Oh, The Things We Can Learn!

When is a pattern envelope not just a place to keep a tissue pattern? When it is a mini lesson in sewing, style, history, elegance, and story-telling. Of course, I am thinking primarily of vintage pattern envelopes – and because I primarily sew from Vogue patterns, those are the focus of my thoughts.

I am also limiting my short exploration of these topics to the course of about ten years, from approximately 1956 until 1966. Most of the pattern art from this time period was in illustration form rather than photography. There were exceptions, such as this classic polka-dotted dress and coat ensemble from 1959:

The reverse of this envelope has very precise sketches of the fronts and backs of the dress and coat. This is one of the few envelopes from this period - 1958 - that I have seen that features photography rather than illustration art.

The reverse of this envelope has very precise sketches of the fronts and backs of the dress and coat. This is one of the few envelopes from this period – 1958 – that I have seen that features photography rather than illustration art.

It was up to the fashion illustrators and artists to represent the pattern accurately. Darts, seams, buttons, belts, pockets, etc. all had to be clearly indicated in the illustrations on the fronts of the envelopes and in the thumbnail sketches on the back of the envelopes. Home dressmakers wanted to know these things about a pattern before purchasing it – we still do! Here is a great example of the clarity of these pattern illustrations in regard to these items:

The darts, seams, and buttons are clearly delineated in this artwork.

The darts, seams, and buttons are clearly delineated in this artwork.

The back of this pattern also gives lots of additional sewing information. The thumbnail sketches clearly show that there is no back zipper. Among the details listed is a 12” zipper. That can only mean that a side zipper is used – which makes sense as it is paired with the front-buttoned bodice.

Oh the things we can learn, no 2

Further scrutiny of the pattern layout shows a gusset, obviously for use under the arm. If you, as a dressmaker, were uncomfortable with putting in a gusset, then maybe you would want to avoid this particular pattern!

It is such an advantage to be able to see the shapes of the pattern pieces in these layouts.

It is such an advantage to be able to see the shapes of the pattern pieces in these layouts.

It was also up to the fashion illustrator to make the pattern look relevant to one’s life. Different views were often shown in varying colors, widening the visual appeal. They were also shown in dressier or more casual renditions, making the pattern attractive to different lifestyles and age groups. These two patterns clearly show this endeavor:

Oh the things we can learn, no 4

The inclusion of accessories in the pattern illustration from this time period shows just how much Vogue and other pattern companies were selling a complete look. They were saying “Start with this pattern, add gloves, a bangle bracelet or two, sunglasses or a hat, maybe a scarf, earrings, high heels, and a handbag, and you, too, can walk out looking like a million dollars!” The great desire in looking well-dressed and chic during this time period is so beautifully reflected in these pattern envelopes.

Gloves, gloves and more gloves! And look at those glasses!

Gloves, gloves and hats and scarves…   And look at those glasses!

This has got to be one of my favorite examples of pattern art: the model in white holding the scarf so casually, the stylish shoes, and the large clutch handbag on the model on the left - lovely and evocative!

This has got to be one of my favorite examples of pattern art: the model in white holding the scarf so casually, the stylish shoes, and the large clutch handbag on the model on the left – lovely and evocative!

One way of dating pattern envelopes is by looking at the hairstyles of the illustrated “models.” After about 1960, Vogue stopped including the copyright date on their envelopes. But it’s fairly clear by the bouffant and flipped hairstyles on the pattern on the left that we are looking at one from the early to mid-‘60s.  The one on the right is a few years later, based on the hairstyles alone.

Note, too, how the Vogue masthead changed during this short time period.

Note, too, how the Vogue masthead changed during this short time period.

Finally, I am delightfully intrigued by the almost universal depiction of “elegance” on the pattern envelopes from this period. From the leopard print hat and lined cape on this suit from 1959:

Oh the things we can learn, no 8

to this reversible car coat from the early ‘60s:

The model in the red version of the coat strikes a chic and elegant pose with her hair tucked under a scarf, her arms casually folded, and with her stylish handbag...

The model in the red version of the coat strikes a chic and elegant pose with her hair tucked under a scarf, her arms casually folded, her stylish handbag looped over one arm …

to this cocktail dress and coat ensemble from the mid ‘60s:

Oh the things we can learn, no 10

the message seemed to be: “These beautiful clothes which you can create are ladylike and elegant (even the casual ones), and you will be, too, when you wear them!” Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best: “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they would mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

And therein lies the intrigue of it all. The story, which begins on the outside of the pattern envelope by way of the artist’s hand, becomes our own to finish when we are creators of our own clothing. How much fun is that?

26 Comments

Filed under Mid-Century style, Pattern Art, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s

26 responses to “Oh, The Things We Can Learn!

  1. April

    I love this period and much prefer the art work to photos particularly the vibrant colours that Vogue uses. I always look at the back of the packet and wish the companies would reinstate a sketch of the pieces on the back. It gives me so much info about how the garment could be put together.
    Thank you for a very interesting blog.

    • I, too, prefer the artwork – or a combination of artwork and photo. And how I love the sketches and layouts on the backs of the envelopes! Thanks, April – I am so glad you find my blog interesting!

  2. I see you’re as big a pattern-hoarder as I am! I too like the artwork, but what I really love is the instructions in these old Vogues, which are rarely “dumbed down.” Are you going to make that Jacques Heim? He was a big French couturier back then. And the ensemble with the capri pants, top, cummerbund and jacket looks great, too!

    • I, too, love the instructions – they are generally excellent! I am definitely going to make that Jacques Heim pattern sometime – not this year, but sometime. And I love the coat paired with the capri pants – I have plans for that coat sometime, too!

  3. Beautifully put. I love the artwork on old pattern envelopes too. And how fabulous to have a pattern layout. Just like burda magazines today ( which I consider the best bed time reading-fashion photography, line drawings, pattern prices and sewing instructions. Could it get any better?!)

  4. Marguerite

    Wonderful post! You said it best…elegance and style! Where have they gone? Such work went into the pattern industry back then. To actually have fashion styling for each pattern and artists to render the final product- wow! I, too, always enjoyed the town and country depictions on the pattern envelopes. And seeing the individual pattern pieces sketched out on the outside of the envelope gave you such a better sense of how the garment would be put together. I have so many of these older patterns and like you I admire and wonder about the beautiful illustrations. But…when Vogue came out with their Paris line, I have to admit seeing “Photographed in Paris” on the envelope always gave me a thrill!

    • We are definitely kindred spirits, Marguerite! Wouldn’t you love to know more about the process of producing that artwork for the patterns and pattern magazines? And, yes – “Photographed in Paris” has a certain cache to it, doesn’t it. But those patterns always had an artist’s rendition on them as well – the best of both worlds.

  5. I love this review of Vintage Patterns in your stash. These can be mounted and displayed to be enjoyed daily. I am in the process of asking our Couture Group to bring their Vintage Patterns to our next meeting so we can all peruse and examine the changes from current patterns. Also, for the pleasure of seeing them closely. I also like the way you prolifically describe the feelings a woman feels when wearing such an outfit.

    • Those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s had no idea we had it so good when it came to patterns! And now having them available on the web to purchase is fabulous. Everyone who sews should use a vintage pattern at least once I think! It’s a privilege to sew from them.

  6. I love seeing the different looks on the patterns over time. Definitely a history lesson! Thanks!

  7. I do so love vintage pattern sleeves. Today’s ones are just missing that little something….

  8. Jackie

    I have enjoyed reading your post. Can you suggest a good sewing book to assist with the current skimpy pattern instruction sheets?

    • That’s a difficult question to answer since every pattern has its own “agenda” so to speak. One book I go back to over and over is my Vogue Sewing Book from 1970 (It’s hard copy, with an orange cover and originally came in a slipcase, also orange.) You can find copies on eBay and in some Etsy shops. It has very explicit instructions, diagrams and photographs of just about every situation you will encounter in fashion sewing. If you can find one, I recommend that you buy it! Best of luck to you in all your sewing projects – and why don’t you try a vintage pattern sometime? You may get like them as much as I do.

  9. Mary

    My mother, a brilliant seamstress, made so many clothes for me from Vogue patterns, including the Paris Originals, that seeing them again on sewing blogs is like visiting old friends. I loved to sit with her and pour over the patterns, deciding on fabrics and colors. So evocative.

    • I love that description – “visiting old friends.” That’s exactly what they are – timeless, classic, and the stuff of dreams, except that we have the power to make our sewing dreams come true! Loved your comment – thank you!

  10. Way back in the 60s (oh my) I entered a Make-it-Yourself-with-Wool contest (I didn’t win) using a Vogue pattern. It was a lovely yellow empire waist simple shift style with decorative buttons on the front yoke. I had forgotten all about it! I have no vintage patterns, but agree with all who remark on the detailed instructions and beautiful artwork.

    • That contest is still going on, as you may know! It is a little daunting to think about the ’60s (I was a teenager!) and realize patterns from that decade are now considered vintage, isn’t it? But I am really glad I grew up with such wonderful patterns at my disposal.

      • Good heavens, I had no idea it was still going! I was probably 16 at the time, and would to have that pattern now, it would still be current. Butterick was my go-to for the most part, but oh Vogue…..so classy.

  11. Before I started sewing, I bought a vintage handmade dress in the most beautiful yellowy mustardy colour. I think it’s Vogue 5549. Must track a copy down and make one with a a slightly scooped out neck! So happy you posted this!

  12. heather

    I just found your blog… loving it! you have fantastic points of view. i have been collecting vintage patterns (with plans to make them) & have been reconnecting with my mother -she used to sew the vogue patterns, couturier. sure wish she still had them. what a period in clothing! ahhh! thanks for sharing your insights! 🙂

    • Thank you, Heather! Sewing with these “vintage” Vogue patterns is such a delight. I only wish I had saved all of mine, but I’m glad I saved what I did. I am so happy you like my blog!

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