20th Century, Textiles & Costume

Karen’s Gift: A velvet 1920s confection by Mrs Martina Downing

I really wanted to post something today, but wasn’t sure what.  When in doubt, what could be better than costume deliciousness?

Two months ago (has it been two months already!) I shared with you the first piece of Karen’s gift.

If anything, I love this piece even more, though it’s hard to pick between two such glorious items!

Velvet dress by Miss Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

This velvet dress dates from the mid 20s, and bears a label with the name Mrs Marina Downing, 22 East Sixty-Fifth St, New York.  Presumably Mrs Downing was the dressmaker.

Velvet dress by Miss Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

The dress is primarily in petrol blue silk velvet (be still my heart!) with flashes of cerise pink silk satin around the neck and in the hip trim.

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

How fabulous!

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

There is simple metallic embroidery around the neck, down the left side, and around the hem.  It’s just another touch of detail and handiwork on the frock, and lends a nice shock of coarseness and permanency to a garment that could otherwise look too sweet and delicate.  It’s like an amuse bouche for the dress.

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

The dropped waist is highlighted with a wide beaded band with little ribbonwork pansies

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

There is also another bunch of ribbon flowers sewn to the skirt, but the workmanship is very inferior, and the placement quite random, so I suspect it was a later addition to hide a spot or hole (which you can possibly see in the twist of the stem)

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

The asymmetry of the dress is further highlighted with rows of piping down the proper left side, with the same subtle metallic embroidery that highlights the neckline and the layers of hem.

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

The dress fastening is hidden under the left-side piping.  You unhook the shoulder:

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

And open up the side, revealing the lining of ivory silk tissue and silk crepe de chine, and the support layers of silk net:

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

A wide band of silk petersham (with the dressmakers label) fastens around the hips, supporting the weight of the skirt.  It’s covered by the lining, fastening with domes (snaps).

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Then the hip swag wraps over it all, and fastens with more domes, further disguising the closure from the outside.

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

It’s a classic example of the subtle, hidden closures that were used high-end clothes in the first quarter of the 20th century, before zip fastenings became common.

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

The whole dress just makes my heart happy, both from an aesthetic viewpoint, and from a dressmaker and historian viewpoint.  Such exquisite workmanship!  So many well-thought out details!  And those colours!

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

Velvet dress by Mrs Martina Downing, mid 1920s thedreamstress.com

19 Comments

  1. Marilyn J. Hollman says

    well == it’s wonderful. The cerise touches are fetching, subtle and sexy. Is the bodice ombre? just the lighting? if you converted this to a contempt size — 7?
    The concealment of the fastenings! What a metaphor for the culture. I think of Clare Booth Luce.

  2. Lynne says

    Many happy oohings and aahings here! What a treasure, and how beautifully made. Round of applause for Martina! Wonderful colours, and the belt is just lovely.

    The way clothing had linings and support linings, and things lapping over things. No wonder they sat so well.

    It’s always a bit of a question mark about the repairs/bits hiding holes. I can see how the extra flowers unbalance the dress, but they are old, too, even if less well-made. And then you’d have the hole.

    But what a joy! I can just imagine the feel of the silk-velvet!

  3. anything silk velvet just gets an automatic tick from me but I looooove this. That loose silhouette is definitely in at the moment and you could totally get away with wearing it without looking like you’re going to a costume party (condition concerns aside)

  4. The velvet is lovely, and it drapes beautifully. The design of this dress is gorgeous – so elegant and sophisticated. I’d really love to build a version of this dress.

  5. Wow. What beautiful fabric. Great color, too. Simple and elegant–it would get a 10 from me if you had put it on “Rate the Dress.”

  6. All that inner support and intricate closures! It’s so neat to see on a 20s dress. Thanks for sharing it.

    Best,
    Quinn

  7. Elise says

    I want to marry this dress. What a wonderful present! Thanks for sharing.

  8. I’ve seen similar iterations of this dress online, but hadn’t ever seen the inside of one, and seeing the structure on the inside makes so much sense now. After working with velvet, I can see why it’s needed, without it the weight of the dress would likely make the dress droop. Thank you so much for photographing it! It’s a beautiful dress and I’m quietly fangirling over it. lol

  9. Ohhh!!! The colour and the fabric are simply divine! But most of all I love that you show the inside and the closures; it makes my vintage sewing heart melt.

  10. So much gorgeousness in one dress. Admittedly I’m biased; petrol blue is one of my favourite colours. But then there’s the dash of cerise to liven it up, the beautiful belt, and so many interesting things going on in the actual construction. Just stunning.

  11. Martina says

    My name is Martina, so I love to see other Martinas (even from long ago) doing such beautiful work! Gorgeous!

  12. I particularly like the combination of colours. And, well, um, blue velvet is not something I’m likely not to love…
    It’s a fascinating construction method / closure, and I don’t think I’ve managed to wrap my mind around it yet. Thank you for sharing.
    Although I can’t help but think it looks a bit odd on your dress form and is a dress that definitely requires arms and legs… 😀 It’s just the sort of dress that would accentuate those daring flashes of flesh? I guess.

    (Shh… I think you mean the first quarter of the 20th century…)

  13. Helene says

    What a fantatic dress!
    I really appriciate that you let us take a good look at the construction. No wonder the dresses looked better on back then than they do now, unless, I suppose you can buy coture, but few can, I for sure can not.
    I relly would love to make a dress like this, but so far my sewing is not really progressing as it should.
    Thank you again for sharing and for the short, but really good lecture of dress construction.

  14. Karen says

    Yay! So glad to see this wonderful analysis of my former dress. The silk velvet is just luscious. I can remember wearing it a couple of times a couple of decades ago. Happy that it has a new home.

    • Thank you so much for choosing me to be it’s new home! And, as you can see – it’s thoroughly appreciated, both by me and everyone else!

  15. Lisa W says

    Oh my goodness, I have just found this earlier post – and the dress!! What a beautiful treasure to have and scrolling through the photos as well as trying to work out how all that internal scaffolding work has just livened up my dull day at work (oops!).

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