Wednesday, January 1, 2014

1920s Day Dress

In September 2013, I attended my first ever Gatsby Picnic. This event, put on by the Art Deco Society of California, tries to recreate the feel of a large 1920s summer party, with live entertainment, elaborate picnics, gorgeous vintage cars, and people dressed to the nines in clothes from the 1920s and 1930s. 

Being my first entree into 1920s dress, I was rather nervous about what the silhouette would look like on my curvy hourglass figure. All the fashion plates show slender and willowy ladies looking elegant in their dropped-waist and blousey dresses. However, I know for a fact that anything blousey or dropped-waist makes me look frumpilicous, or at the very least, much larger than I actually am. 

A look at photographs from the period was reassuring, however. Guess what? Lots of women in the 1920s had figures like mine, and it didn't stop them from wearing the latest fashions. Yes, they did look a little frumpy by modern standards, but they didn't seem to care in the least. I decided that I wouldn't care either, and just embrace the frump.

These ladies know just how fabulous they look. 

This is an old photo from my father's family archives. Look at the diversity in figures!

I elected to steer clear of the popular choices for patterns, wanting to avoid the cookie cutter look. Instead, I took on the challenge of a Past Patterns Attic Copy, that is, a reprint of an original pattern, complete with vague directions, useless yardage recommendations (nobody makes 36" wide fabric anymore!), and missing dots and notches. 

The pattern that ended up catching my eye was this one:

From their website: 
This pattern was published by The Butterick Design Pattern Company. Originally the pattern was described as "Ladies' Dress, closed at the back, with separate shirt-waist, and tucked straight skirt. Attached to a long body lining marked for camisole top." Fully illustrated directions. Pattern dates circa 1922-1923.

A simple shape, some interesting details, but none of the overdone design elements that abound in reproductions from this era (zig-zag seaming, handkerchief hemline, asymmetry, etc.). I initially wanted to use a lightweight cotton in a floral print, but I couldn't find one that really felt right for the period. Instead, I settled on a solid cotton voile in a very pretty cornflower blue that I knew would look good on me. In the end, I was quite happy with my choice -- the deep tucks in the dress bodice and skirt would not have shown very well in a print, but helped to give the solid color some texture and interest. 

I lined the dress in a rayon fabric in a lighter shade of blue, to further highlight the tucked detailing. The collar is made from some off-white cotton sateen from my stash, and the buttons are mother-of-pearl.

The finished ensemble

Back view (ignore the bicycle)

The pattern went together pretty well. It was supposedly sized for a 34" bust (mine is closer to 38"), but when I measured the pattern, the finished bust measurement came to about 44". I decided not to alter the size at all. The only change I needed to make was to make the dropped waist a little bigger so it would sit lower on my hips. This was a simple alteration: I just gathered the bottom edge of the shirtwaist less than the pattern called for.

I found a modern straw hat that had a cloche-like shape, but with a slightly larger brim for sun protection, then trimmed it with a vintage ombré ribbon. I also bought a cheap paper parasol in Chinatown to further protect my delicate skin from the full sun I expected at the picnic. I found a vintage tooled leather handbag on Ebay for the occasion, then finished off the ensemble with some vintage ivory kid gloves, reproduction seamed stockings, my American Duchess Gibsons, and modern pearl drop earrings.  

In the end, I felt pretty good about the outfit. I'm not sure it's my favorite silhouette, but it wasn't as bad as I expected. Going with an early '20s shape helped a little, as the waist was not dropped all the way to the hip.

The picnic was a great time. All my friends looked beautiful, our picnic was a success, and despite the intense heat, we really enjoyed ourselves. I'll definitely go again next year!


  1. You totally achieved the silhouette, and it looks great on you. Embracing the frump is essential, and 20s dresses make just about everyone look a little frumpy! This is the first time I've seen anyone wearing the brown Gibsons, too, which is fun. I have black. ;) Looks great!

    Happy new year,

  2. The details in this are subtle but stunning, and the color is fabulous!

  3. So pretty! I love early '20s clothing. And that's a great color on you.

  4. hey i proudly sent the blog to keith fink in los angeles and he says "great blog." you know ruth balsey stephens, helen's mother, would be proud as well my dearest sister!

  5. Just a great blog on the dresses of 1920.This blog is really so awesome and useful. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Very nice work
    I invite you on my blog of old magazines and old french sewing patterns