Lessons from 1953

When I first discovered vintage Vogue patterns on eBay last Spring, I was delighted to find that most of the patterns from the 1950s were dated, usually with a line which stated, for example, Copyright 1956 The Conde Nast Publications, Inc..  It took me a couple of weeks to realize that I should also be looking for another important bit of information on the pattern cover: the words Printed Pattern.  I discovered this the hard way;  I purchased a pattern, dated 1953, that was not printed.

I've always liked Asian-inspired dress designs, and I thought this one from 1953 was so pretty. Do you see the size on this pattern? Yes - it's a 14! That's the size one wore in 1953 to fit a 32" bust and 35" hip.


I remember my mother mentioning how difficult unprinted patterns were to use – and I was about to find out why! The tissue pattern pieces were only marked with small holes of varying sizes;  to try to make sense of these markings, I had to look at the instruction layout sheets and translate if they were for a dart,  a stitching line, a pivot point, or some other detail.

These particular pattern pieces had never been used – and I must admit I felt a little guilty taking them from their envelope where they had quietly lived for so many years and pinning them onto my fabric, but pin I did.  I cut that baby out, marked that nebulous galaxy of pattern holes as best I could with chalk, and proceeded to sew, following the directions precisely.

The first thing I realized was that the bust darts were a little too high, but that was an easy fix (seam ripper and redrawing the dart lines).  These early patterns say that the dress should be fitted over the proper foundation garments.  (I don’t think they meant just comfy bra and cotton panties.) Anyone who has watched old movies or even Mad Men recognizes that mid-century look of the pointed and properly perched bosom! That’s one mid-century look I’ll forego.   So that was adjustment # 1.

I lowered the bust line by re-placing the darts.

Next, do you see that band that runs the length of the dress?  The pattern pieces for that were shaped to match the curve of the neck and across the chest.  I thought to myself – now why not just use a bias piece of fabric, which I felt would take the curves better and be easier to topstitch without puckers.  But I followed the pattern exactly – and wouldn’t you know, I had exactly those problems topstitching the curved areas.  As if that were not bad enough, when I tried on the partially completed dress, the neck fit too high and tight, rumpling up the shoulders and it looked awful.

I was going to have to re-cut the neckline, to make it larger. In doing that, I knew the neck area of the band, as it was cut out, would no longer match the new neckline.  I was going to have to piece in another section.  This was not fun, and I was beginning to think this lovely blue dupioni silk was going to end up as a skirt instead of a dress.  But I went back to my original thought – and cut a bias piece to fill in that recut section.  It worked!  That was BIG (ver-r-r-ry BIG) adjustment # 2.

Here is the recut neckline. I was able to hide the pieced seam under the front flap.

Here is the back of the neckline after I recut it.

Here is a close-up of the bodice and armhole band.

By now I was sick of this dress.  I still had buttons to cover and attach, armholes to do, interior snaps, the hem, and the cummerbund to complete.  Well, you can see from the photos that I did finish this dress, although it was late summer before I sewed the last stitch.

The completed dress. You can see I shortened the hem from mid-calf (as shown on the pattern envelope) to just below the knee.

Here is a close-up of the covered buttons and button loops.

I’m still not completely happy with it, but it provided me with these valuable lessons:

1)   Stay away from unprinted patterns.

2)   Check the bustline placement before marking and sewing the darts.

3)   When in doubt, trust my instincts (I should have used all bias for that band and those armholes.)

4)   For best results, make the pattern up in muslin first.  If I had done this, I could have made the bust and neck adjustments before I cut the pattern out in the blue and white silk.

I had a chance to wear this dress during the warm September we had here in eastern Pennsylvania – and I am sure no one suspected I was wearing a dress designed in 1953!  Amazing!


Filed under Asian-inspired dress designs, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, Unprinted patterns from the 1950s, Vogue patterns

3 responses to “Lessons from 1953

  1. Cindy Pierce

    Dear Karen,
    Wow! I am so impressed and intrigued by your new venture! When your postcard arrived, I had no idea what a treasure trove of information I was about to uncover…information about fashion and fabrics AND about you and your incredible talents. I look forward to checking your blog often and to hearing/learning more both in person and on line. Congratulations!!!

  2. Thanks, Cindy! I’m so glad to have you as a reader!

  3. marie

    Hi Karen,
    Love your postcard and your blog. I,too, am a lover of 50″s and beyond inspired coats, dresses.The fashions worn by Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy are still relate-able today. Have you watched a Doris Day movie lately? She looked unbeleivable in her coat & dress numbers.

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