Sunday 29 September 2019

Focus on - The Lost Art of Dress

So near and yet so far. Everything is typed up and mostly edited, but I'm not happy with the conclusion to my dissertation. So it's currently back to the drawing board for a rewrite.

My dining table is back to looking like this

This week's studies-related book is written by a history professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. So far, so expected - but until recently Linda Przybyszewski specialised in legal history, which is hardly obvious source material for me. However she then took what she describes as a 'career swerve' and wrote this.

The Lost Art of Dress

The Lost Art of Dress tells the story of what Przybyszewski calls the Dress Doctors, the women who taught the principles of dress in schools, colleges and 4-H clothing clubs (if, like me, this term means nothing to you, 4-H is a U.S. youth organisation founded in around 1902, and the letters stand for 'head, heart, hands, and health'). More than just advice of the 'horizontal stripes make you look wider' variety, the principles of dress included thinking about which styles and fabrics were appropriate for different clothes and occasions, and the importance of planning a wardrobe so that the individual pieces would both work well together, and last. The many textbooks which the Dress Doctors wrote are all American titles and unfamiliar to me, but I think that a British equivalent would be this (thanks to Sewing At Damgate for telling me about it).

Written in 1958 - and still useful today

The working title of Przybyszewski's book was A Nation of Slobs, and she clearly feels that modern standards of dress leave a lot to be desired. The book is not just a 'things were better in the past' narrative though; it clearly explains the reasoning behind the various principles. No-one who knows how I dress will be remotely surprised to hear that I agree with much of what she writes. All the same, I firmly believe in the principle that people should wear what they want to wear (after all, I do), and I appreciate that a lot of people would regard at least some of the Dress Doctors' advice as overly restrictive and old-fashioned. However, as the environmental implications of throwaway fashion become ever clearer, the suggestions on planning a wardrobe rather than acquiring clothing more or less at random make a lot of sense.

I really enjoyed this book. Plus, even though it is aimed at a general audience, and is extremely readable, it has clearly been extensively researched. One thing which I loved was that the many, many pages of notes at the back are headed with the page numbers of the main text which they refer to. This may not sound like a big deal, but given the amount of time I have spent ploughing through pages of notes in search of an elusive reference in other books, I was thrilled!

How all notes sections should be headed

Przybyszewski clearly has a book collection which makes me green with envy, but when I was looking for something in my own collection of Vogue Pattern Books, I spotted some familiar illustrations in the August/September 1952 edition.

Front cover - Vogue pattern S4333

Back cover - Vogue pattern 7468

All of this makes me long to get back to some sewing of my own, but the best way to achieve that is to get the dissertation finished!

Sunday 22 September 2019

Focus on - Virginia Nicholson

Last week's typing-fest is complete, and I am now busy editing the result.

Looking over what you've typed (with only a pepper-mill for company?)

This week's topic is the works of Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson has written a number of social history books about Britain in the twentieth century, focussing on women's lives. Although she makes it clear that they are written for a general, not an academic, audience, they contain observations and anecdotes which I've found useful in my studies.

The first book which I came across was Singled Out. This tells the story of the 'Surplus Women' as they were dubbed by the press in the 1920s; the women whose potential husbands had died in their thousands in the First World War.

Women's lives in the 1920s and 1930s

These women had grown up fully expecting to marry and have a family of their own but they found that after the war there were just not enough men to go round. In a society which simply was not set up to enable women to fend for themselves, they set about building new lives and changing that society.

The expectation of marriage also features strongly in the second book I read, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes. This the story of women in the 1950s, a story which was often far from the chirpy image of the 1950s which the title suggests. Like Singled Out, it mixes the history of the time with women's experiences and recollections.

The story carries on in the 1950s

As the picture above shows, my copy is currently home to a number of sticky labels marking sections which are relevant to my research. I recently met up with my friend P, who has just submitted her MA dissertation, and she warned me that it will feel very strange to be reading anything without a notebook and a pile of labels to hand! I expect I will be getting some practice though - Nicholson has recently published How Was It For You, which follows on from Perfect Wives and looks at women's experiences in the 1960s. I have also somehow managed to miss out reading Millions Like Us, which covers the Second World War. On top of that, I've got a hefty backlog of (mostly hefty) novels to get through. Even once my dissertation is submitted, clearly I won't be stopping reading any time soon.

My 'To Read' pile looks something like this

Sunday 15 September 2019

Focus on - Blueprints of Fashion

Again, not a 100% accurate depiction

I met this week's target for progress on my dissertation - probably just as well, because the Dissertation Police had promised that unspecified but definitely terrible things would happen if I didn't! So here is the next post on resources which I have used for my studies which might be of general interest.

Before I discovered the Commercial Pattern Archive which I wrote about last week, my source for dating 1940s and 1950s patterns was the two Blueprints of Fashion books by Wade Laboissonniere.



Each volume is jammed full of images of patterns, split into categories such as dresses, separates, sportswear, evening etc. - rather like a pattern catalogue. Unlike the CoPA illustrations these mostly show the full pattern, so you can see the logo, typeface etc used at the time.

Two pages of 1940s dress goodness

There is also a section specifically on dating patterns, which includes the number ranges by year for each of the main brands, and examples of different pattern envelope styles by date. Both books also contain a wealth of background information on the pattern industry, and Laboissonniere manages to provide different details in each book. I originally bought these mainly to drool at the pretty pictures, but they provide an interesting read as well.

Meanwhile, the dissertation. I just cannot write (academic writing, that is) directly on a computer. Partly this is because I'm unable to type quickly enough to keep up with my thoughts, but a lot of it is probably an age thing - I grew up writing things out by hand, and that's just what I'm most comfortable with. Unfortunately this means I currently have 26 (26!) pages of handwritten notes, complete with crossings out, bits scribbled in margins, additions noted on the back of other pages etc. waiting to be typed up. 'Eager anticipation' does not describe my state of mind at this prospect. Oh well, onwards!

Beside myself with excitement at the thought of all that typing

Sunday 8 September 2019

Focus on - CoPA

My deadline for my Masters dissertation is rapidly approaching, leaving very little time for sewing or indeed blogging. Many of the books and other resources which I have used for my research have been very academic and some have been, to be honest, painfully dull. Others have been a joy – indeed part of the reason why my studies have taken so long has been the discovery that I’m incapable of skim-reading: if I find something interesting then I have to read it from start to finish. So for the next few weeks I’m going to cheat a bit on the blog and share a few of the things which I’ve come across which I think might appeal to a general readership with an interest in vintage dressmaking and/or women’s history.

Working hard

I have already blogged about one of the books I've used - the excellent A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery, which I reviewed here. So now I'm moving on to the Commercial Pattern Archive, otherwise known as CoPA, of which Spanabel Emery was formerly the curator. The always fascinating Witness2Fashion has recently blogged about CoPA and how she has used it for her research, you can read her post here.

The archive is based at the University of Rhode Island, and it is possible to visit it by appointment. However for most people the main resource will be its amazing online database of patterns, over 61,000 at the last count, drawn from collections in the United States, Canada and Britain. You have to register to be able to access it, but the process is easy and free. Once you have registered, you can log in and search the database, either just by entering the pattern number or by selecting from a number of criteria such as year, pattern brand and type of garment. If the pattern you are looking for is on the database, the search will return information including the year, price, and size of the pattern held, as well as the envelope illustration and the schematic of the pattern pieces taken from either the envelope back or the instruction sheet.

Because the website states that the images may only be used for private research and study and not reproduced, I have created a mock-up of the information which CoPA would show if it held one of the patterns from my collection, Style 2596.

Style 2596 as it would appear in the CoPA database

The archive doesn't include the pattern instructions, but if you are interested in a simple pattern and/or a confident sewist, it would be possible to enlarge the schematic and create a pattern from it - and yes, this is on my (very long) list of Things I Want To Do Once The Dissertation Is Completed.

Because until recently pattern companies seemed to have some sort of phobia about putting dates on patterns, I've used CoPA a lot to date patterns in my collection. Even if the exact pattern isn't in there, it's often possible to work the date out. For example, once you know that DuBarry 2478 and 2518 both date from 1940, then it's a safe bet that a DuBarry pattern number 2500 with a 1940s-style illustration is from the same year. I've also used it to find a pattern illustration if the original envelope is missing or torn. Unsurprisingly the archive contains lots of patterns from the Big 4, plus a good number from smaller brands such as Hollywood and DuBarry, as well as names I'd never heard of such as Green Pepper, Of My Hands and Vanata.

My only, very minor, quibble is that the illustrations from the patterns are very tightly cropped to show the figures only, and no other information. Obviously this makes sense, in that it makes the actual figures larger and therefore easier to view. Occasionally however it would be useful to see more of the envelope. This Butterick pattern in my collection has a three-digit number, unlike any other other Butterick pattern I've seen.

Mystery pattern

The only things I have to date it with are the logo and the price. The logo has changed a lot over the years.

Butterick logos from 1937 to 1987

Based on patterns I have been able to date, I think that my mystery nightdress dates from the early 1950s.

From a wider perspective, it's fascinating to track trends in both fashions and pattern art through the archive. Naturally most of the patterns in my collection are from Britain, and it's interesting for example to see how much later colour printing was introduced here than in the United States. Occasionally though the differences go further than that, such as with Vogue 8753.

My British copy, identifiable by the currency

The illustration on CoPA wasn't just in colour, it was entirely different. It dates from 1940, but I found a version online with a copyright date of 1951 printed on the bottom.

This illustration, minus the back view, appears on CoPA

I would love to know why the British version was changed, replacing the telephone with a pipe, removing the tie, and adding a rather bold spotty contrast fabric. Also to my eyes the trousers look ever-so-slightly baggier. All input and suggestions gratefully received, as ever.

Long may the wonders of CoPA continue to educate and intrigue me!

Finally, much as I like the opening image of elegance and calm poise, I'll finish with a photograph which is a more realistic depiction of life in Tulip Mansions at present.

It's as if the photographer is in my house!

Sunday 1 September 2019

An August alteration

(OK, I know that it's now September, but I did finish this in August. Honest.)

Sadly, much as I like New Look 6723, it does not like me. I think that something went very wrong when I did my usual bodice-shortening alterations on the pattern, and as a result the bodice has never felt remotely comfortable to wear for more than a short time. The princess seams ended up improbably far apart, and the armscyes are way too high. Put it this way - I recently altered a shop-bought dress to fit me by taking the shoulder seams up by 1¼", and the armscyes on that are still a better fit than the ones on this dress.

Looks alright, but a nightmare to wear

Despite the fact that I only wore it a couple of times each summer, it has survived in my wardrobe because I do really like the fabric, and couldn't bear to get rid of it. I was bemoaning this state of affairs to my friend F at the start of the summer and she suggested that I should ditch the troublesome bodice and turn the rest into a skirt. This seemed like an excellent idea, but nothing actually happened until I read Juliana's Urban Simplicity posts about her Alter It August projects, and decided it was time to crack on.

I unpicked the lining (only the bodice is lined), and took out that pesky zip.Yes I could have just chopped of the top of the zip, but I had a suitable skirt-length replacement in my stash, and I couldn't bring myself to trash a perfectly good zip. Next I unpicked the bottom seam of the tie belt, and used part of it, along with some petersham, to make the waistband. Unfortunately when I attached the skirt to the bodice I had very carefully trimmed and graded the seam, and also pulled out the gathering thread, so couldn't just take the bodice off the skirt again. Instead I had to cut off most of the bodice, leaving a ½" strip attached to the skirt. However I was worried about the side and princess seams coming apart, so rather than just cutting the whole thing off and then attaching the waistband, I only cut a short section at a time. The photo below shows the tortuous process near its end.

Work in progress, with the waistband sewn in place on the right

The stitching to attach the waistband is not my neatest work by a long chalk, but for once I did remember to sew in the hanging loops as I was going along, so took that as a win. I wasn't sure what I would wear the finished skirt with, as I don't have any suitable white blouses, but then I noticed that the leaves on the trees are exactly the same colour as my Butterick 6620 top.

Chartreuse green leaves

I tried wearing the top over the skirt, but I think that I prefer it tucked in with a black belt (although preferably without my net petticoat showing at the front - annoyingly that one was by far the best of the many photographs I took!). Either way, at least I now have a wearable garment from a favourite fabric. Thanks Juliana for giving me the prompt to finally get it done!

Version 1

Version 2