Back to the Past

I am finally back in my sewing room, working on my emerald green silk suit.  The event to which I had hoped to wear this suit has come and gone (I wore something else that evening and the world somehow kept on spinning – amazing!), but this sewing project was and is on my Spring agenda and I am bound and determined to finish it.  Until I have made a bit more progress, with something to show for it, I thought I would indulge you with a book review of the 1956 Claire McCardell (1905-1958) book, What Shall I Wear, re-published in 2012 by The Rookery Press, in association with The Overlook Press, New York, New York.

Back to the Past

This book came to my attention by way of The Vintage Traveler blog (thanks, Lizzie!).  I purchased it on Amazon last Fall, and then, to my surprise, it was one of five books chosen by Christina Binkley of  The Wall Street Journal for her annual list of “Best Style Books”.

This annual feature on "style books" is always one of my favorites.

This annual feature on “style books” in The Wall Street Journal is always one of my favorites.  It appeared on December 20, 2012.

Here from Binkley’s review of the book: “This book is a gem.  …It manages to be modern more than 60 years later…  The designer created chic casual items that we take for granted today, such as trim ankle pants and full skirts that permit comfort and movement.  … She demonstrates an understanding of women’s lives. ‘Everyone should have a “pop-over” dress – a sheath that they can just pop over their head and go.’”

Here are some of Claire McCardell’s fashion tips and thoughts which struck a chord with me, especially in relation to sewing and dressmaking:

1)  The simple act of changing buttons (or in sewing, choosing the right ones) can make a dress fit your style.

2) When putting together your clothing (or pattern and fabric) budget, consider carefully where you want to put your money.  Make one major purchase a year, something classic and timeless is always a smart move.

3) Use color extensively and don’t be afraid to stretch from your normal palette.

4) Coats should be a large part of your wardrobe.  Indeed, she recommends compiling a “Coat Collection”.  That’s advice sweet to my ears!

5) Learn how to tie a scarf!  In her words:  “You miss all the fun if you can’t tie things.”  “If you really care about Fashion, sit down right now and learn to tie.  An ascot, a bandanna, a neckband, a bowknot.  This means knowing how to fold first, knowing how to loop next, knowing how to get the knot straight, knowing how to make the ends even – or uneven – on purpose.”

6)  Like all the great fashion designers and couturiers, she emphasizes the overwhelming importance of fit.  All those muslins/toiles we make are worth the time they take!

7) Accessorize your outfits with the appropriate jewelry, shoes, and bags.  Restraint is better than opulence.

8) She was a big fan (and proponent) of the “American Look”: meaning comfortable clothing with clean lines, displaying elegant simplicity.

The final chapter of the book is appropriately entitled:  Fashion has no last chapter.

You can read here for yourself her Essential Eleven.  Pay particular attention to #2!

As a preface to this list, McCardell states:  "There is a great deal in common between the woman who designs clothes and the woman who knows clothes."

As a preface to this list, McCardell states: “There is a great deal in common between the woman who designs clothes and the woman who knows clothes.”  (Click on the photo for a close-up).

Earlier in the book on page 103, she relates her first experience with dressmaking: “Miss Annie … came to the house to make clothes for mother and me.  The process fascinated me from the start – selecting the pictures of dresses in the Vogue Pattern Book, the fabrics to be bought at the dry-goods store, the cutting and basting and fitting, the pockets and buttons and buttonholes…”

Surely sewing and dressmaking have no last chapter either:  What will you wear?  What will you sew?

12 Comments

Filed under Buttons - choosing the right ones, Coats, Scarves, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Back to the Past

  1. Oh, you’ve just reinforced my need for this book! It’s been on my wishlist since I learned about it from Lizzie’s blog and I was planning to get it with my next amazon order. Thanks for the little sneak peek! =)

  2. I’ve never heard of this book, I shall look for it in the library!

  3. You are very welcome! I am so glad you (and Christina Brinkley) loved the book. I agree that most of her advice has stood the test of time.

  4. A coat collection??? Oh I am so excited! I will get busy on that right away! Thanks for sharing this book- I WANT it now! And will have it! ~Laurie

  5. Carol

    Looking forward to reading the book. My mother and aunt would have been around thirty at that time. Claire McCardell’s designs would have appealed to them. I seem to remember an ensemble of halter top with matching front buttoned full skirt worn over shorts. My next project is an Anne Klein of Junior Sophisticates for Spadea Designer Pattern (1961). It has short kimono sleeves with gussets, a fitted bodice lining under a blouson and five bound buttonholes down the back.

    • I have many memories of halter tops worn with shorts! Your new project sounds like a lovely design. I am considering a short-sleeve kimono, gusseted design for my next dress – but I am still in the undecided stage!

  6. Oh 11 is the trickiest by far for many folk I think. Me too probably. Thank you for the interesting review …. and coats. Clearly I need more coats, along with everything else that I need. 🙂

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