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An Amateur’s Guide to Dress Patterns from History

I have a long-standing interest in what I call ‘experiential history’, that is, understanding where we came from by being there and doing that. Old recipes, quilts, and now clothing: for a new experience of old.

From the time I heard of the possibility of a gala to celebrate our building’s centenary, which could involve the wearing of historical clothing, I decided to make something. Never mind that 1923 isn’t a particularly flattering time for women with ‘curvy figures’, I started researching. And found!

To use a very modern tool to find out about very old things, I started looking online. It did not take me long to find a picture of a pattern that not only depicted a dress from 1921, but that was itself an exact reproduction of a pattern from 1921. It also did not take me long to order said pattern!

Now to reconcile the sewist of 1921 (or 1923, using a pattern she probably already had), with the sewist of 2023, used to multiple sizing and lots of instructions. My pattern shows a cutting layout (for 36-inch fabric, and who finds that in Fabricland these days?), although it also gives yardages for 40-inch (again, not a size we now see) and 44 inch (which is our usual 115 cm or so) wide fabric. No information about fabric quality (crisp or drapey, for instance), There is only one size, and it is not mine. So what to do now?

I had hoped to use the pattern to make, first, my ‘centenary dress’, then to offer to make for others if they wished one. That is still my intent. But studying the pattern also shows me that ‘ladies’ (as the pattern refers to us, as we were called back then) can, for instance, put together a period look with clothes they already have (for instance, an A-line skirt and a blouse with a pretty hem, worn untucked). One thing the pattern appears to be, however, is wearable. An easy fit (no waistline), no zip. But how to get into it? It appears to have a flap at the back shoulder which is tied together.

My approach has been from the beginning to give the impression of the period, rather than a literal copy. So, although zippers hadn’t been invented yet (or if they had, were not in common use for clothing), I shall use one. (For people who like to use Invisible Zippers, this is a no-brainer.) Create a centre-back seam and zip away. Or, perhaps, place a short zip on the left shoulder, or one slightly longer on the left side.

No information about what kind of fabric? If we aren’t told what to do, why not do whatever we want? If we want a crisp fabric, or one with a lot of body, why not use it? Or if we want to use something soft, or in-between, why not do that, as well?

I don’t know yet what I’ll end up using. I shall be merging this pattern with some of my modern ones, to get the look I want with the fit I need. And I hope I can inspire others to do the same (I am planning to share what I find out with anyone who is interested). So, an adventure in sewing begins.

…… May Webster

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