “new” aspect of fashion even to the point of being very fantastical – see this post for snake and bird hosiery! To say ‘Clocked’ stockings means they have an added design up the ankle, where traditionally a ‘gusset’/wedge has been added to give it shape – very racy considering it wasn’t until the later 1920’s that hosiery was considered as something other than underwear!
Of course, none of this outfit would have the proper look and feel without a good foundation. Happily, I already had my under layers already me-made and available. The late teens was in a weird position with regards to underwear. Things were starting to change over to the looser, more modern two-piece “bra and bloomers”. The corsetry that was around no longer had such long, lean lines and full body coverage (like what I wore under my 1914 ensemble). I do not have a shorter late teens corset (like what the blogger “The Dreamstress” has put together). The main idea is to have no bust support (keep the girls flat!) and volume around the knees with your slips and knickers, so I opted for the early 20’s underwear set I did have…envisioning myself as a very fashion-forward woman doing so! Over the underwear went a reproduction sleeveless slip which was identical in style lines to this earlier teens era slip which I blogged about here. The front is a lovely eyelet and the lack of sleeves was perfect for the sheer arms of my dress.
After all my efforts invested in the dress, there was no way I was starting from scratch for my headgear, too. Thus, the hat is a refashion of a dated 80s or 90’s piece which became a very plausible authentic match. I made use of something from my wardrobe I never really wear and not only beautified it, but turned it into something I needed anyway – win-win, right!? Many summer hats in the teens had wide but sheer brims, whether it was made of lace in a wire frame, rows of ribbon, chiffon, or an open mesh. The last kind was exactly what I had in my dated hat, it only needed a rounder, mushroom-style crown that needed to be much fancier before being closer to authentic. In order to totally match with the dress, I used the small remnants left of the purple chiffon to loosely wrap (and gently, invisibly hand tack) around the crown, finished off with an intricate burgundy and purple ribbon remnant to match the colors of the buttons and the tassels.
My accessories are all some sort of vintage, except for the waist watch hanging from a chain at the waist of my ‘bib’ front bodice panel. That was bought new because it looked like a hanging watch I have from my Great Grandmother, only I wouldn’t dare use that one out and about so this is a memory-free and guilt-free replacement. However, I did have no qualms about using and bringing the umbrella you see. This is a treasured find, though. It is a true 1910s (or early 1920s at the latest) piece I found for a deal in perfect condition. The fabric is dyed silk, and so is the tassel to match, with the handle is covered in leather. My necklace is vintage 1930s I believe, and carved mother of pearl, actually. The earrings are of the 1940s from my Grandmother. The purse is something I actually made for my 1920 outfit, but luckily the colors and the style pairs up perfectly here, too, I believe. I did find some vintage 1960s leather heels to match, since strappy shoes, and especially French heels, too, were what was popular back then.
Our photo location is an appropriate backdrop as this building was originally built after the turn of the 20th century as a publication headquarters for a women’s’ fashion magazine mogul, Edward Gardner Lewis. It was constructed in the fancy French neo-classical “Beaux-Arts” style, and acres of the surrounding area were bought up by Lewis to build an equally beautiful upper middle class neighborhood. Luckily, most of this area of University City is well preserved and the homes look every bit as beautiful as it probably did in the teens and twenties. They just don’t make architecture like they used to.
There is something so inherently satisfying to spending such excess in time, materials, and personal investment on something beautiful, worthwhile, and creative weather it’s a building or on a dress. I can attest that in the sewing sphere, it is addictive. It hails back to a time when sewing was a true art using one’s hands, when making clothes was more about crafting beauty than just getting clothes for one’s back, and before commercial-fast fashion had its full stranglehold on the garment industry. Quality in the small details is sorely needed today…only our world today needs to understand that it doesn’t come quickly or in bulk quantities.
When you think about WWI in terms of this, though, society needed bulk quantities of lasting quality in order to supply the troops, and yet somehow the world stepped up to provide. What wool moths and decay have left behind, luckily many of these uniforms are still in great condition and fully wearable today. It is heartening to see the amount of extant WWI items that are being worn and displayed with pride and a spirit open to seeing and learning from the past anew! Even though this great centennial will now be over, I hope this era of history keeps being understood and remembered. My next Great War project will be a women’s military uniform.
“WWI is a romantic war, in all senses of the word. An entire generation of men and women left the comforts of Edwardian life to travel bravely, and sometimes even jauntily, to almost certain death. At the very least, any story or novel about WWI is about innocence shattered in the face of experience.” quote from Anita Shreve. I hope my dreamy, fairy tale style dress outfit tells one small part of the great story. Let us commemorate the fallen yet celebrate what peace we have today.