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.
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:
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.
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I listed this pattern in the shop the other day, and found the waistline interesting. They call it a “birdcage” waistline. It’s a cummerbund waistline that included large tabs — like belt loops for a cummerbund.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. I love cummerbund waistlines. I think they give a wonderful silhouette, whether they are on a party dress or a sheath, but belt loop looking things? Hmm. That being said, View A is pretty fabulous, so I could be convinced. I want to see this in person.
In looking around, it appears that Mollie Parnis did a “birdcage jacket” in 1956 that was a short jacket that stopped above the waistline. Her collection of that season had a lot of high waisted dresses, so I’m sure that looked nice, and have seen patterns with that effect. Here’s a photo:
Pauline Trigere did a “bird cage” jacket in that same year, but it sounds confusing to me: “…for girls so reed-thin that there is no risk of a pregnant look. The bird cage’s big pouf is caught in just below the knees. She uses it in everything — coats, dresses, even headdresses made of veiling tied at the top and around the shoulders with velvet ribbon.” The jacket was hipbone length. I can’t envision what the look was.
Dallas Dickey designed a birdcage jacket in 1957 that was just one inch bands of linen, spaced an inche apart, and sewn only at the shoulder and hip, over a fitted sheath dress. The effect was to look like you were wearing a blouson jacket, but then up close “the sheath shape under the spaced bands is as visible as a parakeet.” These were done in different color versions, with the designer’s favorite being a gold jacket over a red, white or black sheath. This sounds interesting, and I’d love to see a real life version.
I did find a version of this particular dress, described in a New Jersey newspaper, and done by Mr. Sidney. These were full skirted dresses though, worn with more than one petticoat and striped around the waist in contrast to the vertically striped skirts.
I’m not sure what the inspiration was in the mid-50s for all these birdcage looks. If you have any ideas, drop it in the comments.
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.
There’s a commercial on TV right now that I believe is for a cancer facility. It says that a person never forgets the moment they were told that they had cancer. Let me tell you about that moment for me.
I had had surgery for a large mass in my back that had been causing an incredible amount of pain. Doctors varied on what they thought it was – infectious disease thought an infection, orthopedics thought perhaps it was a hemorrhage (I’d been the chiropractor in search of pain relief), and oncology thought it was a tumor. So I spent the night in the hospital the night before to manage the pain, and they rolled me off to surgery not knowing what was in store.
It was cancer. I woke up from anesthesia surround by my boys and my husband (I can’t remember why my daughter wasn’t there but I think the baby was sick). My husband took my hand and looked very serious, which in itself is a big deal, because he’s a sarcastic nutjob like me. Everyone stared at me very intently as he told me what they’d found. A huge tumor, wrapped around the spinal cord, that they couldn’t remove without a tremendously complicated surgery. They didn’t know what kind of tumor, but they biopsies and closed me up. If they had to, they’d go back in, but we needed more information.
I will tell you that I have never felt more love in my entire life. The looks of concern in those three men’s eyes was something I will never forget. And you know what? I didn’t get upset. I didn’t get worried. I knew we had this, because with love like that, how can anything go wrong?
They didn’t know till later that day exactly what kind of cancer. It turned out to be lymphoma, and there were other tumors. We came up with a plan, starting with radiation to, as my orthopedist said, “melt” the spinal tumor. Three radiation sessions and it was completely gone. Immunotherapy, to kill the rest. A year later, there is no sign of the other tumors, though I have another year and a half of maintenance treatment to keep it gone. I have gone from Stage IIIB to “no evidence of disease.” Yes, it may come back, because with my type of cancer there is no cure, just remissions of varying length. But till then, I live my life and have a lot of fun.
So yes, you really do remember the moment you were told you have cancer. But that’s just the beginning, not an end. And in the middle, have a lot of fun.
Hospital gown pattern from World War II era, likely made for new moms who were in the hospital. Why can’t bed jackets make a comeback? They’re so pretty.
I’m not sure when the idea of matching mothers and daughters started, but there are still such patterns being made today. Personally it would’ve never worked for my daughter and me, because she would’ve rather died than dress like me. I remember the day she said “I don’t know how you can have such great taste in clothing and then dress like that.”
Keep in mind that I am a nurse, and have spent by far the majority of my adult life in scrubs, and you can imagine what a lazy dresser I am. I’ve either been in scrubs or changing into scrubs as soon as I get to work, so I bring dressing down to a whole new level. I’m still waiting for the Project Runway challenge to dress front line workers in something cuter than scrubs. Add to it that now we not only have to wear scrubs, but although they make such cute ones now, very few nurses are allowed to choose their own. We’re told which (ugly) ones we can wear and in what (ugly) colors. But I digress.
Isn’t this set cute? The mom’s dress can be made strapless or with spaghetti straps, as shown. Both versions of the dress have adorable huge pockets. It’s circa 1950. The little brochure that I found inside a pattern doesn’t have a date on it. I don’t have either one in my shop, but you can find the mother’s version here and here. If you know of a copy of the girls’ dress, please let me know.
Cosmopolitan patterns are not often found, probably because it appears to have had a short run as a pattern company. Cosmopolitan Fashion Model Company’s patterns first appeared in newspapers in May, 1895. The ad was addressed specifically to “ladies”, but they did offer at least some men’s patterns, as seen here. They were advertised for a “uniform price” of 15 cents each. An ad in September stated that “to make them more well known”, they offered a pattern for 15 cents, postage paid. That ad states that the retail price was normally 20-40 cents, but that they were again selling them for a uniform 15 cents. By far, the majority of newspaper ads of 1895 were seen in California.
1896 saw ads spread nationwide, indicating that they had indeed gotten the word out about their patterns. Pricing remained the same.
1897 saw a significantly fewer amount of ads, indicating perhaps that the company had gone into a bit of a slump, but 1898 saw an explosion of ads, so perhaps this was not the case. Perhaps they did so well in 1897 that they didn’t need to advertise. It’s not clear. One 1898 ad stated they were selling for 10 and 15 cents but were “just as good as 25 cent patterns.” Not the best marketing ploy, I think. Somewhere between 1897 and 1898, the name was shortened to simply Cosmopolitan Patterns in ads, though I believe that the packaging still said Cosmopolitan Fashion Model Co, as one I have from after 1900 has this still printed on the envelope.
1902 ads from Albuquerque indicate pricing of 10 cents, but no reference is found indicating what the “retail” (printed on the package) price was. By then, their slogan had become “none higher, none better.” By May of that year, some ads show prices of 9 cents, showing that perhaps they wanted to live by their slogan. 1904 found pricing at 10 cents. Continuing to 1907, the ad stated that Cosmopolitan was the only “10 cent seam allowance pattern.”
1908 saw some stores advertising free Cosmopolitan patterns with a purchase, and in 1909, many stores advertised that they were no longer carrying Cosmopolitan patterns, but had taken on contracts with McCall. Some stores were still advertising Cosmopolitan, but at 1 cent. The company was definitely in trouble. By 1910, they were no longer advertised at all.
Perhaps Cosmopolitan was bought by McCall, but I can’t find evidence of that. Indications are they they only published womens’ patterns, but if I am wrong about that, please do let me know. Cosmopolitan did well for a few years, in a very competitive pattern market. It may be that undercutting their prices meant they paid a heavy price, but they don’t seem to have caught on, and their marketing slogans definitely needed improvement. One thing to note though is that they always sold for less than the printed price, so price on the envelope will not help in dating them. You will have to study the style in order to come up with an accurate date, but it should always be between 1895 to 1909.
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.