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


  1. Very interesting post! Thanks!

  2. Sewing pattern envelope styling in general makes me boggle. Seems like the big four take perfectly decent patterns and frump them up more often than not. It's a shame; I'm sure the reason I buy too many Vogue patterns is that the styling is slightly better than average. I did like the recent Gertie pattern photos a lot even though I don't do the vintage look myself.

    I wonder if its because the stylists are aiming for a blank canvas effect in general? Too strong a style might turn off customers who don't like that particular look. Not that I think it's working if that is the reason :-)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    1. I completely agree with you Catherine: this is not just a vintage pattern problem. It's not really surprising that independant pattern companies have grown more popular in recent years.

  3. I'm always disappointed with the lack of initiative to match the right shape model with the right dress. It makes it impossible to see if it will suit me. Or how different elements will hang. And they tend to do so many summer frocks that are almost identical...I want a little....variation.
    Some casual 30's dresses/seperates would be lovely.

  4. Thank you! I have been put off by so many patterns because of the photo they use. I think that if I made it, it would turn out like that. There are some terrible ones. Vogue definitely have the right idea with their styling. And that Butterick one (B5748) that you mention is one of the ones I have not bought for this exact reason.