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, sewing patterns, sexual abuse

Birdcage Waist

Butterick 8227, ©1957

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:

© Photo: Courier-Post, Camden, NJ

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.

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.

sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Palazzo pants

McCall’s 3541, 1973.

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?

Click here to purchase from the shop.

sewing, sewing patterns

The Learning Curve

Note the wonky stitching. LOL

I think I’ve said in the past that I’m kind of a fraud. I’ve been selling sewing patterns online for 20+ years. As in, I was selling on eBay when it listings were only text — no photos. I didn’t even own a digital camera. True fact: I got my first digital camera by trading my middle school son’s best friend for it. So yeah, I’m an online seller dinosaur.

The sewing pattern thing started when eBay came up with the stores concept. I opened a store in 2001, and was selling different things, with no real focus. I was doing some selling for other people as well, but it was a pain because of trying to get shipping materials, peanuts, bubble wrap, and worrying that things would get broken. I wanted to focus on one thing, but couldn’t figure out what. I really don’t know how I came up with sewing patterns, but I do know I got my first ones in the thrift store, and can still remember the particular one I first listed. And hence my store’s focus was developed.

My now-ex was on a mission trip to Mexico. I was home alone with the kids for a week, and I, being a night owl, was in heaven. No husband to answer to and I could stay up as long as I wanted. I finally had that digital camera, so I turned on The Two Towers and started listing patterns. I had the movie on primarily to listen to the music as I worked, and I think I heard it at least a dozen times that week. (Honestly, in that time period, I listened to a lot of movies, because the kids would watch them in the van while I drove. I think I heard The Others twenty times before I actually saw it. But I digress.) I was off to the races in selling, eventually becoming the second or third highest seller of patterns on eBay, depending upon the week.

But here’s the fraud part: I didn’t sew. I loved patterns, and had a very, very general idea of how to sew, but didn’t even own a machine. I bought one several years ago, and used it to make some Tshirt quilts for my stepsons from their mom’s Race for the Cure shirts. But then nothing. So in the past year, I’ve decided it’s time. I’ve made a few things and I’m still learning. I’m definitely a rookie, as you can see in past posts, but I’m learning.

I’ve found that sewing is pretty addictive, and it’s definitely fun. I pull up Spotify and listen to a music or podcasts while I’m working. Sometimes I rip out more than I sew, but that ratio is improving. I don’t always pay attention to directions. The project I’m working on now, from Rebecca Page, is a Christmas gift, and I didn’t really even read the directions. I’m kind of winging it, but it’s a project that is designed for that. My seams are wonky, and my colors aren’t always right, but when you’re sewing for grandkids, they don’t notice. I haven’t ventured beyond cotton (though the plaid part of this is wool) but it’ll come. It’s all a learning curve.

So if you’re learning to sew, just keep doing it. Be prepared to rip out a lot. Even experienced sewists do, from what I’ve seen. You may not like the end result. It’s not going to look professional, but that’s ok. Every project you do, you will learn more. You can add to your skill set. Just keep doing it. Start with small cotton projects till you get the basics down, and then move up from there. Of course, I started with Tshirt quilts, without using a walking foot, and without knowing a darned thing about what I was doing. Those quilts are definitely wonky, but my (adult) stepsons understood it’s the thought that matters and they like them. People are willing to overlook some flaws because most people are in awe that you tried. (Thank God for that!).

If you want to find some learn to sew patterns in my shop, click here. And check out this link for books to help you along the way.

family stories, Non-Hogkin's Lymphoma, self help, self love, sewing patterns, vintage fashion

All the Love

Butterick 3120 , 1944.

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.

Have a great weekend.

sewing

Sewing Birds

1911 Daniel Low & Co catalog

I came across this ad in a catalog called “One Hundred Birthday Gifts,” published in 1911 by Daniel Low & Company. I was fascinated by this “sewing bird.” They were used as a third hand, to help hold one’s sewing project taut. The bird clamps to the table, then you insert the end of the fabric into the bird’s mouth, so you have your hands free to do the sewing. Some, like this one, have one or two pincushions on them, and though some are quite plain, others are very ornate. This one sold for 85 cents, which in today’s currency would be roughly $25.

Sewing birds were invented by one Thaddeus Fowler, who had other inventions like a machine to stick pins into paper, one to sort pins, and ones to make needles and horseshoes. Ads for sewing birds were first seen around 1852. There were birds also that could be used to wind skeins of thread or yarn, and were quite popular. The price then was from 20 to 88 cents, and they seemed to be most commonly sold by jewelers. Mr. Fowler, unfortunately, died destitute in 1887,

I’m fascinated by things like this. I’ve never seen one in use. Have you? Click here to see the sewing bird listings on ebay. I believe that this one is a twin to this ad.

sewing, sewing patterns

Copyright Law & Sewing Patterns: a case study

I found this Cosmopolitan pattern for Ladies Sleeves, and was researching it to come up with a date. I found that Cosmopolitan patterns were made around the turn of the century (1900). Then I found a really interesting article.

The London newspaper, The Morning Post, published an article in March, 1893, mentioning a copyright infringement lawsuit. Two dressmakers went to court, with Mrs. Ann Hollinrake suing Mrs. Jane Eliza Truswell, accusing her of copying her sleeve pattern. Both ladies were dressmakers and indeed were professors of “scientific dresscutting.” Mrs. Hollinrake had created a chart, called a “Cosmopolitan” for creating ladies’ sleeves, but said that Mrs. Truswell had stolen it and was publishing it under the name “Ideal.”

Mrs. Truswell’s attorney argued that the chart was something without literary merit, thus was not eligible for copyright protection. He furthermore argued that if it was a patent protection question, that Mrs. Hollinrake was not the first publisher, and therefore did not qualify for patent protection.

When judgment was given, it was stated that “it appeared that the sleeves of ladies dresses were cut out in two parts, which were sewn together. There was an upper side which was wider and an inner side which was narrower, and there had long been in use a piece of paper or cardboard which had been used as a pattern for the outer side, and several prior specifications had been brought before him showing these patterns for cutting out of the outer side marked with scales and measurements for adaptation to the various lengths of the arm.” The judge further stated that in 1885, a man named Cook had created an incomplete way to create set of measurements for the inner part of the sleeve. The Cosmopolitan pattern Mrs. Hollinrake now owned was created by a Mr. Kendall, and was bought by her for the enormous sum of 10,000 pounds. The Cosmopolitan did away with the formulas previously required and relied only on the measurement of the arm. It was, by 1893, in wide use, and could be used without any in depth training. The judge thought that the defendant had inflated the difference between the Cosmopolitan and the Ideal, stating that it was “in substance and principle, exactly the same as the plaintiff’s.” Thought he acknowledged that the defendants had likely tweaked the original to some extent, it was not enough of a change to say that she was not infringing on the rights of Mrs. Hollinrake, who owned the original Cosmopolitan.

Then he got into the weeds of the law, where historically patterns and copyrights get complicated. He found problems in exactly where a pattern fit into copyright law, eventually settling on calling it a “chart” or “plan,” which would make it eligible for copyright protection. He decided against the plaintiff and gave judgment against her, including court costs. The article ends stating an injunction was given to give the defendant time to decide if she would appeal.

Interesting that although this may have nothing to do with my Cosmopolitan pattern — ironically, for sleeves — it does show the complexities of copyright law as it pertains to sewing patterns. Patterns generally come with a copyright on them, and although I’m not an attorney, it’s my understanding that the patterns themselves are considered in the US to be “useful” items, and can’t be copyrighted for this reason. However, the artwork, diagrams and instructions can be, so although the pattern pieces may not be copyrighted, everything else contained, including the envelope illustrations, charts and descriptions, as well as any interior instructions, can be. That being said, copyrights expire, so a turn of the century pattern would no longer be in copyright. After 1924, it may be, depending upon if the copyright was renewed. And after 1963, everything will remain in copyright, as it would renew automatically forever. For this reason, if you are selling or buying reproduction patterns, it’s very important to completely research the copyright, to make sure you aren’t in violation (and you are definitely in violation for a pattern after 1963).

I sell some reproduction patterns, but they are deeply researched, because I certainly wouldn’t want the big companies coming after me. All it would take is one test case, and all the repro companies would be out of business. So do your due diligence. Shop with trustworthy sellers who have done their research, and don’t support illegal copies. If you do, one day they may copy your favorite seller’s originals (think: Gertie or Angela) and put them out of business.

Food for thought.

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.