Since I am apparently doomed to spend the evening inside with Tylenol and Kleenex instead of at the fundraiser where I wanted to be, I'm going to talk about the dress I fully intended to wear there before realizing it was about 400% too respectable for any place called "Flat Top Johnny's".


I found the thing at a yard sale, where I purchased it for a whopping $5. Please excuse the fact that:

- I am an astoundingly lousy photographer
- I was in the middle of sorting laundry on the bed when I decided to do this
- I desperately need to wipe down that mirror
The lady who sold it to me warned me that it was made for "someone in a corset". It is, in fact, a smidge too big in the waist -- which is a big improvement on how things normally fit me, which involves taking them in several inches as soon as I get them home. I discovered that I actually had to wear a push-up bra with it, because the bustline is very obviously designed for a much higher max circumference than most modern clothing.

Dating vintage dresses can be tricky. It's usually easy to get a precise range by noting that X fastener was invented in 1932, and the copyright on Y style of label didn't persist past 1970, but it's rarely possible to get the age of a garment to better than ±5 years or so. In most cases, it's a matter of taking educated guesses about the style and materials used.

This dress has a very narrow waist in comparison to the shoulders, and a below-the-knee skirt that swings in almost a full circle. This particular style of dress has come in and out of fashion more than once, but the first time it appeared in modern (i.e., post-WWI, when the particularly awkward styles of corsetry and crinolines were gone) fashion was in the 1930s, as the boyish drop-waisted styles of the Jazz Age faded out. After that it came back in 1947 as part of Christian Dior's "New Look", and again in some of the professional dresses of the 1970s, and then again for teenagers and young women in the Jessica McClintock dresses of the 1980s.

This dress can't be pre-WWII for a number of reasons, most obviously that it's made of a lightweight acrylic velvet. Synthetic fibers have actually been around since chemists in the 19th century went mad trying to make everything ever out of the aniline compounds in coal tar, but smooth featherweight synthetics only came about when nylon was used as a substitute for silk in parachutes during the Second World War.

There's no materials label on the dress, but I suspect it's made of Dacron, a variety of polyester that was developed by Du Pont in the 1940s. Extruded as film, it's the basis for that shiny Mylar stuff used in countless balloons and cheap mirrors; cold-drawn as fibers and woven into cloth, it produces a thin windproof fabric that transfers heat unfortunately effectively, and has a characteristic sharp, almost paper-like, crumple to it. I have a long green scarf that I knitted out of what the label proudly informed me was NEW DuPont DACRON™ yarn, which could even be machine washed, and dried without blocking! The label was very excited about this, trust me. It has a peculiar artificial glitter in sunlight, and is about as absorbent as motor oil -- handy in the snow.

The dress has a number features that date it to before the mid-1960s. It has pinked seams, for one. The overlock stitch used today that keeps the inside edges of garment seams from raveling is called "serging". Machines that do this have been available since the 1930s, but it wasn't widely used in mass-produced garments until synthetic stretch and semi-stretch fabrics became hugely popular in the 1960s. "Pinking" is what you see there on the vertical seam in the skirt, the sawtooth cut on the edge of the fabric. On woven fabrics, it serves to break up the long threads that run parallel to the seam and might otherwise catch on things and start pulling the fabric apart. Garments with pinked seam allowances are invariably either completely handmade (which this one wasn't; it has an unhelpfully plain label in the neck) or machine-produced prior to 1960.

The tape on the hem also says that this was produced prior to the 1960s. That's a nylon or polyester hem tape. The idea there is that you sew the raw edge of your hem to the tape, which has a sturdy binding on both sides, and then you attach the tape to the dress with what's called a blind hem stitch -- "blind" in this context meaning "invisible from the other side" -- so that there are no exposed edges that might fray or ravel. I know of no machine that can produce anything that even looks like a blind hem stitch, even today, and I see a couple of knots in the edges, which means this one has been done by hand.

The final telling feature of the dress is the zipper. The first ghastly-looking primitive zippers were used in the 19th century to close boots, but more refined metal zippers like this one were used in women's dresses starting in the 1930s. Post-1960s, almost all zippers on mass produced clothing were switched to color-matched polyester zippers, where the "teeth" are actually molded plastic coils. You can still find metal zippers on jeans, where they're used for ruggedness, and on some other clothing, where they're used for aesthetic reasons.

It's also set, unusually, into the side seam rather than into the center back. You still occasionally see side zippers on evening gowns, but invariably they're on strapless or sleeveless dresses, where the zipper runs right into the armscye -- this dress runs the zipper from just above the bustline to just above the hip line, opening up only the waist of the garment, which I can then pull on over my head. This method was only used for a comparatively short time, from about the late 1930s to the mid-1950s.

No designer during WWII would have stood for a dress that used so much completely unnecessary fabric in the skirt, particularly a new synthetic polyester. The otherwise uninformative label says it's a size "14", and it fits me roughly like a pattern 14 ought to, which means that they were still using catalog sizing at the time. (Pattern/catalog sizing and dress sizing are totally different things now. Check a sewing pattern sometime and be enlightened. By measurements, I'm somewhere around a pattern 12 in most brands.) So, it's a mass-produced New Look knockoff from the early 1950s sometime.

New Look dresses had virtually no ease at all, so I need to work out how to take it down half a size while still being able to wrestle it down over my chest, and in order to make the skirt hang properly, I'm going to need a petticoat. It's also missing its belt, although that should be easy to replace. It should have approximately the same silhouette as the one on the left, if I have the right foundation garments. Dior mercifully designed for a much rounder bust than the infamous "bullet bras" used by the sweater-wearing cuties of the day, so a regular push-up bra works fine -- I don't even know where to get a bullet bra, and since they depend on having basically no elastic at all, they're damnably uncomfortable besides. For the full effect I'm also going to need a handbag, some proper gloves, and a pair of floor-gouging steel stiletto heels.

Comments

  1. I know where you could get a bullet bra! If you ever needed one for a photo shoot or something there is a brand called What Katie Did (based in UK but they ship worldwide). They sell all different kinds of reproduction vintage lingerie. They are a bit expensive but they sometimes sell end of line things cheap on ebay. I've never bought anything from them myself due to being entirely the wrong shape but I imagine their stuff would fit you perfectly.

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    1. Í don't know what you think of as the "wrong shape", but yours probably isn't. Most of Dior's models were wearing waist cinchers over girdles, and his New Look garments had untold tons of reinforcement to keep their shape even if the wearer had a completely different one. Jackets were lined or starched to within an inch of their lives. Full skirts had crinolines -- characteristically edged in eyelet lace, to keep the prickly edges of synthetic horsehair from destroying your stockings -- and wiggle dresses were often padded at the hips in addition to having peplums.

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  2. this dress runs the zipper from just above the bustline to just above the hip line, opening up only the waist of the garment, which I can then pull on over my head. This method was only used for a comparatively short time, from about the late 1930s to the mid-1950s.

    You're almost certainly right about this zipper style being most common then, but I am pretty sure I remember dresses bought new in the 1960s and 1970s that also had those side zippers that were enclosed at each end. IIRC they were plastic zippers, though, so this doesn't affect your general dating.

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    1. Everything can appear in any era -- after it's been invented, anyway -- which is what makes dating these things tantamount to amateur archaeology.

      This dress wouldn't have been expensive enough in any era to rate a metal zipper after cheaper plastic ones became available, at least in my estimation. There's always the possibility that the zipper is a replacement rather than an original, and that someone just used whatever was lying around their sewing box, but if so the repair has been done invisibly well. The dress does have an obvious mend on the other seam; it's well done, but has the characteristic backstitch bits at the end, as you do on home machines, and the thread doesn't match.

      In any case, it would be vanishingly unusual for a mass-produced dress to have pinked seams any later than the 1950s, and if they weren't pinked to begin with there wouldn't be enough seam allowance to have done so later. So that alone says the dress is decades older than I am.

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