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!

Once Upon a December

Of all the animated princess which have graced the silver screen in my lifetime, I would like to say my favorite just may be one that is not even Disney in origin.  I’m talking about Anya, better known as Anastasia Romanov – the spunkiest, sassiest, most relatable animated royal heroine and one that has a historical basis (to some degree, as her adult life is the stuff of legends).  The last week of November was the annual anniversary since Fox Studio’s animated film “Anastasia” was first released for the entertainment of its audiences back in the end of November 1997.  Then, just last week, the palace of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas ll has been opened to the public, impeccably restored back to the time of 1917 so it looks just as it did when the princess Anastasia lived there with her family.  I guess I could have waited until the 25th anniversary next year, but after offering my “Pandemic Princess” blog series, and being a wholehearted fan of the animated movie, I decided now was the perfect time to finally bring one of her outfits to life!

I chose to sew a vintage version of the Russian tunic she is first seen as wearing in the movie when, as an adult (18 years old in circa 1927), she is finally leaving the orphanage.  She sings her first song “Journey to the Past” in this scene, the song that defines her hopes, dreams, and driving energy for the film’s storyline – the desire to find love, have a home, and connect with family.  She is the animated princess who literally had everything taken from her.  She lost more than just her memory by having amnesia (as the fictional story convincingly portrays) from a nasty fall taken while escaping the revolution.  Yet, no matter how afraid she was, she never lost sight of her belief in herself and her longing for belonging.  The jeweled “Together in Paris” necklace was her solitary key to a shard of a memory connected to the past she needed to reclaim.

That first song encapsulates why Anya is so appealing and inspiring, but the second song she sings later “Once Upon a December” while wearing that same tunic is a heartbreaking tune of her yearning under the shadows of vague memories.  Then, finally, when Anya agrees to go through with the scoundrel Dimitri’s plan to curate her into the princess ideal, she sings along to an upbeat song of family history and positivity in “Learn to Do It”.  As I did not have any snow or a fancy palace to channel the other two songs, I chose to interpret this last song…where balancing a stick on the head serves in lieu of a book to train Anya into walking elegantly.  Between these three songs, this is why I needed to make a fun (and a bit more fashionable) version of the oversized, torn, hand-me-down tunic that gets her through half of the movie.  How often does a princess get to sport casual wear that is this cute, after all?!  This is a whole new kind of a different vintage type of garment, and I love it – even if only for being Anastasia inspired.

My obsession over the Russian princess Anastasia is not confined to this sole outfit recreation, however.  On Instagram, I have styled my mother-in-law’s 1970s original dress to look like Anya’s blue strapless sparkle dress that worn in the animated film for her visit to the opera with Dimitri.  That scene is everything to me and just goes to show how the perfectly picked outfit for an occasion can literally make your man’s jaw drop…the most fantastic reaction ever.  Click on over here to see my second (non-me-made) Anastasia outfit for yourself!  Do I next re-make one of her late 1920s dresses from when she was spending a night of shopping and dining in Paris?  Or her blue collared “boat ride” dress?  Or one of her two golden yellow princess gowns?  Once I decide, I will be revisiting the fashion of the 90’s animated “Anastasia” at some point in the future.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% rayon twill

PATTERN:  a Lady Marlowe reprint of a year 1935 Simplicity #1908 sewing pattern

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots of thread, a dozen buttons (vintage ones were used here), and half a dozen hook-and-eyes.  The trim was a 1910 era antique notion, in a pre-stitched design on a 6 yard strip of loose weave muslin.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The tunic was made in about 30 hours (a third of that time was spent on just the sleeve details), and was finished on April 22, 2021

THE INSIDES:  cleanly French seamed, with vintage rayon tape to cover up the bottom hem inside

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric was needed – it was bought at JoAnn fabric store for about $10 a yard.  The buttons were $12 and ordered through Etsy to top off an order so I could have free shipping.  The trim – all 5 yards of it – was the real cost at $67, and I only needed two yards, but I felt I had to get all or it or nothing.  If I divide out the cost of the antique trim, my total cost for this tunic was $70.

First of all, I want to clarify I’m calling this a Russian tunic because I’m merely using the same terminology as what is on the pattern I used.  If I wanted a true cultural garment I would have chosen either the #128 “Russian Settlers’ Dress” or the #116 “Shirts of Russia and Ukraine”, both patterns by Folkwear Company.  Even still, if you compare the line drawings for the traditional option through Folkwear with my 1935 fashion version they are really similar.  My version is slightly more fine-tuned and truer in styling to its release date versus true cultural clothing which is more timeless. 

An Eastern Bloc influence on the fashion of the Western world was popular in the 1920s through the mid-1940s, during which the embroidery of Hungary, Poland, and Slavic countries can be spotted on vintage blouses and dresses.  These loose and comfy but gloriously embroidered garments have been (and still are) callously coined as “peasant” styles by many.  Post WWI, the peasants suffered greatly under the many internal wars of the Eastern Bloc region, and millions starved to death in the 1920’s under state confiscation of grain and collectivization of agriculture. 

A Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian folk influence was not as popular as the aforementioned “peasant” styles, and its decorated asymmetrically closing collared plackets were primarily seen on winter coats, tunic length blouses, and pyjama sets (for loungewear) in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union had been admitted to the League of Nations the year before my pattern was released, and the United States had recognized Stalin’s regime the year before that (in 1933).  No doubt the political and social-economic events of the time as well as the influx of refugees fleeing dangerous situations influenced an interest abroad in traditional Russian and Slavic garb.  Just the same as what happened to the qipao, originally from China (as I discussed in this post of mine here), once another culture’s fashion is imported in and adopted it becomes no longer purely authentic but a merging of expressions…for better or for worse.   

My tunic’s color scheme was chosen according to both what trim I could find and what Anya was wearing in the animated film, so this is not in the most traditional colors, but neither am I incorrect.  My trim is a true antique teen’s or 20s era addition to my tunic, so it is the real deal and not a product of my modern design preference.  It is in a counted cross-stitched design, so often seen on ‘Russian’ garments starting in the 20th century even if it wasn’t really proper to the culture (I’ll discuss this subject in further detail later on in my post).  So, whether or not it is truly Russian-Ukrainian, though, as it was labeled in its listing, is something I have not been able to clarify.  Either way, I think my tunic is a great homage to one of the great legends of history – the “what if the princess Anastasia had lived past 1917” story.  Influenced by the 1997 film, I would like to imagine she had a life of happy freedom, seeing the world and starting her own family with Dimitri (also frequently visiting Grandmother in Paris, of course).  Along those lines, I would like to think this is what Anya would have been wearing in the 1930s.

The tunic body basics were straightforward, but all the finishing and detailing work took up all the time and effort (don’t worry, it is always enjoyable, really).  Even with all the hours and hours of hand-stitching I logged for my tunic, working with rayon twill was a joy because it is the ideal blend of suppleness and stability.  The overall fit is a bit loose and forgiving (being hooked closed only to the waistline) and only needed to be tailored in across the shoulders and around the sleeve cuffs.  I love the little darted tucks which ever so slightly blouse out the bodice at the back.  Little points like this save the tunic from being a sack.  I also love the freedom of movement which is married to an air of elegance with the dramatically generous sleeves and fancy cuffs.  

The pattern was a reprint sized to just the measurement I needed, for a lucky break, and I have few complaints.  It was printed professionally, turned out pretty true to size, and all the pieces matched up very well.  This was my first experience with Lady Marlowe vintage pattern reprint company and I am pleased.  At the prices Lady Marlowe reprints are sold for, and the way they are so cleaned up to the point of looking more modern than not, I feel like I would be better served investing in a true vintage pattern – but I am a purist.  As I had a specific idea in mind this time, I was thankful to find a reprint which made something available to me which normally would not have been an option.

I felt like my antique trim as fated to be part of this project because it was exactly the same size width (3 1/2 inches) as the pattern piece for the asymmetric decorated front placket.  With the seam allowance, the finished edges just came to the outside of the stitched border to the antique trim, and I was ecstatic over the results.  So as not be overwhelming or confining to my neck, I used only the middle section of the trim for the collar to make it half the width as the front vertical trim.  For both collar and front closing facing, I had to iron on stiff interfacing to the backside of the old trim, and I felt badly adding something so modern and permanent to it.  However, the base material for the trim was a very fine and fragile mesh linen, and there was no way it was going to hold up through either the construction process or the a washing, even if I do so by hand. 

The underside of the stitching tells its story – I love seeing this!!!

I could tell from the backside of the trim that this was sewn by hand because the underneath was not by any means consistent, with lots of hanging floss ends.  This was real treasure I hated to cover up with the interfacing, but I realize this step was necessary to present a finished garment.  To think that this trim was done by hand blows my mind, humbling me and garnering my absolute respect for the maker.  Was this something which was worked in spells over months, with admirable patience?  Was the maker quick and efficient enough to do six yards in the first place?  What was this trim originally intended for, I wonder?  I have so many questions which will never be answered…I only know I am glad I have more to use on another project or just hoard for admiration purposes in the future.

Counted cross stitch as a cultural ‘folk’ decoration on a garment is often tied to Russia, even if the stitch itself has different origins.  The earliest fragment of embroidered cloth to include cross stitch can first be traced back Upper Egypt sixth century BC. It then flourished during the Tang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), when it may well have spread westward along the trade routes (info from here). In the centuries which followed, crossed stitching spread to England (old Normandy), medieval Spain and Italy, and then Germany and more.  In Russia and the Ukraine, cross stitch techniques began appearing in villages after the 1850s, being adopted by farmers from nobility’s and city people’s needlepoint

An example of Brokar’s stitch patterns. At the top it says “gift with purchase of glycerin soap.”

After 1870s, the French philanthropist businessman Genrich Brokar, with his Moscow firm of perfume and soap production, made a fatal hit to the knowledge and popularity of traditional crafts such as Igolochky (Russian punch-needle embroidery).  In order to attract customers, especially for his soaps, he included a free chart of a cross-stitch design with each sale of his products.  He hired his own artists to re-render traditional Russian symbolical motifs and simplify them to both please a greater variety of people and be easy enough for all skill levels.  Soon enough, Russian cross stitched garments became known as Brokar embroidered.  Before the Revolution of 1917, Brokar was one of the largest cosmetics manufacturers in Russia.  He had an ingenious marketing strategy that ruined how the world and even Russia itself sees its own fiber art traditions. 

Whether or not cross-stitch can be considered a true Russian traditional craft seems to a hot topic of debate on many of the sites for the promotion of cultural heritage which I visited online.  That being said, this is primarily how Russian and Ukrainian folk clothing has been decorated and understood for the last 150 years.  In honor of the 100 year anniversary of the Brokar cross-stitch marketing, the technique had a revival in the 1970s.

Even as I type that the cross stitched trim takes center stage for this tunic, my fun pistachio green vintage buttons are the close runner ups.  They subtly bring out the color of the trim, and low-key highlight the closure details I put so much handiwork into.  Doing a dozen chain-stitched thread loops (10 for the cuffs with 2 for the shoulder), sewing on a dozen buttons, matching up half a dozen hook-and-eyes under the front closure, and adding one large snap set at my neck all together took me almost as much time as it did to make the tunic.  It is a time consuming deal to close all those buttons, so – just as Anya did in the animated film – most of the time I flip back the cuffs for a casual look.  I love how the flipped back cuffs change the whole aura of the tunic.  I think it seems more Russian with the cuffs buttoned up because it is practical for cold weather.

These sleeves are so fantastic, aren’t they?!  They are like a cross-breed between gigot sleeves (also called leg-of-mutton) and bishop sleeves.  The giant puff sleeves literally are gathered in as tightly as they could go into cuff edges which stretch up to below my elbows.  It was as much of a drama to sew as it might look.  The skinny sleeve cuffs did not fit around my sewing machine’s free arm.  Even when I did manage to sew the sleeve-cuff seam by machine, the gathering was too tight for a good stitch.  I had to do the cuffs my hand sewing…wah!  The finished clean seams really add to the spectacle that is this sleeve style, though. 

Here – to be similar to Anya from the animated film – I am merely wearing leggings and ankle boots with my tunic.  Outside of these pictures, I will probably be wearing the tunic with a 1930s style skirt, either with it tucked in or sometimes not.  The pattern cover shows the tunic worn with a skirt, and it looks rather like something from the 70’s Disco era when I tried wide legged pants under it.  I appreciate that the pattern’s cover also shows frog closures as an optional closing method because it calls to mind the “merging of European and Central Asian traditions”, as Folkwear calls it, which this asymmetric-closing Russian style blouse (or tunic, in my case) has as part of its history.  The countries of the world are more intertwined than many of us consider, especially when you look at this fact from the perspective of a fashion memoir. 

Tunics themselves seem to an old cultural garment adapted by many nations.  They are flattering, versatile, and often unisex, besides being something modern, RTW doesn’t know how to create as tastefully as cultural clothing can do it.  All too often the tunics of today that I see in the store are terribly oversized, or in an overly clinging knit, or designed as if the body is something to hide.  There is a high probability that some part of whatever familial ancestry you most closely associate with has some form of a tunic as part of their heritage clothing.  This kind of tunic would be the very best place to start to find a renewed appreciation.  I am already used to wearing tunics in the Indian form of a kurta or kurti , so this Russian inspired one feels like a mere variant.  I am happy my excitement over the animated film “Anastasia” was a starting point for me to explore more tunics outside of India.  

It is not quite a dress, but it is a bit extra to be called a blouse…do you like tunics?  Let me know if you found the short history of cross stitching just as interesting as I did.  Also, I want to hear from any 1997 “Anastasia” movie fans out there – what were your favorite scenes, lines, or outfits?

Carolyn Ramey – the Undergrad Designer of the 1930s

Goodness knows that young college students are in need of some good wardrobe choices.  They themselves might not realize this fact, from the seemingly perpetual loungewear that I see being worn at my local campuses.  How to choose good wardrobe items is yet another life skill, a taste that needs to be learned by young people just like anything else, to have a good foundation for the future.  Most nice clothes seem to cater to adults, however.  If they don’t, they are either too trendy, too sexy, or too professional for an aspiring young person’s needs, and the designer of such is an adult. 

Elle Woods from the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde”

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a teen creating designer clothes for her own age group?  I’m not talking about clothes that are something unaffordable or used for creating a status symbol – something that is handily just what is sought after to be worn (even if that is an inherent desire is currently undeveloped in them).  Something that would raise the bar a bit from pajama pants and a tee without any compromise on comfort would no doubt be appreciated today.  Few people realize that a well-cut garment can and should be just as comfy as any loungewear.  Ready-to-wear fashion rarely offers this ideal combo, but vintage patterns do!  There’s no reason to live the most formative years of your life looking like you just rolled out of bed.

This ideal scenario for collage students’ fashion actually happened midway in the decade of the 1930s through the largely unknown young designer Carolyn Ramey – marketed as “the Co-ed designing for her fellow collage girls, juniors, and debutantes”.  She attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia , graduating in 1937 majoring in Applied Arts while at the Home Economics department.  (In 1931, Drexel began offering degrees through the School of Home Economics)  Her dress designs for girls her own age were inspired by yearly trips to Paris, London, and Milan on summer break as well as a frugal practicality, especially when it came to her trademark “date night frock” and “Campus Modes” lines. 

Both collections were already popular by her freshman year when she had her own fashion column and sewing pattern line in both “The Country Gentleman” magazine and the Chicago Tribune newspaper.  Luckily, her mother Mary Grace Ramey was a public fashion expert herself, and her Grandmother Caroline King was the long-time editor of “The Country Gentleman” magazine, so it helped that the young Carolyn had connections.  However, she seemed to honestly be thinking about the needs and problems of her fellow young ladies and wanted to help out the budgetary, social, romantic, and school-related aspects of their lives with the inventive designs which she had apparently been creating since her high school. 

Well, now I have tried out one of Ms. Ramey’s designs for myself – her “very first to be made from her fall season wardrobe”.  I am happy to have whipped up this luxurious and super comfortable evening gown in one night!  I am one happy (albeit modern) customer of her ideas and can attest they seem to be everything old newspaper articles touted them to be! 

Another one of Carolyn Ramey’s fetching (Paris inspired) designs!

This may be my new favorite 1930s era creation.   With only 5 major pattern pieces, and various extra pieces and recommendations included for style variations, this dress pattern is a pure goldmine of a find to me.  I picked up this pattern on a whim many years back now as it was a steal of a price.  I didn’t realize until recent research how amazing yet unknown is the history the behind this pattern and its designer.  I am thrilled to have finally come around to sew something of it!

Carolyn Ramey promised in a Chicago Tribune article from December 27, 1936 that her pattern designs aim to “look like a proverbial cool million…correct in cut, comfortable to wear, and dynamically flattering” even while being “sewn without much trouble”.  I find this 100% true with the one pattern I have in my stash, and from what I see in the several others I found via Internet images (such as this one).  My interpretation here may be a bit more chic than what a collage girl of the 1930s would prefer, but it is every bit true to the era with its semi-sheer burnout velvet and aura of sumptuousness.  Ms. Ramey’s preference for “simplicity imbued with charm” certainly helped me make the most of my fancy fabric, but what makes me really happy here is the way I seem to have merged her two different collection’s ideologies into one. 

The pattern used was from her Chicago Tribune “Campus Modes” line, yet I put my own twist on it by using velvet, which is along her “Date Night Frock” way of thinking.  To her, a date night dress should be “smart enough to merit appraisal, yet not conspicuous enough to be gaudy” as she said in the “Drexel Triangle” university newspaper of January 22, 1937.  She believed “that ‘date frocks’ must have enough snap about them to make them stand out in a crowd” without being “too conspicuous”, while campus wear needs to reflect “the spirit of youth” but be the perfect transitional wear to escort them into the professional world.  I see this dress as checking off both boxes.

It seems Carolyn Ramey’s “date frocks” line was through personal consultation and made to order as they were “her particular hobby”, from the meager information I have found.  Her “Campus Modes” was a weekly pattern release and fashion advice section in the Chicago Tribune starting January 3, 1937 and lasting until 1940, as far as I can tell.  She was not a “one ball juggler” – she even tried something new in June 1937 and presented a young Men’s fashion show for Drexel University.  Also, between 1935 and 1938, Carolyn Ramey designed the official uniform sets for the National 4-H Club (just as her mother had done in 1933) to continue her personal mission of clothing young ladies smartly and sensibly.  Sadly, all information on her seems to fade into non-existence after 1940.  I would love to find out what happened to her after her college rise into popularity.  In all the articles I could find she always said that she intended to continue designing.  I wish I could at least see a picture of her to have some visual connection.  I am just glad I can shed a bit of light on her life and career through this blog post!  

THE FACTS

FABRIC:  a polyester “devoré” burnout velvet

PATTERN:  a vintage original “Designer Carolyn Ramey” Mail ordered pattern from the Chicago Tribune, No. 8581, year 1938

NOTIONS NEEDED:  nothing but thread!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was begun and completed in a space of about 4 hours on November 3, 2021

THE INSIDES:  poly velvet doesn’t fray, but still ‘sheds’, so I merely zig-zag stitched over the edges

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric cost me about $30 something dollars from JoAnn fabrics…I bought it several years back and no longer exactly remember!

The happiest coincidence of finding some really great information relating the Carolyn Ramey is the fact I have found the original newspaper article advertising the release of the pattern that I have.  This is how I am able to date the pattern to August 7, 1938.  I never get to do such a precise tracking, especially for a mail order pattern.  Unfortunately, Newspapers.com and many of my other sources for info on Ms. Ramey and her work is either a pay-per-view site or from a link that has since disappeared off the internet.  Nevertheless, you happily get the highlights of what I’ve gleaned here! 

Many of the dress’ fine-tuned details are hidden by the oversized ‘print’ of the burnout velvet I used, so let me run through them for you.  It’s the seemingly simple designs that need the highest quality fine tuning to look chic instead of sloppy, after all, and this pattern has it all.  I’ll start with the most noticeable feature – the uber-wide and waist deep dolman sleeves (also known by the more modern term ‘batwing’).  They are seamed into a fitted bodice, quite an unusual take.  Most dolman sleeves are cut as one piece with the body and do not have an armscye.  Leave it to an indie designer to put her own spin on something!  The way the bodice is darted under the bust, with a natural shoulder seam which dips into a V-point at the side waist seam, really fits it to the body.  This variety of dolman sleeve controls the fullness of the dramatic sleeves more than the ‘normal’ one-piece dolman cut would offer.  

In Carolyn Ramey’s newspaper commentary for this pattern, she says the combo of these sleeves and the slender skirt will “make you look as slim as a reed” and is a “simple yet sophisticated” combination. “The sleeves are full except at the wrist” and the long skirt has tailored, curvy vertical seam lines to make it appear bias cut when it is really straight grain cut.  She says “it is extremely easy dress to sew” and she is not wrong, for it has taken me much longer to write my post about the dress than the four hours I spent to make it from start to finish.

No closures were needed here and this pops over my head – a completed outfit in an instant.  This isn’t what the pattern called for, but I simplified it.  There was supposed to be a duo of a back button placket and a small side seam waist closure, but velvet is not conducive to being bound into a stiff buttonhole or zipper. Carolyn Ramey even suggests a full center back zipper down the back of the dress, if possible (remember this pattern is from 1938, so this is a fashion forward thought).  I merely left the back neck open for 6 inches down with a small hook and eye at the top.  Carolyn Ramey talks up her patterns as being versatile and adaptive to customization.  This is after all the ideal of every home sewing pattern – use it as a tool to cater to your ideas and needs.  For every pattern release through the Chicago Tribune, she gives recommendations of variations, and my pattern – for one example – includes some extra little pieces to aid in making those modifications.  How honest is that for Ms. Ramey to want her users to reimagine her designs for themselves!

I am imagining another version of this dress in a soft and nubby monotone tweed, with a shorter ‘street’ length, and maybe with a collar, too, for a whole new spin.  A plaid suiting, tunic length version –to be worn with a skirt or wide trousers – may be quite interesting, as well!  I can even picture this in a liquid ivory satin for a fantastic wedding dress!  I have so many ideas for this pattern, and so little time to sew or such few places to wear half of my creative notions. 

I have no place to complain, though.  Out of all the things we have to be thankful for this holiday season, I am always thankful for my sewing capabilities and my handmade wardrobe those skills have given me.  Furthermore, I love to be thankful for women like Carolyn Ramey who had a passion to help others and gave an excellent example of following your dreams…especially when that medium is through sewing!  It gives me encouragement and hope for my own undertakings.  It fires up my historical curiosity and belief in the worth of my research.  Let us support small enterprises, creative makers, and independent businesses everywhere this weekend and show how grateful we are.  The people who channel their artistic inspiration, drawn from the beauty of life, into something you can buy deserve to be supported and appreciated.  I am merely a local maker, and my work comes from happy customers in town, spread by word of mouth, so I understand how important it is to let where money is spent do the talking.  Shop small businesses this weekend, stay thankful, and keep on stitching, my fellow sewists!  Drop me a comment if you enjoyed learning about Carolyn Ramey!

“Just Whistle While You Work”

I know this year’s official Oktoberfest in Munich is over for this year.  Actually, though, the 12 to 17 of this month marks the very first occasion of this celebration, something which evolved from repeating the festivities surrounding the 1810 wedding of the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.  Interestingly enough, the Brothers Grimm published their first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which included “Snow White” (“Schneewittchen“ in German) as story #53, around the same time in 1812.  What better excuse to post my outfit inspired by the legendary apple-biting princess with the most traditionally German background?  Let’s dive into my Snow White “rags” work dress, made of a 1937 design, the same year as the release of the first Disney animated film by the same name.  This post’s outfit is yet another installment in my ongoing “Pandemic Princess” blog series.

I am proud of how I incorporated the heritage of the Snow White story together with the year of its Disney film, especially when it comes to the fact that this entire dress was cobbled together from my scrap bin.  What we first see Snow wearing at the beginning of the Disney film (when she meets her prince while singing into the wishing well) has the title “rags” dress after all.  I both interpreted that dress literally and opened up room for storing more scraps – ha!  Snow was yet another princess who’s an unloved daughter working as the domestic servant in the house of her stepmother, much like “Cinderella”, and so it makes sense that her garb seemed cobbled together in tattered condition.  For my dress, my “rags” are all very nice material to begin with, so it might be scrapped together too, but it is still a very nice and comfy dress!  It also happens to happily be one I don’t have to keep perfectly clean and proper in while wearing (I don’t have many of these kind), or clean and proper in my grade of construction, as well, for a strange change of circumstances.

The location for these photos is a testament to the enduring, strong presence of German immigrants in the history of my Mid-Western American hometown.  It is a landmark for our city and called the “Bevo Mill”.  The Dutch-style mill was built by August Busch Sr. (of Anheuser-Busch fame) in 1917.  The story goes that August wanted a halfway point between his brewery near down town and his home in the county. It was later opened to the public as a restaurant.  “Bevo” is supposed to be derived from the Bohemian word “pivo,” which means “beer”.  During Prohibition (1920-1933), Anheuser-Busch brewed a non-alcoholic beer named that he also named “Bevo.  The place has a very Bavarian lodge kind of feel to it which was perfect for pictures!  I have many, many great memories of coming to this place since I was old enough to remember for good food and music with special friends and family. 

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% linen – all leftover from my past projects. The skirt was a hacked up one-ish yard remnant from this 30’s skirt, the collar and sleeves came from this 1910’s era suit, and a rich brown soft vintage linen napkin set became the bodice and pocket for the dress.  Scraps of silk leftover from this blouse became the second contrast pocket and headband

PATTERN:  Simplicity #8248, a 2016 reprint of a March 1938 pattern, originally Simplicity #2432

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress came together in about 6 hours and was finished on July 21, 2020.

THIS INSIDES:  This is a “rags” dress made from scraps…it would be weird to be cleanly finished inside, right?!  The seam allowance edges are left raw.

TOTAL COST:  This dress cost me nothing!  I normally do not count the cost of material when I am using seemingly insignificant scraps, so this covers most of the dress.  The vintage table linen set was picked up for 25¢ and the zipper was on hand in my stash already, so I’m counting my dress as an ‘as-good-as-free’ project!

Women’s fashion for the year 1938 marked a widespread Germanic and Bavarian cultural influence that was unmistakable, frequent, and easily recognizable in late 30’s fashion for women.  A Germanic folk style had been creeping into women’s stylish street fashions before then because of nationalistic, racialist, and expansionist ideas stemming from both the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy during the First World War and Hitler becoming Chancellor.  “The traditional dirndl (a tracht) was also promoted through the Trapp Family Singers, who wore folk fashion during their performance at the Salzburg Festival (1936), and later on their worldwide tours.  In addition, the film “Heidi”, with Shirley Temple in the lead role, became a hit in 1937. By that year, the dirndl – and Germanic influenced fashion – was considered a ‘must’ in the wardrobe of every fashionable American woman.” (Quoted info from Wikipedia here.)  No doubt the influx of immigrants fleeing pre-WWII invasions and takeovers helped bring a new cultural influence into American style as well.  Folk fashion of central Europe had spread way beyond Germany but the fascination in the United States had dissipated by 1942 to be replaced by a craze for all things Polynesian and South American.    

There is a darker side to the German influence on late 30’s fashion, often called “Tyrolean”, which needs to be addressed.  The women’s League of the Nazi party promoted a “renewal” of the traditional Germanic designs, reworking them into a more attractive version of their folk costume which might easily entice women to adopt the styles outside of festivals.  The Nazi women’s League added short puff sleeves, a more form revealing bodice, and shorter skirt length…all scarily close to how we know the dirndl of today.  To me, Snow White’s “rags” dress seems like a hybrid, bared down version with no lacing or apron.  The way its bodice is a different color from the rest of the dress is reminiscent of an old-style tracht over-bodice with a conservative coverage over the chest, high rounded neck, and little collar.  Yet, there are the puffed sleeves and the shorter skirt.  However, this is enough of my rambling – I will dive into this topic deeper in my next post on the other Germanic fairytale princess…the one with magical hair who was imprisoned in a tower.  So stay tuned! Until then, visit my Pinterest page here on dirndls (modern and traditional) for some eye candy.

I suppose the most obvious choice of pattern to make a vintage Snow White outfit would have been Simplicity #8486, a vintage re-issue for the 80th anniversary of the Disney film in 1937, but as I keep saying for my princess series projects, I do not want a costume.  Simplicity #8486 is indeed a ‘37 design in its lines when you just look at the technical drawing, but it just seems a bit forced to make it in such a way that is a Snow White outfit.  Sure it works, but for my purposes it is too obvious of a character reference sewn like that.  I couldn’t see myself wearing these pieces otherwise, so I will come back to that pattern when I have a non-Disney inspired idea for it.  (I have made the pattern’s hat, posted here, and highly recommend it!)  Now I will explain at the end of this post why I gravitated to Snow’s “rags” dress rather than her princess one, but it was also an easy choice when another 1937 reprint – Simplicity #8248 – was an almost line for line ‘copy’.  This shows just how much Disney’s styling of Snow White makes her very much a product of the times.  I have been aching to sew Simplicity #8248 ever since it came out, anyway, and I was so happy to finally have a reason to do so!

My little bluebird pin on my collar is a gift to me from my Aunt!

Before diving into my Snow White dress, I checked out a few reviews on the pattern and immediately saw one constant warning – this pattern runs small and short-waisted.  I can now attest that this is 100% true.  Heeding the warnings (‘cause it’s better to be safe than sorry), I cut out one whole size bigger than what I needed (according to the given chart) and gave myself an extra inch in the bodice length.  It was a good thing I took these precautions – the dress just fits, and couldn’t be any smaller.  Any tighter in the bodice and I would have been restricted in reach room or my bust would’ve been smashed.  I do wish I had widened the shoulders more because they are too far in towards my neck.  However, the puff sleeve tops fill in for this fitting mishap.  I did have to take out the seam allowance from the waist down because the hips in the dress were snug enough to wrinkle and ride up on me.  I wholeheartedly recommend this dress, though – it is a cute design that lends itself to many differing interpretations.  The details are top notch (omg…the angular darted sleeve caps I chose from view B = love).  It was easy to sew.   It is a classic example of late 30’s fashion.  I will be coming back to this and making another dress from this pattern, maybe even color blocking the bodice panels.  It’s a winner – I hope you try this dress out for yourself.

Pockets just big enough for a to-do list, small handkerchief, or my lipstick – in this case Besame Cosmetics’ “Fairest Red”, a faithful recreation of Snow White’s lip color in the 1937 Disney film.

That being said, I did slightly change up the pattern, not by altering anything in the design, just by adding in extra seam lines to accommodate the small fabric pieces I was using.  The four napkin squares that I had were just barely enough to work – only wide enough to fit half of my body at a time.  Luckily the bodice was in two pieces as well because This linen was dense, super soft, and luxurious – understandable as it was intended to be napkins – and in the perfect color for Snow’s bodice.  I was determined to make my idea work.  The entire front and center bodice is supposed to be cut on the fold, but I had to add a center seam to all the pieces because of linen napkins I was using.  Even the collar pieces had to be seamed together as well because the two biggest scraps went towards the sleeves.  Since there was a seam down the front anyway, and since a collar that is tight around my neck can feel stifling for me, I added a long 22 inch zipper to make my dress fuss-free and adjustable for my comfort. Of course, the double, overlapping, two-tone pockets are my idea as well, and the cutest way to flaunt something so utilitarian!

There was a chunk cut out of the almost perfect one yard left that I needed for the dress’ skirt.  No problem – I was being forced to do the natural thing to make an accurate rendition of the “rags” dress…patches!  It’s not just decorative for looks alone…I really used up the few pieces I had left to barely cover the hole in my skirt material.  It couldn’t have been any more perfect, it was laughable – I would never do this to a project otherwise!!  This was a fantastic case of serendipity.  I left the dress bottom raw, fraying and unhemmed to complement the “rags” look.  Even still, I did use decorative, basic embroidery (a chain-stitch and feather stitch) to sew the patch panels down so at least they would look well-done.  The patch work goes against my ingrained sewing style but the embroidery made it palatable. 

I realized something important here – just because clothing becomes mended doesn’t mean it is ruined or on it’s last life.  My husband, my son, and I have been wearing out our clothes, socks, etc. at a far quicker pace than ever before since the start of the pandemic in 2020 and the rate of repairs I have been doing is quite constant.  I suppose it’s all the extra time and work we are getting done at home – I don’t really know.  Anyway, this Snow White dress is a good example of the visible mending trend I am trying to lean into anyway.  I have always been about reusing, refashioning, and recycling what we have on hand for a new purpose here at home.  Sure, it would be easier to just pitch or recycle such items and buy new, and in some cases we need to do just that, yet change in the fashion industry has to come from somewhere…so it might as well start with me.  I’ve just never tried to incorporate mending so intentionally into something vintage, much less newly made.  As I said, it’s weird for me…in a good way.

As much as I love this dress, and as happy as I am wearing it, Snow White’s story is troublesome to me, mostly on account of the many questionable and problematic elements to her tale.  One young woman to keep house for seven men she just met?  At least the Grimm Brothers’ version makes the Disney interpretation seem so much better than it is on its own.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  The Disney movie version is fantastic in its own right, particularly as a landmark achievement in animation history, and charming in its presentation.  I love how Snow was animated, I enjoy her songs, and relish the humor intertwined in her movie.  Even still, as a person, I find Snow White to be one of the hardest Disney princesses to associate myself with or understand…she is too naive and gullible, for my taste.  Even the messages of both the Grimm tale and the Disney story is sort of confusing…physical beauty will save you and find you love?  Be kind to the point of overly trusting of strangers?  I know it was the older “scare” style of teaching lessons. Yet, seriously, folks…how the antiquated fairytales were for children, I’ll never fully understand.   

I like to ‘see’ a better message from Snow White’s tale, which is why I gravitated towards the “rags” dress in the first place.  Beauty is not dependent on the clothing you wear or the manner of styling oneself.  Marilyn Monroe put a spin on this belief in the most fantastic, hilarious manner in recent memory by wearing a potato sack for a photo shoot.  Beauty is what’s on the inside.  I know this may be a cliché phrase by now, but it’s worth repeating so we can remember what’s important in a world that’s driven by image-centric social media ‘perfection’.

Furthermore, on a practical level, I can completely relate to Snow White’s working song, “Just Whistle While You Work”, which I why it’s my post’s title.  I do like a bit of merry, energizing background music while I do chores or sewing (but not fabric cutting…too much to focus on).  Believe it or not, I sometimes even like my favorite tunes playing on the side when I do my blog post writing.  However, such a setting only applies when my “comfort” music is played, the kind that I know by heart and places me in a great mood!  Now if only I can get all the squirrels, rabbits, and birds that we have around our yard to actually help me get things done, as well, I suppose I would be ecstatic enough to whistle about it, too!