Monday, 29 April 2013

How Not to Style a Vintage Dress Pattern

Warning, this post contains ranting!

Looking at retro and vintage pattern ranges for a jacket pattern recently reminded me of a bugbear of mine. I can't stand the majority of styling on the photos for vintage pattern covers. I think a lot of them aren't the best constructed garments or fabric choices, but it's more than that. They just don't seem to understand what people who are buying vintage patterns actually want.

To be fair, I've picked a worst case example, but there's still no excuse for sloppy marketing. Here's the original 1945 pattern illustration for Vogue Vintage pattern V1136. Isn't it stunning?

I'll be the first to admit fashion drawings are stylised perfection rather than anatomical accuracy, but the point of both drawing and photo is to be aspirational. To make us believe that we could look that good if only we made that dress. 

With that in mind, here is the contemporary photo they chose to advertise the pattern.

I showed the picture to my husband and his response was "That's not the same dress". For a start the pose seems to actually have been designed ensure the beautiful cut of the neckline, sleeves and waist is lost, and the styling is awful. To me this photo looks like something from the late 80s or early 90s, (I'm thinking it wished is was Pretty Woman-esque). It's like they are trying to hide everything that makes the pattern desirable in the first place.
Don't they realise that people who buy vintage patterns do it because they actually like the vintage look?

Butterick are doing better with their Retro range, trying to appeal to a younger audience with their own and  their 'Patterns by Gertie' range, but even they have kind of missed the some of the point of vintage patterns. I know I've said it before, but you simply can't expect to look vintage without some nod to appropriate underwear. You don't have to to go to What Katie Did to get an authentic look. If girdles are required, wear some control top tights or magic support pants. If it's a busty period like the 1950s, at least wear a good balconette bra (As opposed to a push up bra which will push them together, a balconette will push them up separately).

Here's Retro Butterick pattern B5748
The pattern sketch for Butterick B5748

And here's their photo.

It's a gorgeous fabric choice and the styling is pretty good. It manages to look both fresh and modern and late 50s (the pattern is 1960). But there's a huge problem: this woman has NO shaping from her bust to her waist. I'm all for celebrating different figure types, and she would be a great model for a 20s or late 60s mod pattern, but they could at least have attempted to get a 50s style figure for their photo. Let's be honest, at least part of the reason most of us like the vintage look is because we have curves and are sick of coming up against modern fashion and clothes cut for an idealised, boyish, supermodel figure.

Surely if you want buy a reissue of a retro pattern it's because shock, horror, you're actually after a degree of authenticity? I'm by no means saying these pictures have to be styled as period reproductions, but they should at least aspire to give us the glamour and elegance that we love about vintage clothing.

In fact one of the best retro/vintage style patterns I found from the big brands was this Butterick pattern that's just being sold in the normal dress section. That's right, apart from the obvious fun the stylist had, there's no attempt to sell this as anything other than a modern pattern. With a tiny bit of tweaking, a cute fabric and a few more inches on the hem this would make a fabulous swing dancing dress (and actually isn't dissimilar to one I paid quite a bit of money for). The cut and the details are great: I love the classic shape of the yoke and the waist darts. Sure the flower is over-sized and the belt modern, but her hair and makeup is a pretty convincing 1940s style. Am I the only one concerned that this makes a more authentic nod to 'retro styling' than a lot of the patterns that are sold as authentic period reproductions?

This dress is so flattering to so many figure types. I just love the back yoke detail.

Just to show you that I'm not a complete grump, here's some examples of how to style a vintage pattern photoshoot properly. I'm not saying that these are 100% period accurate, but they are stylish and gorgeous and more importantly, you'd actually aspire to look as elegant as the girl in the photo in your own completed garment. They are perfectly aimed at the modern girl who wants to sew authentic period dress patterns.

Vogue 2787
Butterick B5895. Patterns by Gertie

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Make do and Mend Jacket Pattern

Watching The Great British Sewing Bee (Ep. 3) last night, both their jacket making and their remarks on 40s wartime sewing, I was reminded of my mission to make a 'Make Do and Mend' Suit. The update on that is that I've almost finished the skirt (which I'll put up pics of soon) but because I decided to make it 6 gore rather than 4 (You'll understand why when you see it) I need to do some creative piecing, which I'm hoping to acquire scraps from the jacket for.

I found it really interesting that Ann commented on how much more fabric there was in 1940s trousers with the waist pleats and baggy style. This added to the fact that people were naturally shorter then and very slim due to surviving on wartime rationing, so I don't feel quite so bad that I was unable to get an a-line skirt to fit me from a single pair of trousers.

But I need to start actually making the jacket.

I'm not a great wearer of jackets. I realised I've never actually made a proper tailored suiting jacket. I've made costume coats, tailored bodices, silk jackets and waistcoats, but never a fashion jacket, so I've decided that buying a commercial pattern to follow is the way to go. I also want something with a good size range so I don't have to fiddle around with trying to scale up a small size actual vintage pattern.

I don't always like to use commercial patterns as I find they are really expensive and often you can get a much better shape and fit drafting your own. But if I do, I have a rule that it has to be one of three things:
  1. Really basic, so I can use it almost as a block to adapt it to use it for many different items of clothing,
  2. One of those multi patterns that makes about 7 or 8 different items so I get value for money.
  3. A really complicated design for a special project that I would take me a long time to patternmake myself (vintage, evening, costume, etc)
So I had a look online for a vintage or classic jacket pattern and was really disappointed. I thought I would be spoiled for choice but there really wasn't many that were tailored to a high enough quality to tempt me. I was determined that it had to have princess seams, not only because they give the most flattering fit if you have curves, but they're also the easiest to fit properly. I think I've finally decided on this Vogue Claire Shaeffer Custom Couture Collection Jacket No V8333. It's a beautiful classic hourglass shape which I can add period collar, pocket and cuff details if I choose, but also has an interesting seam detail to stop it from being too boring.

So watch this space.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Is Britain still the home of Costume Drama?

When I was growing up, the BBC was unquestionably your one stop shop for period drama (or Frock Flicks as I like to call them). The air of respectability that surrounded those three hallowed letters, backed up by a catalogue of quality television mini-series based on classic literature, ensured that it was instantly recognised as a quality brand world wide. When costume dramas were on the verge of losing their mainstream appeal, 1995 brought 'Pride and Prejudice', which almost 20 years later, is still unsurpassed in popularity. For most people, particularly those old enough to have watched it first time round, there really is no competition between it and any other mini-series. But there were lots of other classic novel adaptations, a wonderful way of introducing us to lesser known works with complex themes, like 'The Barchester Chronicles' (1982), Tom Jones (1997) and 'Middlemarch (1994). But something happened to make producers believe that these miniseries lack the pace and gloss that modern audiences apparently expect.

Even then it wasn't without competition. The  excellent Canadian production of 'Anne of Green Gables' (1985) still stands the test of time. America and Australia were happily romanticising the early settlers with shows like 'Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993) and 'All The Rivers Run' (1993). But it was well accepted that we could not compete with Britain's intellectual heritage and Shakespearian trained actors.

In 2007 'Mad Men' crashed onto the scene, changing the way we look at period television making forever. It's not only unique for having a subject matter that was interesting to more than just the silly romantic females who are the perceived audience of BBC adaptations (although why TV and film versions of intelligent literature should have this stigma is baffling to me, especially considering the males in my family enjoy them equally as much as the females), but also raised the bar high in its attention to authentic detail. It was not the first period drama made in the USA, but it was certainly the first to affect the public consciousness internationally the way it did, especially the fashion world.

HBO has had great success with historical drama. First there was the WWII drama Band of Brothers (2001), followed by Deadwood (2004) set in the wild west, 'Rome' (2005), 'John Adams' (2008), 'The Pacific' (2010),  and my personal favourite 'Boardwalk Empire' (2010). These are largely set in 'boy's own' adventure scenarios: wars, westerns, gangsters, etc. They are making a conscious effort not to fall under the traditional period romance genre. Even their more traditional offerings, 'Mildred Pierce' (2011) and 'Parade's End' (2013) are challenging stories filled with largely unsympathetic characters, aimed at a highly intelligent and literate audience. Or at least those who wish to believe themselves thus.

Showtime is another American production company that has brought us successful productions such as 'The Tudors' (2007) and 'The Borgias' (2011), shows that play fast and loose with historical accuracy, but make up for it with sumptuous production values and a glossy filming style.

The Tudors

My biggest problem with a lot of these series (along with 'Game of Thrones' which although very much has the feel of the rest of these adaptations, is fantasy not historical), is that they seem to equate gritty entertainment and credibility, with lots of naked breasts (and the rest). Now I'm not at all prudish, I probably watch more risque art house films than most, but I get quite bored of being sold two dimensional sex object females alongside complicated and powerful male characters. Sex scenes in context are great, but a lot of the time it veers towards 'look here are some tits' rather than essential character driven plotlines. If you don't believe me, see how little airtime male nudie bits get on screen compared to their female counterparts.

These shows are determined to be a anathema to the new wave of British period dramas that have flooded the scene. I can only conclude that based on the popularity of Jane Austen, British television producers looked for more 'female friendly' period novels to adapt, and eventually created there own stories as well. I am obviously talking about the hugely popular 'Downton Abbey' (2010), which I think in spite of it's criticism is a really great show that doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: pretty, light and fluffy Sunday night entertainment. I'm the first to admit that if they got rid of Maggie Smith they wouldn't have a show, and the plot lines can verge on the ridiculous, but that makes it no different than a lot of TV except with the added advantage of having pretty scenery and costumes. And lets face it, there's nothing wrong with that. It is sumptuously beautiful with charming characters and has never pretended to be high art. 

When Benedict Cumberbatch was promoting 'Parade's End' he, in what I can only cynically presume was a well planned publicity stunt, called 'Downton Abbey' 'f**king atrocious'. I personally found 'Parade's End'  barely watchable, except for the fantastic Rebecca Hall (and it's kind of a problem when you find yourself rooting for the villianess), but Cumberbatch's remark was a very conscious attempt to distance one Edwardian set show from the other, to divide period television into high and low art. The logic is: if you don't like our show, then it's your fault for not being intelligent enough. But he is also giving American producers kudos for the adaptation of serious literature, as opposed to the British. That's quite a turn up for the books.

Along with 'Downton Abbey' you have less successful shows like 'Cranford' (2007), 'Lark Rise to Candleford' (2010), the new 'Upstairs Downstairs'(2010), 'The Paradise' (2012) and  'Mr Selfridge' (2013), series so sickly sweet and twee that I found myself getting rapidly bored with them.  In fact if I wasn't such a enormous 'Entourage' (and therefore Jeremy Piven) fan, I'm not sure I could have stuck with 'Mr Selfridge'. While the matched costuming of the Pratt sisters in 'Lark Rise' was one of my favourite aspects of the show, the latter two series seemed hugely inconsistent in the quality of their costuming. This seemed particularly apparent in the costuming of upper class ladies, who are usually the most fun, and therefore easiest, to costume.

Don't believe me? Look below. You could argue that these are not sympathetic characters, and so are meant to look a bit jarring to the eye, but they are also characters renowned for being fashion leaders in their society, and so if not tastefully dressed, should at least be immaculately tailored.

The Paradise: Katherine Glendenning. One of my friends suggested there was a last minute cast change because none of her dresses sat well around the bust. I also couldn't get past the fact it looked like a lot of the costumes looked like well made calico toiles with trim added

Mr Selfridge: Lady May (left). It may be the fault of her terrible wig or her very tiny frame, but all of her dresses seemed to hang strangely off her body, making her look like a child dressed up in her mother's clothes. The fabric on the waistband does not sit well and those side sleeves stick out rather than drape around her arm, making this look like something they grabbed off a hire rail. Mrs Selfridge (right) looks well dressed and well costumed.

As a foreigner living in England, I appreciate the romance and glamour of Britain's history and upper classes much more than my British friends. It's the romance of the exotic and foreign. However even I have to admit that most of the period films and television that is produced in Britain seem to be aimed at a starry eyed American audience, starring Hollywood actors putting on poor British accents, and gentle, dumbed down scripts. Is this really what American's want though? The more intelligent shows that are being produced in America would suggest otherwise.

It's possible ITV is to blame who, although have made wonderful series like 'Brideshead Revisited' (1981), have lacked the BBCs pedigree. In 2002 they followed in the BBC's footsteps by remaking 'The Forsythe Sage' (2002) and successfully made adaptations (although not necessarily always making successful adaptations) of Jane Austen in 2007, but it was in 2010 that they achieved enormous international success with 'Downton Abbey'. This may have caused the BBC to act in kind. The BBC have made excellent adaptations of 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Jane Eyre' in the past decade, but their choice of books shows they are playing it extremely safe. No more for them the obscure literature classics when you can rehash a popular book for the umpteenth time. Then there was the brilliant 'Dancing on the Edge' (2013) which was relegated to BBC2. It's slow moving, complex storyline filled with interesting characters and beautiful costumes was excellent, and yet like with most of Stephen Poliakoff's work, I felt strangely restrained and disconnected watching it. It's like he is trying to keep the audience firmly at arm's length, determined for them not to get involved with any of the characters.

I started writing the post because I have been ill for the past few weeks, and so have caught up on many episodes of 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries', an Australian show that my Mum gave me on DVD for Christmas (although I believe it is currently screening on Alibi in the UK). It's about a lady detective in the 1920s, and as I have already mentioned in a previous post, is not faultless. The wonderful lead actress Essie Davis is a good decade to old to be playing a Bright Young Thing, and yet the more you watch it the less it matters. This series is everything you want in a 1920s period drama: sparkling characters, sumptuous costumes, sassy dialogue and sizzling sexual chemistry. It has taken the British idea of fun, light hearted, period entertainment and knocked it out of the ballpark. There's enough of the Australian brashness and 'calling a spade a spade' mentality that allows this series to unashamedly be exactly what it is. And it's all the better for it.

(I promise to devote an entire post to it's wonderful costumes soon)

But I want shows that fall somewhere in between. Classic Miniseries like 'The Buccaneers'(1995), 'North and South' (2004) and 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' (1996) (and I've just realised that completely coincidentally these were all books written by women) took less popular classic novels with complicated characters, relationships and themes and adapted them into beautifully made TV shows. Even the biggest intellectual snob could not call these 'f**king atrocious', and yet they were undoubtedly accessible entertainment for the masses. They had strong male and female characters who were both likeable AND flawed at the same time. The costumes were absolutely stunning but (almost) never stole the show. There was love, romance and happy endings, as well as dark and complicated themes.

Is that really too much to ask?

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Great British Sewing Bee - A review from a professional seamstress

I have a confession. I'm a bit of a lifestyle TV junkie. I love house shows, cooking shows, craft shows, even thanks to my husband I am obsessed with shows about pickers and car restoration. I have always had a enormous love of all things-creative, individually made and loved items with a true soul. I hate all things IKEA (except for the assembling part which apparently makes me weird as people supposedly find it difficult?).

But it was with some trepidation that I watched 'The Great British Sewing Bee'. My all-time favourite television show is 'Project Runway' (the American version), a show brilliant for the actual competition, but also for it's slick American reality TV making skills, and of course, for Mr Tim Gunn who is surely one of the most wonderful people on television. I have eagerly watched it's uninspired British cousin: 'Project Catwalk', the even less inspired Rhianna vehicle 'Styled to Rock', guiltily enjoyed 'Kirsty's Handmade' series and tried desperately hard (and failed) to like 'Paul Martins Handmade Revolution' (a wonderful idea but painful television and completely lacking in any form of charisma). But I was afraid that 'The Great British Sewing Bee' would annoy me.

I had seen ads for the competition last year and was disappointed to not be eligible on the grounds it was only open to people with no formal training or paid experience in sewing related fields. And this is where my inner snobby dragon raised it's great fiery head. Before anyone gets offended, I'm not saying you can't be a good sewer unless you're professional, and I even perfectly understand the reason for the rule, it just means the actual show would be aimed at a much lower talent level demographic than my favourite sewing TV shows. While being good for getting people involved in sewing, I suspected I would find it a bit painful.

But I forgot that good television has nothing to do with content. Obviously they have picked a mixed bag of talent, with stragglers at the bottom who are there for entertainment value, and to be got rid of in the first two rounds, as well as the more experienced sewers. I immediately liked Jane, a widow who makes all her own clothes and drives vintage cars, especially when she chose an adorable car fabric for her first project. But she completely won me over with her story about making a wedding dress, an awful experience that meant her family didn't get Christmas dinner. She finished with 'They're divorced now'. Who hasn't been guilt-tripped into sewing for a wedding and lived to regret it?

But I did learn something very important from the show: it doesn't matter how enthusiastic you are, there are things about sewing that can only be learned by years of experience. I have got used to thinking that my sewing skills are nothing to be impressed by, that sewing is easy: 30 plus years of experience, more than one professional qualification and 10 plus years of paid work will do that to you. It's true that sewing a dress from a pattern using a sensible choice of fabric for a perfect size 10 model is something pretty much anyone could learn to do in a few days. But I know professional sewers, myself still included, who still get cold sweats at the mention of the word 'fitting', particularly the older and larger the model, as things tend to move around from their so-called 'ideal' position. If you've only every sewn for yourself, and particularly if you are a fairly standard size, you will not be particularly good at fitting awkward sizes, as we saw this week. This is a skill that can only be learned by trial and error over many years. Working in bridal alterations was boring work, but taught me a lot about fitting that years of sewing couture garments had not.

There are so many different types of sewing, and I suspect that Marks' success in the final challenge came from his experience in period tailoring, which is much more complicated than dressmaking, and from making clothes for his wife and daughter. Also in spite of her age, the model has a pretty good standard shape (sorry my image is slightly warped). If she had have been a voluptuous hourglass figure he would really have struggled to fit her into a dress of this cut. I'm really interested to see how they use model size and shape in future episodes, as I think poor Tilly got the raw end of the deal. On the other side though, her style of dress and method of fitting should have made it easy to alter the dress to fit her model. As they said on the show though, his appropriate use of patterning was well done, and especially compared to his other efforts, this dress was a masterful improvement. I'm really eager to keep watching and see how the competition progresses.

I would really like to know what their attitude to inside finishing is. How much is that included in the judging. I noticed Mark zig-zagged all his seams, something I haven't seen anyone do in 20 years, although another contestant did have an overlocker on their bench. I love good finishing as much as anyone, but surely nothing is going to fray in a 7 hour challenge? Also why did noone make a toile for the fitting challenge. Surely this is the simplest way to get a good fit and only takes half an hour or so?

The more experienced sewers on TGBSB are not necessarily more talented or stylish, but are significantly better at making sensible choices about fabric, style and time. The most successful pieces are simple pieces, made well. Tilly is a 'born again' sewer, as I call people newly enthusiastic about a skill (I see a lot of born again swing dancers in the first 12 months of learning: newbies who preach a single-minded gospel of their new found love to anyone who will listen), and is probably the most creative and stylish of anyone on the show, but that can't compete with decades of experience, and more importantly, mistake making. I learnt this in my recent foray into learning how to knit, you are no good at something until you can fix your mistakes.

I must also give special mention to Patrick Grant. I have hinted above of my love of Tim Gunn of 'Project Runway' fame. There is something about men who really understand sewing and well-made clothes that I adore, as long as they have good personalities (take note Julien MacDonald, I am definitely not including you in this remark). But Patrick Grant personifies the understated elegance of previous generations, like Beau Brummel or Cary Grant. There is absolutely nothing flashy about his appearance, and yet the more you look at him the more you realise he is absolutely gorgeous and impeccably dressed. In a post-metrosexual age, where most men remove far too much hair, or sport the pretence of scruff with the actor/musicians highly self-conscious 3 o'clock shadow, it is so nice to see a man taking his fashion cues from the Edwardians, and combine a beard with a properly tailored suit. I do hope he will set fashion trends for others.

Obviously any show that encourages people to try sewing is OK in my book. And despite my intentions, I am completely hooked. It's probably a good thing it's only four episodes though, or my husband might get very tired of hearing me rip amateur sewing to shreds (see what I did there) from the comfort of my living room.