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Fabulous Fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

A recent Thursday found two of my friends and me gazing with stars in our eyes at some of the fashions currently on display at The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Because I sew, I think I look at fashion exhibits differently from those who may not spend so many of their waking hours either thinking about dressmaking or actually engaged in the process.  The opening storyboard immediately spoke to me with these words:

“Feminine fashion is a forum for great creativity and superb craftsmanship.  A single garment can be appreciated as representing the aesthetics of its era, a designer’s vision, a workroom’s skills, or a wearer’s taste.”

I actually believe, at times, all four values can be inherent in one single garment. Actually, as a dressmaker using many vintage patterns, I know this to be true. But I digress!  The fashions on exhibit neatly displayed one or more of these characteristics, even as they were divided into general categories, such as “Shape and Volume,” “Drape” and “Color,” etc.  Included in the Exhibit were the famous designer names one would expect, such as Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent; some of the more recent designers, such as de la Renta, Herrera, and Moschino; and some more obscure designers, such as Emilio Schuberth and Benjamin Green-Field.

As always, it is almost impossible to choose the designs about which to report, when so many deserve mention.  Following is a slightly biased look at some of  the fabulous fashions, in no particular order.

Ball gowns are always crowd pleasers, and this Exhibit had plenty to show.  This gown by Jean Desses from the late ‘50s is typical of his ability to sculpt and drape lace, in this instance, to great effect:

One of Cristobal Balenciaga’s famous silhouettes, from the Spring of 1951, displays his Spanish heritage in its “flamenco dancer’s” interpretation.  This $3,000 (a lot of money for 1951!) “haute couture creation, exquisitely … constructed, was purchased for a special showing at Wanamaker’s department store because it most dramatically illustrates the 1951 fashion trend of extravagant romanticism.’”  (You can read about a very special fashion show I attended at Wanamaker’s in one of my early posts, here.  Wanamaker’s was one of the country’s grand old department stores, and it was my distinct pleasure to shop there “back in the day.”)

I was delighted to see Jacqueline de Ribes included in the Exhibit.  This dress (below) had to be one of the crowd favorites.  From around 1990, the dress is described as “ streamlined, sculptural, timeless, and alluring.”  Her designs are known for their elegant demeanor, described by her as “the art of being astonishing without creating astonishment.”

I was also happy to see Anne Fogarty represented.  This romantic, youthful dress (below) from about 1953, was a gift of the designer to the Museum, where she had worn it to receive an award for her designs.

Having just seen the wonderful exhibit of Norman Norell last Spring at FIT in New York, this “mermaid” dress, circa 1967-70, caught my eye from across the room.  I hope you can see the rhinestones encircling the cuffs of this dress.  It was gorgeous!

And another American designer (from Philadelphia, no less), James Galanos, was represented with this “ready-to-wear” evening gown (below), each bead and sequin of it stitched on by hand.  This is a great example of the relevance of vintage fashion; this dress would look right at home at some swanky party given this holiday season.  Galanos graciously gifted this dress to the Museum in 1957.

Cocktail dresses were well represented, in splendid manner.  This dress by Emilio Schuberth (below), dating to about 1961, was an astounding display of three-dimensional decoration.  The simple silhouette of the dress is the perfect foil for the exquisite beading and fabric flowers.   (Note the hem of the dress, a good example of a “couture” hem which is typically not pressed flat, adding some dimension to the lower edge.)

Who does not love Oscar de la Renta?  And how could you not love this cocktail skirt and halter ensemble, from 1999?  This happens to be a ready-to-wear example which is anything but ordinary.  The skirt “sparkles with beads and sequins but is enlivened by three dimensional embroidered leaves and dangling strings of beads.” The green silk taffeta of the halter pairs perfectly with that luminescent skirt.

Palazzo pajamas, anyone?  Yes, please, if they can be this example designed by Irene Galitzine in 1962.  The boldly patterned silk taffeta of the top and pants of this ensemble is beaded, while the overskirt is not, creating an unusual and effective texture to the entirety.  They were a gift to the Museum from Princess Irene Galitzine, herself.

And here is the dramatic back view of the Galitzine pajamas.

Of course, daywear was also represented.  A classic example of a Chanel suit was this simple and elegant one, designed by Gaston Berthelet for Chanel, Fall/Winter 1972-73.  As the caption said, “ Chanel’s suit became a staple for sophisticated modern women.”  And it is still thus!

A very clever juxtaposition further showed the influence of vintage on current fashion.  This dress, surviving only in a photograph, was the result of fabric panels left over from an art installation by Ellsworth Kelly in 1952:

Here is the modern interpretation of it, in collaboration with Francisco Costa, and produced by Calvin Klein in 2013:

Conspicuously absent from this Exhibit were coats (jackets, yes, but no outerwear.)  As one who adores coats, this was a disappointment, but only a minor detraction.  The closest thing to a coat, believe it or not, was this wedding gown, designed by Philadelphia native Gustave Tassell in 1968.  There are no words to describe the luminosity of the silk/wool moiré in this “coat-dress.”  Along with its feather-trimmed hood, rather than a veil, this dress could have seen a second life as an evening coat after the wedding.  It was a remarkable look.

Adding to the enjoyment of the Exhibit were looping videos in the gallery viewing areas.  In the entrance, the video showed clips from runways, from the 1950s up through the 1990s.  The second video had a small seating area from which to watch it.  On view were ateliers of various designers, from the 1950s up to the current day.  The bustle of activity by the embroiderers and petit mains (dressmakers), as the designers directed affairs, gave a bit of a hint to the complexity and time-consuming process of haute couture.

This has been a whirlwind tour through Fabulous Fashion.  See it if you can.  For another review, go to the posts for October 30 and November 30, 2018 of  The Vintage Traveler.

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Filed under Fashion commentary, Fashion Exhibits, Fashion history, Uncategorized

A White Blouse

White blouses (or shirts, if you prefer) seem to occupy a niche all to themselves in the annals of fashion.  There is something both unpretentious and elegant about a white blouse.  A white blouse is almost always noticed and admired, and even the most tailored white blouse has an air of femininity to it.

Here is what Christian Dior had to say about the color white when he wrote The Dictionary of Fashion in 1954: “White is pure and simple and matches with everything. For daytime it has to be used with great care because it must always be really white and immaculate…  But nothing gives the impression of good grooming and being well dressed more quickly than spotless white…”  (Published again in 2007 by Abrams, New York, New York; page 120).

What could be a better example of being well dressed than this white blouse featured in the February/March 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine (page 28)?  With its tucks and French cuffs, it is both demure and sophisticated.

Now this is an elegant blouse!

Timeless is another description that could be given to the classic white blouse.  Here is one featured in the August/September 1962 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine, page 49.  “In suburbia, nothing has as much unstudied elegance as a classic neat, white shirt…”

By the 1970s, collars look like they had overtaken the world, but even with its outsized points, the white blouse gives this velvet suit its focal point:

This is an advertisement for Crompton velvet, featuring a Vogue pattern (Yves St. Laurent evening suit), page XVI of the October/November 1971 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine.

The Wall Street Journal had a full-page feature on The White Shirt in the Weekend Section of March 26-27, 2016.  “Always timely and the quickest shortcut to chic,”  says the caption. Part of the feature is shown here:

Although the article fixated on RTW white shirts, a small section was absolutely apropos for those of us who make our white shirts. Finding your Match maintains that there is a certain chemistry involved in finding the perfect shirt for oneself, and it emphasized the importance of choosing the right fabric.  While cotton is usually the preferred fabric, even it is subject to an appropriate quality and weave.  Choosing a pure cotton fabric will necessitate a commitment to laundering and ironing.  Quoted from the article, “You can throw it in the machine, but for a finished look, Ms [Carolina] Herrera (who has made the white shirt her style signature) recommends hand-washing with a splash of starch for a crisp finish.  The white shirt, remember, is about contradictions – it may be easy, but it has good manners.”  (Oh, yes!)

Well, I can’t say I was thinking about chemistry and laundering and manners when I purchased this white cotton shirting fabric from Britex a few years ago.

I just thought it was so lovely with its woven stripe and scalloped detail.  I am happy to say it has been brought to fruition as a classic white blouse.

While the woven stripe IS lovely, it presented some definite considerations when I was laying out my pattern.  For example, what reveal of the stripe did I want to show on the collar and cuffs.  What about the back yoke?   How should the buttons line up on the design on the center front?  The following pictures detail my decisions as I worked through each component.

I chose to use the plain white band as the center portion of the cuffs.

I chose to position the stripe on the collar in the middle.

I decided to interface the yoke, as the cotton is lightweight, and the facing of the yoke would have shown through without it. I always use a woven, sew-in interfacing when I am making blouses. It works beautifully. I evenly balanced the placement of the stripe on the yoke, with just a slight plain reveal noticeable at the lower edge.

And then, what buttons should I use?   It is so easy – and often appropriate – to choose a simple white pearl, two-hole button to accompany this style of shirt. I was prepared to do that until I came across this card of vintage buttons in my collection:

My first thought was, “How perfect!  The incised stripes on the buttons mirror the stripe in the cotton.  And, to seal the deal, they were also the perfect size, at 3/8”.

I used the same 1970s’ Simplicity pattern (with my many alterations to it) that I used for the two gingham blouses I made over the summer.

It is always satisfying to use a fabric which had been purchased – in the past, shall we say? It reinforces my thought that there is a time for all those lovely pieces of silk, wool, cotton and linen still waiting for their destination.   Perhaps it really is about chemistry, after all.

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Filed under Blouses, Buttons - choosing the right ones, Fashion commentary, Fashion history, Uncategorized, underlinings, vintage buttons

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

An Early Lesson in the Connoisseurship of Fabric

Like so many children who grew up in the 1950s, I wore, for the most part, clothes made by my mother. For the first ten years of my life, my family lived in Asheville, North Carolina.  Although decades have passed since last I lived there, it is those early homemade clothes that infuse my memory of those years and that place. I had an early interest in fabric and sewing and loved to help pick out selections from which my mother would make dresses and play clothes for my older sister and me.

We lived on a very steep road, dotted with houses on either side of it.  Two houses away from ours lived an older couple, whose names I cannot remember.  The wife worked in the fabric department at Ivey’s, a large store in the city of Asheville. She knew that my mother sewed, and one day she told my mother that the sewing department was getting ready to dispose of some of its older fabrics, which would be free for the taking by employees. She wanted my mother to have a couple of these pieces, completely free of cost. My mother was quite excited, and she told my sister and me that perhaps it would be something she could use to make us new dresses.

The December/January 1953-54 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine had this clever feature, Resort Fabric Story (“taste the pleasures”), showing some of the fabric choices for the upcoming Spring and Summer. Perhaps my mother was hoping for something similar to a few of these prints.

We anxiously waited for the day when we could go to our neighbor’s house and pick up our promising parcel.  Then – finally – Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away called to say she had the fabric for us.  I remember well my feelings of anticipation and excitement as the three of us practically skipped down our road to her house.

Her living room was dark, despite the large picture window framing one side of it.  None of the furniture looked like it would be comfortable to sit on.  I was struck by the appearance of one rocking chair, the wooden arms of which were in the shape of swans’ heads.  Everywhere were china figurines and plastic flowers in vases.  The room smelled like last night’s supper.  On the sofa, which she called a davenport, was a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

Our neighbor ceremoniously announced that this was the fabric, and she motioned to my mother to open the package.  It contained two pieces of cloth.  One was a non-descript dark tan, heavy and dull, certainly nothing that could be used for dresses.  The other piece was a very large floral print in pink, drab olive green, and smudgy brown – yards and yards of it.  It was hideous.  My mother very graciously thanked her and told her what lovely pieces they were, and off we went with our weighty cargo.

This ad in the February/March 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine features Bates “disciplined” fabric. “It’s like magic how beautifully your sewing dreams materialize with Bates Disciplined fabric,” proclaims the caption.  Obviously, what we received from our neighbor was more nightmare than magical dreams!

When, on our trudge back home up our mountain road, I asked my mother if she liked the fabric, she only said that it was very kind of Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away to give us these pieces.  I wanted to say that I really didn’t like either piece very much, but I kept quiet.  I could see my mother was disappointed, and it made me feel so badly.  What good was something that was free, if you did not like it, I wondered? I also wondered what my mother would do with it.

It did not take long to get the answer to that question.  My mother had grown up during the Great Depression, when no one wasted anything, ever.  Nor would this dubious gift go to waste.  Out of the heavy tan fabric, she made shorts for us.  I so disliked  wearing them as they were scratchy and stiff.  I must have thankfully grown out of them quickly, as I don’t recall wearing them very often.

I was more worried about my mother’s plans for the pink floral fabric.  Looking back now, I think it must have been very poor quality cotton or heavy rayon.  My mother made a play dress out of it for me, with matching bloomers. It, too, was scratchy, and although I would not have known the concept of drape at my young age, I noticed that it did not move with me, but rather hung as a tent from my shoulders.  I remember unhappily wearing this outfit, but at age four or five, I did not have much say in the matter.   It was so unlike the other cute play clothes and pretty dresses made by my mother; I suspect she thought so, too.

Occasionally I think back on those days so long ago, and I recognize how much they shaped me as a dressmaker.  My love for, and my insistence upon using beautiful, fine quality fabrics – once I began sewing for myself – certainly were born during those years.  I learned the value in seeking out fabrics worthy of my time and effort, those which would give me enjoyment in their wearing, and which would impart a sense of refinement and style in their tactile and visual qualities.

I love this ad on the inside back cover of the October/November 1953 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine, with its declaration that “fine fabrics are the foundation of fashion.”

Sometimes the best lessons, and the ones remembered so well, are those illustrating the worst example of something.  I did not know it at the time, but that brown paper package, with its ugly fabric inside, gave me an unexpected and invaluable life-long lesson in the connoisseurship of beautiful fabric.

 

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Filed under Love of sewing, Quotes about sewing, Uncategorized, Vintage fabric

A Definite ‘60’s Vibe

“Unexpected,” “unusual,” “fascinating,” and even “a bit magical” are words used to describe some of the fabrics, prints and designs from the late ’60s/early ’70s (The Editor’s Letter, Vogue Pattern Book International, April/ May 1970.)  Although I have no documentation, I am sure that this red and white Moygashel linen is from those last years of the 1960s or early years of the ’70s.

Of course, another clue to the age of this Moygashel linen is its width of 45″. Prior to about 1964, Moygashel was only available in 35 or 36″ width, as best as I can determine.

A quick look through some of my Vogue Pattern Book Magazines from this time period uncovered other fabric designs which have a similar feel to them.

This dress appeared in the April/May 1970 Vogue Pattern Book International, page 16.

 

This large, irregular leaf print was shown in the February/March 1968 issue of Vogue Pattern Book International, page 11.

 

Even this sewing machine ad features a dress with an abstract geometric fabric design. Again, this is from the February/March 1968 Vogue Pattern Book International, page 24.

 

And here is another spectacular Moygashel linen, advertised in the April/May 1970 Vogue Pattern Book International, page XXIV. Cute dresses!

Interestingly enough, these demonstrative and colorful fabric designs were often sewn from the same or similar patterns as their more demure pastel and solid counterparts. I kept that in mind as I contemplated which pattern to use for this “unusual” and “fascinating” linen. Additionally, I wanted to pair it with a red linen belt  (which I ordered several years ago when I knew that Pat Mahoney was closing her custom belt and button business.  The red linen is some I fortuitously had left over from some of my sewing in the early 1970s.)

Then, after the recent success of my fairly dramatic changes to this pattern – and knowing I had a great muslin from which to work – I went with it again.

Here is the result:

I definitely had some issues with the very uneven grid.  I took a lot of pictures of the fabric arranged on my dress form before I started to lay out the pattern.  This helped me to visualize the areas which needed some regularity (if you can call it that!)  I realized quickly, in order to achieve a semblance of matching in the critical areas, I would have to accept way less than perfect in other areas.  Because the entire geometric design is so irregular, I have, I think, made peace with this decision.  (I haven’t worn the dress yet, so the proof of this is still to be determined.)

The bodice front seemed to me to be the most critical, and I wanted that three-striped horizontal motif to follow across the upper bustline.

 

The back proved to be a bit more problematic, as three quarters of it lined up fairly well, with one section off on the left side.  Because the side piece wraps around the side (as in no side seam), there was only so much I could do in order to be able to “match” the front.  Additionally, I thought it was more important to have the back center seam, rather than the side back seam, positioned correctly, so that’s what I did.

Am I going to have the nerve to wear this dress?

I may end up loving it??

I lined the entire dress with a very lightweight linen cotton blend, eliminated facings for the neck and armholes, and finished those areas with a typical couture treatment.

Because the skirt lining is unattached, I finished off the seams of the linen with Hug Snug rayon tape.

I did not use a silk organza underlining, as I like my linen dresses to be washable. Without that inner layer of organza, I had to be very careful with sewing the hem, to try to make it as unnoticeable as possible.

I doubt I will have a chance to wear this dress yet this Fall.  The later it gets, the odder it will look.  That’s okay.  I’m ready to move on to something more subdued – but hopefully “a bit magical” will still be in the equation.

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Filed under couture construction, Linen, Linings, Mid-Century style, Moygashel linen, Uncategorized, Vintage fabric, vintage Vogue Designer patterns

A Sewing Draught

The weather outside is frightful, as the popular Christmas song goes.  It has been too hot and too wet here in eastern Pennsylvania (USA) this summer.  Our family travels, however, took us to areas that were both too hot and much too dry. It was exactly those lengthy travels which helped determine the atmospheric conditions in my sewing room during the past weeks.  There has been a definite draught in that part of the house.  The sewing machines have been huddled under their covers, the fabric has lain folded and fallow, there has not been even a bubble of moisture from the steam iron, nor the slightest snip from the scissors.  It has been a place undisturbed and quite barren.

So, finally, it is time to change all that!  Now I am faced with the question – Do I try to squeeze in the making of one more summer dress (it certainly still feels like summer) – or do I forge ahead with a project which has a mid-October deadline?

If I go with one more summer dress, it will be one made from this vintage Moygashel linen, which has been in my queue for quite some time – and somehow never made it to the top.

Realistically, it would probably be wiser to focus on that mid-October dress, which is going to be a cocktail dress made from this amazing fabric, a lightweight brocade, embroidered and with with lace appliqués.  One of the perks of attending Susan Khalje’s Couture Sewing School in Baltimore (which I did last April) is the opportunity to see and purchase fabric from Mendel Goldberg Fabrics.  Alice Wildes, the proprietress, arrives at the beginning of each week-long class with a car full of her gorgeous, carefully selected yard goods, and that is where I purchased this piece.

The embroidered flower stems are a light gray, and the flowers themselves are a pale pink.

Getting this brocade was actually a last minute decision, as I already had one cotton piece selected – and I was trying to be circumspect in buying more fabric (remind me again of why I ever think this will work?) Anyway, I’m so glad I succumbed as I love it and have determined which pattern to use for its construction:

I will be making the shorter dress, without the jacket.

I like the notched neck detail on the shorter dress. I may make below elbow length sleeves – still to be determined.

Although this dress appears to be a simple silhouette, I have plans to change it up a bit, which will add to its complexity, so it certainly cannot be rushed.

With any luck, the weather will start to change for the better no matter which project I embark on.  The only question is – which one will get the nod?

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Filed under Cocktail dresses, Formal or fancy dresses, Lace, Linen, Moygashel linen, Uncategorized, Vintage fabric, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s

Secrets and Tips for Making a Tailored Bow Belt

After adding the final details – specifically, attaching lingerie straps and sewing on a back neckline hook and eye – to my silk polka dot dress, I was feeling quite happy with my accomplishment.  This dress did not seem to take forever to finish, as many dresses do.  But I could not rest on my laurels for more than a few minutes – as I knew I still had to make a tailored bow – and belt – before this project would be really complete.

I started with the belt.  I had already determined that a 1.5” wide belt would be the most attractive.  I remember “back in the day” when belt-making canvas in various widths was readily available.  Now, however, it takes a search on eBay or Etsy to find such a thing (as far as I can tell.)  Fortunately, one of the last times I was in Britex Fabrics in San Francisco (on the opposite side of the country from where I live), I found a product – kind of a buckram – that I knew would work well for belts.  I bought it in two widths – 1.5” and 1.25”.  I used the wider width as the basis for my belt.

A segment of the belt buckram.

1)  I first cut the desired length of belt buckram, leaving a good amount of overlap.

2) Next I cut out the fashion fabric to cover the buckram, which in my case was silk taffeta. I cut it out on the crossgrain as that gave me the color I wanted (the warp and weft of the fabric were in fuchsia and orange.) For a 1.5” belt I cut a width of 2.75” which allowed for a turn-under of 5/8” on either side. The length of this piece of fabric needed to be the entire length of the belt buckram, plus one inch for turning in the ends.

3) I wanted to line the belt with the navy blue crepe de chine I had used for lining the dress. I cut out a piece of the lining fabric identical in size to the long rectangle of the fashion fabric.  I seamed the two pieces together along one long edge. Then I pressed it so that the lining was slightly offset from the fashion fabric.

I interfaced the fashion fabric with silk organza.

The lining sewn onto one side of the fashion fabric.

4) I placed the belt buckram securely inside against that sewn edge, with the seam allowances towards the back of the belt.  I carefully secured the loose edge of the fashion fabric to the buckram using Dritz Wash Away Wonder Tape.  Then I folded under the raw edge of the lining, pinned it in place and hand-stitched it in place, leaving another slight offset along the second edge.

The underneath side of the belt with the lining attached, one side by machine, the other side by hand.

One end of the covered belt.

Next up was the tailored bow.

1)  I decided the bow should be the width of the front panel of the bodice of the dress, which was 7”.  For a finished bow, I needed to double that length, plus two ½” seam allowances, plus 1 inch for each tapered end of the bow.  7+ 7 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 17” length.   The width needed to be twice the width of the belt (1.5” x 2) plus 2 seam allowances of ½” each.  Total width needed to be 4”  – thus I cut out a piece of fashion fabric 17” x 4”, making sure I cut it out on the crossgrain to match the belt.

2) I interfaced my bow with silk organza, trimming it close to the seam line.

3) I then stitched the strip along its length only (not the ends), leaving about two inches open in the center.

4) I centered that seam along the length on the “inside” side.  I found inserting a metal ruler in the fabric tube helped me position that seam along the inside center.  I then pressed that seam, being careful not to press a crease in the outside edges.

Inserting the metal ruler into the tube of fabric made centering its seam so much easier.

5) I wanted double-peaked bow ends rather than a single angle.  I marked my sewing lines with a fine chalk marker and stitched, starting at the center and stitching to the edge.  I tied off the threads by hand rather than back-tacking. Then I trimmed and clipped the ends.

6) I turned the fabric “tube” to the right side and stitched the opening together by hand. (A hemostat is a huge help in turning narrow tubes of fabric like this.)

7) I don’t believe there is any magic formula for determining the spread of the bow – it is a visual determination, and I experimented until I had it looking well proportioned. I stitched across the width of the fabric tube at that spot.

The stitching is visible between the 13 and 14 inch markers.

This drawing explains the seam a little better.

Then I centered the loops and carefully pressed across the seam I had just sewn.   Basting by hand across this center point secured the position of the loops.

The loops of the bow are held in place by the center stitching line.

8) The bow was now ready for its “knot.”  I had to determine how wide I wanted my knot to be.  I chose to make it one half the width of the belt, or ¾” for the finished width.

9) The strip I cut needed to wrap around the width of the belt, front and back, with ample seam allowance to tuck in.  Twice around the width of the belt equaled 3” plus seam allowance of 1”.  So my strip of fabric needed to be 4 inches long. Its width was twice my chosen width of ¾” (1.5”), plus seam allowance of 1”.  Thus the knot would be made out of a piece of fashion fabric 4” x 2.5”.

10) I sewed the long edge of that piece together.  I again used a metal ruler (a smaller one this time) to position its seam along the center back of the piece.  I pressed it carefully along that center seam and then turned it right side out.

The inside seam on the knot.

The length for the knot turned right side out.

11) I centered this finished tube around the center of my bow, tucked in the raw edges on back, secured by small stitches, and slip-stitched it to the back of my bow.

This diagram shows the back of the bow with the knot being set in place.

12) I hand-stitched the finished bow to one end of the belt, added fasteners, and my belt was finished.

If you are still reading by now – and are still awake (good for you if you are!) – you will realize how much common sense techniques help make such a belt successful.  And in this instance, the success of my completed dress was largely dependent on the right belt – with its classic tailored bow.

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