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:
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 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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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:
to this reversible car coat from the early ‘60s:
to this cocktail dress and coat ensemble from the mid ‘60s:
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?