Palazzo pants were a thing in the 1930’s, and were glamorous as heck. You saw them in beach pyjamas and loungewear especially. But as is the habit, fashion repeats itself, reinventing itself along the way. Palazzo pants were reinvented in the early 70s as “elephant pants.” I remember seeing a jeans version of these on the playground as a kid. An older girl, probably middle school age, had them, and I thought they were amazing. I couldn’t wait to grow up to wear them. They were made from worn denim and weren’t hemmed, dragging on the cement playground. I’d never seen anything like them.
Looking back, that image is heinous to me. I don’t remember if my older high school sisters wore them. I feel like my mom wouldn’t have approved, and my tiny sisters (5 feet 1 inch and 5 feet 1 1/4 inches – and you’d better believe that 1/4 inch was fought for) wouldn’t have been able to pull them off. A denim version of palazzo pants just didn’t really work. The look was revisited in the 90s with the skate culture, where it worked better as an aesthetic. How that girl pulled them off on the playground is beyond me.
This McCall’s pattern is a much better version of the elephant pants of the time. It’s disco ready, and would work great as cocktail or loungewear too. Make it in silk if you’re not clumsy like me. Add the front wrap top and you have a really chic look, yes?
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.
People email or call me from time to time, asking if I buy patterns. I do, sometimes. I’m always interested in what people have, and what the story behind them is. It’s very easy to hoard patterns, so I have to be cautious. At one point, I had 40,000+ patterns, but that was when I had a huge workspace. These days, not so much. That being said, I still have patterns in every corner of my office, mostly because I love them so much.
Last week, a lady emailed me saying that her mother had recently passed away, leaving several hundred patterns. The daughter plans to send some to the Vintage Sewing Center and Museum, but postage is very expensive, so she wanted to pass some along locally. We set a time and I went to look. What a sweet lady she is. She had all of the patterns laid out in boxes for me to look at in her garage. She even had a water bottle for me, in case I was thirsty.
The best part of getting patterns from people is hearing the stories associated with them. She said that her mother was a prolific sewist who made all of her clothes. She said that looking through the patterns was a blast from the past, because so many of them were associated with memories from her childhood. She had even found the pattern for her wedding dress in the mix, but she had thankfully pulled it out to keep it for herself. The patterns are a beautiful mix of kids’, women’s, mens and a few other assorted things like toys or home decor. She suggested that I take them home to look at them.
While I was browsing, she asked “is this you?”. I looked, and she was holding up a newspaper article about my shop, printed in the Indianapolis Star probably fifteen years ago. I told her yes, it was me — my name is different now — and we got talking. Turned out that we had lived in the same neighborhood in Indianapolis, gone to the same church, and she worked at the library we frequented for years. She left about ten years before we got there, but the parallels were crazy. Turned out that her mom had tucked the newspaper article into the boxes of patterns. “I think she wanted you to have them,” she said. I believe her.
So that’s how I ended up coming home with several hundred new-to-me patterns that I will treasure. And this is why I do what I do. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve connected to patterns from their past: their wedding dress pattern, kids patterns that their mom used for them and now they want to make it for their own kids, even one lady’s 1956 prom dress pattern, so she could make it for her granddaughter. I love what I do. I love the stories of where patterns came from, and where they are going, and I love the human connection. They are small pieces of fashion history that are so personal. I treasure them all.
Thank you, Melva. I will be custodian of your treasures until they find the next person who loves them.
Who knew that Milwaukee holds a treasure trove of a couturier for some of the icons of fashion history? At Mount Mary College, in their Historic Costume Collection, there are almost 400 original Valentina toiles and garments, as well as personal documents and more. In Milwaukee. I’ve always said that the hidden gems are held in places you’d least expect, and now Milwaukee is on my bucket list.
Valentina was born in 1898, and was orphaned during the Russian revolution, and reportedly was rescued at a train station by George Schlee, who she subsequently married after escaping the country. They were married in Russia in 1920, and emigrated to New York via Paris in 1922. She is shown in the 1925 New York census as a housewife to George and notes herself as a naturalized US citizen. In 1930, she is found living in Manhattan with George, again as a housewife, though reports state she started her business in 1928, with dresses she pulled out of her own closet. Of note, the 1930 census states she is still an alien, and not a US citizen, and she subsequently applied for citizenship in 1932, noting herself again to be a housewife. In 1937, papers laud her for her costumes in the play “Idiot’s Delight.” She costumed a few movies in the early 1950’s, but was most known for the celebrities she dressed, such as Greta Garbo and Lynne Fontanne. (The photo above are of garments from Ms Fontanne’s collection and was worn in Idiot’s Delight.)
Valentina was known for her monochromatic designs, often having a stark monastic look. She costumed many stage shows, including dressing Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. The drape of the garments is beautiful and so simple in design as to not distract from the wearer. She loved to use opulent fabrics to create a lush effect that had customers flocking to her. She was held at the same level as Claire McCardell would be later, and there are some similarities in their garments, as both created simple garments that were comfortable to wear. Much of the work was hand done and there was not a lot of ornamentation. She truly was the torch bearer for the minimalism that we see today, but would not be popularized until the 1990’s.
Valentina wore her designs and was able to build her business in that way, given her status as a fashion icon of the time. Barry Paris noted in his book Garbo that Garbo and Valentina had a falling out over George in the years before he died, and though they lived in the same apartment building, they created a schedule where they would never run into each other in the lobby. She died in 1989 from Parkinson’s Disease in New York.
Valentina’s name is not as widely known today, being overshadowed by Valentino, who is not only male, but Italian. Her work still deserves to be seen and studied, because she set the bar in many ways for many designers to come.
I blogged about this pattern illustration some time back. Look at how weird it’s drawn. It looks rather juvenile, especially when compared to other similar patterns of the era. This is Butterick 4699, from the 1940s. I love the style and, like it says, it’s Quick and Easy to make. But that illustration is disturbing. The faces are so crudely drawn, and when you add the claw-like hands to it, it’s really kind of creepy.
Then I came across this:
Same pattern, without the wonky faces. Doesn’t it look so much better? Now, I’m not sure I’ve seen other Butterick patterns from the era that were drawn only in outline, but in this case, it’s a vast improvement. I have no idea what happened here, but I’m thinking that the fashion editors rethought it and reissued the pattern without the weird illustrations. What do you think?
Scarves have come into the public eye more lately, since pandemic public figures such as Dr Birx and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi often show up wearing them. I’ve never been one to wear scarves, figuring they require a skill set that I don’t have. Also, Nora Ephron indtimated in her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” that scarves are for middle aged ladies, and I’m not admitting to that quite yet.
But I do remember the 70s, and how my sisters would make little halter tops from bandannas and scarves. Nothing as stylish as this — we were preacher’s kids after all — but upcycle boho looks. These ones are pretty amazing, and while the 1973 article this is derived from doesn’t tell you how to twist the scarves into the look, it’s a great chance for you to DIY.
I came across this illustration in a Butterick brochure from 1976, and it got me remembering what the bicentennial was about. 1976 was a huge year for our country, as we celebrated America’s 200th birthday. Red, white and blue was everywhere, and there were all kinds of events to celebrate. Many of these events had people in period costume, so pattern companies put out patterns so that people could create their look. These four patterns are the ones Butterick put out, and I always wondered how they measured up to today’s attention to detail in costuming.
According to the brochure, Butterick did a great deal of research into colonial Americans, so as to make the costumes as authentic as possible. They also consulted with Robert Pusilo, an antique clothing expert and Bicentennial costume consultant to get the fabric details correct. Mr Pusilo has a number of movie credits to his name (Klute and The Owl and the Pussycat among them), but also did Broadway costuming, most notably for Hello, Dolly. According to an article in the Atlanta Constitution in 1974, Mr Pusilo owned hundreds of articles of 18th century clothing, putting him in a unique position of being able to not only design for period clothing, but to handle the originals. He felt that 18th century clothing wouldn’t lend itself to the mass marketing of the 1970’s, because the result would just be a 1970s version of the original. He had a real respect for the men’s shirts of the late 1700’s, stating that they were “truly comfortable”, in contrast to more modern shirts. Interestingly, Mr Pusilo is quoted in the article as saying that there were only a few houses in New York where appropriate fabric could be obtained for such period clothing, as the patterns used in that era were very distinct. I’d love to have been listening to the conversation as he made fabric suggestions to Butterick, knowing full well that the fabrics a home sewist would use would be wrong, no matter how accurate the pattern might be. I wonder if this offended his sensibilities, or if he just accepted it as it was — a modern take on antique clothing?
These patterns came with an insert that gave suggestions on how to make your costume authentic. Three accessories suggested were a gentleman’s can, a lady’s panier, and a lady’s sleeve ruffle. The insert gave instructions on how to make each of these accessories, and the sleeve ruffle is illustrated here, as well as a small panier, on the lady on the right. (I can’t tell if the lady on the left has it as well, but she may.)
The costumes shown are for an affluent colonial family. The called the lady’s costume their Dolly Madison costume, and the father and son costumes Stateman costumes. Reading the descriptions of the patterns makes one think that perhaps these patterns were a bit more accurate that the more modern interpretations of the 18th century, since they closed with buttons instead of the zippers seen in today’s renditions. I may have to do a deep dive to compare the versions. I’ll add that to my to-do list.
Butterick 4260 is available here. 4208, the men’s stateman’s pattern, is available here and here. 4207, the boys’ statesman’s pattern, can be found on Etsy here and on Amazon here. The girls’ costume can be found here.