Category Archives: Book reviews

Diversions – in Print

Works of fiction which feature some aspect of sewing or fashion are often some of my favorite reading experiences.  While I do not necessarily seek them out, if I hear of such a novel, and it’s reviews are positive, then I will add it to my reading queue (similar to my sewing queue!) And sometimes, there is a surprise sewing element in a novel – those are the bonuses.

The last three novels I have read, in quick succession, were all very different, but each one used sewing and/or fashion as foundational premises either for the plot or for character development.  So, here are short reviews of each one, in the order in which I read them.

The first novel, Beneficence, by Meredith Hall, came to my attention by a review in The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition back in the Fall.  The subtle role sewing plays in this novel makes it one of those bonus books. Some of the words used to describe this novel, and rightly so, have been “haunting,” luminous,” and “exquisite.”  It takes place in Maine (USA) and spans the years from the late 1940s to the early ‘60s. The story is about the Senter family, who owns a dairy farm, and the devastating tragedy which befalls the family of five.  Early in the book, one gets the sense of impending doom.  At this point, in no way did I have any inkling of the role sewing would have in the development of one of the main characters, Dodie, the daughter.  The masterful writing – eerily beautiful, and very affecting – is of such quality that it was only after I had finished the book did I realize how her sewing helped to define Dodie. The sewing references even hint at the blessings ahead for her in the reader’s mind at book’s end.  She is a mender, a creator, and a giver of things she has sewn.  She is wise beyond her years.  She is a character I will long remember.  The book is a masterpiece.  

One word of warning, however, is necessary for this book.  Parts of it are very difficult emotionally to read.  I cried a lot reading it, perhaps crying the most at the book’s end when grace and wisdom finally replace anguish for each of the Senters.  If you are feeling in any way fragile right now, then plan to read this book at another, more secure time.  

Feeling emotionally drained (but fulfilled) after reading Beneficence, I wanted something light-hearted and fun.  And like a blessing, this book came to me as a Christmas gift from my daughter, Susanna.  

This novel first appeared in 1993, and it has been recently re-released.

The Women in Black, by Madeline St. John, is set in the early 1950s in Sydney, Australia.  It follows four women (actually 3 women and one 16-year-old girl) who work at Goode’s Department Store in Fine Dresses and Model Dresses (Model Dresses being the most expensive.)  The time of year is December, when cocktail and party dress buying is at a frenzy!  Patty and Fay are in the fine dresses, Magda manages the Model Gowns, and Lisa is a temporary hire who helps out wherever she is needed.  In many ways, however, it is Lisa’s story.  Magda takes a loving interest in her, and when Lisa is exposed to the confectionary frocks in Model Gowns, she comes alive.  She particularly has her eye on one dress, which is called “Lisette.”  And when she finally has the opportunity to try the dress on, this is what transpires: 

“Lisette was, of course, everything which could have been dreamed; like all the great works of the French couture, it was designed to look beautiful not simply as a thing in itself, but as the clothing of a female form.  It took on then the property of vitality and movement, that is, of rhythm:  it became finally incarnate.  Lisa stood, overwhelmed, staring into the great cheval glass.   . . . The frock changed her absolutely; the revelation which had come upon her when she had first been shown the Model gowns was now complete.”  

What a fun book, written by someone (sadly now deceased) who understood the transformative power of dress and dresses.  Treat yourself and read this book!

Just the title of the third book I am sharing is intriquing enough to catch your attention.  

Based loosely on a true story, but definitely a work of fiction, The French Model, by Alexandra Joel,  is the story of a stunningly beautiful young Australian woman who makes her way to Paris and becomes a model in Christian Dior’s House in post-war France.  In leaving Australia, she is escaping not only from an unhappy marriage, but also from revelations about her past which make her question her identity and all those she has ever loved.  This book has it all:  mystery, espionage, love, fashion, friendship, sacrifice, sex, “very important person” sightings, political intrigue, history, and courage – all in a complex story line which will keep you on the edge of your seat.  The writing is lovely and descriptive, the main characters endearing.  Some of the story is a bit contrived – or unbelievable – but I was generally able to overlook those parts to enjoy the larger storyline.  And I loved the emphasis on the workings of the House of Christian Dior. Anyone who loves vintage fashion – or historical fiction set at the end of World War II – should find escaping into this story a happy place to be.  

One final observation about these three books.  The dust jackets are works of art.  Not unlike a perfectly fitted and flattering dress, each one is so perfectly evocative of what lies within, capturing the very essence of the books they adorn.  As I look again and again at each one, it takes me back to those stories, those places and those indelible characters which gave me so much reading pleasure.  


Filed under Book reviews, Christian Dior, Fashion history, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized

Santa’s Sewing Sack

This year’s list of gift ideas for your fashion-sewing friends (or you!) is heavy on print.  Included are things to read and things to use, all with the goal of adding knowledge, inspiration and enjoyment to a sewing life.

First up is what I believe to be the definitive book on the golden years of Christian Dior.  Christian Dior:  History and Modernity, 1947-1957, by Alexandra Palmer, is both a fashion book and a dressmaker’s book.  Replete with line drawings of patterns for some of Dior’s most famous silhouettes, this book explores construction techniques as well as design preferences for the women who commissioned these haute couture garments.  I really should write an in-depth review of this book at some point, but trust me – if you or someone you know is interested in fashion history at this pivotal point of the 20th century – then this book is a necessity.

Published by the Royal Ontario Museum, 2018.

Of course, no list this year is complete without the newest book from Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr, A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing. Excellent for a sewing friend or anyone interested in dressing with classic style, this book is sure to please.  I wrote a complete review of this book earlier in the month should you still need convincing!

Another book which was new to me this year (but published in 2006) is one of those sweet go-to books whenever you are thinking of making a gift for a friend.  The Apron Book:  Making, Wearing, and Sharing a Bit of Cloth and Comfort, by EllynAnne Geisel documents aprons for every use, such as kitchen aprons, house aprons, “Daddy” aprons, holiday aprons, to mention just a few.  The bonus is a full size  pattern included  so you can make a basic bib apron, using inspiration from the history, pictures and diagrams included in the book.  Many thanks are due to my friend Jane for giving me this book earlier in the year.

Published by Andrews McMeel Publishibng, LLC, Kansas City, Missouri, 2006

A magazine which deserves your attention is Classic Sewing for Everyday and Special Occasions, published by Hoffman Media.  I was introduced to this magazine by Farmhouse Fabrics in South Carolina, where it is available for purchase quarterly.  Ostensibly a magazine devoted to sewing for children, it also provides endless inspiration for sewing for adults, and often includes patterns for adults.  Each issue has a separate full-size pattern included with it.  The Holiday 2019 issue features classic capes for children as well as a delicate, heirloom type blouse for adults.

If you have a young girl in your life who is very special to you, then you really should go to the Clara and Macy Etsy store and purchase this wrapping paper.  It will be like two gifts in one to present a package with this cute paper doll tag, including a complete holiday wardrobe printed and ready to cut out.

Well, no Christmas list of mine is complete without a notepad.  Another tried and true friend gave me this very appropriate notepad earlier in the year.  How can you not be inspired reading its catchy message!  Thank you, Nancy!

Finally there is one item on my list which deviates from the printed theme this year.  I treated myself to a pair of these Kai (7000 series) dressmaking shears when I needed to set up my sewing room in our new vacation home in Wyoming.   I was flabbergasted at how wonderful they are!  Somehow they grip the fabric as they cut, giving you incredible control and precision.  Smooth as silk, and tough as nails.  When I got back to my sewing room in Pennsylvania, I promptly ordered another pair.  I really don’t know how I ever sewed without them. Available from Susan Khalje and also from Amazon.

That completes my list for this year’s holiday gift-giving.  Of course the most coveted sewing gift I could recommend is MORE TIME TO SEW.  I’m still working on that one, although I am grateful every day for having this passion and so many lovely sewing friends worldwide with whom to share it.  Thank you to you, my readers, for all you give me every month of the year!


Filed under Book reviews, Christian Dior, Gifts for Sewing, Uncategorized

“A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing” – Book Review and GIVEAWAY

Two of the most creative and stylish ladies I know in this global fashion sewing community, Sarah Gunn of Goodbye Valentino, and Julie Starr, have collaborated once again on a book dedicated to our craft.  Their first book, The Tunic Bible, published by C&T Publishing, met with acclaim and well-deserved enthusiasm, establishing itself as the go-to standard for creating one-of-a-kind, flattering tunics.  In A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing, Sarah and Julie broaden their focus to cover a range of styles, namely those that have stood the test of time and are considered “classics.”

I love the size of this book. At 9.5″ x 7.5″, it is easy to hold and use.

The book is very handily compartmentalized into 30 chosen styles, the “classics,” thoughtfully documented by Sarah and Julie.  I would have loved to be privy to their brainstorming sessions on what styles to include in this list.  There are the obvious ones, of course, such as the pencil skirt, the sheath dress, the shirtdress, and the French jacket.  But they also cleverly identified some styles not always necessarily thought of as “classic.”  But indeed, they are, and truly deserve their place in this book.  Think Halter dress or top, Palazzo Pants, Jeans-style Jacket, and Menswear Pajamas!  All these and more are included in this book.

Each chapter deals with one ”Classic” and its history and who, throughout the years, has worn it.  Also included are sewing tips, fabric suggestions, and styling guidelines for each classic.  Some of the chapters include a cautionary paragraph on how to avoid the “Frump Factor.”  Simple changes like altering the hem length or wearing the appropriate shoes can change one of these classics from frumpy to fabulous.  Pay attention to the authors’ suggestions because they know about what they are writing!

Here is just one example of tips and styling ideas included with each category.

Accompanying each chapter is also one of my favorite aspects of this book – a carefully chosen quote.  I thought I had come across just about every quote about fashion and sewing that was ever spoken or written.  But somehow, Sarah and Julie have discovered some real gems and placed them perfectly in the book.  Take for example this quote by Winston Churchill included in the chapter for the pencil skirt: “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt:  long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

Or consider this one by Georgio Armani in the chapter on the Bateau Neckline: “Elegance is not standing out, but being remembered.”  As one who loves a bateau neckline precisely for its elegant appearance, I found this quote perfectly placed.

The center section of the book, nestled comfortably among the many chapters, is “the Classic Garment Gallery.”  I was very flattered to be asked to contribute to this section, which is a compilation of classic styles sewn by “members” of the worldwide sewing community.  Here you can see these classic styles modeled by the makers, and it is a marvel to take this all in.  Yes, this is a section to return to again and again to get inspiration.

And speaking of inspiration, the absolutely delightful illustrations by Beth Briggs will not only captivate you, they will also provide you with styling ideas and concepts.

At the back of the book is a carefully considered list of Resources.  Included are lists of Fabric Books; Fabric Vendors; Fabric Shopping Around the Globe; Trims, Tools, and Notions; Related Articles, Videos, and Online Classes; and Sewing Instruction and Alteration Books.  No beginning or advanced devotee of fashion sewing should be without this list of Resources.

Well, no fashion sewing book is complete without a pattern, and I am happy to report that included with A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing is a multi-sized pattern for the Goodbye Valentino modern classic pencil skirt.  There is nothing quite like a pencil skirt for a basic wardrobe component.  This is a skirt to be made time and again, following the precise instructions included in the back of the book.

This is a sewing book, and as such, targets those of us whose passion is sewing our own fashions.  However, there is much in this book which would be of value to anyone wishing to enhance or perfect her own style.  Likewise, it should be inspirational to those just beginning to sew for themselves as well as those who just aspire to it!  How perfect is this quote from Audrey Hepburn (page 161): “The most attractive accessory a woman has is confidence.”  With this book in hand, you will both sew and dress with confidence and style.

And now, it is with great excitement that I am able to offer my readers a chance to win a copy of this book, compliments of C&T Publishing. Should the winner be a resident of the United States, he or she will receive a print copy of the book;  an international winner will receive a digital copy of the book.   For a chance to win, please leave a comment with this blog post no later than  Sunday, December 8th at 12 noon, Eastern Standard Time.  I will draw the winner late afternoon on Sunday, December 8th.

To read more reviews, and for more inspiration, please visit the following sites (dates indicate the day of review):

Dec 2  Lori VanMaanen

Blog –

Instagram -@girlsinthegarden


Dec 3 Andrea Birkan

Instagram – @andreabirkan


Dec 4 Anita Morris

Blog –

Instagram – @anitabydesign


Dec 6 Alex Florea

Blog –

Instagram – @sewrendipity


Dec 7 Lucy VanDoorn

Blog –

Instagram – @myloveaffairwithsewing


Dec 7 Cennetta Burwell

Blog –

Instagram – @cennetta_burwell


Dec 8 Manju Nittala

Blog –

Instagram – @sewmanju


Dec 8 Dorcas Ross

Instagram – @lonestarcouture



Filed under Book reviews, Fashion commentary, Fashion history, Uncategorized

Fashion and Friendship

There is no dearth of books about fashion available for reading or just perusing.  Most of those, however, are books intended for an adult audience, so I am always delighted to find a “fashion book” written and illustrated for children.  I have always found that these books written for children are of equal delight for adults, and especially so when said adult can share them with an interested child or grandchild.

For Audrey with love:  Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy, by Philip Hopman is just such a book.

Copyright text and illustrations 2016; English translation copyright 2018 by NorthSouth Books, Inc., New York. Available in bookstores and on Amazon.

Written originally in Dutch and published in the Netherlands in 2016, this book was translated into English and published in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in 2018.  Philip Hopman is not only the author, he is also the illustrator. His whimsical drawings are captivating both for their fashion sense and for their charming renditions of Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy.

This is truly a story of friendship, but of friendship born out of a shared appreciation of beautiful clothing, Givenchy being, of course, the designer of those stunning clothes, and Audrey Hepburn being the client.  She was the one who could wear his designs like no other!

By the time they met, Givenchy was already a sought after designer, with an impressive roster of clients.  Among those clients were Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy, Wallis Simpson, and many others.

(Should you purchase this book for a child in your life, I recommend reading it through once or twice by yourself. Some of the text needs to be read across from the left to the right page, top to bottom, for the story line to be most meaningful, especially for a non-reader. This is a minor detail, but an important one for the enjoyment of its storyline.)

He initially claimed that he had no time to design for the rising movie star, but once she tried on a few of his clothes, he realized she was the perfect fit for his designs, both in style and in essence.   They became best friends, with a lasting connection and concern for each other that transcended the clothes.   Audrey was known to have said “When I wear his [Givenchy’s] clothes, I feel safe.  I’m not afraid of anything.”

This is a sweet book, but the success of such a children’s book is how it is received by this younger audience.  Does it engage them? Does it tell a story that is meaningful to them?  Does it start a conversation?  Does it spark imagination?  Is it a book that can be read over and over and still be enjoyed?

I purchased this book specifically for my two granddaughters’ visit with us this summer.  These are two little girls (currently six and four years of age) who like clothes and like dresses, so I felt fairly certain they would like this book.  What I wasn’t prepared for was how well it captured their imagination.  Before we even got to the title page, they were immersed in the lining pages.










They looked at the silhouette of each dress, loved the wide-brimmed hat with the white streamers, and decided the red dress was the one they liked the best.

Each page brought new delights for them, and they picked out their favorite designs as we read through the text.  We talked about how sometimes dreams don’t come true (when young, Audrey wanted to be a ballet dancer, but was told she was too tall, and her feet were too big!)  But we decided when one dream is crushed, there are other ones to pursue.  We talked about friendship, and we talked about how important it is to care for other people, no matter how busy and famous one might be.

But mostly, we talked about the clothes!  And that red dress?  Little four-year-old Carolina asked me if I will make that dress for her some day.  How can I refuse such a request?  Of course, I said YES.


Filed under Book reviews, Fashion history, Uncategorized

Tunic Time

Nothing says Summer quite like crisp white and bright navy blue. Pair those colors with an easy-wearing, dress-length tunic, and it is a recipe for comfort and versatility.

This is one of those projects which took a couple of years to evolve. I purchased the white polka-dotted cotton voile from Britex Fabrics about two years ago, thinking I would make a blouse. I considered patterns for it every once in a while, and then put it back in the cupboard. What was keeping me from moving forward on it was the fact I had over 2 yards of this 56” wide fabric, more than enough for a blouse. Using it for a dress seemed the more efficient way to proceed. All I needed was some inspiration.

Then last Fall, I purchased a copy of the then-newly-released The Tunic Bible by Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr.

Well, there is lots of inspiration in this book, and I especially was drawn to this style, but in a dress length.

Shown on page 65 in The Tunic Bible is this top. The combination of the wide split placket, the angled collar, and the split cuffs really appealed to me. All three are really lovely details. (I purchased my copy of this book on Amazon.)

(Now here’s a bit of trivia: a tunic dress is not the same as a dress-length tunic, according to the number one definition in Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion. A tunic dress is “a two-piece dress with a long overblouse worn over a separate narrow skirt,” although the definition was expanded a bit in the 1960s to cover a tunic mini-dress.)

Detail from page 459, The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion, Third Edition, by Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta and Phyllis Tortora, Fairchild Publications, Inc., New York, New York, 2003

Back to my dress: I knew I wanted to embellish it with Petersham ribbon (which is so malleable and cooperative!) In choosing a color, I went for bright navy blue, also ordered from Britex Fabrics.

I actually have three tunic patterns in my collection, one just a couple of years old which I have used, one from the 1980s (also used), and this vintage one, not used yet:

The description on the envelope does not describe this as a dress length tunic, rather an “A-line dress with a caftan neckline.” But, of course, it has a tunic look.

But I decided to give the pattern included in The Tunic Bible a go. I transferred my size to pattern tracing paper and made my muslin. I knew I would have to line the main body of the dress (the fabric is translucent.) After considering two types of light-weight white linen, which I deemed not quite opaque enough, I went with white muslin.

The tapered darts in the back of the tunic are optional, but help to add some lovely shaping.

The first thing I did was make the stand collar, so that I could see how the blue Petersham ribbon would look; I was a little worried that the intensity of the blue color might be too much for the delicate white fabric, but I was pleasantly rewarded with a look I liked:

The first line of trim goes on…

The stand collar is such a flattering design, even from the back.

I used Dritz Wash-Away Wonder Tape to make the application of the ribbon precise. This was the first time I have used this product, and I thought it was wonderful! I haven’t washed my dress yet, but supposedly the Wonder Tape washes away without leaving a residue.

It is especially important to follow the sequence of construction when it comes to the front of the dress, as the neckline trim needs to be applied even before the bust darts are sewn. Once I had the front and back of the dress together, I decided it was a little too baggy (this did not show up in my fitting muslin, which sometimes happens…)   So, I added tapered darts to the front, which was an excellent solution.

Applying the trim to the hemlines required four mitered corners. One way to help get a precise corner is to use a straightedge to guide the miter. Here you can see I used the end of one of my little slide rulers which was the perfect width:

A nice, precise corner.

With the ribbon trim all applied.

And here is what the hem looks like on the wrong side.

One of the things I love about this color combination is its versatility. In these photos I have paired it with turquoise, but it looks equally good with accessories in orange, red, yellow, green, and of course, blue.

The darts I added to the front give the dress a nice fit. I also used a 12″ side zipper, or else I would not be able to get the dress on!

The dress is loose but not baggy.

Here I have the split cuffs hanging down. I think I prefer them folded back, as shown in all the other photos. However, it’s nice to have the option of wearing them either way.

I suspect there will be a couple more tunics to sew in my summers to come. If there will be in YOURS, I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of this book, if only for the abundance of photos and style options which are handsomely presented. I do recommend that you familiarize yourself with the layout of the book before starting your project. The layout is logical once you understand the formula, but it’s best to give the book a thorough study before you proceed.

And now, with my sights on Fall and Winter (I can’t believe I am saying that!), I think this will be the last of my sewing for Summer. However, I should end with this MEMO to family and friends: Expect to see me in this dress often over the next six/seven weeks.   It is Tunic Time, indeed!


Filed under Book reviews, Linings, Tunics, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s

Because We Can’t Spend Every Waking Hour Sewing . . .

Or can we? If you are like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about sewing even when you aren’t actively engaged in the process. And how fortunate, for those of us who also enjoy a good read, to find a novel which speaks the language of couture fashion sewing.

The Pink Suit, by Nicole Mary Kelby, was published in April of 2014, so it is not a particularly new book – it took me a while to decide to read it. I knew it was about the iconic “Chanel” suit which Jackie Kennedy wore the day her husband was assassinated in November of 1963. Although I am truly a fan of historical fiction, for some reason I had my doubts about the supposed story line of this book. Could an author really convey the emotional and professional commitment that a “dressmaker to the Famous” would have to have? Well, yes. I finally succumbed to reading this novel and I am so happy I did. This is a wonderful story, on three important levels – as a narrative story, as a lesson in fashion history from a very specific period of the 1960s, and as an appreciation of couture sewing.

The Pink Suit - book cover

The heroine of the story is Kate, an Irish immigrant dressmaker who works for the prestigious Chez Ninon boutique in New York City. Extremely skilled at couture sewing, Kate is always responsible for the creation of the fashions which First Lady Jackie Kennedy orders. Although Mrs. Kennedy’s tastes gravitate towards French style, she is savvy enough to realize that her clothes must be American made. So it is that Chez Ninon and Kate endeavor to provide her with the finest French styles, American made. As talented a dressmaker that Kate is, she balances between two worlds – that of the rich, famous, and beautifully dressed – and that of the “working class.” We do not find out until close to the end of the novel that Kate is exactly the same age as Mrs. Kennedy, which, for me, emphasized this dichotomy. (There is a parallel love story, in which Kate finally marries Patrick, who has a butcher shop business in Manhattan.) However, even though Kate is part of the “working class,” this does not mean that she does not want to dress as beautifully as those for whom she sews. I do not want to give away more of the narrative, but there is a wonderful scene where Kate is dressed in a couture suit and finds herself in the Carlyle Hotel where she deftly opines to herself “A woman in a beautiful suit can go anywhere.”

I love that the back cover of the book shows a hat and gloves - two essential ingredients to being well dressed in the early 1960s.

I love that the back cover of the book shows a hat and gloves – two essential ingredients to being well dressed in the early 1960s.

As a lesson in fashion history, The Pink Suit is beautifully composed. I learned things I never knew – such as Coco Chanel allowing line-by-line “copies” of her jackets and suits under certain circumstances. The pink boucle, the trim and the buttons for the First Lady’s suit were actually supplied by Chanel herself to Chez Ninon – at a hefty price, of course. Although Oleg Cassini was the “official” fashion designer to the White House, Mrs. Kennedy obviously had the ultimate say over what she wanted to wear – and what she wanted to have made for herself. There are hints in the book at the professional snobbery and envy, which certainly circled around some of her decisions. The inner workings of Chez Ninon are described with great detail, with especial emphasis placed on the two sisters who were the owners and “manipulators” of French fashion, done American style. (I was certainly thrilled to see a Chez Ninon gown in the Exhibit at Drexel University which I attended a few weeks ago. Although from a later period of time – and certainly not my favorite – simply the inclusion of such a gown speaks to the importance of this fashion boutique in the history of dress:)

Drexel - red Chez Ninon dress

How I would love to see the inside of this dress!

One of the more charming aspects of the novel is the inclusion of a “fashion” quote at the beginning of each chapter. For example:

From Diana Vreeland: “A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere; it’s the life you’re living in the dress, & the sort of life you had lived before, & what you will do in it later.”

From Karl Lagerfeld: “Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.”

From Oleg Cassini: “To be well dressed is a little like being in love.”

From Yves Saint Laurent: “Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”

From Coco Chanel: “Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance!”

Finally, I cannot give the author of this novel enough credit for her understanding and interpretation of the thrill of couture sewing and appreciation of beautiful fabrics. One can feel the stress that Kate experiences when she is working on her “assignments” – the tremendous time involved in intricate, custom sewing, the dedication to excellence she feels for each piece. And when beautiful fabrics come into the boutique, the reader can almost feel the luxurious hand of each one, see the perfect color and imagine the beauty of it made up into an exquisite dress. There is one scene where Kate is given a piece of the Linton Tweeds “Chanel” pink boucle – and I could fully feel her overpowering emotion at receiving such a gift.

This book has actually been featured in Threads Magazine’s “Great Gifts” feature in the current January 2016 issue:

The Pink Suit - Threads

So – I suggest that if you have not already read this book, you do so. Give yourself a gift, or put it on your list – along with some pink boucle!


Filed under Book reviews, Coco Chanel, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized

“With Glamour . . . “

Every once in a while unexpected opportunities come along which beg one’s participation. Such was the case on Tuesday evening, November 18. Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware has been hosting a number of costume designers in a lecture series, as a complement to their “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit, on display through January 4, 2015. When I read that Janie Bryant, costume designer for Mad Men, would be one of the featured speakers, I quickly made my reservation.

Janie Bryant - W-thur

Off I went in the frigid cold on Tuesday evening for my 45-minute trek to Winterthur from my home in Pennsylvania. I took with me my copy of Janie’s 2010 book, The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men. Taking it off the shelf was like reacquainting myself with an old friend (well, not so old, but it had been a while since I had read it!). Perhaps, I thought, I might get a chance to have her autograph it.

Janie Bryant Fashion File In many ways, I credit the costumes of Mad Men as inspiring my return to fashion sewing. It is no secret that the widespread, renewed interest in Mid-Century fashion and design has been a direct result, at least in part, of this television series.   The first season was set in 1960, so the elegance and glamour of the 1950s was still very much in evidence. In fact, Janie said she started her research by exploring the late ‘50s’ designs, and used the end of that decade to set the tone for the introduction and development of each of the main characters. In addition, Janie had been fortunate to learn to sew at an early age, making her first dress at age 8. And – she grew up in Tennessee in a family where a true appreciation of fashion, beauty, and ladylikeness was generations long. She brought this sensibility with her as a foundation and inspiration for her position with Mad Men.

Janie covered many topics in her hour+ presentation, but the following made a particular impression on me:

1) I was intrigued with her disclosure that she actually used some vintage clothing from her family for some of the Show’s costumes. Betty’s aprons – many aprons! – had belonged to her grandmother! Little details, such as Roger’s monogrammed cuffs, were based on her observations of family members as she was growing up. And did you know that Don Draper’s belt buckle has the initials DD engraved upon it? As Janie said, no one will probably ever see it, but in a very subtle way, it helps to define and enhance his enigmatic character. Sometimes it is the little things in one’s style (and sewing!) that make all the difference.

2) The importance of color in costumes cannot be underrated. For example, the soft color palette (pale blues, pinks, beiges) for the character of Betty helps to reinforce her icy persona, while the deep jewel tones for Joan’s costumes emphasized the power of her femininity.   By extension, the power of color in clothing for the rest of us is also a key element in dressing well and in having our clothes work for us, not against us.

3) Several times, Janie mentioned that costumes are so vital in helping to “design” the character. For example, Peggy’s chaste, somewhat prudish demeanor was enhanced by costuming which was reminiscent of schoolgirl dress (bows tucked under collars, pleated skirts, lots of plaid). The power of clothing is such that one can change his or her outward persona by altering one’s style of clothing. The flip side of this is that, often, as one grows and becomes more confident, clothing choices become more sophisticated and worldly.

4) Janie said that it is much easier for her to design costumes for characters than it is to dress herself! She admitted to “outfit anxiety” at times, which is probably multiplied for her because of her career and the personal expectations which accompany it. (Hm-m-m-m, I think that’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having!) She has obviously given this idea much thought, and this where I would highly recommend her book. A quick look at some of the chapter headings will tell you some of what you can learn from her observations, her experience, and her expertise: “You as a Leading Lady”, “Defining Your Silhouette and Secrets for Dressing Your Shape”, “The Dressing Room”, “Dressing Chic for Every Occasion”, “The Importance of Being Accessorized”.

5) Which brings me to probably the most important take-away from the evening, at least for me. Without equivocation, Janie wants women to appreciate their own femininity – and their curves! – and strive to feel beautiful in the clothing and accessories they choose and wear.

What a fun evening this was – and a great opportunity for me to meet someone I have long admired. Janie is delightful, funny, kind and engaged, as well as absolutely lovely! I felt very fortunate to have a few moments with her after the lecture when I asked if she uses vintage patterns in her research and design work. “I have bins and bins of them!” she said. She was, indeed, happy to sign my book for me, and in a lovely, stylish flourish, she wrote:

“To Karen, With Glamour & Love XXX Janie Bryant”


Filed under Book reviews, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized

Fashion Past, Fashion Present

Many reviews of Linda Przbyszewski’s book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish have been written. Two of the most recent ones are by Stephani Miller of Threads Magazine, and by Joy Landeira in the quarterly newsletter (Summer 2014) of the American Sewing Guild, Notions (available to members only). Both of these, plus many others give an excellent overview of the subject of the book. For those of you abroad and others who may not have been exposed to this book, here in a nutshell is the narrative: From 1900 – 1960, American women’s interest in fashion was shaped to a great degree by many professionals in the fields of Home Economics, Retailing, and Art. Following certain concepts espoused by these “Dress Doctors”, as the author calls them, average American women embraced style, grace, appropriateness, and practicality in their dress, making them paragons of American fashion.

Lost Art of Dress - cover

I found the book completely fascinating to read, learning much about the cultural and social history of this country during those six decades. Although the book is scholarly in its research, documentation, and overview, Linda is an engaging writer, infusing humor frequently, adding pointed commentary throughout, and, finally, extrapolating meaning from the “lessons” taught by the Dress Doctors for present seekers of style. As a dressmaker and frequent user of vintage patterns, I read the book looking for specific references, which would apply to my sewing and fashion sense, and to help me answer the question “Just exactly why do I find the fashions from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s so captivating?” To say that I found much to savor is, indeed, an understatement.  However, certain “Aha” moments stood out for me, so that is what I will try to cover in my remarks here.

1) To be successful and enduring, fashion should emphasize one’s face. When I look at vintage patterns, so many of them have details at the neckline, or unusual and flattering collars, or necklines cut gracefully to frame the face. This seems like common sense, doesn’t it? Fashion should bring attention to one’s face – and therefore, one’s person – so that YOU are remembered rather than your attire (although the proper fashions can help you be remembered at your best). Jewelry is one way to help emphasize a face, but, of course, it should not overpower your countenance. Prior to 1965, wearing hats was commonplace, adding another point of emphasis to the face. Now we are not so lucky, save for some very special occasions.

2) Black is fine to wear for evening, but think again for day-time wear. While I am not naïve enough to think that black is going to leave the wardrobes of American women (after all, what is more classic than the Little Black Dress for after-five?), most of us would do well to consider adding more color to our fashion sewing and wearing. Color is a powerful enhancer to complexions (of all hues) and moods.

3) Older women were once considered at the apex of elegance and style. Women and girls younger than 30 were expected to dress in a more youthful manner that mimicked their elders, rather than the other way around! (Isn’t it interesting that 30 was considered the age at which women were expected to assume a more polished appearance?)   Vogue Pattern Book Magazine contained the occasional feature on young girls and college girls, and Vogue even had a pattern series called Young Fashionables. But the majority of their patterns were for the 30 – and – older crowd, showcasing models and fashions which were demure but elegant, feminine but refined.

Here is one "Young Fashionable" pattern, to illustrate the type of style designed for the younger than thirty age group.

Here is one “Young Fashionable” pattern, to illustrate the type of style designed for the younger-than-30 age group.

This page from the October/November 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine shows many of the ingredients of a polished look, the norm among American women at that time.

This page from the October/November 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine shows many of the ingredients of a polished look, the norm among American women at that time.

Even fashion illustration included all the elements of a polished look.  (From the same VPB magazine as above.)

Even fashion illustration included all the elements of a polished look. (From the same VPB magazine as above.)

4) The Dress Doctors were not only concerned with fashion, but also with how fashion could influence the rest of one’s life. First and foremost, one should buy, or sew one’s own attire, which is appropriate for the life one leads. Buying on impulse is rarely a good idea if the item you are buying has no use in your weekly or monthly calendar. Further, if you find a style or look which works for you, repeat it – easily accomplished by those of us who sew. And those of us who sew know that tweaking a pattern, adding or subtracting a detail, and choosing diverse fabrics can make any pattern look new. Hooray for us!

5) A final point – and it is about many women’s favorite fashion accessory — shoes. According to Linda Przbyszewski, shoes have taken on much more significance than they once did – and should. Shoes should never be the focal point of one’s outfit. They should be chosen to enhance the overall look and to be functional for the occasion for which you are dressing. Shoes used to be just one of the accessories adding to the complete outfit, along with gloves, hats, scarves, handbags, jewelry, and coats. As gloves and hats and coat “wardrobes” have receded from the recipe for a “fashionable look”, shoes have filled that gap for many of us.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the “demise” of the Dress Doctors in the 1960s and ‘70s. The emphasis on “youth”, starting in the ‘60s, and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s changed mainstream fashion dramatically. Not addressed in the book is the continuance of some of the standards, established by the Dress Doctors, by the pattern companies in these two decades. Although my experience is mostly with Vogue patterns, I continue to be inspired by many of the fashions, Designer and otherwise, featured in patterns during these two decades. Once again home dressmakers were at an advantage – and continue to be.

The author leaves the reader on a positive note, stressing lessons for all of us to be learned from the wisdom of the Dress Doctors, and crediting the home sewing movement NOW for the beginning of a return to standards and style in the art of dress. I look at this  as a responsibility.  How about you?


Filed under Book reviews, Little Black Dress, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, Vogue patterns

Love, Luck and What I Sewed

Many years ago I ran across this little book:

This book was published in 1995 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  All illustrations are copyright 1995 by Ilene Beckerman.

This book was published in 1995 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All illustrations are copyright 1995 by Ilene Beckerman.

I don’t remember how I found it or where I saw it, but I bought a copy for my mother-in-law, which she loved.  I finally gave in a few years later and bought one for myself.  It’s a very straightforward kind of book, with un-fancy writing and unsophisticated, but charming, drawings by the author.  Within the book’s simple demeanor, however, is an expressive, and touching tribute to the power of what we wear and how we remember – and measure – our lives.

The contents are divided according to decades, starting with the 1940s and continuing into the first part of the 1990s.  The author was born in 1935, so her recollection of clothing and fashion begins when she is a child.  She had the great fortune, as did so many from that era, of having a mother who sewed – beautifully and extensively – for her and her sister.  Here are a few examples:

Love, luck, etc - 1

About this dress which she wore to her cousin’s wedding, Beckerman wrote: “ My mother made this pink, green, and black iridescent-metallic plaid taffeta gown.  We bought the material at Macy’s at Herald Square [New York City].  They had a whole floor for selling patterns and fabrics.”

One of the author’s sister’s dress is featured here:

Love, luck, etc - 2 “My mother made this sexy red dress for my sister.  It had a . . . peplum and was accented with hand-sewn gold sequins.”  This prompted the memory of her mother sewing sequins on printed silk scarfs, which served as Christmas gifts for the author’s teachers.

Here is another dress made by the author’s mother – this one for her sister to wear to their cousin’s wedding.

Love, luck, etc - 3 By the 1950s, the author’s mother had died, and with her death came the end of the joy of wearing her sewn creations.  However the author and one of her best friends ventured into some sewing themselves with the making of these cotton circle skirts:

Love, luck, etc - 4 “It took forever to hem them” – says Beckerman, a statement with which any home dressmaker can identify!

This stylish coat was purchased by Ilene, and when shown to another best friend’s mother, Miriam Landey, who happened to be a dress designer/dressmaker, Mrs.Landey told her daughter to go and buy one as well.  Such a compliment!

Love, luck, etc - 5 Mrs. Landey, according to Beckerman, “would go to Europe in the summer to buy fine and fancy fabrics…”

The 1960s are marked by only two fashions, one of which is a maternity dress.

Love, luck, etc - 6 Six pregnancies during the decade surely are the reason for the dearth of fashion memories from that period of time.  Or perhaps the death of one of those children made the memories too painful.

The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are lumped together, and are set off most dramatically by this Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress from the ‘70s.  While wearing this dress, the author came to the decision to end her marriage.  How could one not remember what she wore at such a time in her life?

Love, luck, etc - 7 As the story ends, grown children marry and have children of their own.  But at night, says Beckerman, she reflects on her mother and the dresses she made.  “I like to think I got my fashion sense from my mother and from Dora’s mother [Mrs. Landey].”  Thus is a life remembered by what she wore, and so many of those memories have their foundation in home-sewing.

It had been a while since I had looked at this little book, but I had occasion to dig it off the shelf recently, right after I finished my Chanel-inspired red jacket.  I went to it after a difficult life event, which I know I will now always associate with that jacket.

I was happily expecting to finish all the final hand-work on my jacket within a day or two (okay, maybe three!), when, as the saying goes, “life is what happens when you are making other plans”.  After a fairly routine diagnostic medical test, my husband and I unexpectedly found out he had to have open-heart surgery for a triple coronary by-pass.  I was still in shock (my fit, active, healthy husband?), when the surgery was quickly scheduled for the following morning at 6:30 AM.

Suddenly I was relieved that I still had much to complete on my jacket.  Facing what I knew would be some of the longest hours of my life – the 5 to 6 hour operation – I packed up my unfinished jacket, thread, pins, etc. in the very still and long, lonely hours of the night preceding the surgery.  And so – the next morning, sitting in the hospital, I sewed and sewed and sewed as the hours slipped by, the time punctuated by phone calls and, blessedly, by occasional good reports from the Operating Room.  My needle and thread kept me calm – I equated every stitch with repairing my husband’s heart.  And so it was  – beautifully, successfully repaired . . .

The following days took on a life of their own, as I shuttled back and forth to the hospital, spending hours every day by my husband’s bedside.  And then one day, on a whim, I brought in the as-yet-incomplete pockets for my jacket.  I sat and sewed the trim on to the top edge of each one (much to the delight of my husband who did some bragging about my sewing skills), arousing much curiosity among the doctors, nurses, staff, and visitors.

Here are the four pockets, in various stages of completion.  I decided to add silk organza interfacing to them (suggested by Susan Khalje, but optional).

Here are the four pockets, in various stages of completion. I decided to add silk organza interfacing to them (suggested by Susan Khalje, but optional).

It seems that construction of parts of a Chanel-inspired jacket was a first for the Intensive Care Unit and then the Progressive Care Unit!  By the time my husband came home a week after the surgery, he had made tremendous progress.  I had made progress on my jacket, too, but most importantly, sewing on it had given me a sense of normalcy during a time of great uncertainty.

So many people have told us how lucky we are, and it is difficult to express how very correct they are.  Instead of “loss”, we have, indeed, been abundantly blessed with love and luck.


Filed under Book reviews, Chanel-type jackets, Uncategorized

A “Little” More on Chanel

Coco Chanel has been the fascinating, and sometimes controversial, subject of many, many biographies, several of which I have read.  However, none has charmed me quite the way Different Like Coco has.  This delightful slim book by Elizabeth Matthews is written for the 5 – 9 group.  Now, I don’t mean the fun-loving cocktail ladies, who start sipping at 5:00 PM and finally get to dinner at 9:00.  No, this group is the age-group of 5 – 9, meaning the “little” ones.  Yes, this is a children’s book, a small biography of Coco Chanel, with expressive illustrations, and text which strikes a good balance between simplicity and sophistication.

This bright yellow book jacket hints at the lively story inside.

This bright yellow book jacket hints at the lively story inside.

Different Like Coco was published in 2007 by Candlewick Press, a children’s book publisher located in Massachusetts.  I became acquainted with the newly-minted book when I read a review of it in The Wall Street Journal, by Meghan Cox Gurdon.  Being a “pushover” for all things about the fashion and creative sense of Coco Chanel, I ordered my own copy from Amazon.  (Little did I ever imagine that 6 years later, I would have my own little granddaughter who might just hear this book read to her – oh, who knows how many times?)

On one level, the book is purely biographical, emphasizing Chanel’s childhood spent in poverty – which she did not allow to define her.  The later part of her childhood was spent in a convent, and it was there where she learned to sew.

The author's charming illustration of Coco as a child with her sewing.

The author’s charming illustration of Coco as a child with her sewing.

Those sewing skills were the “mechanical” ticket to her success, while her creativity, her determination, her hard work and her daring flounting of convention set her apart from others of her age.

Coco's creativity on display.

Coco’s creativity on display.

The story emphasizes these characteristics for the young readers of this book, which makes it more than a biography.  Indeed, these characteristics are treated as inspirational, which they certainly can be to children.

Some of the more controversial aspects of Chanel’s life are handled discreetly, so that the opening of her first shop and the creation of the classic cardigan jacket (made from one of her lover’s sweaters) are seamless chapters in her life story.

A classic created anew!

A classic, created anew!

For the adult reader of this sweet book, there are two features which I guarantee will be read again and again.  One is the “Timeline” which is in the back of the book (accompanied by a bibliography, too).  All the important dates of Chanel’s life are succinctly listed, including the development of her perfume Chanel No. 5 in 1921; the afore-mentioned creation of her signature jacket, also in 1921, and her debut of the “little black dress” in 1926.

The other compelling aspect of this book is one of pure brilliance from a design point of view:  the lining pages feature a “running commentary” of some of Chanel’s famous and less-known quotes.

One side of the lining pages of the book.

One side of the lining pages of the book.

A sampling of her quotes about fashion:

“Fashion is made to become unfashionable.”

“A fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.”

“Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.”

And some of her quotes about life:

“There are people who have money and people who are rich.”

“Luxury must be comfortable; otherwise it is not luxury.”

“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.”

And I so appreciate that this quote is placed centermost:  “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself.  Aloud.”

I cannot close this post without a special word about the author, Elizabeth Matthews.  The book jacket has this short statement about her and her motivation to write this book:



Thank you, Elizabeth Matthews, for making the life story of Coco Chanel an inspiring and almost magical tale for 5 to 9-ers of every age!


Filed under Book reviews, Chanel-type jackets, Coco Chanel, Uncategorized