Friday, 17 July 2015




Years and years ago, there was a groovy little vintage clothing store in my hometown. Everything was incredibly cheap, which was probably why it went out of business--the owner could have been selling her pristine $30 1950s party dresses for $200, but chose not to.

Anyway, for fourteen-year-old, broke Anya, this place was amazing. I once found the same dress that my grandmother wore as her wedding dress (hers had yellowed and been thrown out years ago), but I didn't buy it. My fascination with historical fashion and family history hadn't hit yet. Really, all I wanted was cheap clothes. Practicality was my fashion mantra.

I bought this red dress instead, because I could see myself wearing it practically every day. And I did for years. This dress changed me.

Colour photo of a young woman in a red dress.
Image credit: Anya Baker.
I had never seen inner garment construction like it--the design of the placket had strategic snaps that made the front attach and stay together invisibly; the darts were beautifully planned; the fabric had been chosen carefully to fall lightly and sway with movement. I almost didn't care what it looked like when worn: the insides were so beautifully done.

When I bit the dust on a patch of ice outside my apartment a few frosty springtimes ago, I ripped a huge hole in the knee of the skirt--and my heart! By that point, I had started sewing, and was competent enough to patch the skirt. It was obvious though, how worn and battered the dress had become. I wasn't sewing anything major at the time; a series of ugly blouses was my perpetual project. I had never considered remaking a beloved design, especially one so complicated. But, I had inspiration: the museum.

Historical re-enactments are a big thing in my town; the museum I worked at has a whole dress-up room of 1812 gear made out of old curtains and sheets from Value Village and the like buy a talented volunteer seamstress. She researched the period's fashions as it related to rural Canada, and the reproductions are beautiful. If she could do it with 1812, I could do it with the 1950s. Research was the next step. I consulted 1940s and 50s sewing books, learning about waist tapes and couture hand-sewing techniques. I used the red dress as a primary resource, studying and measuring, and slowly drafting a paper pattern that would yield the same darts, gathers, and pleats.

Black and white photo of a young woman on a dock.
Image credit: Al Grabowski.
My grandmother re-enters the story at this point. She showed me a photo of her on her honeymoon in the early 50s, wearing the most gorgeous dress with a star-shaped bodice edge. Deep in my dress research as I was, I recognized the value of an eyewitness! She told me about her dresses, and showed me more photos, and eventually I couldn't stop thinking about the design of her honeymoon dress, and how it related to my design for the reproduction dress. I decided on a mashup: ditch the collar, make the bodice into a star, and choose a lighter material for the fabric.

Reproductions are meant for use--whether for display or for wear. They save the original from damage, and can be produced by a competent researcher to stand in for a garment that the researcher cannot get their hands on. The feeling and design intentions of the period are more important sometimes than complete accuracy; being able to wear (and better yet, to construct) a piece of social history is a thrill, and a very different learning experience from reading a history of fashion.

This is the story of my first foray into social history. I made a 1950s dress in the same way that a seamstress would have made it in the 50s, drafted a pattern according to the tastes and popular design features of other dresses of the period, and learned how to bind buttonholes. And, after all that hand-sewing and research, ripping seams apart to start again and difficult stitching and new techniques--

Colour photo of a young woman in a blue dress.
Image credit: Anya Baker
I still haven't hemmed it. Ah!

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