Someone in my family had a gold-colored embroidered jacket, very much like this one. I remember finding it, sadly moth eaten, while cleaning out an old wardrobe.
I hadn’t appreciated the enormous craze for these jackets until I looked up “embroidered Mexican jacket” online. Plenty of them survived and are available from vintage dealers. In fact, I found a few in the first vintage store I checked — Decades of Fashion, in San Francisco — and took a quick photo or two. This one was made in Mexico, probably brought home as a vacation souvenir.
The very helpful clerk reminded me that, during World War II, the United States made an effort to form stronger alliances with our neighbors to the north and south, including trade agreements.
In the 1940s, while the war made it too dangerous to travel to Europe and the Pacific (and with cruise ships turned into military transports,) Americans seeking vacations in exotic locations had an incentive to explore closer to home. Many tourists seeking warmer weather in “Sunny Mexico” discovered a world of brighter colors, brilliant flowers, beautiful embroidery, gaiety, and chunky, handmade Mexican Silver jewelry from Taxco.
It’s surprising that McCall Patterns would offer several patterns for stay-at-homes who wanted to duplicate the look of souvenir jackets from Mexico, but these patterns for embroidered wool coats — usually unlined — were available for women, teens, and children in 1950.
Embroidered Coat Pattern for Women, McCall #1399
These coats were usually unlined and could be made from wool fabric or wool felt, so, except for the wool embroidery, they were easy to make. At least one person made one, and it turned up online (click here.)
The felt versions that I have seen had edges trimmed with blanket stitch, for definition, but the wool flannel versions had 1/4″ hems turned under and secured with cross-stitch in one or two colors. The red coat I photographed has the same stitching shown in this pattern:
The embroidery motifs from McCall include colorful vendors at markets, donkeys and their owners, palm trees, and other stereotyped images, but — happily — not a sombrero-wearing man taking a nap against a seguaro cactus. That was a popular image for 1950s salt & pepper shakers, as I recall; tourists who had never lived in a hot country interpreted the sensible habit of resting during the hottest part of the day — a break in a workday that began before dawn and lasted until dark — as “laziness.” [One more image to file under “painful cultural misunderstandings!”]
McCall Pattern 1327, “Mexican” Embroidered Jacket for Girls 6 to 14
I like the burro loaded with flowers on the back .
McCall Embroidered Jacket Pattern for Boys and Girls Aged 2 to 6
Travel-Wise Embroidered Coat Pattern: McCall #1565
“Far away places with strange-sounding names,
“Far away over the sea,
“Those far away places with strange-sounding names,
“Are calling, calling to me….” — song by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer, 1948
That song was on the Hit Parade for months in the late 1940s. It was sung by Bing Crosby (and others) in 1948 and became a hit; then it was recorded by Perry Como (and others) in 1949 and became a hit again!
One reflection of this travel-lust was McCall’s pattern #1565, from 1950.
It could be embroidered in cotton with the names of places you visited — or wanted to — or simplified, with just appliqued images of a plane and a ship on the pockets, and compass points on the sleeves. The “nice swingy” back could be covered with images of the Eiffel Tower, a Dutch windmill, etc.
1950s Embroidered Jackets: Who Wore Them?
“Wear it on a cruise or on campus,” says the pattern catalog. However, I suspect that these jackets were most often made as gifts, rather than by the woman who was going to wear them.
I can’t help wondering if the survival of so many embroidered Mexican jackets is due to an experience many travelers have had: The brilliant colors and “peasant” styles that feel liberating in their natural setting often seem loud or “costume-y” when you get them home to your normal, urban or small-town environment.
This “world traveler” jacket — without the place names — looks chic and playful on the model. Would the version with the place names really help you to look sophisticated while sailing on the Queen Elizabeth? Or in Paris?
Even this conservative version of the embroidered jacket, with a floral pattern reminiscent of the 1920s, probably did not get very much wear: