Saturday, 9 February 2013

1950s birthday dress

It was my birthday this week, and I wanted to have a party - and what better theme than the 1950s? Especially as it meant I could make a lovely dress! And curl my hair! And wear red lipstick! However, this make turned into a bit of a saga...

Right, I have *ahem* six boxes of vintage patterns, so this was totally the perfect time to use one. I could make a fabulous genuine 50s cocktail dress! Hmm, except I have now discovered I actually have very few vintage cocktail dress patterns, and even fewer that are close enough to my size to be able to make quickly (oh yeah, I started on Saturday, needed the dress on Thursday). Hang on, what about this pattern:

Perfect! And pretty much in my size too! Although... I had my suspicions that this was actually 60s - there was something off about the bodice (and the hairstyle in the illustration), so it was off to Google and the Vintage Pattern Wiki to investigate. Hmm. 1962. Now I'm pretty sure none of my friends here are experts on mid-century dress styles, but I would know, and I knew I wouldn't be happy if I just made this as is. However, the skirt portion was perfect for a 50s style, so I figured I could just frankenpattern a different bodice onto it. I had a browse through my Sears catalogue book, and figured the thing to have was a simple close-fitting bodice with kimono sleeves. This picture became my inspiration (the black dress in the middle):

I then had another brainwave - how about using one of the patterns from my lovely new Gertie book? She has a pattern for a very fitted "wiggle" dress, with kimono sleeves that have gussets to reduce that flappy bit of fabric between armpit and shoulder, which, as a more well endowed lady, has always been my bugbear with cut-on sleeves. Marvellous. Except... I have to say now I've had a go at sewing something from this book, I'm a little disappointed. I totally love everything about Gertie, and feel awful criticising her beautiful book, but there were just so many niggles: issues with the drafting (various seams didn't quite match up, including, rather importantly, when inserting the gussets), there is no waist line marked on the patterns, the instructions have parts that are slightly ambiguous, and are made more ambiguous by the very pretty but rather unclear illustrations (rather than photos or technical illustrations) of the construction, there is a complete lack of technical drawings, and even little things like not being able to find an explicit statement of whether the seam allowances are included in the pattern pieces (I'm pretty certain they are, but it would be useful to actually say so). Sad. I attempted a muslin of the top part of the dress, but got so frustrated with the construction issues and the huge amounts of fitting that was needed that this got put aside (as in rather forcefully "put aside" into the bin...).

New day, new plan: use a bodice from another vintage pattern. I remembered this one:

A little small, but shouldn't be too hard to grade up a little, right? And maybe with the cap sleeves there wouldn't be so much issue with the excess fabric? Wrong and wrong. Waaaaay too small, and way too much flappiness.

Right, it was getting rather too close to Party Time for comfort by this stage, so I got down to it and decided to draft the damn bodice from scratch. I used my trusty Aldrich book, and drafted the basic close-fitting block, did the FBA, then transformed this into a close fitting kimono block with diamond gussets. Then turned over the page and realised they had instructions for a short-sleeved version with gusset inserts at the bottom of the sleeve which was just what I wanted. So a quick(ish) redraft later and I was making up a toile of a marvellous bodice! Hurrah! I did need to reduce the FBA a bit, but other than that there were only minor fitting corrections and changes to the style of the neckline to do. Phew. The make was finally on.

Pattern description

Close fitting dress with pencil skirt. Bodice is self drafted and has bateau neckline in front, low scoop neckline in back, and short kimono sleeves with gusset. Skirt is just past knee length, with draped front overskirt.

Pattern sizing

The bodice is drafted to my measurements, the skirt is (vintage) size 20.

Fabric used

Silk twill from Mood in New York! This fabric is so gorgeous. I actually think I'm in love with it. It doesn't really come across in the photos, but it's fairly beefy, is a sort of greenish gold colour and has a sort of hammered, crackly appearance. It is completely beautiful, and a dream to sew. All through the make I was just so happy because I could keep looking at and touching the fabric.

The lining is bog-standard taffeta lining, probably poly. It would have been lovely to line this in silk, but this is what I had in my stash.

Did it look like the photo/drawing on the pattern envelope/sketch/idea when you were done?

I'm glad I stuck with this dress, as it ended up pretty much like the vision I had of what I wanted. (Apologies for the slight wrinkliness of the dress in the photos here, they were taken the day after the party, and I obviously didn't re-press it very well!)

Were the instructions easy to follow?

Well, the only instructions I had were for the skirt portion as the top was self drafted. These were actually pretty good - it was late enough to be a printed pattern, so the markings were very clear, and the instructions were nicely illustrated which meant they were very easy to follow. The only issue I had was when sewing the side seam on the right, where the overskirt was attached: they have you sew it through the facing at the same time, but it would actually work better with the facing held out the way, then flapped back up, the seam allowance at the side turned under, and then slipstitched to the seam to hide the raw edges. I will actually unpick this seam and do this, along with a few other small finishing touches I didn't get time to do before the party.

What did you particularly like or dislike about the pattern?

I totally adore the draping on the skirt. It's super easy to sew (it's just three tucks that are basted then fixed by sewing into the waist seam), but looks so pretty (and is very flattering over the stomach). For the bodice, I'm very glad I ended up drafting it myself, as the fit is great. I'm also converted to underarm gussets (I still find that word hilarious) - they're actually pretty easy to sew and make such a difference to the fit.

Pattern alterations or any design changes you made/Drafting details

The skirt was pretty much sewn up out the envelope, with only a few minor changes: I pegged it by 4cm total at the side seams, and lengthened it by 4.5cm; I adjusted the position of the darts to match the bodice and lengthened the back darts by about 2.5cm; and I let out the waist a little.

The bodice was drafted using my high bust measurement, then an FBA done (although as I mentioned above I needed to reduce it after making the muslin). I then converted the basic block into a kimono block, and followed the exact instructions in the Aldrich book to draft a cap sleeve with a gusset.

Construction details

I wanted to keep this fairly true to vintage, so the construction is all done with my standard lockstich machine and the seam allowances are pinked. The silk twill actually hardly frays, so this works pretty well. The facings and zipper opening are interfaced with fusible interfacing, and the neckline on the shell is reinforced with Vilene bias tape.

The main construction challenge on this dress was the sleeve gussets. Although they seemed like an intimidating prospect at first, after practicing on the toile I found that with careful marking and a little concentration they're actually fairly straightforward to sew. Two blog posts were very helpful in working out how to do them: Gertie's post about the triangular gussets in her wiggle dress, and Karen's post about the gusset inserts in her retro Butterick rose dress. I used a combination of these two techniques - I will be writing another post explaining how I sewed the gussets as it has ended up as a pretty lengthy description (and I need to take some photos to illustrate the process).

I decided on a centre back zipper, and used a lapped insertion to keep with the vintage look. I used the method given in the Vogue Sewing Book for how to do this when there's a facing involved: basically you fold back the facing 2.5cm (1") on the overlapping side, sew the facings and understitch, then insert the zipper, meaning that the facing clears the zipper teeth when it's all finished. The overlapping side of the zipper is handpicked (have I mentioned how much I love hand-stitching?).

Walking ease in the skirt is given by the construction of a slit in the skirt on the right side, which is hidden by the overskirt. The hem is just turned up and held in place with catch-stitching.

The lining is constructed using the same pattern pieces as the bodice and skirt. For the bodice, I traced the pattern pieces, marked a 4.5cm wide neckline facing and cut along this line. I didn't sew the darts in the skirt lining right to the points to allow for a little ease and reduce strain on the lining when sitting. To allow for walking ease in the lining I left side slits on both sides and topstitched the seam allowances here. The lining was sewn to the shell at the neckline by machine, then slipstitched to the zipper tape and sleeve hem allowance by hand.

As this ended up being finished in rather a rush, so there are a few bits and pieces that were either missed off or need to be redone and tidied up:

  • Add a hook and thread bar to the top of the zipper.
  • Add an inner waist stay. I wasn't going to add this, but after wearing the dress it would actually be very useful for two reasons: supporting the weight of the drape on the front skirt, and keeping the bodice in place. I actually added a little too much length in the bodice after making a toile, which means it rides up a little, interfering with the fit of the shoulders.
  • Add lingerie guards to the shoulders to keep bra straps hidden and also help keep the shoulders sitting correctly.
  • Make the matching belt.
  • Unpick and resew the bottom of the side seam where the overskirt joins, so that the raw edges are hidden better.
  • Resew the lining to the shell at the sleeve hems - I did this in a rush, so some of the stitches show on the outside.
  • Tidy up some of the seam allowances that I ran out of time to finish.
  • Perhaps redo the hem with some lace to make it a little prettier.

Would you sew it again? Would you recommend it to others?

I doubt I will sew this exact dress again, but I am definitely going to be using gussets in kimono sleeves again. I love the look of cut-on sleeves, but hate the pooling of fabric at the front of the shoulder that is just hideous with any sort of larger than average bust, and very ugly in anything even semi-fitted. Using the gussets really keeps it fitted but still comfortable. I would definitely recommend others try using these, they're really not as intimidating as they first seem.


An outstanding success! I felt very glamourous wearing this, and the combination of fabric and pattern was perfect. For the party I paired it with a gold belt (as I didn't get time to sew the matching belt), vintage earrings from eBay, heels, and stocking with a seam. I then added later on the gorgeous necklace you can see in the photos, which was a birthday present.

And as for the party, that was also a success. I made punch, pineapple and cheese on sticks, devilled eggs, smoked salmon and avocado blinis, and pineapple upside down cake, and I even found some Coke in glass bottles. Everyone looked lovely, and I think a good time was had by all...


  1. Beautiful job! Isn't the process so much more enjoyable when you use fine fabrics like our silk twill?

  2. Yes, it's definitely lovely working with good fabrics! I still have three other fabrics from my visit 18 months ago :)

  3. What an amazing dress and what a fabulous you job you did sewing it! Love everything about this dress... it's actually stunning on you and the fabric really suits you!!! Well done :)

  4. Beautiful dress! I just love the color and all your details are exquisite. The only problem is you've made me want that pattern...