1920s · 20th century · Museum Work

NHS/Audrain Exhibit: 1920’s Dressmaker’s Toile Reproduction

My favorite project I completed for the NHS/Audrain exhibition was a toile of a dress for a tableau in the 1920’s dressmaker’s shop exhibit. The dressmaker, Mollie O’Hara, actually had her shop on the premises which is now the Audrain Museum.

Image from Mrs. Depew’s Patterns.

I was limited on time and resources, so while I originally had intended to grade up one of the many free, gridded patterns scanned to Pinterest, I ended up purchasing a PDF pattern from Mrs. Depew. I was surprised how few authentic 1920’s reproduction sewing patterns are currently available as PDFs, so I am very grateful to Anna Depew for having an excellent selection! I chose #3062 because it was close in size to the dressform I was given to work with (a 1980’s size 12), and had interesting details without being overly complicated. I particularly tried to avoid anything with lots of ruffles (too much time and they don’t always work nicely in muslin) or ones that required things like buckles which I didn’t have on hand.

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I ended up assembling the pattern and doing all the sewing on-site, surrounded by beautiful early 20th century cars! Since I didn’t have my trusty paper cutter, assembling the pattern took a lot longer than I thought. I started at about 10 am and finished around 1 pm. Once the cutting and sewing began it was definitely an improvised situation as everyone periodically shuffled to accommodate the other mounting projects and installation processes.

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Having puzzled through sewing a late 1920’s pattern before (also a McCall’s, from my own collection), I knew the directions were going to be sparse, and that there are certain construction conventions for this period which a seamstress would have been expected to know.

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I pinned together the dress as I cut it (see below), to see if there were any adjustments I would need to make as I went. It also helped me sort out the order of construction. The dress features shirring at the shoulders, a tucked drape at the left hip, tucked draping on the bell sleeves, a hip bow and drape, and the option of contrasting cuffs. I did the bow/drape and cuffs in silk organza.

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The final tableau…we pinned some fabric scraps and a beaded applique to the dress to make it seem more like a work in progress, as if the maker was deciding on fabrics and colors and decoration.

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My one disappointment in my work was that to my knowledge, in this period and for several decades after, the standard method of sewing was that a garment was pinned, then basted, and pins removed before sewing it. Unfortunately, the presser foot on this machine no longer lowers, so I felt pinning the sleeve would help it stay in place on the machine. I have strong feelings about accurately representing how needlework was done in the past, but I felt I had to compromise in this case.

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Construction and Pattern Notes

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  • Pattern’s actual measurements: bust 41″, waist 39 7/8″, hip 42 1/4″.
  • Seam allowance is 3/8.”
  • The bodice is slightly shaped via curved side seams and the shirring at the shoulders – 20’s dresses were not all up-and-down rectangles, there was a lot of subtle shaping.
  • As to the creating the rows of shirring, I found that if I grabbed the thread tails all at once and gathered them together simultaneously, the gathers looked much better than if I did them individually.
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  • The cuffs and sleeves are supposed to get attached before sewing the sleeve into a tube, but I did this in reverse. In future I would do it the way the instructions suggest.
  • I’m not as happy about my decision to balance the organza bow with organza cuffs on the sleeves. Perhaps it would look better if there was an arm in it? I do like the tucks on the bell sleeve.
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  • I am curious to see how the tuck/drape across the stomach looks in a softer fabric, when I make one up for myself.
  • I moved the two sash/bow pieces much closer together (maybe 1″ apart?) than they were marked on the pattern because they tied up a little too short otherwise. I also tacked the bow once it was tied to the skirt to prevent any drooping.
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  • The skirt is actually a wrap design, but it is 1.5″ too wide around in the back, so I pleated out the excess. I hid this under the bow.
  • The vertical edge of the underwrap does not have any instructions for finishing it, but a bound edge would probably be the cleanest.
  • Typical of 1920’s McCall’s patterns, it has a lapped seam where the skirt is attached to the bodice (skirt laps over the bodice), and a deep hem.

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