Category Archives: Fashion history

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.

 

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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

Seeing Dots

Who doesn’t love a polka dotted motif?  The term “polka dot,” dating from 1880-85, is of American derivation, and of course it immediately conjures up a mental picture of a field of spots forming a pattern on a textile.

Here is what Christian Dior had to say about Dots in his Little Dictionary of Fashion, first published in 1954:  “I would say the same about dots as about checks.  They are lovely, elegant, easy, and always in fashion.  I never get tired of dots…  Dots are lovely for holiday clothes … and for accessories.  According to their color, so they can be versatile…  Black and white for elegance; soft pinks and blues for prettiness; emerald, scarlet, and yellow for gaiety; beige and gray for dignity.”  (The Little Dictionary of Fashion, by Christian Dior; Abrams, New York, New York, 2007, page 34.)

“Lovely, elegant, easy and always in fashion.”  That is quite an endorsement, and one with which I completely agree.  I also have to agree with these quotes, the first one  from Marc Jacobs: “There is never a wrong time for a polka dot,”  and this one from the American actress, Anna Kendrick, “You can’t have a bad day in polka dots.”

While images of polka-dotted dresses, blouses, ensembles, and sportswear are in abundant supply from many sources, it’s always inspiring to look at a few select examples, many from the 1950s.  The following two images were part of a feature in the February/March 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine.  Although pictured in black and white the first example is described as “Tiny white polka dots on red crepe. A soft day-long dress.”

The next image is titled Gigantic Dots:  “Bold black dots on hot pink surah.  A dramatic sheathed bodice dress.”

Can you imagine how beautiful this dress was in hot pink with black dots?

The June/July 1957 VPB Magazine featured “the most romantic dress of the season – a pouf of black-and-white silk polka dots.”

Less than a year later, in the April/May 1958 VPB Magazine, an entire feature was on Polka Dots and Patent Leather:  “Exciting goings-on in polka dots: fresh new arrangements – at their most polished in black and white silk surah, spruced with gleaming black patent leather.”

Below is the dress of this description: “Dots blown up to impressive sizes – a look for relaxed but festive evenings.”

This two-piece dress could easily be worn today and look very current.

And here is the image for “Classic polka dots – square cut blouse [with] reverse-dot cummerbund:”

One of my favorite outfits from the show Mad Men was this white linen dress with a built-in silk polka dot sash. The two-color sash makes this dress a standout:

Image from The Fashion File; Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of MAD MEN, by Janie Bryant with Monica Corcoran Harel; Grand Central Life & Style, New York, New York, 2010, page 8.

This famous – and stunning – 1958 dress and coat ensemble by Arnold Scaasi, an American couturier, was featured prominently in the retrospective of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, September 25, 2010 – June 19, 2011:

Now this is an exhibit I wish I had seen.

And finally, this is a Carolina Herrera ad which I plucked out of some magazine a while ago. The ad is for the handbag, but the polka-dotted dress, with its bright red sash steals the show:

So why all my focus on polka dots?  They have been much on my mind lately, as I have finally begun the many-step process of making a couture dress, using this vibrant silk, purchased seven or eight years ago:

This is a crepe de chine which I purchased from Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. Smaller irregular dots are woven into the design.

The background color is navy blue.

Now my hope is that one cannot have a bad sewing day when working with polka dots.

 

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Filed under Cocktail dresses, Day dresses, Fashion Exhibits, Fashion history, Mid-Century style, Polka dots, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s

“A Fantasy of Fashion from Paris”

Not everyone who sews is interested in fashion history, of that I am aware.   There was, however, a pivotal moment in modern fashion history that had such an impact that its influence is still felt today, although many current dressmakers/sewers of fashions have never heard of it.  I am, of course, speaking about the Théâtre de la Mode, about which I wrote in August of 2016. If you are one of those who think fashion history is dull, I hope to convince you otherwise, by another visit to the years of 1945 and 1946, in postwar France and beyond.

In a nutshell, the fashion industry in Paris during World War II had struggled mightily due to the widespread shortages, rationing, and bare existence imposed on all Parisians during the occupation of France and even for a time after the War had concluded.  To quote from the back cover of Théâtre de la Mode, Fashion Dolls: the Survival of Haute Couture (Second Revived Edition c 2002 Maryhill Museum of Art.  Published by Palmer/Pletsch Inc. Portland, Oregon): “Liberation in the fall of 1944 after four years of foreign Occupation found Paris surviving on minimal resources.  Hoping to make a statement to the world that Paris was still the center of fashion, couturiers, jewelers, milliners, hairdressers, and theatre designers joined together to present the Théâtre de la Mode.  Using the ages-old tradition of traveling miniature mannequins dressed in current couture, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture mobilized a whole industry with unprecedented cooperation and creativity to prove that life could begin again through these 27” tall ambassadors of fashion.  The exhibition, inaugurated in Paris in March 1945, began a long journey, first to other capitals in Europe and Great Britain, then in 1946 to the United States.”

This is the poster for the Exhibition in New York City, page 49 of the book referenced above.

Many new fashions were added to the exhibition before it traveled to New York in May of 1946. It is worth noting here some of the names of the couturiers who participated in this endeavor: Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath, Jacques Heim, Hermès, Jeanne Lanvin, Lucien Lelong, Molyneux, Paquin, Schiaparelli, Worth, Jean Desses, Nina Ricci, Jean Patou, Madame Grès, plus many, many more not as well known to us today. Its New York opening was attended, with much excitement, by the city’s diplomatic and social elite.  After the drought of fashion leadership from Paris during the War, the New York fashion industry was anxious for renewed access to Parisian inspiration and patterns, and the Théâtre de la Mode seemed to be the kick-start both countries needed.

Two of the dresses which hint at some of the changes in the air for mid-century fashions. Henriette Beaujeu designed the dress on the left and Schiaparelli was the designer for the dress on the right.

Even beachwear was included! Jacques Heim designed this ensemble of pareo pants, bra, and split skirt.

From New York, the Exhibit traveled, in September of 1946, to San Francisco to the de Young Museum, which turned out to be its final public viewing.   San Francisco at that time had a French population of over 20,000, and the response from that community was overwhelming. Sponsors of the Exhibition included I. Magnin, and two department stores (now defunct) both owned by French families, the White House and the City of Paris (who would not want to shop at that store?)  It is here that I want to pick up the story of this amazing period in time.  Hopefully I can add some details to its history and some weight to the esteem which the Théâtre de la Mode enjoyed at that pivotal time.

So what, you may ask, gives me the credence to do this?  Well, it all circles back to my sewing.  I am one of the very fortunate ones who have a room dedicated to sewing.  I, like so many of you in your own situations, spend hours and hours in this space.  It is filled not just with all the tools and machines and items I need for fashion sewing, but also with decorative objects which keep me company as I stitch away.  Over the years I have accumulated signs, millinery heads, and other fashion and sewing-related things (with support from a very understanding husband, I might add!)  I was not looking for my most recent find.  In fact, I did not even know that it existed.  However, when I saw it listed for sale on the Internet, I immediately knew what it was.  I also knew it could potentially add to the history of Théâtre de la Mode in the United States.

“IT” happens to be an original poster for the Exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, in September of  1946.

The pure visual quality of it struck me, especially when compared with the New York poster shown above.  It must have been a deliberate decision to commission an artist of the renown of Jean de Botton to produce the image for this poster, giving emphasis to the excitement and importance of this Exhibit.   De Botton (1898-1978) was a French artist living in New York City, known for his Abstractionist and Impressionist style of painting. (He became a naturalized American citizen before his death.)  I can only conjecture that he saw the Exhibit when it was in NYC, as his image for the poster is reminiscent of several of the sets on which the mannequins were displayed.  However, he added additional elements which enhance the intrigue of the Exhibit, some of which would have spoken directly to the French population in San Francisco at that time.

The image of the ship refers to the city of Paris. The latin motto of the city, “It floats, but does not sink,” appears on the ship, as seen below in the close-up.

More French imagery in the flags and pennants.

It appears that the term “A Fantasy of Fashion from Paris” was the artist’s idea or at the direction of the sponsors in San Francisco.

And what an incredible assortment of images in this section of the poster!

I feel very fortunate to have found this original poster, and to have it signed (and inscribed) by the artist makes it even more amazing.

Signed by the artist in September of 1946 and inscribed to Irving Mills (1894-1985), possibly the music publisher, musician, lyricist and promoter of jazz artists who was a contemporary of de Botton’s in NYC.

No one could have imagined that the San Francisco showing of the Théâtre de la Mode would be its last public appearance. Arrangements could not be made to move it to other cities, so, in an unbelievable set of circumstances, the sets, the mannequins and fashions were moved to the basement of the City of Paris Department Store.  There they stayed, largely forgotten and thought by many to be “lost” until September of 1951 when Paul Verdier, President of the City of Paris department store made arrangements for them to be sent to the Maryhill Museum in Washington state, where you can see them now.

However, the impact of the Exhibit at that time cannot be overstated.  The concerted effort by the couturiers and others in the fashion industry to move past the barren War years realized success more quickly than anyone could have imagined. It was just a few months later, in 1947, that Christian Dior introduced his “New Look” – and the fashion industry as we know it today began to flourish.

Christian Dior changed fashion history with the introduction of this new look.

This poster is a rare survivor of a pivotal time in fashion history.  If you are still reading by now, I hope this “Fantasy of Fashions from Paris” reminds you, as it does me, of the resilience of the human spirit, its love of beauty, and its indefatigable artistic inclination.

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Filed under Fashion Exhibits, Fashion history, Mid-Century style