Monday, October 22, 2012

Hits and misses - the dress edition

A while ago I showed you some jackets that worked and compared one that didn't.  Here's another glimpse into The Sewing Lawyer's closet.  This time let's look at some dresses.

I think my dresses fall into three four categories.  (Bear with me, I'm making this up on the fly.)

First, there are the easy-to-throw-on and easy-to-make knits.  You know, like Vogue 1250 and McCalls 5974.  I've made them both.  Twice.  That's a lot of dress for a little investment of sewing time.

Every pattern company makes these patterns.  Knit dresses are great in warm weather.  They can look dressed up with very little effort, they're reasonably cool in the heat, and with a jacket, completely comfortable in air-conditioned "comfort" (even when frigid, as is too-often the case).

Total success.  Almost all of the time.  However, I find that many knit fabrics just don't wear very well.  These are one or two-season dresses.  A case in point is one of my current favourites, Simplicity 2369This one (Simplicity 3775) is totally past it (made in 2009).  I wish I could more reliably choose good quality knits that will look great for longer - any suggestions for me?

Second, there are woven-fabric dresses that are, like their knit sisters, easy to throw on and to wear.  Making them, however, can be a little more involved.  Unless a dress is intended to be extremely casual, I like to line my dresses.  Sometimes I underline them, and then it's a whole sewing production.

Some woven hits:

My latest Burda sleeveless dress.  I love it.  There's not much more than needs to be said.  It was wearable in the summer and now that it's cooler outside, it looks great with my latest woolly jacket.

All my self-drafted sheath dresses.  At right is a picture of the very first one I made, pre-blogging days in June, 2009. Linen.  All these are underlined with silk organza and lined with Bemberg.

And then there are those which I reach for less often.

Even if I really like them, in theory.

Case in point:  my linen trench-dress from the April, 2001 issue of Burda World of  Fashion (as it then was).  I made it in June, 2008.  I love  the colour, the style, the fit, its swishy full skirt (which is less full, if you can believe it, than Burda intended).  It looks great on, if I say so myself.

But it's very heavy.  And it's impossible to wear it with a jacket, or at least any jacket in my wardrobe.  And, being linen (and not underlined), it wrinkles.  I might have worn it a dozen times.  In total.

It's still in my closet, because I really like it (in theory).

If you have suggestions to make it more wearable, I'd love to have them.

And then, there are the complete misses.  Luckily, there are not that many.  But have a look at this.  I made Vogue 1352 (Emanuel Ungaro, 1990s) in July 2007.  I used some really lovely and drapey rayon.  I really liked the paisley print.  In theory I liked the flowy skirt and the fit of the upper body, shoulders and sleeve of this pattern.  (In truth, I might have fallen for the colour-blocking on the pattern envelope.)  But my version looked like a house dress. I did reduce the shoulders, but it needed pretty serious shoulder pads to sit properly on my body.  And I didn't fill it out. I never felt comfortable in this dress, and at some point I gave it away.

Now some of you may think that the common feature of the dresses I don't like to wear is the overall silhouette.  Front-buttoning, short-sleeved, flowing, full and long skirt.  But (she protested) I love this silhouette!  I love front-buttoning dresses with short sleeves and flowing long skirts!  At left is my version of another vintage dress pattern - Vogue 1245 (1970s Nina Ricci) which I wear quite a lot.  It looks really good under this jacket.  I made them both in August, 2006.

My conclusion?  I should avoid dresses with a big "feature" in the bodice or sleeves that makes pairing the dress with a jacket awkward.

Do you have any other thoughts?


  1. I share your disappointment with the short life of knits. Knit dresses are so nice, otherwise. And, I think you look good in those dresses that are the shorter ones among your collection. I really have not sewn many dresses and I want to remedy that, so I enjoyed this post. Your sheath dresses are lovely.

  2. To my eye, and this is only my opinion, the longer, button front dresses look dated. Your knit ones and sheath dresses have slimmer silhouettes and look more modern. I don't know what to tell you about the knits...because my solution is just to make a lot of clothing so that I don't wear out my favorite pieces. That might not work for everyone else...

  3. I have a RTW Maggie London knit dress and find that it pills less if I hand wash it, or wash in a lingerie bag and hang to dry. Too bad that the fun prints and comfy knit are destined to pill so badly. Proves you can't have it all I guess.

    I love the linen shirtdress! I think a cardigan, something fairly fitted, would work well with it. The sweater could sit under the dress' lapel. On a less formal day you could even wear a nice long-sleeve tee underneath, maybe in black, and pair the dress with black boots. I agree that a feature collar or sleeve makes the dress harder to wear with a jacket, which seems the limiting factor.

  4. I agree with you about knits. They are instant gratification but very short live indeed.
    So bad that you are not able to wear your lovely button down dresses. I think it has something to do with printed fabrics which are always attractive but not that easy to wear.

  5. I second the thought about the dresses you don't like being simply too long and wide in the skirt. That silhouette looks very 80s to me, and so I understand it may look familiar and comforting in a grilled-cheese sandwich kind of way, but when you put it on you probably subconsciously realize it's dated (not retro :-)). Try a Colette macaron or something, you'll get a very different feeling.

    I also think it's exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to do an entire dress in small flower print and not have it look like a housedress. It's not you, but that's the overwhelming vibe. If you really want to do small flower prints you need to limit them to a blouse or something. And maybe pair it with leopard, a strong geometric, or something a bit un-housewifely.

    Knit durability is hard. Viscose will just wear out quickly, that's its nature. Elastane/lycra will quickly die if put in a dryer. Many polys will pill. I'm afraid I have no solution to offer, I suffer from the same problems.

  6. I tend to like the silhouette of the longer dresses (in theory) but like you tend to love them less when I wear them. I do also think that they look dated on me, although I see other women on whom they look charming, although perhaps still dated. I do think that the small print looks like a housedress, and the blue dress is lovely but would be impossible to wear with a jacket.

    I have he same trouble with knits and it drives me crazy. I want everything to last forever. I suppose that we just have to accept the short life span as a trade-off for the ease of construction. Nonetheless, I too would love to find a better solution.

  7. You look good in the shorter dresses. Like other commenters, I think the longer ones look dated. If you still have a longer one, try pinning up the hem to about mid-knee -- just where the curve of the calf meets the knee bone. (I've learned much from your blog about construction. Thank you.)

  8. You look wonderful in everything, but a sleek fitting dress that is shorter is a great look on you.

  9. Just glancing across the dresses, I would say that the tighter fitting knit dresses suit you. They show off your slim, trim figure and play it up. While the more tailored dresses can "swamp" you. Though, I am sure that you can find versions of them that will work just fine. You have a terrific figure and so many options style-wise.

  10. Well, maybe the retro look is nice in theory, but in practice the sleek modern look might feel more comfortable, psychologically speaking. No fear, you look great in either.... so the occasional retro day could make a nice variation.

  11. Maybe a solid "serious" color (black,navy,charcoal)for the shirtwaist style, with a non-gathered, less full skirt?

  12. I would agree with you about the quality of knits. I personally prefer the rayon/lycra blends, but depending on where they're milled, pilling is a problem. And a comfortable poly knit is always hard to find. I have had great success with the knits from EmmaOneSock, and her shipping is very reasonable to Canada. As for your dresses, I think you'd be happier with them if you shortened the skirts. I know this seems to be a general trend in the comments, but perhaps that would make you happier with the dresses? You mentioned perhaps it's the bodice style you're uncomfortable with, but I think the buttoned semi-tailored look never looks dated, so perhaps the skirt lengths are the guilty party. I love the amount of fabric swishing around on a full, long-ish skirt, too, but it doesn't do me any favours.

    BTW, thanks for your comments on Vogue 1324. I'm looking forward to seeing your completed version. I must say I read your post after mine was almost done, and could have kicked myself for skipping over the muslin stage.

  13. Check out Marcy Tilton's website too--she sells knits that she says last for years. The fabrics aren't cheap, but there are sales!