1956 Wrap skirt

Vogue skirt, 1956

I’ve had this pattern for about a year, but I didn’t sew it until just recently. I was under the mistaken impression that it would be fussy to fit and size accurately. I’m not sure why. In fact, this is an extremely easy and forgiving pattern to sew. Remarkably, there is only one pattern piece, and all the shaping is done through darts and folds.

This is the main piece and there’s a waist facing, as well

Although they appear throughout the 50s, there was a strong style trend in 1956 for these high-waisted, tight skirts. It was the era of the “bombshell” — Marilyn Monroe comes to mind and also a young Brigitte Bardot. Curves ruled the day. And not just in women’s clothing. Avant-garde architecture and design embraced roundness and expressed a dynamic fullness. I’m thinking of two buildings in particular that were started around 1956: the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright and the TWA building by Eero Saarinen, both located in New York City.

The Guggenheim in New York City

Although the Guggenheim was modelled on the form of a snail shell, I can’t help thinking of it as a sensuous feminine design. Its organic form seems to defy the rationalist modernist skyscrapers built for industrialists. There is something subversive about the way it wraps around itself, curling inward  while most of the other buildings shoot upward in competition.

Saarinen’s TWA building similarly defies rationalist thinking. From the outside it looks like a gigantic manta ray.

The TWA Building in New York City

I’ve read some interpretations of tight women’s clothing from this era as binding and restricting women’s movement, or as the hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies in reaction to women in the workplace after WWII. But I think there is room for other interpretations as well. This form-fitting Vogue skirt, for example, has a much more sympathetic construction than many modern day items of clothing. It actually has a “tummy dart” to accommodate the fact that women don’t naturally have flat stomaches. I find this acknowledgement of the reality of women’s real bodies stunning in comparison to the way women today are forced into clothes that don’t respond to their natural shape. I like to think  this wrap skirt is more of a Guggenheim than a skyscraper.

Vogue wrap skirt from the side

I used a piece of leftover denim from my 70’s jumpsuit, and shortened the skirt radically (mainly because I’m short).

Finished wrap skirt in denim with red buttons


The perfect jumpsuit

McCalls 5265, 1976, could this be love?

Sometimes you’re looking through a bunch of patterns at a thrift store and suddenly, like magic, you find that perfect jumpsuit pattern. Or at least I did. I’ve been buying jumpsuit patterns for a while, but none is as streamlined and unfussy as this one. It even declares this aspect of its nature on the envelope: “Carefree Patterns from McCalls.” Curiously, the original pattern cost $1.50 in 1976, and I paid the exact same amount for it 36 years later.

I already had a large amount of denim that I was saving to make the perfect jumpsuit, so I set to work cutting out the pieces and sewing them together. When I look at this kind of clothing, I’m reminded of a certain, fairly unpopular, art movement: minimalism. In particular, I’m thinking of the work of the two artists at the forefront of this movement, Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Donald Judd, untitled plywood, 1976

They used industrial materials — plain things like steel, bricks, plywood, and they created minimal forms scaled to the human body. Although these forms seem like impersonal ordinary objects, that some people consider boring and un-artlike, they are really pointing back to the viewer and asking important questions like: where are you? And, how do you feel right now?

Here’s an image from Robert Morris’s Felt series of 1976, the same year my McCall’s 5265 pattern was issued:

Robert Morris, “Felt” series, 1976

Morris was by this time creating post-minimalist works that invoked tactile urges and responded to indeterminate actions of the curators and gallery staff that hung and displayed them. I think my jumpsuit is quite a bit like this art.

And, I’m not just referring to the collar. It’s made from ordinary, one could even say working class, material: denim (nothing special about that).And it has a minimal, simplified,  “carefree” form that responds to my indeterminate and chance actions.

Although I really loved the full-length flared trousers,  I decided I could not make them work for everyday wear and ended up shortening them to the knee.

I also had a few problems constructing it in the first place. The biggest issue was that the torso was too short creating a “cramming” situation whenever I raised my arms. After much internet research, I decided to add a gusset, which solved the problem perfectly.

Where are you and how do you feel right now?

Jumpsuit, 2012 and Robert Morris, Felt, 1976

The other sixties dress

I wanted to retry the McCall’s 5507  pattern from 1960 that I wrote about last time, but this time with my “good” fabric. It is a very light cotton blend with white polka-dots on a greenish/beige ground.

the “good” fabric

Unlike the previous fabric, which uses the grain as its decorative element, this one is all about flatness. So many artists were commenting on the flat surface in different ways during the 1960s, but out of all of the styles that emerged probably the best known is Pop Art. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Sigmar Polke come to mind, with their benday dot experiments, but I’ve always been drawn to the work of another artist from the 60s who painted polka-dots, Yayoi Kusama. Here she is in her New York studio in 1960, the same year as the McCall’s pattern:

Yayoi Kusama in 1960 in New York

One of the ways in which artists addressed the concept of “surface” during this time, was to critically comment on the abstract expressionist art that had come just before. Where someone like Jackson Pollock might use brush strokes and paint drips to express dynamic movement and the authenticity of direct experience, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Sigmar Polke wanted to remind us that painting is just pigment on canvas. It’s all surface. Authentic gestures can be copied.

Sigmar Polke, Freundinnen, 1965

One of the results of this move away from authenticity in art was the development of experiential artworks that involved people’s bodies. Yayoi Kusama moved away from flat paintings and began creating strange environments where she staged “happenings” with other artists while wearing hand-painted clothing, or painting their naked bodies with polka-dots.

If you notice in the photo of Kusama above, however, she is wearing a pretty traditional shift dress that looks quite a bit like my McCall’s pattern. For my second try at making this dress, I decided I’d better size it down. The original is a size 38 bust, and I needed to go two sizes down from that. I traced it out, measured it, and cut the new pattern pieces to fit my measurements.  The result is slightly more fitted, but just as comfortable as the first one.

the other sixties dress

a bit closer

Sixties dress

McCalls 1960

I found this pattern, copyright dated 1960, at Value Village for $1.99.

It is probably the easiest dress pattern I’ve ever sewn (there are only 4 pieces plus the neck facing).

Since the pattern itself is two sizes too big for me, I decided that for my first attempt I would use some thrift store fabric that I wouldn’t cry over if I ruined it. I think it might be raw silk, but I’m not sure. Anyway,  I bought 6 metres for $5.00.

You can’t really tell from the photo below, but the fabric has a nubby surface. It’s soft and cottony, but there is something about the texture that reminds me of the way raw silk “catches” on things. Maybe I’m thinking of something else.

Raw silk or some kind of woven cotton?

When I bought this fabric, I thought right away of a specific time period in the late 1950s when a lot of modernist artists were playing with the idea of  grid-like patterns.

Here’s artist Agnes Martin’s Untitled from the same year as the above pattern, 1960.

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960

Martin’s artworks have always seemed kind of dry and aloof to me, unless I think about them as her attempt to reveal the concept of “surface.” In actuality, she meant them to reference immateriality, but I always see the opposite of that: materiality.

What specifically makes me relate this kind of art to the fabric above is the way in which the grain becomes the design. In this way, the materiality of the fabric reveals itself.

Another example of what I’m thinking of can be found in earlier Russian Constructivist fabric print design.

Varvara Stepanova, textile design, 1920s

This textile design by Varvara Stepanova (from the 1920s) shows how the pairing of horizontal and vertical lines moving in and out creates structure and connection between elements. It looks like a thread weaving in and out of a surface to me.

Part of the idea behind constructivism was to show the actual labour  involved in the creation of the item. So, if you were wearing a dress made from cloth, then that cloth should reference how it was made — it should point back to the fact that labour was involved in the production of the clothing.

My final product was pretty satisfying. The dress is comfortable, slightly fitted, but not too tight, and the fabric is extremely soft and cool to wear in the hot summer weather.

The result of my labour

Hello friends!

Sewing provides me with a creative outlet, but purchasing new fabric and patterns can be very expensive. Being a frugal type, I like to find second hand patterns and fabric from thrift shops. What I like best about finding random older patterns is the wide variety of fashions that become available to you, and finding vintage quality fabric is just about the most exciting thing ever. Well, maybe. This blog is my “gallery” of projects, but it is also a place to talk about the link between fashion and art history, which is my other creative outlet. As an art historian, I see almost everything in terms of either art or history, and that includes what people wear.