I made this dress about a month ago, and it's taken me this long to get it photographed! I thought it would be perfect for Dress Your Best, since it shows off all my favorite parts of my body.
Dress: Blue stripe seersucker. The bodice fullness is taken out with four large darts at the front waist, and the back bodice has waistline and shoulder darts. The skirt is gathered, dirndl-style. It is mad comfortable.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
My biggest irritation with sewing manuals of the past is that they don't start telling you how to make pants until the seventies. There are loads of mid-century pants patterns (my favorites have a Rosie the Riveter utilitarian vibe, like these), but pick up a contemporary text for advice on how to assemble them and you'll get nothing. Now, most of the books I've read don't tell you how to sew men's or children's clothes, either, though surely women sewed for their families as much as they did for themselves. Am I missing something? Were these just supposed to be natural-born female abilities, like using those eyelash torture devices or not breaking your ankle in heels? It's not like pants are easy or obvious, either--they're a lot harder to construct and fit than the A-line four-gore skirts my 1940 sewing book loves to describe. Actually, pants suck, and putting them together requires mental gymnastics of the highest order.
This is all to say that I drafted the pattern for these slacks with just my own ingenuity (and Pamela Stringer, bless her, and the incomparable Reader's Digest guide) and I think they came out all right! I'm calling them Sailor Pants for no reason whatsoever, and I love them dearly. (I'm currently in the middle of constructing the sequel, Sailor Shorts, which I think sounds like an awfully dirty insult.)
I'm smiling in this picture because I have just crushed the mewling, lifeless corpse of pants beneath my conquering flat sneaker:
Pants: wide-legged linen trousers with a high waist, belt loops, and a side zip/hook and eye finish.
Friday, June 24, 2011
I discovered last week that my university's library includes a fair-sized collection of restricted access art books. I checked out the textiles and fashion section, on a hunch, and hit the goldmine--tons of books about vintage clothes! Interestingly, the most useful turned out to be Everyday Fashions of the Thirties As Pictured in Sears Catalogs (which is only ten bucks, and can't be checked out of the library for more than two hours, so I'm seriously considering just buying it). It's such a jackpot because it features A) actual outfits of the period, unfiltered by modern sensibilities, with B) vintage styling and C) fairly detailed descriptions of fabric, notions, and construction details, all topped off by D) the original pricing! I love being able to see how much the clothes I'm making would have been worth to the average middle-class woman of 1938.
The other super-fun thing about this book is the clear progression of the design; in 1930 or '31, it's all drawn in the Art Deco style of the twenties, but by 1939 the photography style dates the catalog very clearly to the WWII period. Some of the late-thirties outfits are even more "forties" than those from the sequel, Everyday Fashions of the Forties etc.
The decade was full of these tea-length or slightly shorter skirts with the fullness controlled by several released pleats. I love them. So much. I have some wool/silk blend coming in the mail, so if it has the right hand for it I'm going to whip up something like the skirt on the right:
This sweater advertisement is very clearly competing with home knitters--it's interesting that by the mid-thirties, a mainstream mid-priced company like Sears could make this claim:
My grandfather lives in these all-in-one khaki work suits--I asked my grandmother why once, and she said his father wore them when he was a kid. My grandfather was born in 1931; this advertisement ran in 1939:
By the late thirties, pants were acceptable casual wear for women and many outfits are offered with skirt and trouser options. The two models, standing side by side, sometimes look a lot like a butch/femme couple. For example, these ladies:
By the way, the text at the top of the picture reads "Hollywood says: suit the woman in mannish flannels!" Girl on the left is rocking those mannish flannels and casually bumping elbows with girl on the right, who thinks her trouser creases are sexy.
I've got a whole sketch in my head for these two:
Jacket Girl: "Your hair looks really shiny today."
Blouse Girl: "Oh, really?"
Jacket Girl: "Yeah. And you're really pulling off those button-flap pants."
Blouse Girl: "Oh. Thanks!"
Jacket Girl: "Usually those are ugly and impractical, but they look kind of okay on you."
Blouse Girl: "Uh."
Jacket Girl: "As we seem to be on a boat, how would you like me to take you for a ride?"
Jacket Girl: "I have a nautical-themed pashmina afghan."
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Belt loops: done. Hook and eye: done. I was going to make a joke here about R.O.U.S.'s and the Three Terrors of the Fire Swamp or something, I don't know, it just didn't pan out.
Pants are such an amazingly awful pain in the ass, but seeing them all made up and reasonably well-fitting is pretty satisfying, I guess. I've taken the slow way through finishing the inside seams; I'd never cut a waistband with this method before, so I made the self-facing a bit too short in places and had to either cover it with some hem lace (inspired by Gertie's ingenious cuff fix):
or do a sort of rough double-overcast stitch to keep the edges together (ugly and impossible to photograph clearly, so just be glad I didn't post a picture).
Most of this doesn't even show from the inside of the garment--it's hidden where the waistband laps over--but by this point the pants were beginning to look so much like real clothes that I couldn't bear to leave it raw. I feel very protective towards my finished projects, like a mother towards her tender, impressionable, rapidly fraying children.
Somebody on the internet (if it was you, let me know so I can credit you) once said that the fiddly handwork goes much faster when they think of it as "couturier details." It does feel special to know that even the invisible bits of your clothes have been lovingly constructed. And I do feel sort of badass--jabbing myself with pins and swearing a blue streak at the fabric, just like a real professional! I like to watch familiar old TV while I do handwork, too, so I'll admit I look forward to it. I've found that these two shows are perfect for hand sewing:
- QI, because I've seen most of the episodes already, and in any case you don't have to look at the screen much since it's all talking. That's the joy of panel shows. And I always learn something new! Or laugh. Or both.
- Doctor Who, because I've seen all of the episodes (of the new series) and can recite bits of most of them--so I know what's happening onscreen whether I can look up at the moment or not.
I'll get some more photos up in a bit. Consider this a sneak preview. Of trousers. I don't know, I'm tired. Pretend there's a good Princess Bride joke here.
One more thing I made recently--the Angus Barn Chocolate Chess Pie, from the eponymous cookbook:
It's almost too much. Doesn't look like much filling, right? I panicked at the last minute and threw in an extra egg and quarter cup of butter because I had a half inch layer of pie in this cavernous deep-dish pan, but now I realize that the filling is so intense, you can't eat more than half an inch at a time. It's sadist's pie: the first bite is amazing, the second satisfying, the third makes you want to throw up. I'm staring at a half-eaten slice right now and trying to summon the courage to take another bite. Hold me, Internet. I'm frightened.
Monday, June 20, 2011
If you don't read Academichic, you probably should. Lady academics blogging about DIY maternity style, the long impossible road to tenure, political and historical fashion, bike-friendly outfits, and color blocking! It's pretty great. And every year they run something called Dress Your Best, which brings bloggers together in celebrating their hot bits instead of shamefully concealing their unacceptable bodies. I have a lot of time on my hands lately, so I'm going to do this too. Everybody should do it! It's really fun to brag on your own hotness.
The first thing you do is list five parts of your body that you're proud of. In no particular order:
- My waist. It's a lot smaller than my hips--not to a New Look kind of extreme, but very shapely and proportional. I have a long torso, but my waist starts very high, so I can wear the hell out of a pencil skirt and look like I'm all leg.
- My upper back. I have a tattoo of this cover art on my left shoulderblade, and I love to show it off. I think my back is strong, and it feels unexpected in a sexy way to show skin there.
- The gray in my hair. I love it; it makes me feel grown-up and powerful. Even if no one else notices, it still gives me confidence and authority.
- My biceps. I appreciate all the work they do for me, and their symbolic power as a critique of the "weak" feminine (sadly, their actual power isn't quite as impressive--I'm working on that!).
- The hair under my arms. It's a reminder that I choose my own beauty--nobody gets to do it for me. I can wear lipstick and earrings and skirts that belt at the waist and I still don't have to shave because I'm not dressing for anybody else. I'm dressing for me.
Even if you don't have a blog, I'd recommend making a list like this. It feels good! I'll have more DYB posts up later--the challenge runs for two weeks.
P.S. Trousers are done, and they fit amazingly. I haven't had a chance to drag my dear love of a partner outside for a photo shoot yet, so pictures will come later. I feel like Katharine Hepburn in them, though. And that is a powerful feeling.
Hollywood Patterns, marry me.
These lovely, quirky patterns are advertised with glamour photos of various starlets--for instance, "Linda Hayes of RKO-Radio." That's some terrible hair, honey.
They date from 1932 through the Second World War, which is a fascinating period of fashion history. Home sewing patterns as a commercial industry had been around since Ebenezer Butterick pioneered them in the 1860s, but the way they were marketed changed enormously from decade to decade; early patterns are often advertised as stylish, but rarely (as far as I can tell) with reference to any particular public figure or media representation of the style. But by the late twenties and early thirties, the movies had come in in a big way, and many patterns (not just Hollywood's!) are sold as direct copies of costumes from popular films. You can imagine the hope that Depression-era women must have felt, with a pattern in one hand and a few yards of rayon crepe in the other--with just a few hours of work, you too could slink around in bias-cut dinner pajamas just like Bette Davis!
It wasn't only movies that women aspired to copy, either; this mid-thirties pattern for a tennis outfit sells itself as "straight from the French resorts," and includes a cap which the lovely Andrea at Unsung Sewing Patterns has identified as a possible fad item among the rich and fashionable in the south of France. This was clearly a period in which home sewers were looking to the fabulously wealthy and the glamorously glitzy for inspiration. One of my favorite dressmaking texts, "Practical Dress Design," frequently breaks off to identify the most fashionable Paris silhouettes of 1937, 1938, and 1939--and occasionally predict what 1940 will look like.
Women of the thirties were sewing to get glamour on a budget--mass-produced clothing was still pricey enough, and fabric by the yard widely available enough, that you could save a dollar on an evening gown or fifty cents on a wool skirt by sewing at home. Essentially, sewing was at its trendiest during the Great Depression, and on into the Second World War. By the prosperous fifties, Hollywood Patterns was either a bust or a shell of its former popularity--I can't find any details on what happened to the company post-war--and home sewing manuals no longer directed their readers toward the latest fashions in Paris frocks.
I'll console myself with Anita Louise's bias-cut evening gown:
Katharine Hepburn's gorgeous, I-want-them-right-now trousers:
Dolores Del Rio's... whatever this is:
and Ginny Simms's smart little skirt suit:
Friday, June 17, 2011
I am making pants. Pants are really damn hard. I'm using "Pattern Drafting for Dressmaking," by Pamela Stringer, which is a truly excellent book but still cannot make pants easy. I drafted a very loose-fitting pair of high-waisted, Forties-inspired pants that I am calling "sailor pants" for lack of a better name. Any ideas? I'm notoriously awful at naming garments.
Can you believe that these shapeless scraps of newspaper are going to become pants?:
(Note the brand-new dressmaker's shears. Half-off notions day at Joann's is a good day.)
Anyway, so I made some minor alterations around the crotch--or, as Natalie Bray would (priggishly and hilariously) have it, the "crutch"--and the fit is okay though not perfect. I basted and re-basted the stupid thing about fourteen times, making it worse in a different way every single time, before I finally just gave up and returned to my original pattern. Which is fine if not spectacular. When I get around to making some more fitted pants, I'm going to start fresh, I think.
One thing I've learned from sewing is that it's better to take measurements to the millimeter, mark the shit out of my pattern getting the curves perfect, and cut clean garment pieces than go through fitting hell. I never had the patience until this last year or so, and everything I made suffered for it (the reason why I don't wear any of that stuff now!). Maybe it's age? You're supposed to get more patient with age, I've heard. At this rate I'll be doing couturier-quality work by the time I'm twenty-five. Or maybe just spacing my backstitch evenly. Baby steps.
I'll post some pictures once I've defeated my arch-nemesis, Belt Loops. I've got enough fabric for patch pockets, but I'm afraid I'll put too much strain on them with my mandatory sexual-orientation-specific body language. Pants are so complicated.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
So I realized recently that I was unwittingly participating in the Summer Essentials Sew-Along--funny how these things happen--and I went ahead and formally signed up. "Five-ish summer pieces by August-ish" is a very loose and manageable challenge, and my closet can definitely use some lightweight pieces, both for summer and for layering in the fall and spring. As much fun as it is to sew with wool, I would also like to branch out a little and develop some chops with other fabrics.
My tentative (and highly ambitious) list of garments is here, and will be updated with links as I finish things:
5) An olive green linen skirt of some kind--A-line, maybe?--with in-seam pockets.
6) A black cotton lawn chemise dress
with a sweetheart neckline.
7) Another low-backed top, in white silk/cotton voile.
Clam-diggers--maybe also in linen, I haven't bought the fabric for this yet Navy linen high-waisted shorts!
I think I can manage most of these! I've drafted a pattern for the linen pants and I'm about to cut them out (with a one-inch seam allowance, because it's a certainty that something about the pattern is wrong and will need to be tweaked). Wish me luck, guys.
Monday, June 13, 2011
Time for an outfit post! I made this pencil skirt and top last week, on self-drafted patterns. I keep meaning to do some embroidery stitching on the top but I kind of like it plain:
The scoop back is gathered slightly so it'll lie flat, but if (when) I make this again I think I'll gather it even more:
Skirt: Basic pencil skirt with a back zip and French vent, in cotton-linen blend. I used Natalie Bray's Dress Pattern Designing as a guide for spacing the darts and whatnot. This is my third or fourth pencil skirt pattern and you know what, accurate measuring makes a huge difference! I also much prefer this just-below-the-knee length for a fifties silhouette (and for sitting down without public indecency).
Top: A backless shell in cotton lawn, adapted from my bodice block (also drafted using the Bray text). I didn't have any blouses that showed off my tattoo. Problem solved.
This picture makes it look like I'm flying...
...but I'm really just lifting my arms so you can see the side seams (French!):
Upstate New York doesn't believe in summer, so I had to wear a sweater for most of the day--
--but it was gorgeous out by the time we took pictures. Nice job, upstate New York.
Most of the time, pie is the most delicious thing I can think of. (I always forget that when you make your crust from scratch, it takes something like four hours to get it in and out of the oven, and then it has to cool for ages, so pie is unfortunately a delayed sort of gratification.) In the winter, I like Mark Bittman's Buttermilk Blueberry Custard Pie (from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian), and in the summer I like this mixed-berry crumble (inspired by Ken Haedrich's advice in Pie).
Mmmmmm. As an aside, I always thought cooling pies in the window was just a mid-century trope--you know, the aproned housewife puts a steaming hot cherry pie on the windowsill, some scamp comes along and scoops out a piece and gets a burnt tongue for his trouble--but it does sort of help if you've got a cross-breeze going. And the faster a pie cools, the faster you can eat it!
One note for this pie: line the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil before you start the recipe. The juices will bubble up and drip everywhere, and you don't want to have to scrape that off your oven floor.
Summerberry Crumble Pie
One single batch of pie crust, or a store-bought crust (I'm still tweaking my recipe--maybe I'll post it here when I finally get it right--but I like the homely deliciousness of all-butter).
For the filling:
6 cups summer fruit (I used four cups fresh strawberries, two cups frozen blueberries, but any proportion of berries or stone fruits should be delicious)
1/2 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon (or less if your fruit is already on the tart side)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
For the topping:
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds (pecans or walnuts would probably be good too)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 tablespoon milk
If you're using a homemade pie crust: mix it, chill it, roll it out, drop it in the pan (give it as high an edge as you can manage, to keep the fruit from dripping unduly), and chuck it in the freezer while you chop and mix the fruit. If you're using store-bought, don't even worry about it.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix the six cups fruit, half cup sugar, and lemon juice and zest in a large bowl. Let it sit for about ten minutes. Then stir up the cornstarch and two tablespoons of sugar in a small bowl and add them to the fruit all at once. Take your pie crust out of the freezer and pour the filling in, smoothing the top with a spoon. Put the pie on a middle-to-low shelf of the oven (you want the bottom browner than the top) and bake for 30 minutes.
While that's happening, mix your topping! Drop the flour, sugar, salt, and chopped nuts in a bowl and stir it up. Then chop the butter into small pieces and mix in, rubbing between your fingers like you're making biscuits (or, incidentally, a pie crust). When you've got the butter fully mixed in and reduced to relatively uniform little pieces smaller than peas, add the milk and stir until it's all moistened. Stick this in the fridge.
When the 30 minutes are up, take the pie out of the oven and reduce heat to 375 degrees. Sprinkle the crumble topping on the pie as evenly as you can and pat it down gently. Put the pie back in the oven--it helps to do a 180 lateral turn so both sides get browned evenly--and bake for another 40 minutes or so, until the juices are bubbling over and the topping looks golden brown.
Now eat it! Or rather, let it cool for a couple of hours and then eat it. I really hate that about pie.
P.S. I'm drafting a trouser pattern with Pamela Stringer's Pattern Drafting for Dressmaking--but the relevant chapter is not called Trousers, or even Pants; it's called this:
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Fundamentals of Dress is primarily a style guide--and, implicitly, a guide to life as an adult woman in 1941--but it includes a few tips on building a wardrobe, including sewing and mending your own clothes. The tone is oddly cheery, given that it was written on the eve of global war; the book's readership is assumed to be pink-cheeked young co-eds, always running off to take beach vacations and dash about in saddle shoes. The most interesting parts are the advice on garment care and appropriate dress for various occasions, both of which have changed immeasurably in the past seventy years (we no longer iron our clothes on the train, for one, nor do we maintain separate wardrobes for afternoon and evening).
Culturally, Fundamentals of Dress is a hangover from the thirties; it gets awfully worked up about the young career girl's first smart interview suit for her exciting, modern new job in a busy downtown office. It winks and nudges about its readers skipping class to go driving or take in a picture, but it expects them to take their studies seriously--no M.r.S. degrees here.
Socks are appropriate with sport clothes, but hardly suitable for street wear.
Men are not likely to be favorably impressed by a girl who appears too masculine in her attire.
A conservative monthly average for a city girl who is forced to live moderately, but wishes to live well, allows approximately $45 a month for board and room alone.
Take on that nautical air when you hie to the beaches! Join the other merry-makers in merry beach togs.
If you do not wish to make use of the pressing service on some trains, hang your suit with your topcoat; it will look quite restored, should you wish to reappear in it on reaching your destination.
It may be a Ferris waist, or a two-way stretch, step in girdle; it may be a corset cover or a brassiere; or it may be umbrella drawers, bloomers, or scanties. What is worn today will be worn next year, and the next, with variations in style and with new names.
- excerpted from Fundamentals of Dress, by Marietta Kettunen. McGraw Hill, NYC, 1941.
Friday, June 10, 2011
I've seen a lot of discussions on the blogosphere about why modern women wear vintage, and what it might have to do with male attention (here, most memorably, but I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting). I find these conversations fascinating--they're a glimpse into the priorities and desires of straight women, which I so often forget are different from my own. It surprises me, for instance, that the question 'how am I perceived differently when I wear vintage?' comes up so frequently, while the question 'how do I behave differently when I wear vintage?' rarely occurs. Many, many commentors also mention men's responses to a woman in vintage drag: excessive politeness, more innocuous catcalls, implication that relatively modest vintage styles are 'ladylike' (as opposed to revealing, 'slutty' modern styles--a mindset that however unintentionally justifies rape).
I have a lot to say on this subject, so bear with me. First of all, my relationship to public male attention is a very complicated and uncomfortable one. I'm femme, and not visibly queer unless your gaydar is excellent; the queerest aspects of my appearance are a nose ring and unshaven legs and underarms. I'm also white, thin, young, middle-class, Euro-centrically attractive, and physically nonthreatening. I've been catcalled, called 'pretty' by men I don't know, complimented on my eyes by cashiers--often in the face of my obvious discomfort, and in the presence of my partner. These encounters have made me uncomfortably aware that I don't have a choice about how I am perceived by the world. Short of shaving my head and wearing combat boots at all times--actions that would run against my own personal desires--I can't stop being a pretty girl, and men like to look at pretty girls. In this context, male approval on my appearance comes loaded with a hundred things that I'm sure those men don't consciously intend: power imbalance between men and women, stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, the invisibility of lesbian sexuality, and (because my partner is Asian, and often read as male) the metaphorical impotence of Asian men.
(The flip side of this, of course, would be public attention from other queer women--which makes me feel attractive and safe, and affirms my identity--but unfortunately queer women are not immune to the power of femme invisibility. I've considered wearing a sign around my neck that says 'dyke,' but I'm not sure it would be well received.)
I dress in vintage styles despite, not because of, men's opinions about them. What's the point, then? Let's ask the question, then, 'how do I behave differently when I wear vintage?' For one, I find myself acting more chivalrously when I'm dressed up--holding doors, smiling at strangers, thanking my cashier kindly at the grocery store. I walk differently; heeled boots make me slow down and wiggle, tight skirts need a little hike on the stairs, tucked-in blouses improve my posture. I feel like more of a grown-up, and more of a woman, in the sense of 'fully grown' rather than 'overtly gendered.'
Are all of these things only possible in a pencil skirt? No, obviously; but I think wearing a vintage silhouette gives me a sense of connection to women of the past and through that a broader sense of my own choices. We live in a casual, often vulgar culture. I have no objections to that--if a vulgar public discourse is the price I have to pay for increased sexual and gender equality, less restrictive attitudes about race and ethnicity, and a historically unheard-of level of personal freedom, bring on the sweatpants and slang. Beyond a certain level of common courtesy, I don't care what the person standing next to me on the street corner is wearing; they can take their freedom of personal expression and do whatever they want with it. But for me, a tight pencil skirt makes me think about the generation of women for whom an office job was the height of glamour, women whose identities as 'career girls' helped them navigate a world that was rapidly becoming co-ed. Long wool skirts and loose shirtwaists remind me of urban immigrant women at the turn of the last century, both the enormity of their daily domestic work and the strategies they used to make it bearable.
Getting dressed in the morning is an interaction with our environment: even my Old Navy flip-flops connect me to colonialism, labor abuses in the Third World, technological innovations in plastics and synthetic materials, perceptions of class and age, and so forth. Given a choice, I'd prefer to connect myself to the women who lived and dressed generations before me, whose creativity and ingenuity I can celebrate with my own.
Women's history is at its core a history of home and hearth: it's about baking and pickling and scouring and mending, all the devalued and invisible tasks that make civilization possible. Domestic technology created a space for modern feminism: the difference between a washing machine and a tub full of soapsuds is five or ten hours in which to think, read, and write. I'm incredibly thankful for the many household conveniences that allow me to live as freely as I do, with as much choice as I have. But baking and pickling and scouring and mending made millions of people cleaner, healthier, happier, safer, and more comfortable. Just because we're not forced to do those things any more doesn't mean we shouldn't choose to, when it suits us. Domestic work is a service to the world just as much as civil engineering or construction work or banking, and in some ways more so, because it is done without the validation of pay or public recognition. (I'm speaking here of unpaid domestic work; paid domestic labor is a whole other tangle of class, race, nationality, and economic inequality.)
I sew my own clothes because I value domestic work, and I think it's worth it to put hours of labor into a garment if it means that it will fit me well, be made of high quality materials, and make me feel happy, comfortable, and sexy. When I wear a dress I've made myself, I know it inside and out; it's mine in a way nothing I buy can ever be. Furthermore, garment sewing is a creative task, especially since I design and draft my own patterns: like engineering, but for bodies. It's not that sewing isn't work--after a long day, my back aches, my eyes hurt, my brain is tired--but it's a deliberate and satisfying kind of work, and its end result is my own pleasure and happiness. I'm not sewing because I have to. I'm not sewing because it will make someone else happy, although that is sometimes one end result. I'm not sewing to bolster my feminine identity or to make my mother proud of me or because it's what girls do.
But I'm also (and bear with me, this sentence gets confusing) not not sewing for any of those reasons. Lucky me, no one has ever told me that I should sew (or bake, or pickle, or mend), so my choice to do it is a free one. Unlike many women--including my mom, who came of age in the seventies--I have the amazing privilege of making my own decision. I have feminism to thank for that, and the many incredible women--like my mom--who fought these battles in decades previous. These are the women I honor by dressing exactly the way I want to and doing all the domestic work I damn well please and never, ever feeling like I am somehow less serious or valuable because of it. And that's why I sew vintage.
Coming soon: some actual things I have actually made; a series on sewing manuals of the twentieth century; and perhaps a pie.