Timing Fashions, from The Rag Race by Bernard Roshko

Wine red velvet suit with beige fox fur trim, Paquin, in Delineator magazine, Dec. 1926.

Wine red velvet suit with beige fox fur trim, by Paquin, in Delineator magazine, Dec. 1926.

I’ve just started reading Bernard Roshko’s book, The Rag Race, about the “Rag Trade” (the garment industry), published in 1963. His chapter about timing the release of fashions made me think.

“The calendar is no help; the temperature is what counts…. One fall season, for example, fur-trimmed suits were a high-fashion item. But the warm weather held on, dissuading women from buying them. Then wintry weather came in with a rush, so that women skipped the suits and bought dresses to wear under their coats.” — Roshko, p. 80.

Wine red coat made from a Vogue pattern, featured in Elegance, 1962-62 issue. Photo by Horst.

Wine red coat made from a Vogue pattern, featured in Elegance, 1962-63 issue. Photo by Horst.

My first thought reading Roshko was, “when was the last time I saw a woman wearing a wool suit?” — especially one that is fur-trimmed? I live in San Francisco, where some women do dress up, but we’ve just had a mild, dry fall season. In fact, our year-round temperature is moderate — rarely reaching freezing or staying above 70 degrees for long. It’s good weather for wearing suits, but I haven’t bought a suit in years.

Woman's suit pattern with two skirt options, No. 7928, Butterick Fashion News, Oct. 1956.

Woman’s suit pattern with two skirt options, No. 7928, Butterick Fashion News, Oct. 1956.

However, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, even a woman in her early twenties could wear a suit to church, to meetings, to restaurants, to concerts and plays, and while clothes shopping. (The suit guaranteed that you were wearing appropriate underwear and shoes for just about anything you tried on.)

Butterick coat patterns Nos. 7924 and 7923, Oct. 1956.

“Top Choice for Coat Weather:” Butterick coat patterns Nos. 7924 and 7923, Oct. 1956. The “clutch coat” with push-up sleeves (7929) was a very popular style, available in stores at many prices.

This clutch coat pattern also showed a button-up version. Click here.

My second thought has to do with the extreme weather events which are becoming more frequent. As I write, on January 22, the radio tells me that New York City is expecting 24 inches of snow. Roshko says that winter clothes had to be in the stores by September (“By Columbus Day, the stores hold sales on winter coats,”) because spring fashions and resort wear replaced them on the racks in February. Sometimes, by the time a woman needed a warm winter coat, it was too late to buy one.

Vogue coat featured in Elegance, 1962-63 issue.

Vogue coat featured in Elegance, 1962-63 issue. A slim-fitting dress worked best under such coats. A navy coat was a sensible choice, because it would not look out of place in Spring, while a burgundy or brown coat would.

Spring was a difficult season for sellers. Store buyers complained that “Spring can last three months or only three days;” if hot weather arrived early, women reached into their closets for last year’s summer dresses, and the “new Spring Fashions” — dresses in pastel wool or linen — were never purchased at all. I’m glad I’m not in the rag trade, especially this year.

Butterick Fashion News, October 1956

Roshko also mentions that a fall or winter dress that sold well would often be manufactured again, in a different fabric, for spring or summer. That might be just as true of these sewing patterns, which were featured in October of 1956:

Butterick dress pattern 7953. It could be made as a sheath or with a full skirt. BFN Oct. 1956.

Butterick dress pattern 7953. It could be made as a sheath or with a full skirt. BFN Oct. 1956. “Bateau neckline.”

It’s easy to imagine the sheath version in pale blue for Spring. Navy blue was also considered a Spring color.

Butterick No. 7847 could be a buisnesslike dressy sheath or a party dress, made with fly-away panels.

Butterick No. 7847 could be either a businesslike dressy sheath or a party dress, made with fly-away panels. The cinched waist that was introduced with the New Look was still fashionable in 1956.

Good heavens! Does that model actually have thighs? These are dresses for a mature woman, although teen styles in the 50’s were very like women’s styles. The “party” version would usually have been worn with a large necklace. The pattern envelope shows it in a summery, short-sleeved turquoise version, too.

Butterick pattern 7814 is a coat-dress, buttoning all the way down the front.

Butterick pattern 7814 is a coat-dress, buttoning all the way down the front.

Plaid, with a velvet collar, this dress is very autumnal. Getting a winter coat over it wouldn’t be easy, though. Made in navy linen, the pattern could be used in Spring. A white collar and cuffs would make it look quite different. According to Roshko, prudent manfacturers kept a stock of neutral color, medium weight fabrics — gray, black, light gray — which could be made up from the previous season’s dress patterns when the season was “slack” and the newest Paris styles had not yet been copied. The pattern envelope shows coat-dress No. 7814 in black faille with rhinestone buttons for afternoon or evening, and in a pinkish short-sleeved version for Spring or Summer.

Butterick 7812 dress pattern from October, 1956.

Butterick 7812 spectator dress pattern from October, 1956.

“A trim spectator [dress] gains new interest from its novelty plaid, its turn-around accents. . . .  the contrast collar, the back dipping belt, the fan shaped walking pleat.” From the front, this sporty dress is very simple; it’s the bold plaid that makes it a dress for Autumn. The pattern envelope shows it in summery green or pink versions.

Butterick 7927 is a sporty suit or separates. Oct. 1956.

Butterick 7927 is a sporty suit or separates. Oct. 1956. The jacket can be worn belted or “straight.”

A thrifty woman would make two skirts in colors coordinated with the colors in the plaid jacket, but it would be difficult to wear a coat over this jacket, which makes its season brief. You wouldn’t want to wear it to a football game on a snowy day. But you could always use the skirt pattern again. Click here for pattern envelope with jacket unbelted.

Butterick pattern 7892, Oct. 1956.

Butterick pattern 7892, Oct. 1956. Basic dress with optional capelet and vestee.

Shown in tweed wool for fall and winter, No. 7892 looks like it would work as a suit for church or shopping, and the eight-gored dress really is a “basic” that could be worn under coats and completely transformed by making it in different fabrics. The bow at the neck is part of a vestee [something like a dickey] worn under the dress. In Spring or Summer, you wouldn’t need it, as shown on the pattern envelope.

Butterick 7931, Oct. 1956. The shawl is completel separate and optional. The sleeveless dress is shown as a jumper worn over a sweater.

Butterick 7931, Oct. 1956. The shawl is completely separate and optional. The sleeveless dress (a “sheath-jumper”) is shown as a jumper worn over a sweater.

This Fall version of the sheath-jumper is made in plaid, with a matching shawl, but a look at the alternate view shows a dress that would be pretty in pastel linen or even in black, so it’s a multi-season pattern. Like dress maufacturers, pattern companies want their designs to continue over several seasons.

My personal favorite is this plaid jumper.

Butterick pattern 7930, a jumper.

Butterick pattern 7930, a jumper. It can be worn without a sweater under it, so this pattern might be made as a pretty summer dress, too.

Jumper-dress patterns are tricky — some of them have larger-than-normal armholes, to allow for the thickness of the blouse or sweater worn underneath. But this one says “alone it’s terrific.” In a pretty cotton, this could go to patio parties all summer. However, wearing that many crinolines to school would not be a good idea; you wouldn’t fit in your chair-desk.

 

 

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1 Comment

Filed under 1950s-1960s, Sportswear, Vintage patterns

One response to “Timing Fashions, from The Rag Race by Bernard Roshko

  1. I’m so glad you are enjoying the Roshko book–I loved it. It was interesting to hear how manufacturers made subtle variations on the same basic design from year to year–until the rise of the chemise.

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