For the Jazz Age Lawn Party earlier this month, I needed to sew a handful of 1920s dresses. I wound up sewing four 1920s dresses from scratch, and one made from a modern shirt and dress. They worked, with varying degrees of success, and I wore one to the Jazz Age Lawn Party.
I had a few constraints in making the dresses. I couldn’t spend a lot of time on them, I have no luck with chiffon so I had to use cotton, and I needed to sew them all on a sewing machine, to save time (‘m better sewing by hand). I needed dresses that didn’t require historical undergarments (I had no time to sew those) and that were easy to wear.
I used my 1920s feed sack dress as an inspiration. It’s made with a very simple pattern, made from a thin cotton print. The maker used bias tape and two types of salvaged lace as decoration. I laid the dress out and carefully took measurements from it, and drafted a pattern from that.
The feed sack dress was made with one flat piece of fabric in the back, from the shoulders to the hemline. But more than that, this piece was folded over the shoulders, so there was no shoulder seam. At the front (dropped) waistline, the flat fabric was trimmed away and replaced with a wider piece of fabric, gathered to make a fuller skirt – but only in the front. That design characteristic made the dress fuller in the front, full enough to be worn comfortably; but the back is flat, disguising curves and creating a fashionable 1920s aesthetic.
I went to the garment district and picked up some nice 1920s-looking cotton prints and some solid cottons. I also sacrificed one of my bed sheets to use for scrap. I covered my trusty rusty 1902 Singer in tinfoil so the oil and rust wouldn’t stain the cloth, and I got to work.
The first dress I made was made from the bed sheet, a little white linen I had from other projects, and a handful of vintage buttons. Halfway through the dress I decided I liked it and would make it wearable. I wound up liking this one the most.
So here’s my basic battle plan, boiled down to a downloadable format!
Step 1: Start with a large rectangle. Fold it in half, as it would be over your shoulders, then fold it in half lengthwise, so you’re looking at 1/4 of the dress’ width. Cut it a bit longer than the length from your shoulders to your knees. Then fold the side over so it makes a truncated triangle, with the diagonal line spaced to mark 1/4 of your bust and hip measurements, from the lengthwise fold to the diagonal fold.
Step 2: Cut at the diagonal fold line. I cut the armholes by eyeballing them, then trying the dress on after I had cut the neck hole and trimming them down.
Step 3: Cut the neck hole. Make sure you know how you will finish the collar, so you know how much selvage to leave.
Step 4: I went for a V-neckline, so I folded the extra cloth over in this picture, to see what it would look like. I eventually trimmed them off.
Step 5: After trying the cloth on, mark where the front falls, and where you would like the front waistline to sit. Then cut it off, as I marked. But only cut it off in the front.
Step 6: Cut a wider rectangle, as long as the piece you just trimmed off but up to 2x as wide.
Step 7: Sew it to the front. The original used four large inverted pleats, so that’s what I’m using here. Gathers might work better for gauzy fabrics. Sew up the sides, and you have the basic shell of a late 1920s dress, ready to decorate!
I made two dresses with this pattern, and a third that was a great idea but the execution could have used some tweaking.
This dress was made with a great cotton print I found. I went with a bold appliqué at the neckline, and an even bolder tied collar in the back which I may just cut off because I’m really not that sartorially bold. My hat is all crushed.
For the third dress that I didn’t use my pattern for, I tried an early 1920s look, but I didn’t have enough white cotton to pull it off well. It probably would have worked better with thin white linen or silk, anyway. I had to re-sew and re-re-sew the sides, and that’s why there are ugly white lines there. My hat’s still crushed. The appliqué was based on this Paul Poirot dress of unbelievable awesomeness.
Step 1: Cut a rectangle out of a non-stretchy, non-gauzy cloth. Cut a slit in the narrow end, about as deep as 1/2 of the width of the narrow end.
Step 2: STARCH – lots of it.
Step 3: Iron one of the long edges over. It’s better to do these one at a time, so just do one for now.
Step 4: Fold diagonally from the point of the slit to the edge of the lengthwise fold, and tuck the edge under the lengthwise fold.
Step 5: Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the other side.
Step 6: Iron until the starch is dry, then let it cool down. Clip the two points, where the selvages from the lengthwise fold are still showing.
The lawn party itself was very nice. It’s pretty much a daylong picnic/concert with a little dancing, a few performances, some food for sale and a little shopping on the side. We went kind of expecting to stroll around for the duration, and were a little lost; there’s not a lot of room to stroll, and by the time we got there, at midday, there wasn’t a lot of space to park a picnic. So we strolled around until our feet hurt, and then we took off.
As for next year, I now have yards and yards of cotton lace to create something super awesome from. I’m doing early 1920s – real Gatsby styles, not the mid/late 1920s like this year. And I’m doing a real picnic. Get excited.