Rate the Dress: 18th century revivalism in the 1900s (and it’s pink)

Your reaction to last week’s blue & grey 1920s ensemble depended hugely on whether you like the 1920s or not.  There were a lot of 10s, and a lot of 2s  and not a lot in between.  They balanced out at 7.4 out of 10 (because there were slightly more 10s), but in some ways I think the outfit was far more successful than that, just for being such a simple collection of pieces which provoked such a strong response.  (and thanks Carol for giving the ensemble a face to go with it!)

I do apologies for the slight lateness of this post.  I was exhausted last night and decided that if something had to go, it was blogging.  So slightly delayed, here is this week’s dress, chosen because it is the complete opposite to last weeks practical, restrained, über-modern sporting ensemble.

This Worth frock is frivolous, decadent, utterly feminine, and unabashedly historical: liberally borrowing from 1780s and 90s fashions for it’s inspiration.  The late Georgian influence is so literal (the open skirt, the straight front with double-breasted buttons, the black sash, fichu, and bum-rump) that I sometimes wonder if the gown wasn’t designed as fancy dress.  And yet, so many of those elements of the 18th century were also the height of fashion at the turn of the 20th century.  The open skirt, faux or real, is a common feature of gowns from the 1880s onwards.  The straight front was just coming into vogue with the S-bend corset.  The fichu echoes the high puffed sleeves so popular in the late 1890s.  For all that, the gown is far more of a look backwards than a snapshot of the height of 1900s mode.

What do you think?  Do you like the simplicity of line paired with the slightly over the top colour?  The nod (well, more a full on bow) to the 18th century?  Or is the whole thing too obvious in its aesthetic, and too obviously in its inspiration?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A weddings and wear-anywhere wiggle dress

Last weekend Mr D and I had a wedding to attend, and I realised that all of my fancy frocks were either too fancy for this wedding (you can’t wear a frock with a tiny train to a wedding if you know in advance the bride is wearing a short dress!), too light for an autumn wedding, or in non-wedding appropriate black or white.  Obviously a new dress was needed!

So I rummaged around in my fabric stash and dug up a length of jewel green stretch cotton sateen that I bought at the last Fabric Warehouse sale because I needed a tiny bit of it to trim a hat to match a pair of shoes to wear with another dress, and in order to get the discount I had to buy at least a metre, and as long as I was buying a metre I might as well buy a dress length…(you can see where this is going).

Then I dug around in my patterns and unearthed Advance 8321, which I bought from a friend recently when she had a big clear out.

A few hours of cutting and fitting and sewing later, I had the perfect wear-it-to-a-wedding wiggle dress:

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

For the original wedding, I wore it with black heels and a black satin sash:

Advance 8321 wiggle dress thedreamstress.com



Advance 8321 wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

Other than pointy heels on a squishy lawn, it was perfect for the wedding (And no less than three random guests came up to me and told me that my dress was gorgeous!  And I overheard the groom’s aunt describe me as ‘the girl in the stunning green dress.’ Sewing happiness right there!)

I had planned to wear it with a jewelled gold and silver ribbon belt (Fabric Warehouse sells the most amazing jewelled ribbons), but couldn’t find the belt when we were packing for the wedding:

Advance 8321 wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

The wonderful thing about wiggle dresses is how versatile they are.  Pair it with boots, a cardigan or fitted jacket and a belt, and it works great as winter office wear:

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

For elegant dressed-down summer wear, it goes beautifully with the shoes I originally bought the fabric to match, and a braided leather belt.

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

They are pretty awesome shoes aren’t they?

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

I made a few adjustments when sewing up the pattern.  I added a waist seam, just to give me a bit more waist definition, and because it’s so much easier to fit a dress with a waist seam (especially if you have a sway back and prominent bottom, as I do).  I narrowed the skirt considerably, because while ’50s patterns may show a slim pencil skirt on the envelope, they always sew-up as A-lines.  I also added a pleat detail to the back seam, rather than just having an open slit.  Finally, I dropped the back hem slightly, for a little hem interest.  And there was a lot of general adjusting and taking in everywhere but at the waist, because I don’t have the 11″ bust/waist and 13″ waist/hip differential that ’50s patterns think is normal!

A late 1950s wear-anywhere wiggle dress thedreamstress.com

Just the facts, Ma’am:

Fabric: 1.2 metres of jewel green stretch cotton sateen, $12pm

Pattern: Advance 8321.

Year: 1956-58

Notions: thread (stash), invisible zip ($5), black lace for hemming (inherited from Nana), stay tape (stash).

Hours: 6

Make again?  I think I need to make the version with awesome sleeves in wool crepe…

Wear again? Definitely!  It works for everything!

And the insides?  Oooh..so pretty!  I need to take detail photos so I can show you the lace hem.  It’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever!

Total cost: $20 (more or less).

A serendipitous post-war wedding dress

A few months back I volunteered to go to my least favourite part of the greater Wellington area (Porirua city, just up the coast from us) in order to buy something for a friend that could only be gotten at a store there.

While it has some good points (a really wonderful museum for starters), as far as driving and traffic are concerned, Porirua is the oozing carbuncle on the otherwise pert and rosy bottom of the North Island that is the Wellington area.  Getting where I needed to go involves 25 minutes of motorway (you know you are spoiled when 25 minutes of motorway is a grueling drive), and then no less than six roundabouts in a row, and a dozen speed bumps.  Take the wrong exit from one of those roundabout and you either end up in a vast, enormous maze of shopping mall parking lot, impossible to find your way out of, or on a street where your only option is to take the most impossible right turn into traffic ever.

Now, I like a roundabout or two, but six in a row tends to get nerve wracking.  And I always get lost in Porirua, either going around the roundabouts, or just getting to them in the first place.

So this time I thought I’d be clever and take the back road from the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville, through the town of Tawa (Staten Island to Wellington’s Manhattan), and then on to Porirua.  I’d still have to brave the maze or roundabouts at the end, but the drive to them would be much prettier, and with less traffic.

I got lost.

But then, in getting lost, I saw a sign that pointed to ‘Trash Palace’ and I thought to myself “Oooh…that’s the dump shop.  I’ve heard that sometimes they have old patterns there”.  So I followed the sign.

They didn’t have old patterns.

But they did have this:

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

It’s a wedding dress from the late 1940s.

It even came with the tiara it was worn with:

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

They were both hanging on the wall amongst some random stuff, with a tag that said “Wedding dress and tiara $35″.  Of course I had to have them!

When I took them to check out the cashier wasn’t the sharpest tool, and charged me $35 for the dress “And we’ll say $1 for the headband”.  After a brief but futile effort to explain the tiara concept I decided that $36 was still more than fair!

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

Trash Palace is located just before the dump, and it’s a charity shop that people can donate stuff to that is a bit too good to completely toss.  In general, it’s much rougher and grubbier and has a much wider assortment of stuff than your average charity shop: lots of half broken furniture and garden implements, shelves and shelves of dusty crockery.  There may be treasures if you are willing to hunt for them, and get really dirty.  Luckily my dress was in the cleanest part of the shop.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

I imagine that my dress was carefully stored and kept by the bride who wore it in her post-war wedding, but perhaps she passed away with no family, so whoever cleared out her estate dropped her dress at the shop while dumping other stuff.  It seems so sad for the story to end there, so I’m glad I found it, and can show it off just a little and give it another life.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

The dress is a classic late 1940s/early 50s style.  It’s made of acetate  (one of the many manufactured naturals that became popular between WWI & WWII) with a tone-on-tone abstract floral pattern.  Acetate was sold in New Zealand from about the mid-1930s.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

While the cut of the dress, with its long sleeves, full skirt, train and numerous buttons, is luxurious, the acetate fabric is one of the many things hints at the continued fabric shortages and rationing of the late 1940s.  New Zealand fared better than most countries as far as food and access to goods throughout WWII (and certainly better than Great Britain), but they still experienced considerable trade interruptions, and certain things were in short supply well into the 1950s.  One of these was lace.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

I’ve heard from numerous women who were brides during and after WWII (and their children) how hard it was to find lace for wedding dresses, and how desperately brides wanted lace.  One of the common solutions was to make your own lace-like decoration with piping, braid, trim, net and soutache.  Soutache and braid work were very popular in 1940s fashion, but interviews with older sewers confirms that the decorations on 1940s dresses were usually meant to imitate the un-obtainable lace.  I’ve seen examples of 1940s wedding dresses decorated with hundreds of metres of self-fabric tubing, laid out in elaborate swirls which mimicked common lace motifs.  This dress takes a simpler approach, creating a face framing ‘lace’ collar with net and braid.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

This, more than anything else, dates the dress.  By the early ’50s lace was available again, so every dated example of a make-do lace dress I’ve seen in New Zealand was pre 1951.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

In addition to the ‘lace’ collar another attempt at lace-like lightness and decoration is made with a rayon georgette ruffle around the back of the train.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com
The ruffle not only adds a decorative element to the train, it helps it to fall in beautiful, smooth folds, and to spread out nicely.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

The rayon georgette is an earlier fabric than that of the rest of the dress, and may have been recycled from another garment, or saved from another project.  Either because there wasn’t enough of it, or because the dress was hemmed too short, or simply as a design element, the ruffle at the front of the dress is of the same fabric as the rest of the dress, and is longer.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

The dress itself is quite short: it would fit a woman of no more than 5’3″.  It’s also quite small: it just fits my size 10 dress form, and would be a modern New Zealand size 6 or 8.

If she were small enough, it could almost be worn by another bride, although there is some minor foxing (an acid reaction that happens with age) and all of the seams would need checking and re-inforcing, as the fabric is giving way at one side bodice seam.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com
Other than the braid decoration and the button-up back, the construction is very simple and straightforward, and the interior finish is basic, with pinked interior seams.

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

I do wonder who the bride was, and what her wedding was like.  Did she make her own dress?  Or did her mother make it?  Did they go to a dressmaker?

Late 1940s acetate wedding dress thedreamstress.com

So many stories in one beautiful frock!  And what a lucky chance to find it as my reward for braving Porirua for a friend!

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Meet the Dreamstress

Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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