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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
There was a little blood (on the white fur, of course! but easy to fix), a lot of sweat (heavy upholstery fabric is hard to wrangle!), but thankfully, no tears for this build!
I ended up having to sort through 415 photos for this post! Needless to say, I have reduced that number down a little bit. (Click photos to enlarge.)
Back at the end of September, I was hired to build dresses for two identical mannequins for a revamped outdoor Christmas display in Wichita Falls. The request was for something that resembled the red satin dresses with white fur trim seen at the end of the 1954 movie White Christmas.
One of the mannequins was brought to my house.
I called her Keira. She was about the same dress size as I am – but 6 feet tall! A GIANT Barbie.
Her old outfit was sad and her wig was scraggly. So I threw away her clothes and let her borrow some of mine after a bit of a spa day.
I ordered a swatch of the Sunbrella brand red outdoor upholstery velvet. It ended up being the perfect color and had a decent drape, so I ordered 16 yards (but it seems to be sold out at the moment – not sure if they will restock it, but I hope they do!).
I bought some rip-stop nylon for lining and some white acrylic fur with an olefin backing at my local Hancock Fabrics. I also purchased outdoor upholstery thread, acrylic rhinestones (JoAnn Fabrics), and fabric glitter glue (Hobby Lobby).
I ordered hoop skirt petticoats from Petticoat Junction and the client ordered ice skates for shoes. I bought some red “parade gloves” at a Halloween store (perfect timing of a project!).
My really good friend Marlene, who is a professional film & television makeup artist, was tasked with finding and styling some appropriate wigs that could stand up to the elements.
Wensley did not like Keira and hated it when I touched her or moved her around. I think she bothered him because she wouldn’t look at him, hehe. (My dress forms don’t have faces so he just ignores them.)
There was growling and barking for many days after she arrived. Just when he had gotten a little used to Keira visiting, the big roll of velvet fabric arrived and he greeted that with the same suspicious “intruder alert!” and I caught it on video:
My husband and our brother-in-law helped me rig a stand for her, and then I was able to start working on a mockup.
My starting point for both bodices was Vogue 2979 that looks like a reproduction of Grace Kelly’s wedding dress (pictured in this old post). But the sleeve caps as drafted were too short and caused all kinds of fit issues until I popped the seam open at the shoulder. (I tried the bodice on myself and had similar problems with the fit, so beware if you are trying to use this pattern straight from the envelope.) I also lowered the underarm curve a slightly like I usually need to do for myself.
Therefore, I drafted my own sleeve from scratch and made it a two-piece sleeve while I was at it. This allowed me to include better elbow ease for Keira’s perpetually bent arms. It also made it so much easier to dress her.
My friend used glossy red model paint to repaint Keira’s outdated ‘80s lips (check out that unbelievably sharp line!) and Keira got her lovely new hair. So much better!
The skirts were just basic full circles (but huge! because she’s so tall!) and I draped & drew the cape pattern on Keira. I was really surprised that the upholstery velvet cooperated and did what I wanted it to do for the most part.
I didn’t have enough fur (I bought all there was at the store) to double fold it like I wanted to on the capelet and skirts, so I lined it with some white polyester utility fabric and did a lot of picking to pull the fur out of the seams.
If you have questions or would like to know about specific details, ask me in the comments. =)
Overall, I probably spent about 3 weeks total on this project but the work was spread out over about 6 weeks. It was a huge build to complete on my own and I was so glad when it was finished! So was Wensley.
Merry Christmas to all, and my all your Christmases be white!
And Happy Geek Pride Day!
Today I’m spending the afternoon working at the little local fabric store and wearing my newly made Star Trek comic print skirt.
I didn’t use a pattern for my skirt. It’s just a basic petticoat-style skirt with an elastic waistband, which I made with rectangles of fabric. (More details in a minute.)
I still have plans to remake a better fitting knit Dandelion top a la TOS style, but I haven’t gotten to that point in my sewing queue.
So I’m just wearing an old store-bought polo I’ve had in my closet for years with my new skirt. The polo’s a bit too long for the skirt, but it’ll do for now.
I’ve had this fabric for months knowing I wanted a geeky skirt out of it. I was even able to print-match across the seams without losing too many inches!
Here’s a simplified how-to diagram to explain making the elastic-waistband skirt (detailed instructions following):
Mine finished about 19½-inches long (knee-length worn a couple inches below waist) using the following measurements & steps:
Here are a couple of sewing tricks I like to use:
This skirt works really well with a petticoat underneath so I pulled out my ‘50s style petticoat (it’s an XL kid’s size so it’s shorter than the period appropriate length).
My husband hates the petticoat look but I love it!
It required spinning.
We will see how many fabric store customers notice my geekiness at work today or even know what today is. By the way, I always keep a towel in my car – but my dog gets more use out of it than I do.
Speaking of the dog, you might be wondering “where’s Wensley?” because he usually likes to photo bomb. Believe me, he tried but there was a door in his way this time:
And I leave you with this silly picture, because I still like the skirt best with the petticoat underneath:
One to beam out. So long, and thanks for all the fish!
For Easter in 1963, Jackie Kennedy wore an Oleg Cassini dress made in pale pink linen. Fifty years later, the simple style of her dress is still beautiful, and I’ve wanted to copy it for myself for years.
This Easter I finally did.
I first fell in love with her dress when I purchased the book Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, which I was lucky to find at my local Half Price Books for only $10. It is full of wonderful photos specifically of her fabulous clothes.
While I love everything about her dress, I knew I would not look good wearing such a pale pink. I look better in warm colors, and let’s face it, I am the opposite of tanned. (I’m bordering on vampire pale.)
I already had a large stash of 100% linen in an ivory color left over from a wedding dress I once made for a client. So I decided to dye some in a color I can wear.
It took me at least 6 attempts to get the final color. I almost stopped at this shade of orange, which was just a little too yellow:
Thankfully, one of my coworkers at the time is a dye expert, and she was able to tell me what color to over-dye my linen to make it a better shade of orange. (Thanks, Susan!) I also dyed my white cotton/poly underlining fabric a similar color to prevent seams from showing through. (I checked the linen with the undyed white, and there definitely would have been some color difference around the seams had I left it white.)
After studying the photographs of the Cassini dress closely, I chose McCall’s 7158 from 1963 because the style lines were the most similar. (I didn’t even realize the pattern date was the same as the Cassini dress until just now when I checked!)
The pattern needed a lot of tweaking. You can see how I fit the mockup in this post.
Once I had made the appropriate pattern alterations, I cut and assembled the lining first so I could double check the fit. Then I cut my linen and underlining fabric and basted them together.
I also made matching linen bias for the “quatrefoil motif” and to finish the arm and neck edges. (I generally dislike facings and try to eliminate them whenever possible.)
My favorite part of this build was creating the single decorative detail near the neckline of the dress.
My least favorite part of this build was making the bust darts cooperate – I almost gave up and threw the dress in the trash because of them. When stitched in the linen, they wanted to be extra pointy and I really wanted to avoid an Anne Hathaway dart dilemma.
Had I not wanted a new Easter dress so badly, and if so many people (online and in real life) had not known about me making it, I doubt I would have been so determined to finish it. (And yes, I did have to remind myself of the advice in this old post.)
I fought those stupid, hateful darts for at least 2 nights after work. I ended up shaping them slightly and stitching them by hand because it was easier to do the minor changes by hand.
Ultimately, I found the biggest improvement to the pointiness was stitching the dart fold down to the underlining to control them. (In hindsight, I probably should have reduced the length of the darts on the pattern before I cut the linen.)
They still aren’t perfect, and they really bug me because that’s all I see when I look at the dress. I’m hoping that by the time next spring comes around, I will have had enough distance from the dress for the darts not to bother me as much.
Somehow, I can make nearly perfect things for others, but when I try to make something couture for myself, it’s never quite right. I know part of the problem is that fitting and seeing the design elements on your own body is nearly as hard as cutting your own hair – it’s hard to back up and see the full picture.
So during two short breaks and part of my lunch break every day for a couple weeks, I did as much as I could to build my dress during my time at the opera. Then I continued working on it at night when I came home. But I managed to complete it in time for Easter Sunday.
Here’s the abbreviated summary of the build, through photos (as usual, click to enlarge):
Easter morning was quite chilly where I live, but since my dress was three layers, I was rather warm even without sleeves.
Since we got out of church before the rest of my family, I ended up taking most of the photos by myself using the camera’s self-timer while I warmed up the food for lunch at my parents’ house (my husband went back at our house to attend to other things).
It was so stinking bright outside, I could hardly keep my eyes open and I was almost crying. I captured lots of photos of myself with my eyes closed or really weird expressions. I did manage to take a few decent shots though.
I had hoped to take some better pictures with my husband’s help later, but nothing turned out any better. He did take a photo of the back (something I had forgotten to do):
And I shall end with a close up of my favorite part – the simple decoration:
Hooray, it’s my first real rant post!
As a costumer, I’ve been trained to have a critical eye when it comes to costumes & clothing on stage & camera. The more time you spend in a costume shop or on a film crew, the more details you start to notice (in all aspects of a production) and taking note becomes second-nature.
It’s a habit that can be annoying and hard to turn off – just ask my poor husband.
Husband (pushing pause): What.
Me: The actor’s tie-knot keeps changing position from shot to shot – it’s distracting.
Husband: Have you even heard the characters’ conversation?
Me: Umm… sort of… no, not really. Could you… rewind it a little?
Yeah, it’s not always easy to just let entertainment be exactly that – entertainment. Work-mode is always running just below the surface. (Eep, I’ve become a costume drone!)
I really dislike black fabrics or anything dark without texture. On camera, the shadows disappear and you just see a dark blob. Because they look so striking on camera, deep blacks are usually reserved for well-lit funeral scenes. And if black clothing is used, it’s in limited amounts and is usually a soft black.
Meanwhile, gleaming white is usually too bright (or hot) on camera, and it seems to glow and pull the focus to the white object. This is why I am usually compelled to dim the white a little with a slight brown or grey over-dye – like the tea-dyed lace for my 1912 Princess Slip. (In the business, this is known as “tech”-ing it.)
Large high-contrast prints (especially black & white ones) can look like home décor and usually overwhelm the wearer.
Small high-contrast prints (like bright pinstripes) can look like they are vibrating, especially in HD. Would somebody please advise the evening news anchors about this?
I cringe when I see groups of matchy-matchy outfits (think family Christmas photos of everyone in the same silly sweater & jeans). Coordinating is good, but it’s best to keep everyone different enough to share focus (or make one person stand out to force focus, if that is the point of a scene).
I could go on for days with the little do’s and don’ts for dressing someone for camera, but I’ll just say that there are times that my costuming skills can also help when planning for photos. Since photography is just non-motion film, a lot of the same conventions still apply. (I like to think that my aversion to white-white also helped Camille’s wedding dress photograph so well for her nighttime wedding.)
This brings me to another side effect of being a film costumer (theatre costuming is similar but there are subtle differences): my professional training bleeds over into my view of everyday fashion as well. My closet is full of outfits that reflect my costuming preferences, and I dress for “the part” depending on circumstances & events.
I’m currently working on a personal sewing project with the goal of redoing my blog banner and possibly my avatar. I’ve had the general concept in mind for over a year, but I’m still working out all the details.
I had an orange fabric with white polka dots picked out for a retro dress, but I decided to do a screen test with it and another orange fabric with smaller dots. (My costuming instincts were raising red flags about my first choice, so I had to make sure.)
I took a few photos of both fabrics draped over a chair in the setting I plan to use for my photo shoot, and then I could compare them on the computer screen more objectively.
After seeing the fabrics on screen, I changed my mind about my fabric – I liked the smaller polka dot better in the setting. The orange disappears on my original choice and doesn’t stand out from my bright blue fridge and chartreuse walls, especially as a smaller photo. I want my dress – not my fridge – to be the focus of my banner (even though the icebox is really cool and eye-catching).
Conclusion from my screen test: the fabric I ended up liking better was one I thought was a little too bright in person but it looks amazing on camera and from a distance.
Now if I could just decide if I need to fuss with toning down the overall brightness of the fabric just a little, I could cut out my 50’s style dress and start building… There’s that dang costumer-mode trying to take over again!
While I am partial to the cheerful girliness of 1950s styles, I find myself gravitating to the styles from the 1960s as well. To me, Sixties fashion was when Fifties fashion “grew up” and sort of branched into two groups: simple sophistication – think Audrey Hepburn & Jackie Kennedy (both women seemed to bloom into fashion icons during this decade), and artistic “Mod” – think modern new things like Star Trek, The Beatles & Marimekko prints.
We will start out with two of my favorite patterns, which are both from the year 1960:
Then there is one more from 1960, but it’s a bit “costumey”:
The seams are so interesting on this dress from 1961:
Then I have a girls’ dress that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else on the internet. The year is unknown, but it has to be from the Sixties:
My reasons for thinking that it belongs in the 1960s are: the price (45 cents) is similar to the prices of other early Sixties patterns; the hairstyles on the girls look ’60s; the colors match the previous pattern’s; the floral print looks correct for that decade; and the skirt of the dress also has an inverted box pleat like the previous pattern. I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume it belongs at this point in the timeline – do you agree?
Here’s another girls’ dress and a wrap skirt from 1962:
This next one from 1964 epitomizes the sophistication of Sixties fashion:
A more formal dress from 1965:
Then the Mod Styles really start showing with these next few. 1960s (specific year unknown):
A mini-dress with shorts for beachwear from 1967:
My one vintage pattern from 1968 has incredibly interesting style lines, and it’s Karen’s fault that I had to have it because she talked about it on her blog:
This pattern is from 1969:
The date on this next one is unknown, and different sources put it in different decades. I can’t decide if it’s late 60s or early 70s:
The overall shape is Sixties, but the big collar and one-piece “jumpsuit” version seems rather Seventies. Even the hairstyles are in that transition stage.
The 1970s get a bad rap because of awful plaids and horrible-feeling synthetic fabrics, but I’ve always loved the style-lines (especially on women’s suits) and how slim & leggy they make people look. (I’m glad I can say I was born in this decade and not the Eighties, which I think was the ugliest fashion decade ever!)
I have a short list of vintage patterns from the Seventies starting with 1973:
And another suit pattern, also from 1973. I actually just have a self-traced brown-paper copy (with Xeroxed envelope & instructions) of this one because I found in my size in a theatre costume shop’s filing cabinet:
This next jumpsuit pattern from 1977 was so hilariously 70s that I had to keep it. Cue The Carpenters!
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of my vintage patterns. I’ll be sharing some of my current projects using a few of them in the weeks to come. =)
Continuing the chronological show-and-tell of my vintage pattern collection… (here’s the 1940s post in case you missed it.)
Ahhh, the Fifties. It’s probably my most favorite fashion decade because of the bright happy colors and the girly dresses.
First up are two Advance brand patterns that I can only date as “early 1950s”:
1952 gives us this dance & skating outfits pattern:
A dress with an interesting scalloped inset gored skirt from 1953:
Two from 1954:
Three dress patterns from 1955:
Moving on to 1957:
My one pattern from 1958 is a wonderful pencil skirt:
A casual dress from 1959:
I have another girls’ dress without a specific year – I could only find that it was from the ’50s when I researched it:
Then there’s this one I can’t definitively date but I believe it is from sometime in the 1950s:
I love the little blurb about it on the envelope:
“Coat-dress with many lives: scarf it – jewel it! Soft gathers blouse from the curved yoke; bodice is taut, leads into a beautiful flow of skirt. Fashion focus: splurge on glitter buttons or make your own self-covered ones.”
I think I might need to find some glitter buttons!
My Sixties patterns
I have been going through & photographing my vintage patterns over the last few days in an attempt to date & organize them. I had not realized how many I actually have, and I had completely forgotten about some really great ones!
I think I’ve only actually purchased 5 or 6 of the vintage ones I own. Many were gifted to me by my mother-in-law, and quite a number of them are ones I rescued from a “graveyard” box when I was working as a costumer along side Ken Weber (one of the owners of Vintage Martini) a few years ago.
They were in the box because their envelopes weren’t in the best shape for selling, and he didn’t want to spend time examining them to see if all the pieces were included. I’m not terribly picky about condition (I can usually draft the missing pieces as long as I have enough of the information included with the pattern), so I happily scooped up the most interesting ones.
Here’s a look at the vintage sewing patterns that I own from the 1940s in order of date (I had no idea I actually had so many originals from that decade!):
I’m not sure I really have the blouse pattern because the envelope is empty except for the instruction sheet. The pattern pieces may be hiding next to another pattern in a disintegrating envelope, but I haven’t done a thorough search yet. Even if I don’t have it, the envelope & instructions should be enough information for me to recreate it.
Next are patterns from 1946 – two skirts and one apron:
From 1948, there is another apron, a house dress, and a woman’s suit:
Moving on to 1949, there’s another apron pattern and a lovely dress:
Then I have a few mail order vintage patterns (mostly aprons) with unknown dates, including this suit:
Vintage Patterns Wiki was very helpful in my search for pattern dates. Even if the date wasn’t listed on the site’s page for a pattern, there was often a useful link that took me to the information I needed.
Unsurprisingly, I also have quite a few vintage patterns from both the 1950s & 1960s (it’s safe to say those are my favorite decades in fashion), and a couple from the 1970s.
But I’ll save those show-and-tells for another day. =)