Sunday, July 19, 2020

...And a 1920s Dress


Normally, I wouldn't consider the '20s to be in my "sweet spot". I'm mostly interested in the 1830s-1860s and the Edwardian-Great War era. That puts me right up against the 1920s, so I was willing to fudge a bit because the novel I most recently wrote more-or-less ends in 1921 and because there's a '20s event in September that I want to attend.


My planning for this one was a bit all over the place. My original plan was pretty much "make a '20s evening dress". Where to go from there, I wasn't sure, not being very familiar with the era. I had the vague knowledge that most people have of what the '20s looked like. I also knew that that popular image is, mostly, not correct.

As I started poking around, looking at patterns, I came across some really neat cotton fabric with a brown base and all kinds of art-deco designs in white and pink and red and tan, all shot through with silver pinstripes. I got super excited and decided I would definitely use this fabric for my new dress (spoiler alert: it didn't work out that way, obviously).

I bought a pattern from Reconstructing History and followed it and had all kinds of problems. It was too big in pretty much every way, and it hit me in weird places, and I didn't really like the shape. My attempts to fix the fit around the shoulders and chest meant the gathering at the hips was too high, and... And anyway, it just wasn't working out. (I should note that I went as far as making it up in the brown art-deco fabric before abandoning this attempt.) Frustrated, I went online and poked around, trying to find inspiration and a way forward. I found the following diagram--"cinq rectangles=un robe."

It seemed simple and like something I could do. And I did. I sketched out a "pattern"--more of a diagram--according to my own measurements. The mock-up looked pretty good. But then I did it in the brown fabric, and, again, it just didn't work. The problem with this diagram is that you gather a lot of fabric into a small width at the shoulders, and when you bring the back skirt around to the front, you have this awkward bulkiness at the sides because of that fabric that reaches from right under the arms at the back down to the waist at the front. That fabric is meant to wrap around to the front for effect, but there's a lot of bulkiness. Looking back at my failure, I think it might be the fabric I used. A mid-weight cotton probably isn't quite the right medium. It probably needed something much lighter weight. I might retry at some point in the future using something lighter.

In any case, I went back to the Internet, poring over fashion plates and patterns. As I mentioned, actual '20s dresses aren't quite what most people think they are. The dresses were longer than you might think and almost never actually had fringe, for instance. Though I ended up making a dress with blocky straps, most dresses had little sleeves and/or a wide, scooped neck. And these gowns were generally made of layers of very light fabrics like chiffon. I liked the looks I was finding but was struggling with exactly how to bring it to life without 1) buying new fabric or 2) buying any more patterns. Because as I wrote on my calendar to remind myself: "No more fabric, FFS!"

Anyway, I came across the following image and knew it was the ticket. Firstly, it's adorable. Secondly, I had light yellow crinkle chiffon that would be exactly the right thing for it. Thirdly, I had a good idea of how to make it.

Now, the source of this picture is Pinterest, and it seems to be an image from a vendor of some pretty nifty vintage-style clothing. At first, I thought it was an original '20s dress, but when I looked into the origin, I wasn't so sure. Dig as I might, I wasn't able to resolve that entirely. It has an original look, but the site doesn't seem to be selling actual vintage clothing. But they might post pictures of actual vintage clothing (as inspiration or what have you). In any case, the look comported pretty well with what I had seen in fashion plates, so I felt comfortable using it as my inspiration.


This dress was entirely self-drafted, which sounds considerably more impressive than it is, I think. The dress is, not so unlike the "cinq rectangles" diagram, made up almost entirely of rectangles. A rectangle for the front of the bodice and one for the back, and two rectangles of fabric for the skirt. Well, four, really, but we'll get to that.

For the bodice, I started with my bust measurements, then added 2" for seam allowance and 3" for ease. I suppose I could have made it one big rectangle that I sewed into a tube, but I did make a front and back panel. For the front panel, I measured up from the center of the rectangle by 1.5" and drew a curve down to side seams. This was to give a little more bust coverage, to make me feel more comfortable in the dress. As for the length, I measured from where I wanted the dress to start under my arm to where my hip bone sticks out (because '20s dress are very low-waisted). Because I was still in the "figuring it out" stage, I added a few inches for a margin of error. I should add, I was using white lawn, which would serve as both a trial run for the chiffon and as the under dress, because obviously I couldn't wear a dress like the one above without some kind of under dress.

That was pretty much the bodice figured out. I puzzled a bit over the ruched section of the dress. Was it a strip of fabric covering the seam where the skirt and bodice met? Was it a strip of fabric that was connected to the bodice on top and the skirt on the bottom? Eventually, I figured out that the strip of ruching was the top of the skirt, gathered to the bodice with several lines of gathering. So, I went ahead and ruched the top of my skirt panels. I had cut two panels, each of which was as wide as the entire bodice and 20" long (which seemed to be the right length for my short frame). When I gathered the panels down, it was a ration of 2:1, skirt:bodice. I did five lines of gathering for the ruched effect, all of which I sewed by hand.

In retrospect, I should have created a strip that was the right length (the length of the bodice) and height (the section of ruching is 3" high) and gathered the skirt down to the panel before attaching it to the bodice. This would have helped in making the gathering neat and even. Actually, in retrospect, I shouldn't have ruched the lawn under-dress at all but left that un-gathered so I could gather the overdress to it. But as I said, this was basically a trial run for the overdress.

I pinned on some temporary straps (just pieces of ribbon) and was pretty pleased with the effect of the dress. I now had proof of concept. I went ahead and cut out pieces from my yellow crinkle chiffon. I can't recall if I mentioned this fabric in another post, but this stuff is hard to work with. It tends to warp really, really easily as you try to transfer your pattern onto it and cut it. I made use of the selvage edge for the skirt panels, of which I cut three because I decided I could use more volume in the chiffon skirt than I had in the lawn skirt. Thankfully, the pieces for this dress were basically all rectangles, which made it easier to keep the lines straight.

Anyway, the next steps were simple enough in concept: sew up the side seams, sew the skirt panels together, run the gathering stitches, and gather the skirt to the bodice. However, this was somewhat fiddly work, what with the chiffon being so given to warping. I had to measure and remeasure everything to ensure it stayed even and level. I also decided that two skirt panels would suffice and set aside the third panel (a fortuitous decision in the end). In any case, with the chiffon outer dress put together, I pinned it to the under-dress and sewed the layers together at the top edge. I rolled the chiffon over the edge of the white lawn (I'd cut the chiffon about an inch longer than the lawn) and stitched it down to the lawn so that the stitching isn't visible from the outside. I also connected the two layers at the waist.

Another retrospect thing: If I were doing this again, I actually might forget about what I said above and just flat-line the chiffon to the under-layer, treating them as one layer.

I attached more-permanent ribbon straps to the dress and had what amounted to a completed dress. I was satisfied with this as a base, but it still didn't have quite the right shape and look.

The dress as completed without any added touches. It
looks quite pink, but I promise it's yellow.


I had three major issues to resolve and a few assets in my corner. The first major issue was the skirt length. The skirt came to just above the knee, which was too short, as all the fashion plates showed skirts ending around mid-calf. The white under-dress also peeked out under the yellow chiffon. The second issue was the straps, which were nothing but two 13"-long white ribbons. I'd never intended these to be the final look but to be the structure on top of which I would add....something. Sleeves? Ruffles? Lace? More yellow chiffon to make wider straps? This was TBD. My third issue was that the overall look was too plain. It needed more visual weight at the bottom and top to balance the ruching in the middle, and I also just wanted it to look more more.

What I had to work with was the following: that third skirt panel I had set aside, pieces of a failed bodice from a different project using the yellow chiffon fabric, and various bits of lace and trim. I took apart that old bodice and quickly realized that the waistband from that would make a lovely bow for the middle of the bust line and that what had been a peplum would be perfect for a tie around the waist (like in the inspiration picture). I wouldn't need to hem or alter these pieces at all, just attach them. Hurrah! That helped.

Pile of scraps from an old bodice, on top of my comforter.

I played around with that discarded skirt panel, and thought about making it a little shrug thingy like in the inspiration picture, but it just didn't quite work. I considered making flutter sleeves out of it. Then I realized that the perfect solution was to cut the panel in half lengthwise so that I would have two panels the same width and half the height as the skirt panels already attached to the dress. I would then sew those to the bottom of the skirt, making a flouncy little flounce. To hide the spot where the flounce was attached, I would apply some kind of decoration.

The unadorned dress, but with the added skirt flounce

Thence commenced a lengthy scouring of the Internet for some kind of trim to cover the line where the flounce attaches to the skirt. Should I use a lacy trim with gold accents? A Greek-key trim? Then, as had happened a few times already during this project, inspiration hit. Recall that art-deco-design fabric I failed to make good use of? Well. Here was a good use for it. I would cut out a strip of only the lotus flower part of the design and stitch that in a long strip over the place where the flounce was stitched to the skirt.

Done and done.

The lotus flower design.
Ironing my strip flat (it's folded over in thirds, envelope-like).

This brain-wave helped solve the problem of the straps, as well: I would use more of that fabric to make wider straps. I went ahead and did that, then thought it needed a little something more to ground it. So I made little ruffles using more leftover bits of that failed bodice.

Oh, and I should also note that the weight of the dress made it sag from the straps. I'd added 1.5" to the top of the front bodice, but it was sagging between the straps so badly that it was straight across. So I added a band of ribbon all the way around the bodice, and in the front I added some "boning" (a zip tie) to help it keep it's shape, and that worked. It still sags a bit from the straps, so I'm going to keep this folded for storage rather than hung.

The dress, without the ruffles on the straps and
without hair/makeup done. Also, without shoes.

And so I had a dress! A whole dress, almost entirely of my own design, and it turned out *so well*. I was really, really proud of the different design decisions I made and the problems I solved. I was most pleased with the fact that I used stuff I already had.

A few notes. In the below, I'm wearing a wig for volume and some dark lipstick (which I actually really like and might wear more everyday!). The shoes are actually 1860s reproductions (American Duchess), but they're simple white shoes and therefore unobtrusive and versatile. The gloves are cheap Halloween gloves, and I think I'll get white one to match better, though the contrast is kind of nice. You can't see it very well, but I am wearing a white headband in this pictures, too.

The dress on a hanger. It looked really pink in all
the pictures I took in this spot, so I color-corrected and now 
some of it looks a bit green, but the color of the dress is closer to correct.

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