1950s fashion, designers, sewing patterns

Susie Stephens – Midwest Goodness

Butterick 6879.

I listed this cute pattern in the shop this morning. It’s Butterick 6879 and it’s adorable. I love View A, but can’t imagine doing all that bias tape trim. It’d be worth the work, but wow. This pattern is part of the “Susie Stephens” line from Butterick.

Susie Stephens, in case you didn’t know, is a line of sewing patterns designed by students at Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri. (Fun fact: I grew up not far from there, and always thought of it as a rich kids school. But I digress.) At Stephens, they had a yearly fashion show done by the students. It was called “Susie Stephens.” It commonly had a theme, such as in 1952, where the them was “Campus Classics from the Classics,” and featured garments and millinery inspired by books such as Little Women, David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights. These garments were shown in fashion shows around the Midwest.

A 1947 article notes that the designs were fresh and adaptable, with rompers that had skirts to go over them, coats with enough volume to carry books underneath during the rainy season, and much more. On the day of the show, it was surmised that the garment district of St Louis must’ve emptied out and headed to Columbia, along with designer staff from Kansas City and New York. Budding designers were hired straight from these shows. The next day, the show was done again for the people of Columbia, where customers could choose the garment or the patterns, to take to their dressmaker for adaptations.

By 1950, Butterick had taken notice, and started their “Susie Stephens” line. This line was specifically created from the Stephens College students’ designs, and was advertised for teenagers. By 1952, they had printed 30 designs in the Susie Stephens line, but it seems to have waned in popularity after 1953, and disappeared completely after 1954. It’s worth taking a look at this cute line of patterns.

1950s fashion, designers, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Thank Your Lucky Stars for Claire

I saw this meme over the holidays and had to laugh. It’s said that it’s a white-girl thing that every time someone admires a dress, the girl responds in kind “thanks, it’s got pockets.” Now I don’t know that it’s purely a white-girl thing, but women do love themselves a good garment with pockets. And do you know who you can thank for that?

Claire McCardell.

Ms. McCardell was known as the one who invented American sportswear, and for good reason. She was tall and athletic herself, the only sister in a family with three boys, and she wanted comfortable clothes she could move in. She ended up as a founding board member of Sports Illustrated. I doubt that a fashion designer has ever had that privilege since. She really did push sportswear to a whole new level (and I’m not talking about polyester gym suits and tennis dresses here).

Claire McCardell liked simple clothes that you could move in, in fabrics like jersey that draped well and moved with you. She loved cottons too, especially in plaids. Indeed, she made plaid ok to wear for evening wear. She pushed the notion of wearing tights and flats on the streets, instead of spike heels. She made jumpsuits and their shorter version, the playsuit, ok to wear outside of the Rosie the Riveter factory jobs. She put details on clothing that hadn’t been seen before or were seen only on jeans, like topstitching and yes, pockets. Those pockets that we love so much now.

Claire McCardell made it ok to wear separates, like shorts and blouses, capris, and the like. I’ve had two Claire McCardell patterns over the years: a Spadea (that sold for over $200 at auction) and a rarely found McCall’s pattern that probably sold for much less than it should have (I can’t remember). The Spadea was for one of her iconic dresses. The McCall’s was for sportswear separates. They aren’t easy to find, but the two patterns showed the full spectrum of what McCardell did.

I’m pretty sure that this Spadea 1130 is the one I had (it’s been a while). Simple lines and pockets.

Spadea American Designer’s #1130, 1953.

Here’s the McCall’s one I had. It’s a great representation of her love for sportswear separates and sadly, is from 1958, the year Claire McCardell died a very untimely death from cancer.

McCall’s 4494, 1958. Photo compliments of the Vintage Pattern Wiki.

If you are interested in Claire McCardell’s philosophy of dress, take a look at What Shall I Wear? , a book she authored that includes all kinds of advice on how to dress. I have a copy, and I love it. If you want to see more of her designs, grab Claire McCardell Redefining Modernism. It’s a coffee table book that has all the history of her designs, along with beautiful full color photos. Set aside some time for this one. You’ll want to give it its due, because it really is a wonderful book.

Until next time,
Lisa

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1950s fashion, designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Start the New Year With Something Pretty

Vogue 1434, Nina Ricci, 1959.

I was listing this gorgeous pattern on the website today and went searching for Nina Ricci online. I came across this equally beautiful photo of a dress from her 1961 collection and had to share it, because we all need to go into the new year thinking pretty thoughts. Print available here.

Nina Ricci, 1961.

Happy New Year to you all. May your year be full of light and joy and beautiful things.

designers, vintage fashion

The Couture Group

While researching Donald Brooks for the previous post, I found that he was part of “the couture group.” Although I had heard of FOGA before, I hadn’t heard of this specific group, so I went looking.

The New York Dress Institute was a group of designers which numbered 1300 New York designers, and the Couture Group was a subset of top designers. The Dress Institute was the sponsor of the twice yearly Fashion Week, and dozens of designers showed there. First mention of the group is in 1945, but the Dress Institute was created in 1941, with the encouragement of the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, in order to encourage people to buy American Fashion. It was much better known starting in 1946. This likely was due to the devastation of Paris’ fashion industry during the war years, and Americans attempting to establish themselves at the forefront of fashion.

In 1946, the designers numbered 19, but it grew over the course of time. The original 19 were: Hansen Bang, Anthony Blotta, Hattie Carnegie, Fox-Brownie, David M. Goldstein, Joseph Halpert, Anna Miller, Clare Potter, Jo Copeland, Ben Reig, Ren-Eta, Nettie Rosenstein, Herbert Sondheim, Spectator Sports, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigere, Samuel Kass, Adele Simpson and Joseph Whitehead. By 1948, there were 30 members, all “high style, high price ready to wear manufacturers.” The group grew over the years to include Ceil Chapman, Mollie Parnis, Tina Reser, Ben and many more. Some of the members were also creators of French Haute Couture, such as Christian Dior.

Though the Couture Group definitely set the trends for fashion, they also seemed to be involved with the price of fashion as well, especially in the early 50s. They released statements seasonally in 1950-51 stating that the prices of their clothing would not rise, even if the government changed or even froze the prices of fabrics. Members of the Couture Group also contributed to underwriting the cost of Fashion Week (then known as Press Week) in New York, to the tune of $3000 each in 1952. That would be about $49,000 now, meaning the show cost about $1.5 to put on. That was a LOT of money, and though the couture designers showed collections, there were over 100 shows total to be seen during the week.

In 1966, the New York Dress Institute merged with the American Designers’ Group, which had been started in 1962 by a former chairman of the Couture Group. It was renamed the New York Couture Business Council, and in 1976 was again renamed New Directions.

designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage fashion

Donald Brooks

I found this pattern in my to-be-listed pile and wondered, as is typical of my inquiring nature, who Donald Brooks was. What I found was that I’m not sure I liked him very much.

Donald Mark Blumberg was a lifelong New Yorker. He worked in the early 50s doing window dressing for Lord & Taylor, while he was still a student at Parsons. Lord & Taylor asked him to design a collection for them, and his career took off from there. He began working at Townley in 1958, and took over the helm after Claire McCardell died — those were some BIG shoes to fill. (The more you learn about him, the more you will realize how different he was from her).

He worked at Townley until 1964. He favored bold prints. His 1960s Townley collection featured a python printed chiffon evening gown as its centerpiece. 1964 featured cowl necks (like the one above), bare shoulders, and got away from side closings on dresses. He opened his own house in 1965. Mid 60’s found him noted as one of the “three B’s”: Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, and Donald Brooks. He was all about details like back belts (martingale belts, as they had been known in the 40s and 50s), detailed metal belts, and the like. He dressed Babe Paley and Jacqueline Kennedy, and did a number of theatrical costuming jobs as well.

In 197s, it was said by the New York Daily News that Pat Nixon must’ve been planning a trip to China, because she bought one of his evening gowns, in a Chinese theme. He denied this, saying he had “no great rapport with the Nixons,” and added that his designs were “to theatrical and young” for the First Lady. Well. Judgmental, much?

In October, 1972, he was interviewed and said that women had been dressing down for a period of time and during that time had gotten away from fur. He thought fur was coming back. He said “American women’s guilt complex about ‘obviously chic’ clothes are erased now because achievement prone women have concluded that fashion is not a deterrent to accomplishment.” Wow. By this point, I was really thinking him to be rather a misogynist and wondered about many of his life choices. That year, he showed a collection of fur caftans in poncho, street and cape lengths, saying basically that any woman could wiggle, but wearing a draped poncho was more sensuous. He defended himself on the fur issue by saying he didn’t use any endangered furs because he did “no crimes against nature.” He did one collection a year from that point on.

Later in the 70s, he was primarily known for his work with fur, which continued to be his focus for the remainder of his career. He was quoted at one point as saying “You can turn an absolute whore into a lady by just putting pearls around her neck.”

See what I mean?

He was a great designer, winning the Coty Award three times, starting in 1962. He had Three Oscar nominations, including “The Cardinal” which required 2000 costumes, including 138 ball gowns. He ultimately designed for Ann Taylor, beginning in 1990, and died on Long Island in 2005 at age 77, as a result of effects from a heart attack he had a couple of weeks before.

That being said, I do love the dress shown above. It’s simple chic, and not difficult to sew, either. Click here to purchase from my shop.

1950s fashion, designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage fashion

Aurora Battilocchi

Advance Import 113, by Aurora Battilocchi

Aurora Battilocchi designed ladies’ fashion in the 1950s, and was thought by some to be the most creative Italian designer of the time. Her designs had a Parisian feel that combined with contemporary designs. Her designs worked for most women, because she did everything — empire looks as well as long torso looks with incredible details. She favored rich fabrics in brocades and satin, and her colors were equally so, in gold, flame red, sea blue and basic black.

One of her typical looks in 1955 was designed in tiers: a jacket where the hem created the first tier, and worn over a sheath dress that was cut again above the knee, creating the second tier above the final hem. Another model had a twilight themed skirt, with layers of pink, violet and blue organza. She was one of the only designers of the season to show a silk print. Ballgowns from this collection included a aquamarine silk dress with a pintucked bodice as well as a “tightly wound red and gold sheath with a huge bustle.” How I wish I could find a video of one of her shows!

She didn’t have much of a lifespan in American fashion though, as she disappeared from the scene here after 1961, and I can’t find anything about her from that point on. Perhaps she passed away, but she left a beautiful legacy. As was said about her in 1952, she was “renowned for her refined taste and understatement of the dramatic that is in itself dramatic.” Coco Chanel would approve.

designers, sewing, sewing patterns

Alexander McQueen Genius

Photo: Vogue
Jacket: Alexander McQueen
Model: Anok Yai
Photographer: Ronan McKenzie

I came across this photo of an Alexander McQueen jacket (designed by Sarah Burton) in the November issue of Vogue, and it stopped me in my tracks. My husband thought I’d lost my mind as I showed him the seams and tried to figure out what was going on. The seam coming from under the arm was driving me crazy. Was it a dart? Was it a side seam? I couldn’t figure it out.

The bodice and waist are obviously two different pieces. If it was a seam, then I’d like to see how it was cut, because it makes no sense to me. It couldn’t be joining front to back because it ends at the top of the pocket. But I’ve also never seen a dart starting under the arm like that either. It does look like there is a side seam behind it, but that one doesn’t appear to be coming from under the arm.

I pretty much obsessed over figuring this out, then put it out on my Facebook page, to have my sewing friends weigh in. They agreed that it’s a dart, even though the placement isn’t like anything I’ve seen before — but I haven’t seen a lot of true couture garments up close, either. But then my friend and guru of all things sewing patterns (and sewing) weighed in. She said it’s a princess seam, or perhaps just a curved tailoring seam. It’s a seam, not a dart. She also said it’s a true pocket (some thought it was just a flap). And then she drew me out what the front would look like in the pattern. It’s in three pieces:

Drawing by Julie Kempf

It makes a lot more sense to me now. The tailoring on this jacket is amazing, and the results are beautiful. I’m going to have to study more designs and marvel at the patternmaking. It seems to be an Alexander McQueen year for me, because I’ve basically watched all of his shows on YouTube during lockdown, and I really want to get his book, Savage Beauty (buy it here). Also, if you get a chance to watch the documentary about him, McQueen, on Amazon Prime, do it. His death was such a loss to the fashion community. I’d have loved to see what he would have done today.

I share links to things I love. I may get a tiny commission on purchases at those links. It helps me to continue to do what I love, bringing you lots of gorgeous fashion.

1950s fashion, Celebrity, designers, sewing, sewing patterns

Who was Hannah Troy?

McCall’s 5289, 1959, by Hannah Troy.

I came across this fantastic pattern the other day, and as I was listing it in the shop, noticed that it was designed by Hannah Troy. I’ve never seen a Hannah Troy pattern, and never heard of her, so I did some digging.

Hannah purportedly entered into the fashion industry in 1940 through a design she made herself, then sold for $3. She became a fashion model, and in a rather ballsy move for a model, suggested a different drape of fabric to the designer she was modelling for. I guess she didn’t believe in the (very wrong) belief that models are just clothes hangers and shouldn’t think. That suggestion led to her immediately becoming assistant to the designer, then head designer for another company, then to her branching off on her own to create Hannah Troy, Inc. Not bad for someone who started as a home sewist, yes?

Hannah revolutionized the clothing industry when she began designing for women with short waists. She was working as a model at May Company, and after spending days watching salespeople show short waisted women how to alter clothing to fit, decided there should be a petite line, made particularly for short waisted women. She enlisted help from the military, of all places, deciding that they would have the best database of women’s measurements. She got measurements of the WACs from the quartermaster, and found that the majority of women she studied were short waisted. She called the measurements she used in designing “Troyfigure,” and went to work.

One of Hannah’s most influential designs was one that Grace Kelly wore when she went to Europe early in her career. That also happened to be the trip where she met Prince Rainier. Hannah was also considered to be one of the most influential people in bringing attention to Italian fashion. In 1951, exports of Italian goods was $1 million, and by 1955, was $1 billion dollars, all in large part of the fact that she lauded the Italian goods. She was celebrated all over Italy for the help she gave their fashion industry, even being given the Star of Solidarity — the first American woman to be so honored.

Hannah designed with “complete wearability” as her foundation, and felt that the best designs were those that “lent themselves to the individual tastes of the greatest numbers of women.” She wanted to design for the masses, and bring the European styles to American women. Not unlike Coco Chanel, she felt that the best designs compliment, not overwhelm. Interestingly, she didn’t think women’s knees were pretty on anyone, even those with good legs. As the sixties marched on, she pronounced the pantsuit trend as “silly”, and thought the trend of women wearing teen styles was “ridiculous.” She did very well for herself, designing for a number of socialites and celebrities. Newspaper articles describe her apartment as elegant, and having decor that included rare antiquities from ancient Chinese dynasties.

She retired to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1970s, after thirty years in the fashion industry, and died of a heart attack June 22, 1993, in a Miami hospital. She was 93.

designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, Vintage Kids

Helen Lee

McCalls 6024

Helen Lee created some of the cutest children’s patterns published during the 1950s and 1960s. She was a designer of international fame who partnered with Sears & Roebuck in 1965 on their popular Winnie the Pooh line, seen in their store for years. She was an icon of children’s fashion for decades.

Ms. Lee was from Knoxville, Tennessee, where she studied psychology. Her little girls were her muses. First note of her collections was in 1948, though she may have started just before that. By the 1950s, she was a top children’s designer. She held the belief that little girls associate themselves with their clothes from a very young age and that by age 7, could not separate themselves from their dress. She said that little girls should not be dressed in blue jeans, even if it meant that mothers had to iron ruffles every day. Her feeling was that if a girl was complimented on her dress, she would think positively of herself and feel pretty, but if she was criticized, it would be hurtful, creating bad feelings about herself. The thought of the day was that blue jeans were better for children, because mothers didn’t want them to get their good clothing dirty, but Ms. Lee held that children would get dirty regardless.

Her 1964 McCall’s pattern line was inspired by her toddler granddaughter Hillary Ball, daughter of journalist Ian Ball, who walked the runway in one of her shows. She stated that the entire line was inspired by Hillary. Her collection of that line, called “Little Craft”, and designed for preschoolers from ages two to six, had no frippery like loops or dangles, to keep them from getting caught on playground equipment. By this time, she included rompers and bell bottom trousers in her collections. For older girls that year, she said jumpers and pinafores were “cliche” and created A line Easter dresses with matching capes, and pleated skirts. She was no longer showing what she called “grandmother’s dresses” full of frills and ruffles — called this because “only a grandmother could keep up” with the care required for all the bows and ruffles. Oh, how times had changed.

The late sixties saw Ms. Lee shift, saying that the department stores were full of Carnaby-Street inspired clothing that didn’t go together. She produced a sportwear line of dresses, jumpers, skirts and sweaters that were more adult-like but stopped, per usual, at size 14. She veered away from cottons and used man-made fibers that looked upscale but were machine washable. All of the separates went together for a great mix and match look.

Ms. Lee shunned pastel colors, calling them “propaganda started by adults.” She felt that children have such wonderful coloring that they can wear any color, so she preferred oranges (as seen above), yellows, browns, reds and black. She preferred cottons, but used a lot of velvet for special occasion dresses. When asked about the daily ironing that cottons necessitated, she said “a mother who cares wouldn’t mind.” Ouch.

Ms. Lee won the Coty Award in 1953, and later the Ribbon Award for design, as well as the Neimann Marcus award. She had international shows as well as shows in the US, even selling in Russia in the 1960s. Caroline Kennedy wore her clothing. She designed for not only Sears & Roebuck but also for Danskin, and two other companies who she never disclosed. She not only designed patterns for McCall’s, but also for Spadea and Prominent Designer. She travelled internationally looking for inspiration, and planned her fabrics a year in advance. In later years, her daughter Jenny, who had studied art, helped her with the Winnie the Pooh line at Sears. The last mention of a fashion line from her was in 1977, where it was mentioned that she planned to put out a line of clothing for boys. It’s not clear if she ever did. She died in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1991 after a series of strokes. She was 82.

Click here and here to see Helen Lee patterns listed in my shop. You can see patterns available from other sellers here, here and here.