An A-Line Cocktail Dress

The A-Line silhouette is certainly a very recognizable and common style.  Although there is nothing spectacular about it, it does have a rather interesting origin in modern fashion history.  I had lots of time to think about this style as I worked through my most recent project, and I was surprised with what I discovered.

This entry in Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion gives a succinct history:

“Apparel styled close and narrow at the shoulders or waist and flaring gently away from the body to the hem in a line resembling the letter A.  Introduced in 1955 by Paris couturier Christian Dior, the term is used as an adjective in describing a wide variety of apparel with this shape, including coats, dresses, jumpers, and skirts.” (The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion, by Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta and Phyllis Tortora, Third edition, Fairchild Publications, Inc., New York, New York, c2003, page 11)

A further entry adds “…Usually made with narrow shoulders, [and] a high neckline…” (Ibid, page 11)

Dior’s “A-Line” collection in the Spring of 1955 featured a “fingertip-length flared jacket worn over a dress with a very full, pleated skirt.” (“A-Line dress,” by Susan Ward; Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, by Valerie Steele; Thomson Gale, Detroit, Michigan, pages 35-36) Fairchild’s Dictionary has a depiction of this very dress which was called “the most wanted silhouette in Paris.”

Obviously the A-Line shape then evolved into a less dramatic, and more ubiquitous style during the 1960s and ‘70s, much closer to  what we recognize today as A-Line.

When I was contemplating which pattern to use for my dress (I had purchased the fabric, 1½ yards, 54” wide,  from Mendel Goldberg Fabrics in April of this year), I wanted a style which would showcase the fabric. Although I originally thought I would go with a sheath dress silhouette for this fabric, when I found this pattern, it struck a chord.

The line drawing for the shorter length shows more detail of its seaming and darts. The description on the pattern envelope reads: “Evening or street length, high shaped, slightly A-line dress has short sleeves and scoop neckline with or without slit at center front…”

I liked that center front seam with its notched neckline, even though I knew it might be a little tricky to match the embroidered vines and flowers.  However, I thought  the semi-attached appliqués would be lovely overlapping the seams.

The small slit in the center front neckline.

It took me a full week to finish my muslin.  The bust needed to be dropped so those princess-seamed darts needed a lot of adjustment.  In the shoulder area I had some gaping in the front, and I also needed to reshape the top of the shoulders.  Instead of easing the sleevecaps to fit the armscye, I decided to replace that ease with a shaping dart to the top of the sleeves.  I really liked the fluid look that gave to the shoulder line. I drafted three-quarter sleeves as I was contemplating that change to the original pattern.

It is difficult to see in this black fabric, but this is the top of the sleeve with its shaping dart.  If you look closely, you can see some loose edges of the larger appliqués.

Can you guess what is coming next?  As is often the case when I purchase fabric first and then choose a pattern, I created a challenge for myself.  It was almost immediately obvious to me that I would not be able to work on the lengthwise grain of fabric, as I could not begin to fit the pattern pieces onto the fabric and do any matching whatsoever. As luck would have it, I preferred the appearance of the meandering of the vines and flowers on the crossgrain, and I figured out how to stagger the pattern pieces to both fit the fabric, and match the seams.  But those three-quarter length sleeves?  No way were they going to happen!  I could just fit in the original short sleeves, so short they were going to be!

Here are the silk organza underlining (pattern) pieces laid out on my fabric. I had to stagger the four main pieces to fit it on the fabric. Fortunately I was still able to match the pattern of the vines and flowers. Whew! (I took pictures on my iPad to help with the matching.  You can see it in the upper right corner.)

I ended up basting by hand every single seam on this dress.  Even with great care, it was incredibly easy to catch corners of those loose appliqués by mistake, so it was much easier to make adjustments in basting rather than in the finished machine-sewn seams.  The basting also showed me I needed to take out a small bit of the width of the skirt from the waist down, about an inch total.  When is an inch more than an inch?  In this dress!  That one inch made a huge difference in its final appearance.

Because I was sewing this dress using couture techniques, the neck facing was eliminated, with the black crepe de chine lining fell-stitched to the edge of the neckline.  When I under-stitched the lining to secure it in place, I used an off-white silk buttonhole twist. It was so much easier to see light thread on the black lining, and also, I think it looks pretty.

I hand picked the zipper, which virtually disappears in this dark jacquard embroidered fabric.

I was able to arrange the hem of the skirt so the larger of the semi-attached appliqués would hang just beneath the fold-line.

This shows two of the appliqués at the hemline.

I love the graceful flow of this dress.

The simple look of this dress belies the hours and hours I spent on it!

And I am so pleased that I was unable to make three-quarter length sleeves. These short sleeves are just perfect!

I am quite happy with the way this dress turned out.  I do think its simple lines show off the fabric well – no need for anything too fussy when the fabric is so incredibly lovely!  I love that I can wear this 1960’s A-Line style and somehow feel – and hopefully look – very current.



Filed under Cocktail dresses, couture construction, Fashion history, Formal or fancy dresses, hand-sewn zippers, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized, underlinings, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s

30 responses to “An A-Line Cocktail Dress

  1. Linda Bryan

    I just want you to know that I very much appreciate following your postings. This one, for example, has given me a sewing lesson, a lesson in the history of styles, and a lot of exercise of my brain as I envisioned the techniques you describe. You are delightful!

  2. Barbara J

    As always your sewing is exquisite and the dress is worth the time. You have truly elevated that simple A-line shift to another level.

  3. Mery

    It is incredible! Like many other high achievements you made it look effortless as quiet elegance should. It looks like one piece of fabric was woven to gently curve over you. Only those who sew will appreciate the effort behind the look, and we wouldn’t know if you didn’t tell us. For us it’s like reading and savoring all the thrilling details of a good book. Your light understitching is as pretty as pearls, and you were so right about that one inch. We (and presumably you) are accustomed to seeing you in a fitted sheath, so this very slight a-line looks like you and, of course, suits the fabric’s weight and drape. Oh, it’s just so pretty.
    When I was young I learned to avoid those armhole princess seams: the curve was always so far off for my build. The shoulder seam was much easier. In addition to fiddling with the curved sea mines did you use any other techniques like padding to make them work?

    • Mery

      “Seamlines,” not “sea lines:” Spellcheck, this is not that kind of story, now go away.

    • Thank you Mery! I had to bring those seam lines (sea mines conjures up a whole other funny image!) lower into the armscye, and then I had to eke out about a 1/2″ additional for the apex of the bust, for some reason. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I tried on the muslin to perfect the fit over the bust. There were numerous other adjustments, too, but I’m really happy with the final fit. I’m glad you like it!

  4. What a lovely post. It is so much fun to read about the details in the making. I was in my teens in the 60s and everything in my closet had slowly moved to the A-line style. I still had two sheath type dresses but remember the flood of A-line taking over. In my Etsy shop, the vintage patterns from the 60s are by far the most popular. Personally I think it is because it was a little bit more forgiving than a sheath. Your work is wonderful and I so enjoy reading your blog posts.

    • I, too, was in my teens in the ’60s. What a fabulous time for classy fashion! We didn’t know how fortunate we were to “come of age” in one of the golden decades of style. The fact that we can still sew from these patterns and look current speaks to the enduring quality of these fashions. Great to hear from you, Tanya!

  5. Emily Hlavinka-Anderson

    I could too, it’s nice

    Sent from my iPad


  6. I love this fabric!!! Couture should look effortless but those familiar with sewing will appreciate all the tiny details. I never thought of doing understitching with a contrast thread but it’s perfect. Such a hidden elegant touch. I too have been know to eek out garments from minimal amounts of fabric. Very creative layout. An inch here or there does make a tremendous difference and the fit is amazing. Thanks for showing this.

    • One advantage of working with minimal fabric is that there isn’t much waste! When the fabric is expensive, that’s a good thing! When I purchased this fabric, I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t be buying more before I used up some of what I have in my collection, but obviously that didn’t do much good. But – I’m very glad I succumbed, as I love this fabric, too!

  7. This post is fabulous – every time I read your blog I learn something new. I love how you let some of the embroidery hang below the hem!

  8. Margene

    Beautiful fabric and a wonderful result. Love your dedication to couture sewing and history. We benefit from your interests. Enjoy your blog very much.

  9. Christine McMorran

    I so enjoy reading every post you write and every garment you make. Your style & build are very similar to my own and so I often end up making something very similar after following your latest project. Thank you for being a blogger. Christine

  10. Chrissie Durrant

    A very beautiful dress, congratulations

  11. What a sumptuous fabric this is! I think the A-line pattern really shows it off, and the front seam match is so well done. Aside from the overall look of this, which has me dreaming of my own, I am in love with your choice of white for the understitching. What a genius touch that is. As always, Karen, your posts are informative, rich in detail, and quite inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing this part of your life with us!

    • Thank you so much, Kathy! I think this dress was meant to be. I almost passed on the purchase of the fabric, in my (silly) effort to cut down on my fabric acquisitions! Then this pattern magically appeared in my size – and voila, this dress was in the making!

  12. Katharine

    I love your posts as I always learn something new. You’ve made a gorgeous dress! So inspired that I just purchased this pattern on Etsy.

  13. Marianne

    That fabric! I love how you made it stand out. As always I’m impressed by all those little details that make this dress a wonderful, one of a kind couture garment!

  14. I love this simple look of this elegant dress. With a gorgeous fabric sometimes unembelished is best. You look so pretty and timeless. I enjoyed the post. Thanks Karen.

  15. Such a Beautiful and elegant dress. I love the fabric.

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