20th Century

The Ngaio ‘Queen of Crime’ blouse

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com

I’ve written a lot about one famous New Zealand author recently: Katherine Mansfield.  This is blouse is dedicated to another famous NZ author – one who was certainly, at least for a long time, at least as famous as Mansfield.  I’m talking, of course, of Ngaio Marsh, one of the four ‘Queens of Crime’ of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com

Unlike Mansfield, I hadn’t heard of Marsh before I moved to NZ – but she’s not exactly high school reading curriculum material, and I’m not that in to detective fiction.

I’m afraid I’m still not much of a fan of Marsh’s works, but that’s mostly because I find Inspector Alleyn, her most famous creation, to be an insufferable know-it-all with terrible taste in women.  If I met him in person I’d probably describe him as a wanker (but only because even after over a decade in NZ I still think words like bollucks and wanker and bugger are cute, and can’t actually make my mind believe they are proper ‘swear’ words).

Other than Alleyn, and the boring ‘someone killed someone in the most convoluted way possible and now we have to figure out who’ bit, I actually really enjoy Marsh’s writing.  She’s got delicious clothing vignettes, and her depictions  of the theatre in early-mid 20th century England, and society in NZ in the same time-period (particularly in Colour Scheme) are fantastic.

I’ve been playing with the idea of a classic late ’30s blouse, and thought that the result, especially in scarlet silk with a pattern of exploding pinwheels (sadly, almost impossible to capture in photographs)  fits beautifully with  Ngaio’s clothing descriptions, and her fondness for actresses who are just a tiny bit too glamorous to be entirely tasteful.

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com

So I’m calling this pattern the Ngaio blouse, and in blood red, it’s clearly fit for a Queen of Crime!

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com

I’m pretty happy with what I’ve come up with: the front gather/twist that forms a faux bow, the impression of scandal created by the plunging neck, while still remaining quite modest, the way the blouse hugs the neck and forms the tiniest bit of a collar rise.

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com

There are some tweaks I want to make though.  I think I can simplify the front even further, which will look better on smaller busted women, and I want to try a version with cut-on sleeves.  For now though, this is just the thing for a lady detective with a daring but never outre sense of style!

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com

The Challenge: #21  Re-Do

Challenges I am Re-Doing:

 #1 Make Do & Mend:  made from a vintage kimono, unpicked for the fabric.  There are some flaws and age marks on the blouse that you can just see if you look closely.
#2 Innovation: Sadly, I haven’t managed to find out much about it, but jacquard crepes first make their appearance in the 1920s and ’30s, which indicates to me that advances in jacquard technology made this possible – perhaps driven by the fashion for crepes, a case of fashion driving innovation and then innovation prompting future fashions.
 #5  Bodice:  well, only in the absolute broadest possible sense of the word is a blouse a bodice, but it sort of qualifies.
 #13  Under $10:  The kimono was on sale for $10, and I still have more than half of it left 🙂
 #11 The Politics of Fashion: The use of silk between the World Wars was quite politicised, especially in the late 1930s, as conflicts and increased militarization in East Asia, which provided  most of the world’s silk, made the supply increasingly unstable.
 #16: Terminology: the fireworks pattern  is a jacquard  weave.
#20: Alternative Universe: This could definitely be the basis for a steampunk outfit (I love using bright colours for steampunk!), or dieselpunk, but I really see it as something a modern day elemental goddess would wear – Pele while teasing movie stars in 1930s Waikiki, or something one of the Rivers of London would wear in the ’30s.
#23: Modern History:    Obviously I could have (just) held on to this and posted it for the Modern History challenge, as it looks great with pencil skirts for office wear and jeans for hanging out, but I want to make something else for that!

Fabric:  1 unpicked vintage kimono

Pattern:  My own, heavily influenced by a number of  late 1930s patterns.

Year:  1935-40.

Notions:  cotton thread.

How historically accurate is it?:  Spot on.  The fabric is period accurate (might even be period!), the pattern could easily be period, and all my techniques match 1930s techniques.

Hours to complete:  6, because annoying fabric.

First worn:  To a class one evening, and the photoshoot.

Total cost:  NZ$5ish.

The Ngaio blouse thedreamstress.com


On Wednesday I’ll show you the same blouse, styled completely differently, as it’s surprisingly versatile!  (plus, Felicity adorableness!)


  1. It’s gorgeous! So chic and flattering and elegant.

    I haven’t read Ngaio Marsh in years. I seem to remember I quite liked a couple of her books, but that they could be a bit repetitive in some ways. I do like detective thrillers, but my taste tends towards more modern stuff like Jo Nesbo and Jussi Adler-Olsen.

    • Thank you! Exactly the three attributes I was hoping for 😀

      I’ve read of fair smattering of detective fiction from across the board, just because I will read just about ANYTHING if I am bored enough, but very little of it has stuck with me and made me go looking for more books by the same author.

  2. I love it – and it’s killer with that lipstick! I remember quite a few Ngaio Marsh titles on the bookshelves at home when I was growing up (in Sydney) – I must ask Mum if she still has them, and see if she can post me a couple. “An insufferable know-it-all with terrible taste in women” sounds rather entertaining. (Although it could also apply to my father-in-law.)

    • Thank you! The lipstick is a mix of Besame Red (I can thoroughly recommend all the Besame lip colours!), and Revlon Red, which is an orange red that I LOVE but which makes my lips itch 🙁

      Hehe. That’s a bit of a different attitude to me 😉 I don’t like dealing with irritating people IRL, so I don’t want to read about them either. Come back and tell us what you think when you have read some!

      • I will for sure 🙂 Must admit I’m much better at reading about irritating people than dealing with them face to face.

  3. Hayley says

    I am collecting Ngaio Marsh’s books, they are fun in their very dated sort of way! Alleyn is insufferable but so is Hercule Poriot, and I love them too.

    Is the blouse a pattern that you are working on?

    • I like the ‘dated’ part, where you get glimpses into societies mores in the ’30s and ’40s. I don’t like Poriot either, but at least Christie had the decency to loath him as well, whereas I suspect Marsh was in love with Alleyne :-p

      The blouse is a pattern I’m working on, but it may never make it to publication – depends on how the playing with ideas goes. Thoughts?

    • Thank you!

      I’m not quite sure about the shoes. They are very ’30s, but I think maybe a tiny bit too old for the rest of the outfit. But I will find the perfect outfit for them!

  4. Deanna says

    You look fabulous! It’s so neat that you managed to make it for under $5. I’m also loving your skirt, I like the inverted pleat at center front.

    I’ve never gotten around to reading Marsh, I’ll have to get hold of some of her books now.

  5. I love Ngaio Marsh’s books! (Ahh, the Golden Age…) I didn’t the first time I tried one, but I was twelve then, and my palate has matured 🙂
    I particularly like her theatre connections – something she has in common with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although they were more playwrights where she was more a director.
    Snazzy blouse – I do like the way it’s so modest while hinting that it isn’t 🙂

    • A fan! I knew there would be one! At 12 I love Dumas and Stevenson (I had an odd taste for the swashbuckling), but found Tolkein dreadfully boring. I’m afraid I now find all three a hard slog. My taste has moved backwards :-p

      And thank you 🙂

      • Well, I used to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in my early teens and now I prefer cosy crimes, so you could argue my taste has gone backward as well. I slogged my way through Anna Karenina recently and by the last third of the book I was practically shouting “Hurry, Anna! You will be late for your train!” – and then feeling like a heartless, uncultured oaf 🙂

  6. My mum has a whole shelf of Ngaio Marsh. I tried them but never got into them. Much more interesting to interpret the clothes worn in them imho 😉
    Also, skirt! Love it. Have you blogged about it somewhere?

  7. Lovely lovely lovely!
    Do I interpret it correctly that there’s a seam running down the front? Also, I think I’d love to see a close-up photo of that jacquard pattern. 😉

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      Yes, there is a seam down the centre front.

      I keep trying to take a picture of the pattern, and it just doesn’t show! The bright red just burns out all the details.

  8. Amy B. says

    I find it almost unfair that you show us this marvelous blouse that we can’t recreate. Can you suggest a pattern number or two that might get me close? That style would look really good on me and I’m not skilled enough at pattern making to recreate it myself.

    I did a “gender in literature” course many years ago that focused on 1930s books because that was my professors chosen focus. It was interesting because she chose popular books like a Nancy Drew and other female amateur sleuths instead of stuffy “cannon” books. It was so much fun. I may have to look up Ms. Marsh.

    • Alas, the closest pattern is a 1930s Vogue pattern that DOES.NOT.WORK as I found out after numerous attempts to make it up and lots of tears and teeth-gnashing. This pattern started out as a total re-draft of it to fit an actual body. So I will hopefully make this one available!

      Sounds like a really cool course! I think pop culture books often give a better perspective into the overall societal mores that people are trying to fit into. Which is a tiny bit scary if you think about recent pop culture books…

  9. Ami says

    What a wonderful blouse! I’ve been teaching myself to draft patterns, and I’m trying to sew some shirts. I want more vintage-inspired styles, but I look just awful in most button-downs. I’d love to try something like this. Thanks for the inspiration!

Comments are closed.