Tag Archives: Neckline

One Good Dress in the 1930s

Two Day Dresses from December 1931, Delineator

Two Day Dresses from December 1931, Delineator

Murder, Lust, Ambition, and a Good Black Dress

Fashion History shows up in the strangest places. I’ve been reading a book – Violette Nozière, by Sarah Maza  – about a murder trial in Paris in the 1930s. Maza uses the true story of a woman who tried to kill her parents as a way to examine changes in postwar French society and culture. One point she makes, which I had never really considered before, is that women’s daytime fashions in the 1930s helped to disguise class differences, increasing social mobility and opportunities for mixing,  in a way not possible before World War I.

Fashionable woman, 1912; Photo courtesy of media-cache

Fashionable woman, 1912; Photo courtesy of media-cache

Before the First World War, it was impossible to mistake a working woman for a member of the bourgeoisie, because the fragile, luxurious, and labor-intensive clothing of a middle-class woman could not be imitated more cheaply, or mass produced. The hand-beading, the embroidery, the combinations of fur and chiffon – the very quality of the materials – were not affordable to working women.  Silent movies that show lower class women in “tawdry finery” demonstrate the difference between real luxe and attempts to imitate it.
Simple Was Chic in the 1930s
Maza points out that the fashions of the 1930s, with their use of wool, dark colors, and simpler styling, made it possible for department stores to carry mass-produced dresses of good quality. They were not cheap, but you only needed one. Delineator, Dec. 1931 p 70 dresses, blouses
An ambitious girl like Violette Nozière, pretty, educated, well-spoken, but living in two overcrowded rooms with her parents, could go to a café – in her one good dress – and chat with businessmen and young men of the bourgeoisie, posing as the daughter of a successful man in the railroad business.

One Dress, Many Accessories

 One, really good, daytime dress, varied by scarves and detachable collars, really was an investment. It could get you admitted to chic restaurants and cafes, and was a necessity for a better-paying secretarial or sales position. A well-cut black wool dress from a store like Galeries Lafayette  might not have deceived an upper-class woman, but – for the first time – it allowed any pretty, well-spoken, working class girl with a sense of chic to mingle freely with men of the upper middle classes. She looked like their sisters.  Even thirties hairstyles, covered in daytime with a hat, no longer required the services of a lady’s maid.  A secretary could dress well.

Changeable Collars and Scarves Turn One Dress into a Wardrobe

"If your dress hasn't gotten to the point where it needs a new top, hide its 1931 neckline beneath a collar, one of the new big white ones that make the new dresses look so fresh.... Every one of the collars here was taken from a brand-new dress. They all come right up to the base of the throat and they're all deep enough that even and antiquated deep V neckline can be made to look like a new high one. They all button on,... are smartest in white satin, rough crepe, linen and pique.

“If your dress hasn’t gotten to the point where it needs a new top, hide its 1931 neckline beneath a collar, one of the new big white ones that make the new dresses look so fresh…. Every one of the collars here was taken from a brand-new dress. They all come right up to the base of the throat and they’re all deep enough that even an antiquated deep V neckline can be made to look like a new high one. They all button on,… are smartest in white satin, rough crepe, linen and pique.”

Of course, the problem with having one good dress and a job, is that everyone sees you in the same dress day after day. (Violette was interested in attracting a wealthy man, not working in a office.) The Great Depression meant that many people couldn’t get work, and those who had jobs were often supporting a whole family: parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents…. So fashion magazines offered inexpensive ways to give the impression that you had several outfits. The collars above – and a “make it yourself hat” are patterns from Butterick , 1932.

Butterick Fashion News, April 1938

Butterick Fashion News, April 1938

A Butterick Fashion News flyer from 1938 shows what you could do with collars, cuffs, sashes, and even a halter top worn over a black dress. “Collars and cuffs, gilets and sashes make a small wardrobe seem extensive… Price, 25 cents.”BFN variety April 1938 scarves
“Variety…The basic dress worn with either of two necklines. Vary it with striped sash or trim collars and belts if the neck is high, with clips or collar-into-sash if low.” [Jewelry collectors will recognize several types of “duette clips.”]

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, 1933

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, 1933

Movie Recommendation: Baby Face, 1933
If you rent the movie Baby Face, from 1933, you’ll see Barbara Stanwyck in many variations of the black dress with accessories, as she literally sleeps her way to the top. This is a Pre-Code picture, a lot more frank about sex than movies were 20 years later! (In some versions, it begins with this teenaged girl’s father clearly prostituting her to the patrons of his dive bar.) Armed with determination, cynicism, and a series of ‘secretary’ dresses, she works her way to the penthouse suite – and a much more glamorous wardrobe.


Filed under 1930s, Vintage Accessories, Vintage patterns

1920s Styles for Larger Women, Part 1

For Bust Measurement 33 to 48 Inches

For Bust Measurement 36 to 48 Inches

1920s Patterns with Bust Measurement 44 Inches or More

In spite of the long, narrow figures in 1920s fashion illustrations, twenties dress patterns were usually available in bust sizes 33 to 44 inches – the equivalent of a modern size 22. Butterick routinely issued patterns even larger than 44.  The gorgeous evening dress above, pictured in gold metallic brocade, is sized 36 to 48. More about it later….

Body Measurements from a Butterick Pattern Envelope, 1927

This chart is on the back of a pattern envelope from 1927:

Butterick Pattern Envelope, 1927

Butterick Pattern Envelope, 1927

A woman with a 32″ bust was expected to have 35″ hips; a 38″ bust had 40 ½” hips; and a size 44 was assumed to have 47 ½” hips – and the pattern mentions “outlet seams” which can add another inch and  a half if necessary.

Surplice Styles Flattering to Larger Women

As you can imagine, 1920s fashions which drew a horizontal line across the widest part of a woman’s body were not necessarily flattering — especially to a woman with 49″ hips. With that in mind, the editors of Delineator Magazine often recommended a surplice line dress for larger women. 1929 jan p 26 surplice“There is no line more flattering to mature figures than the surplice closing, especially when it is softened by a scalloped and frilled lingerie collar. The straight skirt is gathered to a girdle that ties snugly….Designed for [bust] 34 to 48.”

The ‘surplice line’ meant that there was a design line, often the front closing, that ran diagonally from one shoulder to the opposite hip. Draped fabric falling from that point – as in the gold evening gown, #1187 below – carries the eye down, rather than across the body.

Two 1926 Evening Gowns for Size 48 Bust Patterns 1195, 1187 together

1926 dec p 47 #1195 for 48 bustFrock #1195: Draperies that develop wing-like properties in motion fly from the shoulder and hip of a Paris evening gown. The frock that composes itself entirely of Georgette, lace, or crépe de chine is the most useful kind of evening dress. In this particular frock the bloused body is sewed to a one-piece slip and the lower edge of the tunic [sic] is straight….For women 32 to 48 bust. [Controlling the blouson top by attaching the sheer outer layer to a slip makes the dress much easier to wear. The slip – with its straight hem – is visible below the asymmetrical hem of the dress. Such a slip would be made in a color to match the dress, and the silk used for the slip might also bind the neckline.]

1926 dec #1187 fits 36 to 48 bust

Gown #1187: “Uneven lies the hem of the Paris gown intended for formal day or evening use. The long V line of the surplice closing, the tight drapery at the hip and the free drapery at the side have reducing properties. The gown itself is in one-piece style and so is the separate slip. An extra slip with sleeves for afternoon, make[s] two gowns. Size 36 will need 2 5/8 yards of metallic brocade 40 inches wide. Designed for women 36 to 48 bust.” [The version illustrated is an evening gown. An under-dress ‘slip’ with a higher neckline and sleeves, often of sheer fabric trimmed with the dress fabric, would make it modest enough for afternoon tea dances, etc.]

Mature Elegance in a Surplice Evening Gown1929 feb p 89 lucky ad middle aged woman

Elsie de Wolfe, Noted Interior Decorator (and about 63 years old at the time of this February ad) wears an evening dress very similar to Butterick #1187 in an advertisement for Lucky Strike Cigarettes, 1929. She is quoted as saying, “I recommend a Lucky instead of a sweet… an excellent substitute when your appetite craves a sweet but your figure must be considered.” [The ad goes on to say that “A reasonable proportion of sugar in the diet is recommended, but the authorities are overwhelming that too many fattening sweets are harmful. So, for moderation’s sake we say: – ‘Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!’ “]

Surplice Line Dresses for Young Women and Teens, January 1929
1929 jan p 29 rt

The surplice style was not limited to older women or those who had to “consider” their figures. Butterick pattern #2397, “a very informal afternoon frock for winter resorts, [was] designed for sizes 32 to 37, 15 to 20 years, and for [ladies with bust measurement of] 38, 40.” The dress next to it, #2424, is also for teens “15 to 18 years and [women bust] 36 to 44 [inches.]” A dress pattern for size 18 years had a 35 inch bust, but was proportioned for a smaller person. 1920s pattern descriptions often say “15 to 20 and smaller women.” Butterick Patterns for women who were both short and stout did not become available until the 1930s, as far as I have seen — but I’m still looking.


Filed under 1920s, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Vintage patterns, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes

Chiffon Blouse, Early 1920s

vintage 1920s chiffon blouse side viewThe Vintage Traveler recently published the Pantone Fashion Color Report for Spring 2014.

I immediately thought, “I’ve seen that color combination before!” A peachy pinkish color, somewhere between beige and tan, with orange, yellow, pale blue, and aqua accents (plus a touch of darker color for contrast.)
I was able to photograph this blouse while it was in the collection of a friend. [The collection has been sold.]  front vintage beaded blouse

The mannequin was very small, so the blouson above the waistband doesn’t show properly, but this is a very close kin to the blouse pictured in this Pictorial Review pattern, which also uses two layers of sheer material to give opacity over the body and transparency to the sleeves:  Pictorial review #9186 detail

The blouse I photographed has a sleeveless layer of the chiffon – probably ‘crepe chiffon’ – inside the outer layer.  The layers were not connected all the way around the neckline. It has above-elbow sleeves and is decorated with appliques of orange crepe chiffon, hand stitching in silk floss in colors of yellow, aqua, and orange, and pale blue and black beads, plus silvery blue beaded tassels. Appliques, silk embroidery, beads and tasselsIt’s possible that some of the beads outlining the appliques are the same color as the blouse fabric, but those in the tassels have a pearly, light blue tone.  The silk embroidery in aqua and light orange continues the pattern of diamond shapes across the back of the blouse, and accents the sleeve hems. back of vintage blouse

You can see the gathering which creates a sash effect at the front of the blouse. The ties in back are very long.  There was no sign of a manufacturer’s label; it’s possible that this blouse was not store bought. Embroidery patterns were a big part of the pattern business in the 1910s and 1920s, when dress styles were often simple but accented with embroidery and beading.  Pictorial Review pattern # 9186 suggests (Pictorial Review) Beading design # 12511 for the neckline of the blouse – available as a transfer in blue or yellow for 25 cents.  PR 9186 beading at neckline

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Filed under 1920s, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns