Hack Into 1950: How to Copy That Vintage Dress




Introduction: Hack Into 1950: How to Copy That Vintage Dress

About: I am a landscape designer and advocate for native plant-focused and sustainable landscaping, but in the past I have worked in costume production and clothing alteration. I taught myself to hand-tailor, draft...

You're combing the internet for the perfect addition to your New Look era collection when one of the following befalls you:

A. That gorgeous dress that started in your price range ($29.99) on eBay has gone up to $187 with another six hours left, and you sadly delete it from your watch list and throw a shirt on the special hanger you had set aside for it in your closet.

B. Something perfect (and cheap) catches your eye, but the seller's claim that it "feels like silk!" alerts you that you're dealing with an amateur and, probably, a nylon piece from the 60s that will make you sweat in all the wrong ways.  You sigh and move on.

C. She wants $995 for that Lilli Ann suit?  Someone might pay that.  But not you.

D.  It's perfect!  But it's 8" too small in the waist.

What can you do?  Say goodbye forever to those perfect pieces, poached from your loving hands by eBayers with deeper pockets, or impossibly wrongly sized for your figure?  If you have a few tools, good sewing skills, and the tenacity to devote a few dozen hours of your time, never fear - you can have that dress.  And you can have it in your size, in real cotton (silk, linen, wool), in the color that flatters you, without any missing buttons, moth holes, mysterious stains, or "almost unnoticeable" repairs.

I originally intended this instructable to cover a variety of different pattern styles, but finally admitted it would take me at least another two years to finish it if I went that route (since I'm currently far away from my beloved machine, will be so until August, and generally only undertake this kind of thing during the summer).  So I'll be covering the design that I made, pictured on me, and if you have questions about different details, post them in comments and I will answer them to the best of my ability.

You will need:

1. Intermediate sewing skills commensurate with your chosen design
2. A body block (directions in The Costume Technician's Handbook), or a plain, very fitted button-down style shirt with no ruching, gathering, elastic, or frim-fram on it, that you are willing to sacrifice on the altar of Style (generally available at thrift stores)
2. Kraft paper and some basic drafting tools - at least a measuring tape and pens, preferably also a long straightedge and a couple of hip curves (available online or at large fabric stores, not very costly)
3. Adequate photos of the design you want to reproduce (see "adequate photos" for more information)
4. Enough fabric for the job (see "fabric selection" for more information) and thread / notions etc.
6. Muslin

1. Building your own dress is rarely cheap.  You are unlikely to spend less than $60 on this project, depending on how much fabric you need and what the fabric costs, and what else you need to complete your design.  But it's still cheaper than that outrageous Lilli Ann.
2. This is also not one of those "make a prom dress out of a paper bag with no sewing in under 45 seconds" kinds of deals.  Expect to invest at least a week.
3. Choose a design that suits your sewing level.

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Step 1: Adequate Photos

Good reference photos, particularly combined with a description of the dress, will give you most of the information you need to hack the pattern.  You'll want to see the front and the back, if possible, as well as close-ups of anything unusual.

Look for:

Seam lines (most important) - vertical seams, darts, waist seam
Zipper / placket placement
Collar shapes & lapels
Pockets - are they hidden in seams, or cut and then piped, or applied as patches?

Note: none of the images in this step belong to me (except the one of the black dress).  I haven't shown the kind of photo I most usually use for inspiration -- photos of dresses I see on eBay or Etsy -- because I don't want to step on sellers' toes.  But I'm still going to provide a few tips on how to use them.

The striped dress on the model is a great working photo, because it's very easy to see on striped fabric how the seams are shaped.  For example, you can tell by looking at the presence or absence of deformations in the stripe that the bodice has bust darts but not waist darts.  You can tell from the hem of the skirt that the dress does actually open in front (sometimes front buttons are just decorative), although the midriff section definitely does not open in front -- so it's either a separate belt that fastens in the back, or the dress also has a back or side zipper.  The stripes also tell us that skirt waist seam is pleated, which is where it gets all its fullness, because no side seams are visible and there is no deformation of the stripe, which suggests the skirt is one continuous piece of yardage, or at most two.

The photo of the linen dress with bolero is one I hoped to use to make a bolero to match my linen dress, but I didn't get around to it.  Sigh.  Anyhow, you can see that the design is super simple: the collar isn't even a separate piece, it's just cut as part of the bodice, which is lined/faced, and the lining/facing becomes a contrast element.  Darts are replaced by gathering at the high waist, the bow hides the single-point closure (probably a hook and eye), and the sleeves look to be set-in, so cut separately.

As for the black dress, it's not a great photo to work from because the dark color obscures some details, but you can still tell it has a shawl collar, three buttons to close the bodice, waist darts (also bust darts, but it's hard to tell), and set-in sleeves with cuffs.  You can assume the skirt is a full circle because it has no pleats at the waist but the hem is very full.

The illustrations all show various useful details: I particularly love the advertisement for "Linen-Look Rayon" because they've actually drawn the weave on the fabric, which shows you just how the four-piece skirt is laid out on the fabric!  Also, you can see the same kind of sleeve detail that I use for the linen dress in this instructable.  The line sketch also shows that there are two waist darts in the back.  No darts are drawn in the front, but I will assume they are there, because the dress is very fitted.  I mean, her waist is as small as her neck, there have to be darts in there.

The playsuit / sundress sketch shows a design I love, with the skirt buttoning on the side to the waist (there's probably a zipper from the waist to the armscye, or else a back zipper).  Instead of shaping the bodice with darts, the dress has a front yoke that also forms a collar, and the bodice is pleated underneath.  There are no waist darts.  The skirt looks to be made of six panels.

The "advance" pattern shows a very simple dress with no waist seam.  I would put one in if I were making this dress, because it's way more economical in terms of fabric use, and I like to belt my dresses anyway, but something cut like this would be very sleek.  The dress is probably cut in eight pieces, maybe six: you can see two front centers and two front sides, and the front sides also have an additional dart that crosses the waist. A sketch of the back would enlighten us about the other side, but it's less important; if you want to preserve the same fullness in the skirt, you'll cut four pieces for the back as well.  The blue dress appears to be cut in just four pieces, with the sleeves cut as part of the bodice.  I like the cute notch detailing on the pink one's neckline: with a facing, you can make the edge any shape you like, pretty much.

Step 2: Fabric Selection

Making a good fabric choice is crucial.  I prefer sturdy fabric for dresses; particularly with New Look dresses, sturdy fabric does more justice to architectural designs.  We're not draping jersey, here.  Silk taffeta was common for fancy gowns, but I've never liked taffeta's hand and even for all but the most formal dresses I'm partial to cotton.  Cotton is comfortable, cheap, it doesn't need to be lined (don't buy flimsy stuff), and it comes in tons of fantastic prints and colors.  That said, I also love to sew with wool (though it requires special care to clean), and nothing beats linen in the summer.  As for silk, I don't like to sew with it and I find it too fussy to wear, so I rarely use it, as beautiful as it is.  I hate wearing synthetics and I don't sew with them.

Always preshrink your fabric by giving it the worst treatment you intend to give the garment: machine wash cotton and linen in hot water, tumble dry and expect it to shrink; damp-roll wool and silk and iron it with a hot iron.

How much you need depends on the design.  When I'm undertaking a new design, I usually look for a pattern online of a similar style (sleeve length and skirt volume are the key points to look for) and refer to the chart on the back of the envelope that tells you how much fabric to buy.  Generally, I estimate 2 yards for a straight dress and 4 yards for a full-skirt dress in wool or linen (which is usually 60" wide), or 3 yards and 6 yards for cotton (which is usually 45") - and I'm five feet tall, so I tend to hem my skirts between 20 and 25 inches.  I have made a dress with a full circle skirt and a halter bodice out of 2 yards of 60" wide knit.  Longer sleeves, huge collars, wide lapels, and pockets will add much more yardage than you think.  Buy extra and make a matching bolero if you have too much.

Patterns increase the yardage requirement significantly, as well.  The pattern on my linen is complicated and busy and I don't mind that half of the skirt is upside down, because I don't think it's very noticeable.  But if you have a pattern where that kind of thing will be obvious and will bother you, buy extra.

You will need at least the same amount of muslin, preferably double (or, if you're making a dress with a full skirt, you can get away with making just the bodice in muslin).

Step 3: Improvising a Block

If you don't have The Costume Technician's Handbook, consider buying it so you can follow the excellent directions for making your own perpetually useful body block, which will be way easier than making it this way.

That said, you can improvise a body block with a fitted sacrificial shirt.  The shirt MUST be made from material that does not stretch.  At all.  Period.  A model with darts only is preferable to one with princess seams.  Slightly too big can be fixed; too small is useless.  A busy print or dark color will make your work more difficult.

If the shirt doesn't already fit you like your own skin, put on the shirt inside out with nothing but your preferred undergarments on underneath.  Button it all the way to the top.  Tie a string around your natural waist.  Pinch away the extra material at the seams and darts (an assistant is useful for this), distributing it evenly on both sides.  If the shirt has no darts, put them in: waist darts midway between the button placket and the side seams, bust darts leading from where your nipples are horizontally to the side seams.  The back has waist darts only.  Rip open part of the side seams if necessary to put in the darts, and then pin them shut.  The armscye should be snug around your arm, and it should divide the ball socket of your shoulder from your torso.  Pin the armscye tighter if necessary (from the side seam underneath).

Do not make any alterations to the placket area (e.g. moving buttons) - you will not be able to reproduce those changes on a pattern.  The center front line must remain perfectly straight and vertical.

With a permanent marker, draw any new seam lines - draw the new dart lines, for example, or the new armscye, following the shape of your shoulder joint.  Draw the waist line.  Also draw X's where your nipples are.  Those are your bust points.

Take off the shirt.  Sew the adjustments in place.  Put the shirt back on and repeat until it fits you perfectly.  A body block has no ease - you shouldn't feel like you want to wear it, but it should also not be pulling, straining, or gaping anywhere.  It should be absolutely fitted at the waist and bust, but the darts should be straight, not curved to hug you in between those points.  It should be absolutely fitted across the shoulders and right up to your neck.

Once the shirt is perfectly fitted, ensure the seam lines are clearly drawn on it, and then carefully cut it apart along the seam lines until each piece is separate.  Cut off everything below the waist line.  Iron the pieces and trace them onto paper.  Button the fronts together and trace them as one piece; you should have one front piece with bust darts and waist darts, and one back piece with waist darts only.  Draw the bust points on there.  This is your bodice block.

If you are making a dress with a pencil skirt, you will need a skirt block as well.  For the skirt block, measure your hips at the widest point, and cut two rectangles of muslin or scrap woven material of that width (plus seam allowance).  Sew them together.  Fit the block to your body by curving the side seams toward your waist and by putting in four darts, two in the front and two in the back.  Tie a string around your natural waist and draw the waist line along with the new side seam line and dart lines.  Remove the muslin from the side or by cutting straight down the center back.  Cut and trace the pieces.

Step 4: The Shirtwaist Bodice

The shirtwaist dress is a classic 1950s design, and it's easy to reproduce.  The bodice typically has waist darts and bust darts, just like your block (easy!), buttons down the center front, and incorporates lapels and a separate collar.  My design is summery, so I've ditched the collar and sleeves for a sweetheart neckline.

To make your shirtwaist bodice pattern, copy the block pattern, adding the amount of ease you prefer.  I like 2-3" in the bust and 1" in the waist, with an extra 1-1.5" of vertical ease at the waist.  Divide the ease amount by the number of edges you have, and add it in precisely.  If you have one front piece and one back piece, you have four edges; you would therefore add 0.75" at the bust to each edge and .25" at the waist, tapering the seams accordingly, if you were to use the amount of ease I use.

Step 5: Developing the Pattern

Developing a bodice pattern from scratch requires some trial and error.  Always work in muslin until you get it absolutely right.

Using my block, I drew the pattern for the bodice with the shaped neckline and the separate sleevelets (for lack of a better term).  Then I cut it in muslin, constructed it, tried it on, and made adjustments.  I went back to the pattern and redrew it according to the adjustments I made on the muslin, and cut a new muslin from the new pattern.  When I was satisfied with the muslin, I moved on to my garment fabric.

Step 6: Putting It Together

A bodice like this is straightforward to put together.  The sleevelets caused me some confusion at first, but they're very much like set-in sleeves, except that you only have to sew the bottom of the armscye, and not the top.  Yay!  It goes without saying that it's crucial to ensure each sleevelet is lined up exactly like the other -- otherwise your dress will hang crookedly and it will be even more obvious than with normal sleeves.

Sew the darts first, then the side seams.  Press.  Line up the sleevelets and sew them in place.  I then cut facings out of a contrasting brown cotton, and sewed them to the outside, to give me a nice finished edge.  I hand-sewed the edge in place so that a thin border of the contrast remained visible.

I was making this dress in a big hurry to wear to a friend's wedding, so it's a little bit thrown together at this point.  Had I thought things through, I would have faced the sleevelets first (with a single facing piece, rather than two, as I had to do here) all around the outer edge and the inside edge up to the point where it meets the bodice, and then attached them, already faced, to the bodice.  I was making it up as I went along, though, which is part of the fun of leaving the beaten path of commercial patterns.

Step 7: The Full Skirt

A full skirt is the easiest kind to make, because you needn't take into account the shape of your hips or butt.  I particularly enjoy wearing them because you can gallivant around in a full skirt, run, skip, sit on the ground, etc., which isn't possible in a pencil skirt.  Also they look great when it's windy (wear a petticoat/slip!).

To make one, you can cut a full circle, or, if your fabric isn't wide enough, cut yourself a pattern like the one in the photo and piece the skirt.  My skirt has a total of three pieces, because the back half was cut with one pattern edge on a fold; the front quarters were cut on the selvedges.

It's important to cut the waist curve carefully, as I've learned through experience.  If the curve is too shallow (or deep, for that matter), the skirt will hang unevenly, either with the fullness all at the seams or all in between them.  All corners of your pattern piece should be right angles.  If they are not, you will have either points or depressions at the seams.

The full circle skirt is cut using a pattern piece that is one quarter of a circle, with the fabric folded twice.

Putting it together is easy: just sew the side seams, and, for this dress, the front center seam up to the point where it opens to allow it to fit over your hips (this point depends on your hip measurement).  Baste and then sew it to the bodice.

Hemming a circle skirt is where it gets tedious.  If you have a skirt hem measuring tool and an assistant, you can mark the hem that way; I don't, so I measure from the waist seam a fixed amount all the way around.  I find that, for my body, the disruption to the vertical is about equal between my hips and my butt, and in the front is compensated by my posture having a tendency to lift the waistline slightly, so I don't adjust for those things when I measure the hem.

I've used lace hem tape to make my work a little easier.  This is handy because you can machine sew it to the hem on the right side, and then hand sew it to the inside of the skirt, and it's so nice and thin that it doesn't create a bulge visible from the outside, and it's much easier to ease hem tape than garment fabric.  Since the raw edge of your skirt is considerably longer than the point at which you're fastening it to the inside of the skirt, you will have a lot of easing to do.  My hem tape came in a 9-foot roll, and I ran out and had to finish with another piece.

Step 8: Finishing

This dress doesn't require much else in the way of finishing.  It closes with three buttons, so buttonholes have to be placed on one side.  Buttons in front are my preferred method of closing a dress, partly because I like buttons as a visual element, but also because I like to be able to step into dresses, and I dislike having to contort myself into unnatural poses to zip something behind me or under my left armpit.

You might also find yourself wanting to add patch pockets (a great opportunity for more contrast edging, which will also make them easier to apply), if you're looking for a very 50's touch that's casual and summery.

I love this dress, and I hope I've given you some information that makes you feel prepared to make something you'll love, too.

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    9 Discussions


    4 years ago on Introduction

    you flair of language is delightful and easy to read.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Its good to see your profile and your post both are really advantageous for me :)


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Aw, thanks! I have a bunch more projects in the works for when I get back to sewing land. I promise to publish them!

    This is very cute! I'm not the best sewer, but I'd love to be able to make this some time! Thanks for showing how!